onsdag 26. oktober 2011

How knowledge enhances travel


Church of John the Baptist in Cavucin, Cappadocia.
Well established and celebrated sights can be frustrating, as can its lesser-known cousins; the romanesque architecture of a small parish church, the chapel decorated by some baroque painter of the Bolognese school...

In the guidebook they might be highly praised, but just the same: Sometimes you can stare at the vaults or walls for ages - and just don't get it.

No magnificence. No magic. No reason to ditch the sunlight and wine at a pavement café.

That is absolutely OK. We are absolutely free to decide what was the highlights of any travel, and don't have to love everything that's considered see-worthy. 

However, two experiences in the last month have made me realize that the feeling of "I don't feel anything about this place at all" sometimes might stem from pure lack of knowledge.

Case study 1: Prado, Madrid
Last month I was reading Dutch author Cees Nooteboom's travel book "Roads to Santiago" (in parts great, in others a wilderness of words), where a full chapter is devoted to Diego Velázquez and his portraits of Spain's King Philip IV and his daughter Maria Theresa, who was married into becoming queen of Austria. 

Nooteboom gives a blazing account of genetic weeknesses from inbreeding,  religious lunacy and a system where royal marriage was the highest form of politics, that made everyone suffer - and how the painter's close relationship (he lived in the court for 30 years) allowed him to capture all these intimate tragedies on canvas.  

Several (all?) of the paintings described is in Madrid's Prado Museum, and the book leaves little doubt that Nooteboom loves studying them

Which leaves me to my trip to Madrid in 2002. For nearly a week I stayed just across the street from Prado, without ever going there. Thus, I never saw the Velázquez paintings that now really intrigue me.

The thing is, I think that was just as well. Judging from the b/w photopraphs in the book, a full appreciation of them - like Nooteboom's - presuppose a degree of biographical knowledge of the paintings' subjects that I wasn't even near in 2002, but that he has after reading several biographies about them.

Some knowledge is thus a prerequisite for his full travel experience. 

Cappadocian dovecotes, seen from the outside.

Case study 2: A church in Cappadocia
Not even two weeks after reading the Velázquez chapter, I stumbled on another discovery of the joys of knowledge.

I was horseriding in Turkey's remarkable Cappadocia landscape when the retiree Osman showed my guide Doruk and me the way up a nine floors high dovecote dug-out inside a cliff face. There Osman explained us how the bigger holes in the wall were for the nests, and the smaller ones underneath were for the poles where the pigeons would perch; and how the small openings to the outside world allowed pigeons to enter the cave but not the bigger predatory birds.

The climb up nine floors, by old wooden ladders through narrow openings in the limestone roofs, was definitely one of the highlights of my Turkey trip. 

On a more personal level, a great travel revelation came to me later the same day. In the last hour before sunset I had climbed the abandoned old town of Cavucin to see the old Church of John the Baptist, high up in the cliffs.

Just 24 hours earlier, I would have thought the church a sorry sight; with damaged frescos and most arches and windows filled in with rocks. But now, with Osman's tour fresh in mind, I recognised the holes in the wall and the filled-in windows as something else: A dovecote! An old, fresco adorned rock church from the Byzantine times that had later served as shelter for pigeons (in fact, this means it could be called a kind of manure factory, since cappadocians kept pigeons for the manure). With this knowledge, the church visit was fascinating instead of being a disappointment.

So, maybe I should go to the Prado next time I am in Madrid. Or see some dovecotes or barns before I visit more churches.

And a Cappadocian (disused) dovecote on the inside.

torsdag 13. oktober 2011

Beauty written in stone - Yerevan's khachkars

The khachkar maker Varaz in his simple studio in central Yerevan.


In Armenia's capital Yerevan, the most beautiful things may be found in worn-down, forgotten backstreets.

On map, it looked like a nice idea. To head for the street lined by park on the Lonely Planet map, just a few blocks south, before crossing from the west side to the east of central Yerevan.

In reality the street wasn't so pretty. Just out of asphalt, out of shops - out of luck it seemed - and devoid of any greenery. We trod on nevertheless. Yerevan doesn't seem to be a dangerous city, and besides, it was still broad daylight. Therefore, we could see nothing wrong in walking on the sunny side of a shady street.

That turned out to be pure luck.

At first I only saw a man climb a ladder leading up against a wall. When I looked more carefully - finding his climbing a bit weird - I discovered the fascinating truth:

The tools of the khachkar trade.

The man, Varaz, was making one of Armenia's most famous pieces of art, a khachkar, merely gaining a few extra meters to get an overview of what he was doing. 

Thus, he was a living example of an old and proud history. At least since 9th century kharchkars - carved memorial stones (the word means 'cross stone') - have been made by the Armenians, mainly for salvation of the soul but also to commemorate military victories or the completion of a bridge, a church etc.

- It takes me about two months to make one, he explained, pausing from his work when he noted our interest. He even invited me into the canvas "shed" to study more of his kharchkars - patting on one of them to persuade me stand on it for new photo opportunities. 

The kharchars would be placed in churches, Varaz told before pointing at one of them.

- That one is going to Canada.

"It must be an Armenian church called Kanahda or something," I thought. But then I checked his master Varazdat Hambardzumyan's homepage, where I learned that his seals of God - as he calls them - have been exported to both the US, Denmark, The United Arab Emirates, and Canada.

Next day, we went to the World Heritage monastery Geghard, where some gorgeous examples of Armenia's 40,000 surviving kharchkars can be found - as well as a fantastic monastery, situated deep inside a gorge and partly carved into the cliff.
Inside Geghard monastery outside of Yerevan.

There, standing before two elaborately carved kharchkars, each with a cross flanked by complex patterns of leaves and grapes, Hyur Service's guide Sona informs me of an interesting fact:

No matter how skillful the master, he will always leave in at least one mistake so that the carvings are not symmetrical.

- Because only God can make something perfect, she explains.

So maybe that is what Varaz was doing up on that ladder. Not checking that he was carving right, but rather the opposite: Making sure something would be wrong.

(This blog post owes several facts to Armenia, The Bradt Travel Guide- a guidebook that is hopeless on practical information (just as this blog) but strong on insight. For practical help, look no further than Lonely Planet's book Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan- published in 2008 but still useful.)

Some of the khachkars outside - or actually, on top of - Geghard.