Tag Archives: UNESCO

Zadar

Eight kilometres of gentle pathways and wooden walking trails lead visitors through central Croatia’s Plitvička Jezera National Park. Natural dams of travertine form upper and lower levels with a total of sixteen lakes, each encircled by forest and dotted with waterfalls. Working their way down the mountain, hikers take in the waters’ shifting colours of green and azure, just one beautiful phenomenon of this lush landscape – a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site north of Zadar.

In the littoral city, families gather on a series of long marble steps along Zadar’s Nova Riva to swim and watch the sunset. While children launch themselves off the pier in convoluted dives and titanic cruise ships leave the nearby port, musical notes emanate from below the stone boardwalk in concert with the ebb and flow of the tide. Each lapping of the waves strikes lengths of pipe hidden underneath the stairs, their energy pushing an air column and emitting different chords through perforations in the ground. The resulting Sea Organ, as part of the overall design of the coastal promenade, is one of two art installations on the waterfront by Croatian architect Nikola Bašić. You can hear it here.

The other installation, immediately adjacent, is a solar art display in the form of a 22-metre diameter circle, entitled Greeting to the Sun (Istarska Obala). Embedded under glass that is flush with the stone promenade, photo-voltage solar modules absorb the sun’s energy and transform it into electrical energy, creating a dynamic play of lights. The synergy of both projects makes this urban public space even more successful when charged with its nightly performance.

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Cinque Terre

Torrential rains back in October wreaked havoc on Cinque Terre, a portion of coast on the Italian Riviera famous for its walking trails. Having visited the scenic site and experienced the rugged terrain just one month before, I can only imagine the damage caused by floods and mudslides that ravaged the area.

Il Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre is made up of five medieval towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare; the coastline; and, the surrounding hillsides. The territory is the product of centuries of work by peasant farmers who shaped the mountainsides, transforming them into fertile terraces to cultivate olives, lemons and grapes. The scenery is striking from all angles and, combining both natural and human interventions, it is made even more dramatic with the sea as a backdrop.

A sprinkling of brightly coloured buildings rooted in natural stone typifies each town – here is a fishing village overrun by tourists in the summer while over there another sits, surrounded by vineyards, at the top of a 100-meter high promontory that plunges to the sea. Footpaths connect the villages, as do railway lines and passenger ferries, so should you get weary from walking, you have other options (road network not so good). As a general guideline, it takes 5hrs to do the 20km trek from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, at a good click. Naturally, it’s more of a full day’s outing if you take the time to pop some grapes and fig-like fruit along the way, or stop to visit each unique village. Some hiking trails (once mule paths) slope deeply downwards and upwards, overlooking ravines, while others wind the cliffs in wide, paved pathways, the gentlest being Via dell’ Amore, an accessible route between Riomaggiore and Manarola with a sea-swept panorama.

Refreshingly, there might be a lack of visible corporate development in the area but there is a fee to hike the trails. Cinque Terre was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and then a National Park in order to conserve the natural environment and safeguard its cultural heritage. Tourism may be the biggest draw to this corner of the world but the olive oil and wine (and grappa, and limoncello…) production still thrives, a testimony to the strength of centuries-old traditions. Good stuff.

Regensburg

One might only think to sweep through Regensburg while en route to Munich or Vienna but it’s most certainly a stop worth making. Situated on the Danube in Bavaria, the small city with its almost entirely pedestrian centre has a density of medieval charms unrivalled in Germany.

I arrived the day of the Ironman competition, just as thousands of competitors were sprinting through the historic town, rounding the corners of Gothic and Romanesque buildings, and racing along the banks of the river. (To the best of my knowledge, the fellow in the photo below was not a contender in this past summer’s triathlon).

Regensburg is the only intact medieval city in Germany, for one, because it had been spared extensive damage in the bombing campaign during WWII. Its roots can be traced to a Roman military fortress and its well-preserved antique architectural monuments represent its former role as a trading centre. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it safeguards some 1000 structures, including its best-known ones like the Stone Bridge (Steinerne Brücke) and the impressive St. Peter’s Cathedral (Regensburger Dom).

It may not have quite the same prestige as a monastery or a Praetorian Gate but do make a point to check out the sausage kitchen ‘Historische Wurtsküche. The lively tavern is a place of tradition, serving up its specialty bratwursts for the past 500 years. When ordering, just say the three magic words: “six with sauerkraut.”

The rolling countryside outside of Regensburg is also lovely to live in: sunflowers abound and it seems that every second home is kitted-out with solar panels.

Þingvellir National Park

Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park is an enormous geological rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates – one of the few spots in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes above water. The two plates are diverging, causing fissures, gullies, and dramatic cliffs throughout the region. In addition to its spectacular scenery, Þingvellir (“Parliament Plains”) is also central to the nation’s history, having been home to the first parliament in the world, and headed by none other than Icelandic Vikings.

West of Þingvellir, the coastal village of Stokkseyri is known for its black sandy beach but the lobster dishes alone from seashore restaurant Vid Fjöruborðið are worth the trip. Significantly smaller and more savoury than the North American variety, lobsters are baked in butter and garlic and paired with small potatoes and dense bread, ideal for dipping in garlicky sweet or tarragon sauces.

Kærar kveðjur (kind regards) from an Icelander and her dog.

Semana Santa in Mexico

Now that winter is fast approaching, I find myself dreamily backtracking to a special trip I took earlier this year.  With eyes having scrolled over the ad/write-up and spotting these key words – Mexico, Semana Santa, photography workshop, group trip, one remaining spot – I decided in mere seconds to sign up.  Stars were in alignment for me.  Designed for intermediate/advanced levels, the photographic mission involved shooting the religious processionals and festivities of Easter Holy week in three very beautiful cities: Puebla, Taxco, and Queretaro.

Logistics were elaborately organized by our instructor, who was familiar with the sites.  Seeing as we’d be lugging around camera & digital equipment, the motto took on a ‘Pack less, not more’ motif.   A member of the group unfortunately opened a can of worms by mentioning she was cutting her stay short due to the supposed heightened risk factor of Mexico.  True, there had been an increase of crime there, especially in the US-Mexico border area, resorts and the state of Chiapas, although nowhere near the towns we planned to visit.  In any case, we would be taking precautions to avert pickpockets, credit card skimming and wandering alone, yet little did we know of the swine flu epidemic looming on the horizon…

I met my travel companions at the concrete benches outside the customs’ exit in the international arrival area of Mexico City airport’s Terminal 2.  It was not difficult to spot the group:  gringos with cameras.  After exchanging pleasantries, we piled into a private van and a designated driver took us two hours southeast to Puebla, a town with so many mansions, colonial streets and buildings, churches, and convents that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  That evening, already warmed up to each other and one’s quirks, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at the restaurant where the movie ‘Frida’ was filmed.

We marvelled at the abundance of freshly squeezed juice and how cheap it and everything else was compared to the ‘same’ in the US.  A plate laden with fruit, granola/nuts, honey and yogurt became my staple breakfast for the week.  Our lovely hotel was authentic to the area and located close to the charming ‘zocalo’ (town square).  Over the next few days, we aimed for early morning shoots, and explored and photographed the artistic and historic districts, stopping to behold people young and old who were faithfully crafting intricate palm weavings for the processions.  We ventured to the nearby town of Cholula where several Palm Sunday events occur and visited the Great Pyramid which, frankly, looks like a huge hill crowned with a church but is in fact, believe it or not, larger in volume than those in Egypt.

After perusing the goods at Puebla’s Mercado de Artesanías, which Judith* proceeded to practically clean out (she was by far the biggest shopper of the group), we travelled on to Taxco, the legendary Silver City on the road from Mexico City to Acapulco.  Cha Ching! The mining town, renowned for its picturesque hillside colonial-era charm and silver shops, boasting of white Volkswagen bug taxis and remarkably expansive views, is totally transformed by this unique celebration (see pics).  During the days, we went into churches and surrounding neighbourhoods to observe preparations for the processions and photograph the people and the beautiful folk art-inspired Christ figures that were lovingly cleaned and hoisted onto floats to be used in the evening.  Each nightly processional was poignant:  winding through the people-lined cobblestoned streets, masked and barefooted women and men, often chained at the ankles, respectively carried candles and bore crosses or 100lb bundles of thorny branches on their shoulders and ropes to flagellate themselves.

* name has been changed (to protect identity & maintain dignity). 🙂

In general, we found the Mexican people to be friendly and welcoming, their openness and kindness radiating through us creatively.  Interactions with two particularly vivacious individuals in Taxco – a spirited, drunken man and his concerned older sister who lived down the street – led to fruitful shooting opportunities for my colleague and I.  Because we could communicate easily in Spanish, they felt at ease and, eager to share, invited us into their homes, as curious about us as we were about them.  It was surreal, this glimpse into their private lives, and the two of us hungrily shooting and muttering our great luck to ourselves.

Like with all good trips, a climactic incident occurred on the last night of our stay in Taxco.  I was unwinding with a colleague in the lively ‘zocalo’, when suddenly swarms of people mobilized quickly in all directions, many fleeing the scene, tears streaming down children’s faces.  We stood up immediately and pressed our backs up against the church gates behind us, not knowing what to do, where to go, or even what we needed to protect ourselves from:  earthquake?  shooting outbreak? bulls on the loose?  Ultimately, we made it back to our hotel that had been bolted shut by the management, terrified by intruders.  Only later did we learn that the commotion had started as a result of a cross striking an electrical wire thus setting off sparks.  The reason for the mad panic was that, a few weeks earlier, armed gunmen raided the same plaza, opening fire outside the Santa Prisca church, seizing someone and wounding three bystanders in the process, and the clash was still fresh in people’s minds.

In stark contrast to the tension of the previous night, we attended the colourful and hauntingly silent Good Friday march in Queretaro, the last stop of the trip.  Having now had two lifetimes worth of processions, cameras down, we splurged on a final dinner all together in the lively historic downtown.  We’d bonded, for sure, during this unique week but soon it was time to go our own way.  In the spirit of collegiality, throughout the workshop we’d shared techniques and tips and held valuable photo critiques, encouraging each other’s individual expression, and although we shot much of the same events, it was amazing to see how different people see different things.  It was one of those magical experiences in my life.  While the other students left to the airport to return to the US, I stayed on in Mexico City figuring ‘hey, I’m already here and there’s no way I’m going to miss visiting the capital!’