Tag Archives: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Glorious Tuscany

“We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered”  

Kahlil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’ 

My previous photo essay entitled ‘Corsica the Beautiful Island’ came to an end at Bastia where I was to board a ferry boat across the Ligurian Sea to Livorno, hence to nearby Pisa in Italy.  At that time I didn’t have much more in mind than to take a look for myself and discover what the big deal was about a now famous structure that had not exactly behaved as planned by its builders.  I was much like the disbelieving doubting Thomas who needed to see for himself if there indeed had been a divine resurrection.   I’d seen the photos but so what? It leaned.  So off I went to see the ‘big deal’.

And let me tell you the entry into Italy was anything but auspicious.  When I drove into the car ferry, last in line, I was pointed to a narrow, elevated platform.  Mine was the only car hoisted up about three metres; I had to squeeze my way out and go down a steel ladder.  That wasn’t a big deal and I enjoyed the trip across, had a glimpse of Elba (site of Napoleon’s first exile) until passengers were advised to get back to their cars and that’s when the fun began and I’m being totally facetious.  I clambered up, sat in the car and got fed all the fumes of a hundred or more cars and buses clattering their way out.  Obviously I couldn’t be lowered until the all clear below except, that is, the damn thing refused to go down.   I was stuck up there somewhat like a turkey atop a tree who had thought it could fly.  I mean the thing wasn’t going down and the men below were pointing to some kind of kink in the mechanism and nothing doing.  I got down and watched; lots of cursing in Italian didn’t help either fixing it or my mood.  By then a good twenty minutes had elapsed, I had one hell of a headache from the fumes and wondering what was going to happen.  Finally one burly fellow showed up with a sledge hammer and he attacked the thing with more cussing, him and the others, lost of ‘puttanas’ and finally whatever had been stuck came unstuck.  The entire contraption came down with a crash.  Lucky the car was on rubber tires and it merely had a good three bounces then settled down.

Now, I’m ready to go but things aren’t going better as the customs (this before the European Union came along) agents had left with the last car being passed through.  Only a lone ‘carabinieri’ was still hanging around but he’s not about to let me drive off since I’m not officially through customs.  I’m waving my passport at his nose and I’m now really about to lose it altogether.  He’s not cooperating and what little spoken Italian I know has totally deserted me.   This low comedy reaches the point where I get into my car and turn around heading for the ferry.  If that’s how it is I decided I’m returning to Corsica and ‘merda‘ to Michelangelo and Leonardo too.   As it happens the captain of the ferry is going out and he sees the goings on because now the ferry staff doesn’t want to let me back in; they’re not leaving until the following day but I don’t care.  I’m leaning on my horn and just behaving like a lunatic.  He marches over to discover what the commotion is all about and being an intelligent chap he’s sympathetic to my plight, especially since the delay was caused by his ship’s  faulty equipment.  The long and the short of it, he goes up to the carabinieri and patiently with lots of hand and shoulder gestures explains it all to him.  Of course the sight of a big cheese attired in a sparkling white and gold uniform does the trick.  Si, si, the senor can go through now that you vouch for him.  With a princely  wave of the hand the captain points the  way out.  I drive off tooting my horn for all I’m worth.  And so began my journey in Italy.   The docks at Liverno; notice the submarine – for a brief moment I had wanted to sink everything in sight.

(Note: To enhance the photos click on the pic once to enlarge and twice for more details.  I apologize for the mediocre quality as they were lifted from slides.)

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Out from the dock area I came to a main highway and a sign indicated Pisa, only a few kilometres up the road.  After the recent brouhaha I’m thinking this thing better be a big deal and thankfully it turned out to be a big deal.  First of all, the tower itself was so much taller than I had imagined, somehow the photos never gave it a proper dimension, perhaps a lack of perspective, something against which to measure with the eyes.  Secondly, the tower is but one part of a splendid trio of exquisitely worked marble facades, that comprises the cathedral and baptistry.  I won’t bore you with a lot of data except for the bare bones to fill in a bit of the history.   Oh, yes, now I was totally at peace with the world and with Italians too.

Located in fabulous Tuscany in central Italy, on the right bank of the mouth of the River Arno flowing into the Tyrrhenian Sea, Pisa is known worldwide for the leaning bell tower of the city’s cathedral. However, the city of over 200,000  (metropolitan area) contains more than 20 other historic churches, several palaces and various bridges across the River Arno. Much of the city’s architecture was financed from its success as one of the Italian maritime republics.  The city is also home of the University of Pisa, which boast a history going back to the 12th century.   

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The Leaning Tower is one of the world’s most famous structures because of its legendary tilt. Constructed as the bell tower to accompany the cathedral, the tower began to shift on its foundations in 1178, before the architect, Bonanno Pisano, had completed the first three tiers. Fortunately, the lean has now been halted, due to extensive work to halt the tilt before the iconic tower crashing to the ground. In fact some of the work has succeeded in realigning the tower that now leans on an angle of 4.1 meters (13 feet), rather than the previous 5 meters (16 feet).   No one wants to make it straight as it would destroy it’s intrinsic value as a splendid architectural oddity, and most certainly not the local people who have stated they’d rather see it crash.  I won’t burden you with too many more details as they are easily available on any computer’s search engines. 

P1130998I’ve not yet been to an Italian ‘piazza’ that doesn’t  feature the obligatory kindly old fellow selling bird feed.  Hence pigeons galore!  Nice photos until they drop one on you and even if its good luck, as he’ll assure you, it’s still better to rely on some other form of good fortune hailing from the heavens.

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Almost overwhelmed by a flapping, flurry of flying feathers; yet this lovely seemingly enjoyed every second of the avian mayhem. 

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It’s not hard to imagine this very angle has been thought cleverly taken by a dozen million amateur photographers throughout the years.  So did I as after all there’s no doubt the helpful angel is ever so delicately holding up man’s poor planning and doing it discreetly while looking away.

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I’ll admit the view here is taken from the outer ledge of the tower.  I’ll further admit this was a forbidden area but a small wooden door giving access piqued my curiosity and with just a small push it creaked open.  Looking around that no one else was nearby I stepped out onto the marbled circumference.  At first I was delighted with my cleverness as the view was quite splendid.  Then as I was making my way around it became obvious there was a definitely steep sloping furthermore there had been a rain shower and the marble was slick as ice.  Now, I was feeling less intrepid and made my way back to the little door by hugging the wall while gingerly edging back.  Sometimes I wonder what pushes me to take chances to take a good photo?  I’ve done it so  many times (and got away with it) one might think I’d finally get the idea that my guardian angel might one day get bored and look away.   To make matters worse I read while still in Italy a student with less luck had plunged to his death.  He’d pushed open a little door the story said.  Mon Dieu, hopefully a solid lock has since been installed to prevent more such disasters.  By the way, the tower has two stairways, one going up and of course one going down.  The oddity is one of them has 2 steps more than the other one – can you figure out why? If you use the comment box I’ll let you in on the secret.  There are approximately 294 steps on the north side and 296 steps on the south side of the tower.

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The view from above – incidentally I can see my shadow, it’s tiny but it does serve the purpose to show how much higher the tower is contrary to my original perception.    

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There are eight floors, standing almost 56 metres (187 ft) with the top one housing the seven bells, one for each note on the major music scale.  The cathedral’s facade offers a good example of exquisitely worked marble.  The Leaning Tower of Pisa became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, also included in this designation were the cathedral, cemetery and the baptistery.

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A farewell gift from Pisa – the immense billowing cloud provided a perfect background to the tower.  You may wish to read one of my posts entitled ‘Clouds – God’s Breath‘ also ‘Little Lost Cloud‘ elsewhere in this blog and you’ll understand my particular penchant for these often fanciful creations by an artistic Mother Nature.

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From Pisa to Florence was an easy, pleasant drive; within the city it was an altogether different matter.  The traffic was dense, intense and oftentimes senseless.  One way streets ran head-on to another one way street, except  this time in the opposite direction leaving no choice but to turn left or right but for sure away from your destination.   I had wisely, I thought, grabbed the first legal parking spot and from there walked towards the ‘duomo’ lovingly named  ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore’ (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower); the construction lasted from 1296 to 1436 and the wait well worth the resulting masterpiece.  Long experience in European cities has taught me that many hotels of differing quality and price are clustered around the old city centre surrounding an ancient cathedral.  Indeed, I found a great room with a close-up view to the world’s largest brick dome, an engineered masterpiece by Fillipo Brunelleschi.   And the price was right!  Now to get back to the car and return – whoa, not so easy.  I knew where I was going (just aim for the dome) but couldn’t get there as no matter which way I went I ran into an impenetrable maze of ancient, narrow one way streets.  At a parking lot I found a cab driver eating a sandwich and chatting with the attendant – I explained my torment.  No ‘problemo’, the good men said, here, we’ll show you.  And with the help of a map spread out on the hood of the cab they showed me, except, except they couldn’t after all and both scratched their heads.  How about that? They thought it funny except me and then I took matters into my own hands.  In an anarchistic mood, I  drove across a pedestrian path, one entire block up a wrong way street honking all the way and found myself in some five minutes right in front of my hotel.  According to the hotel manager, a part-time opera singer (a fine tenor as I discovered) I could park the car half-way up on the sidewalk, across the narrow back lane; it was a mere three minutes walk to the cathedral and there it stayed for four days.  I had accepted the idea I’d have to pay to retrieve it as it was sure to be towed away but until I left (copiously covered in pigeon droppings) it sat patiently waiting for me with nary a parking ticket!  You have to love that kind of urban anarchy.

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In contrast, here in Vancouver, this past Good Friday, parked totally out of the way of traffic, in a lane running adjacent to the cathedral, a car was ticketed while the services were going on at three in the afternoon.  I call that a dastardly, unholy and totally uncivilized city where even on a ‘HOLYdday’ this city can’t help itself and acts without a shred of decency.   As well, across the street a tow-truck pirate was hauling away a car from where the money ran out in the metre.  The service ran very long and obviously the church goer(s) had not given it a thought, after all, not hurting anyone right? I saw this going on because I have NO  faith in this city to do the right thing, such as declaring a ticketing moratorium on special holidays and I hustled out of the service to add more coins to my meter.  Philistines abound in this city’s abject administration and I have no qualms about telling the world.   And that my friends is the peripheral but pleasurable pay-off for toiling on a personal blog.

The cathedral complex, located in  Piazza del Duomo includes the Baptistery  and Giotto’s Campanile.  The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the historic centre of Florence. 

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In large cities in Europe there are numerous special feast days, manifestations and parades held for any number of reasons.  Here was yet another one I witnessed in front of the ‘duomo’.  Bands playing, loud praying by the supplicants all part of traditions and the warmth of being there as I too joined up for a while.  

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When Michelangelo had a first look at the East doors of Florence’s Baptistry of St. John, he exclaimed they were fit to grace the entrance to paradise and thus became ever since known as The Gates of Paradise.  After accumulating centuries of grime, the doors suffered major damage in the devastating Arno River flood of 1966. In fact some of the panels were lost for years in the river bed before being rescued.  The gilded bronze doors were removed, worked on for 27 years and returned to their original splendour.  One of the ten panels before it was restored.  

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The Arno flows under the arches of the oldest bridge still in daily use in Florence and appropriately named ‘Ponte Veccio‘ (Old Bridge).  The bridge is a pedestrian venue that also doubles as a thriving centre for jewelry and gold traders.  

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Shoppers abound looking for that special souvenir from Florence.  I was told the quality and prices were good if the buyer exhibited some knowledge and was skilled at bargaining.   

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Sienna,  a splendid  Tuscany hill town beckoned just a short drive on my eventual way to Assisi.  It would take far too much blog space to adequately portray what you might discover should you be fortunate enough to visit; below are some of the absolute highlights.

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If you ever wandered where the nomenclature for the colour ‘sienna’ came from there you have the visual illustration.  The local clay used to make the terra cotta roof tiles includes a  natural pigment that when baked results it that very distinct hue.  Sienna’s rooftops are all made with these tiles, hence the name – obviously, right? 

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The famed concave ‘piazza‘ in Sienna offers an unusual view.  

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I’m sitting here soaking in the sunny atmosphere, having a bite to eat and reminding myself not to ever forget this felicitous moment.  I might add at this juncture I’ve fortunately had the good instinct to do so whenever finding myself in a particularly meaningful time or place.  Luckily, I can look back and once again enjoy personal moments of pure joy and if I may for those of you who are a little younger, don’t neglect to savour the moment and bank it in your memory, you’ll live to one day say with great satisfaction, “Been there; done that!” 

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And, of course, as soon as food is shown, the inevitable invasion of pigeons, but I didn’t mind to share a few crumbs;  made for a good photo, right?

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In a land where magnificent cathedrals abound  this one is unusual in its design and materials.   You can judge for yourself.

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The central nave shows off the magnificent black/green and white marble used in the construction and one major reason for the cathedral’s fame.  

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Across from the splendid entrance portals, two sightseeing nuns are enjoying the view along with lunch.   I wonder how many other bottoms found a rest in the very same spot over the centuries?

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Heading eastward towards Assisi, I spotted these women at work hoeing a field of cabbage (I think).  Slowing down I heard the group lustily singing what undoubtedly was a working peasant song; they rendered the song as well as any trained chorus.  It was truly a lovely moment and when I got out of the car aiming my camera at them – what fun ensued!  These were not shy country maidens, au contraire!  Unabashed,  they  pointed to ample bosoms if I’d dare come close and one or two lifted skirts dangerously above knees.  Good earthy humour, all in jest, of course.  Always seeking the country roads in Europe, whenever I can to avoid  the super highways where the high speeds requires all of one’s attention on the road ahead and no opportunity to enjoy such authentic sights are likely to occur. 

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Much to my surprise I came upon a lake so wide I could barely see the high hills across; I had not imagined such a large inland body of water in Italy.  I spotted a bronze tablet and meandered over – more surprise.  I got a reminder of a long ago learned history lesson.  Here a little more than two millennia ago (217 BC) on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the great Carthaginian, Hannibal, (with his elephants) had ambushed and then crushed the Roman legions sent up from Rome to stop the invasion.  Furthermore, in a nearby restaurant, along with a fine vista from the patio and a copious lunch of crispy fried lake perch and a fine bottle of white (also local) I could envision the mayhem.  My imagination does improve with a glass or two of ‘vino’.  

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To be candid the wine was a little too good and a tad too much for one, therefore  as a precaution (I am cautious on the road) I decided to spend the night in a nearby ‘pension’.  Another great idea on my part.  After a siesta, I then wandered around the lakeshore and without having planned it, found myself in the very same restaurant enjoying the very same menu.  I do believe in exploiting a good thing when I get the opportunity.  My room’s window allowed a view  on the lake and a welcome cooling window. The hostess was friendly (could have been the younger sister of Gina Lollobrigida) the breakfast ample, tasty along with a pot of strong coffee (much needed)  I was sorely tempted to hang around another day or even two but I forced myself onward, in retrospect probably a good thing.  

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At long last on my way to Assisi this rose adorned stone wall caught my eye; gorgeous, fragrant roses of all types and colours are abundant no matter where in Italy.  This lovely photo is an invitation to check out my next post as I move on to one of my favourite destinations in Italy, the picturesque town of Assissi where St. Francis made his unequalled contribution to peace, the love of mankind and all living creatures.  

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South Korea – Windmill Green Power; Andong UNESCO World Heritage Site

“Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert

Reluctantly leaving splendid Gyeongju behind the next destination was a UNESCO World Heritage Site I was assured would be, for the small-town boy that I am at heart, a visual treat.  On the way, atop one of the innumerable hills in the area I spotted a windmill farm.   Never close up to one before without hesitation I turned off the highway and found the way up to discover more than I’d expected to see.  

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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These are so much bigger close up than can be imagined seen from the valley below.   I was surprised other than a softly blowing wind, no discernible sound other than a gentle whoosh emitted from the giant spinning wings generating valuable electric energy.   All in all a peaceful scene that was so much more agreeable to the eye and kind to our natural environment than the gigantic containment towers of radiation spewing nuclear power plants and carbon laden smoke belched out by coal burning power generating effectively ruining our atmosphere.   When I think about the killing wounds inflicted to our fragile blue planet, I wonder just what are they thinking the self-annointed ‘Captains of Industry’? Abetted by craven politicians who meekly kow-tow, do they not have offspring of their own or are they all as I suspect sterile eunuchs?  Well, I answered my own question.

Incidentally, to add weight to these admittedly acerbic comments, I have personally observed up-close the machinations of politicians (grubbing for votes and money to buy elections, always) and the lobbying pressure from industry to allow unrestricted action in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  I say this as a former journalist and having also spent time within the Canadian Ministry of the Environment.  When Brian Mulroney took power (1984) with the Conservative Party (correlate to G.W. Bush and today’s Republican Party) the first order of business was to slash research budgets into pollution and to expunge any lofty ideal about controlling let alone punishing polluting industries.  What a pathetic human being!  Today we have a sordid mental midget, a weasel Prime Minister if ever there was one who has wantonly destroyed Canada’s former stellar standing in the international community by (without consulting the Canadian people I may point out) slithered us out of the Kyoto Treaty we were almost first to ratify and who  presently is moving heaven, no, make that hell, to promote the sordid Keystone Pipeline project to ferry dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, across an entire continent all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Who for? To enrich further the venal oil barons sitting in Houston, Texas and Calgary in Alberta his home province and of course political base.  Yet, Albertans are the heedless sheep who will bear the brunt of the ecological disaster to follow – a pox on him!

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If you can read the Korean language the statistics posted below are self-explanatory or,  much easier as in my case, asking Ara to translate. 

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I can assure you even intrepid Don Quixote would have thought twice about taking these giants on.  Image the height at 80 metres (263 feet) or if you can imagine it, the height of a North American skyscraper; individual wing span at 46.2 metre (147 feet) for a two wing span of 95 metres (312 feet) rotating at between 9 to 16.9 revolutions per minute.  These steel leviathans weight 11 000 kilos (24 25o pounds), are 4.8 metres (16 Ft.) measured at the base and 3 metres (10Ft.) at its summit.   These particular seven windmills provide a year’s supply of electric energy for the equivalent of a 12 000 household town.   Imagine now much more can be done if there is the political will to encourage and if necessary to fund the construction of thousands more across the world.   And here’s the not so secret method  to bend the for-hire political system to the will of an enlightened voting public to effectively prevail upon old, inefficient energy providers to mend their  ways.   Take it as an absolute that politicians are nobodies once booted out of office. The will of the people can be made to prevail with the power of the voting urn.   Use it!

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I’m a convinced believer in the green power of modern windmill farms.  Much as their forerunners made use of natural wind flows over hilltops, these giants are a technological and structural wonder creating electric power that is economic and  renewable without limits. Definitely the future is in innovative power generation, whether with windmill farms, developing unlimited potential tidal power and maximizing other environmentally benign power generation techniques.  For example a valued friend, Jim K. has recently converted his home (London, Ontario)  into a solar power generating station.   He’s done himself a big favour by mitigating the rising cost of electricity, moreover adding reality value and contributing to the well-being of the environment by meaningfully reducing what he refers to as, “My carbon footprint”.  Check and consider this intelligent alternative with your local electricity provider and personally contribute to a greener world. Not only must we demand political action and corporate responsiveness, but renewable energy should not be merely a pious wish for individuals.

Beginning the northern swing back towards Seoul, we first headed for Andong, a thriving city of some 160,000 inhabitants.  It was interesting enough on its own, the usual good food and eclectic market place, but knowing my proclivity for authentic rural life-style, Ara was quite secretive about the next morning’s outing and the surprise was indeed worth the anticipation.   I enjoyed the drive through bucolic countryside and there around a corner my first glimpse of what surely was bound to be a fascinating look backwards into Korean history.  

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First recorded presence dates to the 16th century, Hahoe Village is a traditional farming community from the Joseon Dynasty. Presently a valuable part of Korean culture as it preserves period architecture, folk art and customs, valuable ancient books and yet still maintains the old tradition of clan-based villages. It is organized around the geomantic guidelines of pungsu therefore in the shape of a lotus flower or two interlocking comma shapes.  Over six centuries, the Yu clan of Pungsan has persisted through hard times and good times steadfastly maintaining a one-clan community since its very first days.

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In keeping with the unexpected an elaborate entrance greeted us after a long walk from the parking lot kept well away from view so as not to spoil the rustic charm of the village.  Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is a real to goodness working and living village with farmers tending to their fields.  The food stalls, souvenir shops and folk art museum are segregated away from the ‘real’ village to afford maximum privacy for the resident farming folks.  

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Inside the entrance an interesting gallery room was dedicated to inform visitors to the proud event celebrating the inclusion of Hahoe Village into the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2010.  One year later locals were proud to receive none less than Elizabeth II on an official visit from the United Kingdom.   I semi-shocked Ara with a playful imaginary ‘up yours’ to Her Royal Majesty’s nose; a gesture in keeping with my well-documented aversion to anything resembling inherited wealth, power or position.  Without doubt it harkens to my father’s staunchly republican upbringing and my unwillingness to kowtow to anyone, period.    However, not to offend any of my Anglo friends, I assure you it was all in harmless fun; I’m not advocating a French-style ‘révolution’ although I wouldn’t oppose a bloodless version.  
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Okay, I’ll be a goodl sport and for my friends who value monarchy (Lord knows why? I can’t help myself, sorry.) I offer a good photo without tom-foolery.
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You’ll notice the gloves on a cool but overall pleasant day.  The advantage as any traveler knows that being on the road during a week-day and better still during off-tourist season usually results in much less congested visitor traffic.  There were a few tour buses but the village was large enough to wander freely about without more than occasionally encountering other sight-seers. 
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Walking by an affluent home with splendid tiled roof next to traditional structures reserved for artisans and farmers.
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The thatched roofs have been in continuous use for centuries and of course the reason why Hahoe village is so distinctive and unusual by modern building standards.  However, some years ago I was surprised to see many such roofs in Germany’s beautiful Swartzwald (Black Forest).  It is claimed with good reason a thatch roof is a fine insulator retaining heat during the winter and the interior cool in the summer.  Furthermore, new techniques are making it more viable economically; for my part it’s so much more attractive to the eye.
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New thatch rolled up and standing by ready for use to replace old rooftops after an average seven years of sturdily handling the vagaries of natural elements. 
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The reed material is grown and readily available locally as can be seen in the foreground of this next photo.
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In keeping with the folk tradition of the locals many of the entrances to homes featured a carved wooden effigy of mythical creatures meant to keep bad luck and evil spirits in check. 
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I couldn’t resist including plump magpies feasting on ‘organic’ tidbits selected from a pile of fresh manure provided via old time farming practices.  I love those clever birds as you must know if you’ve read the true to life tale entitled ‘Mac the Magpie’ found elsewhere in this blog.  Look for it under Fables From the Moonlight Garden, read and you’ll surely concur with my unrestrained admiration.
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A well-stocked museum featured ancient carvings, traditional costumes as well as face masks as modelled by Ara. The village is notable because it has preserved many of its original structures, such as the local Confucian school and other buildings, and maintains folk arts such as the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama which is a shamanist rite honoring the communal spirits of the village
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Strolling and gadding about the village compound a wide-limbed tree caught the attention; the sign gave the age of this stalwart as 400 years old and still growing large, tall and in great health.
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The village hugged a clear flowing river providing home drinking water and feeding irrigation ditches; it is well protected by surrounding mountains and Buyongdae Cliff.  
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We explored the outer limits of the village strolling along quiet lanes enjoying the  peaceful and attractive scenery – no wonder this village has been occupied for uninterrupted  centuries.  Now that it has been included as a worthy contributor to humankind’s historic heritage I’m confident under the auspices of  Korea’s Ministry of Culture but especially the prideful ownership of local inhabitants,  Andong’s Hakoe Village will delight new generations long  into the future.   Thus we come to the end of a most interesting visit, as usual too short lived but there’s always a next time for those of us who are forever optimistic, as I admit to have a natural propensity for such a happy frame of mind.  Next come along with me and Ara to charming Danyang City and a visit to an impressive  Buddhist temple complex.  
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South Korea – Ancient Royal City of Gyeongju

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Lao TsuLao 

As I stated in my previous post (East Sea – Port Hupo) Ara, my Korean friend, had expertly planned an itinerary that in the limited time available would give me the opportunity to view rural Korea as well as visit several splendid historic and cultural icons.  Gyeongju, the ancient royal city, she confided was on every high school student’s eventual tour list.  She had been on one such field trip and remembered the experience fondly as the first time she’s been anywhere with friends and teachers but no parents along – that was so exciting, she admitted.

Well, it was equally exciting for me I can assure as from the very first view I knew there would be things to see and do that would be worthy of banking in my memory vault.  The building below with its inner pagoda profile was striking in its imaginative architecture as you’ll surely concur; it’s a popular observation tower completed in 2007 along with Gyeongju Expo Culture Center.

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The structure is the equivalent of a 30 floor building and is the location since for numerous music festivals and other cultural events.  At night strobe lights and a kaleidoscope of colours makes for a magical spectacle.   

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Among the many featured historic sites, Bulguksa Temple is atop any list for  pilgrims and foreign travellers.  Within its walls are kept seven of the catalogued National Treasures and the temple itself is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government.  The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge (National Treasure No. 23) that leads to the inside of the temple compound. 

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 The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment.  I climbed with great anticipation and still awaiting the favourable results, yet to come hopefully. 

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The temple is considered  a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla Kingdom and currently an important  temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.   The Silla Kingdom grew from one small tribal enclave to eventually rule over almost the entire Korean Peninsula lasting just short of one thousand years from 57 BC to 935 AD.   Buddhism, introduced in the 6th Century, played a significant role in strengthening royal authority, unifying the people, becoming the foundation of the area’s art, tradition, and culture.    In comparison  Western Europe was then well into what has been referred to as the Dark Ages, mired in centuries of superstition, wars and famine.  

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Bulguksa is a virtual cornucopia of history, art and culture, in 1995 it was added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.   In fact there is so much to be seen and appreciated in and around the town in 2000 five districts were added to the list of World Cultural Heritages under the title ‘Gyeongju Historic Areas.’  The following photos require no explanation.  

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Beyond this ornate gate private quarters for monks and temple staff. 

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The temple is surrounded by ample grounds, peaceful and propitious for quiet contemplation.

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The ornate, uplifted roof entrance to Seokguram Grotto (only four kilometres from Bulguksa Temple) examplifies classic Korean architecture; it sits atop a steep hillside and affords a vast panoramic vista of Gyeongju far below. 

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It is promised that banging the huge bell with the wooden log is a guarantee of good luck to the ‘banger’.  I wished to return soon and I have a strong feeling it might just be ringing true in the wind.  

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Buddhist monks are seen everywhere – I couldn’t help but ponder the difference between Asia and elsewhere, in Europe in particular, where ancient monasteries are closing for lack of vocations.   Even within the walls of fabled Mt. St. Michel where for centuries hundreds used to pray and meditate presently only a handful of monks remain to keep a flickering  candle of faith burning. 

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The paths leading to and from the grotto are steep and rugged but they don’t deter the devout pilgrims, not matter how hold or in poor health.  I couldn’t help but be full of admiration as I spotted the gritty efforts of so many who came seeking a spiritual help for physical ills.   

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Finally, before leaving I slaked my thirst at a fresh spring water fountain.  I look forward to seeing you at my next entry when I’ll share some spectacular, beautiful photos.  You’ll not find fault with my promise, I promise.

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Mt. St. Michel – Normandie, France

“The archangel Michael took supreme command. He reassured their minds by his serenity. His countenance, wherein his soul was visible, expressed contempt for danger.”

Anatole France – The Revolt of the Angels’. 

Approaching one of the world’s finest UNESCO site, Mont Saint Michel in Normandie, France.   Your very first view of the splendid abbey looming in the distance will dazzle your eyes and leave an indelible mark on your heart.   No matter how many times I journey to this splendid example of man’s genius for  monumental architecture, I am humbled.  In truth I simply can’t imagine any such sublime creation is now possible, neither the time, the funds, the medieval builder’s knowledge but especially the faith of generations of monks in another better world is now lost in the dim past.  Yet, the stones of Mont Saint Michel remain as witness to mankind’s great achievements.  Where hundreds of monks kept the faith, sadly today but a handful keep vigil and pray to the Archangel for protection and better days ahead.  

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

At low tide, fat, contented sheep feed on salt marsh grasses resulting in tasty meats appreciated in fine restaurants through France.

Nearing closer for a better angle the sheep simply didn’t care about  my presence simply shuffling off a tad and peacefully getting back to munching on their favourite grasses.

My traveling companion was simply overwhelmed and I caught her eyes glistening with tears – her explanation was she’d never seen anything as inspiringly beautiful.   She expressed my sentiments perfectly. 

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Twice a day, at high tide Mt. St. Michel becomes an island and at low tide it’s surrounded by a large expanse of shallow sands.  Many a foolish tourist has come to grief when unawares of the incoming tide, faster than a galloping horse it’s said.  Now guided tours allow for long walks in safety, avoiding the infamous quicksands.

Almost neap tide and a fine sunset – now to explore hidden nooks and crannies and imagine echoes of a millenary past replete with an  epic history

This magnificent refectory hall sounds hollow; only a very few monks remain where once hundreds worked and prayed.

The splendid main transept; the photo below the principal altar.

Pilgrims, visitors of all faiths light votive candles – seeking the protection of the mighty heavenly warrior is not to be derided, you never know when you’ll need help warding off the dragon of ill fortune, Satan’s ally.  Amen!

Aptly named ‘La Merveille’ this architectural jewel provided resident monks with a serene venue for their daily spiritual communion with God.

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The main street leading up to the abbey.  Do yourself a favour and visit anytime other than summer months when hordes of tourists murder the ambiance.

Old stones hundreds of years in the aging (like vintage wine) under the ever vigilant protection of Saint Michel.

Indulge your palate with a tasty, cloud-light local omelet.  This particular establishment has been around for a long time and is generally credited with being the original creator of the egg and butter dish.   The secret is in the thorough blending of the ingredients and the right technique as happily demonstrated by the friendly fellow.  

 

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It is said the proof is in the eating and my friend agreed this omelet was everything she’s hoped for and some since she’d read about it in a Japanese travel article.  I’ll admit I stuck to a copious plate of mussels and fries and no regrets!

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High above the abbey and town, the archangel Saint Michel protects all.

Wander about at night, inhale the sea air and be mesmerized by the mysterious ambience,  bend an ear and catch the echos of times past wafting in on the waves, from Viking raiders to hooded monks chanting vespers, to you standing there thrilled to realize you are there, now.

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One more photo to capture and assign to memory this mystic, almost surreal vista.  If you have the chance to walk the jetty after sunset, smell the sea air, listen to the wind, you’ll be possessed forever.  No matter how often I’ve been there it never fails to send shivers scurrying down my spine and a conviction that no matter what, all’s well  on this good earth when such splendor created by the genius and faith of man still survives to enchant succeeding generations of travellers.