Tag: “Architecture”

Was That A Hill?

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Deep in the aromatic pine forests of southern Estonia are the Haanja Uplands.

This is beautiful country with a forest bird soundtrack. The people are mostly friendly and hearty. One pure Estonian smile can erase the memory of quite a few suspicious glances from these private rural people.

The Baltic States are made up of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia is to the east and the Baltic Sea is on the west.

Less than 20% of these three countries is more than 250 m (820 ft.) above sea level. These are flat countries.

The Haanja Uplands claim the highest point in the Baltic countries. It is Suur Munamägi at 318 m (1043 ft.). And it is an important feature that is duly publicized.

They have built a viewing tower that is quite spectacular. Towers are quite common in these flat countries. They let you view over the forest to distant horizons and are important for security and increasingly for tourism.

Suur Munamägi Tower

Suur Munamägi Tower

There is a nice cafe and a gift shop on the ground floor. But the main attraction is the viewing platform at the top of the blue spiral staircase.

It provides commanding views toward the Baltic Sea, Latvia, and Russia. The gently rolling forests stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions.

Suur Munamägi View

Suur Munamägi View

An interesting compass display on the viewing platform indicates the direction and distance to cities near and far. The imagination wanders over the forest canopy toward Tiblisi, Riga, Istanbul, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Budapest, Kiev, and other landmarks.

Directions and Distances to Landmarks

Directions and Distances to Landmarks

If you look in another direction…well, actually, it looks pretty much the same in all directions.

Suur Munamägi View

Suur Munamägi View

The country around Suur Munamägi is at about 58 degrees north latitude so even though the elevation is not great the area provides winter recreation opportunities. There are established cross-country ski parks and sliding hills.

The winter sports that are important here go unreported in much of the world’s press, which focus on a few commercial national sports in each country. Sports fans are surprisingly narrow-minded.

So, for bonus points, can you identify what the facility below is used for?

Mystery Facility

Mystery Facility

Let me help by saying there is a nice stadium (behind me) for viewing the events that are held here.

You could wander around the Haanja Uplands for days. There are nice wide gravel roads and few people. The superb university town of Tartu lies to the north and it is an easy drive to reach Haanja Nature Park from there. There are a few villages with beautiful old churches and many farms scattered around in openings in the forest. There are also many lakes.

This part of southern Estonia was my favorite part of Estonia, but Tartu and the capital of Tallinn are great old cities. This is an area that is well worth visiting. You will feel the impact of the beauty and the relaxation long after you leave.

UPDATE: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-40666519

A Day in Vilnius

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It was dark and quiet on Ligoninės gatvė as I stumbled over the coarse cobblestones toward the heart of the medieval old town of Vilnius, Lithuania. The sky gradually lightened as I walked downhill toward the Neris River.

I walked past the enormous columns of the town hall, past the presidential palace, the cathedral, the national history museum, and the university. These were all places that I would become more familiar with in the days ahead.

When I reached the Neris River the sky was getting colorful. There were two people sitting on the bank watching the sunrise before work. I stood for a while, watching also, and waiting for enough light to see the cathedral nearby.

Sunrise over the Neris River in Vilnius, Lithuania

Sunrise over the Neris River in Vilnius, Lithuania

The Vilnius Cathedral is close enough to the river that there used to be a navigable side channel that took ocean-going sailing ships to  the cathedral. This channel has been filled in and is now part of its expansive courtyard

Vilnius Cathedral and Courtyard

Vilnius Cathedral and Courtyard

Along this channel was a series of watch towers. This leaning tower is the only remaining one. The early morning light casts a shadow of the cross held by a statue on the cathedral roof. The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier pagan temple. During the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries it was closed, damaged, and used as a warehouse.

Vilnius Cathedral watch tower.

Vilnius Cathedral watch tower.

My morning was filled with sightseeing and museum cruising. The national history museum at the base of Castle Hill has many interesting artifacts and old maps. Maps that depicted all the various historical occupations and alliances. The Baltic countries are at the intersection of Europe and Asia and have been a repeated battleground of cultures.

If you plan ahead you can visit Vilnius during the Skamba Skamba Kankliai international folk music festival in May. This festival is a wonderful feast of varied folk music and dancing. It lasts three days and is held on the massive front entryway to the Vilnius Town Hall.

Skamba Skamba Kankliai International Folk Music Festival

Skamba Skamba Kankliai International Folk Music Festival

The performances are spectacular and the mood is relaxed. It is fun to listen to and see so many different kinds of traditional music.

There is also a tradition in many European countries of multi-day bachelor and bachelorette parties. In the Baltic countries they are elevated to unavoidable street happenings. The main goal is to embarrass the bride or groom. Usually a group of friends travels to another city and spends several days roaming the streets, parks, plazas, and cafes trying to draw as much attention as they can. They are often obnoxious, especially in the early morning hours of their all-night frolics.

In the example below, a group of young women roamed the streets dressed as pirates, complete with plastic swords and pistols. The bride (middle) was required to approach all young men who walked by their bench in this small park, and ask for their phone number. And they had to write their number on her white apron with a felt pen.

Bachelorette Party, Pirates Collecting Phone Numbers

Bachelorette Party, Pirates Collecting Phone Numbers

As you can imagine she collected a lot of phone numbers. And some of them were written slowly and with large numbers, uh, just for clarity.

Vilnius is filled with interesting neighborhoods and intriguing sites. One neighborhood has declared itself an independent country called: Užupio Respublika. They have three mottos: “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Win”, “Don’t Surrender” and a constitution with 39 articles. The articles are sometimes unusual, with an emphasis on liberty and personal choice, e.g.,

A dog has the right to be a dog.

People have the right to have no rights.

People have the right to be happy.

People have the right to be unhappy.

Vilnius also has a lovers’ padlock bridge where couples show their commitments with engraved padlocks. These bridge adornments are becoming widespread.

There are many other images that I will share of Vilnius in future posts. But at the end of this long day I was happy to find a very small wine and cheese shop only a block from my hotel. It was a jovial neighborhood gathering place. I asked if they had any Lithuanian wines to try. But the owner said that wine grapes do not grow in the Baltic countries. That far north it is just too cold and the growing season is too short. So I asked if they happened to have any montepulciano from Italy. Well, it turned out that they were Italian wine experts and had three different montepulciano wines. And they had some great local sheep cheese. The room was filled with music and laughter. I couldn’t understand the Lithuanian conversations. But I could understand the rest of the situation. It was a great place to end a great day in Vilnius.



Riga Nouveau

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Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are beautiful, green, forested, nearly flat, and primarily rural. Each of the Baltic countries has a strong, distinct culture and identity. I recently spent a far too-brief month traveling and photographing in the Baltic countries.

The stunning medieval centers of the capitals are surrounded by modern business districts supported by the most advanced technologies. In general, the people are kind but private. The populations have congregated in the capitals leaving vast areas of gently rolling farmland, forests, and parks sparsely populated with hard-working and not rich people.


The Baltic Countries - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Exploring the Baltic countries led me to Riga, Latvia. I want to tell a brief story about Art Nouveau architecture in Latvia.

Riga is the capital of Latvia and lies along the lower Daugava River near the Baltic Sea. It has a very interesting and robust old town district but it is also a town of broad boulevards and expansive parks.

Latvians are still emerging from the long night of Soviet occupation which followed the even darker Nazi occupation.

Riga is famous for its beautiful medieval old town. People are flocking to the old cobblestone streets, beautiful cathedrals, and plentiful outdoor cafés. The Latvians have managed to obliterate most of the Soviet-era buildings and replace them with replica medieval architecture that compliments the many surviving ancient (pre-Soviet) buildings.

Riga is also famous for its Art Nouveau buildings. This expressive art form dominated throughout Scandinavia and  Europe in the early 20th century prior to World War I. Latvian architects were both very creative and prolific. Many of their best examples still exist in Riga.

The most famous street is Alberta iela. The surrounding area also contains superb buildings. I strolled down Alberta iela a couple times. During my second walk the early morning light was just right to emphasize the most ostentatious ornamentations I have ever seen.

I had left my hotel early hoping to photograph along a scenic stream that flows through a downtown park. The day had dawned perfectly clear. The sky was deep blue and the sun was bright. I didn’t have much success in the park, but I was only a few blocks from the heart of the old Art Nouveau neighborhoods. So I continued walking toward Albert iela. It was a quiet morning, as people had already gone to work by the time I got there.

I spent a long time walking along the shaded side of the street photographing the beautifully illuminated buildings on the other side. It was the kind of morning stroll that a street photographer lives for. I had all day and stunning subjects.

The buildings were being used as residences or professional offices. There were many artistic details on the buildings.

Dramatic Detail, Riga


For sure, these ornamentations were way outside the realm of architectural functionality. They were pure art.

Near the far end of Albert iela I found what I thought was the king of ostentatiousness. This building is a big sculpture and maybe overwrought.

Riga Extravagance

So if you have neighbors who have an ostentatious house, just think of this building. This guy went all out.

Art Nouveau and its expressive artistic freedom were snuffed out by World War I. There was no longer time, money, nor workers available to build unnecessary frills and sculptures on the outside of buildings.

In Latvia, fortunately these buildings survived both World Wars without being bombed. During the 50+ years of Soviet occupation that followed, new buildings became much less artistic. In fact, the stark and hideous functionality of Soviet-era buildings is the architectural opposite of these Art Nouveau buildings.

The Latvians knew the solution to that. When they achieved independence in 1991 those Soviet buildings were summarily demolished in the Riga Town Square.

Except for the most ominous greyish green monstrosity. Which is now The Museum of Occupation of Latvia. It is where you learn that despite the most depraved oppression and slaughter neither the Nazis nor the Soviets could break the spirit of people who can create soaring creations like the Art Nouveau architecture of Riga.

As I left the Art Nouveau neighborhoods I came across this graffiti. As I have said before, I wish there wasn’t graffiti on historic buildings. But there is. Perhaps we should consider dedicated walls for this art. It should not diminish the art of the architect or deface private or public property. But there should be somewhere for it to be.

Because examples like these prove to my eye, that this IS art. Graf Nouveau. Most graffiti does not rise to the design and creative strength of these. But art, whether it is a building or spray painting, is in the eye of the beholder, eh?

Graf Nouveau

Look Up, Look Down

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Street photography provides many opportunities to see things that you might normally walk by without noticing.

The longer you walk the more you begin to look around for interesting perspectives. The luxury of time lets you view features and people from several different vantage points. And as your eyes roam, details emerge from the busy scenes in front of you.

Viewing features from below or from above, or isolating intriguing small elements for close-ups, changes the perspective and the character of the image. The composition, lighting, and viewing angle reveal the artistic intent and indicate the effort and thought that go into a photograph.

(Unfortunately, people seem to be conditioned to think that artistic photography requires a black and white image, or a poorly lit or blurry abstract image. When some people see a sharply-focused, color image they dismiss it as a mere ‘snapshot’ without considering the composition or isolation of the subject, or the distinctive perspective, or the time and work that it takes to show an interesting feature without other distracting elements. They don’t take the time to look at it and think about what the photographer was trying to do. Street photography is commonly realism. End of pet peeve #1.)


Pet peeve aside, the main subject of this posting is looking and seeing things that may be normally missed and seeing features from a different perspective.

Looking up at features makes them seem more imposing and exaggerated.

Ornamentation, Budapest, Hungary

Cathedral Rain Spout, Geneva, Switzerland

Did you see both dogs?

An overhead perspective diminishes subjects. Looking down is my favorite perspective for street scenes.

Overhead Perspective, Geneva, Switzerland

Time is an important ally of street photographers. It takes time for opportunities to develop. It takes time to see things from a unique perspective. It is enjoyable and creative time.

I hope that the next time you see an artistic color photograph you have the time to enjoy it and consider what the photographer was trying to create. Why did they take the photo from that perspective, at that time of day etc?

Cathedral Rain Spout, Geneva, Switzerland

Casablanca Morning

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The arid remoteness of the High Atlas Mountains did not prepare me for the urban tumult of Casablanca.

I had spent several days walking in the lower part of the High Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco. The Berber guide who helped me explore had introduced me to kind people in small mountain villages. The long walks between villages passed over quiet rocky  mountainsides. It was easy for my mind to wander and think about the mountain traditions and culture.

High Atlas Mts. Guided by Imrhan Omar

That came to an abrupt halt when I got off the train in Casablanca. First of all I thought I would become a casualty of the intense rivalry among the taxi drivers vying for my business. As it turned out the driver I ended up with didn’t know where my hotel was but drove around the old downtown neighborhoods until he found someone he could ask. I arrived safely, but it is always unnerving to get into a car with a stranger in a new city, especially after a nearly physical battle to win my business.

Casablanca is a huge city and some parts are in better shape than others. It is filled with intriguing sites, sounds, and smells. I only had two days before I flew to Milan, so I didn’t get to explore very much.

I was near the original old town (medina) but was surrounded by typical urban businesses and hotels. There were pockets of modern commercial enterprise and remnants of ancient walled city.

Because I enjoy walking with my camera to find interesting images I decided to walk across town toward the beach to see the famous King Hassan II Mosque. The only map I had was a small page torn out of a Morocco guidebook. Needless to say, it was lacking a lot of detail and streets. I got lost but asked for help and got directed back toward the beach.

I passed through some very old neighborhoods but saw lots of interesting parts of northern Casablanca.

Produce Market, Casablanca

The King Hassan II Mosque is spectacularly large. It is set on an expansive courtyard and is protected from the crashing Atlantic waves by a seawall on three sides. It is near the old medina and serves the same central community role as a large Gothic cathedral in a western European city.

Entering the King Hassan II Mosque

Worshipers streamed out of the old city across the courtyard and into the grounds of the mosque as the call to prayer sounded.

Interior Courtyard, King Hassan II Mosque

Everything about this mosque is massive.

Massive Doors, King Hassan II Mosque

The minaret is about ~210 m (689 ft.) tall. It is beautifully sculpted and has tile mosaics accenting even the highest sections. It had been a foggy morning at the beach, but eventually the clouds lifted.

Minaret, 210m Tall, King Hassan II Mosque

Minaret Ornamentation, King Hassan II Mosque

I spent several hours photographing, watching, and listening. Fortunately, my walk back to the hotel was much more efficient. Casablanca was not what I expected. It was more interesting and varied while still being walkable. It formed a strong impression and was a memorable north African city with rich history.

Tangled Empires

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It’s good to be king!

It’s even better to be emperor. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was bestowed on King Charles I of Spain in 1519 and he took the new title ‘Emperor Carlos V’. He was not yet 20 years old!

His empire was vast. It encompassed much of Europe including Spain and most of Italy, among many other countries, but it also included ‘The New World’ that his grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella had passed on to him.

But this was clearly not enough. During his reign he fought repeatedly with King Francois of France and his son King Henri II. The kings of France fiercely fought to gain parts of northern Italy, while Carlos was trying to gain large portions of eastern France.

Many of the kingdoms at that time were the result of strategically arranged marriages of very young royal children. During one of the episodes of peace between wars King Francois of France married the Emperor’s sister. Peace was necessary periodically to refill the royal treasuries. And even though Francois’ mother and his wife (the Emperor’s own sister) tried to intervene war resumed between France and the Emperor. Neither side won a final victory. There was a long series of treaties, marriages, captivities, and ransoms that formed even more tangled empires.

Palacio de Carlos V, The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

During this time Carlos decided he needed another palace and that it would be pleasant to take advantage of the splendid grounds of the Moorish Palaces at The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He initiated his palace construction there in 1527. The outside of the palace has strong rectangular features formed by textured blocks. But the upper level has contrasting round openings and the interior courtyard is circular. (See Granada Moon in this blog.) Carlos never used this palace because construction was delayed. He enjoyed his other palaces but his court was mainly located in Madrid. Two years after Carlos started construction at Granada, King Francois began construction of his palace at Fontainebleau.

Palacio de Carlos V, The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

What Francois could not accomplish on the battlefield he attempted to arrange with the marriage of his son Henri to Catherine de Medici of Italy. Henri and Catherine were teenagers when they were married in an extravagant ceremony in Marseilles. Catherine fell in love with Henri, but unfortunately, Henri had already given his chivalric devotion and his heart to the wise and beautiful Diane de Poirtiers. He dutifully created heirs with Catherine, but all knew that his life was dedicated to Diane. Their ménage à trois is a very famous story and is described from an insider’s viewpoint by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent in the book The Serpent and the Moon.

King Henri II of France continued his father’s campaigns and defended France against the Emperor and his allies, including the King of England. This was not enough to fully occupy King Henri so he spent his idle time moving his entourage of thousands of people from palace to palace as the seasons and game dictated. Henri loved to hunt when he was not at war.

So while Carlos was building palaces in Spain, Francois and Henri were building their own palaces in France. Henri gave Diane de Poirtiers one of his most beautiful chateau. But in the end Catherine de Medici took it back abruptly upon Henri’s death.

The arranged empires that so many died for have passed away. But some of the palaces remain to show us the splendor that kings and emperors lived in. Outside the palace walls people lived in primitive poverty. Their lives were dictated by the needs and entanglements of the royal families. The peasants could create the beautiful stonework of the palaces, but they returned to stone age dwellings at the end of the work day.

Stones Floating Overhead

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While a large group of school children fill the cathedral with chaotic but joyful singing I look straight up at the ceiling. I still feel exhilaration being inside an immense classical Gothic cathedral.  There are thousands of tons of stone overhead.

Looking Straight Up at Cathedral Ceiling, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France

The stones appear to be unsupported. The lime and sand in the mortar couldn’t keep 100+ pound stones hanging 10 stories above.

How do they remain floating overhead? What keeps them in place? How did they construct those soaring curved ceilings? And what about the weight of the stones above the stained glass windows? How did they keep them in place while the mortar dried?

I can understand gravity and mortar holding stones in place in a plain vertical wall. But these stones gradually and symmetrically curve away from vertical and are just sitting there straight over my head!

It seems that through centuries of trial and (cataclysmic) error medieval stone masons, engineers, and architects implemented three key construction features. They were: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress. This is a simplification, of course, (gleaned from a PBS Nova program transcript).

The first problem was that with the typical Roman arch the weight of the stones pushed outward. The solution was the pointed arch which directed some of the weight of the stones in an arch downward.

But there was still sideways pressure. The cathedrals were more than 10 stories tall and were mainly supported by columns in the main hall (nave). The columns and outer walls were still being pushed apart from sideways pressure. The solution was the flying buttress which, if placed correctly on the outside of the cathedral, counteracted the sideways pressure.

But that still left these floating stones over my head unexplained!

The solution as you can see in this photo is the ribbed vault. The ribbed vault was a combination of two intersecting pointed arches. The ceiling stones are placed in a convex arch above the ribs placing the weight onto them. And the ribs distributed the weight of the ceiling stone onto the columns rather than onto the walls.

Tréguier, France

This is a very brief and simplistic explanation. But they are interesting solutions. These advances took centuries to discover and implement. Individual Gothic cathedrals could take several generations to build and the knowledge passed slowly from older stone masons to apprentices.

There are many things I still don’t understand. Did they have to build scaffolding and supports under the ceiling during construction? If so, how long did they have to wait for the mortar to dry? How big of an area of ceiling could they complete before they had to wait for drying? When winter arrived did the rain wash away some of the mortar that hadn’t finished drying?

I look up and around at the ceiling. It is intricate. The stones curve in complex patterns.

The children are still singing. It is a performance of young scouts and they are energetic. Many generations ago their ancestors figured out these engineering problems. They built lasting marvels.

Creative Nomad

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I don’t start the day in a smokey tent in the desert but I do wander when I photograph.

I am not led by trade or grazing and I am not following a long-established traditional route. Spontaneous creativity draws me down streets toward images. I don’t have a plan, just general principles.

I am savoring the sites, sounds, smells, and interesting people of a new city. Scenes, perspectives, lighting, compositions, and chance combinations hold my attention. My camera and a light top-loader pack with an extra lens and other supplies, along with a light rain coat, are my cargo. I listen to music stored on my phone via earbuds. It is a time of escape and of immersion. Cultural immersion.

Neighborhood Store, Budapest, Hungary

Walking all day leads me to many unexpected places. Small neighborhoods are surrounded by an immense urban framework. But each one has its own character, its own people.

In a historical city like Budapest you are walking though the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the gray oppression of the Soviet era along with battle scars. Remnants of each pop out, but the Soviet era relics are not as photogenic.

Battle Scars, Budapest

Budapest is a city of ancient castles, palaces, boulevards, synagogues, basilicas, parks, museums, and all the elements of a modern business center. While I visited Hungary it had the Presidency of the European Union.

EU Flag Flying at the Parliament Building, Budapest

It is easy to forget time and place. My mind is racing, “what if the bright yellow street car passes through this park and a tour boat floats down the Danube, and ….” So many ideas and so many surprises.

In the distance I hear sirens and I am stopped by a serious officer. Nobody can walk across the courtyard ahead. People gather. Security tightens. The honor guard comes to attention as a black car enters the courtyard with flags flapping. A visiting dignitary emerges and is treated with honor by his hosts. I never knew who it was.

Honors, Budapest

Working Too

Late in the afternoon, I have to rest. I try to find a shaded outdoor table at a café. It is time to have some lunch, lots of water, and a glass of wine. It is a good chance to watch people on the sidewalk and in the buses. Conversations sound interesting, but I don’t know what they are saying. Maybe I have time for one more glass of wine….

On the way back to my hotel I pick a different route. Who knows what I will see? Ten hours of unplanned wandering have filled me with many memories. I have hundreds of photographs to sort through. Most are not useable for anything. But a few are rewarding and interesting.

Along the Way, Budapest

It has been a great day. And I am glad that I am not returning to a tent. My hotel near the train station is a welcome oasis!

Rows and Patterns

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Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

Creative ideas grow during a photography session. As time passes you begin to see things differently through the lens. Images take hold of your imagination and it is difficult to walk away.

Ideas keep emerging. Perhaps hundreds of photos of a simple room verges on obsession. But each one is different and represents a different concept. A slight change in composition and perspective creates a unique image.

There is excitement when clouds open overhead and sunlight pours in the skylight. There is also attachment to the images. An emotional attachment. And there is loss when an image is missed. “Why wasn’t I ready? Why did I still have the ISO cranked up so high, now the light is gone? It only lasted a few seconds, and now nothing. The scene was alive, now it is dead.”

Hours pass while you are absorbed pursuing unexplainable creative passions. You walk the streets guided by image ideas. You never know where they will lead. You see new places and note features that you need to return to when the light angle is different.

Travel photography leads you into a series of overlapping explorations as you learn about a new place. At the beginning of the stay at each destination you spend long days in reconnaissance. You try to see the new location in all light conditions. The days start before dawn and last until dark, and after. Then during the rest of your stay, you follow your notes and return to sites at certain times of day. You make adjustments as you learn more and meet people. Hopefully the weather cooperates.

People do not really understand how captivating the process is, how powerfully the images draw your imagination. Sometimes the explanation sounds pretentious and self-absorbed. It is just something that you must do. It is hard to say without sounding overly dramatic.

There must be overall balance and there are other things that must be done. But for those short times when you are trying to make art, you are continuously seeing compositions and thinking about how to photograph them. You want to show people what you are imagining and how you have seen this place. Your website and exhibitions give you chances to show your ideas.

You hope that the photographs are interesting. You hope that people will stop and look. But you realize that nobody will ever know how much time and emotion that you have dedicated to each photograph. They just see a picture. “Hey, you just went there and stood and took a picture. Big deal!”

The next time you get your camera out and start walking it will be the same, however. You see images. This is what you want others to see. Did you see these chairs in this way?

Ornamental Sky

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Baroque Hall, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

Abstract ornamentation.

A simple skylight is turned into an extravagant display of scrolled arches, gold-trimmed sculpted faces, symmetrical accent moulding, and decorated glass. The colors are subdued, but every other aspect is ostentatious.

This is another example of an art museum itself being part of the artwork on display. The buildings play an important role in establishing that the items within are made with rare skill and artistry.

This is a place of creativity beyond functionality. When you step inside you can not escape the fact that you have left daily routine outside. Your senses should be stimulated, if not startled.

This is the ceiling of the Baroque Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) in Budapest, Hungary. This wide angle view creates an interesting abstract image of shapes and colors. It is a very large hall and the ceiling is impressive in person.

It took a while to photograph this hall. Actually it took a couple days to photograph at all inside the museum. The first time I visited the museum I chose to go on a Thursday since they were open late that day. I had spent the morning walking the streets of Budapest photographing street scenes. After I paid my entrance fee and the supplemental fee permitting me to photograph I went upstairs and started working my way through the 14th century paintings with a goal of reaching the impressionists before closing. Before an hour had passed they announced by loudspeaker that the museum was closing six hours early. It turned out that they were having a special meeting and were closing early that one day.

I went back two days later and was able to use my previous ticket and photo privileges, after considerable discussion. Eventually I was helped by a museum staff member who was curious about why I was taking so many photographs of the building. Her initial suspicion eventually turned into artistic curiosity about what I was trying to show. She guided me to the Baroque Hall.

I spent several hours taking photographs and it turned out to be a very interesting time. Several of the halls had skylights and as clouds passed over the light changed dramatically. The museum has an impressive collection but it is also dramatic architecturally.  For me it was still a place for active creativity.  You can view more interior abstract photographs from this museum in my Hungary gallery by following the Photography link above.

Budapest-World of the Roof

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World of the Roof, Budapest, Hungary

The phrase ‘Roof of the World’ is applied to the Himalayas, the Pamir Mountains, Nepal, Tibet etc. – the area of the highest elevations on Earth.

Well this photo is not about that. It is about the ‘World of the Roof’.

Budapest is filled with beautiful architecture, parks, and broad boulevards. But in this posting I am taking a somewhat abstract view of a small section of roofs because the shapes and colors caught my attention.

The Basilica on the east side of the Danube River, the Pest side of Budapest, provides a narrow balcony around the top of its tower. It is reached by a very long set of spiral stairs. The balcony is more of a catwalk. It provides 360° views over the Budapest skyline. It is a spectacular place for overhead street-view photography if you are willing to hang over the heavy stone balustrade.

I spent an hour or two walking around the circular balcony photographing various views, some repeatedly as lighting or features changed. Whenever you spend a while photographing a particular setting you gradually see more and more. You become more creative.

In my first few laps around the balcony I was looking down at the street far below. And it took a few laps to get comfortable with the height. It was a hazy day so I didn’t photograph the skyline and didn’t really look at it at first. But eventually I noticed the roofs (no, the plural is not rooves) nearby.

This scene shows a striking variety of roofs and roof fixtures. There are skylights, a ladder, chimneys, tile, ducts, and antennae. I think the most interesting feature is the giant gray ducting that looks like an accordion bellow. Maybe it’s not a duct, but I don’t really know what else it would be. Perhaps it is a decorative ceiling in the building below.

In this foreshortened telephoto perspective the roofs look like they are on the same plane, as if they were a connected, but separate world. It is a world that goes unseen, except for people who work on the ducts or skylights, or sweep the chimneys. It is the world of the roof.

Cibiana di Cadore

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Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Cibiana di Cadore is a little off the beaten path. But it is a wonderful place to slow down and spend time in the fall.

Cibiana is in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. It is a short, arduous drive from the famous and glitzy Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina is an elite ski destination and a winter Olympics site (1956).

But Cibiana itself is not glamorous or snobby. It is a well-preserved stone village with a strong independent mountain spirit. It sits along a rushing stream at the base of jaw-dropping walls and spires of dolomitic rock.

The village people are tough, self-sufficient, comfortable, and friendly. Historically, the main  industry was making heavy steel keys. But as that industry faded many adults had to spend most of their time in Germany working in ice cream factories. The village became a place of left-behind grandparents and children.

The rebirth of Cibiana was based on art. Artists from around the world have produced an interesting variety of murals painted on stucco panels on the outside of the ancient stone houses. Each mural depicts the original trade of the family that built the home centuries ago.

On a sunny cool day in autumn when the narrow streets are quiet it is a great place to walk and think about the history and the people who built this village. You might even find a small café/bar in the side of a home. There are two tables out front with a sweeping view of the mountains and a sheltered sunny exposure.

The cathedral has recently been refurbished and the village has a food co-operative with a wide selection. The town also has a partnership with world-famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner. Together they developed a spectacular mountain museum in a rebuilt stone fort on top of nearby Monte Rite. There are 360° views into the valleys and the high peaks of the Dolomite Mountains.

One of the village gathering places is the Hotel Ristorante Remauro. The small café on the bottom floor fills with locals each evening who come to socialize before dinner time. It is also a relaxing and cordial place to stay. The hotel staff are very helpful and friendly.

After spending a few days around Cibiana I was struck with the openness of the people. They are also hard-working as most mountain villagers are. In the fall each home has replenished their massive wood piles which are artistically stacked with pride. I was impressed with how the wood was delivered. Most people get their wood from the nearby mountains (or a few larger stacks, like hotels, are from a large scale wood company). The deliveries that I saw were made by very small three wheeled motorcycle-type vehicles with a truck bed or by a trailer hooked to the family car.

(Incidentally, I saw NO personal full-size pickup trucks in the Dolomite Mountains. Zero. In spite of the challenging mountain lifestyle, people got their wood, building materials, and yard supplies without owning a pickup. In fact, during five weeks of travel in Spain, Morocco, Austria, and Italy I saw TWO full-size pickups the entire time. But it seems as if about half the people where we live need to have a pickup. I don’t understand this.)

Cibiana is beautiful in the autumn. The hardwood trees brighten the scenery with oranges and yellows. But there is also a deciduous conifer, the European larch (Larix decidua Mill.). The European larch turns vivid yellow in the fall. And since it grows in extensive, dense stands entire mountainsides glow yellow. Of course, having a giant spire of rock protruding above the forest doesn’t hurt either.

If you love mountain scenery and peaceful, friendly villages then Cibiana di Cadore, Italy should be on your list. It is worth driving the narrow, winding mountain roads over the passes to find it. And it makes a great base for exploring the Dolomite Mountains, Venice (two hours south), and even southern Austria.

But the Sunset is Behind You

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Sunset Shining On The Basilica San Marco, Venice, Italy

Haven’t you seen enough sunrise and sunset photographs?

I think photographers are looking the wrong way when they photograph the sky filled with vividly-colored clouds or a bright orange (smoggy) glowing sky. Besides, how many of these do we need?

To me taking a photo of the rising or setting sun is like looking directly into the beam of  a flashlight instead of seeing what the flashlight is shining on. The light source is not the interesting part of the scene.

With landscape and street photography you don’t control what is highlighted by the sun (or even street lighting), but it is interesting to move with the changing light and show how things change.

The early morning and late afternoon light are a photographer’s natural tools. They provide interesting shadows that highlight features. The color of the light shifts as it passes through the lower atmosphere. These are well-established rules of thumb.

That low-angle sun spotlights features that are washed out at mid-day. The orange light of a sunset reflects off of landscapes and buildings. I try to keep sunsets and sunrises behind me to see what is highlighted by them.

That is certainly not an innovative idea. But whenever I see another sunrise or sunset photo I wonder what the scene behind the photographer looked like.

This photograph of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy glows with the low-angle light of a setting sun. The sun reflects strongly off of the metallic ornamentation. I know that the sun lowering over the Grand Canal behind me might have been photogenic also, but it just seemed like taking a picture of a light bulb. There are times when I am drawn to backlit scenes, but the elements in the foreground are the main reason on those occasions.

This photograph of the Basilica San Marco will be one of the photos in an exhibition in Libation (on the Plaza) in Arcata, California during April, 2011. The exhibition is called: A Sunny Day in Venice.

Nasrid Splendor

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Hall of the Two Sisters, Nasrid Palace, The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Art and architecture flourished during the nearly 800 years that southern Spain (Andalucía) was ruled by Moorish and Berber dynasties. It was also a time of religious and political conflict, but someone else can write about that.

Ancient architecture sounds dry and boring, you say? Take a moment and look at this spectacular palatial room, The Hall of the Two Sisters.

There are many examples of Andalucían Moorish architecture still in existence. The Nasrid Palace within The Alhambra complex in Granada, Spain is open for viewing but requires a ticket.

The Nasrid Palace was built over a number of years by successive rulers. The Hall of the Two Sisters (shown here) was built in the 14th century. It is about four stories tall inside.

The walls are covered with mind boggling intricately hand-carved plaster ornamentation. The plaster was gypsum based. After the plaster layer was applied, while it was still wet, artists carved geometric patterns, calligraphy, poems, and religious devotions  into it. The detail and enormity of this work has to be seen to be believed.

This was part of someone’s home!

The photo detail is about one foot (~0.3 meter) across. The ceiling is covered with stalactite ornamentation which represents the cosmos. It is hard to take it all in when you tilt your head back and stare straight up. It’s even harder with a camera, even with a wide angle lens.

Detail, Hand-Carved Plaster, Nasrid Palace

The name  “Two Sisters” comes from two matched marble stones in the floor.

I would have spent much longer within the palace, but when you buy your ticket you have to enter at a specific time. Mine ended up being the last entry of the day, so I couldn’t linger.

For further information:

Hall of the Two Sisters – A great slow pan of the inside wall and ceiling

Nasrid Plasterwork

Granada Moon

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Moon over Palacio de Carlos V, Granada, Spain

A full moon lights the circular courtyard of a renaissance Spanish palace.

There is just enough light to see the ancient columns. The coarse conglomerate stone was shaped into perfect Ionic columns almost five hundred years ago.

The palace was constructed at the command of Carlos V, the grandson of the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. They had achieved the final reconquest of Spain in 1492 as well as funding the conquest of distant lands. It was a big year for them!

The palace was built adjacent to the Moorish Nasrid palace within The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Carlos wanted another palace and hired an architect who may have been an associate of Michelangelo early in his career (uncertain facts).

Carlos had the money, at least when he started the project in 1527 he did.

His mother (Joanne “The Crazy”) was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand. She passed on to Carlos all of Spain, parts of Italy, and all of the “discovered” land in America.

His father (Philip “The Handsome”) was the son of Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy. They provided Carlos with Holland, Germany, Austria, and Belgium (where he was born).

The outside of this palace is square and is made of massive distinctively cut and textured stone. The interior circular courtyard inside the square building was a unique combination at the time. The monarchs and their guests would have strolled under this second floor portico and enjoyed performances in the courtyard below. But the palace construction was troubled with delays and problems. The final roof was not finished until 1957. That is 1957, not 1597.

I wonder how people can conceive of buildings like this. It is starkly different than the ancient and exquisite Nasrid palace that it is connected to.

But it is a beautiful place to watch the moon on a hot Andalucían night. The imagination adds the musicians and the dancers below, lit by torches. The music and laughter echo off of the stone across the years.

For five centuries that fat moon has shown into this palace. The empire has dissolved but this stone is still solid. When you reach out and place your palm on the column, its warm smooth surface masks the fluvial chaos that formed the conglomerate stone and the political chaos of amassing and commanding a far-reaching empire.


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9th Century Walled City, Fez, Morocco

Kind and humble people are putting their lives on the line for change.

Taghyeer is the Arabic word for change. Maybe it is not the perfect word for the type of change that is sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, but it is as close as I could get.

My brief exposure to Arabic and Berber cultures in Morocco gave me a glimpse of the humanity and strengths of these people. Today I worry about the people that I met and the friends that I made. While Morocco has not been the center of the tumult, its society has been strained. There have been calls for change.

In other countries the demands for change have produced heroism, tragedy, violence, passion, hatred, love, patriotism, tribalism, destruction, confrontation, reconciliation, capitulation, terror, and jubilation. They have shown us the entire range of human interaction and emotion.

They have captured our imaginations. Pious, quiet elders have stood at the barricades next to mothers, doctors, scientists, unemployed people, and emerging young thinkers. In other places the confrontations have been violent and grisly.

These are old traditional cultures and I am sure that there are many opinions about what should be changed and what is unchangeable.

Young people have grown into leaders motivated by a profound belief in the justness of their cause. They have communicated and organized despite institutional and technological barriers and threats. They strive for freedom and opportunity, but built on traditions and values that they share with their elders. Entire multi-generational families stand in the squares together. They don’t want to tear down their countries. They want to build them up and make them better.

We don’t know how these changes will turn out. Core human values will continue in these ancient cultures. There will be failures and sadness. There will be new freedoms and fulfillment. New leaders will have a lifetime of work ahead to plan and build a different society. Some defining traditions will not change.

The strength of their yearning for change can be felt around the world.

It is a time of peril and celebration, sometimes on the same street.

A Slice of Venice, Please

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Venice, Italy

Over the quiet rhythmic splashing of waves against the buildings you can hear accordion music and someone singing. You have walked away from the crowds and found a narrow dead end alley where you can watch the boats go by in the canal.

The old doors of the homes nearby have opened onto this alley for centuries. They are massive, sturdy doors but worn. Behind these utilitarian entrances lie refuges against the constant crowds. Refuges with history and commanding views over the waterways and piazzas.

You entered this surreal artistic creation called Venice from a water taxi. As you stepped off the boat the crowd surged toward the iconic buildings and views. But there were some who escaped down small side alleys along the narrow channels.

You have no plan. You just want to walk and see where you end up. The small pocket map shows some of the main features but is short on details. You know the direction to the main sites but you stay a block or two away and skirt around them.

You walk past small shops and outdoor cafés. The alleys become more narrow and sometimes you end up in a small courtyard surrounded by ancient three story buildings. The paint has faded to odd shades of pink, orange, magenta, brown, and yellow. In places where stucco has fallen away the bricks and mortar show through.

There are no cars. At times the alleys are crowded with other tourists. You cross many channels each with its own distinctive bridge.

Turning down another little alley you reach a major channel. To your left is a small landing at the back of a hotel. The hotel staff are loading suitcases and packs onto a boat. Guests are checking out and will be taken back to the parking structures north of town. Another boat is tied up there and workers are unloading boxes of produce and other restaurant supplies. The front of the hotel faces a large piazza where only pedestrians enter. Access is by boat.

You walk on, still avoiding the crowds as much as possible. Over another bridge and down a deserted alley you find a boatyard. A large black gondola has been pulled onto land for repairs. The family lives above the shop. Bright orange flowers hang down from the balcony.

In the distance you hear bells. They may be at Saint Mark’s Basilica or the Campanile or one of the other cathedrals. The sound echoes off of the stone walls. But you don’t heed the call.

You are looking for art.

A long walk and a gathering crowd lead you over the Ponte de l’Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal to the Accademia Gallery. Massive and incredible paintings from the 14th to the 18th century are a rich feast but tend toward heavy and dark religious themes. The paintings are impressive and unforgettable.  But you want variety. You find your way further to the east looking for the Guggenheim Collection of 20th century art. But when you arrive the wrought iron gate is closed. Closed Tuesday!

You cross back over the bridge and look for a late lunch. You are getting tired. There are cafés down almost every alley. But it needs to be the right one. One with good outside tables and an interesting location with a good view. Not too fancy. Finally you spot the right table that was just vacated. A long leisurely meal of tuna panini with red wine is just right. The day is advancing and the sun is lowering over the Grand Canal. The tide is out and it is finally time to face the main tourist sites around Piazza San Marco.

It is the right time. The light is golden and the buildings and statues reflect the colors. The white marble glows. The piazza is still wet from the high tide. The low sun is like a spotlight on the gold ornamentation and statuary that decorate Saint Mark’s Basilica. The Campanile and the clock tower hold the last light above the piazza. The air is cooling and the crowds are thinning. This is a time to savor.

The gondoliers stand ready for the twilight tours. As the light fades you have an espresso and a small dessert-the only way to find a bathroom. But when you walk outside into the dusk, the scene is still impressive. You wait at the dock for the water taxi. It becomes dark as you motor up the Grand Canal. You have glimpses into restaurants, homes, hotels, and cathedrals as you pass by. Their lights reveal the occupants and reflect across the water.

It has been a long day. A day filled with images, sounds, and smells. Your photographs show the scenes, but the voices, the songs, the accordions, the gulls, the laboring engines of the water taxis, the garlic, the vino rosso, and the feelings of walking through Venice without a plan-those are only memories. But they are only one day and one set of memories. Venice is worth another trip. Each trip will be a different slice of Venice.

Vendimia de Jerez, Fino, and Tapas

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Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

In southern Spain festivals celebrating the beginning of the wine crush take place in the heat of the Andalucían autumn. Many villages have these vendimia, or vintage festivals.

The Vendimia de Jerez is a mixture of wine festival, horse exhibition, bull fights, and flamenco celebration. It takes place in September in Jerez de la Frontera in southwestern Spain. Jerez is famous for its sherry, horses, and bulería.

The streets are filled with celebration in the evening and late into the night. During the heat of the day this old city also provides quiet shady plazas where you can pass the afternoon, after siesta. But even while sitting in the shade having some tapas and water you may be treated to an impromptu street flamenco ballad by someone from one of the nearby flamenco schools for dancers, guitarists, and singers. The street musicians are very polished and skillful. After each performance they pass through the outdoor cafe and collect Euros on the back of their outstretched guitar.

Jerez is the home of the bulería style of flamenco. Bulería is distinctive for its fast pace and syncopated clapping percussion. And the bulería performance in the Plaza de Toros (bullring) is a highlight of the Vendimia de Jerez.

Jerez has many sherry tasting rooms, or bodegas, and the sherries produced near Jerez are internationally famous. One of the most famous sherry houses is Pedro Domecq. It was begun by an Irishman in 1725 and passed to the French Domecq family in 1730. Many of the sherry producers were owned or influenced by investors from the United Kingdom where this fortified wine is still very popular.

Fino is a dry sherry. The Pedro Domecq La Ina is a very prominent fino sherry from Jerez and it is celebrated with this sign on the top of a building in downtown Jerez (photograph).

At the street level of this building we found our favorite tapas bar. In most places we weren’t too sure what we were ordering from the menu as each restaurant had its own creative names for their tapas. But here the tapas were on display in a curved glass case at a walk-up counter. The case followed the curve of the building. If we weren’t sure what something was we asked the person behind the counter. It was easy to pick out two or three tapas and have a great light meal. Also the tapas here were the best that we had in Spain. It was a great place to sit outside and enjoy people-watching as the streets came back to life after siesta. In most restaurants the menu items could be ordered as tapas or as a full entrée. We learned that in the heat of autumn the tapas size was best.

The Vendimia de Jerez is packed with Andalucían culture. People are in a fiesta mood and are friendly. Jerez de la Frontera is a beautiful old city and a great place to spend a few days in autumn.

Fountains, Place de la Concorde

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Fountain, Place de la Concorde, Paris

Following the French revolution in 1792 there was a need for a large public space in which to set up a guillotine. The largest square in Paris was chosen for this chore. And in the subsequent two years more than a thousand people were beheaded in this square, including King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The square now serves a very different purpose and most people who visit it may never know that it was once a public execution site.

This public square is now known as Place de la Concorde. It is between the Louvre’s Tuilerie Garden and the beginning of the Champs Elysée. It is the home of the Obelisk of Luxor, a 3200 year old monument from the ruins of a temple in Luxor, Egypt.

The Place de la Concorde is octagon-shaped. At each corner there is a statue that represents a major French city. And near the obelisk there are two fountains.

The two fountains honor river and maritime navigation and the industries that depend on them. The fountains were completed in 1840.

What I like about this photograph is the pattern in the water flowing over the lip of the fountain. And I think the distant French flag helps to complete the setting.

I can still hear the pounding of the water falling from the upper fountain into the basin. It was loud enough to almost drown out the traffic noise of buses and scooters in this busy square.

It seems like everywhere that you walk in Paris you discover another timeless monument, sculpture, fountain, or garden. We haven’t read a lot about Paris, well except for Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. But that was fiction and based in another time. Now that we have seen most of the iconic sites, we prefer to walk and discover things and then read about them.

Even though the Metro goes all over Paris, it is easy to walk to most places. Along the way you will stumble upon public art and architecture on small sides streets that most cities would be proud to have. But the thing is that in Paris they are everywhere you look.

It is a great walking city. If you get tired, why not stop at the sidewalk café on the corner and watch the world go by?

Distant Village

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The Suburb, Arhrene, Morocco

As you plod through  the tiny Berber village you can hear hypnotic north African rhythms floating over the arid, rocky mountainside. The insistent hand drumming pulses over the thumping base that you can feel. The catchy Arabic lyrics trade call and reply with a soaring string refrain and form an addictive repetitive hook. A flute completes the sound and your imagination drifts to a smokey nomadic tent surrounded by a vast desert.

Today I would like to take you to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. If you like places that feel ‘far away’ this is your kind of place.

By the way, this morning I made a quick scan of the origins of some of the people who visited this blog last week. I can only determine the city and country of the web host, but it is still interesting. They were from various places in the USA and from Russia, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands, England, Japan, Pakistan, and Ireland. I hope that you enjoy these brief travel escapes and I appreciate your interest!!

Now let’s walk along together through a tiny village at the base of a long mountain slope. The trail enters the village from below. It is only wide enough for mules to pass. Stone houses and their porches crowd against the trail from both sides. A few villagers sit on their steps as you pass. They do not want to be photographed, so you have to store these images in your head. Can you hear the north African rhythms in the background?

The ancient homes were built mostly with local materials. Stones pried from the exposed bedrock are held together by clay-rich mud. Recently, imported building blocks, mortar, and stucco have been added to some of the homes. Even though the area has only had electricity for 10 years many homes already have satellite dishes.

Narrow trails switchback up steep slopes leading away from the village. Drivable roads are new to some villages, but are still rare. Most travel is by foot. Mules and donkeys are used to carry supplies and transport walnuts, livestock, and other products to market villages.

In places the trails are only scratchings on steeply tilted rock peppered with loose gravel. A careless step would lead to a shredding slide down the rocky slopes. And these are the easy lower trails between villages that are well-traveled.

When you leave a village behind the mountain is quiet and the views are expansive. The trail aims for a low gap on the distant ridge. In English a pass like this is referred to as a saddle, but in Berber they are called a tizi. You can see the tizi in the distance and it looks like a short walk. For hours it looks like a short walk. Distances and elevation are deceptive. Slowly you gain altitude and near the tizi. In sheltered pockets there are a few straggly low trees. At the tizi you take a well-deserved rest. It is time to drink and have lunch. The dry air has taken lots of water from you. The views are even more spectacular, but the valley villages where you started from still look like a short walk away.

On the long descent on the other side you pass roaming goats and herdsmen. A few stone corrals and huts are the only signs of human habitation. After many switchbacks you spot another little stone village near the base of the mountain. You are getting tired and it is a welcome sight, especially since it looks like it is just a short walk away…but again it is a long time before you reach the gîte d’etape where you will eat and sleep.

These Berber villages are interesting and unique. Mountain tourism is a significant economic factor for some of them. Other villages ‘turn away’ as you walk through the edge of the village through their scattered walnut trees. It is hard to describe how an entire village can ‘turn away’, but that is the feeling that you get in a few places. Sometimes in remote villages you only get glimpses of the stone houses through the walnut trees. If you pass someone on the trail they are not rude, but you get the feeling that their day would have been better if you had stayed home. Their culture and traditions have been tested for generations. This is true of most rural people in other countries too. They have their tried-and-true ways of doing things and they are content to be left alone. In other villages people are friendly, even jovial. Traveling with a local Berber guide helps a great deal. Wherever you walk though, if you are respectful you are treated with respect in return.

My walks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco were short easy strolls in the foothills. I barely entered the real mountain terrain. I also saw only the periphery of the culture in an area that has become easily accessible from Marrakech. But my brief exposure still felt like I was visiting distant cultures. And I met many friendly and helpful people. I still smile when I think about some of the unexpected humor that villagers showed. A good practical joke knows no cultural boundaries. At times the joke was at my expense, but that is OK. We all laughed.

If you are able to visit Morocco, the High Atlas Mountains are well worth a week or more. There are many local guides and muleteers available. In Imlil, Morocco I recommend the super guide Imrhan Omar. He works through Kasbah du Toubkal. Omar was raised in an adjacent village and seems to know everyone in the villages you walk through. He is a native Berber speaker and his sense of humor makes every situation non-threatening and comfortable.

I hope that you enjoyed these few moments in the mountains of southern Morocco. You can view more photographs from Morocco by following the Photography link above.




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