Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Morton: A Traveller in Rome

November 5, 2017

A Traveller in Rome
H.V. Morton
(Methuen & Co., 1957)
432 p. Second reading.

I first read this book shortly after my first visit to Rome, in 2001. Having returned to the city four times in the intervening years, and having come to know it much better in consequence, I decided to revisit the book, both in order to return to the Eternal City in my imagination once more, and also to see how the book stands up. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

H.V. Morton was a British travel writer who wrote a shelf-full of books over the course of several decades, finding his first success in the 1920s and continuing to publish until his death in the late 1970s. I have a half-dozen of his books on my shelves, but as yet this is the only one I’ve read. My tardiness in this regard has to be attributed to culpable neglect or honest incapacity, because, on the basis of the evidence I have, he’s a fine and judicious guide, generous in judgement, discerning and articulate, and I’ve every reason to believe that those other books of his would be rewarding.

But the theme for today is Rome, a city that one walks, as Gibbon said, “with a lofty step”, surrounded on all sides by beauty and history, a great clamour in one’s ears and a great fullness in one’s heart. It was Garibaldi who called her “a dethroned queen”, adding that “from her ruins, immense, sublime, gigantic, there emerges a luminous spectre — the memory of all that was great in the past…”; and this is quite true. She is sublime, and she is gigantic. I’ll not forget the morning, a few years ago, when I entered the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore for the early morning Mass, having flown to Rome late the night before for a weekend’s sojourn, and I stared, stupefied, at the thick marble columns, gilded angels, and hovering frescoes, and knew that I could be nowhere but Rome, sublime and gigantic.

Morton takes the reader through the city, exploring the famous monuments and some lesser-known sites as well, filling in the history with genial exactitude, giving us some notion of how the city has changed over the centuries, relating tales of memorable events and people, and also giving us a portrait of modern Rome — Rome of the 1950s, that is — and its citizens. I laughed in recognition at his account of a taxi ride through the city streets:

The driver of this car was a mild looking Italian until he settled himself behind the wheel, when he became aggressive, if not actually homicidal. We shot round the Piazza Barberini, weaving our way in and out at great speed, missing by an inch or so a man on a bicycle loaded with carnations, braking violently to avoid another car, shooting ahead to overtake it, for he was one of those drivers who consider it dishonourable to be passed, and darting up narrow Renaissance streets hooting insanely until the passers-by dashed for shelter.

‘In one year,’ he said, turning to me and accelerating, ‘I have nine accidents…’

As if this had not sunk into my mind, he took both hands off the wheel and shouted, ‘Nine!’

I will not try to summarize the contents of the book; if there’s something about Rome that particularly interests you, the probability is high that it is mentioned somewhere. He visits the Forum, the major basilicas and many minor churches, the Vatican, the principal fountains, the gardens; he makes side-trips to the catacombs and even to Castel Gandalfo (where I, alas, still have not been!).

Let me highlight a few my favourite passages.

On the overall plan of the city:

Rome has no centre. There is no part of the city which you can say at once is definitely the one and only heart of Rome… Instead of one great forum, Rome has innumerable piazze scattered all over the city, and the stranger cannot decide which is the most important. There seems little to choose between the Piazza Colonna, the Piazza Barberini, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza dell’Esedra, and all the other piazze; and even the famous Piazza Venezia, with its adjacent monument to Victor Emanuel, is more a landmark and a beacon to the stranger than a civic centre.

On the characteristic architecture of Rome:

The landscape of Rome is itself declamatory. Upon the roofline stand hundreds of gesticulating saints, their garments tossed about in a baroque breeze, their fingers admonishing, pointing and blessing. The undulating architecture with which the Church in the seventeenth century expressed its satisfaction with the Counter Reformation is itself a gay, inspiring background for gesticulation. It is a stage upon which a Puritan with modest, downcast eyes would be an impossibility: it is the Church flamboyant, the Church resurgent, the Church so sure of itself that it can be quite humorous at times.

On the sense of discovery one feels:

It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.

**

Insofar as I can tell, Morton was not a Catholic, but he seems to have appreciated the Church, and he writes with knowledge and understanding about her prominent place in Roman history. Of the many religious pilgrims who visit the city every day, whom he calls “the original visitors to Rome”, he writes that “they may be strangers, but they are at home”, and this, too, captures something of the uniqueness of the city.

Most interesting to me was what he had to say about Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff at the time. For the past several decades, since the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” in 1963, Pius XII has been criticized from various quarters for, at best, inaction in the face of the Nazi’s final solution, and, at worst, collaboration in its aims. Naturally the question of what Pius did or did not do to help the Jews in their darkest hour is a valid and valuable one, but Hochhuth’s charges owed more to imagination than any historical discovery — if they were not actually engineered by the KGB — and the least subtle of Pius’ detractors seem to have gone down to defeat.

In any case, Morton was writing before the controversy arose, and so the book gives us a window into what an informed non-Catholic thought of the Pope at the time. He says that “There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII”, and then proceeds to tell how he first saw him during the praying of the Angelus at St Peter’s:

It may be a strange thing to say of a small figure in white on a distant balcony, but I was aware that this man was radiating to us all an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity; of holiness, for there is no other word.

Later he was granted a brief personal audience, about which he wrote:

When my turn came, I made my reverence and found myself looking with interest at the most beautifully made red velvet shoes I have ever seen. There was a small gold cross embroidered on the toe. The shoes looked comfortable, and the Pope’s foot was small, narrow, and aristocratic. I rose and found myself gazing into a pair of dark eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. I felt I was in the presence of a beautifully dressed hermit… Everything about him was fastidious. He had spoken French to the Arab, now he spoke in English with a strong accent, and when I answered his questions, he drew a beautiful cross in the air and passed on. And I knew that I had spoken to a holy man.

The interest in the shoes is consistent with Morton’s slightly aristocratic temperament, but it is clear that he admired the Pope greatly, and this, I believe, was a fairly common judgment at the time.

**

A book about Rome could never be a substitute for the real thing, but, as books go, this is a worthy one. I would recommend it most highly to readers who have already been to the city at least once; someone reading it sight-unseen would not, I think, reap so great a reward. This makes it rather peculiar as a guide book, but then again it is not really a guide book in that sense, but rather a memoir of one man’s experience of the city, and a testimony that

To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.

Fermor: Mani

November 22, 2016

Mani
Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(John Murray, 2004) [1958]
336 p.

This is the first of two volumes Fermor wrote about his travels in Greece mid-century. In this case he was exploring the Mani peninsula, the southernmost tip of Greece. The peninsula is mountainous and has historically been largely separate, culturally and politically, from the rest of the country. At the time of Fermor’s travels it was still a traditional society, with its own dialect, clothing, and culture, into which radio and tourism had yet to make inroads. His travelogue therefore provides a fascinating look at a European society in a state that could hardly be found anywhere else in the modern world.

“Go toward the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour!”

The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing but God.”

Because there were no roads (today there are a few) the Maniot villages were accessible only on foot or by boat; Fermor and his wife did walk a bit, as in the passage just quoted, but for the most part their itinerary involved boating around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping in villages along the way.

An account of their travels is interwoven with reflections on aspects of Maniot culture — or is it the other way around? We learn about the custom of the blood feud, a cause of much destruction and sorrow; we learn of the not-unrelated Maniot reputation for sung dirges, a skill taught especially to young woman and admired throughout Greece; we learn of the greatest Maniot of the modern era, Petrobey Mavromichalis, who led the war of independence which the Maniots waged against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century.

The Mani peninsula is not a hub of activity, and among the many pleasant qualities of its people is an appreciation of leisure, which Fermor summarizes thus in his marvellous prose:

One compensation of this kind of travel is the unchartable and unregimented leisure between the rigours of displacement. Letters build their vain pyramids on some table in Athens; weeks pass; their mute clamour dies down unanswered; dust and oblivion enshroud them and the flight of months makes them obsolete and strips them of all but antiquarian interest. This arduous and Olympian sloth is made more precious still by the evidence all round of arduous and boring toil. Here, too, in the absence of lofty theories about the intrinsic virtue of work regardless of results, no northern guilt comes to impair its full enjoyment. Such mephitic ideas cannot long survive the clear and decarbonizing sun.

The Maniots are Christians, but they are also Greeks, and Fermor notes that the old Greek paganism has retained a foothold in the culture, despite the efforts of the Church:

The supernatural ancien régime presented a conundrum to the Early Fathers. When the Fathers came into their own after long persecution in the name of the old gods, they adopted, as we have seen, bold and sweeping tactics. The gods and the more presentable figures were captured, baptized and camouflaged; their headquarters were either wrecked or re-garrisoned by the winners and up fluttered, as it were, the new victorious flag. Some of the dispossessed managed to keep a leg in both camps. Others–insignificant as possible leaders of counter-revolution or totally ineligible–were (as supernatural beings can only be burnt or smashed in effigy) outlawed en bloc. A banished mythology was left to skulk and roam in the mountains, eventually, it was hoped, to die of neglect. But from a mixture of ancient awe and, perhaps, Christian charity, the country people befriended them, and they are with us still.

In one of the most memorable passages, they pass a famous cave found at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, a cave which is the legendary entrance to the Underworld, through which Psyche passed in her quest for the casket which would restore her beauty, through which Orpheus passed to rescue Eurydice, and through which Herakles dragged triple-jawed Cerberus in the execution of his labours. “There is always something about these earthly identifications with Hades that fills one with awe,” he remarks.

As for Christianity among the Maniots, Fermor found it rich and integrated into the lives of the people, but focused more on practices and rituals than on doctrine. This character he attributes largely to its having passed through a long “Eastern dark ages”, covering the period from the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century until the period of Maniot independence in the 19th century. He writes rather beautifully on the theme:

Long gone were the days when the subtle Eastern theologians could with difficulty make the blunt Western prelates grasp the delicate shades of dogma; indeed the shoe was on the other foot. But the outward observances, the liturgy, some of the sacraments, prostrations, rigorous fasts, frequent signs of the cross, the great feasts of the Church — the cross thrown into the sea at Epiphany, the green branches of Palm Sunday, the candles and coloured eggs celebrating the risen Christ at Easter, the monthly censing of houses, and the devotion to ikons before which an oil-dip twinkles in every house — all this became rigid and talismanic: and so it has remained. Its scope is different from what is usually conjured up in the West by the word “Christianity”; but there is a tendency in the most peaceful nations to identify religion with the tribe and the reasons in Greece are more cogent than most. All the outward and visible signs are there and it would be a bold critic who would unburden them completely of inward and spiritual grace. There is nothing laggard or perfunctory about these signs; they are performed with reverence and love. They have the familiarity and the treasured intimacy of family passwords and countersigns. The day is punctuated by these fleeting mementoes, and pious landmarks in the calendar, usually solemnized with dance and rejoicing, space out the year; with the result that few gestures are wholly secular. They weave a continuous thread of the spiritual and supernatural through the quotidian homespun and ennoble the whole of life with a hieratic dignity.

As in Greek culture writ large, Maniot devotion is heavily invested in holy ikons, and I cannot resist quoting a passage in which Fermor tackles the daunting challenge of describing the style of Greek (well, specifically Cretan) iconography in prose. Quite apart from the interest of his argument, this is magnificent writing:

The detail is subtle and delicate: the cartographic wrinkles and circling contour-lines on the saints’ faces, the line of nose and nostril, the sweep of those hoary eyebrows over each of which beetles an outlined irascible and thought-indicating bulge; the dark and, by contrast, etiolating triangles that project point downwards from the lower lids, the bristling curl of the white locks round foreheads that catch the light like polished teak, the prescribed complexity of their beards cataracting in effulgent arcs or erupting like silver quills from swarthy physiognomies — all of this, on close inspection, proves to be built up of complementary planes of brick red and apple green applied with delicate impressionism to the black phantom of the saint or paladin beneath. The emergence of this dark background under a luminous and fragmentary carapace of skilfully superimposed light and colour…is the earmark of the Cretan mode. I am tempted to relate this very strange technique, especially in ikons of Our Lord, with reasons that are not purely plastic. It calls irresistibly to mind a characteristic passage of St Dionysios the Areopagite: “The Divine Dark,” writes this other Dionysios, “is the inaccessible Light in which God is said to dwell, and in this Dark, invisible because of its surpassing radiance and unapproachable because of the excess of the streams of supernatural light, everyone must enter who is deemed worthy to see or know God.”

[…]

Greek iconography, of all Christian art that includes the outward forms of sacred beings, seems to me to have set itself the highest and most difficult task. […] They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which had saved Judaic Christianity (a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal. Skilled in the handling of abstractions, knowing that the representation of Christ as God was as impossible a task as uttering the ineffable, they tried to indicate the immediately assimilable incarnation of Christ in such a way that it gave wings to the mind and the spirit and sent them soaring through and beyond the symbol to its essence, the Transcendent God, with whom, as they themselves had defined, He was consubstantial. If they failed in this aspiration it was failure on a vertiginously exalted height.

And, if it isn’t already obvious, travel writing doesn’t often rise to the “vertiginously exalted heights” where Fermor dwells. He is that perfect combination: sensitive, observant, cultured, intelligent, and gifted with a golden pen. To spend time with one of his books is an almost sensual pleasure, so richly and evocatively does he write. I’m looking forward to going to Greece with him again.

***

I’ve just learned, from this essay, that Fermor and his wife actually bought a home and settled in Mani during their later years. It seems the journey recounted in this book made a lastingly good impression.

***

I cannot resist quoting one more passage, simply for its beauty. Here he writes about treading grapes in a Cretan village.

Now and then one finds oneself, in the dilettante fashion of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, helping in some pleasant and unexacting task: gathering olives onto spread blankets in late autumn, after beating fruit from the branches with long rods of bamboo; picking grapes into baskets, shelling peas or occasionally, in late summer, helping to tread the grapes. I remember one such occasion in Crete, in a cobbled and leafy yard in the village of Vaphe at the foothills of the White Mountains. First we spread deep layers of thyme branches at the bottom of a stone vat which stood breast-high like a giant Roman sarcophagus; then a troop of girls hoisted their heavy baskets and tipped in tangled cataracts of white and black grapes. The treading itself is considered a young man’s job. The first three, of which I was one, had their long mountain boots pulled off; buckets of water were sloshed over grimy shanks and breeches rolled above the knee. “A pity to wash off the dirt,” croaked the old men that always gather on such occasions. “You’ll spoil the taste.” This chestnut–which I imagine to have existed for several millenia–evoked its ritual laughter while we climbed on the edge and jumped down on the resilient mattress of grapes. Scores of skins exploded and the juice squirted between our toes… In a minute or two a mauve-pink trickle crossed the stone lip of the spout and dripped into the waiting tub; the trickle broadened, the drops became a stream and curved into a splashing arc… We were handed glasses of the sweet juice which already–or was this imagination?–had a corrupt and ghostly tang of fermentation. When the stream slackened, the manhood of the treaders, shuffling calf-deep in a tangled slush by now and purple to the groin, was jovially impugned…. For days the sweet heady smell of the must hangs over the village. All is sticky to the touch, purple splashes and handprints on the whitewash and spilt red rivulets between the cobbles and the clouds of flies suggest a massacre. Meanwhile, in the dark crypts of the houses, in huge grooved Minoan amphorae, the must grumbles and hits out and fills the house with unnerving fumes and a bubbling noise like the rumour of plots, a dark conspiracy of whispers. For as long as this vaulted collusion lasts, a mood of swooning and Dionysiac laxity roves the air.

An Englishman and an American in Rome

June 25, 2015

Attentive readers will have noted that things have been rather quiet around here of late. This is due, mostly, to the fact that the duties of fatherhood have finally completed their encroachment upon what I used to call my “free time,” and occasions for reading and writing (and, for that matter, arithmetic) have become harder to find. I am actually enjoying at present a few months of paternity leave from the office, and I had thought that I would be able to arrange matters so as to open up some time for writing, but thus far it has not proved so.

But we did find time, last month, to holiday for a few weeks in Italy, spending our time mostly in the Eternal City (with one side jaunt to the hill country and Assisi). While there, I was reading (in addition to a wonderful guide book first published in 1903) a few Roman travel memoirs, especially those of Charles Dickens (in Pictures from Italy) and Henry James (in Italian Hours).

Now Dickens, for all his merits, seems to have been tone deaf to Catholicism, and although he has many approving things to say about Rome and the Romans, he can find little kind to say about the Catholic side of Rome. Of his first visit to St. Peter’s, for instance, he says:

Immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter’s. It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains—so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful—nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.

If you read carefully, you’ll have noted that Dickens describes the church as “distinctly and decidedly small,” which can only be stubbornness on his part, for it is the obvious opposite of the truth, and the impression of the entrance to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter as being “a very lavish pantomime” sound to me like a Protestant gentleman’s determination not to like the place. And his opinion failed to improve on further acquaintance:

The effect of the Cathedral on my mind, on that second visit, was exactly what it was at first, and what it remains after many visits. It is not religiously impressive or affecting. It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round. The very purpose of the place, is not expressed in anything you see there, unless you examine its details—and all examination of details is incompatible with the place itself. It might be a Pantheon, or a Senate House, or a great architectural trophy, having no other object than an architectural triumph. There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular. But it does not heighten the effect of the temple, as a work of art; and it is not expressive—to me at least—of its high purpose.

Never mind the technical detail that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. The “one point for the mind to rest upon” at St. Peter’s is hard to miss: it is the tomb of St. Peter under the altar under the splendid baldacchino of Bernini. It is hard to believe that he visited the church twice and didn’t notice it. Especially in a space which is so distinctly and decidedly small.

But his point about the impression of the church being a somewhat diffuse one has an element of truth in it. One can wander up and down inside it without constantly having the focal point in view. Henry James picks up on this quality, but in a more approving mood than Dickens, when he writes:

You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you—your weak lift of a scant edge of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some mighty folio page—without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension and the actual to achieve your first real possession.

I note with interest, and some envy, that in James’ day (writing in 1873) one could enter St. Peter’s by mounting the steps and pulling aside a leather curtain. It is a long way from the interminable lines and security checks that a modern visitor must bear. (The old paradox of tourism: I’m so pleased to be here, but what’s with all these other people also being here?) But James continues, elaborating on the same theme:

Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army—among whom indeed individual aspects may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo’s ineffable “Pieta,” which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel—this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced—are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul’s without the Walls. The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily strained, yet strained, at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity.

That note of serenity is a true one: James may have been largely deaf to the specifically religious side of Catholicism, but his ear (as it were) for sensibility and aesthetics was exquisite, and he hits just the right note, I think, when he later writes that “St. Peter’s speaks less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance.”

Anyway, it was a great trip, a many splendoured thing, full of glories. I’ll be living off it, I am sure, for years to come.

The Benedictines of San Benedetto

October 21, 2014

Rod Dreher recently made a trip to Italy — research for a book on Dante, I believe — and along the way he stopped at the Monastery of San Benedetto, an abbey built on the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. He was taken by surprise:

The monks of Norcia are Benedictines who pray the old mass, and who chant the hours in Latin. To be in their basilica during mass or the hours is like stepping into another century. To describe it as aesthetically rich and spiritually nourishing hardly does the experience justice.

But to really understand what’s happening in at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Norcia, you have to talk with the monks. Except for the prior, Fr. Cassian, they are all young men. And they are easygoing, gentle, and luminous. They radiate joy. Casella and I could hardly believe that a monastery like this exists. To talk with them about their lives as Benedictines, and how and why they came to embrace the monastic calling, was a profound grace…

I kept thinking: Anybody who despairs of the Church, or of their spiritual lives, should come to Norcia. This monastery and basilica glows with peace and joy. It is, as I said yesterday, both a lighthouse and a stronghold. More people should know about this monastery. I don’t know what exactly they are doing, but the spiritual fruits of their community are palpable. They are gaining so many vocations that they are outgrowing their small quarters. We read and hear about so many defeats for the Church these days, but in the mountains of Umbria, the faith is winning.

You need to go see this place for yourself. If you can, make a retreat there. Casella and I hated to come down off the mountain today, but we have a plane to catch in the morning. Tonight we walked around Rome and visited some of the great churches of Christendom, but all we could think about was the monks of Norcia, and wishing we were back there with them.

Read the whole thing. It’s nice to see Dreher, who has had a troubled relationship with Catholicism, to say the least, responding so positively to these Catholic monastics.

When I think of St. Benedict, I usually think of Montecassino. I admit I’d never heard of San Benedetto, which is situated near Spoleto, not all that far from Assisi, and less than 200 km from Rome. I’d love to go there one day.

Springtime in Alberta

May 1, 2013

I am back from a few weeks vacation:

deer

If pressed, I will admit that conditions were not quite this bad, but to say that they were entirely unlike this would also be false. It was a great vacation nonetheless.

Where to stay in Rome?

January 22, 2012

I know a couple who are planning to go to Rome this year to celebrate their anniversary. It will be their first time in the Eternal City, and they are looking for a place to stay. The parameters are about what you would expect: a good location, clean and comfortable, and not too, too expensive. Can anyone recommend something?

Visiting Antarctica

February 27, 2011

As we near the end of “Antarctica Month”, I am sure I know the question that is foremost in many minds:

“How can I go to Antarctica?”

Certainly it is a question that I have been asking myself. I’ve done some digging, and it seems that there are three principal ways to get there.

Be adventurous

Some people find their own way to Antarctica. Earlier this month we had a comment from Frida Waara, who went to several Antarctic locations, including the South Pole, a few months ago as part of a film project. People continue to test their physical endurance against Antarctic conditions: here are some recent examples. Later this year, to mark the centenary of the first successful trek to the South Pole, two British men are planning to make the journey on foot, without machines or outside assistance. That is undoubtedly courageous, but no modern expedition will match the danger of those early treks made by Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott. Even the most modestly equipped adventurers today will have radio contact, and probably GPS signals, and maybe even CNN on a smartphone. Still, Antarctica demands respect, and it is well to remember that its ferocity can undo even the best laid plans; just this week we hear the sad story of a Norwegian ship sunk along the Antarctic coast, her missing crew presumed dead.

If such adventures are beyond your capacity, you could instead…

Be scientific

Today there are, at any given time, several thousand people resident in Antarctica, most of them working at scientific research stations. Yesterday I wrote about one of the grandest experiments taking place in Antarctica, but there are many others as well. It seems to me that a terrific way to visit Antarctica would be to get involved with the scientific work taking place at these stations and hope for an Antarctic posting. The easiest way to do that is probably to become a graduate student for a professor who works on an Antarctic project — or, naturally, to become such a professor oneself.

This is probably not an option for most of us, however, whether because of aptitude or state of life. For most of us, the best course may well be to work really hard for a long time so that we can…

Be wealthy

I was surprised to learn that there is a bustling industry ferrying tourists down to Antarctica. For a few thousand dollars one can book passage on a cruise from South America that will glide along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. In some cases, weather permitting, passengers can land on the Peninsula and even camp overnight. For a little more money one could include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in the itinerary, which would permit a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton. For the serious Antarctic tourist — and, at a price of nearly $40 000, one would have to be a wealthy tourist too — one could visit the Antarctic mainland, either in the Ross Sea area, where Scott and Shackleton had their bases, or in the more remote eastern region, south of Australia. Look at it this way: it’s still less expensive than going to Everest.

I am of two minds about this whole matter: on the one hand, it is somewhat depressing that so many people now visit Antarctica; on the other hand, I would like to go myself.

How I spent my vacation

November 9, 2010

Poor technique, but good results.

Winter wonderland

February 7, 2010

This past week I have been on vacation in the land of frozen milk and honey.  For three days we were swaddled in a thick fog; it was like the world disappeared.  When the fog finally did lift, it left behind beautiful white tracery on the trees and shrubs.  Here are a few photographs (click to enlarge).

In the fog:

In the clear:

I didn’t spend all my time looking at snow-lined branches though.  I also found time to take a drive in a very cool car:

Аз бих харесвал хот-дог, моля.

October 15, 2009

Things have been quiet around here of late on account of my world travels and altered domestic circumstances (about which more later, perhaps).  In any case, I have returned from my journey to the Balkans, where I passed an enjoyable few days in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and surrounding area.  Sofia is in many ways a beautiful city, and I wandered her streets happily.  She is home to an impressive number of beautiful churches and monumental civic buildings.  There are signs, none too subtle, of economic difficulties, and I am told that the country wages an exhausting battle against corruption and organized crime.  I don’t doubt that is true, but I can say that the city was a good host to this visitor.

I regret that I did not have much occasion to sample the local cuisine.  This is entirely my own fault.  I have the perverse habit of craving Chinese food when I travel; there is precious little of it available in Bulgaria, as far as I can tell, and even less Vietnamese or Thai, but my wandering eye wandered nonetheless.  I can say this: Bulgarians make excellent pizza.

The language barrier was not too much of an issue, as I managed to make myself understood, more or less, when necessary.   The nodding/shaking problem did not really arise.  I grappled manfully with the Cyrillic script, and emerged chastened but satisfied with my performance.

Anyone interested in seeing a few photos, complete with explanatory captions, can look here.

Sofia-Silhouette