Once Mother Nature set her hand to task she took special care when she arrived at a spot along the Adriatic Sea. She graced it with a secure foothold at the water’s edge, erected rugged mountains for protection from land invaders, blessed the region with a warm and sunny climate to grow crops, provided crystal blue waters, and stocked it with an abundance of sea life to feed people. These are just a few reasons Dubrovnik, Croatia is called the “Pearl of the Adriatic.”
Author: Michael Kardos
As a place, Macedonia is a land of rugged beauty with sharp, vertical mountain peaks, agricultural areas that are mostly pasture, a mild summer climate, and a place of meager rainfall. Within this region of the Balkans, Macedonia has been a crossroads for several thousand years; it has been settled, resettled, and fought over long before history was being written down. Even the name Macedonia has been a source of contention because Greece, behaving like a pettifogger, has blocked Macedonia from being formally called Macedonia. The word “Macedonia” is thought to mean either “the tall ones” or “highlanders.”
This is a small nation, both in physical size and population, but in the northern end of the country, about 10 miles west of the capital, Skopje runs the Treska River. There you will find Matka Canyon. From the air, the canyon looks as though a giant red-hot knife sliced a jagged gash through the steep mountains. The river is narrow enough that in a few places you could hurl a stone from one bank to the other. Several things make Matka Canyon special, and it is well worth a visit for anyone who loves nature, history, and is lucky enough to be visiting Macedonia.
The river was enlarged when the Matka Dam was constructed in 1937, making it both the oldest artificial lake and first hydroelectric dam in Macedonia. The canyon is 12,300-plus acres of steep hillsides covered with trees. It is one of the most popular spots in Macedonia for rock climbing and trail hiking. And to add to the sense of antiquity there are several chapels and monasteries dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The canyon also is home to several caves. The most famous is Vrelo Cavern and underwater cave (the only cavern in Macedonia that is a tourist attraction). It is relatively small compared with other caverns around the world, and its underwater cave is thought to be one of the deepest, extending down nearly 1,100 feet. It is the deepest underwater cave in the Balkans and the second-deepest in Europe. But for the less adventurous (underwater cave diving is a high-risk endeavor that should be done only by highly skilled divers), a visit to the cavern offers a cool respite and interesting sights.
The cavern has some impressive formations. One of the prime elements is located near the center and it is called the Pine Cone, thanks to the erosive effect of water and limestone. And tour guides are sure to point out one of the small pools of water is named “Russian Beach” because a Russian ambassador to Macedonia insisted on swimming in the pool during a visit there.
However, it is only possible to visit Vrelo Cave by way of a river boat. The cavern is about 1.5 miles from Matka Dam and tour boats that hold about a dozen or so passengers gather near the restaurant and bar not far from the Matka Dam. The boat ride is peaceful, and in the summer months you often see kayakers idling along, soaking in the tranquility of a languid day.
Apart from the cavern you can visit the chapels and monasteries, and access prime rock-climbing areas on foot. One chapel, St. Andrew’s, was founded because of tragedy, an event that also illustrates the complex relationships that occurred in this region of the Balkans.
In 1389 King Marko and Prince Andreash (Andrew) were returning from a battle and stopped at a tavern at the end of the day (very near where the present-day chapel now sits). The king tended the horses while the prince went to get food and refreshments. Inside the tavern were some Ottoman Turks. They argued with the prince. A fight broke out and they killed Prince Andrew. Enraged, the king killed the Ottomans and vowed to build a chapel to commemorate the bravery and loyalty of his friend and liege.
Given Macedonia’s location (landlocked between the Adriatic and Aegean seas), overall size (slightly larger than the state of Vermont), relatively small population (approximately 1.2 million people), and the location of Matka Canyon, it’s no surprise this natural beauty is not better known to those other than Macedonians. But since fewer than 900,000 tourists visited the entire country in 2016, Matka Canyon is a beautiful, unspoiled place to visit.
For more information about Macedonia, Matka Lake and Vrelo Cavern, click over to these websites:
Before history can be recorded, you need at least three things; people, stories and a system to write things down. As time marches on, clans become tribes that spawn languages that evolve into city-states, and then came the nations of the world. Macedonia may be a country with recently defined borders, but it is a region that has been inhabited as far back as Greek antiquity, and is its own fascinating story.
In the southwest corner of Macedonia – one of the six countries carved out of the former Yugoslavia – is Lake Ohrid, a glistening body of water that has been home and haven for people for thousands of years. The freshwater lake is more than three million years old, with a surface area of approximately 150 square miles, and a depth of more than 980 feet, making it one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And like they have for thousands of years, fisherman still ply the lake for food and the lake’s clear waters are a popular tourist draw.
During its history Ohrid would, like many ancient towns in a prime location, see various civilizations come and go. After the ancient Greeks, came Romans. Subsequent occupiers and claimants would include Bulgarians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Moldavians, Serbians, Albanians, Venetians, and even Dalmatians from what is now Croatia.
The climate and abundance of life of Lake Ohrid makes it a reliable source of food for the people who have lived there since 359 BC. Researchers estimate more than 1,200 endemic species – both flora and fauna – live in and around the lake, making it one of the most biodiverse lakes in the world. Another important indicator of the region’s importance is it is one of only 28 places on earth where UNESCO World Heritage has recognized as both Cultural (the historical center of the city in 1979) and Natural (the lake in 1980). Part of Albanian border runs through the southwest portion of the lake.
The lake offers a number of water-related activities for visitors. There are beaches for relaxing in the sun, boating and sailing activities, and swimming in the clear waters. In the latter part of July each year, elite marathon swimmers from around the world gather for the Lake Ohrid Swimming Marathon, where they swim more than 18.5 miles from the monastery of St. Naum, along the shoreline to the town harbor. Due to its location and elevation the area has a Mediterranean climate; average monthly temperatures range from the mid-30s Fahrenheit in the winter months, and the low 80s Fahrenheit in the hottest part of the year, August. Average annual rainfall does not usually exceed 30 inches, with fall, winter, and spring being the rainy months.
The city of Ohrid is situated on the northeast corner of the lake and today has approximately 42,000 residents. The original town was constructed on a hill that overlooks the lake. Ohrid also has a distinction of once having 365 churches of various faiths, giving the faithful a plethora of choices of where to worship.
In fact, when settlers first gathered in the area, the town was referred to as Lychnis, which roughly translates from ancient Greek as “a precious stone that emits light” or “city of light” (the Latin name used by the Romans was Lychnidus and essentially means the same thing). It was not until around 879 AD when the settled area become known as Ohrid, likely a mashup of Slavic words “vo hrid” which means “on the hill,” a strategic rise next to the lake where the town had settled.
With so many churches having been built in Ohrid, at one time or another, there are many beautiful ones to appreciate during a visit to the city. Some of the major churches include St. Sophia church built in 1035 AD, St. Bogorodica Perivlepta which was built in 1295, St. John the Theologian – Kaneo was constructed in the 13th Century (and is popular because of its location on the crest of the hill above the lake), and St. Pantelemjon – Plaoshnik which was erected in the 10th Century. Additionally, there are many other old and well-preserved churches for visitors to enjoy. Ohrid also has an Old Bazaar, fortress walls, an icon gallery, and traditional architecture to showcase the city’s long and storied history.
And the city has a number of other popular attractions to entice visitors. Ohrid trout is a popular dish at many of the restaurants in the city. For five weeks, from July stretching into August the Ohrid Summer Festival has earned a reputation as one of the leading music festivals in Europe, where marquee-name musicians entertain the crowds. And also, during the summer the Balkan Folkfest shows off the best of traditional folk life, music, and culture of the regions.
The story of Ohrid is one of an ancient place and proud culture. The region around Lake Ohrid is a place of beauty for a country that is coming into its own.
For more information about Ohrid and Lake Ohrid, click over to these websites:
The northwest corner of Macedonia, about three miles from the Albanian border, is remote, rugged, wild, and mountainous, filled with lush forests, and dotted with small villages. It is also the home of an enclave of dedicated Macedonian Orthodox monks who have been nurturing their faith for nearly 1,000 years while they struggle for identity and recognition.
On the slopes of Mt. Bistra, near the small town of Debar, Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was established in 1021, according to historical records. Debar’s proximity to Albania means that even today Albanians outnumber the Macedonians in a town of less than 15,000 people.
The establishment of Saint Jovan Bigorski (John the Baptist) Monastery came during a crucial period in the western religious world, as lines of disagreement were drawn between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church. To a nonbeliever, the disputes might appear trivial, but the two factions took it all very seriously. Those who practiced the Orthodox faith disagreed with Catholics who believe the pope was both infallible and supreme, that the Holy Spirit derived from both God and Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary was a key element of Catholic faith, how one blesses themselves in the sign of the cross, and even the language to be spoken at church services – Latin for Catholics or Greek for the Orthodox. These and other seemingly esoteric notions of what constitutes the canons of a legitimate church comprised much of the schism between the two religions.
Arguing about who was right festered to the point that an official schism between Catholics and members of the Greek Orthodox faith occurred in 1054. Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery continued its effort to preach the Orthodox faith, and the monastery was placed under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox bishopric.
From a different quarter, the Ottoman Empire pursued expansion of its realm and the spread of the Muslim faith; in the 16th Century Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery would be destroyed by Ottoman Turks. But the monks and faithful members of the church were determined to carry on, and the church and buildings were restored by 1743. The restoration no doubt re-energized the monks and the parishioners because Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was further expanded in the early 1800s. But regional and world events would continue to cast a pall over the pursuit of peace and faith.
To put this in a broader perspective, Macedonia is an ancient land that has struggled to rule itself. It has been conquered and liberated for more than two thousand years. Romans, Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and other Slavic peoples have laid claim to the area and called it their own. As far back as the 6th Century B.C. Persians ruled Macedonia. In the 14th Century A.D. Macedonia was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and by the early 1900s Macedonia fell under Serbian rule. At the end of World War I, Macedonia was subsumed into Greater Yugoslavia, until Macedonia peacefully became independent in 1991. Even the name Macedonia has been a 30-year dispute, because Greece protested calling the nation by the same name as a northern region of Greece, also called Macedonia. But as recently as June 2018, the two nations signed an agreement to change the name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Despite all the turmoil during these many centuries, the monastery has continued to operate. Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery managed to go along without incident until 2009 when much of the complex was ravaged by fire. A rebuilding effort began the following year and today the facility retains the beauty and charm of its original design but with updated structures.
The monastery is notable for several significant religious relics, including some of John the Baptist, a number of other saints, and other important people of the Orthodox faith. Also, the monastery has an icon dating back to 1020 that is reputed to have the power of miraculous healing. And Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery also has one of the most impressive examples of iconostasis – a wall of religious paintings that separates the church nave from the sanctuary – in the Orthodox faith.
The complex houses some 60 people, about half of whom are monks. Visitors are welcome and there are facilities for overnight guests who might wish to experience the monastery’s serenity and calm.
Despite the appearance of peace and quiet, turmoil still persists at Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery. The issue is one that dates as far back as the schism between Catholic and Orthodox. When the two faiths went their separate ways in 1054, Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was placed under the authority of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In more recent times the monastery has stated a clear desire to be classified as a Macedonian Orthodox church under the Ohrid Archbishopric, a move Serbian church masters have yet to agree to.
While Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery deals with an undercurrent of turmoil, it continues to chart its course as a place with a strong faith in God, relics revered by Orthodox faithful, and at a place nestled on a steep hillside in the rugged mountains of western Macedonia.
For more information about Saint Jovan Bigorski, click over to these websites:
Human beings have long had a keen eye when it comes to a nice place to live and a spot in north-central Spain that is now the city of Burgos has been such an attractive locale that humans have been gathering there as far back as 800,000 years.
In addition to its ideal location, Burgos has been an important contributor to the character and history of Spain. By the time Romans arrived during the era of Pax Romana, this part of what is now Castile and León had been settled by Celts. The ensuing centuries saw wars waged by Visigoths, Suebi (Germanic tribes), and even Berbers. The Moors would control much of, then progressively smaller amounts of what is now modern Spain, for 300 years. Around 884 AD Burgos was founded as part of an expanding Christendom, and by the 11th Century it was part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burgos. In later times French ambitions included control of parts of Spain, and during the regime of General Francisco Franco (1939 – 1975), Burgos was the capital of his rebel Nationalist government.
Aside from wars and land grabs, Burgos was the site of other significant political events, and the home to important Spanish figures. For example, a misguided effort to provide human rights protections to indigenous peoples of the conquered lands in the New World, the Laws of Burgos were promulgated in 1512. The brilliant military tactician and warrior, El Cid was born near Burgos and is buried in the Cathedral.
Burgos is also home to many highly-regarded churches and an important cathedral, Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María de Burgos, or more commonly known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary. During the summer wedding season, the churches, and particularly the cathedral, are in-demand venues where couples affirm their marriage vows. Saturdays are an hourly procession of one wedding after another, giving attendees and tourists plenty to ogle.
Burgos lies along part of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago, which ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Both the Cathedral of Saint Mary and the Camino de Santiago are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
An important reason Burgos feels different from other popular tourist locales is because of El Camino de Santiago. In 2017, upwards of 300,000 pilgrims trekked along the Camino which snakes through the center of the city; more than 90 percent travel on foot and many pass through the city. Travelers are guided by distinctive yellow arrows and scallop shells that mark the way. Thus, Burgos is an important way station for pilgrims to gather, rest, and resupply for the final 287 miles of their journey. Pilgrims are a mélange – people of all ages, and varying degrees of fitness, but all can be identified by their hiking boots and the bulky backpacks that weigh them down. In 2010 the pilgrimage was popularized in a movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, and directed by Estevez.
Today, Burgos, and the surrounding area has a population of approximately 200,000 and the city is popular with visitors, Spaniards and international travelers alike. But because Burgos has a diversified economy, the city and surrounding area do not feel like a tourist mecca. Beyond tourism, economic sectors include agriculture (primarily wheat and also wine), industry (including assembly of automotive parts), and other goods and services. There are two universities in Burgos.
From a tourism perspective, the cathedral and churches are certainly anchor attractions, but Burgos is also replete with architecture dating back to the Middle Ages. There are museums devoted to the history of Burgos, a museum devoted to books, and a recently-opened museum focusing on human evolution that is one of the few museums of its type in the world. Just outside the old city of Burgos is Paseo del Espolón which runs along the crystal-clear waters of the Arlanzón River, and it is a popular spot to stroll and relax.
Most visitors to Spain usually seek out the best-known locations – major cities and popular coastal resorts, for example. But a visit to Burgos is sure to engage and fascinate both first-time and repeat visitors because it is a place to soak in some of the Old World culture of Spain.
For more information about Burgos, click over to these websites:
As ancient peoples struggled to thrive in an uncertain world, they often relied on two things for protection – churches to profess their faith in God and a sturdy fortress to keep enemies out. For thousands of years Ávila’s ideal location has been favored by a succession of cultures and today is renowned for the number of churches and the best-preserved fortress wall in Spain.
Since the dawn of civilization location remains one of the driving factors for where a city should be. This holds true for Ávila. Sited on a rocky outcrop 3,700 feet above sea level, near a spot along the Adaja River in the midst of Spain’s central plain, the city is about 72 miles west of Madrid. Ávila has been characterized as perhaps Spain’s “most 16th Century town.”
Human occupation of the region goes back as far as 700 B.C., first by a group of peoples known as Vettones. And like most every part of southern Europe, the Romans conquered and settled the area, in this case around the 3rd Century B.C. The Romans were supplanted by the Moors, who were later driven out by people who would piece together Spain. Ávila was strengthened as a fortress to protect an emerging Spain from the Moors.
The fortress walls are brown granite. Construction began in 1090 A.D. and was completed in the 12th Century. The wall is well preserved and impressive by many measures. At more than 8,250 feet in length, the wall encircles approximately 76 acres of the old city. The wall is nearly 40 feet in height and almost 10 feet thick. Nine gates regulate traffic in and out of the old city and 88 semicircular towers provided a location to muster soldiers, arms, and supplies. In 1985 the wall and old city inside were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A combination of circumstances account for the large number of churches and a cathedral – today there are more than a dozen – in Ávila. As Spain came into its own as a nation, the people drove out the Moors. The population increasingly turned to Catholicism – and the Vatican in Rome – for spiritual guidance. And though Spain had had a relatively large and prosperous Jewish population, the pope increasingly pressured Catholic monarchs to either convert the Jews to Catholicism to force them out. Many Jews converted, but even then, their motives were questioned by suspicious popes. Further complicating the domestic situation, the ascension of Ferdinand and Isabella to the throne set the stage for a harsher examination of both converted Jews, and anyone suspected of not being a true Catholic.
Ferdinand and Isabella were cousins and devout Catholics. Their desire to secure Spain’s borders and demonstrate the fervor of their faith resulted in acquiescence to the pope. Paranoid popes, suspicious of Jews who had converted, urged monarchs to conduct inquiries as to a person’s fidelity to the Catholic faith. The result over time was the infamous Inquisition.
One of the clearest examples of the horrors of the Inquisition was carried out by Tomás de Torquemada, also known as the Grand Inquisitor. He possessed the dangerous combination of piety and paranoia and was thus the perfect vessel to carry out a reign of terror. For 15 years Torquemada oversaw the torture and persecution of converted Jews and Spanish Catholics whose faith was suspect. In September of 1498, he died and was interred in Ávila at the monastery of St. Thomas the Aquinas.
But Ávila has a positive counterbalance to its religious fervor, thanks to the life and works of Teresa of Ávila.
It could be argued that forming and consolidating Spain, along with the trauma of the Inquisition, left many of the country’s Catholics weary, and therefore relaxed, as to their religious passion. Teresa, a Carmelite nun born in Ávila, was sickly as a child. But in her adult years she demonstrated piety and showed no interest in earthly possessions. Her mission, as she believed God commanded her, was to demonstrate faith and restore the Catholic Church to a place of importance. She was tireless and produced a significant body of writings. On her death bed in October 1582, she is reported to have said, “My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may Your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another.” She is buried in Salamanca and was canonized a saint 40 years after her death.
Ávila is an excellent visitor destination and offers a relaxed experience. A stroll along the top of the fortress wall provides a deep appreciation of the effort to secure the city and the comfort residents must have felt when troubles came along. Wandering through the old city makes it easy to soak in the history and to walk along streets that have been used for well over 2,000 years. And while Ávila was once a city of harsh piety, it is today a welcoming spot for visitors from around the world.
Fortunately, as time moves on, one can forget the harsh judgements of a Torquemada, or the restrictive piety of St. Teresa, and see firsthand the special charms offered by the treasures found in Ávila.
For more information about Ávila and some of her famous inhabitants, click over to these websites:
Call it what you like – a thirst for knowledge, insatiable curiosity, or simply a keen desire to learn and know more, education is an aspirational element of the human spirit. For more than 900 years students from Spain and around the world have been attending classes at what is now Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.
But a considerable amount of time – and history – would pass before a university at Salamanca could be firmly established under Spanish rule. The area of western Spain was long considered a desirable place since its founding in ancient pre-Roman times. In 220 BC Hannibal conquered the area. The Romans then captured it from the Carthaginians. (A bridge still in use in the city was built by Romans in the 1st Century AD.) Other conquerors included Alans (thought to be of Iranian origin), Visigoths, Moors, and finally Christians would settle what is now Spain. (As late as 1492, Spain was still in the process of consolidating her borders.)
For many people, 1492 is a well-known date; in October of that year Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, claiming it for Spain, and setting off centuries of conquest, murder, and the pillaging of lands and riches from indigenous people. The gold that flowed from South America fueled Spanish wealth and ambitions, and the reverberations in the Americas are still being felt today. Prior to setting sail Columbus spent years traipsing across Europe trying to convince a wealthy patron he could get to the East by sailing west. His ideas were occasionally heard and his proposals were dismissed more often than not.
In late 1486 or early 1487 Columbus pleaded his case at the University of Salamanca before a body of scholars who had been asked by the king and queen to evaluate his proposal. Ultimately the assembled body rejected his ideas, based in large part on Columbus’ assertion that an Atlantic crossing would be a relatively short and easy task. Surprisingly, Columbus’ ideas never considered the existence of the Americas, only that an ocean lay between Spain and the Far East.
By the time Columbus left Salamanca empty handed, the university had already become a highly respected institute of learning. In 1218 Alfonso IX of León (king of León and Galicia), granted the university a royal charter, even though students had been attending classes there as far back as the early 1100’s AD. By the 16th Century AD there were approximately 6,500 students attending the university in the city that had a then-population of about 24,000 people. The university is considered the third-oldest continually operating institute of higher learning in the world.
Over the centuries Salamanca University has contributed to a number of important academic milestones. For example, it was here that Medieval notions of law were replaced by concepts that people had a right to life, the right to own property, and there was an acceptance of freedom of thought and basic human dignity. Today the university is home to colleges of medicine and science, law, humanities, and liberal arts, and it offers more than 250 academic programs. There are now almost 32,000 students in attendance and the city of Salamanca has a population of approximately 170,000 people. The university and tourism account for major sources of revenue in the city.
Visitors – as well as students – find much to enjoy in the city. It goes without saying that Salamanca, approximately 120 miles west of Madrid, has the feel and vibrancy of a university town. Its popularity as a first-rate venue to learn Spanish results in a large international student population. And the centuries of successive peoples who have called the place home blends in a rich tapestry of cultures. Fans of architecture can find throughout the city excellent examples of Roman, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. In 1988 UNESCO designated the city as a World Heritage Site.
Salamanca may be an old city, but one with a young heart. Visitors will leave with a lasting appreciation of the history and importance this city along the Tormes River has had on Spain, the world, and the ideal of advanced education.
For more information about the history of Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, click over to these websites:
The wellspring of knowledge is a source point where humanity seeks answers and inspiration. Science, art, and human endeavor advance when passionate seekers draw forth the water of knowledge. One man, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra slaked his thirst in 1605 and again in 1615, and in the process, he produced one of history’s greatest works of literature, commonly known as The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha (or as it is known in Spanish, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha).
Beyond credit for creating one of world literature’s monumental works, Cervantes is lauded for inventing the modern novel, he is Spain’s greatest writer, and he set a standard for writing and storytelling that endures to this day. Quite an achievement, considering Cervantes did not come from wealth, nobility, or academia. In fact, Cervantes was born in a small town northeast of Madrid, Alcala de Henares, and his working career was marked by periods as a tax collector, incarceration as a debtor and also a prisoner of war. It is thought the germ of his idea for Don Quixote (as it is universally known), came to him while he was in prison during part of his military service.
Owing to its favorable climate and locale, Alcala de Henares has been occupied since the Neolithic Age, as far back as 10,000 B.C. The Roman Empire located a settlement there, along the Henares River, and Alcala was the first city to be purpose-built as the home of a university that was founded in 1293. And like many places on the Iberian Peninsula, Alcala de Henares has been occupied and ruled by many cultures, including Visigoths, Moors, and finally Spaniards. By the 16th Century, as many as 12,000 students were enrolled at the university Universidad de Alcalá, making it an important seat of learning and culture. In 1998 UNESCO named the university and historic center as a World Heritage Site.
For Cervantes, life did not begin on a high note, nor was he launched into the upper ranks of society. His father, Rodrigo, was a barber-surgeon who earned a meager living cutting hair and performing amputations of people’s limbs. (Surgery was looked down upon by physicians, and since barbers already had sharp blades to cut hair, they would be called upon to perform amputations.) Cervantes’ mother was the daughter of a nobleman who had lost his fortune, relegating their family to a life of toil and poverty. Cervantes, born in September of 1547 was the fourth of the couple’s seven children.
While in his twenties, Cervantes left Spain and traveled to Italy. The reasons for his departure are unclear and scholars have suggested he might have been a fugitive or that he had injured a man in a duel. But, historians note he was enlisted in a regiment of the Spanish naval marines by 1570. He fought in the Battle of Lepanto, the last naval engagement where the fight was carried out entirely by ships that were rowed (as opposed to sails or self-propulsion). During the battle Cervantes was wounded three times, twice in the chest and also the left arm, which he would lose the use of. After recovering from his wounds, he remained in the military and in September 1575 he was captured by Ottoman pirates and thrown into prison in Algiers. During the five years of his capture he attempted to escape four times. He was eventually released after his parents paid a ransom and Cervantes settled in Madrid to be near his family.
Like many of history’s struggling writers, Cervantes could not make a living solely on his creative efforts. He knocked around in a series of jobs, including accountant, tax collector, and purchasing agent for the Spanish navy. He declared bankruptcy and endured two more stints in prison (1597 and 1602) due to irregularities with the accounts he was responsible for.
And while it is obvious now, Cervantes’ life at the time did not appear as though it were set upon the road of literature. But his experiences in the military, in prison, struggling in jobs, and persevering against a difficult life provided the spark for his now-famous character Don Quixote (who is thought to have been inspired by his wife’s uncle, Alonso de Quesada y Salazar).
On the surface, Don Quixote is a straightforward tale of Alonso Quixano, who has gone mad but is determined to protect the idea of chivalry. He sets upon a quest hoping he can demonstrate that an honorable man is obligated to stand against injustice and protect the weak. As a literary device Cervantes creates the character Sancho Panza, a poor farmer persuaded to accompany Quixote and act as his squire. Sancho has as a keen rhetorical wit and through the expression of his doubts, enables Quixote to expound on the honor and worthiness of his pursuits. Cervantes’ work had such an impact that today’s vocabulary uses references from the novel, including “quixotic” to denote something extremely idealistic, impractical, and unrealistic. “Tilting at windmills” (at one point in the story Quixote hallucinated windmills as giants to be defeated through joust), is a popular phrase to describe taking on tasks that cannot be won.
The novel is actually two books. The first part was published in 1605 and mentioned a forthcoming volume. That prompted a charlatan to pen a follow up edition and claim to be Cervantes. But the great writer came out with the second book in 1615 and cemented his reputation as Spain’s greatest writer.
Cervantes died in April 1616 in Madrid, having never returned to Alcala de Henares. Nevertheless, the city celebrates him as their most famous son, where the family home is preserved and statutes to honor him are found in the city.
At the time of his birth, absolutely no one would have or could have predicted that Miguel Cervantes would become one of the greatest writers of all time. But through determination and a willingness to embark upon his own quixotic adventure and tilt at the windmills in front of him, Cervantes demonstrated how well he drew from the wellspring of knowledge.
For more information about Cervantes, his work, the white storks of Africa, and Alcalá de Henares, click to the websites below:
History is a blend of people, place, events, and moments. For thousands of years those elements have been mixing together in Toledo, Spain to create a fascinating history. Like so many good stories this one begins with a place.
For countless centuries the longest river in Spain, the Tagus, flowed at a spot in the central part of the country, etching deeper into the granite hillsides to create a promontory on three sides. When Celtic and Iberian tribesmen constructed a wall along the steep north side they had a highly defensible position. That is until 193 A.D., when the Roman Empire decided Toletum (as it was then known) would be an ideal place from which to rule the western edge of their empire. They drove out the Celtic tribesmen and appropriated the location for themselves.
The Romans clearly liked what they had seized because there they built the largest circus in Hispania (as they called it), with a capacity for up to 15,000 spectators. Games, chariot races and other events were held in the huge complex and in the 3rd and 4th Centuries A.D. wealthy Romans built homes for themselves in Toledo.
By the mid-500s A.D. Toledo fell under the sway of Visigoths, and in the early 700s A.D. Muslim rulers rose to power (though a Christian element remained). In spite of all these changes and turmoil, Toledo remained renowned for hard steel and skilled sword makers. In fact, as far back as 500 B.C. the city was the waypoint for men seeking a top-quality sword. The quality of the steel being made there was another factor in the Romans locating in Toledo.
A critical reason Toledo steel is prized even to this day is that local sword makers figured out how much carbon to add to the iron to make it strong, tough enough to hold a sharp edge, and flexible enough to withstand the rigors of battle. Being able to make fires hot enough to smelt the iron out of the ore and then mix in the right amount of carbon during the forging process added to the complexity of making high quality steel. Getting the raw iron to the right temperature was a skill developed and refined with the understanding of forcing air into the fire to create higher temperatures. Sword making is still carried out in Toledo but these days it is more for nostalgia.
Centuries ago, Christians who set out on a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims would stop in Toledo to find their personal Excalibur. But neither the swords nor God would be enough protection, because as history teaches, the Crusades were a disaster for the Christians. It is estimated that as many as 1,000,000 – on both sides – were slaughtered during the nine crusades that dragged on during the nearly 200-year period the fighting continued.
As military prowess can define a nation or place, art is another measure of greatness. As circumstance would have it, one of Spain’s greatest painters was not even born there. Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born on the island of Crete and became an artist who studied in Venice and Rome before moving to Spain in 1577. He lived for a time in Madrid and then made his home in Toledo. He remained there until his death in 1614. His given name may well have been more than a mouthful to many so he was simply known as El Greco – the Greek.
The works of El Greco are significant for several reasons. Departing from the practice of his time, he believed color was more important than form. And while his art was always appreciated, many of his contemporaries were not quite sure what to make of his work. The characters El Greco painted are often painfully expressive, their features drastically elongated, and often showing a brooding, deeply contemplative emotion. El Greco was also a respected sculptor and architect. Art scholars suggest his work is influenced by Mannerism as well as the Venetian Renaissance. And it is important to note that El Greco’s paintings are believed to have an influence on the development of Cubism and Expressionism. Artistic giants such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollack, among others, were influenced by El Greco’s powerful work.
The old city of Toledo is a warren of wonder with narrow streets and a hilltop dominated by El Alcazar, first built as a home for a wealthy Roman. It was later converted into a castle that is now one of the city’s most notable buildings, along with sacred spaces like the magnificent Cathedral and hauntingly beautiful former mosques and synagogues. One of the old city’s interesting elements are the awnings that run along the narrow streets, providing shade from the hot summer Spanish sun. There are a number of restaurants and shops, including some excellent spots to buy famous melt-in-your-mouth Spanish ham. The cultural and historic significance of Toledo is such that it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
The importance of Toledo’s long history is not to be underestimated, and after even a short visit there you will appreciate the location that made her strong, the steel that made her famous and the artist who built a reputation as one of the finest painters in Spain’s history.
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Barcelona deserves its reputation as one of the world’s top travel destinations, a city with a grand mix of history, culture, cuisine, and architecture. When it comes to Barcelona’s architecture, no name is more highly regarded than Antoni Gaudi. His singular style of design has bequeathed the city some of the most recognizable buildings on the planet and the pinnacle accomplishment of the Catalonian’s “labore corporis” is Sagrada Familia.
The story of Sagrada Faimilia – Sacred Family – and Antoni Gaudi are intertwined. Both the city and the man represent a series of contrasts – and similarities. In some ways each is a product of the other, and neither would be one without the other had it not been for a devoutly religious man’s ambition and a city’s desire to construct a shrine to Catholicism.
For centuries Barcelona has made its own way in the world. When the region was brought into Spain, more than 500 years ago, the city bordering the Mediterranean balked. After all, Barcelona had been a nexus for commerce and trade long before Spain was a nation ruled by a far-off king. Even today, Barcelona, the major city in Catalonia, continues to be the economic engine of Spain. This is a fact Barcelonans are proud to point out, while the government in Madrid tends to downplay it.
Long before he was nicknamed “God’s architect” Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet was born in June 1852, in a small village south of Barcelona, along the coast. He was the youngest of five children and he lived with his family in the village of Reus. Gaudi took great pleasure in exploring the countryside and learning about nature and the world of Catalonia. But his path to world-renowned architect was somewhat circuitous, owing to the times and his overall health.
Like all young Spanish men of the day, Gaudi served four years of military duty beginning in 1875. But he was not physically robust, so he spent a good deal of his service on sick leave. He was allowed to enroll in architecture school and graduated in 1878. However, his skill as an architect was in doubt; a professor is reputed to have said, “We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show.” Over the years Gaudi would go on to show both his professors and the world his genius.
Gaudi was a contrast of humility and ambition. His reserved manner is thought to have been due to years of poor health, including rheumatism. He never married and had only one serious relationship, with a woman who ultimately spurned him. But professionally the creativity of his design and a desire to go beyond the norm caught the eye of patrons and clients, including industrialist Eusebi Guell.
Gaudi’s name is synonymous with Sagrada Familia but he was not the project’s original architect. Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano was chosen and his plan was to build a church in a Neo-Gothic style; the cornerstone was laid in 1882. But soon Villar was squabbling with his patrons. Gaudi, who had been hired in 1882 to design the crypt, replaced Villar as chief architect in 1883. Although it took another six years for him to complete work on the crypt, the extra time enabled the development of new ideas that would radically alter the look of Sagrada Familia. Those new ideas fell under the umbrella known as Modernism (or Modernisme to the Catalans).
Like so many revolutions, Modernism rejected what came before and Gaudi embraced these new ideals. For Gaudi, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture were restrictive and did not embrace the natural, living aspect of the world, resulting in something forced. Modernism went beyond rigid formulas and straight lines and integrated the arts, design, and construction to create more fluid and natural results. By the time he finished his work on the crypt in 1889, Gaudi was advocating a wholly new design for the church.
The result, still under construction more than 125 years later, is a demonstration of daring. Gaudi designed a house of worship with elements like none other in the world. And knowing Sagrada Familia would never be finished in his lifetime, he wisely chose to construct models of key elements to go along with his drawings so his vision would be adhered to. To make real what Gaudi saw in his mind is as complicated in the 21st Century as it was in the 19th. Today computer-aided design makes it easy to view a drawing from any angle. Lacking that technology, Gaudi took no chances. To be certain builders and craftsmen constructed what he envisioned, Gaudi literally turned mock ups on their head – using small chain link strings, he hung elements upside down to demonstrate how the line of a spire was to appear and how much it should curve. He then placed a mirror below the hanging mock up so builders could see exactly what Gaudi intended.
Even from a distance, Sagrada Familia stands as a marvel. Giant tapered spires soar toward heaven, conveying a connection to the spirit of humanity. Gaudi cleverly reduced the weight of the spires and softened their appearance by using columns and openings. The east side of the church – the Nativity Façade – appears from a distance to be a hodgepodge of shapes and iconography but up close stands out as characters and moments from biblical history. Solomonic or barley-sugar-styled columns support the massive stone carvings above. One could easily spend days admiring the carvings and stonework around the outside of the building before venturing inside.
The interior of Sagrada Familia is a wonder to behold. The interior incorporates Gaudi’s embrace of Modernism, his creativity, and love of nature, all infused with his fervent Catholicism. It is a religious building of such grandeur and beauty that there is sometimes confusion about what it should be called. Many people (and news reports) refer to Sagrada Familia as a cathedral, but it is not; a cathedral is a church where the seat of the bishop resides. (The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia in the Gothic Quarter is where Barcelona’s bishop is located.) But Sagrada Familia is so highly regarded that in November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI elevated the church to a basilica, granting it special privileges.
Gaudi’s spiritual hopes that Sagrada Familia reflected his love of God sometimes created conflict with the realities of design and engineering. An area of potential conflict was the height of the building and size of the columns needed to support the roof. Standard columns – Dorian, Ionic, or Corinthian – would be so huge that they would crowd out the interior space. In typical fashion, Gaudi went in an entirely new direction to solve this problem. He turned to the beauty and efficiency of nature and combined that with skillful engineering. The result is a breathtaking – and still revolutionary – design of interior columns.
Gaudi’s columns feature several brilliant elements. They employ a gentle, subtle twist that allows for a more slender column. His columns utilize multifurcation, mimicking the branching of trees as they stretched upward, at the same time creating more open space and pushed the roof ever higher. Buttressing the beauty and harmony of the interior space is Gaudi’s reliance on consistent mathematical formulas and ratios that maximize height, width, space, and openness. (For example, a number of elements and areas of Sagrada Familia are divisible by 12, both a neat arrangement as well as homage to the Apostles of Jesus.)
Another equally impressive element of the basilica is Gaudi’s use of light and stained glass. He designed the walls to include huge areas of glass so when light passed through the space inside would be bathed in a warm glow of soft colors. The light from the stained glass dances and reflects off so many places that visitors become mesmerized. It is another example of Gaudi’s integration of the natural and spiritual worlds.
To assist Gaudi, his engineers, and the craftsmen, a huge workshop now in the basement of Sagrada Familia was built that is still in use today. Models of various elements are constructed so the math, angles, and engineering can all be worked out to reflect Gaudi’s inspiration. But the Catalan knew his dream would take longer than his lifetime to complete. Gaudi was so committed to putting as much time as possible into Sagrada Familia that toward the end of his life he slept on a cot at the site.
As the years wore on, Gaudi became increasingly ascetic and his focus became his work on Sagrada Familia. As mentioned earlier, he never married. He did not drink alcohol or eat meat, and would on occasion undergo extreme fasting to purify and cleanse his soul. He went to mass and confession every day and he prayed regularly. Later in his life he became scraggly and unkempt and he cared more about his work that how he looked. In fact, it would be his disregard for personal appearance and his piety to God that would bring about the end of his life.
In June 1926, Gaudi was 73 years old. One day early that month he was heading to his daily confession. For a man with much on his mind he was likely lost in his thoughts and not paying much attention to his surroundings. Tragically, he was struck by a streetcar, and because of his appearance and not having any identification with him, he was mistaken for a beggar and taxi drivers refused to take him to a hospital. A doctor in the area gave him a cursory once-over and concluded nothing more could be done. Finally a policeman took him to a hospital, but Gaudi was only given minimal care, based on the assumption he was a pauper. By the time — a day later — a priest from Sagrada Familia recognized who the patient was, it would be too late. Antoni Gaud died two days later on June 10.
Gaudi’s death sparked an outpouring of mourning from Barcelonans and the funeral procession snaked throughout the city and finally ended up at Sagrada Familia. He was laid to rest in the crypt where he first began work at Sagrada Familia 44 years earlier.
Work on Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família continues, and plans call for its completion around 2026. The site has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of seven projects designed by Gaudi, all in Barcelona). Currently the 48,000-plus square foot church attracts more than 2.5 million visitors each year from all over the world and it is the top attraction in Barcelona.
While there is no doubt about the grandeur and awe inspiring beauty of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi would almost certainly remind you that first and foremost his creation is a house of worship intended for the glory of God.
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Antoni Gaudi easily ranks as one of the most brilliant architects of all time. Barcelona, Spain is home to Gaudi’s greatest works, and Palau Güell is a first-rate example of some of his early efforts. And while Palau Güell might be considered a more traditional, as compared with some of Gaudi’s later accomplishments, it is technically marvelous and strongly hints at some of the inventiveness he would demonstrate throughout his career.
Gaudi did design and build projects outside of Barcelona; the Catalan city is home, however, to his most famous buildings, and all seven of the Gaudi projects that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Palau Güell (1984), are here.
The son of a wealthy industrialist, Eusebi Güell was born in Barcelona, became a textile magnate and amassed a fortune of his own. Additionally, he was active in the politics and affairs of Barcelona, and he was a patron of the arts. For a man of wealth, Güell held a number of unconventional ideas for the time, notions that might be summed up as somewhat socialist – he was concerned with the welfare and working conditions of his workers, he appreciated the natural world, and his taste in architecture tended toward new ideas. In this last area, Antoni Gaudi, who was just then making a name for himself as an architect, would be the ideal vessel to bring forth Güell’s idea of a grand family home. Güell was obviously pleased with the result of this important commission because he would go on to utilize Gaudi’s talents for other major projects.
Palau Güell was designed and built as a home between 1885 and 1890. The Palau consisted of seven levels, including a basement and the rooftop. And while most of the rooms were square and more traditional, a number of areas of the home were anything but. One of the most striking examples of the Avant-garde approach at Palau Güell is the roof, with its 20 chimneys and a rooftop spire that is nearly 50 feet tall.
As anyone who has ever visited Barcelona knows, this is a unique city filled with amazing delights. In fact, there is so much to see and enjoy in Barcelona, that Palau Güell does not even make the Top 10 list of many travel guides and websites. But that does not diminish the importance or beauty of Palau Güell.
Any lover of architecture or fan of one of the greatest architects of all time will be glad to visit the place that helped launch the career of a genius.
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There are a number of excellent reasons tourists find Barcelona one of the most popular cities in the world. Beauty, culture, unique attractions, Catalan magic, and so much more combine to produce a city that attracts millions of visitors each year. One of the oldest sites in the city is Castell de Montjuïc, essential to the story and history of Barcelona.
Like many areas along the Mediterranean Sea, the Catalan region has been occupied since the Stone Age. Over the centuries various conquerors laid claim to the area and by the Middle Ages European monarchs were squabbling over borders. Barcelona, a city within Catalonia, was coming into its own and for protection a fortress was needed. Located southwest of the center of Barcelona, high up on a cliff by the sea, a fortress has been located here, as far back as 1073. The basic foundation of Castell de Montjuïc was laid out in 1640. Within a year it would be the scene of battle when Catalans stood up to the supremacy of Spanish royals – and won. But less than 30 years later Catalonia would be subsumed into the borders of Spain – a point that fiercely proud Catalans still chafe over.
By the 1690s the fort was rebuilt and fortified, but the effort may have been wasted, because in 1705 the Siege of Barcelona was underway and by that October the British had captured the city and held it until 1714. Over the years and after many battles, the fortress became badly damaged.
In 1751 the final iteration of Castell de Montjuïc would be come into being, based on a design by Spanish architect and engineer Juan Martín Cermeño.
Cermeño made a number of upgrades to Castell de Montjuïc, including the construction of an improved signal tower that would use flags during the day and fires at night to announce the coming and going of ships in and out of Barcelona’s port. In addition to this valuable service, the signal tower would play a key role in another important development, one that would impact Europe and much of the rest of the world. And it all started in France.
In the early 1790s, toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, scientists and monarchs were keen to know things such as the size of the earth, the area of countries, distances from one point to another, and answers to many other questions. In France the problem was that as many as 250,000 different weights and measures were in use. One critical issue to settle was the true length of a meter so as to standardize length, area, distance, and volume. Back then a meter was defined in two ways – one measure was the distance light traveled (through a vacuum) in just under 1/300,000,000 of a second (1/299,792,458 of a second, to be precise). The other “standard” was 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Resolving the matter had obvious scientific, commercial, military, and political significance. The French Academy of Science commissioned a team to find the answer.
Beginning in 1792 Jean-Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Méchain set to work. Their task was to precisely measure the distance between Dunkirk and the signal tower at Castell de Montjuïc, going through Paris (a straight longitudinal line). Delambre started from Dunkirk and worked south and Méchain began at Castell de Montjuïc and went north. It took the pair until 1789 to complete the effort and their calculations produced the length of a meter that is used today throughout most of the world – one meter being 39.3701 inches.
In the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, Castell de Montjuïc was fought over and captured by one side and then the other in a conflict that claimed approximately a half million lives. Sadly, when either side held the fort, they used it as a prison, interrogation center, and as an execution spot for those deemed guilty. (Francisco Franco and his faction established a fascist military dictatorship in 1939 and he ruled Spain until his death in 1975.) Today, Castel de Montjuïc celebrates peace, and the cannon turrets that are still on the grounds are festooned with decorations to evoke the sense of flowers.
The castle is now owned and operated by the city of Barcelona and one of the most enjoyable ways to get to Castell de Montjuïc is by cable car that began operation in 1970. The leisurely ride affords grand views of Barcelona below as the enclosed cars wend their way to the top. Cars and taxis also have access to the castle grounds.
On a sunny day while standing atop the castle and taking in the vistas of the blue Mediterranean Sea and a city beloved by the world, one can appreciate that Castell de Montjuïc has carefully watched over Barcelona for well over a thousand years.
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The architecture of Antoni Gaudi is eye candy for the imagination. Creativity, inventiveness, form, function, visual daring, grandeur, and playfulness merge into structures as dramatically pleasing as they are superbly functional. And despite Gaudi’s immense talents he was a pious and humble man. His work is so impressive that seven of Gaudi’s projects, all in Barcelona, have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Two of those landmarks, one a completed project and the other a dream not fully realized, are highlighted here.
Casa Batlló may well be the most notable building renovation in history. Originally constructed in 1877 along Barcelona’s Passeig de Garcia it was an uninspiring multistory building but was nonetheless in a highly desirable location. The owner, Josep Batlló, a Barcelona textile magnate, wanted to raze the structure and replace it with something entirely new and dramatic; he wanted to attract attention. Batlló and his wife, Amalia, turned to Gaudi based on another of his Barcelona projects that had tongues wagging. When Batlló hired Gaudi, the couple wisely gave the architect free rein.
Gaudi’s first piece of advice would save Batlló time and money – don’t tear down the building – renovate it. And renovate Gaudi did. In a few short years, from 1904 through 1906, Gaudi transformed the building and added additional floors, while managing to flummox both Barcelona city officials and neighbors along Passeig de Gracia because the design was initially judged to be appalling.
The result is a timeless masterpiece, and even more than a century later, it is an ode to innovation. Gaudi discarded rigid notions of straight lines, square windows and right angles. Instead, he lavished Casa Batlló with an abundance of curves, swirls, vivid colors, delightful views and a riot of colors that burst forth. You do not stand in this space but rather you become immersed in it. Visitors find wonder in the smallest of details, and the House of Bones, as locals refer to it, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
The first floor of Casa Batlló was an apartment for Josep and Amalia and at more than 7,500 square feet in size it provided ample room for the couple and their five children. Apartments on the floors above were rented out. The family lived at Casa Batlló for decades, though Josep died in 1934. Amalia and her children remained there until she died in 1940, whereupon the children managed the building until 1954, when it was sold. It has since been resold and in 2002 it was opened for tours to the public. Casa Batlló is a top tourist attraction in Barcelona and a must-see for architecture and design aficionados.
Nearly every element at Casa Batlló is special, so to suggest any one thing is distinctive misses the point. The building feels as if it possesses a life of its own, from the massive dragon-look of the brightly colored tile roof, the vivid colors and tile work, and smokestacks on the roof that appear to be sentries standing guard. Under the roof is a loft that includes 60 arches curved like a ribcage, evoking the feel of being inside the roof’s dragon. Throughout the building Gaudi uses broken tiles, known as trencadis or pique assiette, to decorate spots with a mosaic of colors.
One visit to Casa Batlló and the way you look at living spaces will never be the same.
It was Gaudi’s work at Parc Güell that caught the eye of Batlló. Like Batlló, Eusebi Güell was a Barcelona textile industrialist (and it is possible the two men knew each other). Güell had become interested in Gaudi based on his design of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878.
And Gaudi and Güell shared a number of interests. Both were devout Catholics, they were fiercely proud of their Catalan heritage, they both shared utopian ideals, and the two men had a deep love of nature.
Güell’s concept was to convert his family estate into a high end housing community of 60 villas sited on triangular lots in the hills above Barcelona. A selling feature would be the location up in fresh air, far away from the smokestacks of industrial Barcelona. The park and its amenities would offer tranquility from the hustle and bustle of the city and the homes would have the newest amenities and comforts.
Gaudi labored at Parc Güell from 1900 through 1914 (while at the same time working on other projects like Casa Batlló). The first step for the Güell commission was to design and build the park and grounds. In the end, Güell’s vision of a utopian enclave never came to be (only two homes were built on the property), but Gaudi’s park would become one of the most famous in the world.
Like much of Gaudi’s awe inspiring work, the architect cast aside normal rules that lines must be straight or that angles must be “right”. Even though Gaudi had nearly 42.5 acres to work with, he employed innovative techniques to maximize land use, create as much natural space as possible and to reduce the footprint of vehicle traffic that would impact the site.
There are four entrances into Parc Güell and the most popular is at the gate on the south side that is flanked by two buildings, known as the Caretaker’s House with its adjacent waiting area. And located in the only villa constructed at Parc Güell is what now houses a museum about Gaudi and his work, the villa was once owned by Gaudi. What is now a school on the west side of the park is Güell’s former mansion.
Among the more popular features at Parc Güell are the municipal garden, the colonnaded pathways, the Hypostyle Room (which would have housed stores and shops for the community), and the Dragon Stairway. The predominantly blue mosaic dragon, or salamander, is the symbol of Parc Güell and may be the most photographed dragon in the world.
Upon Güell’s death in 1918, the dream of a utopian community of upscale villas also passed into memory. In 1926 the City of Barcelona opened the park to the public, and in 1984 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Parc Güell continues to be a wildly popular attraction, drawing millions of visitors each year.
In recent years Barcelona’s growing popularity as a travel destination is being crushed by the weight of its own success. Crowds, intrusive selfie sticks, long lines of people, and a growing lack of patience – from locals as well as tourists – is putting a strain on attractions like Casa Batlló, Parc Güell and other venues in the city. As an example, Parc Güell is limiting access to some areas of the park by requiring visitors to purchase tickets, noisy crowds can drown out the tranquility of the park’s nature, and vendors hawking trinkets detract from the experience. Barcelonan residents are becoming less tolerant of foreign visitors, and in some cases locals have voiced disapproval with the crowds and some of the misbehavior. City officials continue to consider and adopt strategies to protect their treasures and enable Barcelona to remain a livable city.
Despite all the pressures, the incredible works of Antoni Gaudi prove the enduring brilliance of one man’s vision and his lasting impact on one of the world’s great cities.
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In some form or fashion every city in the world brags on itself. Some boast of interesting moments from their past, or notable people who were born or lived there. Other cities are famous for foods or drinks. And some places played a crucial role in a nation’s development. But a few cities in the world can lay claim to something truly special – being there when human civilization was just getting its feet off the ground. Málaga is one of those, and as old as it is, it continues to reinvent itself anew.
Settlers have long been drawn to this desirable location on the south coast of Spain, where sunshine brightens the countryside, moderate rains fall, plentiful food is drawn from the sea, and cooling breezes of the Mediterranean keep the summertime temperatures pleasant.
Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain (569,000 residents) and the largest in Andalucía, but far fewer tourists visit there than Madrid (3.1 million residents), with 6,000,000 visitors per year, or tourist-infested Barcelona (1.6 million residents), with 9,000,000 visitors annually. But Málaga’s charm and beauty make it well worth a stop, as nearly one million visitors per year can attest. For more than 2,800 years people have converged at Málaga, proof that it’s a great place to visit or carve out an enjoyable life.
The Phoenicians were the first civilization to call the area home, as far back as 770 BC. They named the settlement Malaka, from the Phoenician word for salt, used to preserve fish. The name was later Latinized to Malaca and eventually morphed into Málaga. With a generous harbor to protect ships and trade, and plentiful seafood to feed people, Málaga was an ideal location. After the Phoenicians, the land was ruled by ancient Carthage, the Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, then the Visigoths, Byzantines, Moors, and eventually Christians who seized control of the region that is known as Andalucía before Málaga was finally tucked into what is now Spain.
In addition to the area’s history, Málaga is the birthplace of artistic genius Pablo Picasso, Jewish philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and actor Antonio Banderas. The honorific Málagueña is the name Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona gave his famous guitar composition. Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario would later make Málaga his home and produce some of his best writing there.
Tourism is currently one of Málaga’s main sources of income and the center of the city offers many choices for short or longer stays. Alcazaba is considered one of the finest preserved military fortresses from the Spanish – Islamic era. Constructed between 1057 and 1063 AD, the beautifully preserved and restored fortification sits on high ground above the harbor. Down along the seawall, Parque de Málaga is a wide promenade and relaxing place for visitors and locals alike to stroll and find shady spots to soak in the beauty and ambiance of Málaga. There are a number of museums that showcase the history and culture of the city. Cafes, bars, and restaurants offer excellent dining and people watching. Andalucía is the largest olive growing region in Spain, the world’s largest producer. And the region boasts excellent sherry and wines, with nearly 100,000 acres under cultivation. Málaga offers a number of attractive beaches, some that are just a few minutes’ walk from the city center.
And while Málaga is not as popular as other large Spanish cities, it is growing in popularity as a tourist destination. Summer draws the largest crowds, but festivals and events throughout the year make Málaga a fun place.
Visit Málaga and enjoy its beauty. Once you get there, you’ll understand why it’s been attracting people for more than 2,800 years.
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Salvador began as Brazil’s first capital city, but today it continues as the home of 2.9 million people and the capital of the state of Bahia, with a rich tradition of celebrating Carnival and an historic center that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Portuguese explorers first landed in what is today Brazil in April of 1500; Salvador was established in 1549 and became the colony’s first capital, until 1808, when it was moved to Rio de Janeiro (in 1960 the capital was moved to the built-from-scratch city of Brasilia).
Salvador is located on the Bay of All Saints, which connects it to the Atlantic Ocean, and became an important city for trade and commerce. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci saw the bay on All Saints Day on November 1, 1502 and gave it its name. Sadly, Salvador also became an important location for the burgeoning trade in African slaves and to this day nearly one-half of Salvador’s population has at least some African heritage. As many as 40 percent of all the slaves brought to the New World went through Brazil, which finally outlawed slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Western world to end the buying and selling of human beings.
Of course Salvador’s colonial history gave the city its distinctive and beautiful architecture and charm. There are a number of Catholic churches to be found (more than 70 percent of the state of Bahia is Roman Catholic and there are 109 parishes in Salvador), including Cathedral of Salvador, Basilica of St. Sebastian, the Church of Our Lady of Penha, and Senhor de Bonfim Church, famous for those who buy and tie brightly colored silk ribbons to their wrist. Three knots must be tied in the 47-centimeter long ribbon (supposedly the length of the right arm of Jesus Christ). Legend has it that when the ribbon falls off, your wishes come true.
The best concentration of colonial-era buildings can be found in the Pelourinho neighborhood, which UNESCO designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985. Today the neighborhood is a very popular stop for tourists and cruise ship passengers.
The history of Brazil, (Brazil ranks fifth in the world in both population and land mass), has been one of both triumph and tragedy. Its vast natural resources, including timber, gold, silver, gems, and more recently oil and natural gas, have provided considerable economic wealth. However, that wealth has also brought woes.
Brazil struggles with a number of challenges including deforestation through illegal logging as well as clearing land for cattle ranching. In the past few decades, discoveries of large oil and natural gas fields have resulted in corruption by politicians as well as those working in the semi-public energy giant, Petrobras, though reforms are underway.
Like any nation, Brazil’s struggles with lawlessness, which has to some degree, come to Salvador. As poverty, crime, drugs, and gang violence plague cities like Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, police crackdowns have pushed those problems onto cities like Salvador. Without a doubt many areas of Salvador are safe, but there are some problems with crime, so visitors should be aware of their surroundings.
Brazil’s history of human habitation dates back more than 10,000 years. Even though it is a nation hundreds of years in the making, with a rich history being preserved in places like Salvador, this fascinating country is settling into its rightful place in the world.
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When laws of nature cross paths with a happenstance of geology, in this case water, gravity, and topography, a waterfall results. The basic configuration is the same, but every waterfall is distinctive and beautiful in its own way. By many definitions, one of the most impressive and incredible waterfalls on the planet is Iguazu Falls, proudly claimed by both Argentina and Brazil.
A number of features make Iguazu Falls special. Probably the most breathtaking aspect is the portion known as the Devil’s Throat, a U-shaped formation at the beginning of the head of the falls approximately 490 feet wide and 2,300 feet in length. The amount of water and the overall drop means there is a perpetual cloud of mist, often rising above the level of the Iguazu River. The overall length of Iguazu Falls is another distinctive element, and with approximately 1.6 miles of length, Iguazu is more than a half-mile longer than Victoria Falls (1.06 miles), and more than twice the length of Niagara Falls.
Iguazu Falls is actually hundreds of waterfalls, with estimates of as many as 275 individual falls, depending on flow rate. The size of the falls range from the gargantuan Devil’s Throat to smaller falls that peek out from the forest and course between rocks.
Sure, other waterfalls have a greater mean flow rate, including Niagara Falls on the U.S. and Canadian border (number five), Boyoma (nee Stanley) Falls in Africa, and Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos (number two). But none of those has the overall drop of Iguazu Falls, at nearly 270 feet. And while Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border has a greater drop than Iguazu Falls, at more than 354 feet, it has a much smaller mean flow rate at 287,419 gallons per second compared to Iguazu Falls 461,244 gallons per second – an Olympic-sized swimming pool would be emptied in less than a second and a half (ranking Iguazu Falls sixth in mean flow rate). Boyoma Falls, by comparison, has the largest mean flow rate in the world, dumping a mind-boggling 4.5 million gallons of water over the edge every second.
Perhaps with the exception of Niagara Falls (which receives upwards of 20 million visitors annually), Iguazu Falls is one of the more developed of the world’s great waterfalls. There are miles and miles of trails and walkways on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides of the falls. A number of walkways enable visitors to venture toward the center of the Iguazu River to marvel at the cascading water. And on the Argentine side, a walkway goes to the edge of the Devil’s Throat where visitors can experience the thundering power of nature. But even with all the walkways that afford visitors a close-up view, Iguazu Falls only receives approximately 750,000 people each year, due in large part to its isolated location.
An exciting introduction to Iguazu Falls is the helicopter ride from the Brazilian side (Argentina prohibits such activity). The short flight creates an unforgettable visual impact for passengers to see the overall layout and majesty of the falls.
Not surprisingly, Iguazu Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 1984. As far back as 1934 Argentina declared the area a national park. In 1541 the first European to set sight on Iguazu Falls was Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The name Iguazu comes from indigenous people living there who name it y (water), uasu (big). The beauty of the location has made it a popular backdrop for more than 20 movies and television shows, including Moonraker, The Mission, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Captain America: Civil War, and episodes of Miami Vice among other productions.
Iguazu Falls is a place of grandeur, a spot where Mother Nature has crafted one of the earth’s great treasures – a magical wonder of sight, sound and majesty.
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Call them what you will – Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas – these tiny windswept specks of land situated in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 330 miles off the coast of Argentina might well have been omitted from the annals of modern history had not two nations growled and bared their teeth when they squared off and waged a 10-week war to reconfirm who owns the land.
Europeans first sighted the islands – half the size of the U.S. state of Delaware – in 1592 and over the centuries France, Great Britain, Spain and Argentina claimed ownership. Great Britain took control in 1833, though Argentina still claims the archipelago. And there the matter stood for about 150 years, until the early 1980s – times of trouble for both Great Britain and Argentina. Each country saw advantages to pressing their case – even if it meant war.
At that time, the United Kingdom was clawing its way out of recession and national morale was in poor shape. Argentina also was mired in its own recession and malaise and the military junta ruling the country faced an increasingly angry citizenry. And like so many wars, the spark for conflict came from an unlikely and completely unexpected event.
In March 1982 a group of Argentine scrap metal dealers landed at South Georgia Island, part of the South Sandwich Islands – also under British control – and nearly 1,000 miles east of the Falkland Islands. The Sandwich Islands are generally thought to have little strategic or economic importance. The scrap dealers wanted to scavenge metal from a defunct whaling station. But for some reason they raised the Argentine flag. The United Kingdom cried foul and dispatched a contingent of Royal Marines to rid the land of “invaders.”
Argentina’s military rulers saw an opportunity to take back the Falkland Islands, gambling that the United Kingdom did not have the resources or will to defend possessions so far away. For Argentina’s military rulers, it was also a chance to gain favor with a restive Argentine population demanding a return to democracy and also to reassert national pride. And as history has shown time and again, once the wheels of war are set in motion, it is very difficult to put on the brakes.
Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, landing amphibious troops at several locations on the islands, and supporting the effort with much of her naval power. The residents of the islands, who today number less than 3,000 people, put up token resistance. Not surprisingly, Argentina’s military rulers misjudged the United Kingdom’s resolve. That set in motion the UK’s robust military response.
Soldiers, ships and aircraft were lost on both sides. The ARA General Belgrano, a light cruiser was sunk by a British nuclear-powered submarine and more than 320 Argentinian sailors died. Two days later a British destroyer, HMS Sheffield was struck by missiles fired by the Argentine air force. The Sheffield sank and 20 sailors were killed. On May 21, the British frigate HMS Ardent was attacked and 22 sailors were killed. Altogether, 649 Argentinian soldiers and sailors died, 255 British soldiers and sailors died and three residents of the Falkland Islands were also killed. The war ended after 74 days, with a British victory in both the Falkland Islands and the South Sandwich Islands. June 14 is celebrated as Liberation Day in the Falkland Islands and a peace treaty of sorts was signed in 1989. Argentina continues to make claims to the Falkland Islands, and the issue of ownership is still a tense subject between the two nations.
The residents of the Falklands are primarily of British descent and they are fiercely proud of their link to the United Kingdom. In 1983 they were granted full British citizenship and they use the British pound sterling as their currency. Their flag is a modified, or “defaced” Union Jack that includes the image of a sheep. It’s not surprising a sheep adorns the Falklands flag, because sheep outnumber residents nearly 173 to one. From the 1870s to the 1980s sheep and wool were the major sources of revenue for the islands. Today, tourism, eco-tourism, commercial fishing, servicing the commercial fishing industry and agriculture are also important sources of revenue.
In the 1970s energy companies began searching the ocean floor around the Falkland Islands for oil and natural gas, in part because the area has characteristics similar to the North Sea. In 1996 leases were sold for exploration but initial results were disappointing. But in 2000, thanks to improvements in three-dimensional seismic mapping, large reserves were discovered north of the islands and it is currently estimated there are upwards of one billion barrels of oil available there.
Getting to the Falkland Islands can be an iffy proposition since the weather can be severe, thanks to the islands’ location at 52 degrees south – a latitude known as the “ferocious fifties.” In 2015 an estimated 60,000 cruise ship passengers visited the islands, though it is not unusual for a ship to skip a visit to the Falklands because of the unpredictable weather.
Ever persistent, Argentina waged a campaign to woo the Falkland Islanders back, and in March of 2013 a referendum was held to answer the question. In a smack down of epic proportions, nearly 92 percent of registered voters went to the polls and 99.8 percent voted to remain with the United Kingdom, making it abundantly clear whom they see as their mother country.
Locals welcome visitors, whether they come for just the day from a cruise ship, or for a longer stay to explore some of the countryside or see some of the wildlife. They are happy to answer questions and show off their islands. And on a sunny day, when the winds are calm and the seas are fair, residents will tell you that the troubled times of the war are now viewed as proof that British resolve can win the day.
Argentina may call this land Islas Malvinas, but don’t make that mistake when you visit – to those who live here it’s the Falkland Islands – today and forever more.
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Chile is home to an amazing collection of natural wonders and her southern coastal region offers an array of travel treats – world famous fjords, glacier watching and a chance to go around Cape Horn – the southern-most spot of South America.
The easiest way to take in this beauty is aboard a ship. Treat yourself to this experience and you’ll see firsthand Chile’s amazing coastal beauty that has been created thanks to the geology of tectonics, time, and climate.
Fjords were created during the Ice Age, over many millennia, when massive glaciers scoured the rock bed below them and then retreated, allowing the seawater to inundate the valley.
The combination of tectonics, climate conditions and the passage of time are a few of the main reasons Chile is home to some of the most impressive fjords in the world, two of which are more than 4,000 feet below sea level.
Tectonics plays an important role in how Chile’s southern region came to be. Plate tectonics are how continents and landmasses move or “drift” around the earth, riding atop immense plates. And tectonics account for earthquake activity, the creation of mountain ranges and the shape of continents. The earth has seven or eight major tectonic plates (based on who is doing the counting), along with 10 minor tectonic plates and approximately 50 micro plates.
In the southern region of Chile, four tectonic plates are at work. The two major plates are the Antarctic and South American plates, and the minor plates are the Nazca and Scotia plates. Few places in the world have as many plates affecting one region. Such tectonic activity accounts for, in part, the Andes Mountains and also the powerful earthquakes that have rattled Chile over the centuries.
Most travelers spend their time looking at the wonders of nature, rather than wondering how such an incredible spectacle came to be. And in this sense, there is plenty to behold. Chile is home to more than 2,300 islands, islets, reefs, coral reefs and cays. Sailing a ship between those formations takes you along some of the most famous sea routes in the world. An error in navigation or judgment can leave a ship forever crashed upon rocky shoals.
The Age of Discovery was both a golden era of exploration as well as a time of great exploitation of land, people and resources. Beginning in the late 1400s and continuing through the 1700s, European nations explored the planet and her oceans, and they mapped land masses and sea routes in a quest to claim as much land – and riches – as they could lay their hands on. Spain, Portugal, England, France, Holland and other countries set forth in a feverish competition. An insatiable thirst for gold fed much of their collective fevers.
For the explorers, getting to the west coast of South America had been a particular challenge. Land crossings through dense jungles were hazardous and a southern sea route forced ships into perilous waters whipped by fierce winds, massive tides and terrifying storms. Only the most determined explorers pressed on. These days, most “sailors” do their exploring aboard the comfort of a cruise ship, where modern technology keeps passengers and crew safe. But the Age of Discovery was often a life or death venture.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan found a way through in 1520 during his daring circumnavigation of the world. His route of approximately 400 nautical miles (one mile equals 1.15 nautical miles) threaded through narrow passages, islands and islets, unpredictable seas and in an area where storms rose up with little or no warning. For European explorers, Magellan’s feat opened the western parts of South America, North America, as well as the whole of the Pacific Ocean, quickening the pace of conquest.
As early as 1525 other sailors had gone completely around the tip of South America and in 1616 Dutch explorer Willem Schoutem sailed between South America and Antarctica along a route that is now known as Drake Passage. Cape Horn is named after the Dutch city of Hoorn. The deadly seas and roaring winds are too much for anyone but the most daring sailor and are some of the fiercest on the planet, where rogue waves can top out at nearly 100 feet. Cape Horn is the northern boundary of Drake Passage. For seafarers, transiting Drake Passage is the oceangoing equivalent of a mountaineer scaling Mt. Everest.
Even from the comfort and safety of a cruise ship, a trip such as this is still an adventure. A journey down Chile’s southern coast and passage around Cape Horn offers a glimpse of incredible lands that are a part of what makes Chile such an enticing place to visit.
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Santiago is a city that defies simple summary. It is Chile’s financial and cultural center, has the largest population and is the political hub of that South American nation. But Santiago is emerging on a number of levels, with one of South America’s highest rates of economic growth and per capita income, a high literacy rate, recognition for its expanding culinary scene and a relatively corruption-free government.
Santiago’s New World beginnings began a few decades after the European land grab in South America was kicked off by Christopher Columbus’ Spanish-financed voyage in 1492 (though he did not reach South America until his third trip). But once Columbus proved the earth was round, other nations quickly followed including France, Portugal, Great Britain and others, each claiming as much territory – and wealth – as they could lay their hands on. Skirmishes, wars, slaughter and fighting would go on for more than 300 years as indigenous peoples were beaten down, their populations decimated and South America’s resources exploited.
And while Chile has gold and some silver, it possesses one of the world’s largest copper deposits that accounts for a significant portion of the nation’s income. With a Pacific Ocean coastline that stretches down much of South America, Chile is the world’s second largest salmon farming nation with approximately $3.5 billion in annual sales.
Santiago was founded and has been Chile’s capital since 1541. Its location west of the Andes Mountains required a long and often hair-raising voyage around the Cape Horn. The Andes Mountains are both a blessing and a problem for Santiago. A number of Chile’s excellent wine vineyards are located nearby, but the mountains can be a barrier and exacerbate smog in the city.
Nonetheless, Santiguans enjoy their town and visitors generally feel safe. Some locals may not be at ease around foreigners, since most Chileans have not traveled outside their country. However, the trend line for international visitors to Chile is steadily increasing, from about 1.5 million people in 1995 to more than 3.6 million in 2014. From the vast Atacama Desert in the north (the driest non-polar desert in the world), to Patagonia in the south (shared with Argentina), and the Chilean fjords, considered to be some of the most impressive fjords in the world, Chile offers distinct visitor experiences.
In Santiago, (population 6.5 million) there are a number of distinct neighborhoods, or barrios, to visit. Some of the more popular barrios include Bellavista, a trendy and bohemian enclave where Santiago’s nightlife is vibrant. The streets come alive with street art and graffiti. Barrio Brasil is less expensive than Bellavista but filled with heritage neighborhoods and old homes as well as graffiti and street art. El Centro, or Barrio Historico, is home to Santiago’s main public buildings and monuments and the Plaza de Armas is the spot where Santiago was founded. Barrio Golf is the business center of Santiago; the city’s skyscrapers are there, including the tallest building in South America, Gran Torre. Barrio Belles Artes/Lastarria is lined with European architecture fronting cobble-stoned streets and is Santiago’s new center of culture and elegance. Barrio Maphoco is where the city’s old train station is located and there you can find one of the best markets in Latin America. Patronato is home to Santiago’s Chinatown and alternative restaurants. And Providencia is an upscale barrio where the well heeled go to shop and dine, a nexus of Santiago’s gourmet scene and home to the largest shopping mall in Latin America.
But the history of Santiago, and thus Chile, and by extension all of South America, is a story that includes conflict, conquest and pain. Prior to the appearance of Europeans, it is thought as many as 30 million people lived throughout South America.
The two main players in the era of colonial conquest were Spain and Portugal, the leading maritime powers of their day. Ostensibly their mandate was to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity, but in reality the conquerors were after riches. In addition to advanced military tactics, conquerors also brought gunpowder, steel and armor, horses and disease. Centuries of strife left an indelible mark on Santiago, Chile as a nation, and the South American continent as a whole.
To some degree, those difficulties persist. And in the recent past Chile’s freedoms were suppressed by actions that took place in both Santiago, Chile – and Washington, D.C.
Salvador Gulliermo Allende Gossens was born in Santiago in June 1908 to a well to do family. His parents were politically active and Salvador Allende, as he is better known, adopted their liberal and progressive political views. And though Allende became a physician, he was drawn into politics and served as a senator, deputy and a cabinet minister. After repeated attempts, he became president in 1970 in a closely contested race that was brokered by Chile’s legislature. He was the first Marxist to become president of a South American country and a series of actions he took focused the world’s attention on Chile and cost him his life.
Allende set about nationalizing Chilean industries and collectivizing sectors of the economy. To the poor and Allende’s Marxist allies he was a hero. But Allende alienated a coalition of the political center-right who denounced him and withdrew their support. In early September 1973, Chile’s military, lead by General Augusto Pinochet (previously a longtime ally of Allende’s), along with the backing and assistance of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, moved to overthrow the president. The final battle ended up at La Moneda Palace, where, in a famous radio broadcast, Allende vowed never to surrender. As government troops closed in Allende committed suicide.
Pinochet took over as ruler, and along with a military junta ruled Chile until 1990,when democracy was restored. But before that time, Pinochet’s rule was blackened by violence, torture and murder. Reports indicate 35,000 incidences of human rights abuses, including 28,000 people tortured, 2,279 executed, 1.248 people missing and approximately 200,000 people who were exiled or illegally detained. Pinochet was indicted for human rights violations in October 1998, but political maneuvering delayed his trial, and he died in December 2006 without being convicted of any crimes. Even today, within Chile’s population of 17.6 million people, most people over 25 or 30 years of age either have a relative or know someone who was a victim of Pinochet’s terror.
But Chileans and Santiguans are looking forward to the future and are not stuck in the past. Time spent in the capital city demonstrates that on many levels. All you have to do is savor some of Chile’s world class wine, visit Pablo Neruda’s home (Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet laureate; an ambassador and friend of Allende’s), stop at any number of the city’s excellent museums and galleries, or stroll the streets of this South American capital and you experience a place where the pace is quick, but the joy of life is savored.
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The Galapagos Islands are a must-see experience for world travelers and anyone interested in ecology, species protection and preservation, and glimpsing a part of the world that remains pristine.
The unique character of these islands has been featured in countless articles, documentaries and television programs produced by luminaries such as Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough and National Geographic. Historically, Charles Darwin’s experience at that remote archipelago sparked his imagination and led to his groundbreaking theory of evolution.
Those lucky enough to visit the islands and swim among the fish and marine creatures will be one-of-a-kind activities that form life long memories. But getting to the Galapagos Islands is no easy task, based on remoteness and location. Currently there are 18 major islands, a few smaller islands and more than 100 islets and rocks. The largest island, Isabela (Albermarle) Island is only 1,792 square miles and Wolf (Wenman) Island is only one-half square mile in size.
The islands are located more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and are situated on the equator. Volcanism produced the chain of islands and some of the oldest above-water islands are more than four million years old. Volcanic activity is ongoing even today and scientists predict the emergence of additional islands in the future. The equatorial location places it the sweet spot of Pacific Ocean currents, providing a nutrient rich menu for the birds, animals and fish that live there.
Part of what makes the Galapagos Islands historically significant is the five weeks a young naturalist spent cataloguing and observing the creatures that lived there. Interestingly, Charles Darwin only visited four of the archipelago’s islands. Darwin was the son and grandson of scientists and was only 21 years old when assigned as the naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, a voyage to map sea routes and key land formations for the British Royal Navy. It would turn into a five-year voyage that began in December 1831. In 1859 Darwin published his groundbreaking book, “The Origin of Species.” The initial print run of 12,000 copies sold out in a matter of hours, and his theories ignited a firestorm of controversy. And by the way, Darwin never suggested that man descended from the apes.
There are only two ways to get to the islands, either by air or boat. And while there, visitors must adhere to 14 rules established by the Galapagos National Park Directorate. Some of the rules visitors must follow include being accompanied by a certified naturalist when visiting any of the protected areas. Animals are not hunted or harassed by people so they show no fear of humans, which means visitors must remain at least six feet from them. Feeding the animals, flash photography, smoking, campfires on beaches, and straying from marked trails are all prohibited, among other rules.
The strict rules, watchful eyes of naturalists, small groups and being with like-minded travelers helps make the Galapagos Islands experience all the more enjoyable. It is a photographer’s joy and a nature lover’s Eden. Snorkeling or scuba diving in warm crystal clear water places you among thousands of fish, alongside playful sea lions, sea turtles and even a shark or two.
The naturalist guides take their jobs seriously. They are extremely knowledgeable and are passionate about their work. They have coveted jobs and some of them have been working in that profession for decades. Groups rarely exceed more than a few dozen in size with humans often outnumbered by birds and animals. Of 20 islands, 15 have no human habitation, and there are only about 25,000 people living on the other five islands. But human population growth is a problem and has been increasing six to eight percent a year, in part because better paying jobs can be found on the Galapagos Islands, compared with the mainland of Ecuador. And what nature lover wouldn’t aspire to be a certified naturalist on the Galapagos Islands?
One of the reasons Charles Darwin and current-day visitors are struck by the Galapagos Islands is the diversity. The volcanic activity results in islands with differing mineral compositions – some islands have more iron, so the rocks and soil are redder, for example. Some islands are better habitat for birds, and some are better for giant tortoises, sea lions, and various types of iguanas. Flora and fauna on older islands are usually more abundant and newer islands can be a rugged moonscape of jagged-edged lava that has barely any life on it.
The islands have their own microclimates, based on size, elevation and position. Some islands get more rain than other islands and this affects the abundance and types of plants, grasses and cacti that grow on them.
The two main ways to visit the islands is to stay at one of the hotels, or book passage on the tour ships that are specially designed to accommodate passengers. Some hotels are high end and offer excursions to various islands. (Apartments, homes and rooms can also be found through websites geared toward the sharing economy.) The advantage to staying aboard a passenger ship is it moves to a new island each night giving visitors more time to see the sights and more islands to enjoy altogether. Individual ship owners can sail to the islands. But they are limited in their length of stay and are accompanied by certified naturalists when making excursions to protected islands.
In 2014, just over 215,000 people visited the Galapagos Islands, with 65 percent of visitors staying at hotels or rentals on islands and 35 percent staying aboard specialty cruise ships. Virtually all visitors arrived at one of the two airports on the islands. Slightly fewer than one-third of the visitors that year are Ecuadorians and the remainder were international visitors, with about 25 percent of the total visitors from the United States.
No matter who you are, where you come from, how you get there, where, or how long you stay, or even how many islands you visit, you will forever remember the Galapagos Islands as one of the truly magnificent places on the planet where the wild creatures rule and humans are grateful for a chance to visit.
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Thanks to an insatiable lust for gold by the Spanish Crown, a prime location along Colombia’s northeast coast, and a shameful distinction as one of Spain’s slave trading centers, Cartagena might never have risen to prominence as an important New World city. But those factors, along with the aspirations of ambitious men, enabled Cartagena to grow and prosper. Today they are ingredients that make up a recipe for a vibrant history and lifestyle of a beautiful city on the bay.
As far back as 4000 BC, the region that today comprises Cartagena was inhabited by a group of pre-Columbian tribes who were likely attracted to the region based on the warm climate and abundance of game and seafood. Spanish conquistadors were drawn to the area because of gold that the tribes crafted into jewelry and art. One of them would go on to establish Cartagena.
Pedro de Heredia was a conquistador born into a wealthy Spanish family in 1505. Characterized as quarrelsome and hot-tempered, on a dark night in a Madrid alley six men attacked Heredia; they mauled him and left him with a badly disfigured nose. Determined to get revenge, he killed three of his attackers, but fled Spain for the New World in order to evade justice. He left behind his wife and children. In the early 1530s, now wealthy and successful in his own right, Heredia sailed back to Spain and convinced queen Juana de Castile (Joanna the Mad) to grant him control of what is now Colombia and about half of Ecuador. He arrived in Colombia in January 1533.
Earlier Spanish attempts to colonize the area had failed. In June 1533 Heredia named the area Cartagena de Indias, after Cartagena, Spain. He battled some of the native tribes and signed peace treaties with others, and Heredia and his cohort set about looting pre-Colombian gravesites, robbing them of gold jewelry and art. One purloined piece was a gold porcupine that weighed more than 130 pounds. Heredia amassed an incredible fortune and paid his fellow looter-soldiers handsomely.
Understandably, Cartagena’s reputation for gold and wealth attracted pirates and looters. The city was invaded a number of times over the years, including five sieges during the 16th Century. Pirates extracted ransoms from the city, stole gold and set fire to homes and buildings. In the 1600s the Spanish Crown invested in fortifications and walls to protect the city and new houses and buildings were built of stone. The fortifications and building with stone helped preserve Cartagena’s character and Spanish Colonial attracts modern visitors to the city.
Aside from the looting and plundering of gold, Cartagena’s other sinister history is its role in the slave trade. Estimates suggest more than one million slaves of African descent were sold and moved through Cartagena. While it was illegal to enslave pre-Colombian peoples, a slave trade of Africans in Cartagena had begun within a few years of the city’s founding. And in the early 1600s the Spanish Crown granted concessions to trade African slaves. Cartagena, along with Veracruz, Mexico, became centers of Spanish colonial slave trading. By the early 1800s three decades of active opposition resulted in the abolishment of slave trading in 1852. However, even today, Afro-Colombians continue to be disadvantaged and suffer disproportionately than do Spanish Colombians. Cartagena has one of Colombia’s largest Afro Colombian populations.
Another significant moment in Cartagena’s history is November 11, 1811 when the city was the first in Colombia to declare independence from Spanish rule. It would take approximately 10 years for the city, and Colombia to finally gain independence. Simon Bolivar, the great hero of South American independence was a leader in the liberation movement.
Cartagena’s climate, location on the Caribbean Sea, and as Colombia’s largest port city has helped to ensure its current success. It is a city of nearly one million people sprawling over 220 square miles. It is part of the diversity that enriches Colombia and helps to give it a unique character.
Visitors will find plenty to choose from. Sandy beaches and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, an historic Old Town filled with colorful Spanish Colonial buildings, some of the best preserved fortresses in the New World, a range of shopping, from boutique to high end, a cuisine that merges South America with Caribbean, an active night life and friendly people who welcome you to their city.
Cartagena – Old World charm in a New World city, an energetic mix of native, Spanish and Afro Colombians, where South America blends with a casual Caribbean pace of life – this is a city accepting its history as it shapes itself in a modern world.
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It’s always exciting to discover and new city, and with Medellin, you’re also likely to fall in love. Forget the clichés you might have heard about Colombia’s second largest city – gone are the days of a crime-ridden haven run by drug lords.
As recently as the 1990s Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world. But as Paisas – those who live in Medellin (population 2.4 million) and the surrounding area – are quick to point out, dark days are giving way to a modern metropolis where tourists are welcome. As recent visitor I felt safe in Medellin. (Tip: Colombians pronounce the city’s name as med-uh-JEEN.)
Just getting around is an example of better times. Medellin is proud to have Colombia’s only light rail system and likely the cleanest I have ever ridden. Station floors are spotless, no graffiti tagging is on the walls or cars, and the city’s residents do not tolerate breaches of protocol – eating food and playing loud music are frowned upon. Foreigners are watched over protectively, and don’t be surprised if it’s suggested to zip your backpack closed, or a pair of sunglasses hanging off the back of a shirt collar might be stolen.
Medellin’s light rail system also addresses problems of crime, isolation and employment. When the subway was built, beginning in 1984 and completed in 1995, hillside enclaves were generally poorer, lawless, and had higher rates of unemployment – all chronic problems. The cable car system that spurs off from the main light rail lines provide an affordable and time saving way to get to the main parts of the city, where better jobs and schools are located. Areas of Medellin that were once trouble spots are now neighborhoods where families can live in peace.
The parks and the botanical garden in Medellin are beautiful and well worth a visit. The largest metropolitan park in Colombia, Parque Arvi, sprawls over more than 39,000 acres on the upper hillsides northeast of the city. There are lots of trails to hike, a waterfall and lake, among other attractions to enjoy. Take the Metrocable Link L to get there (yes, you can drive in). Park admission is free. The park’s higher elevation offers cooler temperatures in the summer.
Parque Bolivar (named after Simon Bolivar; the reason Colombia is a nation and not a colony) is hugely popular. Featuring a giant statue of Bolivar, the park is vibrant and filled with residents and visitors day and night. But beware the park can be a bit sketchy at night.
Jardin Botanico is another Medellin gem, located just off one of the Line A subway near the University Station. Free admission with lots of excellent spots to enjoy the diversity of Colombia’s flora, including a marvelous butterfly house, orchid garden and a library filled with oversized botanical books.
And Parque Explora, next to the botanical garden, is an interactive museum of science and technology that will delight children and also keep adults engaged for hours. It includes a planetarium, aquarium and vivarium, in addition to spatial and mental challenges to fascinate visitors.
Another of Medellin’s famous attractions is the unique art of Fernando Botero, who proclaimed himself, “the most Colombian of Colombian artists.” Since the late 1940s Botero (born in 1932), has produced an impressive body of work including drawings, paintings and sculptures. Botero’s signature style is exaggerated proportion, both over-sized as well as undersized portions – plump, ample men and zaftig women. The whimsy of the work belies Botero’s genius. The Museo de Antioquioa, located in the Old Quarter of the city has an outstanding collection of Botero’s paintings. And Botero Plaza, in front of the Museo, holds a breathtaking collection of nearly two-dozen of Botero’s brilliant sculptures the artist generously donated to his beloved city. Additionally, there are four other Botero sculptures nearby in Medellín’s Berrio Park and San Antonio Plaza, including one damaged by terrorists. The damaged statute remains, but an exact copy has been placed next to it. to serve as a reminder of the difficulties in Colombia’s political past.
Colombia, like most countries in South America, produces a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and seafood. To get a better appreciation of the country’s diversity, take an exotic tour of Plaza Minorista. Guides expert in the foods of Colombia lead visitors through the maze of bustling stalls, stopping along the way so you can enjoy samples of exotic fruits that give you a whole new appreciation for the diverse foods of Colombia.
In an ever-changing world, Medellin is a city moving in a positive direction, and for travelers looking for something new, something exciting, and a spot they will always be fond of, Medellin is a great choice.
For more information about Medellin and ways to see the city, click on these websites:
When flying overhead, the Amazon jungle looks impenetrable. Gaze upwards from the jungle floor and the light and sky are nearly obscured. But at the interstitial between top and bottom one gets a perspective of the vibrancy and vitality of the Amazon River jungle. It’s a place to see both the trees and the forest.
For arboreal lovers, ambling along the top of a forest is a true delight. The longest canopy walkway in South America, which is also one of the longest in the world, is located in Peru’s Amazon jungle. The walkway is owned and maintained by Explorama Lodges, which for more than 50 years has been providing a place for visitors to spend time in the Amazon jungle. Their expert guides escort guests on hikes, excursions and even piranha fishing trips, in addition to a trip to their canopy walkway.
Beyond being helpful and informative, the guides are important. A first time visit to the Amazon jungle is intimidating. The hot temperatures, amount of rainfall, high humidity, and incredible diversity of plants, trees and animals is a lot of take in. Guides point out what could easily be missed along the trail or up in canopy as they explain the relationship flora and fauna have with each other – and to ourselves. And the guides are able to spot potential dangers such as snakes that might be poisonous or dangerous.
For the canopy walkway, if you’re not afraid of heights or bothered by the swaying as you walk, it is an experience both peaceful and exciting. Explorama’s canopy walkway is over 100 feet up in the trees and wanders more than a third of a mile. The walkways are supported by 14 of the largest trees in that area. In addition to the visitors who experience the Amazon jungle in a different way, researchers use the walkways to study the jungle.
And once up there, what you see forever changes the way you look at trees. After some time among the treetops you will always remember that heaven and earth are really one and the same.
For more information about canopy walkways, click on the websites below:
As time marches on some people get left behind. The Yagua, today a diaspora of fewer than 6,000 people scattered in small and remote villages along the Amazon River in Peru and Colombia, are an example of how “progress” can ravage a culture unprepared to deal with a changing world.
Yet the Yagua have a distinguished heritage and remain proud. The Amazon River was so named because early Spanish conquerors mistook the Yagua men, who wear a type of grass skirt, as women, and named the region “Amazon” after the legendary female warriors who were bitter enemies of the ancient Greeks.
And the Yagua continue to be renowned for their ability to hunt using a blowgun. They also are expert in the use of curare, a highly poisonous compound they dip in the ends of their blowgun darts. (The Yagua test the strength of a batch of curare by counting the number of hops a frog makes after its skin had been pricked by a dart dipped in the compound.)
The actual number of Yagua is in some dispute. Part of the reason is how far they have dispersed and another reason is that most of the remaining Yagua have located to Iquitos, Peru (to this day only accessible by air or boat), where the availability of jobs offers a chance at a modern and more prosperous life. Some have estimated less than 1,000 Yagua still live in their traditional family units in the jungle along the Amazon River. As a consequence of moving to the city, the Yagua language is dying out. For example, children are raised to speak Spanish.
Another important reason the Yagua are so widely scattered was due to the “rubber boom” of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Europeans enslaved indigenous peoples to work on the rubber plantations, but the Yagua resisted and went deeper into the jungle. Despite that, many were killed or succumbed to European diseases. This survival strategy helps explain why there are Yagua living in the Colombian region of the Amazon River.
Life in the Amazon jungle has always been difficult and remains so to this day. The Yagua practice rudimentary farming, and raise basic grain crops. They also harvest bananas, plantains, maize, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and pineapples, along with wild fruits from the jungle. They practice swidden agriculture where small plots are slashed and burned then farmed for a year or two before the soil is depleted. Sources of protein for the Yagua come from hunting animals such as peccaries, tapirs, small rodents, birds and monkeys. Fish from the Amazon has become a more recent source of protein.
Until recently hunting was done exclusively with blowguns. The simple, yet deadly accurate weapon is handcrafted in two parts and joined together. Great care must be taken so the bore is both true and of consistent size. Darts are made from small sticks with a soft material on one end (that acts like a gasket). The darts are smoothed and the ends sharpened using teeth from the jaw of a piranha. And while shotguns now sometimes replace blowguns as a hunting weapon, the cost of shells can be too expensive for many.
Today, many of the groups of Yagua still living in the jungle depend on income from tourists and visitors. Villagers dress in traditional garb, perform some dances in their main hut and demonstrate their proficiency with blowguns. They are accurate from 30 or 40 yards.
A big portion of the income the Yagua earn is from the sale of trade goods and handmade crafts which visitors are only too happy to snap up. But truth be told when visitors arrive carrying digital cameras and smartphones, and the Yagua are barefoot and wearing grass skirts, it is a way of life that is difficult for younger generations of Yagua to want to cling to.
But the future for the Yagua may not be all bleak. As one example, the Peru Program of Frankfurt Zoological Society has worked with Peruvian officials on an initiative that set aside more than 2.1 million acres of jungle habitat known as the Yaguas Reserved Zone. Its main purpose is to protect the jungle from further exploitation. But it might also some day serve as a sanctuary where the Yagua people would have a place they could call home. They deserve it. After all, these are the people who inspired the name for the Amazon.
For more information about the Yagua people, visit these websites:
Compared to every other one of the world’s great rivers, the Amazon is by far the biggest. However it’s measured, by the amount of water, size of its drainage basin, or total length, no other river comes close.
Yes, some argue the Nile River is a bit longer in total length, but that fact too is in dispute. The Amazon River, with an average discharge of 55-million gallons per second, releases more water than the next seven-largest rivers in the world combined. The Amazon River discharges approximately 20 percent of the world’s total fresh water. The Amazon basin, at more than 2.7 million square miles, is nearly twice the size of the world’s second largest river (by water discharged), Africa’s Congo River basin. And the Amazon’s mouth stretches over 40 miles and pushes freshwater more over 100 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. To date, no bridge has been built across any portion of the Amazon River.
Aside from its gargantuan size, the Amazon also is one of earth’s great bioregions and home to approximately 10 percent of the world’s known biodiversity, including many flora and fauna that are classified as endangered. This place is a treasure trove for biomedicine.
Getting up close and experiencing the Amazon River firsthand puts things into a more intimate perspective. It is a chance to see the trees in the forest, and if one is lucky, to catch a glimpse of the creatures that call this place home.
Once you enter the river region there are essentially two ways to get around. Boats along the water are as common as taxis in New York City, but you need a boat with a good motor to scoot along the water. And a good captain is essential if you want to make time and dodge the many limbs and tree fall that could easily sink your boat. Once you are off the river, the way to get around is to hike along the trails that disappear into the jungle.
With an experienced guide, a visit to the Amazon is an opportunity to see gorgeous creatures like the Amazon River dolphin (or pink dolphin), the largest river dolphin in the world. Adult males can reach a length of eight feet and weigh up to 400 pounds.
The Amazon is also home to sinister denizens like the pink-bellied piranha, the highly poisonous bushmaster snake, the anaconda, or any number of other deadly residents. Insects, birds and many other creatures abound, and a good guide can point them out – and keep you from making a misstep.
The moment you step into the jungle you are absorbed and feel like you have been enveloped (like a gauzy, steamy blanket), rather than being detached and observant. The heat is constant and the high humidity quickly dulls your senses. Even on a bright sunny day, the jungle canopy shuts out most of the light, shrouding details from the untrained eye.
This is a place of rare beauty. And once your eyes become accustomed to the apparent wildness of the jungle you are able to discern the harmony of nature.
Human beings may think themselves the most evolved species on earth, but make no mistake, the creatures of the Amazon River and the jungle that surround it are the true rulers of this realm. They will be there long after humans are gone.
For more information about the Amazon River, click to these websites: