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.

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