Category: Travel

TravelVisual Arts

North Carolina’s Fresco Trail

The story of North Carolina’s Fresco Trail began in 1973 with the serendipitous meeting of a newly minted Episcopal priest, Father Faulton Hodge, and an ambitious young artist, Benjamin F. Long IV.

At the time, Father Hodge was working tirelessly to rebuild his parish and its two small historic churches, located in isolated areas of Ashe and Allegheny counties in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Long, who had recently returned from a multi-year apprenticeship with the noted Italian portrait and fresco painter, Pietro Annigoni, was in search of a church in his home state that would grant him permission to produce a fresco on an interior sanctuary wall.

As relationships are often built on mutual needs, the two men quickly struck a bargain. Despite the fact that Father Hodge had no money to pay Long for materials or labor, the artist was content with simply having his first fresco commission in his home state. Long created a fresco entitled Mary, Great with Child on a panel that would hang in Saint Mary’s Church at Beaver Creek.

Detail of artist Ben Long’s Mary, Great with Child (1974), one of three frescoes which can be seen in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, just outside West Jefferson, North Carolina. The artist presents a pregnant Mary in a very human style, rather than the often idealized form seen in many religious paintings. Photo: Henry Lewis

The work was well-received by parishioners, and soon Long added two more frescoes to the main sanctuary wall inside St. Mary’s that beautifully filled the space directly behind the alter. Local and international media followed, bringing Father Hodge more parishioners and artist Ben Long quite a degree of renown as a realist painter who was also skilled in the ancient art of fresco.

Long would go on to paint his interpretation of The Last Supper in Father Hodge’s second church, Holy Trinity, in Glendale Springs. By this time, word of the painter’s frescoes had spread to the extent that Long ended up with a team of twenty student-artists from around the USA and abroad to assist him.

Ben Long’s fresco of The Last Supper (1980) which covers the wall behind the altar in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church near Glendale Springs, North Carolina. Long was the model for Thomas, who is seen sitting on Jesus’ right side. Photo: Henry Lewis

Between 1974 and 1980, Long achieved notoriety by completing the first frescoes (four) in this region of the country, while Father Hodge became famous in his own right and grew his flock many fold from its humble beginnings. The serendipity of their meeting had been sweet indeed.

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CultureTravel

Portals of Malta

Doorways are portals to other worlds, both real and imagined. J. R. R. Tolkien–speaking through one of his most enduring  characters, Bilbo Baggins–summed up the sense of mystery and adventure that lies just on the other side of such an opening.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to–

Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings

The idea that portals are gateways to other worlds filled with exotic new adventures was reinforced in popular fiction, TV programs and movies during my childhood. In the 1960s, I was enthralled by The Time Tunnel, a TV show with a thin plot that was propelled by the time traveling adventures of its two main characters. They would walk into a swirling black and white tunnel–think cheesy special effects!–which was a portal to other worlds. This was also a popular theme in other TV shows of the time such as The Twilight Zone. And I was glued to the TV when the shows aired.

Many ancient cities were protected by fortifications which had restricted gates through which all trade had to pass. Pictured here is a section of stone wall surrounding the historic city of Valletta, Malta. Photo: Henry Lewis

The doorway effect

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a house or apartment made up of more than one room have probably experienced the phenomenon of walking through a doorway into another room and simultaneously forgetting the reason we walked into that room. We may experience a change in temperament or thought processing simply by walking through a portal.

According to scientific research, walking through a doorway triggers our brains to be ready to learn something new, and therefore, takes us away from the thoughts that occupied our minds just seconds before. That powerful response can be either stimulating or annoying depending on the circumstances, but I prefer to focus on the possibilities such journeys offer rather than the limitations.

Passing through a portal can be the key to the process of rejuvenation, a way to unplug from the disturbing or mundane events we become bogged down in at home or work. Whether for exercise or to relieve depression, when I need a break, I remove myself from the situation at hand, walk outside, breath some fresh air (hopefully) and let my sense of curiosity about the world take control. This is where the adventure begins.

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CultureTravel

A Tale of Three Colombian Pueblos

You’ll find colorful ‘motochivas’ in many of Colombia’s pueblos. They are a useful form of transport since many of the streets are quite narrow. Photo: Henry Lewis.

While Colombia’s big cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali get most of the press, the true heart of this incredibly diverse South American country lies in its smaller towns and cities, known as ‘pueblos’ in Spanish. My favorite pueblos (so far) are all located between 5,000—7,000 feet elevation (1,500–2,100 meters) in the Andes mountains, a barrier of three smaller ranges which roughly divide the western half of Colombia from north to south.

During my recent explorations of this region, I’ve discovered there are both similarities and differences in the way these pueblos have defined themselves. In rugged mountain regions such as the Andes, similarities are often based on geographic proximity while differences may depend on the origins of the original settlers or the hand that fate may have dealt a specific locale in the form of violent conflict or natural disaster. These aspects, in turn, have determined how each town has chosen to promote itself as Colombia becomes a budding center of tourism for both domestic and international travelers.

Since all three pueblos are similar in size and located in the Antioquia department of northwest Colombia, I’ve chosen to share my impressions of Jardín, Jericó and Guatapé in one post. Each of these towns can be easily reached by bus or car from the department’s capital, and Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín. For foreign visitors, the city’s nearby international airport in Rio Negro is less than an hour away from Medellin’s main north and south bus terminals.

I experienced each of these diverse pueblos from early December to early January when municipal governments all across Latin America ensure that the spirit of the Christmas (Navidad) season lights up every nook and cranny of each town. While larger crowds and heavier traffic can be expected during this holiday period (especially on weekends), I find it a fascinating time to travel in order to see the great lengths each town has gone to in an effort to outdo their peers with festive decorations, musical performances and even a parade tossed in here and there.

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CultureTravel

Monk Viengsay and the Secret Cave

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

For me, one of the highlights of traveling in Southeast Asia has always been chatting with the monks at the Buddhist temples found around almost every corner. Without exception, I’ve found them to be friendly and open, and just as curious about Western customs and my personal life as I was about theirs’.

Of all the SE Asian countries, Laos is my favorite travel destination. I first went there in late 2004 while I was teaching in China. This first introduction was so pleasant that it encouraged me to begin the search for a job in a region where the gentle, laid-back vibe contrasted sharply to the rushed pace of the large Chinese city where I was working.

At that time, Laos was a place seemingly frozen in an earlier era, where locals would readily offer help to a traveler without expecting anything in return. This same spirit of openness was embodied by the young monks at the many temples in the old capital of Luang Prabang, a place I’d read about and was keen to visit.

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NatureTravel

Peru’s Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.  UNESCO designation 1983

Machu Picchu’s stunning setting has contributed to making it South America’s most iconic and visited archaeological site. In this view, the pyramid-shaped Huayna Picchu (on the right) can be seen towering above the site.

As is often said about journeying to a new destination, getting there is half the fun. This is definitely the case when it comes to traveling to Peru’s UNESCO crown jewel of Machu Picchu (sometimes spelled Machupicchu).

The citadel sits high on an awe-inspiring mountain at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level and is surrounded by cliffs on three sides that plunge thousands of feet down to the Urubamba River which twists and turns below. These natural barriers made the city easier to protect during the 100 years or so it was inhabited by the Inca and also helped spare it from destruction by the invading Spanish armies in the mid-1500s.

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CultureTravel

Contemplating an ancient civilization in San Agustín, Colombia

While many globetrotting travelers these days hurry from one megasite to another in their haste to check each off a ‘must see’ list that’s been compiled by someone else, many discerning travelers are ready to escape the crowds and delve into often over-looked and more remote historical gems in their search for a more authentic and unique travel experience.

One such site is the San Agustín Archaeological Park found deep in the montane rain forests (also known as cloud forest) of the southern Colombian Andes.

Pack snacks and don’t forget your worry beads

Just getting to San Agustín is half the fun. Well, that is if you have a keen sense of adventure and a durable backside.

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CultureTravel

Oman Photo Stories #3: The South

When I say southern Oman, I’m referring to the governorate of Dhofar which borders on the Arabian Sea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the east, south and west respectively. This region includes the country’s second largest city, Salalah, which has a more tropical climate than the north, complete with coconut palms and a summer monsoon season known as the ‘Khareef’.

Salalah draws thousands of summer visitors from other Gulf countries who enjoy picnics surrounded by lush green (shades of which I’ve never seen before!) mountain landscapes and waterfalls, along with cool temperatures and misty, overcast skies. I lived and worked in Salalah for two years and must admit this region’s weather, white-sand beaches and unique variety of plants and animals, more akin to East Africa than the north of the country, made it my favorite.

This southern region is separated from northern Oman by 500 kilometers of barren, mostly flat and featureless sand desert. Making the torturous 10-hour drive across this moonscape between Salalah and Muscat multiple times alone (which surely places me high on the list of potential candidates for a mission to Mars!),  gave me plenty of time to ponder both the geographical and cultural differences that spring from such isolation.

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CultureTravel

Oman Photo Stories #2: North Central

I lived in the north central region of Oman for six of the eight years I worked as a university lecturer in the Sultanate. This region contains the vast majority of the country’s population, commerce and higher education institutions.

While more than 25% of Oman’s population lives in the Capital Area of Muscat alone, I worked and made my home in the Al Batinah Governorate’s administrative center of Sohar, a small industrial city on the coast about 2 hours northeast of Muscat and 2 1/2 hours southeast of the UAE’s popular destination of Dubai.

The cities in this region are Oman’s most prosperous and least traditional, although a drive into the countryside’s smaller villages quickly exposes the viewer to the Bedouin way of life where close family ties are far more prized than the glitzy excesses of city living.

North Central Oman

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CultureTravel

Oman Photo Stories #1: Musandam

Over the past few years, the Sultanate of Oman, where I lived and worked from January 2008 until August 2016, has received a steady stream of accolades from top travel publications such as Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveler.

Words such as ‘a hidden gem’, ‘a startling variety of beautiful landscapes’ and ‘rich in history’ have been used to describe this friendly and peaceful country located on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the clear waters of the Arabian Sea (part of the Indian Ocean).

According to Rough Guides:

Amid the ever-changing states of the Arabian Gulf, Oman offers a refreshing reminder of a seemingly bygone age. Over-development has yet to blight its most spectacular landscapes and cultural traditions remain remarkably undiluted, making the sultanate one of the best places in the Gulf to experience traditional Arabia.

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Travel

Gaudi’s Barcelona: Photo Journal

“Nothing is art if it does not come from nature.”

Antoni Gaudí

Most people either love or loathe Gaudí’s designs. Some architectural critics have described his work as garish and overly busy. Gaudí was certainly not cut from the same fabric as Mies van der Rohe and other later architects who  espoused the notion that  ‘less is more’.

Personally, I admire his disregard for convention and dedication (or obsession) to finding unique solutions to the structural engineering problems posed during the process of creating his more unique buildings.

While Gaudí always aimed for perfection in his work and collaborated with the best artisans  of his time, I’m drawn to the projects he designed in the latter half of his career with their whimsical style and forms imitating nature. Gaudí supposedly said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that there were no straight lines in nature so he didn’t intend to use them in his work.

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