Friday, March 29, 2019

Oberammergau's Passion Play is a year away, start planning now

The Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed for nearly 400 years (Courtesy: Oberammergau Passion Play)

OBERAMMERGAU, GERMANY — In the midst of the Thirty Years War and the devastating Black Plague which wiped out between a third to a half of the population of Europe the people of Oberammergau, Germany made a pledge in 1633.

After 80 deaths their tiny village, the citizens of the town took a sacred oath  that every ten years they would perform a "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" if God would protect them from further ravages of the plague.

The parish church was the site
of the first productions
(Photo: Zebulon -- Public Domain)
According to legend, following the vow, not a single person came down with the disease, and perhaps even more miraculously, everyone who was afflicted with the plague at the time of the oath survived.

True to their promise, the passion play was performed for the first time during Pentecost in 1634 and has fulfilled its agreement every ten years since, except in 1940 during World War II.

In the nearly 400 years since the promise was made, there have been a few occasions where the play has been performed other than the traditional ten year span. Such events would include a Jubileo year in Rome, for example.

Today the Passion Play Theatre seats 4,700 people and there are sometines as man as 700 actors on stage at once
(Courtesy:  Passion Play)

Today, the play occurs in every decade beginning in zero.

Beginning in May 2020  and running until October, the latest rendition of the Oberammergau Passion Play will renew its centuries old pledge for pilgrims from around the world.

So why write about Oberammergau now, a more than a year before the first performance? The answer is simple. So popular has the passion play become over the centuries that tour operators and savvy travelers know that tickets for the five month run of the production come at a premium.

Only residents of Oberammergau are permitted to perform in the
play  (Courtesy:  Passion Play)
Furthermore, the citizens of Oberammergau, who must be residents in order to participate, have already begun preparations for the elaborate production, meaning that this is an event that requires a bit more planning than merely showing up when the curtain is raised.

Known in German as Passionsspiele, the cast consists of about half the 5,000 residents whose otherwise every day lives consist of working as doctors, shopkeepers, teachers and the like.

All of the main speaking parts are filled by actors who have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years or people who were born there.

Three actors play Jesus due to
 physical demands of the role
(Courtesy: Passion Play)
Due to the physical stamina required for "Christ" to be on the cross for 20 minutes during the Crucifixion scene, three different actors rotate in the role of Jesus.

Lest one think this is a small local  production, consider that there are times when there are as many as 700 actors on stage.

As rehearsals get underway, at some point early on in the production, the principle characters make a journey to the Holy Land to get a first-hand look and sense of the actual historical environment of the drama.

So seriously do the actors take their roles, one of traditional high points in the lead-up to the production comes when  signs are posted throughout town notifying male performers that it is time to begin growing their beards and letting their hair get longer.

The play has had many revisions
(Photo: Public Domain)
The original script was written by eight collaborating playwrights along with input from townspeople. Since the first production, the passion play has been performed on open-air stages in the village using texts of a composite of four distinct manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Between 1660 and 1860, the play underwent numerous revisions, and has, at times been criticized for being antisemitic. Since 1860, rewrites to music and dialogue have been minor except in the special season of 1934 honoring the play's 300th anniversary at the time when Adolf Hitler was chancellor.

Interior of the Church of St Peter St Paul in Oberammergau
(Photo: Zebulon -- Public Domain)
The first performance in 1634 took place in the cemetery next to the parish church on the fresh graves of victims of the plague. The stage was little more than a simple wood construction.

At times there are 700 actors on
stage  (Courtesy: Passion Play)
In 1830, the stage relocated to the northern edge of the village with a layout-plan which offered space for 5000 spectators. Today the permanent venue, Passion Play Theatre seats 4,700 people.

Over the centuries the play has ranged in length from five to eight hours with the first half performed in the morning and the second part in the afternoon or starting the afternoon and finishing in the evening. Traditionally there has always been a three hour lunch or dinner break between the segments.

Artist's rendering of Oberammergau (Photo: Public Domain)
One interesting aspect of the play is that many shopkeepers could not participate if they had to close during  the months and days of the play. Thus many villagers who are cast members often set their clocks to the precise time of their appearance (this is Germany, after all)  and then jump on a bicycle to avoid traffic and get to the theater in time to go on. Afterwards, those who are able, simply cycle back to work.

Along with the Crucifixion, the Last Supper is one of the most
powerful and emotional scenes in the play
(Courtesy: Oberammergau Passion Play)
With this background in mind, it's easy to see why planning a year in advance is necessary. It's due to the passion of the villagers of Oberammergau to fulfill their 400-year old vow combined with the passion for travel by visitors with a desire to witness the world famous Passion Play of Oberammergau.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Magnificent Seven: Top trending travel sites for 2019

India's Taj Mahal in Agra is among the list of top places to visit
this year  (Photo: Taylor)

CHARLOTTE, NC — Travel is one of the most personal endeavors anyone can ever experience because there are so many options. 

Some travelers are professional cruisers while others would never consider exploring the world on a ship. There are adventure travelers who like to rough it, while others prefer the elegance of being pampered.

Balinesian dancer (Photo: Taylor)
Group travel is ideal for many first-timers or  individuals with fears about language barriers, choices of food or currency conversions. For many others however, the appeal of discovery is a matter of individual freedom and exploration.

In the end, it all boils down to lifestyles and a traveler's personal preferences.

When midnight on January 31st changes the calendar each year, that's the signal for wanderlusters to begin thinking about that next great adventure.

Hofbrauhaus beer-hall in Munich
(Photo: Taylor)
Regardless of what year you choose, there are the usual favorites such as France, Italy, the United Kingdom and such.

At the other end of the spectrum are places that, for whatever reason, become "hot spots" that follow some mysterious unknown allure that morphs into a trend.

Using that as background, today we look at some of the trendy locales for 2019. It's not a list that appeals to everyone, but it will make good cocktail conversation any time the subject of travel arises.
Mysterious Mayan ruins at Lubabantuun (Photo: Taylor)

Belize has come into its own in recent years. The tiny Central American country is ideal for independent travelers who enjoy a spirit of adventure, luxurious accommodations and historical destinations.

As with many countries in Central America, Belize benefits from speaking English, using American dollars as currency and having the same electrical standards as the United States.

Mayan women  (Photo: Taylor)
The Belize Barrier Reef System, which is a smaller version of its sister, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, demonstrates Belize's commitment to improving the environment.

Filled with Mayan ruins, Belize is an archaeological paradise where ancient civilizations nestle amid jungle-like surroundings.

Caracol, the largest Maya site, is bigger than Tikal in Guatemala yet it is far from the madding crowds.

Belize is an ideal place for adventurous travelers  (Photo: Taylor)
Belize is also a perfect spot for hiking, bird-watching and wildlife safaris that are especially intriguing at night.

Simply put, "seeing is Belizing."

China's incredible Terracotta Warrior army  (Photo: Pixabay)
China has long been a favorite, but in 2019 its diversity and history have become even more appealing.

Trekking the Great Wall is a bucket-list experience that falls in the same category as the Taj Mahal and Mount Everest which are must-sees at least once in a traveler's portfolio.

Seemingly endless Great Wall
(Photo: Pixabay)
More recently, the Terracotta Warriors at Xian were only discovered by local farmers in 1974. The collection of thousands of sculptures depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai
(Photo: Taylor)
Also popular is Fanjingshan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Buddhist shrine  that was once home to 48 temples. More adventurous travelers may want to hike to the summit for an unforgettable hiking experience.

Add the Forbidden City and you have experienced thousand of years of history by visiting just four sites. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The Great Sphinx conjures images of intrigue
(Photo: Christine Schmiederer -- pexels-photo)
Egypt is making a tourism comeback in 2019 with luxury hotels and new tours that blend the country's best of the old with the best of the new.

One highlight is a lavish Nile cruise that was launched last year and continues to grow in popularity.

The Valley of the Kings in Luxor  (Photo: Pixbay)
Cairo, with its crowded streets and exotic souk (bazaar), is the gateway to the pyramids of Giza. If time permits, take in the sound and light show to get the full story.  

Do not miss the Grand Egyptian Museum which will soon house the largest collection dedicated to a single civilization in history when 5,000 artifacts of the King Tut burial site are on diplay.

The Red Sea is famous for snorkeling with some of the best in the world, and, of course, no visit is complete without a trip to Luxor and the famed Valley of the Kings.

Gateway to the Taj Mahal  (Photo: Taylor)
India is an acquired taste but the good news is that the renovations at the Taj Mahal have been completed.

Even James Bond liked Obernai
(Photo: Taylor)
Some visitors have difficulty adjusting to India's masses of humanity and poverty but from a historical and architectural perspective the country is a rainbow of colors and the vast Moghul Empire.

 Obernai, the exotic place where James Bond (Roger Moore) takes on an international jewel smuggling ring in Octopussy (1983), and the nightly vigils in Varanasi on the Ganges are well worth a visit.

The Treasury at Petra served as a movie set for Indiana Jones
(Photo: Pixabay)

Jordan might be a tough sell at first given its location in the Middle East, but once you get beyond that, Petra is one of the most incredible sites in the world.

Built  between the 4th century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D., Petra has recently been crowned one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss geographer, the ancient Nabataean capital is situated among the Arabah Valley mountains between the Dead Sea and Red Sea.

Petra is known as the "Rose City" because of its many shades of
red  (Photo: Pixabay)

Known as the "Rose City" because of the reddish-pink hues in the striations of rock, Petra is half-carved and half-built into the rock, The Treasury is arguably the most famous structure in the expansive site.

Monserrate Palace in the tiny hillside village of Sintra outside
Lisbon  (Photo: Taylor)
Portugal is the trendiest place on everyone’s lips right now. This coastal country is known for its delicious cuisine, gorgeous panoramas and lively atmosphere.

Rich in diversity from Lisbon to Porto, Sintra or the beaches of the Azores, Portugal is a jewel box of travel discovery.

For hypnotic natural beauty visit Gorongosa at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley with its myriad of hot springs, secluded waterfalls, hidden caves and rain forests.

Fado is Portugal's musical
heritage  (Photo: Taylor)
No trip to Portugal is complete without experiencing "fado", the traditional Portuguese music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics that often reflect the sea or the life of the poor. Typically infused with sentiments of fatefulness and melancholy, an evening of fado is not nearly depressing as it sounds.

Best of all for travelers, Portugal is famous for its incomparable hospitality.

Singapore is a dazzling city-state that surprises everyone who visits for the first time  (Photo: KIn Pastor pexels-photo)
Singapore dazzles. It is a city-state rich in culture and futuristic architecture. Known for its obsessive cleanliness (chewing gum is a huge no-no), Singapore is a marvelous hub for exploring other parts of Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Before venturing out however, be sure to sample some of the best street food in the world and do not miss Marina Bay.

Who's next? Wait 'til next year and find out  (Photo: Taylor)

As we said, travel is a fickle enterprise. Fads and trends come and go quickly, but for 2019 at least, these seven hot spots are among the best.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Live like a French aristocrat at Chateau de Colombieres in Normandy

Chateau de Colombieres traces its history back 1,000 years to the days of William the Conqueror  (Courtesy: Chateau Colombieres)
Normandy, France -- When it comes to the idea of European castles, there is something uniquely appealing to American travelers.

Visitors to France have two popular options to experience historic chateaux and both are equally beguiling.

Chateau Chenonceau Loire Valley
In the Loire Valley, travelers can trace French history in the grounds and gardens of some of the most famous and largest castles in Europe; Chenonceau, Chambord, Chantilly, Cheverny, Chinon, Villandry, Blois and Azay-le-Rideau to mention a few.

Normandy, on the other hand, is an ideal spot to actually immerse yourself into the chateau experience by staying in centuries old fortresses and residences that literally ooze with the romance of French aristocracy.

It is also possible to do either form of chateaux-hopping in each of the two regions.

Bayeux is a charming city
(Photo: Taylor)
Thanks to the popular website WeLoveNormandy, it is even easier today than ever before to enjoy ten centuries of history in contemporary comfort while temporarily stepping back in time to embrace the lifestyle of French aristocracy.

Patrick and Nicky Hilyer are your guides through the wonders of the region with expert knowledge of gardens, little known historic sites, charming medieval villages and, of course, the D-Day Landing Beaches. Spend time reliving the French Revolution, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, the Renaissance and more while using a chateau as a base for day trips that capture the imagination.

An ideal gathering spot...the salon at Chateau de Colombieres
(Courtesy: Chateau de Colombieres)

Chateaude Colombieres, with its massive stone walls and fairytale towers, is one such captivating property in Normandy where guests cross the ancient moat into a sunny courtyard that transports them back in time faster than Mr. Peabody and Sherman's Wayback Machine.

Add in the hospitality of Count and Countess de Maupeou d'Ableiges, whose ancestors became the custodians of the chateau in the middle of the 18th century, and you have the recipe for a travel experience that most people only dream about.

The famed Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of 1066 from the French point of view  (Courtesy: Bayeux Tapestry)

To truly understand the ingredients that comprise this unique journey, you must first consider its thousand year old military history beginning with William the Conqueror’s knights and ending during the weeks following D-Day when the United States Army’s PSYOPS headquarters were based at Colombieres.

Allied assault on fhe beaches of Normandy on D-Day
(Photo: Public Domain)

With its strategic location on the edge of the Isigny Bay marshes, Colombieres was once called the "Watchtower of the Marshes." In the past, much like Mont St Michel, the rising tide washed up onto the lands surrounding the fortress, thus enabling repeated invasions of the hinterland from the sea.

Nearly ten centuries later, on June 6, 1944, the “Allied invasion” took the same route from the sea through the marshes to the castle.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings in 1066
(Photo: Public Domain)
Dating back to the 11th century, Colombieres was a fortress occupied by William, Raoul and Baudouin of Colombières, who were comrades in arms of William the Conqueror during the invasion of England in 1066.

The oldest parts of the present day castle date to the end of the 14th century when the wealthy Bacon du Molay built the fortress in keeping with the defensive architecture of medieval times.

Colombiere's cuisine is part of
the experience  (Courtesy:
Chateau de Colombieres)
Among  du Molay's designs, which are visible today, are a  quadrangle flanked by four huge towers with arrow slits and a 9ft-thick and 36ft-high surrounding wall topped with a gallery with openings in the floor through which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers. There is also a moat and a drawbridge.

During a visit in 1371, French King Charles V described Colombieres as a fortified castle that could withstand a siege.

The history of Colombieres is rich and diverse. In 1759, the impregnable fortress became the property of the Girardin family.

Related by marriage to the present owners, the Maupeou d’Ableiges family, it was during this period that the fortress was transformed along classical lines into a beautiful residence.

Today the beaches are hallowed
ground (Photo: Taylor)
On the morning of D-Day in June, 1944, a German motorized gun battery that had been hidden under the elm trees of the castle's drive suddenly left for Colleville followed immediately by the command post of the 1/352nd Panzer Division, which had also been stationed at the village of Colombieres.

Marching on foot across marshes which German forces had flooded to make them impassable, the American allies liberated the village on June 9, 1944.

In the process, a dozen German soldiers were captured. As a result, the castle became the center of all American press and radio communications as well as the headquarters of General Omar Bradley.

Today Colombieres is a place for exploration. After settling in, take time to climb the spiral staircase to discover the castle’s best kept secret – three impressive guestrooms.

Bedchamber at Chateau de Colombieres
(Courtesy: Chateau de Colombieres)

Louis XVI with its queen-size double bed and 18th-century furnishings, has views of the moat and  the wild Bessin countryside.

The Suite de la Tour is a circular bedroom set within a 14th-century tower with a private sitting room. The Gothic stone lintels, exposed beams, baronial fireplace and period furniture create an ambiance of stately antiquity. The shower is even built in the original medieval latrines. 

Suite du Guetteur is named for its stone benches where sentries once kept watch against English invaders through mullioned stone windows and ancient arrow-slit "loopholes."

Breakfast is included with the accommodations and Chateau de Colombieres is centrally located to visit all the gardens and sights of Normandy, including the D-Day Landing Beaaches.

Chateau de Colombieres is even more stunning at night
(Photo by @anibasphoto -- Chateau de Colombieres)

In short, Chateau de Colombieres an the ideal place to step back in time in the 21st "sentry" to enjoy a good "knights" rest.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Two little known gems to explore in Florence

Night embraces the Arno River and the famed Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy  (Photo: Public Domain)

FLORENCE, ITALY — With a native son the magnitude of Michelangelo, Florence, Italy's artistic legacy has never been questioned.

But in the city of The David, the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio and Santa Croce which are so familiar to us all, there are other magnificent treasures that are frequently overlooked by many travelers.

Interior view of the Vasari Corridor
Freepenguin -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Two not-to-be-missed examples are the Vasari Corridor and the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

Since 2016, the Vasari Corridor has been closed to the public for safety reasons. Now the rare art collection dating  to the 16th century, is being renovated and will reopen with greater opportunities for more visitors to view its extraordinary assemblage of masterpieces.

One reason the Vasari Corridor was overlooked in the past is because it was only available through private tour companies. Now, according to Uffizi director Eike Schmidt, “We wanted everyone to be able to enjoy this extraordinary heritage in total safety, offering visitors the opportunity to walk through the heart of Florence’s art, history and memory.”

The Vasari Corridor was a hidden
passageway for royalty
(Courtesy: Florence Italy)
Over the next year and a half the gallery will undergo $11.3 million in renovations that include the addition of emergency exits, video surveillance, air conditioning and new lighting.

In addition. the corridor itself will have reinforced walls with antique terracotta flooring, and the Uffizi Gallery will add an entranceway where guests can purchase tickets.

Connecting the south side of the Palazzo Vecchio  (Old Palace) with the Palazzo Pitti. (Pitti Palace), the corridor  joins the Uffizi before going from its south side to cross the Lungarno dei Archibusieri. From there it follows the north bank of the Arno until it crosses the river at Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge).

The Ponte Vecchio had its windows enlarged to give Adolf Hitler
a better view of the Arno River  (Courtesy: Florence Italy)
Even the most cynical of museum haters will be intrigued by the Vasari Corridor because it's an attraction in its own right. Commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici to mark the wedding of his son Francesco I to Joanna of Austria, the corridor was constructed in just sixth months in 1565.

The primary purpose of the corridor however, was to allow royalty to walk in secret from the Uffizi to the Pitti Palace.

To prevent the smell of the meat market on the bridge above from reaching into the passage,  goldsmith shops, which still occupy the bridge today, replaced the butchers.

The Duomo and the Palazzo
Vecchio dominate the skyline
(Courtesy: Florence Italy)
The corridor features a series of panoramic windows facing the Arno that are situated in the middle of Ponte Vecchio. In 1939, by order of Benito Mussolini, the smaller windows were replaced for an official visit to Florence by Adolf Hitler to give him a panoramic view of the river.

It has been said that the Ponte Vecchio was Hitler's favorite bridge which was the reason it was not destroyed during World War II.

When the Vasari Corridor reopens in 2021, only 125 visitors will be allowed to visit at any one time, meaning this particular attraction will continue to go unnoticed by the masses compared to other more familiar sites in the city.

The Brancacci Chapel has been called the "Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance"  (Courtesy: Florence Italy)
Art lovers need not despair about the wait for the Vasari Corridor to reopen however, because the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmen is more than enough to compensate.

Sometimes referred to as the "Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance,"  the patron of the pictorial decoration was Felice Brancacci who served as the Florentine ambassador to Cairo until 1423.

It was here that a young Michelangelo formulated many of his ideas about perspective.

Masterpiece by Masolino da
Panicale  (Photo: Public Domain)
In the chapel itself, there are paintings which were started by Masolino da Panicale . When Panicale was commissioned as the painter to the king of Hungary, his 21 year old assistant Masaccio took over until he was called to Rome where he died at the tender age of 27.

With much of the work unfinished, Filippino Lippi later completed several portions of the chapel.

Masaccio's frescos made a radical break from medieval pictorial traditions by adhering to  new Renaissance perspectives of space. Thus, perspective and light create deep spaces where figures move in strongly individualized human dimensions.

Masaccio's "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden was a
major influence on Michelangelo  (Photo: Public Domain)
Masaccio's masterpiece Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first fresco on the upper part of the chapel, contrasts dramatically with Masolino's delicate and decorative image of Adam and Eve before the fall, painted on the opposite wall. It is this difference in style and technique, that created such powerful concepts for Michelangelo.

"The David" by Michelangelo
(Photo: Public Domain)
Depicted above is Masaccio's fresco before and after restoration. The fig leaves were added three centuries after the original was painted, probably at the request of Cosimo III de Medici in the late 17th century, who saw nudity as “disgusting”.

The frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are stunning
I, Sailko -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
During restoration in the 1980s the fig leaves were removed along with centuries of grime to restore the fresco to its original condition.

The Uffizi Gallery with Palazzo Vecchio in the background
 Chris Wee -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Until that time, art was basically a two-dimensional format. However, the innovations of Masaccio and the interpretations of Michelangelo changed the world of art to reflect a three-dimensional process, and the significance of the little known Brancacci Chapel is the ability to view this dramatic metamorphosis in a single venue.

If you don't see The David because of the crowds, check out the Brancacci Chapel. You may even have it all to yourself.