Friday, June 27, 2014

Siena. Italy’s Palio is the Kentucky Derby on steroids

Frenzy around a turn in Siena
SIENA, ITALY, June 27. 2014 – Be it horses or horsepower, May is a month for racing…except in Italy. .Italians pay no attention because when it comes to racing, nothing matches the Palio of Siena.

As they dust off funky hats and mix batches of mint juleps in Louisville for the Derby; refrigerate milk in Indianapolis at the 500; ice down Coca Cola for Charlotte’s 600-mile stock car race, and chill champagne at Monte Carlo’s Grand Prix, in Siena they are preparing for two 90-second horse races filled with months of ceremony and celebration.

Each year, on July 2 and August 16, ten horses and bareback riders dressed in the representative colors of their districts, or contrada, circle the Piazza del Campo three times for the honor of winning the Palio. “Honor” is hardly appropriate, however, for Il Palio, as it is known to the locals. It is all about frenzy and war on horseback. The prize for winning is called the pallium, which is nothing more than a hand-painted silk banner, but it carries great significance for the victorious district.

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Known around the globe for its beauty and architecture, Siena’s shell-shaped Piazza del Campo is one of the great spaces of Europe. From the labyrinth of Siena’s ancient claustrophobic streets, no less than eleven gateways radiate toward the piazza that suddenly opens into a glorious medieval arena.

Following the initial mouth-dropping awe of the setting, the first thing visitors notice is that Piazza del Campo is anything but flat. The square slopes downward toward a row of administrative buildings known as Palazzo Pubblico, which, in turn, feed to the dangerous San Martino bend of the track. So treacherous is San Martino to navigate that during the races mattresses are placed against the walls to protect jockeys from injury if they fall. It’s not uncommon to see riderless horses at the finish line.

Race day at the Campo in Siena
Just before race day, operators lay a thick layer of dirt around the Campo to form the track. Thousands of spectators gather around the perimeter, peering from windows, balconies, loggias and rooftops.
Space in the center of the track is equally congested but far less desirable because the throngs of humanity become sequestered for several hours until the race has concluded. 

The Palio is not a manufactured tourist event. Rather its roots lie deeply ingrained within the history of the city. The Sienese (Contrade) are passionate about their races and, though they embrace anyone and everyone who wishes to participate, the Palio is a major part of the city’s identity.

Less than two minutes of chaos on horseback
Once divided into 59 contrada, today only 17 remain. The neighborhoods evolved during the Middle Ages as a means of defending themselves from their enemies in Florence and other surrounding city-states. As a result, each community has its own identity with a coat of arms, emblems, colors, patron saints and festivals. All of which adds to the rivalries and competitive fervor when Palio season rolls around.

For many decades Siena, and other cities, held horse races and competed in other games as part of their religious and ceremonial events. Today, only the Palio survives as a celebration of giving thanks to the Madonna.

The July 2 Palio honors Madonna dell’Assunta who protected Siena against Florence in the year 1260. The second race on August 16 is called Madonna di Provenzano resulting from a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near houses once belonging to Provenzano Salvani.

A gala traditional ceremony
For travelers, opportunities abound to experience the spirit of the Palio without seeing the races themselves. Each event features four days of parades, pageantry and ceremony leading up to the actual running of the race.

Selection day brings great excitement to Piazza del Campo when a traditional ritual announces the chosen ten contrade to compete in the race. Thousands gather as the banners of the selected individual districts are slowly unfurled from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tension mounts dramatically as each new banner displays, while officials agonizingly taunt the crowd by delaying the tenth, and final, pennant.

Dropping the rope, the race begins
Each district has its own traditions and events as well. In the evening, rows of 50-foot tables fillrd with pasta, fruit, vegetables and other local cuisine. Visitors are openly welcomed and provided with endless details about why each particular district is the best of the lot.

During the day parades of flag-waving minstrels dressed in medieval clothing make their way through the winding streets of the city.

Not to missed are the muse della contrada, or district museums. Each neighborhood has one that displays memorabilia, drawings, paintings, photographs, uniforms and costumes from previous Palio events.

When race time finally arrives, spectators pack themselves along both sides of the track anxiously waiting for the starting rope to drop and the three lap clockwise sprint to glory to begin.

Pandemonium on horseback
A brief 90 seconds later a riotous cacophony of colorful, enthusiastic celebration erupts in the square. Though the Palio has concluded,  preparations are already underway to see who will earn bragging rights in the next demolition derby on horseback known as The Palio. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Midsummer Night’s Dream Summer solstice in Scandinavia

SCANDINAVIA, June 20 2014 – If you are ever fortunate enough to be traveling during a national or regional holiday or festival, take the opportunity to participate.

Midsummer is one such event that is especially important in Scandinavia during the month of June.  Its roots lie in the pagan celebration of the summer solstice which pays homage to the longest day of the year.  In Sweden since the mid-twentieth century the holiday has been celebrated on the weekend between June 19 and 26.

The festivities are carefree and high spirited, featuring folk dancing, traditional clothing, parades, bands and, of course, plenty of traditional Swedish food.  Each village throughout Sweden observes the day in its own way, but much the same as the Fourth of July in the United States, certain traditions are similar throughout the country.

Typically a small band of revelers will begin the Midsummer festival by gathering at the far end of a village during early morning hours.  When enough people – ten or fifteen is enough -- have assembled, a cheerful parade is organized and runs through the streets of the town.

Flags wave.  Horns blare.  Neighbors greet neighbors encouraging others to join the party.  It’s a spontaneous affair signaling the onset of a daylong celebration.  There are no uniforms, floats, or marching bands, no clowns or massive balloons.  There is no pomp or ceremony other than the serendipitous invitation to partake in the fun.

The parade typically ends at a local park or an open area large enough to accommodate the revelry that will continue throughout the day’s journey into night.  Crowns of wildflowers are woven and placed on the heads of the women, especially the youngest girls who delight in honoring their Swedish heritage.
One of the primary responsibilities for the women and youngsters is decorating the maypole, which is an ongoing activity throughout the day until the big moment when the pole is raised. 

Often an elevated stage with a dance floor is constructed for the band and local entertainers to perform time-honored folk dances.  While many celebrants watch, others join in on the grass, swinging and swaying to the native music of the country.  Especially popular is the Chicken Dance, which is played on multiple occasions and always attracts the largest number of participants.

The big event comes in the early evening with the raising of the maypole.  Now the women and children yield to the burliest of the men who take to the testosterone challenge of lodging the pole into its resting place as the band plays an anticipatory drum roll.  When the task is accomplished, a roar goes up from the crowd and the band signals the achievement with a resounding blast of horns.

From that moment forward, dancing centers around the maypole as the food, drink and festivities linger until the soft twilight of day’s end.

At the popular island park of Seurasaari in Helsinki, Finland, Midsummer has a much different 
ambiance.  While parades with traditional clothing and flag waving are part of the ceremonies, the Finns take a slightly more somber approach to the holiday.  Dancing takes place in a large open area with seating for several hundred people.
At mid-day, a wedding is held at the small chapel on one end of the island.  It is regarded as a significant honor to be chosen to be married at Seurasaari on Midsummer’s Eve.  The festival proceeds through the remainder of the day with a variety of events that also include plenty of eating, drinking and dancing.

One of the more popular sporting events is the rousing game of Finnish skittles known as kuukka.  Originally a Russian sport, Finnish skittles consists of two teams throwing rolling pins at small cylindrical pegs which are about half the size of a soup can.  Several pegs are stacked on top of each other at either end of a rectangular court.  Team members take turns trying to knock the pegs out of the playing area with their rolling pins.  The first team to get all the pegs out of the court wins.

As the day draws to a close, Finns begin to gather at the shoreline of the park for a ceremonial bonfire.  Longboats that have been piled on lengthwise on end are heaped upon a small outcropping of rock in the water. 
As the Finns sing their mournful folk songs along the shore, the couple that was married earlier in the day is rowed around the rock in a procession of longboats.  The bride and groom are then docked near the pyre and leave their boat to walk up to the wooden stack of vessels to ignite the bonfire.
The blaze is tremendous, but the mood is solemn as the singing continues in the lingering lumens of light that bring a close to the longest day of the year.

Traditions are one of the best parts of the cultural awareness of travel.  Cherish those moments.  They are unforgettable. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Leipzig, Germany: Where candlelight brought down a wall

LEIPZIG, GERMANY  June 13, 2014 – Travelers to Germany in 2014, especially Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig may encounter a variety of celebrations honoring the 25th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of the country

From October 9 through 12 the “Festival of Lights” will be a highlight in Leipzig, but it is the story behind the festival that must be told.

Many European cities have grand musical traditions. Leipzig is no exception for it is the city of Johan Sebastian Bach.

Bach was choirmaster at the historic Thomaskirche (Church of St. Thomas) for 27 years. Even without his considerable influence, Thomaskirche would have had a rich legacy, but Bach’s reputation made the church even more notable.

It was at the Thomaskirche in May, 1539 that Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig

Some 250 years later, in 1789, Mozart played the church organ there, and in centuries that followed both Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner also performed at the church.

 The church choir has been in existence since 1254.  During Bach's time there were 54 singers in the chorale. Today the world famous Thomaschoir features the voices of 80 boys singing music particularly dedicated to Bach in weekly performances of motets and cantatas, as well as during regular Sunday services.
Though the Church of St. Thomas was Bach's primary venue in Leipzig, he was also choirmaster at St. Nicholas Church during the same period of 1723 to 1750.  Oddly enough, St. Nicholas is nearly a hundred years older than St. Thomas dating to ll65. 

When it was built, St. Nicholas Church was situated at the intersection of two important north-south, east-west trade routes which not only played an important role in Leipzig’s past, but was also critical to the events that reunited Germany in 1989.

Walking through the front door of the Church of St. Nicholas a small, almost insignificant, sign stands outside with just three words written on it.  They simply say, "Open For All.”

Each November during the early 1980s, young people from all over the region would gather at St. Nicholas Church for ten days of prayer for peace. 

There had been large demonstrations all over East Germany protesting the arms race in those days, but the gatherings in Leipzig were regarded as little more than non-violent prayer vigils.  The only places where issues could be openly discussed in Germany were at meetings held in churches, and the Church of St. Nicholas was one of those sites.
Soon a youth group from the church decided to increase the meetings by having prayer services every Monday evening. At first there were only a handful of attendees, but before long more people came to demand justice and respect for human rights. 

Many who participated were non-Christians, but with no other place to gather they regularly attended the meetings. They studied the words of the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, and eventually they came to understood two things; that people should discuss urgent problems with each other and that they also needed to meditate and pray to God for support and guidance. 

Slowly the movement gathered strength.  Each day the church was decorated with flowers. Each night it was filled with the light of hundreds of glowing candles. 

After a while the government took notice and became concerned. From May of 1989 all access roads to Nicholas Church were blocked by police checkpoints. 

Authorities exerted pressure to cancel the peace gatherings, but the prayers continued.  Monday after Monday the meetings were held even though many were detained or arrested.  Soon it became impossible for everyone to get into the church because the numbers were so great.  Yet, still they came. 

In October, the militia battered defenseless East Germans in the streets, but they remained passive, refusing to fight back. 

Hundreds were taken away in trucks.  Many others were locked up in stables, but the people still prayed. 

In early October, St. Nicholas Church was filled with more than 2,000 people inside with thousands more out in the streets.  When the prayers ended, the bishop gave his blessing and made an urgent appeal to the congregation for non-violence. 

As people departed the church, they were greeted by thousands of fellow East Germans standing in the square, standing with candles in their hands. 

To carry a candle outdoors requires two hands.  One holds the candle while the other prevents it from going out.  In order to keep a candle burning it is not possible to carry a stick or a club or a stone. 

It was a miracle.  When police arrived and surrounded the crowd, they didn't know what to do. They were bewildered and quickly lost their incentive to fight.  For the protesters  this was a peace vigil, and they were armed only with candles. 

Soon the police began mingling and talking with the people. Eventually they withdrew.  As one officer said, “We were prepared for everything.  Everything, that is, except candlelight.”

The non-violent peace movement lasted just a few weeks more before the government collapsed.

Not long after, about two hours northeast of Leipzig in Berlin, the notorious wall went crumbling to the ground.. 

In Leipzig, not a single shop window was ever broken during the demonstrations.

Ironically, it all happened exactly 450 years after Martin Luther introduced the Reformation to Leipzig
Leipzig is well worth a visit to experience its two famous churches where Bach was so prolific; the Church of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Church

And as you leave St. Nicholas, be sure to look for thar little sign that says "Open For All” for there is power in those three tiny  words.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Normandy: D-Day, 9/11 and a grateful nation

COLLEVILLE SUR MER, NORMANDY, June 6, 2014 The date was September 14, 2001, three days after the horrifying terrorist attacks in the United States.  I was traveling in France when the massacres took place. On that day the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach seemed an appropriate place to be.  Solemn and reverent; a haven for reflection and solitude amid an apprehensive world suddenly filled with uncertainty.
The soft autumn light was particularly radiant at the memorial where cotton-ball clouds dotted a cerulean sky. The manicured grounds sloped gently toward a cobalt blue, white-capped sea.
Lengthening shadows angled from the graceful elegance of thousands of white crosses and Stars of David; their charcoal silhouettes made even more distinct by the contrasting brilliance of the green lawn.

It was a place where timelessness merged with infinity; a place where the unification of earth, sea and sky blended in the harmonious perfection of landscape architecture. Sublime elements of nature entwined with human inspiration in eternal gratitude to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that are the cornerstone of our American identity.  Freedoms that will be forever cherished, even by generations yet unborn.
Shortly before noon an unannounced ceremony began when a small procession of local dignitaries walked solemnly to form a line in front of the 22-foot bronze statue symbolizing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves to face the rectangular reflecting pool with the chapel in the distance.  Moments later the chimes of the carillon poignantly rang out with the American National Anthem followed by three minutes of silence, a rifle salute and the haunting music of Taps.  And then it was over.
It was a heartfelt expression of sympathy observed in a brief span of six or seven minutes to honor the innocent victims who perished in the United States on September 11th.  But it was the participants at the ceremony who made it so meaningful, for they were the officials from every village and town along the entire coast of Normandy who gathered in that hallowed place to pay their respects to the American people and to the nation that had liberated their country from the grip of tyranny nearly sixty years before.

The past thousand years of Normandy’s history have frequently been filled with conflict, though it is difficult to imagine when you gaze upon rolling landscapes that are a prism of rich, dappled colors beneath ever-changing patterns of light.  Pastoral rural tableaus are dotted with stone cottages and half-timbered houses where the ravages of wars past are but a distant memory. William Zinsser described it best when he wrote that “death in battle is an old story here.”  And yet, despite its turbulent history, Normandy remains one of the most tranquil regions of France.            
With thoughts of the noontime tribute etched into my soul, I somberly, almost aimlessly, wandered the grounds of the memorial. As I strolled past the Statue of American Youth for the last time, I noticed something that had not been there before the ceremony.  There at the base of the sculpture was a single basket of flowers left by an anonymous donor.  Tucked behind one of the flowers, to hold it in place, was a picture.

The picture had been taken from the front seat of a car while crossing a bridge in New York City. No doubt the work of a tourist. Someone who had once visited the United States.  It was a photograph of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
But there was something even more telling about that tiny, unidentified tribute, for I knew it had been placed there by someone who had survived the Battle of Normandy in 1944.  The answer was written in four simple words along the sash draping the basket.  Words that read, “We have not forgotten.”
It has long been my quest in my travels to seek out stories with a message; vignettes of life that extend beyond guidebooks and bring other destinations, cultures and points of view into perspective. Meaningful narratives that provide greater understanding of who we are as Americans by observing the world through the eyes of others.
I never fully understood the source of my passion in that quest until an early autumn day suddenly and emotionally made it all clear.  Compassion had validated my passion.  It happened in a place where thousands of youth perished to preserve the freedoms that are the foundation of our national identity. A place where one writer noted that “for many soldiers, their first day of battle was their last.” A place where many of the brightest lights of our future were snuffed out in a violent barrage that ultimately liberated the world from the grip of tyranny.

Now, 70 years later, the world will honor those who perished and thank the dwindling list of survivors perhaps for the last time.

Normandy is unique, for indeed it is a place where its people have “not forgotten.” And they never will. For Normandy is a place where its people have witnessed more than its own share of turmoil and grief. People who understand better than anyone the magnitude of the sacrifices of those who preserved their freedom.