Friday, December 25, 2015

“Silent Night”: The story of one of our best loved Christmas Carols

Painting of Salzburg, Austria in winter by Hubert Sattler  (wikipedia0

OBERNDORF, AUSTRIA Christmas carols are among the most enduring pieces of music in the Christian world. So much so, that they are part of our DNA as if we were born with the words already in our programmed in our souls.

In today’s world which is so often filled with turmoil and strife, the story of one of our most beloved seasonal carols, “Silent Night”, is worth telling.   

“Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in a tiny church nearly 200 years ago when a small troupe of actors performing in villages throughout the Austrian Alps came to the town of Oberndorf on December 23rd in 1818.

Oberndorf bei Salzburg is situated approximately 11 miles north of Salzburg, Austria on the shores of the Salzach River. Its sister village of Laufen in Bavaria, Germany lies across the Salzach Bridge.

The town had been split following the Napoleonic Wars when the Principality of the Salzburg Archbishops divided it in 1816 after the Congress of Vienna.

In the same year, a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote a poem entitled “Stille Nacht” while living in Mariafarr, the hometown of his father. A year later, Mohr moved to Oberndorf in 1817.

In 1818, the acting group was scheduled to re-enact the story of Christ’s birth at the Church of St. Nicholas, but the organ was not working and could not be repaired before Christmas.

Some say the organ was broken due to mice but others claim that rust caused the problem.

Without an organ, the actors performed their program in a private residence instead.

Reverend Mohr attended the program which was adapted from the first chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament.

So impressed by the performance was Father Mohr that he decided to take the long way home so he could meditate about the season.

Mohr’s walk took him over the crest of a small hill overlooking Oberndorf from which he could view the snow-covered panorama shimmering in the moonlight beneath the stars. Reveling in the thoughts of the performance he had just witnessed and the serenity of the cold wintry night, the pastor peered down at the Christmas-card setting and recalled the poem he had written the year before.

Mohr’s poem told the story of the night when angels proclaimed the birth of the Messiah to shepherds tending their flocks on a hillside.

As he gazed upon the village, something told Reverend Mohr that his poem might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service the following night. The problem was that there was no music to which the poem could be sung.
 Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria where "Silent Night" was born nearly 200 years ago  (wikipedia) 
The next day, Mohr went to visit his church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, and asked him if he could compose a melody suitable for his poem that could be sung with a guitar.

With only a few hours to create his masterpiece, Gruber created a tune that could be sung without the need of an organ. And so, as circumstance would have it, “Silent Night” was born because the church where it began had no organ.

The Oberndorf congregation heard the carol for the first time on Christmas Eve in 1818 when Mohr and Gruber sang the words accompanied by Gruber’s guitar.

Several weeks later, the well-known organ builder, Karl Mauracher, arrived in Oberndorf to repair the broken instrument. To make certain it was fixed, Mauracher told Gruber to test the organ before he departed. Gruber sat down at the keyboard and began to play his simple but elegant Christmas carol.

Mauracher was overwhelmed by the music. He took copies back to his own village of Kapfing where two well-known family singing groups – the Rainers and the Strassers – heard it for the first time.

Both families were equally captivated and the following yuletide season incorporated it in their Christmas repertoire.

The Strasser sisters spread the carol throughout northern Europe and, in 1834, when King Frederick William of Prussia heard it for the first time, he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.

By 1838, the Rainer family brought the song to the United States where they sang it in German at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside New York’s Trinity Church.

Nearly 50 years after it was written, “Silent Night” was translated into English. Today the song has more than 200 versions and has been translated into hundreds of languages.

Perhaps most meaningful however, came during the Christmas truce of 1914 in World War I. It was then that “Silent Night” was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by the troops on the front lines. The reason – because it was the one carol that all the soldiers on both sides of the battlefield knew.

Music is truly universal, and nowhere do the words express it better than “Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright.”

Friday, December 18, 2015

Discovering the small villages of France on the Web

The French village of Beynac-et-Cazenac rises above the Dordogne River in France  (wikipedia)
FRANCE Moviegoers who saw the 2000 film Chocolat may recall the tiny fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes where the story takes place. In fact, two real French villages were used Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in Burgundy and Beynac-et-Cazenac on the Dordogne River in Dordogne.

Both places are members of an organization called “The Most Beautiful Villages in France.”

Fortified gateway to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain  (wikipedia)
Travelers will be delighted to discover there are more than 150 other “undiscovered” villages throughout France that are now part of an internet site called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

This site traces its roots to 1981 when Charles Ceyrac, the mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge, found a book published by Reader’s Digest which had the same title as the current name of his organization, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

Ceyrac had long been an advocate of promoting tourism to exceptional villages throughout France that were largely unknown, yet possessed a prominent cultural heritage. With inexhaustible energy and a keen desire to protect the heritage of these communities, Ceyrac passionately undertook the task of forming an association with rigid standards to create greater awareness for visitors.
Le Bec Hellouin in Normandy is a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France  (wikipedia)
Several categories for inclusion were established ranging from history to art, handicrafts, culinary excellence, romantic environment, wellness and nature.

St. Benoit du Sault beckons just beyond its arch (wikipedia)
By March of 1982, an organization of 66 mayors had united with Ceyrac to establish a method of preserving the legacy of each town. Its purpose was “to avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, ‘theme parks.’ Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”

In an effort to regulate a high level of quality so that visitors would be guaranteed to enjoy the type of traveling experience they were seeking, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France follows a strict set of guidelines during its selection process.

Membership is granted only after a community has completed four phases of application.
St. Cirq Lapopie still thrives behind its ancient city walls  (wikipedia)
Initially a village must meet three basic requirements: the population must not exceed 2,000 people, it must have at least two protected sites or monuments in the area, and it must show written proof that there is majority support from the town council.

Once approved, an on-site evaluation is conducted between a member of the association and the mayor of the village. Prior to the “tour” of the town, the mayor, and any associates he chooses, are interviewed and are requested to present required documents for evaluation along with any support materials.

The outskirts of Peyre, a small village in France (wikipedia)
The association then follows an appraisal chart consisting of 27 criteria that rate the village according to the various categories necessary to participate.

Phase three consists of a decision handed down by the Quality Committee which has complete authority in accepting or rejecting an application. The Quality Committee meets twice each year, and it has the option of making four rulings ranging from immediate recognition as a participating member to total rejection.

If approved, the final step is signing an official charter. Once granted, the village may then promote its new designation to inhabitants, local authorities and the media as being officially regarded as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France.
Quite street in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain which was used in the movie Chocolat  (wikipedia)
Today there are more than 157 villages in 21 regions of the country.

“Discovering France” has never been easier or more enjoyable thanks to Les Plus Beaux Villages de France

Friday, December 11, 2015

Personalized African photo safaris with John Lasater

Leopards are elusive to view -- A leopard in a tree is an extremely rare sighting  (John Lasater)
CHARLOTTE -- When it comes to photo safaris in Africa, John Lasater is one of the best. Over the past quarter century Lasater has visited the “dark continent” nearly 60 times. Africa is his passion.

For more than 14 years Lasater has been personally customizing tours to Africa. Best of all, Safaris by John Lasater offers prices that are frequently comparable to what most people pay for a trip to Europe. Many tours, which include accommodations, game viewing, tours, guides, meals and air, can be done for less than $5,000.

White rhino and her offspring  (John Lasater)
As a consultant for South African Airways for more than a decade, Lasater developed a passion for Africa that carries over to the detailed personalized attention he incorporates in each of his itineraries. Our tours are “customized to your requirements,” he says while adding the caveat, “If you come back unhappy it’s your own fault.”

For the most part, Lasater’s travel programs concentrate on Kenya and South Africa, but he also creates itineraries to Uganda and Rwanda for travelers with a particular interest in viewing chimps and gorillas.
The "King of Beasts" relaxes in the warm South African sun  (John Lasater)
Kenya and South Africa are completely different regions,” says Lasater. “It all depends on what your interests are. Kenya is better for viewing the great migration from June to October to witness the vast herds of animals. One problem, though, is the number of vehicles that converge on a particular area when there is a sighting. South Africa is a more cultural region with great roads and overall infrastructure that offers greater diversity. Either way, people are almost guaranteed to see the “big five” meaning African elephants, lions, Cape buffalo, leopards and rhinos.”

"Tiered" jeep for maximum viewing  (Taylor)
According to Lasater, there is an unwritten rule in South Africa about having too many vehicles arrive in one place at one time which can ruin a viewing experience.

Lasater’s guides are independent contractors who speak up to seven languages. He has a pool of eight in South Africa and six in Kenya with whom he negotiates regularly. That way he is assured of maintaining the highest level of quality possible. In many cases, the guides and facilities Lasater uses are the same as those of larger, better known outfitters who charge considerably more for their services.

Many travelers have safety concerns about African travel to which Lasater answers, “There are places you won’t go at night at home. It’s no different in Africa. You just gotta use common sense. Our guides are experts and they keep travelers informed about where to go and where not to go.”
Jumbo out for a stroll in the wilds of Africa  (John Lasater)
Part of John’s traveling philosophy is that he never sends visitors to places with which he is unfamiliar. “If we haven’t been there, we don’t recommend it,” he says.

Cape Buffalo are easy to find, but considered the most dangerous of the animals  (Taylor)
Three other considerations for travelers planning visits to Africa are documents, shots and the friendliness of the people. Safaris by John Lasater provides all the details necessary for each destination. One surprising aspect is the number of required inoculations which are actually fewer than most people think.

Photo safaris are great for all ages  (Taylor)
When it comes to visas and fees Lasater says many African countries to not charge Americans for things that citizens of other countries are required to pay. In the case of South Africa, a visa can be obtained upon arrival which is a great travel convenience.

One of the magnetic factors that draws Lasater to the African region is the friendliness of the people. “They have a love for animals as well as a high regard for Americans,” he says. “In fact, one of their most endearing qualities is that they do not begrudge you for having more than they have.”

Safaris by John Lasater puts itineraries together for as many as 15 to 18 people, but they will also make arrangements for one or two couples who just want to explore Africa on their own.
A cheetah takes a break before getting ready for the afternoon hunt  (Taylor)
Lasater says one of the best books about Africa, regardless of whether you are planning to travel there or not, is Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by well-known adventurer Paul Theroux. The book details Theroux’s experiences while traveling the length of the continent from north to south on the N1 highway.

South African sunset and the end of a perfect day in paradise  (John Lasater)
For travelers seeking a customized, well documented and detailed travel opportunity to Africa at a reasonable price, Safaris by John Lasater may be the best kept secret in the business.

John Lasater knows Africa

Friday, December 4, 2015

Finland: Where creativity abounds with “designs” on the future

The quietly forested Ainola was the home of Finnish national composer Jean Sibelius  (wikipedia) 
FINLAND Admittedly this story is better suited for summer travel unless you thrive on outdoor winter activities. That said, Finland celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of national composer, Jean Sibelius, on December 8th. With that in mind, here are three great day trips you can do in Finland from the capital city of Helsinki.

1 – Iittala & Nuutajärvi (Finnish Glass) – Visitors to Finland are often surprised at the superb ceramics and design that is a national characteristic of the country. Nowhere is contemporary creativity better displayed in Finland than in the glass district.

Glass blowing demonstrations are popular  (wikipedia)
Nuutajärvi Glass, founded in 1793, is the oldest functioning glass factory in Finland. The factory site itself is one of the best preserved milieus in the country. Built in Neo-renaissance architectural style the bell tower dates to the 18th century while the manor house, constructed in 1822, remains active nearly 200 years later.

Today, one of Nuutajärvi’s most popular collections is Birds by Toikka established in 1962 by Oiva Toikka who remains one of the greatest names in the history of Finnish glass.  

Nearby, another glassworks founded in 1881, Iittala has  expanded into other areas of design such as ceramics and metal which today includes tableware and cookware. Over the decades, thanks to an all-star group of designers, Iittala has built an international reputation for elegance and timeless design.

Commemorative Aalto stamp  (wikipedia)
Among the most famous artists were Oiva Toikka and Alvar Aalto who created his iconic Savoy Vase, now affectionately known as the Aalto Vase, in 1936.

For travelers, not only are the prized glass products unique souvenirs, but the glass blowing process itself is worth the visit. Here master craftsman breathe crystalline beauty from red-hot molten glass into incomparable glassware.

From the Aalto Vase to the exquisite architecture of Finlandia Hall, the white marble congress center in Helsinki, nothing better emphasizes the range of Finnish creativity. Completed in 1971, every detail of the building was designed by Aalto.
Alvar Aalto's creative genius is displayed in the magnificent Finlandia Hall  (wikipedia)
Such diversity makes Finnish design and craftsmanship “crystal clear.”

2 – HvittraskSpeaking of building design, Hvittrask may just represent the greatest collection of architectural brilliance in history.
Hvittrask was home for three great Finnish architects  (wikipedia)
Located just 19 miles west of Helsinki, Hvittrask was originally designed to be a studio home for associates of a Finnish architectural company. It later became the private residence of Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren. Constructed of logs and natural stone, the studio was created to provide the ultimate working environment for architectural innovation. Among the innovative studio designs was a huge slanted skylight that maximized the natural light in the forest to its fullest advantage.

Hvittrask translates in English to mean “White Lake” deriving its name from the small lake at the end of a wooded path leading from the house.
Finnish architect Eliel Saarninen  (sikipedia)

Hvittrask was not without scandal, however, which makes the site all the more interesting. During the time of their residence, Saarinen fell in love with Gesellius’ younger sister Louise, a sculptor in Helsinki. Following his divorce from his first wife, Mathilde in 1904, Saarinen married Louise, thus making it possible for Gesellius to marry Mathilde. One can only imagine what holiday gatherings were like at Hvittrask.

The site was also the boyhood home of Eero Saarinen, the son of Eliel and Louise.  Eero primarily made his reputation in the United States designing monuments such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

During its heyday, Hvittrask was regularly visited by artist Axel Gallen-Kallela, writer/dramatist Maksim Gorki and composer Jean Sibelius.

3 – AinolaTravelers to Finland immediately recognize the Finnish passion for the outdoors and Mother Nature. Ainola, which means “Aino’s place” in honor of Jean Sibelius’ wife, is an ideal synonym for that  zeal.
Sibelius demanded absolute solitude during his creative periods of composition  (wikipedia)
Situated on the shores of Lake Tuusulaniärvi in forested surroundings, Ainola was the family home from 1904 until 1972. Sibelius required only two things from architect Lars Sonck; a lakefront view and a green fireplace in the dining room.

Sibelius portrait  (wikipedia)
The site was chosen for its solitude which Sibelius demanded for his work. Don't expect to hear the music of Finland’s national composer during a tour, Ainola remains totally silent out of respect for Sibelius’ need to concentrate.

So intense was Sibelius for quiet that water pipes were not installed in the house while he was alive because he could not deal with any distractions during construction.

Though isolated, the passion for nature attracted other Finnish artists to the area providing an active social circle for Sibelius and his family when he was not concentrating on his work.

Sibelius died in 1957 and is buried in a garden at Ainola. Today the home is open for visitors from May to September.

Sibelius monument in Helsinki looks like an irregular series of organ pipes  (wikipedia)
So you see, traveling to Scandinavia can be a rewarding exercise in all disciplines of creativity, and here are three examples of day trips to enjoy from start to Finnish.