Category Archives: Faculty perspective

Penn Alumni Travel: California National Parks, June 2015

Author: Lucy Fowler Williams, Associate Curator/Sabloff Keeper, American Collections, Penn Museum

In June I had the amazing opportunity to participate on a Penn Alumni Travel tour to the northern California National Parks including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.  We saw and learned so much that, among other things, the trip altered my thoughts about guided tours. If you want real R&R, expert insight into nature, history, and the cultural aspects of what you are seeing, and to cover a lot of ground getting to amazing places, this kind of trip is for you.

Yosemite Trees

Yosemite Trees

The group included two tour guides and 42! university alumni representing Penn, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Perdue, the University of Texas, Columbia, and Boston University. After our first happy-hour we were all old friends, and it stayed that way for the full nine days! We started out in San Francisco, but beat feet to Sonoma Valley’s wine country where we toured the Kunde Family Winery, a five-generation vineyard. After sampling the Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, AND the Cabernet, we entered the underground wine caves and sipped from an unfinished barrel of red while listening to legends of the family business. Though my personal preferences tend toward gin, tequila, or aqvavit, this visit definitely rekindled my interest in California wines.  Just yesterday I found Kunde Estate wines in the Pennsylvania liquor store.

From Sonoma we headed east into the Sierra Nevada, and eventually climbed 6,225 feet to Lake Tahoe, the highest and largest alpine lake in the United States.   I’ve wanted to see Tahoe for a long time and in fact it is what inspired me to sign onto the trip.  Though there in the wrong season, and without my skies, I was not disappointed. An incredible blue, Tahoe is 21 miles long and an impressive 1,600 feet deep, surrounded by snow-covered peaks.

Lake Tahoe 2

Lake Tahoe

As a specialist in Native American material culture, it was my pleasure to fill the group in on the fact that while a vacation retreat and tourist destination for many, Lake Tahoe is also the spiritual center and place of origin of the Washoe Indian people, and remains as such today. Through my lectures, I introduced the weaving traditions of Washoe and northern California Indian tribes, some of the finest basketry in the world.  In the late 1800s, weavers skillfully adapted their work to meet the demands of the burgeoning tourist industry in California.  The American Craftsman Movement (1895-1920) celebrated handmade Indian weaving and encouraged a collecting obsession of Indian art across the country.  This was also the Golden Age of Museums, and it is no surprise that the Penn Museum houses exceptional California baskets, of which I shared many examples.  The tragic irony of saving Indian art while killing off Indian people was not lost on my audience.  Later in the trip I introduced NAGPRA and the repatriation movement with a special focus on issues important to California tribes today.

A Mono Lake Paiute basket at the Yosemite Museum

A Mono Lake Paiute basket at the Yosemite Museum

From Tahoe we traveled east over the Sierras and into Nevada’s Mono and Paiute Indian country, back into California, past Mono Lake (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen), and entered Yosemite National Park from the east.   We spent two days in Yosemite, taking in all of the sites along the Valley floor (Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the Ahwhannee Hotel named after the Chief of the tribe that inhabited the Valley), and had free time for hiking on ones own or for group tours. My son took off on the 7 mile hike to Nevada Falls, and I spent the afternoon with Barbara Beroza, the Curator of the Yosemite Museum, looking behind the scenes at Washoe, Paiute, and Miwok Indian baskets, and with Phil Johnson, a Miwok/Paiute interpreter in the gallery. Phil showed me a clever and rarely collected woodpecker trap, a long and skinny twinned basket that is tied to a tree over a hole where the ubiquitous woodpeckers are nesting!

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

From Yosemite we spent two more gorgeous days in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Sequoia is less travelled and incredibly vast and wild. In addition to much welcomed snow and rain, we saw an abundance of woodpeckers and blue Steller’s Jays, and a total of seven black bears eating grass in open meadows.

But the highlight of the trip was the magnificent Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, the world’s largest living trees that are well protected and cared for in these parks. The General Sherman and General Grant trees standing 275 and 268 feet tall, respectively, were massive and incredibly impressive. While taking them in, I revisited John Muir’s writings and the early history and struggle to secure these incredible parks.  I was continually awed by the grandeur of the woods and reminded of the difference a single person’s actions can make.  And it was a pleasure to be traveling with so many like-minded enthusiasts of nature and of our National Parks.

Sherman Tree

Sherman Tree

With reluctance, we descended west from the cool, quiet, and lush seclusion of Sequoia and across the northern edge of the Central Valley, aka “the Salad bowl.” Impressively, this region grows a staggering one half of the produce in the United States! and we passed mile after mile of thriving walnut, pistachio, almond, peach, pear, nectarine, plum, cherry, and date trees, acres of lettuce, miles of artichokes, and on and on.  After a private tour and elegant dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we ended our trip at Carmel By the Sea with a tour of the still active Carmel Mission Church, established by Spanish Jesuits in 1793.

The trip gave me the opportunity to experience some of the United State’s most incredible natural beauty, where some of Penn Museum’s California collections were made and used, and time to reflect on the importance of our mission to steward and share those collections broadly.

[Interested in traveling with Penn Alumni Travel? Visit our 2016 schedule here. We will be visiting the Southwest National Parks in September 2016.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Penn Museum, Travel

The Pride of South Africa

Author: David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English & Comparative Literature

Our group first convened at the Fairlawns Hotel, Sandton, Johannesburg, on Friday 6 February 2015. Most travellers had been met at Joburg airport by Tina Kistenmacher, representing Gohagan, our travel company. Tina proved to be a colossus of organizational finesse from the beginning to the end of our journey. Usually she rode herd at the back of the group, keeping a low profile, but if problems arose she would move to the front– and we would notice that she was athletic, very tall, and gently persuasive; she speaks four languages.Tina Kistenmacher

Our itinerary was rather complex, and we never slept in the same place for more than two nights. There were internal flights, and we crossed and re-crossed borders between South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.  This itinerary had never been tried before, although a Gohagan rep. had made a “dry run” to test things out. Everything worked amazingly well, and the group bonded right from the start. The group was small, with seven Penn alums, plus myself as current Penn Faculty, and smaller groups from the two USCs: Southern Cal, including environmentalist Roberto Delgado, and South Carolina.  There were just sixteen of us in all, which was the perfect size for this particular adventure.

Our first full day saw us set off in the tracks of Nelson Mandela. We saw the house in Houghton where he lived with his third wife, Graca, and then the house where he died. Memorial stones had been left by people from all over the world:

Rocks

We then headed towards Soweto, the locality in Johannesburg most famously associated with the struggle against apartheid. En route we passed five well-groomed pitches where the boys of St John’s School were playing cricket at 9.30 in the morning:

Cricket

Progress through Soweto was slow, since funerals are held there only on Saturdays so that working people might attend. About 300 funerals take place every week, and many of the dead have succumbed to AIDS– still a critical health issue. Houses are generally small, with many children on the street, many of them orphans. Nonetheless, despite obvious hardships entrepreneurial spirit was clearly alive in Soweto, with makeshift spaces on the street for shoe repair and hair cutting:PeopleHomes

First stop in Soweto was Vilakazi Street, reputedly the only street where one Nobel Prizewinner lived at one end (Desmond Tutu) and another at the other (Nelson Mandela). The modest house in which the Mandelas had lived, complete with bullet holes from opportunistic drive-by shooters, has become a shrine for African visitors, keen to record their visit:Vilakazi Street

We drove past the site, close by, where 13-year-old schoolboy Hector Pieterson had been shot by police on 16 June 1976, sparking mass protests, and we visited the museum dedicated to his memory. The image of the dying Hector being carried away, with his sister Antoinette at his side, rates as one of the most powerful, galvanizing photographs of the twentieth century. It was thus a great privilege for us to meet and talk with Antoinette. She is a person of great poise and gentleness, and it is to me a great mystery how any person could emerge from such trauma (on the left in the photograph, holding up her right hand) to become such a spiritual, recollected person:Hector PietersonAntoinette

We lunched at a Soweto restaurant established to support local families, especially those affected by AIDS, as the proprietor explained. The food and local beer were excellent:Food

We then headed out past the stadium at which World Cup soccer games had been played to the Apartheid Museum, our next scheduled stop. Suddenly the rains came pouring down, and we learned that the museum was closed for the day due to one of the ‘rolling blackouts’ that plague South Africa. These failures to deliver electricity continue to embarrass the RSA government, since business grinds to a halt and nothing can be planned. So all we got of this museum was a quick glimpse through a rainy window:Museum

Happily, however, inspired contingency planning led us directly to Liliesleaf, the farmhouse in a white suburb that had served as a front and hiding place for leading anti-apartheid activists from 1961-3, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu. On 11 July 1963 this property was raided, many activists were arrested, and Mandela’s (incriminating) papers were found; this led to a trail, with Mandela as suspect #1. That evening, amazingly, back at our hotel, we were able to meet with Robin Binkes, son of one of the men arrested in July 1963 and the leading figure in preserving Liliesleaf for the nation. Robin talked of Jewish and Muslim contributions to the struggle, and of the struggle itself. He joined us for dinner, but then had to return home early after his wife had been hit by a flying champagne cork:Liliesleaf

Next day we headed off early towards Pretoria, stopping off at the imposing Vortrekker monument, built by Gerard Moerdijk to last a thousand years:

Vortrekker monument

Pieter, our congenial Afrikaaner guide, gave booming commentary on his Boer ancestors. The carved reliefs within the monument often emphasized the decisive role played by Boer women when their men wimped out:

carved reliefs

The first public building glimpsed as we headed into Pretoria was the prison in which blade-runner Oscar Pretorius is currently confined. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but given the usual 10% of time served in RSA will likely be out by the end of 2015 (under house arrest). Next we saw the massive, colonial-era Union Building, whose two wings represented English and Afrikaaner rule. Nowadays both wings are best viewed through the arms of the giant Mandela statue set in front of them, a favourite spot for wedding portraits:giant Mandela statue

Following a quick lunch we interviewed a friendly ostrich, who was happy not to be on the menu (as ostrich was later in the week):ostrich

We then headed to Joburg airport for the flight to Cape Town. While awaiting the plane, Philadelphia Judge Harvey Bartle III (L 65) caught up with local news, while Natalie Akin Bartle diligently caught up with her homework for my first lecture:Judge Harvey Bartle III L 65

In Cape Town we transferred to the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel without a hitch. This hotel was opened in 1899 but was immediately requisitioned by the British as campaign HQ for the Second Boer war; Winston Churchill declared it to be “a most excellent and well appointed establishment.” First thing next morning we headed straight up Table Mountain by cable car and shared a magnificent view with dassies, cute creatures of the rocks:dassies

Also found at the summit was a letter box from the reign of King Edward VII (ruled 1901-10):letter box

Such a flood of discoveries encouraged the Penn Alumni group to pose for its first collective picture. The weather was one moment cloudy, the next moment clear; here we seem to find some Scotch mist:Group

At the foot of Signal Hill, en route to the waterfront, we passed through Bo-Kaap, home to Cape Town’s Muslim community. The bright colours here contrast with the raw holes in the ground left in District Six, when in 1960 the homes of Cape Town blacks were razed, and their inhabitants forcibly removed.Bo-Kaap

Such reflections stayed with us as we crossed by boat (40 minutes) from Cape Town to Robben Island, site of imprisonment for Nelson Mandela and many other male anti-apartheid campaigners. The natural setting was beautiful, but the history grim. We first saw the small house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, was was held in solitary confinement. The smaller buildings to the right are actually dog kennels, and they are bigger in size than the average Robben Island cell:Robben Island

We next saw the lime pits where prisoners such as Mandela were set to work for eight hours a day. The work had no practical purpose but bad side effects, as the dust affected breathing and eye-sight; Mandela was sensitive, in later years, to flash photography.lime pits

At the main prison block we had the great good fortune to meet with Itumeleng Makwele, who had himself been a prisoner in that very place.Itumeleng Makwele

Itumeleng told how the regime tried to break prisoner solidarity by issuing identity cards (in prison!), with each man graded A, B, C, or D, and incentivized to ‘improve’ his status by compliant behavior. The prisoners countered this by organizing a hunger strike. Itumeleng, a cook, was obliged to take food to each prisoner, and then to bring it back uneaten.identity cards

Next day we headed south from Cape Town towards Cape Point, stopping en route at Boulders, home to African penguins:African penguins

Hundreds of pictures were taken, and everyone has their prize exhibit:

LonePenguin

We then headed further south, to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, viewed here from a lighthouse built in Greenwich, London, in 1857:Cape Point

This is where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, and where water temperature to the east becomes, after just a few miles, noticeably warmer than the temperature to the west. At the Cape of Good Hope itself we posed for a collective group picture, and I was able to censor an attempt by the USC (CA branch) to smuggle in their banner:Cape of Good Hope

We then headed to Steenburg Vineyards, pausing only to acknowledge a soulful baboon posing in the top of a small tree:baboon

These vineyards in the Constantia valley are surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on a fourth, providing a distinctive micro-environment for viniculture:Constantia valley

The Penn alums then conducted intensive research on a long flight of wines; the Nebbiolo won by a short nose:wines

Next day we caught an early flight to Kasane, Botswana, and then headed out on water to complete the most relaxed, chilled-out immigration procedures ever as we headed from Botswana (on one bank of the Zambesi) to Namibia (on the other). This pointer to Immigration tells us that we are a long way from JFK:Immigration

On first arriving at the immigration post we found nobody at home at all: just a friendly yellow dog. Eventually a lady with her baby came out to stamp our passports, and we headed back down the dirt track to find our boat for the next few nights, the Zambesi Queen:dirt track

The Zambesi Queen has something of the look of a Mississippi riverboat as it glides gently along. The cabins are spacious, and everything is set up beautifully for spotting the endless parade of wildlife and exotic birds:Zambesi Queen

At this point in our journey the mood changed and relaxed somewhat. In my first lecture I had contrasted Nadine Gordimer as a Johannesburg writer to J.M. Coetzee as a Cape Town writer, and we had considered Gordimer’s last novel No Time Like the Present as, in part, a gently satirical commentary on Coetzee’s decision to abandon South Africa for Australia. Our experience of each city helped us to understand the tensions explored in this her last novel, written in her late eighties. On board the Queen, however, we considered the more relaxed topic of Botswana as an African success story. The alums were so relaxed that before my lecture the ladies disappeared behind the screen of my Powerpoint, onto the rear deck, to celebrate the buying of new jewellery with a collective photograph. Once returned, however, they responded with comments as sharp and incisive as ever. I was able to enter into this newly relaxed mood on returning to my cabin, with its own outside balcony. This must rate as my best workplace ever; sunsets were Cecil B. de Spectacular:sunset

From the first, next day, birds and animals began presenting themselves in ever more spectacular postures:bird

We travelled both by the Queen and in smaller vessels that enabled us to nose our way into private parts of the river. Here we approach hippo parents with baby:Hippo

And here we realize, just in time, that Daddy Hippo is giving us the eye– by way of saying, back off:Hippo2

A carmine bee-eater appeared on one bank, and an African fish eagle on the other:eagle

Bee-eater

We switched to smaller craft to cruise the Chobe river, and to visit Kasenu village. Some sixty people live here, all from one family. In earlier generations the elders would select a marriage partner from a neighboring village, but nowadays the young people are free to choose for themselves. Trees are of great importance here: we saw an aphrodisiac tree, an abortion tree, and a tree to shade the chief of the village. We also saw a TV satellite dish: the African Cup of Nations soccer competition was being followed everywhere during our trip.Kasenu village

Victor, grandson of the chief, explained how things work to Lise and Tom Elkind (C 73):grandson

We set out on further wildlife adventuring, and I decided that for me nothing is more exciting and moving than seeing long lines of elephants on their slow and stately way, like a people of the plains:elephants

It was also wonderful to see them come down to the water, and to water themselves, and then frolic and play. They arrive grey, get black when wet, then throw mud over themselves:Elephants2

One fears for the little ones, of course, because not every creature at the water’s edge is a benign herbivore:Croc

Our last night on the Zambesi Queen opened with a locally-produced feast, and the singing of the Namibian national anthem:anthem

The capo Wayne is South African, but all the rest of the crew is Namibian. The company sent Wayne’s deputy, John, a Namibian local, to study for his pilot’s license, and he is set to succeed Wayne shortly. The crew work one week on, one week off, and seem happy with their life and work. They initiated some round-the-table dancing towards the end of the evening, and then persuaded some distinguished Penn alums to join them. Photos are available from me, by private application and for a large fee.dance

Early next day we left the Zambesi Queen and Namibia for a game drive in Chobe National Park, Botswana. It was now Friday 13th February, but all went well– and by now, we had quite lost track of days of the week. In fact, the absence of wifi on the Queen was one of its more relaxing aspects, coupled with its gently swaying up and down the river on its mooring at night. Most of us had taken malaria pills, but insects were never a serious issue, and the hardy Tina (who took no pills) simply doused herself with insect-repellent lotion and slept with her balcony door open– so that she could hear the amorous bellowings of hippos by night.

We first thought that a dry game drive might be an anti-climax after our animal sightings by water, but this was not the case: we saw some animals, such as elephants, from different perspectives and some from much closer quarters than before. Giraffes, for example:Giraffes

When elephants blocked the way of our safari buggy, we graciously gave way– you can see that the camera work here was a tad shaky:Elephant3

Impala, unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, had the sense to hide from the mid-day sun:Impala

Finally we caught up with our bus and our luggage, decanted ourselves inside, and then headed for the Zimbabwe border. This, we thought, might be our trickiest transfer, and there was indeed quite a long tail-back of lorries and busses at the border. But we sailed to the front of the line, and were through very quickly (although the wait seemed long). We were briefed to put on our seat belts, and to take no pictures of any police stopping points that we might see. But we were never stopped, and were soon heading deep into Zimbabwe. Our driver made the correct right turn at just the right moment:Zambia

The Victoria Falls Hotel, set in extensive grounds, turned out to be yet one more glorious monument to English colonial style, c. 1900-1930:English colonial

The mosquito net in my bedroom was not needed, but it added an exotic touch; warthogs and monkeys could be seen frolicking on the lawn below:bedroom

Valentine’s Day saw us heading out to the vast body of water, a mile across, a million gallons a second, known as Mosi-Oa-Tunya (but renamed Victoria Falls by Dr David Livingstone in 1855). Vellon Phiri, our local Zimbabwean guide, was happy to give us pronunciation lessons, and then to pose beneath Livingstone’s massive statue:Vellon Phiri

Equipped with poncho style black raingear, like a strange order of monks, we processed to the Falls:VictoriaFalls

Spray from the thunderous falls, which can be seen from far away, has created a tropical micro-climate in which delicate plants flourish:Plant

Veterinarians Judy Shekmar and Steve Cantner (V 76), who have owned and run the Bryn Mawr Veterinary Hospital for more than thirty years, went ape went spotting vervet monkeys by the Falls:Judy ShekmaSteve Cantner

Before leaving the Falls the Penn alums posed in their wetgear for one last photo; the banner here is held by Judy Shekmar and Betsy Kleeblatt (CW 68):

groupatfalls

Before returning to the hotel we stopped off at a local market. Traders were never forceful, but they were keen to relieve us of our cash and, failing that, of our socks and hats. There are reports of one visitor returning to the hotel almost naked, with a bag full of wooden bowls and statutes. I held onto my Alumni cap but, next day, donated my Phillies cap– perhaps someone else wearing it will bring us better luck:local market

Back at the hotel the Penn group scrubbed up nice and presented itself for our Penn alumni wine reception:winereception

This convivial drinks party immediately preceded Roberto Delgado’s second lecture on bio-diversity in the region, and on what we can all do to help protect the environment. Clear-cutting to produce Palm Oil leads to extensive deforestation of virgin rain forest, he told us, so Honey Nut Cheerios and Dove soap are now off the menu. Finally, the day ended with (another) sumptuous dinner. Next day the group flew from Victoria Falls airport to Johannesburg, and from there we went our separate ways. The main group of alums headed to the MalaMala game reserve, and I flew back to London to continue my sabbatical. The birdlife that I have found here so far has been far from exotic:pigeon

But I am warmed by the memory of the wonderful friendships so quickly formed among our intrepid group of sixteen. And I realize that in a sense your life can be divided between the time before you saw elephants, moving majestically across their natural terrain, and after that moment. And happily, like elephants, we will never forget.

Elephant4

To learn more about Penn Alumni Travel visit our website at: http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel .

Leave a comment

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

Penn Alumni Travel, Iberian Trade Routes, 2014

Author: Penn Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, History of Art Department

When our plane touched down at 8am in Barcelona the first thing that I wanted to do was make a beeline to La Boqueria, the recently restored and restocked public market in the heart of the city. Filled with vendors selling raw and prepared foods, glistening fish, octopus, and barnacles fresh from the Mediterranean, and ridiculously indulgent Spanish jamón, La Boqueria is a perfect place to have a quick and hearty gourmet meal, counter-style, so that you can keep on moving and see as much as possible of this amazing Catalan city. We had a lovely plate of foraged wild mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil and topped by a fried egg, a small caña of beer, and some bread before taking in the beauty of the Antoni Gaudí designed Casa Battló.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

We had such a fun-filled day in Barcelona that we barely made it to the magnificent MV Tere Moana for our sail away at 6pm that first night. I was very glad that we did arrive in time because the itinerary, which included Mallorca, Ibiza, Granada, Sevilla, Gibralter, the Algarve, and Lisbon, was fantastic.

Of the five different cruise ships that I have enjoyed sailing on as a faculty host with Penn Alumni Travel, the MV Tere Moana was definitely the most elegant and intimate. With staterooms for less than 100 guests, it was very much like traveling on a private yacht. The ship’s charming and well-trained staff attended to the needs of each traveler individually. By the second night Jonny, the bartender knew my preference for a little Tio Pepe sherry before dinner and Macallan for afters, and by the third he was beginning to make suggestions of custom cocktails that I might like to try. And with drinks being all-inclusive, why not?

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Well, the very busy itinerary on this trip was a good reason not to indulge too much. Each day was filled with a morning excursion, lunch back on the ship, and then another afternoon excursion followed by just an hour or two of downtime before a lovely dinner. The tour directors from Gohagen kept everything running smoothly and the local guides at each destination made sure that all our questions were answered, from which medieval people had occupied that fortification overlooking the Atlantic in the Algarve region of Portugal, to where to buy the best souvenirs in lovely Mallorca.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

And Mallorca, truly the pearl of the Mediterranean, was the highlight of this trip for me. This was the first time that I had visited this delightful, continental-flavored Balearic island filled with gorgeous nineteenth century architecture and an endless harbor jam-packed with enormous yachts. I could have spent the whole week in Mallorca sitting in cafés, drinking coffee and eating lovely pastries.

Almost as satisfying as Mallorca were the stunning cliffs of Gibralter, alive with wild monkeys and riddled with natural caves and military tunnels. I was surprised by how happy the monkeys made me, they were just so cute and funny and absolutely everywhere — climbing on the parade of minivan taxis that snake up and down the side of “The Rock” ferrying tourists to the various attractions that are only reachable via closed roads. As a part of Great Britain with a special economic status, Gibralter was the spot to get a plate of fish and chips and also the best deals on duty free, which seemed to be the main attraction down at sea level.

“The Rock”

“The Rock”

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

Visit Penn Alumni Travel at http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel

Leave a comment

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

Penn Alumni Travel: Flavors of Tuscany

Author: Professor Michael Gamer, Department of English

By its gastronomic and vinophilic nature, our foray into Tuscany with Penn Alumni Travel transcended the usual stuff of tourism. Part of the reason was the location of our base: the Podere Ciona vineyards in the heart of the Chianti region, owned and operated by Franca Gatteschi. Nestled in the hills, the winery really was a rural idyll. The dawns were misty and the evenings (on clear nights) were full of stars. The mid-October weather cooperated and the views each morning were serene:

Tuscany 1

 

Then there was the size of our group: nine of us joined by six alumni from Wake Forest University. Whenever I teach a seminar here at Penn I find 14-15 to be the perfect size: it maximizes the give-and-take of discussion without placing too much onus on any one person. The same went for our Tuscan group; by the end of the trip we all really had gotten to know one another.

Tuscany 2

Here you see us on our second-to-last day, in Brolio with the Castello Brolio in the background. Given how much by then we’d done — and consumed — we look pretty good on the whole. There had been the three hill towns of the Chianti Classico region (Radda, Gaiole, Castellina), cheese tastings and Sunday dinners in the Arezzo area, a cooking class in San Martino followed by Monte Sant’ Edigio, the monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi; there had been Cortona and Siena. That night would be the cooking class with the four Tuscan Mammas, and the next day there would be Florence. With the exception of Florence, I had never visited any of these places, and they were wonderful; and, given the difference between Florence in high season and in October, even that city seemed entirely new to me.

What made this trip so memorable for me, though, was our guide, Marco Messina. That the group adored him would be an understatement. Like any great teacher, he brought knowledge, kindness, patience, and humor to the project of showing us Tuscany. But he also did more than that; on the way, we met his family and friends. No matter the town or winery, museum or restaurant, Marco would find a way to lead us backstage:

Tuscany 3

Tuscany 4

From master olive oil, cheese-, and bread-makers to our coach-driver, Fabio, the meetings were informative, memorable, fun, and, above all, genuine. My own favorite memory is the evening we spent at Castiglion Fiorentino — where, after a terrific meal we found ourselves being let into a closed Civic Museum to see Etruscan ruins. Then, as the sun was setting, we were treated to a 45-minute performance of flag-tossing as the sun was setting. Those of us who had been on cheerleading and pep squads finally had the answer to the question of flag- and letter-twirling’s origins — in this medieval mix of martial art and dance.

Tuscany 5

 

I’m hoping everyone else enjoyed this trip as much as I did. Hope as well to see you next year on the Machu Picchu and Galapagos trip!

[Professor Gamer will be hosting the 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip, Machu Picchu to the Galapagos. Click here for more details or click here to view all our 2015 tours.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Castles and Cathedrals of France

Author: Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Director of the Arthur Ross Gallery

[This post was written during a Penn Alumni Travel trip exploring the Provincial French Countryside. To view our 2015 schedule of tours, click here.]

October 16, 2014

Today we are touring the Renaissance castle of Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Henri II gave his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, this lovely castle that spans the Cher River.  It reflects perfectly the Renaissance style with beautiful paintings, tapestries, furniture, painted ceilings, and floor tiles executed by Italian and French Renaissance artists and workmen.

Lynn 1

We began our journey last Thursday in Toulouse, one of the great pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages with two exceptional examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the basilica of St. Sernin and the cathedral of St. Etienne.  Today Toulouse is a center for commerce and college students – Airbus builds their planes here, and the cafés in the place St. George are full of people enjoying a coffee or an aperitif talking to one another. Face to face. The square buzzes with voices. No cell phones in the café.

Lynn 2

In Albi we visited their remarkable cathedral, and the Palais de La Berbie that houses the museum of Toulouse-Lautrec, and gardens.  A native son, Lautrec is esteemed today for his lithographs and posters.  He designed these for his friends who were Montmartre’s performers at café-concerts, at the Moulin Rouge, or for Aristide Bruant at Le Mirliton. Scandalous outliers, such as La Goulule and Jane Avril, gained notoriety and fame through Lautrec’s posters.

Lynn 3

Lynn 4

Our medieval pilgrimage continued on Tuesday with a visit to Rocamadour. This is a  superb site set in a breathtaking valley with a deep river bed. The houses are built vertically on rock. Above those the church with its famous Chapelle de la Vierge noire (black virgin) is perched, and above the church is a castle.  We climbed 262 steep steps to reach Rocamadour’s churchyard. Eleanor of Aquitaine climbed those same steps on her knees!

Lynn 5

Lynn 6

Sarlat is one of the Dordogne’s picturesque towns whose specialties include mushrooms, confit of duck, walnuts, and foie gras made from duck or goose liver.  We enjoyed touring this town, its church, and Bishopry. Some of us paid special homage to the local geese in the “Place des Oies”.

Lynn 7

On our way to Saumur, we paused to admire Chinon, the castle of Charles VII. A 16-year-old Jean d’Arc traveled here after having a dream that she must assist Charles VII. Jean d’Arc later defended her King in battle, before being burned at the stake.

Lynn 8

The Loire Valley is resplendent with castles everywhere. In the 16th century King Francois I settled in the Loire valley surrounded by his court. Francois I brought Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, to France to decorate his castles in the new Renaissance style.

Lynn 9

The Penn Alumni on this trip are fantastic. Smart, enthusiastic, curious, with a good sense of humor, our band of seventeen has a wealth of knowledge in all disciplines. The camaraderie of the group is especially lively in our bus conversations and over leisurely meals that feature great regional specialties and wines. Vive la France!

Lynn 11

A bientot,

Lynn

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Adriatic Antiquities 2014

Author: Professor Ralph Rosen, Department of Classical Studies

We began our Adriatic Antiquities adventure (a Penn Alumni Travel trip) in Venice, where we boarded our ship, the Aegean Odyssey. The ship was relatively small, accommodating only some 350 passengers, and delightfully appointed with two restaurants, several bars and many decks offering spectacular views from all perspectives. We had a small group of 8 adventurous Penn alums plus my wife, Ellen, and about 60 others in our tour group from various other alumni organizations across the country. Other passengers on the ship included a huge group from Australia and Great Britain, which added to the continual liveliness and good cheer of the trip. Almost every day there was a lecture of one sort of another to attend, since the ship had two art historians of their own onboard, and there were two Classicists in our group—myself, and a specialist in ancient Greek politics and Athenian history from Northwestern University. I gave two lectures early in the trip on various aspects of Greek culture, the first on Greek concepts of beauty and ugliness, the second on traditions of early Greek scandalous poetry or satire. I had also sent everyone in our group a copy of Aristophanes’ Clouds in advance of the trip to provide some background to our visit to Athens, and we met one afternoon during cocktail hour in the ship’s lounge to discuss it. This fast-paced comedy addresses the ‘culture wars’ of Classical Athens, pitting traditionalists against a new generation of thinkers and educators, and inspired a lively and memorable discussion.

On our first day we took a vaporetto to mainland Venice to visit the Cathedral of St. Mark. We had a superb guide who walked us through the complex and fascinating history of this amazing structure. The Cathedral dates to the 9th century CE, though the current building can be traced to the 11th. The interior walls and ceilings are covered with gold mosaics of dazzling beauty, telling various stories from the Old and New Testaments, and about the saints important to the Cathedral, such as Sts. Mark and Clement. We learned that much of these were poorly ‘restored’ in the 19th century, and are thought to have suffered much as a result; but to the viewer from ground-level, these mosaics are simply breathtaking.

Venice1

That evening we were treated to a very special private visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. This museum, located in what was once Guggenheim’s private home along the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, houses an extraordinary collection of modernist, surrealist and abstract expressionist artists. We rode back to the ship in small boats along the canal in the early evening as the golden Venetian sun made the Renaissance buildings on the land magically glow.

Venice2

From Venice we sailed directly across the Adriatic over night to our first destination in Croatia, Zadar, in the northern region of the Dalmatian coast. The early history of this entire area is one of continual tension between indigenous inhabitants and incursions from Greeks with an eye on colonization. When Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean in subsequent centuries, one finds archaeological traces of their settlements and Romanization as well. By the middle ages, the influence of Venice was ubiquitous among the cities along the Dalmatian coast, and we learned much about these many historical layers from our expert guides.

After Zadar, we made our way down the coast to the Croatian cities of Split, Dubrovnik and the gorgeous peninsula of Korcula. We sailed to Split during the night, and we awoke in the port as an intense thunderstorm was just beginning to break up, offering beautiful dark-grey cloudscapes interspersed with sunlight and blue skies.

Split

Our day in Split began with a visit to the palace of Diocletian, who built this massive complex as his retirement home in 305 CE. Diocletian was emperor of Rome from 284-305 CE, which was a particularly colorful and complicated political period. Diocletian had first appointed a co-emperor Maximian in 286, but for strategic reasons appointed two more co-regents in 293, Galerius and Constantius, dividing up the empire into four different sectors. This historical period became known as the ‘tetrarchy’ or ‘rule of the four emperors.’ Quite unusually, Diocletian actually abdicated his rule and then retired to the lavish palace complex which he had built for himself in Split. From the 7th century CE on, long after it had been abandoned by the Romans, locals moved into the structures, setting up homes and businesses. Domitian’s mausoleum, for example, was transformed into the Cathedral of St. Duje (Domnius) built over an ancient shrine. Built at the beginning of the 7th century, we were told that it’s the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world which hasn’t had to be completely rebuilt. The site reflects today all these many historical layers of use, re-use, re-purposing, occupation and now, tourism. Side trips in the afternoon brought us inland to two other Roman sites, Salona and Trogir. In Salona we visited a Roman burial site, where we saw some wonderfully preserved Roman sarcophagi, along with tombs and mausolea from later periods as well. Trogir was a modest little town, founded as a Greek colony in the 3rd century BCE, now rich in medieval and Byzantine architectural sites; we had time to visit the unusual and impressively well-preserved Romanesque-Gothic church dedicated to St. Lawrence (13th century.). I have to confess that simply sitting in the public square of this utterly charming town late in the afternoon with an espresso and biscotto was one of my favorite moments of the trip!

Trogir

Korcula was a magical place—we had to approach from the ship in small boats across shimmering blue-green water. At the coastline the water was crystal-clear and you could watch schools of fish from the docks going about their business. The Old Town was built in a fishbone pattern to maximize the flow of winds, thus creating a kind of urban air-conditioning—or so we were told by our genial guide. She also told us of the dispute about Marco Polo. Despite the fact that the handbooks all list his birthplace as Venice, Korcula claims him as one of their native sons. Whether or not this is true, every other street restaurant and guest-house in Korcula is named ‘Marco Polo’-something-or-other.

Korcula

Our next stop was Dubrovnik, said to be one of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in Europe. It had a touristic feel about it, but we still enjoyed its antiquities, particularly the Dominican monastery with its 15th-century cloister and the Cathedral of Our Lady, which has on display a painting of the Assumption by Titian.

We continued our journey down the Dalmatian coast heading for Greece, but along the way the ship’s captain made a detour to take us into the famous Bay of Kotor, a fjord-like inlet in SW Montenegro, situated between Croatia and Albania. The sea was calm and the sun shining brightly as we sailed around this breathtakingly beautiful part of the Adriatic.

Kotor Bay

 

The antiquities we visited along the Croatian coast were largely Roman remains and later, though most of the sites had been settled earlier by Greek colonists. The remaining sites on our trip were in Greece proper, and often reflected Mediterranean culture from even earlier historical periods. Most of our guides, however, were extremely knowledgeable about modern Greek history as well, and we learned much from them about the long and fraught occupation of Greece by the Ottomans, and eventual emancipation and independence in the 19th century.

Our first visit on Greek soil was the island of Corfu, also known by its Greek name Kerkyra, and to students of Thucydides, Corcyra (Thucydides famously documented the effects of factional strife there in the 5th century. BCE). We toured the Venetian fortifications, which afforded some amazing views along the coast, but more charming was the town itself—a bustling place inhabited by real people living real lives and not only for tourists. A few of us explored the old city in the afternoon, and even stumbled upon the Corfu Synagogue, where we met a caretaker who was happy to show us around. Their traditions (and building) go back at least 400 years, though the community is small, and reduced even more as a consequence of WWII.

Corfu Synagogue

 

Not too far from Corfu is a small port called Preveza, where we docked for the morning and took an inland excursion to the town of Arta.  The visit to Arta was spectacular. The famous ‘Bridge of Arta’ crossing the Arachthos River dates from the early 17th century,  but its foundations date to the Roman period.

Arta Bridge

According to local legend, a bird came to the original architect and declared that the bridge could only be completed if the architect would sacrifice his wife. While she was being buried alive, it is said, she put a curse on the bridge, but when told that her brother would be crossing the bridge she changed her curses to blessings. Near the bridge is the amazing cathedral Church of the Paregoretissa, built at the end of the 13th century. This is a beautifully preserved and well maintained example of grand Byzantine architecture, with spectacular mosaics decorating the interior. The central dome has a magnificent mosaic of Christ Pantokrator with angels and prophets, and interior walls are graced with grand religious frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Arta Church

 

From Preveza, we sailed down the western coast of the Peloponnese to Olympia, famed birthplace of the Olympic games. The Greeks have done a superb job with this site, creating a beautiful archaeological park with elegant landscaping, excellent signage and an inviting, informative museum of artifacts from their excavations. Olympia was internationally important from the 8th century BCE well into late antiquity, by which time it had fallen into Roman hands, but by the 6th century CE it was covered over by alluvial deposits, evidently the result of flooding from repeated tsunamis. It wasn’t re-discovered until 1766, and the first excavations only began in 1829. The site itself indicates an expansive array of buildings within a sanctuary, including temples to Zeus and Hera, and adjacent to this area are a hippodrome for horse and chariot racing and stadium for track events.

Olympia

Overnight we sailed from Olympia to the famous port city of Nafplio. This was a particularly busy day for our group, with two trips scheduled (the afternoon trip was optional, but we couldn’t get enough!). In the morning we made our way by bus to the famous site of Mycenae. What I found particularly interesting about this site was how remote and wild the area seemed to be today in light of the fact that during the heydey of Mycenaean culture, in the 14th century BCE, it was a major cultural center with a sizable population. The monumentality of this site was astonishing—huge ‘Cyclopean’ stone blocks, grand archways, brilliant gold masks and large intricately patterned pottery. This was clearly a rich and sophisticated society that left a huge mark on subsequent Greek culture.

Mycenae

After a restorative lunch in the town square of Nafplio, we set out again for Epidaurus, an area that rose to prominence in the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek history. Epidaurus has two main sites of interest, both iconic of ancient Greek culture. The first is the great temple of the healing god Asclepius. There were many healing shrines to Asclepius around the Mediterranean, but Epidaurus’ was one of the largest and most famous. People with a variety of afflictions would come from all around seeking a cure, and an entire micro-economy seems to have emerged around such sites. There was a whole industry of priests, shopkeepers selling terracotta votive offerings (usually representing whatever organ or body part needed healing), guest-houses, etc. The idea was for the sick person to spend the night sleeping inside the temple (for a fee, of course), so that the god Asclepius could appear in a dream and offer instructions on how to be healed. This process was called ‘incubation’, which literally means ‘sleeping in’. Many of the stories of these cures have come down to us on stone inscriptions publicly erected by grateful patients or publicity-minded temple administrators. These narratives often seem a little far-fetched to us today, but evidently there were many satisfied customers!

Epidaurus is also famous for its amazing theater, where Greek tragedies and comedies (and other dramatic forms) would have been performed. The remains of this theater date from the Hellenistic period; it’s one of the best preserved and most beautiful examples of theater construction. The theater could hold some 13,000 spectators in the classic Greek semi-circular form, with rows of seats rising steeply into a hill. The acoustics are uncannily live, as is continually being demonstrated by visitors who clap their hands or orate in the circular orchestra where the actors would have performed. In this theater there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house!

Epidaurus

 

Our last destination was, at long last, the glorious city of Athens itself. We pulled into the harbor at Piraeus in the morning, around 10 km from the city, and wasted no time in preparing ourselves for the trek to the Acropolis and its Parthenon—perhaps the single most iconic building in all of Western culture. It was hot and crowded with tourists, but we all made it to the top of the hill and stood in awe of the Parthenon and the spectacular panoramic views of the entire city. I think this was an emotional moment for all of us, and our expert guide added plenty of detail to complement our feelings of transcendence—its origins in fifth century BCE Athens as part of Pericles’ building program, its Hellenistic history, its fate under the Romans, its later re-purposing by Christians, and later still by Ottoman Muslims.

Parthenon

We left in a state of exhilaration, and relocated for our last two nights in a hotel in the center of the city. Our afternoon was unscheduled, so we all went in different directions. I made my way to the National Archaeological museum, where I met one of the other Penn alums, and we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring their incredible collection. There was room after room of all the choice artifacts from all periods of Greek history; I was quite overwhelmed, really, by the richness of this collection—rooms of archaic kouroi, huge Geometric-style vases, Cycladic art, and hundreds of black-figure and red-figure Athenian pottery, just to name a few of the highlights.

Our final morning was spent at the new Acropolis Museum, adjacent to the Acropolis itself, but at ground level looking up. The building only opened in 2009 after years of planning and false starts, but is now a marvel of architecture and city planning. Designed by renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, the museum houses all the artifacts found on the Acropolis, and itself sits on top of another archaeological site of Classical and Byzantine urban remains. Glass flooring at the entrance allows visual access to the excavations below and juxtaposes brilliantly the artifact and modern repository of artifacts. The top part of the museum is in parallel alignment to the Acropolis, affording the viewer both a window on, and a kind of mirror to, the object of its contemplation up the hill. This was an expansive, uncluttered and intelligently laid out museum, and a powerful testament to the aesthetic and political sophistication of Greek culture.

Our trip was unfortunately nearing its end, but we had time for one more excursion that afternoon, to the Benaki Museum, which was only a short walk from our hotel. The Benaki Museum might be considered Athens’ answer to Philadelphia’s Barnes Museum in that it houses the private collection of art and antiquities from a single collector with an idiosyncratic vision, that of Antonis Benakis. This elegant private mansion contains an extraordinary and eclectic collection of mostly Greek art, from antiquity to the 20th century. Since Benakis’ death in 1954 the museum has continued to add to its collection (unlike the Barnes), which now has more than 37,000 objects. After almost two weeks of continual exposure to ancient artifacts, I think most of us found it refreshing to see a deep collection of fine and decorative arts from the 18th through 20th centuries. They have an especially fine collection of cultural artifacts from the period of Greek independence (1821-1835). Among these is a marvelous portrait of the great English poet, Lord Byron, in traditional Greek dress, who was so committed to the cause of Greek independence that he even took command of a rebel army against the Turks in 1824. Unfortunately, he died of an infectious disease before the actual attack, but his inspirational passion for everything Greek made him something of a national hero after his death.

Benaki-Lord Byron

After a final gathering in the evening at the hotel to celebrate our rich and glorious trip together, and to say our sad goodbyes, we prepared ourselves for the return home. We packed an incredible amount of travel and learning into these two weeks, but I’m pretty sure everyone in our group was secretly wishing it would never end.

Professor Ralph Rosen with his group of Penn alumni and friends.

Professor Ralph Rosen with his group of Penn alumni and friends.

[Interested in joining a future Penn Alumni Travel trip hosted by a Penn faculty member? Click here to view our entire 2015 schedule. We will be returning to Greece and Italy on the following tours: Southern Italy and Sicily (April/May 2015), Ancient Greece and Turkey (Sept/October 2015), and Portrait of Italy (October 2015).]

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Great Journey Through Europe 2014

Author: André Dombrowski, Associate Professor, History of Art

A few weeks have passed now since our return from a remarkable trip through Western Europe that took us through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, much of it spent onboard as we cruised up the Rhine River. The trip offered a range of experiences for both lovers of nature and culture: the Alps and the UNESCO heritage site of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley were interspersed with visits to charming towns and churches. It was a pleasure to meet the Penn-affiliated passengers on the trip who numbered 18 and who shared their memories of the university, which stretched from the class of 1959 to the law-class of 1989. My mother-in-law Joan, who accompanied me, would like to thank everyone for including her so warmly within our group. She said she had the trip of a lifetime!

Penn Alumni Group

Penn Alumni Group

When we arrived in Zurich, we were greeted by our charming Gohagan travel directors, Brian and Cory, who accompanied us throughout the trip and proved able entertainers with singers’ voices! It is hard for me to name the highlights of the trip. Lucerne (and also Bern) was especially appealing and our accommodations there just spectacular. Surely the visit to Zermatt was one of my favorites, reached by a slow Alpine train. On the day we visited, the Matterhorn’s peek was visible for long stretches of the day; unlike during my previous two visits…, just one cloud hugging its side. The snow in my hands in June felt good. After our time in Switzerland, we boarded the MS Amadeus in Basel and started our journey up the Rhine from there. I loved Strasbourg, such a charming town with so much to offer; Heidelberg was a favorite, especially the castle ruins, which I had never seen before; and also the impressive Niederwalddenkmal in Rüdesheim, built a few years after the Franco-Prussian War and in response to the German victory over the French in 1871, which I often study and teach in my classes. Finally, I enjoyed going up the Rhine through the famous gorge and see the Lorelei cliff from atop the river. Having grown up not all too far from there—a few hours away in North Rhine-Westphalia where my parents still live—this stretch of the trip gave me a whole new perspective on my own home country.

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Two times during the trip I lectured to the passengers on the ship, one of a total of four faculty hosts who shared their research. My first talk was focused on architectural history. I had taken lots of photos along the way and wanted to provide everyone with some quick tools to understand the style of buildings—we covered baroque, rococo, historicist architecture and some aspects of modern art—and also their various functions, showing especially how both informed each other. My second lecture covered the artistic consequences—from impressionism to early modernism—of the conflict between France and Prussia/Germany stretching from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870/71 to the outbreak of World War I. I wanted to show especially the ways in which military victory and avant-garde expression do not always, if ever, go hand-in-hand.

Rhein in Koblenz

Rhein in Koblenz

 

Cologne

Cologne

 

Alpine Pass

Alpine Pass

The trip was one of the most memorable for me. I had not been to most of the places we visited for many years—sometimes for more than a decade—despite having grown up in Germany. Exploring this part of Europe with other Penn guests made me look at its special and varied beauty anew.

I will participating on the Paris to Provence trip in 2015, I hope you join me!

View all 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip here!

 

Leave a comment

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