Saturday, March 28, 2015

The many faces of India: Mystery, intrigue, history & people

The magnificent Taj Mahal is even more breathtaking in person,  Agra, India  (Taylor)
INDIA -- India is an enigma.  A country rich in history and tradition, it is equally exotic, colorful, congested, maddening, vibrant, romantic and filled with countless other diametrically opposing images.  It is a destination suffocating under the weight of its own population with a caste of millions.

Tuks tuks motor through crowded Delhi streets  (Taylor)
Wherever you go in India there are two worlds.  From the comfort of an air conditioned motor coach, reality exists just beyond the windows where sacred cows roam the streets, barbers cut hair at the side of the road, camels share the highway with scooters, cars, pedestrians, tuk-tuks and bicycles, and beggars reach out with crippled limbs for a scrap of food or a few rupees.

Suddenly, the bus disappears behind high concrete walls and rests in front of a luxurious hotel with elaborately dressed doormen, elegant columns, marble floors, and flowing fountains.  The beggars are no more.  The roadside shops have disappeared.

Presidential Suite at Chola Hotel just beyond throngs of teeming streets  (Taylor)
Situated on the shores of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges, New Delhi is the capital of the country.  It is known as “a city of cities” because it is comprised of seven distinct districts, excluding New Delhi, which have been individual cities over the centuries that retain an identity today.  Each of the cities grew around a palace/fortress of a particular dynasty and each dynasty desired a new headquarters as a symbol of prestige.

Typical electrical wiring in narrow streets of Old Delhi  (Taylor)
New Delhi and Old Delhi are perhaps the most familiar areas, and they represent a living metaphor for the identity of the country. 

Old Delhi, on the other hand, was once the capital of Islamic India and is now a warren of teeming, ever-diminishing streets that overflow with humanity, animals, shops and the spaghetti of electrical wiring that defies description.  Old Delhi is known for its formidable mosques and Red Fort.

New Delhi consists of spacious, tree-lined boulevards with stunning architecture and magnificent government buildings constructed by the British Raj.    New Delhi is most known for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Humayun’s Tomb and the Qutub Complex. Completed in 1570 after fourteen years of construction, Humayun’s Tomb pays tribute to the second Mughal Emperor of India.  

It is located in the center of an extensive garden and has the distinction of being the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent.  Nearly 80 years later, the genius of the architecture provided the blueprint for the Taj Mahal.
India's Palace of the Winds  (Taylor)
For all the splendor of India’s layered history and magnificent palaces scattered throughout the country, much of the country remains undeveloped.  In many places, if you possess three or four poles and a tarp you have a shop or a dwelling.

Roads vary from relatively well-paved one and a half or two-lane passageways to broken pavement or dirt.  Vehicles, animals and pedestrians play a seemingly intricate game of chicken but, somehow, most of the time, the system works.  Local buses are crowded with passengers who cling to the perimeter or ride on the top when there is no more room inside.
All kinds of traffic crowd the streets of Indian cities  (Taylor)
Hawkers are everywhere, selling trinkets of all descriptions.  A mile-long ride in a cycle rickshaw through narrow streets only costs about 100 rupees or roughly $2.  It is impossible to escape the sea of extended hands and persistent peddlers whose numbers increase the minute a donation or purchase is made.

Ladies day adds to the splendor in cities that are rainbows of color  (Taylor)
In Varanasi, the oldest city in India and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, religious celebrations are a nightly ritual.  Situated on the shores of the River Ganges, Varanasi is considered a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jains.

By nightfall, streets already teeming with people become nearly impossible to navigate as pilgrims swarm toward the Ganges where thousands gather on the steps of the ghat for religious rituals and prayer.

Along the banks of the river, a short distance away from the ceremonies, funeral pyres dot the darkened shoreline with the cremations of those who have died during the day.
Endangered Bengal tiger on the hunt for food  (Taylor)
In the morning, the throngs have dissipated, yielding to bathers who come to the Ganges to wash away their sins.
A co-op for Indian women to sell their wares  (Taylor)
India is the land of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi who spent much of their lives crusading to alleviate the poverty that permeates its borders.  As Gandhi proclaimed in 1908, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”  Now, more than 60 years after his assassination, India’s “violence” continues at a staggering rate, drowning in a sea of seemingly endless poverty.
A window on the past with an eye toward the future  (Taylor)
 For many travelers India is a “been there, done that” destination.  Often visitors will tell you that they are thankful for the experience, but once is enough.  Only time will tell whether India can overcome its serious challenges and elevate itself to those moments in time that hearken to periods of a glorious past. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sweden is a Scandinavian surprise

Golden fields of rape surround a traditional red and white Swedish cottage  (wikipedia)

SWEDEN Sweden is a country that steps to the beat of a different drummer while keeping pace with today; a delightfully surprising nation filled with some of the world’s most unique sightseeing opportunities. 
Sweden is the largest country in Scandinavia and the fourth largest in Europe. The primary cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo are coastal communities while Kiruna, the fourth major city, is situated above the Arctic Circle.

Sweden is a country of lake with a stunning archipelago  (wikipedia)
For thousands of years the country was covered with glaciers, resulting in more than 100,000 lakes. The result is a wonderland of beauty, chiseled by time and perfected by the craftsmanship of Mother Nature herself.

The earliest settlers appeared in the third century BC. At Vitlycke, rock carvings date to the Bronze Age, while huge stone grave-markers in the area serve as reminders of man’s presence centuries ago.
Ancient rock carvings at Vitlycke date to the Bronze Age  (wikipedia)

The best remains can be seen on the long, narrow island of Oland off the southeastern coast. Here boat-shaped burial formations date to the latter part of the Iron Age in 500 BC.

Prehistoric fort at Eketorp on the island of Oland  (wikipedia)
At Eketorp, one of 15 prehistoric forts on Oland, visitors can tour an Iron Age reconstruction of a fortified village as it existed 1,500 years ago. Eketorp thrived from 400 AD through the age of the Vikings until the middle of the 13th century.

Until the early 19th century, Sweden was constantly at war with its neighbors. During the 1800s it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. The first groups of emigrants sailed to the New World in 1638, and from 1840 to 1920, more than a million Swedes left the country.

So large was the exodus that the Emigrant Institute in Vaxjo was established to tell the story of the migration. Today, the House of the Emigrants attracts genealogists and historians from all over the world to study Swedish ancestry.

Here visitors can follow the footsteps of the emigrants along the meandering back country route the Swedes traveled hundreds of years ago.

Today, Sweden is neither warlike nor downtrodden. It declared neutrality in the latter part of the 19th century and has not been involved in a war since 1814.
Cruising the Gota Canal between Stockholm and Gothenburg  (wikipedia)

Between the cities of Kalmar and Vaxjo lies the Kingdom of Crystal. The glass district of Sweden features craftsman and artisans who breathe life into red hot, molten glass. Kosta Boda and Orrefors are the largest and most famous of 16 glassworks in the region, but each factory offers its own style, tradition and personality where crystalline beauty is created from little more than a molten glow.

Eternal daylight of the midnight sun in  Sweden  (wikipedia)
In summer, another glow in northern Sweden hovers low in the sky when the midnight sun skims across tree-tops with amber serenity. Here observers can witness the birth of a new day as the sun gently glides across the tree line before rising back into the sky.

Few destinations offer a greater selection of diverse, quality museums than Sweden. Stockholm alone has more than 65 such attractions, including the Wasa Museum. The Wasa warship sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and rested at the bottom of the sea until it was rediscovered and raised in the 1960s.

The warship Wasa was raised from the Stockholm harbor and preserved almost 90% intact  (wikipedia)
Known as “Sweden in Miniature,” Skansen, the world’s first open air museum, features 150 original buildings from all over the country. Summer brings folk-dancing and music to the park with many Swedes celebrating their heritage in traditional costumes.
The stunning harbor with its collection of historic ships in Gothenburg  (wikipedia)
The Milles Outdoor Sculpture Museum, highlighting the works of Carl Milles, sits on a hillside overlooking the city.

Sweden is also famous for its archipelago filled with tiny islands where daily routines yield to more serene, meditative lifestyles.

Quaint narrow streets of Gamla Stan in Stockholm  (wikipedia)
In Malmo travelers can cruise the Paddan with its views of the maze of parks, gardens and flowers.
Gothenburg boasts a Maritime Center with numerous historic sailing vessels displayed in one area of its harbor.

Stockholm, a city built on 14 islands, is breathtaking in its scenic and architectural splendor surrounded by water.

Visitors with extra time may want to experience a cruise along the idyllic environmental treasure of the Gota Canal which connects Stockholm and Gothenburg.
Stockholm is built on 14 islands and features the best of the old with the best of the new  (wikipedia)
Sweden is a country where you can sail across the Baltic, or fly to the top of the world; a place where you are more likely to see a herd of reindeer than the Lapp people who live among them; a country where the best of the old blends gracefully with the best of the new.

Most Swedes speak some degree of English and will happily try to speak it with visitors.
Watching boats on the Gota Canal is a favorite pastime in Sweden  (wikipedia)
Ask any Swede what is best about their country and each will express in a personal way their love for its forests, woodlands, streams and archipelagos. For travelers, the nature of the land is important but so, too, is the nature of the people.

As English writer Juliette Levy once said, “Every land has its own special rhythm, and unless the traveler takes time to learn the rhythm, he or she will remain an outsider there always.”

It may look like a church but it is actually the fish market in Gothenburg  (wikipedia)
Truly Sweden does have its own special rhythm. All it takes is for the traveler to learn it and take one little turn off the main road.

You see, it’s not so bad to lose yourself in Sweden, because, in the process, you may discover yourself instead.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes: Mother Nature’s aquatic theme park

Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park where 16 lakes converge into a waterfall paradise  (wikipedia)
CROATIA Eden has been rediscovered among the lush, verdant forests of Croatia.

What happens when 16 inter-connected lakes are formed by the confluence of multiple rivers and natural dams into irregular tiers of breathtaking aquatic artistry? The answer: you get the Plitvice Lakes, the oldest national park in Southeastern Europe and the largest in Croatia.

Water, water everywhere at Plitvice Lakes  (wikipedia)
With more than a million visitors each year, Plitvice Lakes may be the most famous unknown attraction in the world for most American travelers. Situated at the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one reason for the disconnect might be due to the war that raged in the region between 1992 and 1995.
All of that is changing now, and Croatia is rapidly becoming a popular destination thanks to its old world ambiance and spectacular scenery.

Plitvice is one of those delicious places that must experienced to be fully appreciated. It is impossible to describe because every turn of the head offers a different panoramic vista that is a visual feast. This is Mother Nature at the peak of her creativity where water cascades from every direction into a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors and liquid mosaics.
Pools of rushing water converge to create liquid mosaics  (wikipedia)
Starting with a basic palette of azure, green, gray and blue, colors constantly change according to the time of day, the angle of the sunlight, cloud cover and the amount of minerals flowing in the water at any given time. No two lakes are ever the same color, making the natural phenomenon of this aquatic wonderland seem like a perpetual stained glass window on water.
The cascading magic of the Plitvice waterfalls  (wikipedia)

Divided into an upper level of 12 lakes and four more in the lower cluster, the lakes are formed by runoff from several small surface and subterranean rivers. The name Plitvice Lakes is a bit misleading because a seemingly endless array of cascading waterfalls add another dramatic dimension to this breathtaking natural aquatic tableau.

Situated within dense woodlands populated by deer, bears, wolves, rare birds and an abundant variety of unique vegetation, Plitvice has a primeval quality that creates sensations of being at the birthplace of nature.
Gateway to one of Mother Nature's greatest aquatic displays  (wikipedia)
Each of the 16 lakes has its own legends and folklore, most of which are based upon actual events. Among the traditions is an annual gathering when thousands of simultaneous weddings are conducted near a series of majestic waterfalls.

An abundance of fish at Plitvice National Park  (wikipedia)
The park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979, making it one of the first natural UNESCO sites in the world. It is open daily throughout the year, with longer hours during summer. Entrance fees are used for the upkeep of the park and the protection of wildlife. Ticket prices are seasonal with adult tickets averaging approximately $18. Children ages seven to 18 receive a discount, while children under seven are admitted at no charge. Group rates are available for a minimum of 15 people. Two day tickets can also be purchased.

Accommodations are rustic, but comfortable  (wikipedia)
There are 19 small villages within the region of the park, and there are also excellent accommodations available inside the part itself.
Hotel Bellevue and Hotel Plitvice are two star properties inside the park. Don’t be misled by the stars, the accommodations are clean, comfortable and reasonable ranging from about $100 to $125 a night.
Hotel Jezero is the only three star property at Plitvice, but most visitors prefer Hotel Plitvice if given a choice.
Just outside the park in Rakovica, which is two miles from the entrance, you will find rooms at the three star Hotel Degenija. Slightly further down the road, six miles away, is Hotel Mazola, another three star property located in Korenika.
Age old trees create a natural canopy as they lean over the waters of the Plitvice Lakes  (wikipedia)
There are also 86 acres of camp grounds four miles away in Korana.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is a majestic explosion of waterfalls that must be witnessed to comprehend its true magnitude.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ouro Preto and the Michelangelo of Brazil

Brazil's city of hills and churches, Ouro Preto with is breathtaking Baroque architecture (wikipedia)
OURO PRETO, BRAZIL Florence, Italy had Michelangelo. And Ouro Preto, Brazil had a sculptor and architect by the name of Aleijadinho. Both were geniuses. Although Aleijadinho is largely unknown to most of the world, he was, in his own way, even more accomplished than his Italian counterpart.

Antonio Francisco Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto sometime during the 1730s. That actual date is not certain. Antonio’s mother was an African slave. His father was an immigrant carpenter from Brazil who was so skilled at his craft that he became the most highly regarded architect in the region.

Aleijadinho Pavilion in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
As an apprentice to his father, young Antonio began working as a day laborer on the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Ouro Preto. Before long, he had achieved notoriety in his own right by designing the Chapel of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Not only did he create the building, Lisboa also sculpted the exterior carvings, including a bas-relief of St. Francis receiving the stigmata.

In 1777, when he was in his 40s, Antonio’s career was gradually altered by a debilitating disease from which he never recovered. Most experts believe it was leprosy, but others suggest it could have been scleroderma. Either way, Lisboa’s body deteriorated to the extent that he became disfigured and disabled. Before long the disease even cost him his fingers.

Despite his physical impairments, Antonio continued to sculpt using a hammer and chisel that were strapped to his hands by his assistants.
Sculpture of the Last Supper by "The Little Cripple" of Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Eventually the artist became increasingly despondent and reclusive. So horrified was he by his disfigurement that he worked only at night. If he did go out in public, he was carried in a covered palanquin. To the citizens of Our Preto, no longer was he Antonio Lisboa. Now he was known as Aleijadinho, “the Little Cripple.”

Aleijadinho’s home village was a thriving, prosperous community during the Golden Age of Brazil in the late 17th and much of the 18th centuries. The name Ouro Preto means “black gold” in Portuguese, and the city was created by an influx of thousands of fortune seeking soldiers who flocked to the region. Soon after came artisans and architects who created outstanding Baroque churches as well as exquisite fountains and bridges.
All roads lead to Tiradentes Square in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Situated on a series of tall hills, Ouro Preto features 13 spectacular Baroque churches that dominate the cyclorama of the city. Ultimately, all of the roads diverge into Tiradentes Square -- the cultural focal point of the city from which everything radiates. The square is surrounded by imposing public and private buildings that rise from cobblestone streets to gaze at the panoramic vistas.

Classic Baroque church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Here, wrought iron balconies overlook steep ancient streets extending beneath the pastel colors of Baroque architecture and art. Rapidly moving clouds sweep across the hills painting a continuous array of rainbow images.

One hill can be bathed in brilliant sunshine, while another darkens under carbon-like thunderheads and still others shimmer among a kaleidoscope of darkness and light. It is impossible to turn in any direction without witnessing the stunning beauty of Ouro Preto’s baker’s dozen of churches.

Interior of a church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Because of its mining potential and gold, Ouro Preto was once the capital of the state of Mina Gerais. Located roughly 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, even today the city retains much of its 18th century character with horse and mule drawn wooden carts and peasant women walking the streets with bundles of laundry balanced on their heads.

This was the world of Aleijadinho who perhaps saved his crowing achievement until the end of his life though he was then at the height of his suffering. Commissioned by a wealthy businessman who built the Sanctuary of Born Jesus of Matosinhos at Congohas, the Little Cripple created a series of small sculpted scenes to honor the Twelve Prophets.
Ouro Preto is a city of hills and 13 hilltop churches  (wikipedia)
Each scene is housed in its own miniature building, six on each side of the courtyard that leads to the entrance of the church.

One of the masterpieces of Aleijadinho  (wikipedia)
Even for a healthy artist, each work would be an amazing accomplishment by itself. By this time in Aleijadinho’s life however, he had neither his hands nor his feet. Pads were strapped to his knees, enabling him to climb the ladder that reached his creations.

Ouro Preto is an undiscovered secret for many travelers, but the story of Brazil’s Little Cripple, his determination to create and the magnitude of his achievements are worth their weight in gold.