Category Archives: Faculty perspective

Amazon River Expedition

Author: Anthony DeCurtis, Distinguished Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program & Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone

I’m not a specialist on South America to any degree whatsoever, so I was surprised – and delighted! — to be invited to be a faculty host on a Penn Alumni cruise along the Peruvian Amazon. I’m a distinguished lecturer in the creative writing program at Penn and my writing for Rolling Stone (where I’m a contributing editor) over the years about the likes of the Rolling Stones, U2 and Billy Joel has made me no stranger to wild life, though not the sort I was likely to find in one of the world’s most remote jungles. The advantage of my non-expert status, however, was that I fully shared the sense of wonder and adventure that characterized the redoubtable Penn alums on board. As soon as everyone understood that such questions as “How deep is the Amazon in this inlet?” were better addressed to our fearless and profoundly knowledgeable guides, Robinson and Juan Carlos, than to me, we all settled in to our journey and had an unforgettable time.

So what exactly was I doing on the La Amatista, the beautifully appointed small expedition river vessel that was our home on the Amazon? February 2014, the month of our cruise, marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles in the United States, so one of my lectures focused on that peerless band and the ongoing impact and significance of its music. A second lecture recounted the equally long and riotous career of the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones. Of course, this being a Penn cruise, the alums aboard requested a third lecture about writing strategies, which I was happy to provide – and I got a few tips myself! On the evening after my Beatles talk in the afternoon, our guides and other crew members performed a selection of Beatles classics on the top deck to a wildly appreciative audience. Any footage or photos that might conceivably emerge of me singing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “From Me to You” while holding a glass of tequila have been fabricated, I swear!

But before all of that transpired, we first flew into Lima on a Friday and stayed at the Casa Andina Private Collection, a superb hotel. After breakfast there on Saturday morning, we toured Lima’s colonial section, including Casa Aliaga, which was built in 1535 by a family who came to Peru with the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. That setting prompted a discussion with our local guide about the complexities of honoring the country’s colonial past. The Convent and Museum of St. Francisco, meanwhile, included a stroll through the site’s catacombs, which are filled with the bones of tens of thousands of local residents.

The following day we flew to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, which can only be reached by airplane or boat. Iquitos grew enormously during the rubber boom in Peru a century ago, and the downtown area features a two-story building that was used as a warehouse by Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, the rubber baron who is the subject of German director Werner Herzog’s gripping 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. On Monday we visited the thriving Belen market, which, among its many herbs, foods and native wares included aphrodisiacs that tempted some of the more daring members of the Penn crowd. On the bus ride afterwards to Nauta, where we would board La Amatista, we stopped to visit a manatee rescue center, one of the many sites attempting to preserve the hugely important ecosystem of the Amazon. We were able to feed some of the manatees, which was fun and quite moving.

Once we boarded La Amatista later that Monday, it seemed as if our journey had finally begun, despite all that we’d seen and done already. Each of the next four days we rose early and set out in two small skiffs that each held about twelve of us. Juan Carlos and Robinson were compelling guides – smart, funny, insightful and deeply appreciative of all the glories the Amazon contains. They spoke excellent English and shared personal stories of their upbringing with us in casual presentations during dinner on the ship – one of the absolute highlights of the trip. They taught us how to fish for red-bellied piranha – okay, they fished and aided us in the illusion that we were fishing, gently helping us to reel in our catch – and pointed out the endless appearances of squirrel monkeys, toucans, vultures and macaws. One lazy afternoon a group of pink river dolphins frolicked near our skiffs, and an ordinary day suddenly turned magical. Every sunrise and sunset was just breathtaking, the sky seeming the only possible sight that could draw your attention away from the magnificent river and trees.

The residents, called riberenos [Please note: tilde over the n], of the many villages we visited were uniformly friendly and welcoming. We would hike through the jungle and then sit with them to hear their stories and purchase their strikingly colorful goods. In one village a female shaman spoke to us about the mystical and medicinal qualities of many of the plants in the region. She then performed a cleansing ritual, which was riveting.

By the time we reversed our trip – back to Nauta, then Iquitos, on to Lima, and then, finally, home – we had received an invaluable education in one of our planet’s ecological treasures. As I’m sure you know, the Amazon is under siege by the demands of our modern world. Our last night on La Amatista was the occasion of a spirited discussion about the future of the rainforest and of the Earth itself. Problems abound, of course, but the conversation was inspiring, a vivid reminder that we are all custodians of the world’s treasures, whether we are at home in our houses and apartments or sailing on a river that runs deep into the very heart of our entire human history. The connections felt palpable, and still do.

 

Amazon Group

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Filed under Academics, Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Celtic Lands 2014

Author: Professor Rebecca Bushnell, Department of English

We arrived from different directions on May 28, but the Penn Alumni group all converged one chilly evening, in Greenock, Scotland, to embark on the SS. Le Boréal for our adventure in the Celtic Lands. Our ship at first looked tiny, docked next to the gigantic SS Queen Victoria, but it was to prove a comfortable and elegant home for the next nine days.

After the thrilling life boat drill in our stylish life jackets, a four-course dinner while we sailed down the River Clyde, and then a night of sound sleep (for those of us who had just arrived in Scotland that morning), we awoke the next day in what felt like another world, moored next to the tiny Isle of Iona, in the Scottish Hebrides.   Tenders took us to the ancient restored abbey of Iona, founded by St. Columba in 563 AD.

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We also visited our first Scottish village (in which I was charmed by my first Scottish cat).

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From there we took the ferry to the Isle of Mull, where we boarded buses for a journey on “one-track roads” in our rather large bus across the island  to Duart Castle, home of the  Clan Maclean,  a great stone keep perched on a bluff overlooking an inland loch.

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The weather was the first of an extraordinary stretch of brilliant blue skies with massive ever-changing clouds (many of us could not stop taking photos of the clouds). The bus then took us to our final destination of the pretty village of Tobermory, where I enjoyed shortbread and tea in the local bakery and bought the first of my little tiny bottles of samples of the local whiskey and brandies from our shore excursions (for my son-in-law, not for me).

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The next day, our ship took us to the Isle of Skye, the largest of the inner Hebrides, which looked almost metropolitan in comparison with tiny Iona and Mull (it had “two-track,” or two-way, roads).  We circled part of the island through magnificent scenery inhabited mostly by sheep (who were omnipresent throughout this trip—thousands of sheep!).

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We stopped for a visit to Dunvegan Castle, home of the Clan MacLeod,  still very active today: the castle had some pretty gardens not yet in full bloom.

There we took the first of our group pictures of what I would now think of as the Clan Penn (I can reassure you that our relations with the Brown, Dartmouth, and Northwestern clans on the ship remained friendly throughout the journey).

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That afternoon, as we left the Isle of Skye, I gave the first of my lectures, on “Shakespeare and the Celtic Lands,” discussing how ideas of England in Shakespeare’s time were forged in both conflict with and assimilation of the countries and people of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  The sense of national pride  and independence that Shakespeare saw in these often rebellious peoples was evident today  in every place we visited – and it is clearly growing daily.

The next morning we awoke in a very different sort of place, in Belfast, a city with a storied past of shipbuilding now most prominently memorialized in the fabulous RMS Titanic Museum (obviously very popular because it was very crowded on a Sunday afternoon). We took a city tour of Belfast, which included not only the city monuments, but also the working class Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods, where the sense of the past is still very present. Memories of the “Troubles “were vividly depicted in evocative and sometimes disturbing murals everywhere.

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That afternoon, I gave my second lecture on “Shakespeare and World War II,” looking at Laurence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V  produced in 1943-44, on the brink of D-Day. For me, Olivier’s film provided an instructive way  to link multiple pasts to the present, and to look ahead to our destination in Normandy, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

That night all the Penn clan gathered together for a reception, and a more formal portrait: here you see us in one of the ship’s lounges, having put down our cocktail glasses for a moment.

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But our next stop was Holyhead, Wales, and a full day excursion, beginning with the extraordinary Bodnant Gardens, where many of us could have spent the whole day. It was raining lightly part of the time we were there, but it only made the gardens that more lush: water ran everywhere, in the dells and in ponds and streams. The roses were blooming, as only British roses can. Everyone was quite entranced

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We had lunch in Betwys-e Coed, and listened to a charming all male choir, who sang mostly in Welsh, and then charted our course through the magnificent Snowdonia National Park, a land of  rugged and desolate mountains, with some slopes dramatically strewn with slate.

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The day ended with a visit to Caernafron Castle, built by Edward I to contain the medieval Welsh rebels: it was an imposing structure, built to intimidate (and even confuse some of us, like myself, who got lost in its winding and slippery staircases and corridors that led nowhere).

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That night we headed west again, and docked in Dublin, and the Republic of Ireland. Some of us took a bus tour of the city, but since I had spent a long and lovely summer studying in Dublin and Ireland when I was in college, I took off on my own to revisit some old haunts of mine and just to enjoy the city, both what was old and familiar and what was new.

That night we set off on our full day at sea (at little rocky at first), when we were entertained and enlightened  by the various faculty hosts, and by  our special guests, Cecilia Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, and Penn’s own faculty member,  David Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson. The two of them gave fascinating lectures offering personal anecdotes and insight into the historical events involving their grandfathers. Both were engaging speakers, and we felt very lucky to have them with us on the trip.

The next day, June 5, was certainly memorable, as we arrived in Normandy, France, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  We began the day on the striking bluffs of Pointe du Hoc, where the brave US Rangers scaled the cliff under heavy bombardment: the landscape is still scarred by deep craters left by the bombs, and blasted German fortification.

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We then traveled first to Omaha Beach and then  to the famous American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer. Preparations were being made for the ceremony attended by 25 heads of state the next day, but we had a moment for our Penn veterans  to lay a wreath at the memorial.

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As we sang the National Anthem, a WWII vintage plane flew overhead. All of the sacrifices made that time 70 years ago seemed quite achingly present at that moment.

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The day ended with some of us visiting the D-Day Museum in Arromanches, and others in Bayeux to view the medieval embroidery of the Battle of Hastings.  Then our ship left France with us sobered by those memories, and headed for England and for Portsmouth, where we disembarked for the final time, and  visited the D-Day Museum there and Southwick House, where the decision was made to launch the invasion.

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David Eisenhower talks to a local camera crew about the D-Day invasion map at Southwick House.

 

Then it was time for us to go our separate ways. But we all knew we had shared something special on this trip, not only through the experience of amazing natural beauty, but also through so many moments in which the present touched the past. As my remarks above suggest, wherever we traveled we learned that memories in this part of the world are long, and that history matters.

So indeed, it was a journey that I am sure we shall not soon forget ourselves.

 

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Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Antarctica The Beautiful

Author: Irina Marinov, Assistant Professor, Earth and Environmental Science Dept.

The first thing you notice on an Antarctic expedition is that the Antarctic continent is very far away from everywhere else. For example, from Philadelphia you first take a 4+ hour flight south to Miami or somewhere like that, then you embark on a 10 hour flight to BuenosAires. Once in Buenos Aires, you need to get on another 4+ hour flight that takes you to Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. In Ushuaia, you embark on your ship and spend almost two days at sea crossing the Drake Passage (sometimes a very bumpy ride) before finally seeing the Antarctic coast. And then, after you spend a few days along the Antarctic coastline you must follow the entire lengthy procedure again in reverse order to get back home. But the rewards are incredible. Even that first sighting of Antarctica is so spectacular, that it is well worth the 4-day trip to get there. Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation (around 1900m or 1.2 mi) of all the continents, with spectacular glaciers and snow-covered mountains emerging straight out of water.

But let me start this blog from the beginning. Our expedition actually started with one great (though rainy) day visiting Buenos Aires, including a visit to the balcony where Evita (or was it Madonna?) sang her heart out to the world, the Plaza de Mayo and the colorful and happy La Boca neighborhood where historically Genovese immigrants have arrived to Argentina. We also had time to mingle for one evening with newly made Penn and non-Penn friends, and taste some amazing Argentinian steaks downtown. The next early morning we took a very early flight to Ushuaia, Patagonia, the Southernmost town of the world. On our arrival we were guided on a bus tour of the nearby National Park. We were secretly told by our very funny local guide that a nearby – but far less known – town in Chile actually is technically even further south than Ushuaia. However, as advised, we promptly forgot the name of the Chilean town and proceeded to take hundreds of pictures of the world’s southernmost National Park, southernmost continental post office, southernmost lake and town, the southern tip of the Route 3 (a road that crosses all the Americas from Alaska southward) and many other southernmost such treasures.

 

Street sign in Ushuaia, Argentina

Street sign in Ushuaia, Argentina

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, near Ushuaia, Argentina

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, near Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost town of the world, as seen from our Antarctic-bound ship “L’Austral”.

Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost town of the world, as seen from our Antarctic-bound ship “L’Austral”.

I have a great distrust of tour guides. Or rather, after a few disastrous experiences in various parts of the world, I had completely sworn off tour guides and decided to travel to new places with a Lonely Planet guidebook companion instead. To my complete surprise, our local guides in Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, and on the ship, were extremely knowledgeable, professional and thoroughly pleasant and fun. The naturalist crew on the ship was also top notch, and composed of 6-7 young naturalists with extensive real-life and scientific experience at sea in the Artic and Antarctic environments. I will have to credit Gohagen, our organizing tourist agency that specializes in educational alumni travel, for their choice of naturalists and guides and a flawless organization of the trip.

My first talk on the ship (on Southern Ocean oceanography) was scheduled on our first day at sea, as we were passing through the Drake channel, the opening that separates South America from the West Antarctic Peninsula. As an oceanographer, nothing compares to the thrills of talking oceanography while cruising through the Drake Passage. This place is particularly exciting for oceanographers because here we cruise through a series of steep temperature fronts (e.g., the Antarctic Convergence and the Polar Front), a series of large drops in temperature that each occur within 30-50 km and are all related to important sub-surface ocean currents. The presence of the Drake Passage makes this the only place in the world where the Ocean can circumnavigate the globe, allowing for the presence of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current or ACC, the strongest ocean current on Earth, which moves Eastward following the powerful Westerlies winds. Luckily for us, the two-day crossing of the Drake channel was wonderfully and unusually calm, hence we all enjoyed during this time great science talks by faculty and by our naturalists on penguins, whales, stars, how the Arctic is different from Antarctica, ice-ages, or Antarctic geology. Impressively, I can report back to Penn that the Penn alumni were there bravely through all the talks (ok, almost all the talks …) and asked the most intelligent questions, naturally much more intelligent than either the Duke or Harvard alumni questions.

Then came the first sighting of Antarctic small icebergs, the first sighting of the Antarctic continent (what a thrill!) and then the first landings. Once close to the West Antarctic Peninsula, we spent the next few days driving back and forth to the continent and the surrounding islands in Zodiac boats, disembarking on shore and doing a few daily walks and hikes.

First landing on the Antarctic continent. Feb 4th, 2014. Penguins and our ship, the gorgeous “L’Austral”.

First landing on the Antarctic continent. Feb 4th, 2014. Penguins and our ship, the gorgeous “L’Austral”.

Antarctica the Beautiful. Notice the bloom of grey (from up close pink)- colored algae living on the glacier surface.

Antarctica the Beautiful. Notice the bloom of grey (from up close pink)- colored algae living on the glacier surface.

 

Glaciers on land form from snow that accumulates for tens of thousands of years and slowly move toward the ocean. Icebergs are large pieces of freshwater ice that have broken off a glacier or an ice shelf and are floating freely in open seawater because of their lower density. Icebergs come in many incredible colors (white, light blue, aqua-green), and in many sizes (smaller icebergs are called bergy bits and growlers). Ice is full of air bubbles that scatter all color wavelengths, giving ice its white appearance. If the ice is highly compressed, the bubbles are squeezed out and the blue light is scattered much more than other colors – making the ice appear blue. Algae often grow on the bottom of sea ice and icebergs, producing green stripes that can be seen when the ice rolls over and exposes the previously underwater sections.

Getting close to the icebergs in our little zodiacs can be scary, as some alumni observed whales a bit too close for comfort, while a few of us watched one day in amazement – and completely unexpectedly – an iceberg flipping over and wobbling for a long time, producing rows of waves that rocked our little boats. The flipping over started when pieces of ice from the top of the iceberg melted and destabilized the iceberg, which flipped over completely to find its new equilibrium, with the denser, smoother portion of under-water ice now on top. This flipping and wobbling creates deep striations that are visible on glaciers.

Here are some glorious glaciers of different colors and shapes that we saw on our trip.

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Below: assortment of icebergs next to the West Antarctic peninsula (photos by Irina Marinov and Dan Marks). Icebergs break off the continental shelf, and then float at sea and move with the currents, breaking into small pieces and melting as they move into warmer waters. Sliding on the continent before entering the ocean, followed by flipping and wobbling in water results in striations that we see on these icebergs.

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Other highlights of our week on the West Antarctic peninsula include mailing Antarctic postcards from Port Lockroy, a UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey site currently inhabited year-round (population: two). This small base, established as part of a secret mission to report on enemy activities and provide weather reports during World War two, currently only reports penguin activities. Gentoo penguins and birdlife (blue-eyed shags and kelp gulls) like it here, as larger predators keep away from the occupied bases. We also passed a few Argentinian science bases, such as base Brown, and hiked in a beautiful harbor overlooking a large Antarctic “iceberg cemetery”.

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British Base A, Port Lockroy, and penguins feeling at home at Port Lockroy. Below, Argentinian Base Brown, West Antarctic Peninsula. Can you imagine living here year-round? Note the grey dust on the ice to the left of Base Brown; natural weathering of rocks by wind and water on the Antarctic continent dissolves rock minerals in rocks; wind blows these around. Note a bloom of pink-colored algae on the ice to the right of Base Brown.

British Base A, Port Lockroy, and penguins feeling at home at Port Lockroy. Below, Argentinian Base Brown, West Antarctic Peninsula. Can you imagine living here year-round? Note the grey dust on the ice to the left of Base Brown; natural weathering of rocks by wind and water on the Antarctic continent dissolves rock minerals in rocks; wind blows these around. Note a bloom of pink-colored algae on the ice to the right of Base Brown.

“iceberg cemetery”.

“iceberg cemetery”.

Penn alumni Marsha and Mark Kozinn with me (pink hat).

Penn alumni Marsha and Mark Kozinn with me (pink hat).

 

On a few occasions we explored glaciers (soon to be icebergs) up close. Note the opening in the glacier in the picture above; this is how ocean waters penetrate below the glaciers, lubricating them from below. With climate warming, currents of warm waters will go beneath the glacier, melting the Antarctic glaciers from underneath, as recently measured by scientists in West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. This process can result in a global sea-level rise in the future, though projections of Antarctic contributions to sea level increase are very uncertain at this point.

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With Penn alumni and one of the naturalists (standing) in a Zodiac, preparing to disembark in Neko Harbor.

With Penn alumni and one of the naturalists (standing) in a Zodiac, preparing to disembark in Neko Harbor.

Happy Penn alumns and friends on the Antarctic continent (check out the penguins in the back).

Happy Penn alumns and friends on the Antarctic continent (check out the penguins in the back).

Happy hour on L’Austral with the Penn group.

Happy hour on L’Austral with the Penn group.

During the entire Antarctic trip we had a great time as a Penn group, had dinners all together and lunches in smaller groups, connected with each other and took many – sometimes awkward – pictures with the Penn banner. In the group picture # 2 below, I had to photoshop in the penguins behind us (just kidding, they really live there … J). My only disappointing moment was during the “swimming contest” in Neko Harbor, when no one from Penn dared to step up and go swimming (and mind you, it was a very warm day and the temperature of water was above zero! 0.7C, to be precise). I truly begged some of our alumni to jump in but got no response. So we deserve the shame: about ten Texas and Duke alumni jumped in, while (undisclosed) Penn alumni simply watched from the sides and took pictures. I have decided to not put these very cool pictures up here, to spare Penn alumni any further embarrassment…

re we are navigating the spectacular Lemaire channel in the evening (photo: Dan Marks)

Here we are navigating the spectacular Lemaire channel in the evening (photo: Dan Marks)

 

Somewhere on the Antarctic coast. Let’s hope at least we will get home safe, it looks like someone else did not …

Somewhere on the Antarctic coast. Let’s hope at least we will get home safe, it looks like someone else did not …

Usually ships try to stare clear of sea-ice, which can be quite dangerous. So imagine the thrill when instead, during our cruise in the Weddell Sea, we actually went searching for sea-ice! An absolute highlight of the trip for me, as an oceanographer, was (once the ship approached the sea-ice enough) getting in the zodiacs to see up close the sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, and disembarking on sea-ice. What a unique moment! This is particularly thrilling because most Antarctic sea-ice is not very thick as it is annual and seasonal, meaning that it forms each winter and then it melts each summer, in a continuous natural cycle. The Weddell Sea is the only place in the Southern Ocean where sea-ice can actually last through the summer, so the ice we are standing on here (see picture below) might be 2, even 3 years old. This is different from the Arctic sea-ice, which lasts through many consecutive summers. On average, sea-ice next to the Antarctic coast has been increasing on average over the past few decades (a consequence of the stronger Southern Annular Mode, a natural climate mode of variability). However, our climate models predict that sea-ice around Antarctica will decrease significantly over the next century as a consequence of global warming. This will have repercussions for and life (penguins and seals like to live on this sea-ice), ocean-atmosphere heat exchange and oceanic circulation.

Sea ice affects the movement of ocean water; in the freezing process of sea ice during fall and winter, most salt is left behind. The resulting very dense waters known as Antarctic Bottom waters sink to the bottom of the ocean and then along the ocean floor towards the equator feeding all ocean basins as part of the global “conveyor belt” circulation. The Weddell Sea is the main place where Antarctic Bottom Water is formed during winter. Current research (from work we have done with close collaborators at McGill) shows that future climate warming here will decrease this important pathway of global ocean circulation, with global consequences.

Standing on sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, with our ship “L’Austral” in the background.

Standing on sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, with our ship “L’Austral” in the background.

Sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, penguins and seals on sea-ice or going for a dip…. Penguins must swim quite far from the continent to get here. Sea ice is dynamic, is formed during fall and winter, melts in the summer, but also moves and is deformed by the winds. Blooms of pink ice-algae were sometimes visible. Photos courtesy of Dan Marks.

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Navigating out of the Weddell Sea we saw an enormous tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf, at least a few km long and around 100 m above water. While we know that about 90% of the iceberg volume is usually under water, the shape of the underwater portion is impossible to guess, which is what makes glaciers dangerous for navigation (think the Titanic). The breaking of icebergs from the continent is a natural phenomenon, with pieces of ice from the Antarctic shelf breaking and entering the ocean, and moving with the ocean currents. Climate warming can increase the disintegration of the Antarctic ice shelf. For example, while the rest of Antarctica hasn’t changed much its temperature, the West Antarctic Peninsula has been warming over the past few decades, and the sea ice surrounding it has been steadily retreating. This is where the famous Lars Shelf-B collapsed a few years ago; this shelf disintegrated into many icebergs, which followed the ACC current eastward breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

Tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Some of these icebergs originate from the recent, climate-warming induced disintegration of the West Antarctic peninsula.

Tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Some of these icebergs originate from the recent, climate-warming induced disintegration of the West Antarctic peninsula.

One other highlight of this trip was a spectacular hike on the Deception Island, part of the South Shetland Islands archipelago. The island is the caldera of an active volcano that has erupted at irregular intervals (the last few times in ’67, ’69 and ’70). What is visible now is the top of a much larger active volcano that collapsed below sea level in prehistoric times and is mostly submerged now. Once in the vicinity of the island, we got on our Zodiacs and managed to land under rather strong waves on Baily Head, a black sand volcanic beach, where we observed several hundred penguins marching to and from the sea. We then started up the mountain in a rather long, and very cold and windy hike, which felt like a true Antarctic adventure. The hike went up and down the caldera, through one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs of penguins). The penguins live in families, make a lot of noise, and are only mildly interested in people (a few times I had to watch not to step on them, they are truly unafraid of us). We braved the strong winds and hiked up and down the mountain, took in spectacular views of the ocean at Neptune’s Bellows, and finally arrive onto the black sand beaches at Whaler’s Bay, where we got picked up again by our ship.

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Above: A very windy hike through a huge colony of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs) at Baily Head, on the volcanic Deception Island.

Above: A very windy hike through a huge colony of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs) at Baily Head, on the volcanic Deception Island.

On our way back, the crossing of the Drake passage was extremely turbulent, with huge waves for about 24 hours (ok, the captain was not impressed, but the rest of us were …). As an oceanographer, it is very embarrassing to be sea-sick, and I did my best to hide it from the far braver Penn alumni, but was finally forced by circumstances to move my science talk by one day. Luckily, Prof. Abbott from the Smithsonian stepped in and gave an engaging talk, all while holding onto a moving desk, and pointing to a moving screen, with half of us in the auditorium fascinated but barely alive … Later on in the day, tons of people were either hiding in their rooms or spending all their time in the restaurant on the lowest level, were the swell felt more manageable. By the next day the sea was much calmer, people were suddenly more joyful and present and my talk on “Climate change and the Southern tip of the world” went well. At least I think it went well, based on the many questions and conversations I had after the talk and the following day, including a few interesting ones from climate skeptics (whom I hope to bring to the climate-science discussion table). Iceberg sightings, bird watching, whale watching, chatting with our naturalists, science talks and talking to very interesting alumni kept us all very busy during this crossing, and made the sea-sickness more manageable.

In the evening of Feb 11th we returned to Ushuaia and slept on the boat, preparing for our flights back to Buenos Aires the next day. On our way back, some alumni opted to go on an extension to the impressive Iguazu falls, a beautiful tropical destination and Unesco heritage site at the border between Argentina and Brazil. Some stayed on to explore further South America. I ended up spending 3 days in nearby Uruguay on my way back to the US, crossing – during an awful 2 hour cruise that turned out to be far worse than crossing the Drake passage – the Rio de la Plata river separating Argentina and Uruguay, and exploring the towns of Colonia and Montevideo. I then flew back to Philadelphia via Miami, and had to report on the same day to my department. Full of excitement from my trip, I talked to students in my “Ocean-Atmosphere dynamics” class for hours about the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. While Antarctica is our least explored continent, the Southern Ocean is the least understood region of the world ocean because of its remoteness, sparcity of observations and our incomplete understanding of high latitude processes such as sea ice and glacier dynamics. I hope that some of my Penn students will grow up to be scientists and help preserve and understand our beautiful oceans. I hope that they will be all environmentally educated world citizens, who will get to travel in turn and appreciate our amazing natural world.

Expedition Map.

Expedition Map.

In conclusion: a thrilling adventure to a continent of unparalleled silence and beauty in great, great company! An expedition to remember a lifetime.

 

 

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Filed under Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Cuba 2

Author: Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Department of Art History

From the moment that our plane landed at José Marti Airport in Havana I knew that this Penn Alumni Travel trip would be very different from ones that I had accompanied previously to places such as France, Spain, Argentina, and Chile.  After having successfully passed through immigration and while waiting for our luggage, my husband and I were waylaid as a young women in an official brown uniform began to interview him about his reasons for traveling to Cuba.  She wanted to know what he planned to do while there and what things he had brought with him.  The questions were not particularly invasive, but they did seem to be endless.  As he submitted to this plodding interrogation in the middle of the baggage area, we waited and waited for our suitcases to come off the carousel.

The José Marti Airport in Havana

The José Marti Airport in Havana

After about 20 minutes, the airplane’s cargo began to slowly emerge from the behind the black rubber flaps of the handling area and onto conveyor.  Typical of many flights that I have taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, they included a large number of items that were swathed in the bright blue plastic wrap on offer at most international airports as cheap protection against both spillage and curious fingers.  In this case, rather than swaddling mostly soft-sided suitcases and duffels that are not easily locked, the plastic also covered all sorts of odd-shaped packages.   Some of these had funny protrusions that I soon began to recognize as canned food and other grocery items.  This piqued my interest and the novelty of it quickly distracted me from the banal questions with which the official was peppering my husband.  I began to look a little harder at the things that my fellow travelers were bringing into Cuba from Miami.

While we waited for our luggage to emerge, I saw several doors, a 60-inch television, countless boxes, and many enormous suitcases drop down on the conveyor. Most of the items that had once been wrapped tightly in the blue plastic had now been cut open so that the curiosity of the Cuban officials — or perhaps the United States officials back in Miami — could be satisfied that their contents were permissible.  As remarkable as this display of highly eclectic consumer activity was to me, it soon made sense when we arrived at our hotel in Central Havana and began to explore the immediate neighborhood.  There were only a few shops and the ones that we ventured into hardly had anything for sale on their shelves.

A shop in Havana

A shop in Havana

Street commerce

Street commerce

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I had asked friends and colleagues who had been to Cuba in the past few years about how much money they recommended I bring on the trip.  I was curious about this due to the financial restrictions that travelers from the United States encounter.  Under the current embargo, the Cuban government is not permitted to do any business with US banks — ATMs and credit cards issued by US banks will not work there — so one must bring cash in hand when traveling to Cuba. In addition to the query about money, I also asked people what sorts of things they had brought home.  They all remarked that they had purchased very little as there simply was not very much to buy, regardless of whether or not the items were “permitted” under the embargo (more on this farther down).  I did not fully understand what they meant until I saw the many, many empty shelves in the Havana shops. It was then that I began to understand the impact of the US embargo, what the Cubans call el bloqueo or the blockade, which not only makes everyday life incredible difficult for the average Cuban.  Unless Cubans have access to international travel and foreign currency, it is nearly impossible for them to buy many of the simple things that they need, such as the doors and canned food that I saw sticking out of those blue plastic wrapped packages at the airport.

Blockade sign outside Havana

Blockade sign outside Havana

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a guided walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage site centered in Old Havana.  There we saw the city’s incredible colonial architecture, which dates back to the 1500s and is currently being restored by Habaguanex.  A national company run by the Cuban government, Habaguanex uses the profits from a group of hotels that it runs in Old Havana and Central Havana to fund the restoration and reconstruction of various buildings in the historically significant parts of the metropolitan area.  Prior to receiving the UNESCO designation and the accompanying funds it provided, many of the buildings in this part of the city were disintegrating into the barely functional ruins that today characterize much of the once-spectacular Cuban architectural landscape.

Detail of Old Havana architecture.

Detail of Old Havana architecture.

The key element in the spiraling disintegration of Cuban architecture, which began following the Revolution over 50 years ago, has been the arcane rules governing property in the communist state. The communist real estate laws that govern multi-family dwellings, which include most of the three and four storey apartment buildings in Havana, seem to make little practical sense (to me at least).  Under Cuban law, families are responsible for the upkeep of their own apartments, but nobody (except for the State, perhaps) is responsible for the upkeep of the building.  Therefore, unlike with co-ops or condominiums in the US, there are no superintendents on duty and little that goes wrong in the common areas, with the façades or the exteriors of buildings, is repaired.  While this is the situation throughout the island, its toll has been particularly acute in Havana, where an average of 3 buildings collapse each day.  This terrible situation makes the recent intervention of UNESCO both timely and welcome to both those who live there and to those of us who visit.  Since its founding in 1994, Habaguanex has facilitated the restoration of Old Havana using a two-pronged approach: 1) it trains youth in traditional construction and decoration techniques that have all but disappeared from practice, and 2) the renovations create a desirable tourist area, which in turn enables the process of restoration to proceed through the production of much-needed funds.  A win-win situation.

Buildings disintegrating

Buildings disintegrating

On the Malecon in Havana.

On the Malecon in Havana.

On our last night, after a week in Cuba, I began to repack my suitcases, neither of them were as large or unwieldy as the strange things I had seen coming off the belt when we arrived.  I had only a few books bought at the National Gallery, a couple of vintage posters from the used book market, and some CDs recorded by musical groups we had heard.  Unlike my experiences on other trips, where I sometimes have had to purchase an extra bag for my purchases (for example the Paris to Normandy cruise I took with Penn Alumni Travel in June of 2013 where a new summer wardrobe and several bottles of aged Calvados were acquired) this time it was pretty easy to fit these things in.  Such “informational materials” are the only items that one is permitted to legally bring back to the United States, and as the faculty host I was “playing it safe,” having resisted the lure of the myriad Che Guevara t-shirts and Cuban flag-adorned aprons and bric-a-brac.

At a contemporary dance workshop in Havana

At a contemporary dance workshop in Havana

Cuba is simply not the place to visit if you want to go shopping — Bermuda or the Caymans are the places for deals on Swiss watches and designer sunglasses.  However, if you are interested art, music, dance, and architecture, then Cuba is a revelation.  Thanks to the experts at Academic Arrangements Abroad, who organized our trip on behalf of Penn Alumni Travel, during our week in Cuba we experienced the very best of these things that the island had to offer.  I will leave it to Alyssa D’Alconzo, Director of Alumni Travel and Education at Penn, who also traveled on my departure to discuss more of the amazing activities we experienced. (Look for Alyssa’s blog on March 27th.)  Now, less than a month later, I am actively making plans to return to Cuba soon (perhaps with some Penn Art History students in tow) and see more of this complex and marvelous country.

Penn alumni and friends at the Havana cathedral.

Penn alumni and friends at the Havana cathedral.

[Interested in travel to Cuba? Penn Alumni Travel will be returning February 14-21, 2015. Email Emilie C. K. LaRosa at emiliek@upenn.edu to be added to a priority reservation list.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: The South Pacific

Author: Lance Donaldson-Evans, Professor Emeritus of Romance Languages

I grew up just a block from the South Pacific in Newcastle, Australia, and so when I learned that Penn Alumni Travel was looking for a faculty host for a Crystal Cruises voyage from Papeete to Auckland, I was quick to volunteer and very grateful to be accepted.  As I pondered the itinerary, I realized that we would be following in the wake of many famous navigators, but particularly men like Captain James Cook (no relation to the famous, but now defunct, Cooks Travel Agency), Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (who had a flower, and an island that was to become an important battleground in World War II named after him) and Jean-François de La Pérouse (who, among other things, gave his name to a suburb of Sydney).  I decided this was a perfect way to combine pleasure with history and that the two talks I was to give the group would be on these 18th century sailors.

We arrived at Papeete Airport early (6:10 AM) on the morning of January 20, somewhat bleary-eyed after 8 and a half hours of sometimes bumpy flying over the Pacific from Los Angeles.  It was quite hot and humid (most of the year Tahiti has a much more pleasant climate, but this was the middle of the Tahitian summer) and we were directed to the Intercontinental Hotel where a refreshing buffet of all sorts of French pastries and tropical fruits awaited us.  We were able to enjoy the facilities of the hotel until 11:30 when a bus arrived to transport us to the ship.  The view from the hotel grounds was idyllic, with the deep blue waters of the Pacific stretching across to the beautiful island of Moorea.

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The hotel was a bustling place and we were impressed with the attire of some of the staff.  If we wonder where the current fad for tattoos comes from, no need to look beyond Polynesia:

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We arrived at the ship where a delicious lunch was served in the dining room, and later in the afternoon we were reunited with our luggage in our cabins.  At least, almost all of us were.  One unfortunate couple discovered that their bags had not been transferred in time and had to wait until the ship docked in Bora Bora next day to recover theirs. (These are the challenges of travel!)

That evening we met our AHI host, a very efficient and witty Brit by the name of John Powell (after seeing him in action one wondered if he were not a descendant of Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts!). AHI is an educational tour operator that works with Penn Alumni Travel to provide enlightening and well-organized tours. We also met alums from Wisconsin, Michigan and members of the Smithsonian Institution at an AHI cocktail reception in the beautiful Palm Court Lounge on deck 11 with a wrap-around view over the Crystal Symphony’s bow.  My wife Mary and I had chosen the “dinner by reservation” option, rather than a set table, in the hope we would be able to join people in the Penn group on a rotation basis.  However, as Crystal cruises has an extremely loyal following and as many passengers had been on the ship since Valparaiso and were continuing on to Sydney, there was very little flexibility in dining room seating and we ended up at a table for two (fortunately, even after 45 years of marriage, we still have plenty to say to each other).

Next day, we anchored off the beautiful island of Bora Bora where we had opted for a snorkel tour with stingrays and sharks (small reef sharks, not great whites).  This was very pleasant and we had the backdrop of Bora Bora, which we circumnavigated after our encounter with the aforementioned sea creatures on our way back to the ship.

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On our excursion, we had, as one of our guides, a native of Bora Bora, who reminded us of the character Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” laugh included:

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After the morning excursion and some shopping for black pearls in the sleepy town of Vaitape, we were tendered back to the ship for a late dinner and then off to bed, to be rocked to sleep by the (still) gentle waves of the Pacific.

Next day was a day at sea and was when my first talk was scheduled.  Mercifully the seas were slight and the lecturer (yours truly) had no problems maintaining his balance on the stage of the Hollywood Theater (as close as he’ll ever get to Hollywood, except as a tourist!) as he talked about the perils, challenges and some pleasures of maritime exploration in the 18th century in the Pacific.  As jetlag hadn’t quite been conquered, some members of the group retired to their cabins for a siesta before coming to the 5:30 PM reception organized just for the Penn group in the Palm Court Lounge.

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Next day we anchored off Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (yes named after that Cook, even though he never actually set foot on them).

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Some of us took a 4-wheel drive excursion up into the hills in the center of this relatively small island.  We motored passed picturesque farms and houses, some of which had family graves (encased in concrete) in their front yards (legal in the Cook Islands) and visited a waterfall and some sacred sites.  Then a precipitous climb to a lookout from where we had a birds-eye view right down to the incredibly blue Pacific:

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While less spectacular than French Polynesia, the Cook Islands have their own tropical beauty and the Cook Islanders are particularly friendly.

Next day was a day at sea as we sailed for Tonga, an independent kingdom near the International Date Line. Those of us who had signed up for a tour of Tonga had received a message that we should not expect it to be up to the standard of a normal tour, as tourism was still in its infancy in the kingdom.  Surprisingly, instead of having to tender passengers to shore as had been the case in Bora Bora and Rarotonga,  the ship was able to dock at a wharf on this low island (very flat with no hills to speak of), and we had a splendid view of the Victorian era royal palace, which overlooks the harbor:

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We saw the blowhole, which gave a modest performance;  flying foxes (large bats that are not nocturnal) and which had colonized a number of fruit trees; and a dance show, which was extremely modest in both dress and movement, compared with the rather raunchy dances in other parts of Polynesia.  One suspects that the missionaries who arrived in the 19th century had done their work perhaps too well! The highlight of our day however was the wonderful sailaway sendoff we were given as we cast off from the pier.  The police band gave us a concert and a group of dancers, swayed gracefully, as they sang the tear-jerking Maori farewell.  Quite memorable and unique.

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Our next port of call was Lautoka, Fiji, but en route, we heard the first of three fascinating talks on astronomy and the latest theories on the universe by Carolyn Petersen, the lecturer with the Smithsonian group.  On our sea days, there was a great deal of activity on board, and three other lecturers (engaged by the cruise line) gave talks open to all the ship’s passengers, while, because of space constraints, our lectures were only open to the members of the AHI contingent.  In some ways, our days at sea were even busier than those in port.  Lautoka is on the island of Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian Islands and by far the largest island we visited before arriving in New Zealand.  Here we encountered our first real rain so far, apart from a few passing sprinkles on Rarotonga.  Some had chosen the four-wheel drive adventure that would take us up into the highlands and to a typical Fijian village.  This was one of the best excursions we have ever done.  We were comfortably transported in air-conditioned Toyota land cruisers up some very rough roads leading up into the hills, from where we had a beautiful view of the interior of this lush island.

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We then visited a village in the highlands, where we saw the church, the equivalent of the court house (where miscreants were punished) and the community hall, where we participated in a kava ceremony, some of us drinking from a coconut shell the numbing liquid of the kava tree, which had been prepared before our eyes to the accompaniment of songs and chants.

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The village buildings were fairly rudimentary, and the communal toilet seemed to be no exception:

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However imagine our surprise, when, on opening the door, we found a fully operational flush toilet!

On our return to the ship we visited an orchid farm and a house which had been in the hands of the same Scottish-Fijian family since the mid-19th century.  By this time the rain was coming down in torrents, but it had been a wonderful excursion and we returned to Crystal Symphony delighted with our adventure.

During the last two days at sea on our way to Auckland, the Pacific showed us that it was not always true to its name.  We had about 36 hours of continuous rough seas (18 feet according to the captain) as we punched into 35 knot headwinds.  On the first of these days we had lunch for the Penn group in the Crystal dining room, fortunately low enough in the ship so that the ship’s movement wasn’t too disturbing, and after this we had the one group photo we managed to take:

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We had another late afternoon reception for the entire AHI group in the Palm Court Lounge, but the ship was pitching so enthusiastically that only about half of the group came and those that did had to remain seated.  The captain even cancelled the Formal Dress that was supposed to be the dress code for that evening, replacing it with Resort Casual, and banned the wearing of high heels to avoid possible accidents!

We arrived 4 hours late (the delay caused by the weather) in Auckland. We overnighted here in superb weather.  The largest city in New Zealand, with a population of over 1 million, Auckland is known as the City of Sails, since sailing is a passion for its inhabitants thanks to its climate and proximity to the water.  It is no wonder this small island nation has played such a prominent role in America’s Cup competitions.  The view of Auckland below shows one of its many marinas, which are adjacent to downtown and the Sky Tower, one of the tallest structures in the Southern Hemisphere.

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After enjoying the perfect weather on Saturday and Sunday, we were transferred to the airport on Sunday afternoon for our various long flights back to the States.  A number of people in the group opted to go on an extension to Queenstown, an important and beautiful tourist destination in the heart of the spectacular South Island.  A few stayed on to rent a car and explore the North Island.  The rest of us headed back to the winter of 2014 after our two weeks in the South Pacific.  Penn Alumni Travel could not have picked a better way to have some respite from this Mother of All Winters.  It was a truly delightful experience.

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Penn Alumni Travel: Machu Picchu to the Galapagos 1

Author: Professor Peter Dodson, Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences

This November 16-30, I led a Penn Alumni Travel trip with 14 Penn alumni and friends. Four of us went on a pre-trip excursion to the Amazon, leaving from Iquitos, northeastern Peru, the largest city in the world accessible neither by road or by rail. Here the highway is the mighty Amazon itself and its tributaries. We stayed at Ceiba Tops Ecological Lodge and reveled in the treasures of the rainforest–the colorful birds and insects, the inquisitive tapir, the riotous tropical plants. We also visited two indigenous villages, one of which still maintains its pre-colonial lifestyle.

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Back to Lima, we met the full contingent of Alumni Travelers along with our Odyssey guide for Peru, Marco Ayala. Marco was friendly, knowledgeable and witty, a great companion who anticipated our every need and was on top of every situation. After a quiet morning we spent the afternoon exploring a bit of Lima, including early Spanish churches in the city center and a visit to the splendid Larco Museum of pre-Columbian art. This was our introduction to the pre-European history of Peru. The following morning was an early departure from the hotel for our one-hour flight to Cuzco in the Andes, the capital city of the Incas.

Cuzco, the capital city of the Incas.

Cuzco, the capital city of the Incas.

Here we met our local guide, Anna Marie, who is highly knowledgeable about all things Incan. As Cuzco is 11,000 feet above sea level, it is deemed wise to begin the visit in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which is a mere 9,000 feet high. The beautiful Casa Andina served as our base for two days as we explored the Sacred Valley and saw many Incan walls and terraces. The Incas were master engineers and stone masons, and we witnessed their impact throughout the landscape.

Llama and alpaca woolen blankets.

Llama and alpaca woolen blankets.

We also viewed current agricultural practices as the land was being prepared for planting of corn, potatoes and other crops as the rainy season was soon to begin in December. We could see in plots side-by-side a field plowed by hand with a team of oxen and a field plowed by modern John Deere tractor. We visited a village where native women spun llama and alpaca fleece into wool, dyed it brilliant natural colors, then wrought the wool into beautiful native consumer goods. A highlight was a visit to the Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo on the Urubamba River.

A field plowed by a team of oxen.

A field plowed by a team of oxen.

The Penn group at Ollantaytambo.

The Penn group at Ollantaytambo.

The next day we took the train down the Sacred Valley as the Urubamba River dropped 2000 feet into tropical cloud forest to Aquas Calientes. Then we took the most breathtaking imaginable bus ride up through 13 switchbacks on shear side of the mountain to arrive at Machu Picchu Ecological Lodge, where we spent the night. This exquisite boutique hotel is the only guest accommodation on site. We had the privilege of tranquil time at the site without the press of crowds. We had two guided tours of the vast and stunning site, which is truly a city in the clouds — its shear cliffs remind me of a Yosemite in the tropics. The intrepid among us even participated in a rather taxing climb of Wayna Picchu, the smaller mountain that overlooks the back of the site.

Hiking Machu Picchu.

Hiking Machu Picchu.

Penn alumni in the Andes!

Penn alumni in the Andes!

Machu Picchu is everything that I had imagined and more. As Anna Marie made clear, the Incans showed every bit of the skill of the Egyptians in moving large blocks and fitting them together flawlessly without mortar. They also understood water perfectly. A significant overnight rain failed to make any impact on the site. Reluctantly we descended the mountain and took the train back to Cuzco. We stayed in a truly original hotel, El Monasterio, a Franciscan monastery whose construction began in 1595. The guest rooms were palatial and the hospitality exquisite — as close to five star as I am ever likely to experience.

The impressive engineering skills of the Incas on display.

The impressive engineering skills of the Incas on display.

El Monasterio courtyard.

El Monasterio courtyard.

My first talk took place in a gorgeous ornate high ceilinged chapel–and oh, sweet irony–it was my Darwin talk! Some think Darwin and Christianity are incompatible, but I know differently. After exploring Cuzco, we said good bye to Marco and flew on to Quito via Lima, and were greeted by our Odyssey guide for Ecuador, Roberto Peralta. Roberto too was excellent, helpful, solicitous, knowledgeable, cheerful, and proud of is country.

Darwin in the baroque chapel at El Monasterio.

Darwin in the baroque chapel at El Monasterio.

We flew on to the Galapagos via Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. At Baltra Airport we were met by our local naturalist, the high-spirited Dora Ulloa. We rode by bus from the airport, ferried across a canal (where the air was alive with seabirds flying to and fro), and southward across Santa Cruz Island towards Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos. In about 20 minutes we found ourselves in surprisingly lush vegetation at an altitude of about 2500 feet. Soon we were down at sea level again in Puerto Ayora. Here at the town dock we were met by two zodiac inflatable boats, locally called pangas, and whisked out to the Coral II, our beautiful 110 foot boat that was to be our home for the next three days.

Off on the zodiacs!

Off on the zodiacs!

We were met by the uniformed crew with the “Galapagos Greeting,” a firm forearm-to-forearm embrace that facilitates safe transfer from panga to ship or panga to shore. We settled into our staterooms, enjoyed a nice lunch, and then went ashore with Dora and Roberto to visit the tortoise breeding facility of the Darwin Research Center. Here we saw many Galapagos tortoises of varying sizes and shapes, many destined to be returned to their native islands. We also saw Darwin’s finches and mockingbirds moving about. Later we returned to the Coral II, enjoyed an excellent dinner and eventually repaired to our cabins.

The ship sailed during the night, and walking with a cup of coffee during breakfast was a challenging. Shortly later we anchored near a tranquil lagoon, and our first shore excursion was highly rewarding. We were greeted on the beach by welcoming sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs and land iguanas. Later we snorkeled in the lagoon, swimming over a white-tipped reef shark and a green sea turtle, and we observed shoals of colorful reef fishes. In the afternoon we landed on beautiful South Plaza Island, whose rocky shores were guarded by sea lions and whose air space was thick with sea birds, including boobies, petrels, shearwaters, gulls and pelicans.

Sea lions on the shore.

Sea lions on the shore.

A land iguana.

A land iguana.

Transferring from the Coral II to one of the islands.

Transferring from the Coral II to one of the islands.

The following day we toured a boobie and frigate bird rookery on North Seymour Island. In the afternoon we walked a sandy beach, saw a flamingo, and snorkeled along the reef off the beach. Finally we made a long crossing to San Cristobal, visited the Galapagos Interpretive Center, and regretfully returned to Quito. Good things still remained. We spent a day at Antisana Preserve along volcano alley where we viewed 19,000 foot snow-covered volcanic cones (Antisana, Cotopaxi) and majestic Andean condors from a distance.

A lone flamingo.

A lone flamingo.

Our final day involved historic churches in Quito, a trip to the Middle of the Earth — the Equator where we stood with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other foot in the Northern Hemisphere. We ate lunch at the elegant and dramatic El Crater on the very rim of an ancient caldera with Ecuadorian cloud forest falling away beneath our feet.

And so it ended. What a splendid trip filled with natural and cultural wonders. Penn Alumni Travel is absolutely first class all the way. It is an absolutely worry-free way to travel and learn about other cultures and habitats. There is something for everyone everyday. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

[To learn more about Penn Alumni Travel and our 2014 schedule, click here.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: MP to the Galapagos 2

Author: Professor Larry Silver, Department of Art History

This fabulous “trip of a lifetime” with Penn Alumni Travel really lived up to its billing, and its two parts were like completely new chapters, each totally absorbing and totally different from the other.

Our journey began in Lima, where our local Odysseys host showed us the colonial square and the adjoining narrow streets with their charming wooden balconies.  She also gave us an hour-long introduction to pre-Spanish art and culture in the private museum, Larco Herrera, which spanned the entirety of native cultures from ten centuries BCE to the 1532 Spanish conquest.  Among treasures that we saw there were fabulous weavings from the Paracas culture of the south coast of Peru and stunning portrait vases from the later Moche culture of the north coast.

Larry Silver with alumni travelers in Peru.

Larry Silver with alumni travelers in Peru.

Soon we were winging our way to the highlands of the Incas, passing through Cuzco, their ancient capital, where we stopped to see the Koricancha, Temple of the Sun, before passing over high mountain passes into the Sacred Valley, watered by the river Urubamba.  Our next several days were spent in excursions all around the Sacred Valley, punctuated by views of sacred sites on the high plains (altiplano).  One highlight featured a morning with native weavers in Conchierro, who showed us not only their techniques but also the natural plants from which they made their dyes.  Some of us took home their exquisite traditional weavings.  In addition, one of the evenings in our Sacred Valley hotel featured (appropriately) a local shaman, whose blessings for the group in his native Quechua were translated by our regional guide and concluded with a ritual fire of the magical elements he had used in his incantations.  We had mixed reactions to the ceremony, but certainly whatever he invoked worked for the remainder of the trip, for we had remarkably trouble-free travels.

Traveling in the Sacred Valley.

Traveling in the Sacred Valley.

Learning from Peruvian weavers.

Learning from Peruvian weavers.

From Olaytatambo, a fortress town that resisted Spanish conquest (some of us hiked up to the peak of the citadel with its characteristic large, fitted Inca stone), we took one of the world’s great train rides down to Machu Picchu (still at over 8000 feet), but we noticed the greater tropical flora and birds as we descended.  Then came the climax at Machu Picchu, which sits in an overwhelming setting high above an oxbow bend of the River Urubamba on a saddle setting between two towering mountain peaks.  We there had the advantage of our great guide Julian to explain the history of the site as well as to itemize the original functions of the varied buildings, otherwise quite similar in form, except for distinctions in the stonework of their construction.

Astounding Machu Picchu.

Astounding Machu Picchu.

That location, the “Camp David” of the grand Inca Pachakuti in the later 15th century, was probably built in a mere decade but became a major shrine and outpost of the Inca even after the Spanish conquest; it was only rediscovered a century ago when an adventurer from Yale followed farmers’ tips and uncovered the place from its overgrowth.  Our two-day stay there took us over almost all of the remaining struc- tures, and we had the great advantage of a fabulous hotel location, just steps from the entrance gate, so some folks took good advantage of the early morning opening for extra activity with smaller crowds.  Some of us sat and contemplated the setting from above the ruins, while others hiked up to the segment where the Inca Trail descends finally to Machu Picchu itself.  Stunning views everywhere—and what was different from even the finest photos of the site is how its mountain peaks and gorges simply envelop the visitor in a breathtaking 3-D way no image can capture.

The view from above.

The view from above.

Penn alumni and friends stop for a photo-op.

Penn alumni and friends stop for a photo-op.

Our marvelous afternoon train ride all the way back to Cuzco included a fashion show, distracting to some but a shopping bonanza for others.   Cuzco itself is a splendid city, and our morning tour included visits to a few of the richly decorated main churches (the Spanish put in far too many churches for any short visit; they were determined to Christianize the Inca pagans, just as they built their Dominican church atop the splendid foundations of the Koricancha Sun Temple).  One of our rare bouts of wind and rain dampened the visit to the great citadel Sacsahuaman above the city, though it afforded yet another chance for a group photo and a sight of some of the most massive building stones this side of the pyramids of Egypt.  No wonder the Spanish dismantled all the building blocks that they could move; these were the inextinguishable markers of Inca engineering and power.

The group stops for another picture in front of the massive building stones.

The group stops for another picture in front of the massive building stones.

For some, the local host lunches that followed were another way to make real contact with the Peruvians, not to mention their most distinctive local dish, guinea pig.  Our Cuzco hotel, the Monasterio, was a fabulous base for free exploration of the city; its authentic colonial paintings in the main chapel and throughout the building provided a further opportunity for immersion in the religious life of the Spanish city. Almost all of us found memorable dining experiences on our own in the evening.

Logistics of leaving Peru for Ecuador occupied most of the next day, further complicated by the fact that the lovely, but largely empty, new airport of Quito has not yet been complemented by a proper roadway to get there.   We got to cross a deep gorge over a “temporary” bridge built for the oil industry, which is a major export of Ecuador out of its Amazonian basin.  Eventually, after a night in Quito, we flew to the Galapagos and met our lively naturalist Rial, plus the enigmatically named and hunky Victor Hugo.  They were our constant companions on and off the Coral I, a boat whose food was tasty, whose crew was experienced and friendly, and whose steadiness on the open ocean waters was a comforting way to visit the islands.  We grew pretty fond of the men who piloted our dinghy and the informed guides who found the full range of animals and then explained their ways to us.

The Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands.

What an amazing set of islands!  Stark, whether dry scrub or lava-covered, they hosted all of those amazing creatures we had come to see—and we were not disappointed.  Penguins not only leaped in clusters after schools of fish as we made our way along the coast in the rafts, but one of them entertained us at the stern one morning as he breakfasted among a cluster of sardines swimming in circles.  Some of us even saw penguins while snorkeling, one of the great delights of the Galapagos sojourn. Sea lions of several species were everywhere, on shore and in the water, also sometimes on view while snorkeling.  Pelicans might have been familiar, but to see them and the unfamiliar, rare blue-footed Boobies crash diving into the surf was an unforgettable spectacle.  We had a rare, calm view of a Galapagos Hawk in a tree, as well as other unfamiliar creatures, such as the Oyster-Catcher on her nest.  And who can forget the Frigate Birds, hovering like pterodactyls above the boat or following its wake, gliding gracefully above us.

Sea lions on shore.

Sea lions on shore.

Finding a pelican.

Finding a pelican.

Of course, the signature creatures of the Galapagos remains the giant Tortoise, and we saw slightly different versions on every island, not least at the Santa Cruz sanctuary on the last day, when a mudbath occupied as many as a dozen of the animals.  They were perhaps the only really shy animals we saw, pulling in and hissing when we had to share the same trail, but for the most part these placid reptiles relaxed and set a great example for travel mellowness.

Giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises.

No one who saw them, especially on Fernandina’s lava flows, will forget the Marine Iguana colony, and then later on Isabel (one of three different stops on that large island) we finally saw the yellow Land Iguana.  It was like a Jules Verne dinosaur movie to move amidst those creatures, seemingly without their having a care for us as threats—though their spit-like ejections of salt were anything but welcoming.  Even the major recent flows of lava, broken only occasionally by the intrusion of lava cactus, were a sight—really without comparison except at a few other places, such as the Big Island of Hawaii, were a spectacle to remember.  Victor Hugo gave a great talk on the boat about tectonic plates that move across the earth and about hot spots, such as the Galapagos or Hawaii, where the newest islands are on one end of the archipelago and the older, smaller, more verdant islands have drifted away, though still showing their calderas or their shield volcanoes.  We really got a great geology lesson in the Galapagos to complement our archaeology from Peru!

Plant life in the lava flows.

Plant life in the lava flows.

A final flight back to Quito resulted in a last-day tour of that capital.  We had a great morning, over-brief between sights and shopping, in the colonial city, whose gilded Jesuit church was a climax of opulent conversion technique, and we enjoyed the main square with its Franciscan church surrounded by jewelry, panama hats, local chocolate, and other goodies.  The morning ended with a most memorable view of the Ecuadorian President and the changing of the guard.  Afternoon outside the city showed a bit more of the volcanic uplands, not to mention a blustery final group shot straddling the Equator (plus a bi-hemispheric smooch photo).  And then LOTS of airport stays as we dispersed to our respective homes, armed with slides, new friends, and lots of memories.

Penn alumni and friends at the equator.

Penn alumni and friends at the equator.

This was an amazing combination of sights and sites, of archaeology and geology, not to mention zoology.  Odysseys took good care of us throughout, so that almost everything ran on time and without any cares on our part.  Their itinerary was diverse and well-planned.

Thanks to all who participated—good sports and hardy travelers who tried everything from climbing ancient steps to snorkeling in unglamorous wetsuits.  Penn can be proud of such a diverse and interesting, not to mention congenial, group of alumni (and groupies in some cases).  I hope that our paths will cross again soon, whether on another trip (with Penn Alumni Travel) or with continued personal contact.  Happy holidays to all—let’s share those great photos and email messages in the meantime and stay in touch!

[Join us as we visit the Galapagos again in 2014! Click here for more information.]

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Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Morocco

Author: Professor Roger Allen, Arabic Language and Literature

[Professor Allen describes his experience as a first-time faculty host on a Penn Alumni Travel trip.]

DAY 1-2

After gathering at Kennedy Airport, we flew overnight by Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca Airport. Thanks to strong tail-winds, we arrived early (about 6.10 a.m. local time), but our guide, Muhammad Dahouac, was waiting outside the customs area when we all emerged. He welcomed us all to his country and took us out of the airport to what was to be our bus for the entire trip, along with its two wonderful adjuncts: Hasan, our driver–his driving skills a model of caution rarely found in Morocco; and (another) Hasan, his helper on everything from unloading suitcases to reversing into improbably small parking spaces. Once everybody and everything had been loaded, we set off for the drive to Morocco’s capital city of Rabat–about a two hour drive up the Casablanca-Rabat autoroute.  We stopped for a tea/coffee break on the way (as we were to do most days), and Muhammad begin to fill us in on details of our trip, contemporary Morocco, and the surrounding countryside we were passing.

When we entered the city of Rabat, we were driven to the Tour Hassan Hotel, a wonderful and luxurious facility in the center of the city. I personally took a stroll in the afternoon to refamiliarize myself with the city, but I think many people used the afternoon to get a little rest and sleep after the overnight journey.  In the evening we went to a famous restaurant, Dinarjat, in the old city (medina) where we got to know each other a bit better.  We were treated to some excellent Moroccan food and watched as the tea was poured for us in the traditional fashion. Making our way back to the bus through the alleyways of the old city, we were being gently introduced to the traditional layout of the Moroccan medina that we were to see later in several other cities.

DAY 3

The tour of the city of Rabat. It was raining (and I learn later that we were at the edge of a very large Mediterranean storm that dumped a year’s worth of rain on Sardinia in a single day, causing massive flooding). We started out at the Royal Palace, with its colorful guards standing by the gate. Moving on, we visited the Chellah, the lovely garden with its combination of ancient Roman remains and medieval Islamic buildings, including the tombs of some saints (and a veritable horde of cats beside a wishing pool).  As was to be the case everywhere we went, the tops of columns and other high spots were occupied by colonies of storks (and, in this particular case, egrets as well).  From the Chellah we proceeded to the tomb-complex of Muhammad V,  the first modern King of Morocco (and grandfather of the present king) who returned from exile in 1955 to rule post-independence Morocco (1956). The mausoleum contains the bodies of Muhammad V, his brother, and the late king, Hassan II (the father of Muhammad VI, the current monarch).

Taking a group photo in the Chellah gardens.

Taking a group photo in the Chellah gardens.

For lunch Muhammad, our wonderful guide, took us to a superb villa-restaurant, BAYT SBIHI, owned and operated by RADIA SBIHI, who welcomed us to her family home and not only fed us a superb meal, but also showed us round the house and displayed here incredible collection of jallabas.  The house, in Sale–the city opposite Rabat at the mouth of the Abu Riqraq River, commands wonderful views of Rabat, and, even in the rain, the vistas were marvelous. After this lunch we recrossed the river and went to look at the Oudaya, an old Amazigh fortress complex right at the mouth of the river.  Even though access to the ocean-front terrace was closed, we managed to persuade the guard to let us through.  We thus were able to look at both the river-mouth and the Atlantic Ocean. Descending the complex via its multiple alleyways, we came across a Gnaua singer plying his trade, and Muhammad joined him in playing the castanets for a short while. We then returned to the hotel.

Oudaya and the view of the river mouth into the Atlantic Ocean.

Oudaya and the view of the river mouth into the Atlantic Ocean.

At 5:30 that evening, we had the first of the four lectures that I had arranged.  It was an enormous privilege for me and the group that my guest was Ahmed Toufik, the Minister of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the Moroccan government.  I have translated two of his novels, the second of which has only just appeared.  Ahmed and I took turns reading from the Arabic and English versions of the second novel (called MOON AND HENNA TREE in English), and following that Ahmed graciously answered questions.  With incredible generosity he then invited us all to dinner at a fabulous restaurant on the outskirts of Rabat, VILLA DES AMBASSADEURS, where he joined us for yet another incredible experience in Moroccan cuisine. So ended our first full day in Morocco.

Roger Allen with the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Toufik.

Roger Allen with the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Toufik.

DAY 4

We left the Tour Hassan hotel in Rabat, and traveled by the autoroute, first to the city of Meknes, one of Morocco’s three traditional capitals, this one constructed due to the determination of the then ruler, Mawlay Ismail, to build a capital city of his own apart from Fez (removing much material from other sites in the process). Arriving in the city, we first looked at one of the ceremonial gates before traveling on to the huge granary, with its many storerooms and plentiful arches. Lunch was served as the Didi Palace Riad (yet another wonderful Moroccan meal), after which we visited a mausoleum before traveling on to the huge Roman site of Volubilis, where it was pouring with rain. In no way deterred however (semper fideles, as they say in Latin), we toured the site, admiring its lay-out and especially the fine quality of its mosaics. From there it was on to Fez itself, where we arrived at the Palais Jamai Hotel in the late afternoon.  Dinner that evening was in the hotel.

An example of the beautiful mosaics at Volubilis.

An example of the beautiful mosaics at Volubilis.

DAY 5

We spent the morning exploring the 9th century original city of Fez (Fez al-bali, as it is called)–later additions to the city being the so-called “modern Fez” (12-14th century), and the French-built 19th century city laid out in the Parisian style with broad boulevards. Descending into the medina by foot from our hotel, we learned to listen for the phrase “balak,” meaning “stand clear– a mule, donkey, and/or cart wish to get by.” Our first stop was to a wool-carding facility which also served as a food-market (especially fresh olives).  From there we meandered our way through the narrow streets, passing by emporia of every kind. We stopped at several important historical monuments: the Najjarin, the restored headquarters of the wood-carvers guild; the Attarin, a similar shrine connected to the perfumier’s trade, and the Qarawiyyin Mosque-Library complex, the world’s oldest institution of higher learning (founded 860) resulting from an endowment left to two women of Fez by their father which they devoted to constructing the exquisite mosque and library. At the end of the morning we visited a rug-cooperative run by women and were shown a number of truly beautiful rugs of various provenances. Several members of the group purchased examples of the exquisite craftsmanship.

The Attarin in Fez.

The Attarin in Fez.

Returning to the hotel for lunch, it was time for the second of our tour-lectures.  This time I had invited my friend, David Amster, the Director of ALIF (the Arabic Language institute in Fez), to come and talk to us about his ongoing efforts to preserve Fez and its buildings as more and more non-residents are buying up properties in the old city and “converting” them in various ways. As David informed us through various examples and anecdotes, he has been a tireless defender of the beauty of the city and its traditional houses and has scored several notable successes on the way. His presentation provoked a number of questions from the group, and David proceeded to answer them with both authority and humor.

Later in the afternoon we visited some sites in the “modern” city (12th-14th century, that is): the Fez Museum, housed in a lovely old palace with a luxuriant garden.  We then walked through the crowded “mellah” (the traditional Jewish quarter) and emerged on the far side to discover that a fire two days earlier had destroyed a complete market complex–the sight of the twisted ruins and the livelihoods lost was not a little sad.

Finally on this day, we drove to the Naji Factory where pottery is manufactured.  We were shown the various phases that go into the production of pottery-ware and then spent time in the factory store where most of us purchased some of the wonderful products that were on display.

That evening we went to one of Fez’s most famous restaurants, the Bleue Maison–and David Amster joined us. In a beautiful example of traditional architecture near the square called “Al-Bat’ha’” we were served another superb Moroccan dinner, accompanied by the music of two Gnaua performers.

DAY 6

At 9:30 we left the hotel in Fez and traveled outside the city.  Our first stop was at a town called Bahalil where Muhammad, our guide, took us through the winding streets of the town to visit a restored troglodyte residence–underground in order to remain cool during the heat of summer. There the owner, also named Muhammad and dubbed “the intelligent” (!), treated us to his routine, which included a lesson in the preparation and serving of mint-tea (a major characteristic of which is to gradually raise the teapot (or other pouring device) to a great height so as to aerate the liquid). Having tried this myself on several subsequent occasions, I can vouch for the fact that it is not as easy as it looks.

Muhammad pours mint tea from a great height.

Muhammad pours mint tea from a great height.

Walking back to the bus (and seeing a number of truly beautiful children who were obviously enjoying the sight of us), we moved on to the city of Sefrou, long recognized for the size and importance of its Jewish community. Here too we walked through the “mellah” and visited the synagogue which has been carefully restored.  We returned to the hotel for lunch, after which a number of members of our group accepted the invitation of our Fez guide, Ahmed, to return to the medina to make more purchases.  For my part, I “took to the waters,” indulging in a swim in the hotel’s heated outdoor pool.

DAY 7

This day involved a long trip to the south in order to reach our destination of Erfoud, close to the Sahara. Driving South from Fez we first stopped at the mountain town of Ifrane, a curious phenomenon for the Middle Atlas region in that it is modeled on the idea of a Swiss village, with red-colored roofs and ochre buildings, not to mention the English-speaking university of Al-Akhawayn (“the two brothers,” a co-operative project of the kings of Saudi Arabia and Morocco). After a cup of tea or coffee, it was on up the mountains until we encountered at one particular spot some of their denizens in the form of monkeys. After a delicious lunch of trout, it was on through a mountain gorge to Al-Rashidiyya, a French-built fortress and finally to Erfoud and the Shergui Hotel where we had dinner. After this day’s long drive, we were now firmly in the Moroccan South-East, close to the desert.

DAY 8

After breakfast, we drove through the town of Erfoud to the neighboring city of Rissani, where, after a brief stop at a ceremonial gateway, we headed for the Tomb of Mawlay Idris and the Ksar [enclosed quarter] of Abna’ Ibrahim, where we were welcomed by the current owner. We then went to a remarkable complex where fossilized rock was turned into beautiful pieces of art, cut, polished, and shaped into a variety of sizes and functions. Many purchases were made….

Girls in Rissani.

Girls in Rissani.

Back to the hotel for lunch, I proceeded to offer a lecture on the current state of the so-called “Middle East” (who says it’s “middle”?!) and some of the factors that should go into any attempt at understanding what is happening in the various sub-regions and what the primary motivations are.  We had a good question and answer session once I had finished my expatiations….

In the mid-afternoon we left the hotel for what is usually one of the highlights of this tour, a visit to the Merzouga sand-dunes and a camel (actually, a dromedary) ride. The entire group duly mounted their riding-beasts, and we set off in caravan formation–nose-to-tail–up an impressively huge set of dunes (some 400+ feet high).  I once again discovered why the camel/dromedary is known as “the ship of the desert”!  Once at the top (or nearly so), we sat on the edge of the dune and waited for sunset. The entire vista, the shadows cast against the dunes, and the gorgeous light, all were truly memorable. Once the sun had set, we made our way downwards as the sky turned to various shades of red and pink. Once again, dinner was at the hotel.

Penn alumni and friends at the top of the dune.

Penn alumni and friends at the top of the dune.

Waiting for the sun to set.

Waiting for the sun to set.

DAY 9

This was another day for a long-distance bus-ride. From Erfoud we traveled to the Tinchir oasis and then into the spectacular Todra Gorge with its narrow defile.  We had lunch at a restaurant named Chez Michelle (veal and creme brulée), after which we set out on the long drive to Ouarzazate via Qal`at Mgouna where we were able to purchase some of the primary local product, rose-water. We eventually reached the Berber Palace Hotel in Ouarzazate (the Moroccan version of Hollywood, we gathered) at about 6 p.m.

The Todra Gorge.

The Todra Gorge.

DAY 10

Leaving Ouarzazate at 9 a.m., we were on our way to Marrakesh.  Passing by another “kasbah” (Tifoultout), we reached the fabled “ksar” of Ait ben Hadou, situated in a lush oasis with a climb up to the top and spectacular views over the surrounding landscape. This afforded us the experience of a classic type of southern Moroccan Amazigh fortress-town, with winding alleyways (now crowded with stores of a wide variety), all enclosed within a firmly walled structure. We had lunch in a lovely restaurant that looked out directly on to the fortress-town.

Ait ben Hadou

Ait ben Hadou

After lunch we left on another long drive, this one over the remarkable road constructed by the French that traverses the N’Tichka Pass of the High Atlas Mountains; first up the mountain to the top at about 7,000 feet and then–inevitably–down again to arrive at Morocco’s most fabled city, Marrakesh (and yes, the emphasis is on the “rak” syllable–or, if you’re using Moroccan dialect, it’s something like “Mrrksh”!). The Sofitel Hotel turned out to be a luxurious hostelry, in the “posh” part of the city known as “Hivernage.”

DAY 11

We began our visit to Marrakesh with a stop at its most visible landmark, the Tower of the Kutubiyya complex in the center of the city. Following that we made our way through part of the old medina and arrived at the huge ruined complex of the Badi` Palace.  Climbing up to a second level, we found ourselves communing with an entire army of storks who were playing their usual games of “knock me off my perch, and I’ll knock you off yours”…. They had also perfected the art of standing on one leg, a useful posture for cocktail parties. Leaving that enormous complex we headed for another palace, this one more modern (19th century), the Bahiyya Palace, with its lovely garden and its series of beautiful mosaic-ed rooms leading to a large courtyard. Then it was back to the hotel for lunch, a buffet consumed in the warm sunshine.

The infamous storks.

The infamous storks.

In the afternoon we made our way into the truly labyrinthine medina, exploring its many, many craft sub-divisions and paying special visits to a wood-painter and a facility specializing in spices, medicines and perfumes. In the latter we were regaled with all kinds of traditional herbs, spices and medicaments; some of our group enjoyed neck-massages, and many people purchased cooking spices, aromatic plants, and other materials of all kinds. We then continued our meandering through the various segments of this huge bazaar, finally reaching the hub of Marrakesh’s cultural life, the world-famous Jma al-Fna Square, with its multitude of traditional performers–snake-charmers, fortune-tellers, monkey-trainers, and the like; not to mention the enormous array of food-sellers (including sheep- and goat-heads for those so inclined…).

Back at the hotel, I had discovered a white grand piano.  With the great Liberace in mind, I gave a short performance on it before we went out to a dinner at a restaurant where I had dined previously: Le Foundouk in the medina, where we all enjoyed a wonderful dinner for which we had readied ourselves by indulging in a fairly lengthy walk from the bus into the medina in order to get there.

DAY 12

On our second day in Marrakesh we set out by horse-drawn carriages to the Menara, the summer-resort built by the rulers as a way of escaping the intense summer heat.  Built by the side of an artificial lake it offers splendid vistas of the surrounding countryside (not to mention the Marrakesh Airport close by).  The lake itself contains some very large carp who lived up to their reputation as voracious eaters when Muhammad offered them some bread. From there it was on (by carriage again) to the Majorelle Gardens, a lovely enclosure that had originally been planned by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s and was later taken over by Yves St. Laurent, the French fashion designer, who loved to spend time in the residence there. The complex also contains a wonderful Amazigh (Berber) Museum, full of spectacular examples of the arts and crafts of the indigenous people of the region.

After returning to the hotel for lunch, the afternoon was open for further excursions into the medina in quest of items to purchase. At 5 p.m. the fourth and last of the tour’s lectures took place.  I had invited another Moroccan writer, Hassan Najmi, to come and do a joint reading with me of his novel, Gertrude, that I had recently translated (it is due out in January 2014).  Unlike the session in Rabat with Ahmed Toufik however, Najmi seems to have informed his colleagues in Marrakesh that he was coming and doing this reading, because just before 5 p.m. a large percentage of the literary establishment of Marrakesh showed up.  The session thus turned into what was for me a fascinating translational and trans-cultural experience, with readings in Arabic and English and follow-up questions from both segments of the audience in Arabic and English.

Roger Allen and Hassan Najmi conduct a joint reading of Gertrude.

Roger Allen and Hassan Najmi conduct a joint reading of Gertrude.

For our dinner Muhammad had arranged for us to visit another of Marrakesh’s most famous restaurants, Dar Moha, where we were treated to another virtuoso display of Moroccan cuisine.

DAY 13

And so from Marrakesh to Casablanca. This took us up the recently completed autoroute and into Morocco’s largest and most populous city–certainly modern in every way, but also industrial and noisy. While it may be celebrated as a result of the famous movie to which it gives its name, the present-day reality is far different (in fact, the movie itself is far more based on Tangier than on Casablanca).

We headed first for the seaside, and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We then proceeded to the Hassan II Mosque, now the most famous and often visited site in the city, where we had been scheduled for a 2 p.m. visit. Let’s just say that opinions on this building and its esthetic pretensions will vary, but it certainly leaves an impression. The bus then took us to the so-called Habus Quarter, which the French constructed in an attempt to replicate the styles of pre-modern Morocco. Finally we made our way to the Kenzi Tower Hotel, a large building in the city center.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Our final dinner was held (on Thanksgiving Day!) in the appropriately named Rick’s Cafe.  Following caesar salad and a fish plate, we were offered a delicious cheesecake with fruits.  I took this occasion to express our group’s profound thanks to Muhammad, our guide and organizer.  This meal was just as wonderful as so many others that we had enjoyed during our visit.

DAY 14

We left the hotel for the airport at 8:30.  Since our plane did not take off until 12:30, I wondered at the length of time involved, but clearly Muhammad knew what was coming. While he was as helpful as he could possibly be before leaving us to our own devices, our experience at Casablanca Airport was probably the most negative aspect of our entire trip, but there was almost nothing that anyone could have done about it.  The level of security at this airport is taken to truly absurd levels: our baggage was scanned in order to get into the airport; every Moroccan traveler, it seemed, had an overweight bag that had to be opened and partially emptied; regular attempts at queue-barging were pre-empted in Arabic by yours truly; and there was a further security station in order to get into the passport-control. And…some 8 hours later we landed on time at Kennedy Airport and went our separate ways….

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This was a truly wonderful trip; it was well organized, and it is difficult to find sufficient words to express our admiration for our Guide, Muhammad Dahouac, who is not only knowledgeable about Morocco and its history but also considerate and efficient. He was aided throughout the trip by two other wonderful Moroccans, our driver, Hasan, and his assistant, also called Hasan.

Beyond that, I have to say that the members of the group also contributed in a major way to the success of this tour. Many of them had already traveled widely, and everyone blended together and shared experiences in a way that made for some great conversations and a great deal of good humor.  Thus does the world go round….

And now I’m not “Neilie Dunn,” but fully done (and only those who were on the trip will know what that’s all about).

A final group shot at the Royal Palace in Fez. Photo from Susan Croll, CW’68, G’94 and Paul Monasevitch.

A final group shot at the Royal Palace in Fez. Photo from Susan Croll, CW’68, G’94 and Paul Monasevitch.

[If this blog inspired you to travel with Penn Alumni Travel, check out our 2014 schedule here.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: Apulia

 Author: Anita L. Allen, Vice Provost for Faculty and Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law

The first thing you learn when you arrive in Apulia, is that the region occupying the heel of the boot of Italy is called “Puglia” by the Italians.  Until recently, it was difficult to get to Puglia from major cities outside of Italy. Today the “undiscovered” region is well-served by two modern airports. The Penn Alumni Travel group for which I served as a faculty host, September 17-26, 2013, arrived at one of them, Bari Airport. Along with an affable alumni group from Brown University who would be our travel companions for the week, we boarded a comfortable motor coach.  The 45 minute trip to our hotel in Polignano a Mare was narrated by AHI Travel’s campus host Mick and a local guide, Daniella.  Mick, a British expatriate, was in charge of logistics.  Daniella, a vivacious licensed guide and native of Pulgia, won us over with her detailed knowledge of history  and culture, peppered with the wit and wisdom of her  nona, her grandmother.

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Hotel Covi dei Saraceni in Polignano a Mare was dramatically situated atop a bluff overlooking the turquoise and cobalt sea. From the private balcony off my antique-filled room I had a clear view the statue of Polignano a Mare’s native son Dominico Mugdana, famous for the upbeat ballard Americans my age know as “Volare.” Every so often someone would arrive at the statue, snap a few photos and then and break out in song.

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To enjoy Polignano a Mare in September, one mostly strolls the streets of the medieval heart of the town for the unique scenery—elaborate flower boxes, stunning views of the sea, weathered doorways and modest churches.  Several ristorante occupy caves built into the bluffs.  But there is amore  traditionally sited osteria, trattoria, gelato stand and cafe on virtually every block.   The streets were not crowded and neither were the town’s several gift shops.   Many of us shopped and ate only, but some of the hardy Penn alums descended to the beach and swam in the chilly ocean every day.

Our first big outing was to central Bari.   Bari is a gorgeous city with an  air of affluence.  An impressive castle, a city gate, and winding streets impress. A personal highlight for me  was  watching ordinary people sitting in their doorways  making pasta by hand and drying it in the open air on large mesh trays.  The women of Bari are known for their version of the Puglian speciality, pasta orriechete, “little ears”. I tested out my dusty Italian on the pasta makers.

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My basic skills served me very well in Bari and throughout Puglia, where fewer people speak fluent English than in Milan or Rome.   The linguistic diversity of Puglia contributes to its authenticity and reflects its history as a meeting point of Middle Eastern, African and western civilizations.  Many dialects and languages are spoken in Puglia.  Some communities even speak a form of Greek.  The pasta makers were warm and welcoming, as were the fruit vendors, who invited our Penn Alumni group to sample freely from their stands in a universal language of big smiles and even bigger gestures.

We visited The Basilica di San Niccola in Bari at an opportune time. Dozens of Russian pilgrims, women  in brightly colored modesty attire, packed into the crypt where which the relics of Saint Nicholas are interred. Lovely chanting and song celebrated the Saint.   Daniella sat us down in the main nave to tell us about the design of the church and the  complex story of Saint Nick,  a generous cleric whose bones were brought to Italy for safe-keeping.

Southern Italy produces delicious table wines.  One of our best days began with a tour of Castel del    Monte and ended with a trip to a family winery.  From the famous, centuries-old castle we enjoyed panoramic views of a hilly national park planted with evergreen trees.

It was in the octagonal courtyard of this castle that the Penn Alums paused for a group photograph.

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We left the castle grounds for a nearby vineyard and a wine tasting.  Then, at the vineyard, the proprietor first took us on a tour of his thoroughly modern wine production room  and fields where we  tasted  delicious cabernet sauvignon  grapes straight from the vine.  They were dark, small, seeded and warmed by the sun.  On a shaded porch we were treated to a lunch and wine.

On a trip to Puglia, Daniella insisted, the dish that combines mussels, potato and rice is a must taste and the town of  Lecce is a must see.  Lecce is sometimes called the Florence of southern Italy.    The comparison is not especially apt.  Lecce centro is sunny, uncongested and unpretentious. Its ornately carved stone religious and secular architecture is the handiwork of locals without world reputations.

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And there is nothing akin to the Uffizi in Lecce.  Daniella urged us to appreciate Lecce on its own terms:  consider that artisans cut off from cosmopolitan northern Italy without marble or  money, hand-carved Baroque, Gothic and Byzantine style  ornamentation from local materials to  create their own masterpieces for their own  communities of fisherman, farmers and merchants.

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After soaking up Lecce’s architecture and its Roman ruins I took a few minutes to shop for souvenirs.  I was delighted to discover that tarantism, the subject of one of the two special lectures I had prepared for the trip to Puglia, was manifest in Lecce in the form of spiders on tee-shirts and spider-embellished  tambourines.  Tarantism began as a tradition of poor men and women farm workers claiming to have been bitten by  spiders developing  psychological and neurological-like illnesses treated by pizzica music,  manic dance and the intercession St. Paul.  Of course, I was relieved to find no souvenirs registering the reality of the topic of my other lecture: the pollution, cancer  and labor problems plaguing  the town of Taranta attributed to the Ilva steel plant.

The unique towns of Alberobello and Ostuni were both on the agenda for our penultimate day of group travel.  Both towns are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.  Alberobello is famous for its Trulli houses .

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The Truli neighborhoods of whitewashed rounded houses with tall domed grey slate roofs, look like  something from a fairy tale. Cruder, haphazard versions of Trulli dot the landscape of Puglia north to south in large numbers. But it is only in Alberobello that one finds the well-kept Trulli as the dominate style of domestic architecture.  We took some time before leaving Alberobello to visit the lace makers for which the town is also famous

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Ostuni is an ancient town with roots in the stone ages built inside and atop sandstones caves, some natural, some carved by hand. For centuries families and their farm animals—goats, mules and chickens– lived inside these cave homes.  After the Christian era, dozens of churches were also built into the rock.    In the 1950s the Italian government found it necessary for public health reasons to relocated the families of Ostuni to  new  housing  on the outskirts of town.  Today, the cave dwellings can be leased from the government for homes and commercial purposes under strict conditions that require a balance of modernization (such as toilets and running water) and historic preservation.  Numerous bed and breakfasts have popped up in the town, and tourism is on the rise. We visited a typical larger Ostuni  family home, now a small  museum of an earlier era.  It consisted of two sleeping areas, a kitchen and two cellars for storing  tools and food.   We also visited four churches that that been converted into wine presses,  vestiges of Byznantine era religious frescos  faintly visible on a few walls.

Our final day of group travel began with a visit to the town of Trani. Once, a wealthy shipping portal to the Adriatic,  today the town  can be enjoyed for its manicured, tree-lined  seaside park;  for views of  a commanding castle repurposed as prison and now a fine arts center;  and  for an active Roman Catholic Cathedral where pilgrims and  Crusaders once rested.  Law alumni in our group took special note of Trani’s role in the development of European maritime law and of the contemporary Italian Court of Appeals which shares a piazza with the main Cathedral.  An historic Jewish Quarter of beautiful winding streets and a vacated synagogue led us to pause for serious reflection.   Control over cultural properties from the Quarter are still a subject of active debate between Trani authorities and Jews now living in the nearby  town of  Barletta.

As we walked along a pier we stopped to chat with fisherman  selling unusual  fishes and  octopuses   to homemakers. We were startled to see how a baby octopus is prepared for market. The live creature was  flung repeatedly  against the bottom on the boat to kill and tenderize it,  then spun in a plastic tub of cold water to curl the tentacles into the shape preferred by local cooks.

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Back on the motor coach we traveled only fifteen minutes from Trani to the small town of Bisceglie. There we were treated to a cold-pressed extra virgin oil tasting and a four-course al fresco lunch of regional specialities and rose wine.  Our host was the upscale oil mill “Galantino.” founded in 1926.  After a short video on the history of the Galantino mill in a cheerful subterranean cellar, our guide Massimo escorted us around to see how the mill’s completely natural prize-winning olive oils are produced.  We saw the weigh stations where each October to December truckloads of olives, black and green, shaken from ten thousand trees, are brought in from designated local groves for processing using age-old granite stone grinding techniques with a few high-tech flourishes to ensure hygiene and environmental integrity.  The gorgeous shaded patio under which we dined on dishes that included a fava bean and chicory paste and orriechete pasta, was surrounded by peach trees, grape vines and figs trees. The fruits of these plantings became our dessert along with fresh black cherry tarts, made from olive oil pastry (no butter!) and local cherries.

We were tired and sated when we returned to our hotel. But I headed out to attend an evening  mass celebrating  what happened to be the Feast Day of Padre  Pio, a sainted Capuchin friar associated with the Puglian town of Foggia.  Sickly all his life, Pio serves as the patron saint of people with seasonal depression and stress.  Pio is believed by the faithful to have received heavenly visions and the stigmata.  I enjoyed a moving worship service and was swept into a crowd as I emerged from the  chiesa.  About two hundred were there to process through the streets of Polignano , in the company of a  life-size statue of San Pio ornamented with sun flowers and electric lights. A brass band, a group of strong men bearing an enormous wooden  cross, and priests and young women carrying crucifixes on narrow poles were also part of the sacred parade. On the way back from the procession I ran into others from my  group and we wound up in a trattoria lingering over pizza con melanzana , branzio and insalta verde.

The last day of our journey to undiscovered Italy was totally free after a morning lecture on modern Italy. That evening we joined together for a final group dinner in the hotel to say our good byes and thank our most excellent hosts and guides.

[Interested in joining a Penn Alumni Travel trip? Check out our entire 2014 schedule here. Perhaps we'll see you in Tuscany next October!]

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Penn Alumni Travel: Music Diary along the Danube

Author: Stephen Lehmann, Humanities Bibliographer, Penn Libraries (retired)

The title of our Penn Alumni Travel cruise was “Symphony on the Blue Danube,” and although we heard no symphonies (at least no complete symphonies) and spent more days off than on the Danube (which is famously green), the trip was nothing if not true to its musical theme. Even the boat (“Amadeus Elegant”) was musical, with its three inside decks named after Haydn, Strauss, and Mozart.

The trip’s musical offerings began on our first evening on the boat, docked on the Danube at Budapest, with a delightful on-board performance by the Lugosi Band – clarinet, violin, cimbalom and dancers – playing a variety of Hungarian and Hungarian-Gypsy dances (including the ubiquitous “Csardas” composed by the Italian Vittorio Monti in 1906), as well as some Brahms Hungarian Dances. Four dancers accompanied the band. It was an altogether spirited evening, and the virtuosity of the instrumentalists – not only in their musicianship, but in the rhythmic clapping and slapping of legs and heels – was striking and impressive.  Audience participation was encouraged.

Karen Goldstein being a good sport.

Karen Goldstein being a good sport.

The first on-shore concert – an optional add-on – was given on Wednesday, October 2, in the Brahms-Saal of Vienna’s historic Musikverein building, just off the Ringstrasse.   The Brahms-Saal, which was inaugurated in 1870 by Clara Schumann, is the smaller of the two second-story halls under the Musikverein’s roof. It seats about 600, and is used mainly for recitals and chamber music. It was restored in 1992-93 to its original splendor: green walls, red pilasters, a lot of gold.  (Across a small landing is the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, home to the Vienna Philharmonic, and seating over 2,000.)

The Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein.

The Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein.

The program, performed by a small orchestra dressed in 18th-century costume, consisted largely of bits and pieces of works by Mozart – one movement each from the 40th and 41st Symphonies, two movements from the G-major Violin Concerto, arias from five of the operas, and the two chestnuts, Ronda alla turca and Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The concert concluded with Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and Radetzky March.  (A few of our group managed to get tickets to the Vienna State Opera House, where they heard Rossini’s Barber of Seville, generating a certain amount of envy among the rest of us.)

The next day (Thursday, October 3), we were treated to a morning concert: the Mozart Ensemble, a string quartet, played a full program of Mozart, Dvorak and Haydn – all, with the exception of the Dvorak (a slow movement from his “American Quartet”), performed in their entirety (Mozart Quartet K. 157 and Divertimento K. 138 and Haydn Quartet op. 9, no. 6).  Again the venue, the “Sala Terrena” (“ground-level room”), was remarkable, both historically – it is the oldest concert hall in Vienna, and Mozart played there – and aesthetically, with its 18th-century, fresco-covered vaulted space in the Renaissance Venetian style. As it seats only seventy people, the performances were given in shifts, and we attended in two groups.

Sala Terrena

Sala Terrena

In the evening, still docked in Vienna, we were treated to another on-board concert, this time a small ensemble (two violins, cello, piano, soprano) performing light Viennese music from the 19th and early 20th centuries – Strauss waltzes and polkas, arias from Strauss and Lehar operettas, pieces by composers like Johann Schrammel and Karl Michael Zierer.  Introducing the music was a very tall Viennese, who spoke easily, informatively and in excellent English.

In the dead of night on October 3 the Amadeus Elegant slipped away from Vienna, and we awoke the next morning to find ourselves in the splendid Wachau Valley. After an early stop in medieval Dürnstein (no music), we proceeded to the magnificent early eighteenth century Benedictine abbey at Melk on the Danube’s south bank. There we heard a brief organ concert – the music was not identified, but the consensus was that it was Bach – performed by an 85-year old monk, who had been our guide’s music teacher.

The Biddles and the Blairs enjoying Melk’s organ.

The Biddles and the Blairs enjoying Melk’s organ.

Early the following morning, October 5 (Saturday), we left Austria, sailing past Bavarian villages

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and on into Passau.

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The walking tour through Passau culminated in the baroque Cathedral of St. Stephen, a late 17th century structure whose organ is the fourth-largest organ and the largest cathedral organ in the world, with almost 18,000 pipes and over 200 registers. Before climbing up to her loft, the organist, Brigitte Furth, explained the workings of the Passau organ and the ways in which she would illustrate its various components and colors. The composers in her program were French (Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, Jean Langlais) and German (Melchior Franck, Pachelbel, Bach). She ended with a piece by Langlais in which she sounded all five of the cathedral’s organs – each set of pipes coming from a different part of the building and ending together in a pew-shaking fortissississimo.

The only other music we heard that day came from the engines of the busses on the ride from Passau to Prague.

On our first day in Prague (Sunday, October 6), our guides took us to the beautiful, five-tier 18th-century Estate Theater, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and La Clemenza di Tito (1891) were first performed.

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In its foyer we heard a brief concert for woodwind quintet playing arrangements from Mozart operas and a piece by the Czech composer Frantisek Saver Dusek. But the highpoint was an impromptu rendition of the Czech national anthem by Vaclav Bechyni, the theater’s charming guide.

Dana Jolley, Linda Freeman, and, in reflection, Bill Koch listening to Vaclav Bechyni singing the Czech  national anthem.

Dana Jolley, Linda Freeman, and, in reflection, Bill Koch
listening to Vaclav Bechyni singing the Czech national anthem.

That evening a number of us went to a performance of Dvorak’s three act water-nymph opera Rusalka at the State Opera, built in 1888 as Prague’s German Theatre. The production was traditional, with English super-titles helpfully provided for those of us who can’t follow the Czech.

We heard our last concert in Prague on Monday morning, October 7, at the Lobkowicz Palace – part of the vast Prague Castle complex – under three enormous chandeliers in a small hall decorated with trompe l’œil columns and niches. The performance, by a string quartet, began with a rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy but came to an abrupt halt when the first violinist suffered a snapped string. He returned quickly, but rather than picking up again with the Beethoven, the musicians proceeded to the Pachelbel Canon and then on through various transcriptions (movements from a Beethoven piano sonata, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, etc.), and concluded with Amazing Grace, Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, and some tango.

At the Lobkowicz Palace we were also able to see some of its amazingly rich collection of music manuscripts and first editions, including a score of the Messiah with Mozart’s alterations, the orginal orchestral parts of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (dedicated to the seventh Prince Lobkowicz), the first edition of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (re-dedicated to Prince Lobkowicz after the original dedicatee, Napoleon, declared himself Emperor) and a copy of Beethoven’s Op. 18 Quartets with corrections in his own hand.

Finally, at our last stop – Cracow, Poland – we attended a private, all-Chopin recital at the city’s music conservatory on October 9 (Wednesday). Some from our group thought the pianist, Paweł Lubica, played harshly, but the acoustics didn’t help: the building had been constructed as an insurance company office, and the concert was held in a two-story former reception room with very hard surfaces.

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Lubica played three waltzes and a sampling of other forms favored by Chopin (a Ballade, a Mazurka, a Prelude, a Nocturne, a Fantasie-Impromptu, and a Polonaise). My own favorite was the Nocturne (B major, op. 62, no. 1), and I was reminded of the pianist Rudolf Serkin’s observation that he wouldn’t play the Chopin nocturnes because they were too sad.

Sadness is a good segue to our journey’s end!  But sad only because it was such a great trip – the river, the sites, the people, the music. Thank you to everyone for helping to make it such a wonderful experience.

Proud Penn Alumni along on the Danube cruise.

Proud Penn Alumni along on the Danube cruise.

[Penn Alumni Travel is heading back to Vienna and Prague during the spring of 2014. History Professor (and seasoned traveler) Thomas Max Safley will be hosting this tour. If you're interested in learning more about this trip or any of our 2014 tours, please click here.]

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