TRAVEL THERE: WANDERING THROUGH THE GLORIES OF PALAZZO PITTI
For a family which dominated a city for so many years, it’s amazing that nothing is named after the Medicis. Whatever something was called when they took it over, and they eventually took over almost everything, from the Cathedral to government offices, they continued to use the name the building already had.
In the Palazzo Pitti
Entering the Palazzo was like turning back time. The rather mundane exterior gave way to so much interior glory that almost a year later I am still trying to wrap my mind around it. Magnificence is everywhere. What would be the highlight of the collection in your average museum is just a whatnot on a sideboard at the Medici’s home.
What I am trying to tell you is that every surface, every floor, every wall, every ceiling – absolutely everywhere you look is something glorious. We started out in some huge hall with larger than life tapestries.
Soon after we were wandering through the hall you see above. Then we went through gallery after gallery after gallery of some of the most amazing paintings, sculpture and decorative arts you might ever have the opportunity to see.
You have to remember, I’m not exactly a neophyte in the world of art. I’ve been to the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume (before its impressionists works were moved to the Musée d’Orsay) in Paris. I’ve seen all the major museums in London, like the British Museum, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert. I’ve been to Ludwig’s castles in Germany and palaces throughout Austria. I’ve spent days in the Cairo Museum and strolled through the Gettys a number of times. I’ve made pilgrimages throughout the US to see the great houses of the rich and famous from Mt. Vernon to the Biltmore to Heart Castle. These only scratch the surface and still the Palazzo Pitti blew me away.
This was somebody’s private home. This was their private art collection. They weren’t kings or popes or even emperors (with the exception Peter Leopold). Most of them were Cardinals and Grand Dukes. Just as they managed to live incognito in Florence without having everything named after them, they lived in this amazing palace as grand dukes and controlled the world without claiming title to it.
The good news is, for a little while it didn’t matter that we had a lousy guide. I just wandered through the rooms trying to take it all in. Though our guide didn’t have much to say, she did sort of usher through the Galleries, always reminding us we had more things to see.
I should have just asked our guide what time we needed to be at the bus and dumped her for the balance of the day. Nothing else she drug me past in our tour of Florence was as amazing as the Palazzo Pitti. But that’s hindsight. Though loving every minute of the Palace, I was also very excited about seeing Boboli Gardens.
The gardens are what’s up next, so come back next week and find out what happened there. In the meantime, I will leave you with these glorious images from Pitti Palace.
This wasn’t my first cruise, so I am aware of the fact gateway cities can be pretty disappointing. As a disappointment, Livorno did not disappoint. The day got better, but never as good as I hoped it would be.
“90-Minute Drive Through the Beautiful Tuscan Countryside”
Newsflash: the highway we took to Florence didn’t take us through the beautiful Tuscan country side. It was a highway. We could have been circling Detroit.
Though the Celebrity site did not tell me specifically to be expecting an ultra-luxury bus, the shore excursion I picked was a Celebrity Discovery Collection Event. According to Dallas’ Celebrity rep, these tours were worth the extra you paid to be a part of them. Perhaps he didn’t intend to give me the impression I should expect more in every aspect of the tour, but we had a more luxurious bus in Cancun. The Celebrity vehicle was adequate as tour buses go, but I wished for my Cancun Passion bus.
Our first stop was not Pitti Palace as advertised. Instead, it was a convenience store. Apparently, we needed a pre-Florence potty stop, so the alarms started going off in my head. Things were going downhill fast.
The pay phone is just a little bonus. They have them all over the place in Europe. Try finding one state-side.
So, riding along in our adequate bus, we soon figured out our guide was no Paolo. We’re not sure whether she just left her personality at home that day or she simply didn’t have one at all, but after the charming and erudite Paolo, she was a real disappointment.
“Your first stop takes you to the decadent Palazzo Pitti.”
Well, I’ve already told you about the first stop and it was no Palazzo. Our next stop was not a Palazzo either. We’d obviously arrived at some lovely place in Italy, but it was not the Pitti Palace. No, we were about to hoof it to the Pitti Palace via the rest of Florence.
Initially, this “stroll” wasn’t so awful. It was nice to stroll among the picturesque by-ways of Florence and when she wasn’t running off and leaving all of us, our guide did have a few salient facts to share with us. We stopped by the Uffizi Gallery and even though we didn’t get to enter, it was fun to learn it was once the home and workrooms of the Medicis and charming to see the artists setting up.
After a little more circuitous wandering, we came to the famous Ponte Vecchio across the Arno River. The guide who had been strolling through the city, as if we had hour to linger over every detail, suddenly picked up the pace, at the point I would have been happy to amble. She assured us we’d get more time on the bridge later.
Though we knew she was no Paolo, we had not yet learned she was untrustworthy, so we continued to trudge along behind her. Then suddenly, with no kind of signage or gates to tell us, we were at Pitti Palace. It was a sort of odd palace. Right in the middle of things, no gate, no moat, just a multi-story facade, and while it was imposing, it was in no way magnificent.
I’ll leave you here for today. Once inside, Pitti Palace makes up for it’s rather dreary exterior. Come back next week and we’ll explore the wonders of Palazzo Pitti together.
TRAVEL THERE: FLORENCE WAS GREAT. TOO BAD THE SAME THING CAN’T BE SAID FOR THE RENAISSANCE VACATION
There is no one more susceptible to great marketing than someone in marketing. Our shore excursion to Florence is a perfect example of that. The photos and the copy sent me on flights of fantasy no walking tour of Florence could have, especially with the below par tour guide we were assigned to that day.
What It Should Have Been
The Celebrity website said, and I quote, “Florence, Italy is the birthplace of The Renaissance, and the site of your most memorable vacation yet. From the 13th to the 15th centuries, a profusion of poets, painters, sculptors, and architects flooded into Florence and produced the era’s most groundbreaking artwork. Departing from the port of Livorno, your excursion in Florence begins with a 90-minute drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside those legendary artists once traversed. Your first stop takes you to the decadent Palazzo Pitti. Also known as Pitti Palace, this architectural marvel is one of Florence’s signature monuments. The Palatine Gallery lies on the first floor, and contains a broad collection of 16th and 17th century paintings. Its most iconic piece of art is likely the portrait of Maddalena Doni by Raphael in 1506. Next, you’ll visit the Boboli Gardens. While accurate, the Boboli Gardens are more than your standard garden. Boboli is actually one of the greatest open-air museums in Florence. The park boasts sculptures, fountains, centuries-old oak trees and more. As the garden that inspired European royal gardens like Versailles, there are few better examples of “green” architecture in the world. From here, your vacation in Florence takes you to Piazza della Repubblica, the most beautiful town square in the Tuscany region. This brief respite offers the opportunity to wine and dine before continuing onward to the Signoria and Santa Croce Squares.”
What I Imagined
I envisioned a luxurious bus ride through a gorgeous landscape. I assumed the bus would drop us off in front of the Pitti Palace. I hoped we’d have hours to wander all the galleries of the palace and then wander some more through one of the most beautiful gardens on earth. I was sure we’d need to stroll around a little bit to get to all the sites mentioned, but what’s a little walking, right? Besides I was so laser-focused on the Pitti Palace it was all I could think about.
What I Gave Up
Florence is a city you would needs days and days to see properly. The list of must-see attractions is daunting. Take the Uffizi Gallery for instance, one of the most prominent art museums of the world. Then there’s Michelangelo’s David, housed in another museum you’ve probably never heard of, but a piece of art I’ve wanted to see all my life. And the Duomo, famous as one of the most important cathedrals in the world, for the history that was lived there, for the artworks housed there, but most of all for its miraculous dome.
With all this to look forward to I allowed myself to be distracted by some great marketing. Don’t get me wrong, Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens are magnificent by any standard, but what they were selling me about the shore excursion isn’t what I got.
So, come on back next week and I’ll tell you how it went.
It had been a very long day and there was still some left as the bus headed back to Cancun.
The Joy of a Good Book
I had read it before, but even so, I had chosen James Michener’s book Mexico, as my reading material for the trip. Unlike many of his novels, which begin even before the appearance of man in a locale, this novel focused on a modern day journalist covering a bullfight festival, who was at the same time Mexican, American, Mayan and Spanish. The book does look back at the ancient residents of the country, but instead of choosing an actual tribe, such as the Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs or Olmecs to showcase, Michener made up a sort of conglomerate tribe called the Altomecs, allowing him to comment on them all.
So many years had passed since my last reading of the book that it seemed fresh. Occasional scenes gave me a sense of deja vu, but I was still following the plot with interest, unsure how it would end. (I still haven’t finished it as I write this post, but the more I read the more I remember, and I have recalled the end.) On the bus ride back to the Seadust, I was only a third of the way through and the Altomecs had not even entered the narrative, except a brief mention from time to time of the pyramid which was near the primary locale of the story.
It had been a long day and several times I caught myself dozing off. At one point, I woke from a dream to discover it was pitch black outside. I had been asleep for quite a while. In my dream I was back at Chichen Itza. I was among the crowds watching the sacrifices, but somehow I was doing so as a character from Michener’s book and at the same time, I was privy to all the knowledge I had accumulated in my actual lifetime. I stood on the plaza remembering scholarly data about the Mayan civilization, our own lifestyle in America and the many other civilizations I have studied and observed.
When I woke up it took a few moments to figure out exactly where I was. I soon noticed the guides were fiddling around with the technology. TV screens folded up and down as if on their own and the guides huddled over a remote control. I suspected something was up, but they still managed to surprise me with their tequila service.
The interior lights of the bus flashed on as a rather loud rendition of the song “Tequila” played on the loudspeaker. A man in a strange costume, his face covered with a stocking mask was standing in the aisle. Though I was pretty sure it was supposed to be entertainment, a part of me was still under the influence of my strange dream. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but I understand they intended it to be.
Bill had a little tequila, but I had no interest. My stomach was ready for its next meal and had no interest in alcohol. We were soon back to Cancun and we were fortunate enough to be the second stop. Unfortunately, the first stop was the Iberostar which had refused Bill entrance the previous day. Before the night was over, I was also wishing we could visit the Iberostar! Come back next week and find out why!
“This is the forest primeval,” is the beginning phrase of Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline. It’s a fictional story of love lost and then found too late. It’s also about political injustice, because French settlers of Canada, called Acadians, were deported by the British, just for being Catholics. In the story, Evangeline is among the deportees who were sent to Louisiana – hence Evangeline Parish. Let’s go visit.
Traveling Evangeline Country
Though I can’t remember all the logistics between Dallas and Evangeline Country, I do remember being sick and tired of riding in the back seat on a sticky August afternoon. We had Aunt Edie with us, which was fun, but I’m guessing we hit the road around 4 AM. By late afternoon I’m sure I was second guessing my decision to go on this family vacation.
We piled out of the car at a Mardi Gras museum, but I’m not sure where it was. They were very proud of the fact that they’d been doing Mardi Gras a lot longer than New Orleans. The museum was full of beautiful costumes, but the best part was the air conditioning! There was also a lot of material about Acadian history. They were very interested in visitors understanding that while outsiders may think the terms Cajun and Creole are interchangeable, Cajuns and Creoles don’t. Cajuns descended from the Acadians. Creoles are descended from the French mixing with various other races, especially around New Orleans. Creoles probably thought Cajuns were hicks, while Cajuns claimed a purer racial lineage, which was much more important back in the 70’s than it is today.
Ça C’est Bon
Regardless of their racial heritage, Cajuns know how to eat. That evening we ate the local cuisine. Mom had done her research and we had dinner at what was supposed to be THE place to eat crawfish. I keep thinking the name of it was Anderson’s, but don’t hold me to that.
Wherever it was, it was a great, big barn-like place. The menu offered crawfish this, crawfish that and crawfish whatever else. I was a little squeamish about sucking heads, but the rest of it sounded pretty good to me. I’m sure I got some sort of combo plate so I could try it more than one way. I’m also pretty sure that everyone else chose more traditional seafood choices, like fried shrimp and then sampled my entrees. I’ve always been a little more food adventurous than the rest of my family.
We probably spent the night at a Holiday Inn. That’s where we usually stayed. The next day we moved on to New Orleans.
Our second day in Alex began with the usual buffet breakfast and a quick cab ride to the Alexandria National Museum. (No adventures this time!)
If you somehow landed in Alex and hadn’t yet figured out that Egypt is a country with very ancient roots, you should visit this museum. It’s not as extensive as the famed Cairo Museum, but it is arranged in such a way that you can get a quick overview of Egypt’s history organized by deities. If you’re just somebody like me that geeks out on history, well then you have even more reasons to spend and hour or so here.
Down in the basement is the Pharaonic section when Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of gods led by Ra, the sun god, and Isis, goddess of marriage, fertility, motherhood, magic, medicine and probably a few other things. The main floor is devoted to the Greek and Roman eras of Egypt, when the Egyptian gods mixed and mingled with other religious traditions. Many of the artifacts have, in fact, been fished out of the sea right there in Alexandria. Our favorite floor was the top floor. There Christianity faced off against Islam in a sort of duel by artifacts.
Like many things in Egypt, if you visit this museum you’ll be on a constant seesaw. One moment you are wowed out of your socks by an item you can’t even believe still exists. Then you won’t be able to see into the next case at all, because the light has burned out. It’s exhilarating, frustrating and totally unique. Gorgeous white marble edifices with spectacular polished black granite floors and dust collecting in the corners. It made me want to shake someone!
At this museum you can take all the pictures you want outside, but you are supposed to pay to take pictures inside. Bill didn’t think he wanted to part with the coin, but once he got inside he couldn’t help taking a few pictures of the beautiful Christian artifacts. They didn’t say anything right away, but when he left, they hit him up for the photography fee. Since we had to pay to take them, I’ll share them with you.
This trip to Egypt was so marvelous from so many standpoints I would be hard-pressed to pick out my favorite thing. However, I can easily tell you the Royal Jewelry Museum is a strong contender for the position. In fact, it is on my short list of favorite museums ever!
We took a taxi from the history museum to this gem of a palace. (Forgive me the pun, I couldn’t resist.) It was immediately apparent this was something completely different from the previous museum. Both buildings were magnificent, but the history museum was past its prime and showing its age. It didn’t look like anyone loved it anymore. The edifice holding the jewelry museum is pristine. It’s well-loved and it shows.
The jewelry museum is in a lovely part of the city, obviously still home to the well-to-do. An impressive rod iron fence guards the one-time palace. The security procedure into the grounds is more than cursory, but it was very polite. This is the museum-less-visited, competing with the well-known Bibliotheca and the official history museum, but I would like to see that change. This is a rare and wonderful experience and if you go to Alexandria you should not miss it! They were glad to have such obvious American tourists entering their facility. So glad in fact they gifted me with a beautiful souvenir guidebook.
If this museum did not hold a single piece of jewelry, I would still say it is one of the best attractions I had ever visited. The palace is just awesome – and I use the word in the traditional sense, not in the way it’s used to describe a hamburger. I walked from room to room wishing I could live there or at least I would have had the opportunity to visit when Fatma Heidar herself called it home. She was a several-times-great granddaughter of Mohammed Ali Pasha the Great. I think she and I could have been great friends.
But there was jewelry, magnificent jewelry, in attractive cases spread throughout the elegant rooms. The house looked as if they had only removed the furniture the day before. It was easy to imagine dignitaries in gorgeous caftans and morning suits wandering around. Among the treasures in the cases were items which once belonged to King Farouk I and his wife, the lovely Queen Farida. Here’s a shot of my very favorite piece stolen from the gifted souvenir guidebook. We saw it, but couldn’t get a good shot.
After a morning and early afternoon of touring, we were hungry. Come back next week and find out what we did about it.
TRAVEL THERE: MORE EXHIBITS THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A STICK AT
When we finally found the museums at the Library of Alexandria, we were stunned by everything there was to see. Come along with us.
Confession: I know little to nothing about Arab Art. I like what I see, but I can’t name any favorite artist or tell you the life story of any of them. In sixteen and a half years of formal schooling in the US and a degree in Humanities, that’s a pretty sad situation. The Dallas Museum of Art’s Keir Collection is beginning to open a few doors for me on this subject, but I really do understand the blind spot in my knowledge.
This means that I had no idea of what I was looking at down in the guts of Alexandria’s famous library, but I can tell you it was beautiful. In gallery after gallery I found plenty to enjoy.
There were sculptures and works on paper. There were paintings, from the very modern to the very old, with a great representation of what is known as folk art, but some of it didn’t look very folksy to me. It looked spectacular.
There was a whole gallery devoted to astronomy and scientific instruments, but they were so pretty you couldn’t believe they’d been designed for practical use. I stood before their cases in awe of the men and perhaps women who had crafted the gorgeous items.
Perhaps my favorite section was the many examples of every day items which transcended the idea of crafts, like the lovely caftans and pottery in the picture above. I moved from case to case wondering about the craftsmen who had envisioned these lovely pieces and envying those who had worn them, poured water from them or carried them from place to place.
There are several different galleries with a variety of Arabic names I wouldn’t even try to spell or pronounce, but I didn’t worry about the divisions. You can’t make up for lifetime of neglected information in a few hours. I promised myself I’d learn more about these talented artists and artisians, but on that day, I just resolved to enjoy what I was seeing.
The Sadat Museum
My ultimate destination in the Library was the Sadat museum. This is the area with a personal touch to my favorite Egyptian, my husband. Bill’s Uncle Raouf had been a translator for Nassar, president while Bill was growing up, but Sadat had been actively involved in Nassar’s administration. All of the personal items included in the exhibits of the Sadat Museum were familiar to Bill.
Bill was already hungry when we got to the Library. He’d endured the hour of wandering around lost among the stacks. Then he patiently stood by while I gawked at all the beautiful items in the art galleries. The exhibits in the Sadat Museum were so interesting to him, that hunger stood still.
He lingered at each case, pointing out items similar to those in his own home. He read headlines to me. He’d say, “We had a radio just like that.” The suits Sadat wore were the same style Bill’s dad and uncles wore. The newspapers documenting important events in Sadat’s life were the same newspapers Bill’s family shared around the breakfast table. He looked for familiar faces in the photos.
I’d had a hard time finding the museums of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, but when we finally walked among these treasures, it was well worth the effort. It would have been worth the effort if there had been no Sadat Museum, but because there was, I had a special peek into my husband’s history. It’s something he doesn’t talk about very often, and I loved every moment of it.
If Bill was hungry when we got to the museum, imagine how hungry he was after all the time we spent there. I collected my belongings from the area where they’d been collected and checked. Now it was time to eat. Join us next week as my hungry husband looks for the fish market. In the meantime enjoy these few photos from the museums. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in the Sadat Museum, but there are other lovely things to see.
So Rom the Rogue Hantoor Driver dropped us off at the Library of Alexandria. We knew we were there, because the unique curved roof is unmistakable. What we didn’t know was how to get inside.
A Little Signage Please
We thought we were standing in front of the Library. Huge plate glass windows allowed us to look in, but nothing told us we needed to go around to the other side. We did eventually find our way to the front, but that was even more confusing.
The world was lined up at a building over to the side of the Library, but nothing suggested the crowd was headed into the library itself. Remember, I may not read or understand Arabic, but Bill does and we stood there at the curb reading every sign we could see and watching the people to figure out what they were doing.
Through trial and error (and an exasperated guard) we found out we had to join the crowd and check pretty much everything on our persons, except the clothes on our back at the place with the crowd. Then we got the secret sauce to entering the library. Once inside there are all kinds of signs directing you to the various stacks of books over many floors, but nothing seemed to direct us to the free museums we were there to enjoy. Now they have great signage to the museum that has a pricey entry fee, but I wanted the free stuff.
We even asked people for directions and they’d point vaguely in a direction which wouldn’t help at all or they’d give us very detailed directions to something that wasn’t what I wanted to see. We were literally about to give up and walk out when I decided to see if there was any wi-fi. Rest assured there was no signage to suggest they did, I just thought it made sense for them to have it.
VOILA! There was wi-fi, but the first thing it told me was the exhibit I had been asking about for the last hour was closed for restoration. It also sent me down a staircase I’d been down several times before and directed me to what seemed like a dead end. We’d been there at least four other times. We decided to give the dead end a try and suddenly we were in free exhibit heaven.
How to Get There
So, if you ever go to Alexandria, here’s what you do. First, find the front of the building. It will be on the opposite side from the part facing the beach. Go get in the huge line at the building next to the Library. At the counter, hand them everything not actually connected to you and pay them whatever they want. Move quickly during this process so you can follow the person who was in line in front of you or you won’t find the entrance.
Once in the foyer, look for a stairwell on the right side. Go down to the next floor. Right in front of you will be the museum you can pay to go into, but turn to your left instead. Go to the end of the hall and turn to the right, even though it looks like you are entering a warren of offices. If you walk down the hall past the offices, you will suddenly find yourself in a treasure trove of exhibits.
The pictures above are all of the library proper, which you enter through many doors all along the back of the foyer. I do recommend you take some time wandering around. We happened upon several interesting exhibits that way, which weren’t even listed in the cornucopia of materials I’d been studying for weeks before the trip. It’s also the only way to seem the amazing architecture of the place. But if you want to see the free museums, follow the instructions above.
I’m all out of words today, but come back next week and I’ll share some of the marvelous things we found down in the guts of the library.
I just got back from Egypt and I want you to visit this amazing country. You’re not going to believe some of the exciting adventures I had while I was there. I hope that as you read my blog in the coming months, you’ll start planning your own trip in your head. As much as I want you to go, I have always been totally honest with you – sharing the good and the bad. So it is only fair that I start this series by warning you that Egypt is not an easy country to visit. You have to overlook a lot to see what is valuable, but there is great value. In the coming weeks I will rave about spectacular hotels and jaw-dropping sites, but I have to start here, with the not-so-pleasant reality of Egypt today.
Then and Now
This was my second trip to Egypt. The first was in 1996 when terrorism was an occasional, rather than a daily, thing and the only terror incident associated with Egypt was an attack on a busload of tourists in 1990. The world has changed a lot since then. Days before I was scheduled to leave for this trip, bombs went off in two different Coptic Churches. It didn’t stop us from going, but it did give us pause. It shouldn’t stop you from going either, but you need to know what you’re getting into.
The imminent threat of violence was the most obvious difference between this trip and the one we enjoyed twenty years ago. Security was a pervasive presence, everywhere we went – whether we were visiting a museum, an airport or a church. Every time we entered our hotel we had to put all our belongings through a scanner and ourselves through a metal detector. I was glad for the security, but saddened by the need for it.
It was the same thing pretty much everywhere we went and you just got tired of it. Take a romantic walk on the beach and come back to the hotel for a thorough search. By the time you prove you have a right to be there and you don’t have any WMD’s, the romance has dissipated. This adds to the stress of travel and distracts from your ability to really relax.
One evening we accompanied a niece and her husband to a hotel where they stayed on their honeymoon. They wanted to take a walk down memory lane. Our taxi went through one inspection at the gate to the property and we were put through a thorough search at the front door. Then as we headed out to the pool to look around, we were stopped because we were not actually guests at the hotel. We had to go to the front desk, explain ourselves, show them our room keys to a sister property in town and give them a passport to hold before we were allowed into the pool area. By the time we actually made it down there, we had more thoughts about the intrusion of security than we did Maggie and Shady’s honeymoon.
The threat of terrorism has devastated the country. Tourism has been at the center of Egypt’s economy for a very long time, but they have nothing to take its place and little with which to woo the tourists who actually show up. Yes, they have some of the most splendid sights in the world, like The Pyramids, Luxor Temple, The Valley of the Kings and such, but the hassle associated with visiting them is challenging.
I thought Egypt was the dirtiest place I had ever visited the last time I went. Well, now it is beyond dirty. It’s down right filthy and much of it has been abandoned. Whole blocks of Cairo and Alexandria’s city centers are just empty graffiti-covered buildings, surrounded by piles of trash. Everywhere we went, unfinished new construction showed signs of being abandoned years ago, when their hope of an Arab Spring turned into a nightmare. Don’t plan on wearing the same clothes over and over. A day of touring will render you and everything you are wearing disgusting. You either need to pack more or plan on a budget for laundry.
And Then There’s the People
Egyptians, as a whole, are wonderful. They are happy people who want to get to know you and they love pleasing you. They want you to love their country the way they do, but right now they are a little embarrassed – as if you caught them between working in the yard and getting a shower. They’ll point you towards the freshly planted flowers, hoping you won’t notice how dirty and sweaty they are.
However, they are also frustrated and tired. At almost every hotel we observed someone having a meltdown in the lobby and it was usually an Egyptian guest. Life is hard. The economy is impossible. Traffic is horrendous. Everything is harder to do than it should be and after a ten minute walk your white shirt just isn’t white anymore. Still, given the chance, most of them will bend over backwards to accommodate you and try to create a smile.
At the same time, we noticed there is also a trend that distances the female population from visitors. There was a greater number of women completely covered from head to toe. During our last visit, most women dressed very conservatively and the majority covered their heads, often with a bright colorful scarf. Many would be sharply dressed, while sporting a more conservative hijab. There were some who wore the more old-fashioned gallabeya and hijab, but only a rare woman was covered and veiled in black.
This time gallabeyas and hijabs were the norm. Young women wore leggings or jeans with a tunic, but the hijabs were everywhere and they were not brightly colored scarves, but solid blocks of neutral colors. However, women covered from head to toe in black were no longer rare and I noticed most of them also wore black gloves. They were moving shadows with just a sliver of their eyes showing – distant, aloof, unapproachable.
In the Cairo Museum we saw a young couple taking a selfie. The woman was completely covered in black. We wondered at the incongruity of hiding yourself and then taking a selfie. The young man’s outfit was standard casual fare, but she was covered in plain black without even a bit of embroidery. A lot of mixed messages there.
So I will tell you the story of our trip. I’ll remind you of the difficulties from time to time, but I’ll leave it to you to remember that everything was dirty, inconvenient and noisy, whether I mention it or not. Come back next week and we’ll hit the road.
Of all the places I’ve traveled to over the years, Melk Abbey qualifies as one of the most remarkable. All they need in the dictionary, to define the word Baroque, is a picture of the chapel’s interior. But that dictionary doesn’t have enough words in it to adequately describe the wonders you will see inside the abbey.
Melk Abbey has become somewhat of a tourist trap in the days since my last visit, 3-4 decades ago. I remember parking on the street, strolling over to the abbey and having a private tour with my small busload of tourists. This time I disembarked along a riverside crowded with cruise boats and hordes of people heading toward the abbey. Do not be dismayed or discouraged. Just line up and go with it. The abbey is worth your time and the hassle of dealing with tourists and guides.
The weather was miserably cold and damp, while my gear was sadly inadequate. What was intended to be a pleasant stroll through a garden and a chance to visit a small outdoor cafe, was instead an overlong huddle in the abbey’s courtyard.
Eventually the ubiquitous Viking guides, with their red jackets and numbered signs, showed up to talk us through the experience. Since my last visit, the abbey has had some renovations and remodeling, adding several exhibit rooms displaying a wonderful array of abbey treasures. While the exhibits are truly extraordinary, I would have easily traded them in on the opportunity to see my first guide just one more time.
The Charming Abbot Emeritus of Melk
And here’s the reason I enjoyed my first visit to Melk ever so much more than I did my return. The sweet little man in this photo had been the abbot of this remarkable place for many years and he loved it almost as much as he did God. He’d been retired from running the place for only a little while and had been assigned the joy of sharing it with others. During the tour he’d come to a closed door and look around surreptitiously to see if anyone was watching. If the coast was clear, he’d wrench open the door and say, “I’m not supposed to show you this, but I didn’t want you to miss it.” Then he’d go on to tell us a marvelous story about something that happened in the room or a tidbit about the artist who decorated it.
I loved him so much that I wanted to bundle him up and take him home with me. My admiration for the place was obvious and he begged me to come back some time and visit him. He confided that when there wasn’t such a crowd, he could show me other places in the abbey.
That small busload of travelers would have been lost in the horde of tourists on my latest visit. I wonder what my friend would have thought about the abbey’s popularity. The guides did a great job of sharing architectural highlights, but they were completely devoid of the affection the Abbot Emeritus displayed. I’ve always wished I could have returned for the promised private tour, but life changed for me after that trip and it was a long time before I crossed the ocean again. Too long of a time for the Abbot Emeritus to give me a tour.
Even without the Abbot Emeritus to show us around, the wonders of the abbey are apparent. This guide was quite good about rolling off pertinent dates of the abbey’s history, but she was not as insistent about keeping our eyes focused upwards. In every room the Abbot Emeritus told us to look up, as he described in detail the story of the ceiling frescoes. The average tourist probably misses the wonder of contemplating the effects of trompe–l’œil.
Sure the ceilings are beautiful, but gazing up your eyes are tricked into thinking you are looking up at arched ceilings and domes. It’s all an optical illusion, because the ceilings of the abbey are flat. There is one stairwell where the tour highlights the painted effects, but they are ignored in the rest of the abbey.
The guide also didn’t tell us any of the enchanting tales of the artist, tales of which I’ve long forgotten the details, but I had hoped to be reminded of during this visit. Nor did she explain in detail the meaning behind the elaborate frescoes. She was pedantic about the many ways the features of the abbey were Baroque in nature, but I was more interested in being reminded why they were unique.
Eventually, I gave up and quit listening to her. Instead I recalled the chuckles of glee my first guide shared with me and I wandered about mouth agape. I tried to jog my memory for the details of the frescoes and their painter, but they’d gotten lost somewhere along the way. More than once I stumbled into a fellow tourist because my eyes were glued above my head, rather than at my immediate surroundings.
I’ve saved the best for last, but in the meantime ran out of words for today. Come back next week and we’ll visit the chapel.