Saturday, September 11, 2010

2011 Website Live Today

The New 2011 website went LIVE today! Check out our 3 new trips:
  • One Great Week in Budapest and Prague: Explore Hungry and the Czech Republic this spring on a 10 day trip (April 1st - 10th).
  • The Grand Tour of Europe: Explore Rome, Florence, Venice, Oberammergau, Interlaken, Paris, London, and the cities in between, in our 20 day grand tour (June 1st - 26th).
  • Shakespeare's England: Explore London, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the Lake District through the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare in our 7 day tour of England. Join our new tour guide Mark Oram, currently an MFA student in Staging Shakespeare at the University of Exeter, and co-founder of The Grassroots Shakespeare Company.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Death and Life in Exeter

We had talked about it. With my parents aging and me leading a tour of Europe every year there was always the possibility that something would happen while I was away and that I simply would not be able to be there, that I could not leave forty people to fend for themselves across Europe no matter how well organized things were. We had talked about it, and we were all agreed that it would be alright.

My son Mark and his wife Stephanie are here in Exeter, England. Mark is pursuing his graduate studies in Staging Shakespeare. This year’s travel plans were to have me leaving a few days before the group and stay with Mark and Stephanie in Exeter, and see a play that Mark produced and acted in. Before I left my dad had a difficult day, but seemed to be alright. Just a lot slower. He and I sat out on his front deck for a while the day before I left. We argued a bit about him not driving anymore – of course he did not want to hear that – but most of the time we just talked. Before I left I told him not to check out while I was gone. As I walked down the path I called back over my shoulder that I’d see him later. He said “yup.”

I arrived in Exeter yesterday, after a delay at the Dublin airport, to news that my dad was in the hospital and that it was not looking good. I took that news with me to Mark’s play, Swift as a Shadow (short as any dream). It is a play that Mark and a colleague produced and directed and acted in that used Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as an exploration of, “the moment of death itself – the instant between life and death, as it were . . . indeed, this play takes place within that instant, exploring a swift and dreamlike glimpse into the mind of a dying man.” from the director’s notes.

I was caught up in Shakespeare’s moments of death and love and dying as I thought about the passage my dad was at that very moment preparing for. It was surreal, it was sad, it was happy, it was thoughtful. It was full of death and it was full of life. I think the instant of death is just that, death and life all rolled into an instant. Half a world away by good dad was lying in a hospital bed approaching that moment at the same moment I was vicariously on a similar journey. You can’t write this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Today, Sunday, June 6, 2010 we went to church at the Exeter Ward and to Evensong at Exeter Cathedral. After a pleasant walk in the sunshine we came back to a message that our family was gathering and that the moment for my dad was near. Mark called Holli at the hospital, and just six minutes ago my dad had slipped peacefully away.

June 6th. My dad was always very patriotic. He is a veteran of the Army Air Corps and was very proud to have been part of “The Greatest Generation.” His love of country was part of what interested me in American history, an endless subject I voraciously read about. Dad and I had talked about D-Day, and I had read a lot about it. Some years ago on one of my Europe trips I talked the group into a day trip to Normandy and Omaha Beach, site of the difficult American invasion of Nazi occupied France that had taken place on June 6, 1944. It was an overwhelming experience, and I wanted so much to share it with my dad. I borrowed my coach drivers cell phone and called him – 5:00 A.M. his time. I told him where I was, and then I choked up. I could not speak. We were both silent for minutes. Then I heard him say through a cracking voice that he understood. That was it, but I had been able to really, truly share that overwhelming moment with him, something I knew he would appreciate. It now seems quite fitting that he should leave on the anniversary of that great and terrible day.

So what we had talked about, my dad and mom and me, has come to pass. I am over here and they are over there. I will stay, and meet my wonderful tour group in Rome in a couple of days. I will show them the absolute wonders of Europe as we travel through Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and England. In a couple of weeks, as we all stand on the beach at Omaha, and as I tell them of all that happened there 66 years ago, my dad will be at my shoulder and we will again share that moment together. I love you dad.
Death and Life – it is all one.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ah Venezia!

Ah Venice! I think just about everyone who has not been here must have their own romantic vision of what Venice must be like. It's a good bet their vision is not too far from the reality! Venice is indeed that charming place of imagination and fable, even when weighed down to the water line with summer tourists! Built on wooden pilings driven deep into the clay below, Venice is very much a city of water. Canals are main streets, lined with centuries of architecture in every style from Byzantine through early 20th century.

And everyone and everything, including visitors, gets around on the water. Oh, you can walk Venice alright, and that is what you spend most of your time doing, but Venice without a least one trip on the water doesn't give you the authentic feel of this most unique of cities.

The Venetians live this every day. Produce boats, fire boats, police boats, delivery boats, ambulance boats, even hearse boats ply the canals going about their workaday business keeping shelves stocked, the public safe, visitors provided for, and the dead buried! It is a marvel to watch!

The tourist comes to Venice for this and for the stunning architecture. Venice's landmarks are well know, from the Doge's palace with it's Gothic facade, the Byzantine marvel of San Marco, and the distinct campanile (bell tower) in the Piazza San Marco.

The campanile actually collapsed in 1903, killing no one and harming only the watachman's cat. But the Venetians quickly rebuilt their tower with the same brick and a new foundation. It proudly looks over what Napoleon called the best drawing room in Italy - the Piazza San Marco. The Piazza, surrounded as it is by the Doge's Palace, the Campanile, and San Marco Basillica, is of course tourist central! Absolute mobs of tourists fill this Piazza and the surrounding lanes and canals during tourist season. It may be the most tourist filled outdoor setting in touristdom! Nothing too charming about that. But . . . Venice's charms really await the visitor who is willing to stick around a while, wait until the tourists head off to their hotels on the mainland, and wander Venice after dark or very early in the morning.

Summer light comes very early to Venice. By 5:00 A.M., even on an overcast day, a cool-of-the-morning stroll reveals the stunning beauty of this crumbling wonder. Deserted streets and canals, the stillness in the air broken only by birdsong rather than tourist rumble - it is absolutely magical!

The harried pace of yesterday, the elbowing past hoards of fellows, the noise and heat and bustle - it is all gone, replaced by a serenity and beauty of a type I have never found anywhere else. The early riser is rewarded in spades here in Venice. And then . . .

. . . there is Venice after dark. The lights sparkling off the canals, late diners enjoying a quiet meal at a restaurant run by folks who don't know what it means to rush you through your meal, and the far off aria sung by a gondolier to a group of tourists paying way too much for the priveledge . . . just plain magic! There is no other place in the whole of the great wide world quite like Venice!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The King is Dead - Long Live the King

I suppose you are wondering why this blog, ostensibly about a King of some sort, starts with a rather unsavory picture of a swollen, red ankle! Let me explain. The ankle pictured above belongs to our traveling friend Tyler Priest, and it took on the dimensions and hue you see above during our last night in Venice, when a companionable spider of some nasty sort bit Tyler during the night and injected his ankle with its venom. By the time we arrived in Oberammergar his ankle was as you see it, and he was not feeling all that well. Our jokes about Captain Ahab were funny at first, but as the day wore on the humor lost its appeal.

Well, amid all the uproar about health care reform in our country and the constant comparisons of our system to the supposed inferior systems in Europe, allow us to share the rest of Tyler's story.

By the time we had arrived in Oberammergau Tyler was not doing all that well. He felt lousy, and the swelling and color of his ankle was getting to be a real concern. When we got to the hotel I asked the clerk if we might be directed to a doctor. It just so happened that there was a doctor's office just a block away. The clerk called, and the doctor said to come right over. The doctor and his aid took Tyler right in to an examining room, looked things over, ascertained that there was no indication of the spread of an infection, applied a local antihistamine, and gave him an injection, with orders to rest and an appointment to come again first thing the next morning. Tyler rested well, and at 8:00 A.M. we were again ushered right into an examining room, Tyler was looked over, a final injection was given, and a prescription to be filled at the pharmacy down the street. No waiting, no paperwork hassle, grand total of $40, and by the end of the day Tyler was feeling on top of the world! His comment to me was that if this had happened at home he would have waited for at least an hour in a reception room before seeing a doctor, and it would have cost him a whole lot more that forty bucks.

This is typical of all of the medical encounters I have had in Europe during 22 years of travel. I am sure people have their horror stories, just like we have our share here in America, but from my experience I have concluded that we can all just knock off the bashing of European style health care as we try to fix ours. End of soapbox. And thanks to Tyler for the cool picture of his ankle!

Now back to the King!

From the looks of things it must be good to be the king! This is the Palace of Linderhof, residence of the last King of Bavaria, Ludwig the II. Bavaria was one of the last independent states of modern Germany, comprising some of the most beautiful country in all of Southern Gerrmany. Ludwig was King of this region from 1864 until the 13 of June 1886. He is often referred to as the Mad King, largely due to his reclusive personality (always dined alone, slept all day and stayed up all night, watched operas as the only spectator in his private theatre) and lavish expenditures on this palace and his castle of Neuschwanstein. Linderhof is a miniature version of the glories of Versailles, the great palace in France of Louis XIV, Ludwig's hero. Ludwig adored the Sun King, to the point that on the ceiling of the entrance to Linderhof there is a giant sunburst with Louis XIV's head in the middle, with the motto scrawled beneath: Nec Pluribus Impar -- I Am Without Compare! Megalomania's own!

The palace is exquisite and the grounds very French in their order and color.

Flowers and fountains adorn the grounds with color, movement, and gold. It is kingly in all respects, and set in the mountains as it is Linderhof is delightful. A bit over the top in its Rococo interior (Ludwig had his dining table on a dumbwaiter where it was lowered to the basement, set for his dinner, then raised up to his dining room so that he could eat without ever having to see anyone!) with gold, crystal, ivory and porcelain everywhere, as well as the ever present portraits of French royalty.

Perhaps the craziest part of Ludwig's life was his love of the operas of Richard Wagner and his construction of an underground grotto for the production of those operas with himself as the sole member of the audience! A pleasant but steep stroll up from the palace takes you to this underground marvel, a monument to Ludwig's narcisistic ways.

It is an extraordinary place, with a stage, orchestra pit, lake, and boat that Ludwig could be rowed about in as the opera played out upon the stage in front of him. All this for one guy! Wagner's operas are, of course, about Norse mythology, and Ludwig fancied himself a part of that world. In fact, his last great building, the castle of Neuschwanstein, is lavishly decorated with scenes of these myths and Wagner's operatic themes.

Neuschwanstein is iconic, and Walt Disney had this place in mind while designing his Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. Ludwig spent plenty of money on this place, never finishing it, and living in it for just over 100 days before important people from Bavaria who had had enough of Ludwig's expenditures, reclusiveness and politics, had him arrested here and taken away. A few days later he and his physician were found drowned in Sternberger lake a few miles away in only three feet of water. Hmmm . . .

The castle itself is fantastic, but my favorite view is from Mary's Bridge behind the castle and stretching over a beautiful waterfall that must drop several hundred feet right below the bridge.

So Ludwig was finished off on the 13 of June 1886, in part at least for spending vast sums from the Bavarian treasury on his lavish palace and castle. Isn't it ironic that the very buildings he was killed for now bring vast sums of money into the Bavarian treasury as hoards of tourists from all corners of the globe come to see these fairytale places, set in the mountains of perhaps the most beautiful region of all Germany -- Bavaria. Long live the King indeed!

By the way, the villiage of Oberammergau where we stayed is a small town delight! Old homes covered in the traditional frescoes of saints, fairy tales, and labors of the people, and their love of flowers, makes Oberammergau a beautiful oasis in a hectic tour of Europe.

And then there is the village church with its little village cemetery, and wandering though it one year I came across a poignant reminder of the price we pay for wars in the world. WW II is a war we all know much about, and we are all aware of the price Americans paid in blood and treasure to win that war. But we often forget the the sword of war cuts both ways, that our gold star mothers have their sisters on the other side of the conflict. This was all brought powerfully to mind one year as I came across this grave in the little village cemetery in Oberammergau.

They are the Schneller brothers, all three of whom died fighting for Germany during WW II. I've no idea how committed they may have been to the Nazi program -- chances are that in this small town they were very unwilling conscripts -- but I do know that they had a mother, that she lived into the 1970's, and that she suffered as only a mother can when a child, in this case three of hers, were lost in that awful conflict. A mothers pain is a mothers pain, regardless of the side you may be on. God rest her soul, and the souls of her three young sons.

Friday, June 19, 2009

We Are Liking This Stuff!

The look of astonishment on their faces (obviously feigned somewhat by Mitch!) is something I look forward to every year. I love to take my Art History students into the heart of Florence with no indication of where we are going or what we are first going to see. So after droping the bags at the hotel we head down the street from the Piazza Signoria toward one of the great sights of all Europe. And it is that sight that they are getting their first look at - the Florence Cathedral! It is spectacular! There is just no other word for it! Made of the typical Tuscan colored marble of red and green and white, it is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic decoration and design. There is no facade in Western Europe that is as stunning, and to see the looks on the faces of my students when they see what we have only seen in pictures is just great fun! Giotto's tower rises beside the cathedral and gives a commanding view for miles around, and gives a great look at the gigantic dome that Brunelleschi put on top of the cathedral. In all respects this is one of the great buildings in the world. And just as they are recovering their wits I remind them that just opposite the cathedral facade is one of the sculptural masterpieces they have been waiting for - The East Doors of the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral!

Created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, none other than Michelangelo gave them the name they are know by - the Gates of Paradise. That is what Michelangelo called them when he first laid eyes on them, and Michelangelo did not go around passing out complements. For him to give a nod to another work of sculpture means something. And these doors, 17 feet tall with individual bronze panels three feet square detailing scenes from the Bible in remakable three dimensionality are among the very peaks of Western art. Needless to say, this group of students was impressed as well.

I love Florence. It's spot on the Arno river is beautiful, and the great Uffizi gallery is a gem of a museum. We had a great time in there, with the first room showing the work of the most important painter in the history of Western art - Giotto. Astounded looks all around as the scale of his altarpiece Madonna Enthroned struck them, and they saw first hand his revolution of three dimensionality in painting. Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Caravaggio, Van Honthorst, the list went on and so did the smiles. But Florence itself, astride its beautiful river, is equally the star of the show.

Yea, it leans. It leans a lot. I had forgotten. The last time I was here was 1989, and memory hasn't served me well. In fact, they have straightened the tower by nine feet since I saw it last, so when I saw again how dramatic the tilt is, how astounding that the thing stays up, I really can't imagine that I climed it when it leaned out another nine feet! Sheesh! And, as far as Pisa goes, this is it. Back on the train and off we went to Lucca,

I like Lucca. We all liked Lucca. Far lest touristy that any other place on our Italy itinerary, it was just fun to wander around and enjoy. Best of all was the medieval rampart, a huge wide earthen wall lined with stone that has now been converted into a wonderful pedestrian and bike way that goes all the way around old Lucca for 2.5 miles. On rental bikes we were off for a leisurly five mile ride under great plane trees and beautiful views of the city. We all highly recommend it.

Venice is like no other. Elegant decay is the best description I can come up with for this unique water world. Venice's blessing and it's curse is us - the tourist. Without us Venice would have been lost to crumble and the Adriatic. With us it is a crowded warren of humans elbow to elbow. The only way to really enjoy Venice, to my mind, is to be up and out at 5:00 A.M. That way no one is around, and you have the experience of Venice above. Quiet, serene, rotting and beautiful, Venice captures your imagination and your heart like no other place I know. But not at noon in St. Mark's Square with the rest of humanity!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hangin' With the Pope!

Yea, that's the Pope alright. For the third year in a row now he and I have hooked up, so to speak. Earlier in the day it was me and Mohamar Khadafi - honest! Oh the people you meet in this wonderful city! Today is the big Gay Pride parade, so in two days we have seen one of the worlds most infamous terrorists, have seen the Holy Father, and have seen trucks full of gay guys with squirt guns. And in between that, we've seen some pretty cool art and architecture.

Looking up into the dome of St. Peter's Basilica is one of the great sight of this town. It just soars' and before you see this you have already been thrilled by the sheer size of the building as you entered through the front door. I wish I had a picture of the tour group as the walked in, jaws dropping in unison as the scale and the beauty of it all hits you immediately. It is one of the moments that really make a trip like this. So is the that architypal Roman building - the Colosseum.

Pictures cannot do this place justice. Placing yourself in it, taking in its scale, that is the only way to appreciate what the emperor Vespasian pulled off with the ten year project of its construction. Its more that you can imagine. Our group was, to say the least, overwhelmed.

So yea, were in Rome. The Sistine Chapel and the gelato are as great as ever, the group is tired but loving all of it, it is very hot, and who knows who else we'll run into before the day is through!
What a great place!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Awake in Rome

Back again at last. It all feels very comfortable these days, having spent so much time here over the years. I am reminded why it is my favorite city in Europe on my jet lag walk - the first thing I do after dumping my bags at the hotel.

The familiar tourists are here, but not in the droves of past summers. Seems the economy took its toll. But some are here just the same, the serious ones who are here to learn something, the college kids taking a break (or unable to find a job right now) the fun loving and the crass. The Romans take us all in stride, and after a day or two or rummaging around town I have yet to talk with a Roman who is exasperated at our presence.

It is warm. Summer his here, and with it the high temperatures and the humidity. Taking a break during a busy day, drinking lots of water, seeking some shade, all make Rome much more enjoyable this time of year and are a must if one is to survive the gauntlet of must-see attractions in this incomparable city.

Rome is a city of churches, nearly every one an architectural jewel in some way or another. Stoping in on what looks like a rather unpromising church from the outside you can be taken aback with wonder at mosaics and marble, at paintings and tombs. Never judge a Roman church by it's cover. Then again, there are some spectacular facades on nearly every street as well. It's all just a bit dazzling.

All of this was taken in during my mid day stroll on my first day back in Rome. A stop at the grocery store for fruit and juice and bread and cheese, and it was off to one of the quietes parks in Rome, the trees and grass (weeds, really) surrounding the ruins of the baths of Trajan. It seems the Romans have taken to the whole Family Home Evening thing, for the park was filled with laughing children, happy parents, and ond coupled arm in arm on benches, still very much in love. It was an idyll of family life and love in this incredible city of cities. Ancient Romans kept the idea of family sacred. Modern Romans, the few who are having families anyway, seem to me to treasure them as much as ever. When I got back to my hotel I called my wife in far away Utah, to share a few moments of the same feeling.

It has been a good day - a really good day. A good day to be back in Rome.