Friday, January 5, 2018

More on Meteora




For those of you who are interested in knowing more about Meteora and its rock formations and monasteries, here's a link to a website called Mapping Europe. It contains drone photos that capture some of the wonders of the area.
https://www.mappingeurope.com/greece/meteora-monasteries-map.htm

Thanks to Martha Bakerjian for the find!

Friday, December 29, 2017

METEORA – CLOSE TO GOD


METEORA – CLOSE TO GOD

Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from the ancient and pagan holy site of Delphi, and a world away in religious beliefs. Glenn and I and the others on the tour lurched around steep roads over a mountain pass marked by small memorials at every curve to those who met with accidents. It was a relief to descend to the plains of Thessaly to reach Meteora and its astounding pillars that abruptly rise skyward as high as 1800 feet above the plain. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.



Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.

Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.


Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.


We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries: 

   St. Stephen is relatively easy to visit because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.


Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.


The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.





  Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.




Some creatures took a break on the way up.


As I looked at the winch and rope net used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.


The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed


What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.

A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Thursday, November 30, 2017

PANETTONE SEASON

Hooray! It's Panettone season around here.



Actually, it’s the holiday season. In the US this means from Thanksgiving to New Year’s day. So I have about five weeks to indulge in my favorite treat: panettone, that traditional sweet and oh-so-delicious Italian Christmas bread. About the first of November the stores, even in my corner of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, begin stacking up the colorful boxes in windows and shelves and I begin loading up the shopping cart. The bread is distinctive – tall and domed and nestled in a paper cuff. The height comes from letting the dough rise three times over a period of 20 hours. It usually weighs a kilo (just over 2 lbs.) and is sturdy enough to last for days without going stale tho' probably not as long as my mother's fruit cake that was tough enough to survive a dogsled trek to the North Pole.  The packaging, which gets ever-more elaborate, almost always features a ribbon handle or bow all the better to carry it home. During our time in Italy, I often crowded into a jammed car on the Metro to share what little space there was with others toting their own panetonne.



Ideal for hostess gifts, I also use it for non-traditional recipes like bread pudding and French toast (I should call it Italian toast) although there’s nothing better than a simple wedge toasted and served with orange juice and coffee on a Christmas morning in front of the fireplace.



For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread: The current iteration originated in Milan in the early 20th century but it has ancient origins, possibly back to Roman times when the aristocrats dined on a leavened bread sweetened with honey. A slightly more plausible origin is a story about a cake flavored with lime zest and raisins served at the Duke of Milan’s table in the 15th century. Attesting to its popularity, it soon began to be depicted in paintings, and in the 18th century a “Pane di Tono” or luxury cake was mentioned by an Italian writer, Pietro Verri. Whatever the earlier varieties contained, modern bakers can’t resist experimenting with additions beyond raisins such as chocolate, dried figs, pears, orange or citron peel, mascarpone, or sweet liqueur to tempt the shopper.



How could anyone resist?  Not me!

All photos copyrighted by Judith Works
  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

SACRED SPACES I - Delphi









What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.

My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren't. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.




But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.

We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.




But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.




Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them. 









Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.










And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.



But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?





All photos copyright Judith Works

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

LONDON - TEA AT THE RITZ



It was easy to see where the term “ritzy” came from when the liveried doorman opened the portal for my daughter and me to enter the Ritz Hotel in London. She had arranged for tea at the hallowed hotel as a special treat. The lobby, filled with stylishly-dressed people who looked like they belonged there, was overwhelming with its marble floors, heavy silk draperies, enormous flower arrangements, and discreet shops filled with expensive jewelry. Anyone fond of minimalist décor would cover their eyes as they gasped in anguish. I loved it!



We were ushered to our table in the Palm Court by a tail-coated maître d’ with an iPad. The atmosphere was even more sumptuous than the lobby with a glittering chandelier hanging from the skylight, gold-framed mirrors, a gold-painted sculpture of cherubs with scaly legs and fish-fin feet holding up a heraldic shield (presumably with the Ritz insignia) while a half-naked woman below gazes upward in wonder.



A gigantic flower arrangement on a pedestal, potted palms and a grand piano completed the scene. The pianist played show tunes to provide a background to the tinkling of china cups and saucers and light conversations.



I glanced at other guests seated at tables nearby. All were middle-aged, the men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed for afternoon tea, like us. Our waiter introduced himself, and would we like him to bring a glass of Champagne when he returned with the menu. Yes, we would.

As we took the first sip the maître d’ escorted a young couple to their table directly behind ours. My eyes and those of guests seated at the neighboring tables followed the couple; conversations paused. He wore a skinny suit and a skinny tie, someone from the design or fashion world I surmised. She must have been a model: nearly six feet tall with long straight black hair and bangs brushing her eyes, a low cut blouse and a skirt cut up to – well, you can imagine. But my eyes focused on her shoes: Red suede, backless with four-inch heels. I sighed in envy even though my feet hurt just imagining wearing them.

Our waiter returned with the Champagne and handed us a menu with all the tea selections: Eighteen different varieties selected by the hotel tea sommelier, including such exotics as Rose Congou, Dragon Pearls and Russian Caravan. We decided on the house special: Ritz Royal Blend. When he brought the tea and a stand filled with sandwiches and cakes, he asked if we’d like a photo to remember the event. Indeed, yes, even though it marked us as tourists.



The little sandwiches were quintessentially English: cucumber with cream cheese and chives, Scottish smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise with shallots and watercress; the pastries were French and divine. The last act was scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserves. It was impossible to finish everything. Our waiter asked if we wanted a little box.



After the last drip was poured from the teapot and final sip of Champagne was taken we picked up our box with the Ritz insignia and reluctantly gathered our raincoats – the nearby National Gallery would be an ideal place to walk off the indulgence. The pianist began his rendition of Puttin on the Ritz. As we descended the several stairs back to the main lobby I turned to take one last glance. A man supported an ancient woman as they too departed. He wore the standard suit. She wore a wreath of flowers on her sparse gray hair, a house dress, and UGG boots.




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

SOUTHERN ARIZONA: A TALE OF TWO MISSIONS






Time hasn’t been kind to the Mission of Tumacacori that stands in partial ruin three miles south of the flourishing artist’s town of Tubac in southern Arizona. Dreary weather added to the melancholy atmosphere surrounding the abandoned church when my husband and I visited. Although it is part of a National Historic Monument managed by the Park Service, other than a group of hikers who briefly stopped to use the facilities before they headed out on a birdwatching expedition, the grounds were empty of visitors.

Glenn and I wandered around the dispiriting buildings, feeling the passage of time bending our shoulders downward as we looked at what weathering, looting and vandalism can do. Half or more of the bell tower has fallen; the entrance and nave have lost their statues, plaster, and paint to expose the bare bricks as if construction had only begun. A few lonely gravestone remain outside the mortuary chapel.



Only the newly painted white dome of the church gives a beacon of hope. Although restoration work is on-going and a small museum is available, it seems fitting that the ruins remain a monument to the fraught history of the area. The past remains part of the present with border wars now involving refugees, economic migrants, and drug runners. Phillip Caputo’s novel, Crossers, brilliantly depicts the area and its fraught recent history.
.  
The Jesuit missionary, Padre Kino, arrived in the area in January 1691, and established a mission to convert the local tribes living in the vast land the Spanish called “pima,” a word that meant “nothing.” What is now the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona and Northwestern Mexico was christened Pimeria Alta. The padres found Tumacacori and the surrounding area populated by the O’odhams, peaceful farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and long-staple cotton that we now call Supima.



At first all went well as the Jesuits distributed cattle, tools, and seeds along with their teachings and baptisms. But like everywhere else, the Eden wasn’t to last when Spanish ranchers and miners moved in and enslaved the local population. Apache raiders, pushed out of their own lands by Comanches, began their depredations. Contagious diseases swept the missionary compounds, revolts broke out, churches burned. The time of the Jesuits came to an end in 1767 when King Charles III of Spain suppressed the order, favoring the Franciscans instead. The remaining Jesuit priests of the Pimeria Alta were led in a death march to Vera Cruz, the survivors transported to Spain. Legends of lost mines and buried treasure were born. The old movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” came to my mind.



The Spanish made treaties with some tribes and captured many of the Apaches, who were shipped in chains to the Caribbean plantations or to reservations. It was 1801 and an auspicious time to rebuild the small church into something fitting for the importance of the mission. But the Mexican wars for independence and a decree by the new government forced all Spanish-born residents out of the country. The mission and the partially-built church was abandoned. A few native people held on as the Apaches began to attack again. Finally, they packed the holy statues, chalices and vestments and headed north bent with their burden baskets to San Xavier del Bac, never to return. The ruination began.
***



Our view of the state of the universe changed dramatically the following day when we visited San Xavier del Bac, a white-washed glory standing proud in the brilliant morning sun. The good padre, Kino, first arrived in the settlement of Bac in 1692 and returned to the site, now not far from Tucson, in 1700 to found a mission. He was interested in saving souls and also curious about the blue shells the local tribes traded. They were abalone shells and came from California, proving that California wasn’t an island and could be reached by an overland route. The door to further Spanish expansion was opened leading to construction of the beautiful string of missions on El Camino Real.

Work began in 1783 on the Mexican Baroque wonder that stands today. Against the odds, with the continuing turmoil of Apache raids, the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 when the area became the Territory of Arizona, Indian Agency interference, an earthquake, and the inevitable depredations of time and weather, the church miraculously survived and thrived.




We joined a few tourists and worshippers to enter the church. Colorful frescoes, baroque carvings that look like draperies, painted wooden statues, gold leaf, pillars and niches, fill the nave, side chapels and high altar, dome and choir loft.



Human-sized angels guard the pillars where the transept supports the dome, painted angels adorn the space where columns meet the dome.



Geometric designs contrast with the swirling decor elsewhere. Banks of votive candles flicker in the dim light.




The theatrics were a contrast to a few quiet worshippers: a man in white, his cowboy hat hung on the post by the pew; a women bent in prayer, her long braid of jet-black hair hanging down her back, along with others who reverently gazed at the blanket covering the effigy of San Xavier with its pinned photos, hospital wrist bands and milagros placed by pilgrims as prayers for intercession for themselves or loved ones.



We sat at the back of the church for many minutes in contemplation. When it was time to move on I lit a candle for the men and women who labored to build this monument to faith, survival, and continuity.




All photos copyright Judith Works

Friday, April 7, 2017

SOUTHWESTERN FRANCE - Myths and Echoes




A bookstore will never lead you astray if you’re looking for something to carry you to mysterious places. Our local bookshop in Rome (actually in my office building) had a delightful name, “Food for Thought.” It also had a bin of older paperbacks toward the back where I regularly rummaged to find something inexpensive to read. And, one day, there was Holy Blood, Holy Grail at the bottom of the bin. With a blurb that said it was “explosively controversial,” I bought it. Tucked in with feet on our bombola (our propane heater for supplemental heating in the winter and one that I worried might be explosive in a different way), I dove in that evening. And I kept reading because I couldn’t put it down.

It begins with the story of an ancient and obscure church in the south west of France between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevenne mountains, and spins off into claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty and are thus the rightful kings of France. These claims are amplified by others about blackmail, buried treasure for the ransom of Saint Louis from the infidels, the locations of the Holy Grail, the treasure from Solomon’s Temple, and the mysterious Priory of Sion in Switzerland. The Knights Templars, the Masons and an indecipherable painting by the Renaissance painter, are all thrown in the heady brew in case the reader’s interest begins to wane. If this sounds familiar, it should, as Dan Brown capitalized on some story elements in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.

Hubby read the breathless book while I plotted a trip to see the mysterious church in a hamlet called Rennes-le-Chateau. I finally located the area, one where the Cathars, a heretical sect, lived and died during the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. Off we went on our next trip to France.


We left the walled city of Carcassone, not far from the Mediterranean Sea just north of the Spanish border. The vineyards surrounding the city were soon far behind as we drove on winding roads through oak and pine trees amid rough limestone gorges, outcroppings and crags. The sun was misty, the sky a watery pale blue, making the scenery appear ephemeral and steeped in mystery. The ruins of a fortress, Montsegur, high above us, appeared in the damp air as though it was a mirage. It was easy to picture the ghosts of the last Cathers, the 245 remaining survivors of the genocidal campaign by the Church, who were burned in a mass execution after the final campaign ended here. The site was destroyed over the years and now the nearly inaccessible and melancholy ruins of the later medieval castle stand as a memorial to intolerance and a fight to the end. In my mind I could hear the dead still keening for their lost lives and faith.


Some miles up the road, we arrived in the somnolent and isolated hamlet of Rennes Le Chateau, population 92, and no place for lunch. The history of the area is murky: first settled by Neanderthals, who were supplanted by more modern humans including Romans, Visigoths, and various medieval lords, including the Templars, until they gave way to French Royalists.


The site and its supposed history have become great fodder for conspiracy theorists and novelists since Jules Verne. But there was no wide-spread notoriety until several post-War French and Belgian writers claimed that Sauniere had discovered parchments in a hollow pillar dating from Visigothic times during his restoration that “prove” the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the stories faded into obscurity until the Holy Blood book hit the bestseller list in the 1980s and the BBC made a “documentary.” The documents have, of course, disappeared. Some say they vanished into the depths of the Vatican.

The “facts” have become a cottage industry with thousands of visitors now stopping at the church feed their fantasies and to fuel the local tourist trade. Books, websites, Youtube videos and podcasts abound for curiosity seekers and those who are die-hard believers. One commentator said it was the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness. Others mention Atlantis.


We drove to the top of the hill, the location of the curious church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In keeping with that part of the world, its history is murky. When a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, was assigned to the church in 1885, he began to restore and radically change the church which originally dated from the 8th century, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11th century. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.


But Sauniere came to a dismal end: In 1910 he was summoned to an ecclesiastical trial for various offenses against the Church and was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to produce his account books or attend the trial. He died without the Last Rites in 1917. He had been declared penniless, but his life-long “housekeeper,” suddenly became wealthy and moved into the villa.  The French government established a new currency in 1946. Rather than declare where her wealth came from, the woman, Marie Denarnaud, burnt the old francs and died penniless too. I don’t know what had been really going on but something clearly was very odd about the situation.


Book in hand, we approached the church, first passing a closed gateway to the church yard with a memento mori skull and crossbones as décor over the door. We reached the main entrance and looked up to see the Latin inscription “Terribilis est locus iste” carved on the lintel. Depending on your inclination, it can be translated as “This is a horrible place,” or less dramatically (and less nysterious), “This is a place of awe.”


Whichever is correct, the words established a mood that wasn’t dispelled when we entered the nave and approached the holy water stoop supported by a horned and cloven-footed devil. For those who don’t believe in conspiracies, the choice can be explained by looking at a catalogue of church refurbishments published in during the period. Still, it seems less than suitable and not a place where I’d want to dip my fingers. Specialists have found other anomalies but these two were enough for us. The church was dark and damp and gave us the creeps. It was easy to imagine flickering candles casting moving and distorted shadows over dark rites with pagan roots. Was the church ever used for happy events like marriage or baptism? Whatever its current use, I couldn’t wait to get out into the clean air.


We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.

It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided  endless fodder for conversations about the past. 



Photos except Carcassone copyright Judith Works 
Photo of Carcassone copyright bmsgator from Wikipedia