Friday, January 29, 2016

Masada: Israel’s inspirational desert fortress

Masada is a desert fortress near the Dead Sea where the Jews held off Roman legions for three years  (wikipedia)
MASADA, ISRAEL At any given time, Israel is a troubling destination to visit. With the Middle East in a constant state of instability, making plans to visit the Holy Land to view the Biblical landmarks can be a challenge. Once there however, the desert country brings to life the history of some of the world’s great religions.

But there is another site in Israel that should be on every visitor’s must-see list. Masada is an ancient fortress situated on the crest of an isolated plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.

The key to success was access to water  (Taylor)
Located at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, it was at Masada that a band of approximately 960 Jewish Sicarii rebels held off the Roman army for three years before being breached in 73 AD.

Like so much of the historical accuracy in the Holy Land, Masada is the subject of considerable architectural debate, but there can be no question about the existence of fortress itself, and therein lies much of its appeal.

Much of the controversy centers around the accounts of a 1st-century Jewish Roman historian named Josephus who is responsible for nearly all the written information about the story of Masada. The problem arises in the fact that most scholars regard Josephus as a less than reliable source for the details surrounding Masada.

Masada sits atop a 1,400-foot desert plateau that spreads over an area of 23 acres. Though never occupied by Herod the Great, he built a palatial villa there on three descending terraces at the northern end of the rock. Due to the angles, there are only partial views of the palace from above.
Model of Herod's three tiered palace at the northern end of Masada...Herod never occupied it  (Taylor)
In 2001, Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site which can be reached by walking up the Snake Trail from the Dead Sea side, by the Roman Ramp Trail on the western side or by cable car.

According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist group that split from a larger Jewish assembly known as the Zealots. They fled Jerusalem in 70 AD and settled at Masada after the massacre of a Roman garrison.

The Snake Trail was the main access to Masada  (wikipedia)
The governor of Rome pursued the Sicarii and surrounded Masada but were stalled in their siege due to the strategic location of the fortress. Thanks to an ingeniously designed system of cisterns, the Jews often taunted their enemies by drenching them with fresh water in the severe desert heat of the region.

Eventually, the Romans began constructing a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. Construction of the ramp was frequently stopped because the Jewish defenders were able to pelt the Romans from above with rocks.

In the end, the Romans succeeded by using Jewish captives to build the ramp. The Sicarii halted their stone bombardments in order to keep from killing their brethren.
Today the fastest and easiest way to reach Masada is by cable car  (wikipedia)
After three long years, the Roman legion eventually breached Masada and captured the fortress. Upon their arrival however, the Romans discovered that most of the 960  inhabitants were dead and all the buildings except for the food storerooms had been burned. Only a handful of women and children survived.

Partial view of Herod's palace as it is today  (Taylor)
Josephus writes that the Jews of Masada either chose suicide or killed each other rather than suffer capture by the Romans.

Whether the Jews committed mass suicide remains a topic for conjecture. Other details that have proven to be either inaccurate or committed is also subject to scholarly debate.

What is known however, is that the elaborate system of channels that provided an ample water supply for the inhabitants does exist, as do the remnants of Herod’s northern villa. The siege did take place and the defenders were dead when the Romans entered the fortress.

As the debate continues, so does the symbolism of Masada in modern-day Israel. For Jews, Masada is a sign of unity against its adversaries. The site was regarded as so significant that the former Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding swearing-in ceremonies for various units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at Masada.
The Jews often doused Roman invaders with fresh water to demoralize them  (Taylor)
Over time the practice has been somewhat displaced, but Israel’s paratroopers still commemorate the Six Day War of 1967 at the Western Wall of Masada.

Like so many places throughout the world, Masada is a site that much be visited in person to understand the full magnitude of its meaning.
From the air Masada dominates the landscape and seems to be impregnable  (wikipedia)
For Americans Masada is, in its own way, much like the Battle of the Alamo. For Jews, given the historical chronology, they would likely tell us that the Alamo is more like Masada.

Like so many sites in the Holy Land, archaeology often creates more questions than answers. Whatever the truth may be about Masada however, cannot be diminished by a lack of information because the site speaks for itself.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rio: Where the world competes in 2016

Sugarloaf Mountain is one of the famous natural landmarks that makes Rio de Janeiro so appealing  (wikipedia)
RIO DE JANIERO, BRAZILAs a destination for the Olympic games of 2016, Rio de Janeiro, which means “River of January” in Portuguese, will be a tough act to follow when it comes to sheer natural beauty.

The “girl(s) from Ipanema” will be there along with the gorgeous women from all the other beaches in the land of three “Ss”; sun, Samba and sensuality.

The world gathers in Rio in 2016 (wikipedia)
With Rio’s alluring humpbacked Sugarloaf Mountain peering down at miles of sun-drenched beaches and the outstretched arms of the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain, Rio will arguably be the most seductive site ever for the Olympics.

Settled in 1565 by the Portuguese, part of Rio was designated a World Heritage Cultural Landscape in 1912. “Rio de Janeiro Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea” could not be a more appropriate title.

Rio’s rhythms are infectious. It is a city where beaches beckon and life centers around the sea and sand. With its symbolic black, white and red mosaic promenade representing the mixture of black, white and Indian cultures, Rio boasts the world famous Carnival with its Latin rhythms of Samba, Bossa Nova and Baineario, world class beaches like Ipanema, Copacabana, Prainha, Barra da Tijuca and Leblon and massive attractions both man-made and natural including Maracana Stadium, one of the world’s largest football (soccer) arena. It’s an ideal combination for the global athletic competitions of the Olympic Games.

Even without the sports of summer (which will be winter in Rio when they take place), Rio is one of the most visited countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
Christ the Redeemer is an unforgettable sight watching over the city of Rio de Janeiro  (wikipedia)
With an arm span of 92-feet, the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer is impossible to ignore. Created by French sculptor Paul Landowski and built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa between 1922 and 1931, Christ the Redeemer has been protecting Rio for nearly eight decades and, in the process, earning itself the title of one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

Situated atop Corcovado Mountain amid the Tijuca National Forest, the statue has become a symbol of Christianity to the world and a cultural icon of both the city of Rio de Janeiro and the country of Brazil. It is easily reached by taking the Corcovado Rack Railway.

Rio's beaches are world famous -- Sugarloaf Mountain is in the background (wikipedia)
Among the most popular natural wonders of Rio is Sugarloaf Mountain which is only one of several granite/quartz monoliths rising from the waters Guanabara Bay. Overlooking Rio’s famous beaches, a panoramic cable car takes visitors between the peaks of Pão de Açúcar and Morro da Urca every 20 minutes.

“Sugarloaf” gets its name from the heyday of the sugar cane industry in Brazil in the 16th century. At that time, blocks of sugar were placed in cone-shaped molds for export to other parts of the world. Sugarloaf Mountain resembled those molds and the rest is history.

Mosaic sidewalks are a historic symbol  (wikipedia)
Rio wouldn’t be Rio without its famed 2 ½ mile stretch of crowded sand that nestles beneath luxurious high rise hotels and the natural splendor of its mountains. While bikinis consisting of little more than a few pieces of string add to the sensuality and ambiance that is Rio, the city did not get its first nude beach until 2014.

Even so, it’s a good bet that beach volleyball will be among the most popular events when the 2016 games get underway.

By August the world-famous Carnival will be months in the past, but never fear, there’s a great, and far less crowded, alternative. Though Carnival itself is centuries old, the Samba Schools of Rio have only been around for about 100 years.

Immigrants from Bahia brought the Samba to the slums of downtown Rio in the 1920s. Known as “Little Africa” they established numerous houses devoted to religious ceremonies and dance.
Nowhere is the Carnival more famous than in Rio, but the Samba Schools are a great alternative (wikipedia)
Though the name “Samba Schools” implies the instruction of dance, the schools are actually clubs where various neighborhoods practice for months in preparation for the Carnival parade. Rehearsals are open to the public for a small fee and there you can get the flavor and atmosphere of Carnival without the throngs of humanity.

Copacabana is just one of Rio's beaches  (wikipedia)
Vegetarians beware, a trip to Brazil is not complete without visiting a traditional Churrascaria. This is a meat lover’s paradise where rotisserie-style chicken, beef, lamb, duck and pork among other meats are served in an endless parade of servings until everyone at the table calls it quits.

Don’t forget to wash it all down with Brazil’s national cocktail known as a Caipirinha. This sugarcane derived alcohol is similar to a Margarita only about three times more lethal.

Rio at dusk with its silhouetted contours and breathtaking natural beauty  (wikipedia)
If the world doesn’t know about Rio yet, it soon will when the Carnival of the Olympics takes us to South America.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ancient basilica now open to the public in Rome

Gateway to Porta Maggiore on the outskirts of Rome, an ancient basilica discovered 100 years ago  (wikipedia)
ROME For lovers of history, Italy’s capital is a living outdoor museum  Rome captures the imagination with its massive monuments like the Colossuem, the Forum, the Pantheon, the Vatican and, even, the Victor Emmanuelle Monument.

One of the everpresent problems with construction projects in cities like Rome, Athens and Jerusalem occurs when excavations begin and the builders bump into a new layer of ancient history.

Porta Maggiore was built by a Roman cult  (wikipedia)
Such was the case in 1917 in the outskirts of Rome during the construction of a railway line between Rome and Cassino. That’s when a secret pagan basilica was accidentally discovered following the cave in of an underground passage that unearthed a hidden chamber filled with stucco reliefs of gods, winged cherubs and pygmies.

Originally built by a wealthy Roman family, who belonged to a little-known called Neopythagoreanism, the subterranean basilica predates Chrisitianity. As might be deduced from the name, the cult was based upon the writings of the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato.

Situated directly beneath the rail line at street level, the 40-foot basilica is the only one of its kind in the world. Since its discovery nearly a century ago, Porta Maggiore, as it is now called, has been lovingly cleaned and preserved to the point where it can be viewed by the public, even though the restoration process continues.

Excavated from tufa volcanic rock, Porta Maggiore consists of three naves lined by six rock pillars and an apse. Carved reliefs of centaurs, griffins and satyrs adorn the arched walls along with depictions of classical lengendary Greek heroes like Achilles, Orpheus, Paris and Hercules.
Porta Maggiore was sealed off by the Emperor Claudius and only rediscovered in 1917  (wikipedia)
According to the director of the site, Dr. Giovanna Bandini, “There were lots of cults worshipped at the time and the empire was in general fairly tolerant towards them. But this one was seen as a threat because it discounted the idea of the emperor as a divine mediator between mortals and the gods.”

In the first century A.D. getting the emperor angry was not a good thing to do. The Statilius family, which was responsible for the building, was accused of practicing black magic and other illicit rituals by Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero. A senate investigation took place and, though Titus Statilius Taurus continued to proclaim his innocence, his pleas fell upon deaf ears.

With no hope remaining, Titus Statilius Taurus committed suicide in 53 A.D.
Artist's rendering of what Porta Maggiore might have appeared centuries ago  (wikipedia)
Following Taurus’ death, the basilica fell into disrepair and was eventually sealed up by the Emperor Claudius before being forgotten about for centuries.

Tufa rock is relatively easy to excavate, which is also one of the reasons why Rome has an abundance of catacombs beneath the city.

For the restoration process, scaffolding was built to allow access to the arched ceiling, which is covered with various stucco renderings. Some of the reliefs were decayed, but all things considered, restorers found the condition of the artwork to be in remarkably good condition.

Porta Maggiore is accessed by a door which hidden from the street by a mesh fence. The basilica itself is completely invisible to the outside world, but when trains rumble over- head, the illusion can be broken as a reminder that we still live in a contemporary world.

A depiction of Medusa’s head guards the entrance with the lower parts of the walls painted in deep ox-blood red colors featuring wild birds and women dressed in togas.

Special care is taken to control temperature and humidity to preserve the artwork. The temperature must not rise above 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit while the humidity must constantly range between 87% and 92%.

Stucco begins to dry out below 87% humidity causing it to crack. Says Dr. Bandini, “This place is unique in the Roman world in terms of its architecture and design. It was a precursor to the basilicas built during the Christian era, centuries later.”

Visitors are now welcome, but space is limited. Arrangements for a tour can be made at www.coopculture.itor by calling +39 06 399 677 00

Rome is a timeline of history and civilization. So to say that Rome is a city in ruins is a compliment of the highest order.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Technological advances that simplified travel in the last 25 years

High speed rail service in many European countries has reduced travel time dramatically  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE, NC During the Golden Age of travel, getting to a destination was as much a part of the experience as the places themselves. Veteran travel writers frequently hearken to those days when travel had its own form of elegance that has long since disappeared with the “cattle-car” mentality of today.

Despite that, there have been numerous innovations over the past 25 years which have made travel considerably more comfortable and convenient.  Here’s a list of ten:

The internet has vastly improved communication (wikipedia)
 1 – GPS Systems – Though not a panacea for all things travel, GPS have saved countless marriages. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, reading maps has been virtually eliminated.  A good GPS has greatly minimized those last second “Turn here, turn here. No, no go back” moments which led to detours in unfamiliar territory.  While headache remedies may have taken a financial hit, the benefits of GPS are immeasurable.

2 – Tour Group Headsets – Today you can stray from traveling partners and still hear the commentary of your tour guide.  The guide wears a microphone while group members don headsets that allow them to walk away from the crowd and still hear the information.  A side benefit is that it is infinitely easier to keep the group in a cohesive unit.

3 – High Speed European Train Service – Go from city-center to city-center faster by rail than by air on trips of three-and-a-half hours or less by using trains that travel just under 200 mph in many European countries. 
Go between London and Paris in three hours thanks to Eurostar trains and the Channel Tunnel  (wikipedia)
High-speed trains allow travelers to base themselves in one location and do day-trips without the hassle of changing hotels. 

Eurostar service through the Channel Tunnel has made traveling between London and Paris a 3-hour excursion.  While a whirlwind tour of either city is less than ideal, people can sample either city when time does not allow in depth exploration 

4 – Internet/Wi-Fi – Take any and all versions of “pads” and “pods” or other form of internet connection and staying in touch with home or tracking friends within your destination(s) is now little more than a touch away.  One particular advantage of internet access is the increased ability for individual travel.  Groups can split up to explore personal interests and easily reunite through the miracle of instant communication.  In addition, Skype has even made it possible to see your friends and loved ones as they are traveling.

Euros have reduced currency conversions (wikipedia)  
5 – Euro – Though the currency may be having its problems, it has certainly made traveling between multiple European nations a lot easier.

The euro has not only simplified the process of currency conversion for travelers, it has also minimized the cumbersome task of figuring conversion rates in individual countries.

 6 – ATMs – ATMs allow travelers to access money  any time including weekends, holidays and after hours.  It may not sound like a big deal, but the convenience of ATMs always being in close proximity makes the urgency of running low on funds a huge time saver.
ATMS allow access to cash at any time  (wikipedia)

 7 – Swiss Travel Pass – Rail passes have been around for years and have always been a great travel bargain. However, the Swiss Travel Pass offers the use of local transportation, postal buses, boats, funiculars and cable cars as well as trains.  Unfortunately, travelers often fail to consider the bonuses included with a pass such as significant discounts for mountaintop excursions and other private transportation services.  In addition, a Swiss Travel Pass offers free admission to over 400 museums throughout the country. 
Go virtually anywhere in Switzerland quickly, efficiently and on time  (wikipedia)
8 – Cell Phones – Rushing to pay phones to announce late departures or arrivals to friends and family members is a thing of the past.  Many airports even have cell phone parking lots where people can park while they wait for a call from a plane that is in the process of landing.

Cell phone parking areas not only reduce congestion at the terminal, they also save time and gas by eliminating the need to circle the airport while you wait. 

 9 – Personal In-Flight Entertainment Systems – Select a variety of movies, TV shows, games or even track your location during a flight.  For movie purists who don’t like having their entertainment edited or censored for family viewing, personal monitors make it possible to watch uncut versions of their favorite programs or movies.

Eurail Saverpass offers a great discount for two or more people traveling together  (wikipedia)
10 – Eurail Saverpass – Many European rail passes now offer Saverpasses which provide substantial discounts for two or more people traveling together.  Saverpass products are great for small groups or families.  In essence, a Eurail Saverpass regards as few as two people a “group” and provides significant discounts for traveling by rail throughout Europe.  Like the Swiss Travel Pass, there are excellent bonus options for ferries, ground transportation and other services that can result in additional savings.
Modern railway stations are a haven for travelers with all the services they need  (wikipedia)
Air travel in particular has become a modern day hassle for which we compromise removing shoes and belts plus x-ray machines and even body searches for speed. The trade-off hardly seems worth it sometimes, but thankfully some things have made simplified travel and made it better.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Bernina Express: Switzerland’s best rail journey

The Bernina Express exits a tunnel to cross the majestic Landwasser Viaduct (wikipedia)
SWITZERLAND The Glacier Express in Switzerland may be longer and more famous, but for my money the Bernina Express is the best classic rail journey in the country.

Nowhere in Switzerland, or even Europe, is there more geographical diversity than the Bernina Express. With glaciers, impressive bridges, picturesque tunnels, lakes, mountains, rolling landscapes, rivers and a starting or ending point in Tirano, Italy, the Bernina Express is the stuff of traveler’s dreams.

The Bernina Express features diverse scenery  (wikipedia)
Not only does the route incorporate some of the most spectacular sections of the famed Glacier Express, it also glides across the crest of the world where the watershed originates some of the great rivers of Europe.

Even National Geographic rates the Bernina Express as the second best rail journey in Europe.  The first, also in Switzerland, is The Chocolate Train. 

Bernina Express travelers begin from either Davos, St. Moritz or Chur.  Each village offers something different, so the starting point is really a matter of personal preference. 

Chur, with its delightful old town, is a gateway to the alpine ski resort of Arosa. 
Panoramic view of Chur, one of the gateways for the Bernina Express  (wikipedia)
At just over 5,000 feet, Davos has the distinction of being the highest city in Europe, and it is a haven for culture lovers as well as sports enthusiasts. 

Jet-setting St. Moritz, with its series of three alpine lakes, has long been a favorite destination for the internationally rich and famous. 
One stunning vista after another (wikipedia)

The four-hour, 38-mile rail journey follows a winding mountainous path over 196 bridges and through 55 tunnels over the Bernina Pass which reaches its highest point at more than 7,300 feet.  Two railways, the Albula Line and the Bernina Line, combine to form the route.  A unification that led UNESCO to jointly declare them a World Heritage Site in 2008.

Completed in 1904, the Albula Line took six years to build.  The Bernina Line followed in 1910, but the railroads operated independently until 1940 when the Rhaetian Railway took over and merged the two.

The brightly colored red coaches feature arches of glass that provide a 360-degree panoramic view of land, water and sky.  During summer, some trains even operate with a few open-air cars as well as the traditional enclosed rolling stock.
The Landwasser Viaduct/Tunnel is a highlight of both the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express  (wikipedia)
The combination Landwasser Viaduct/Tunnel is a highlight of both the Bernina and Glacier Express excursions.  From the viaduct, where five pillars tower more than 200 feet above the Landwasser River, the 446-foot curved track offers passengers a clear view of the train as it enters or departs the tunnel.  The 706-foot tunnel completes the architectural masterpiece by boring through seemingly insurpassable rock before opening upon the dramatic gorge and bridge across the river.

Shortly after the viaduct, the train reaches Filisur before continuing through the first of several spiral tunnels.  The rails sing as the cherry-colored line of coaches moves through a lush valley en route to a change in elevation of about 1,300-feet in just over 3-miles.  Spirals eliminate the need for rack-and-pinion infrastructure and passengers are the beneficiary.  The serpentine course twists and turns through towering woodlands past cascading waterfalls and rushing streams while climbing toward mountains of everlasting snow.

The Bernina Express operates year round (wikipedia)
Outside Pontresina the journey heads for the Bernina Pass where the tracks make a dramatic turn beside the Morteratsch Glacier.  Lord Byron once described glaciers as “frozen hurricanes” and, at this place, it’s as though some omnipotent hand designed the terrain purely for rail visitors to observe all of it’s magnificent splendor. From here you can view the Piz Bernina, the highest summit in the Eastern Alps at nearly 7,000 feet. 

In English “piz” means “peak”, which comes from Romansch, the least used of Switzerland’s four languages.

Before long, the Bernina Express discards its forested surroundings by yielding to a moonscape of stark, intolerant terrain.  Jagged, barren outcroppings of snow-clad rock hover over three glacial lakes, each distinguished by a different color.  Here, at the rooftop of Europe, the watershed divides the flow of rivers toward the North Sea and the Mediterranean.

The Kreis Viaduct near Brusio is another highlight with its rare exposed spiral tunnel  (wikipedia)
Once over the Alps, the train descends into another vast carpet of green where rural tableaux nestle between protective mountains that lead toward Brusio and its spiral viaduct.  The uniqueness of this rarest of rail travel experiences lies in the fact that the track is completely exposed, allowing passengers to witness the logistical achievement of the design for themselves.  The train travels over, around and beneath its own pathway as the coiled ribbon of steel guides the express into Italy.  Proof positive that “one good turn deserves another.” 
Passing White Lake at the watershed which leads to the Black Sea and the North Sea  (wikipedia)
Before terminating in Tirano, rail travelers and motorists discover several places along the route where it almost seems possible to reach out and shake hands with each other, and in a couple of tiny villages, the train has barely enough room to pass between buildings on either side of the road.

At Tirano, the Bernina Express links with Swiss Postal Bus service which journeys along the Italian shores of Lake Como before arriving back in Switzerland at Lugano.  For Swiss Rail Pass holders, the only thing required is making a reservation and showing your pass.
If you can only choose one rail journey in Switzerland, pick the Bernina Express  (wikipedia)
With a little basic training on the Bernina Express, anyone can experience the magic of the Swiss Travel System.