- Transportation to and from Inverness airport
- Accommodation in a house in the Scottish countryside
- Catered meals
- All work and safety equipment
- On-site training and supervision by a specialist in Scottish conservation
- A 2-day tourguided excursion to the Isle of Skye (during the second week)
Restoring heritage is always about more than just the buildings. While we might get caught up in questions of authenticity, of style and architectural purity and period-accurate method, at the end of the day, I think anyone who preserves heritage does so with the conviction that doing so ultimately makes the world a better place. Even if it’s just in a little tiny way – one building, a doorway, a chimneypiece, a stair-rail – there’s a satisfaction in knowing that you’ve concretely improved one tiny corner in a measurable way. Sometimes its difficult to see just HOW improving heritage improves the world… But then again sometimes it’s really very simple.
At Burgie, Mr. Hamish Lochore is using his historic building to save Scotland’s trees. He’s spent the past 12 years creating an enormous arboretum on his estate, where he grows both endangered Scottish species, as well as exotic species that a huge international network send him from all over the world (legally, of course!). He’s realised that all eight of Scotland’s native surviving species have already been negatively affected by climate change, and are increasingly vulnerable. He’s realised, as many at the Forestry Commission refuse to acknowledge, that the future of Scottish forestry might just require investigating alternative species. Despite the milder microclimate of the Moray coast, tiny seedlings of exotic varieties need a little help in their earliest years before they’re ready to brave the Scottish weather. And this is where the “so what” of the historic greenhouse comes into it.
Hamish has done an amazing thing with his ancestral estate. In the grand tradition of country estate owners everywhere, he has moulded and crafted his land into something better than itself. He has made it productive as well as decorative, educational as well as functional – and the same is true for his greenhouse.
The glasshouse was originally built in 1912, and it belongs to a world that no longer exists. The social structures of Edwardian Britain eroded after the First World War, and the rural economy and lifestyle changed forever. The glasshouse was built for a household that was designed not just to function, but to impress, with a staff of household servants as well as landscapers and gardeners to keep things running inside and out. The Burgie glasshouse speaks eloquently to this division between those who serve and those who are served; it has separate entrances for staff and visitors, as well as extensive sheds “behind the scenes” that are plainer and clearly meant for the dirtier staging-work of the paid gardeners. And one can just picture the wee coal-monkeys who were sent down into the lowered boiler-room to keep the water-pipes heated. Meanwhile, family members or meticulously-dressed visitors could come in from the walled garden to a gleaming fantasy of crisp, white timber, translucent glass, and of course a well-maintained riot of exotic plants and flowers.While this might not be every person’s ideal, with great divisions in wealth and privilege, it cannot be denied that such divisions wrought beautiful objects, buildings included. But the world has moved on, and the societal structure and purpose that appreciated greenhouses as status symbols and works of art no longer exists. And, like most buildings nowadays, century-old greenhouses are finding that they too must earn their keep to survive.
How fortunate then that Hamish’s interests find more than enough uses for his broken-down old greenhouse! Hamish values his land and his heritage. As he said himself, “Who are we if we don’t leave things better than we found them?” But at the end of the day, he needs a working greenhouse for his eco-conservation work; whether it’s historic is in some respects neither here nor there. If he’s got one already on-hand, all the better! But in the state that it’s in… the Burgie greenhouse can’t exactly be said to be “working.” Most of the glass in the roof has fallen out over the centuries, and just to keep the water out Hamish put up some fibreglass sheeting. It keeps the inside relatively dry, but the essential function of a greenhouse – the capture and storage of heat and light through glass – is utterly lost. Right now it’s essentially just a glorified shed, and Hamish’s plants are suffering for it: shaded species are fine, but every year he loses dozens of carefully cultivated plants because they simply can’t get enough light and heat.
One of Hamish’s dedicated volunteers also has a love of historic buildings, and she saw the need – and the solution – right away. She reached out for help and enlisted the support of Adventures in Preservation, an American organisation that pair travel and tourism with heritage volunteering and conservation work. In June they brought 18 volunteers from the US and Australia (almost all women, as it happens!), and Hamish ripped the dirty sheeting off, freeing the beautiful wooden skeleton from its fibreglass prison! Over two weeks, the team sanded, chiseled and cleaned the entire wooden frame of the central house, then primed and painted it until it just glowed – literally, so white!
More about the amazing things we discovered during our work – and a few unsolved mysteries we uncovered – in a subsequent post.
But for now, Hamish’s beautiful greenhouse is roofless and gaping open to the elements, and Adventures in Preservation and I are working hard to get a group back in the autumn to get a roof on it before the winter weather sets in – a scenario that would be bad for the greenhouse, and bad for Hamish’s trees!
Registration for the September-October session is live, and will involve cutting and laying the glass for the roof! Visit http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/ to register!
We could see it coming up the road, a simple but radiant structure in pink and white stone that glowed in spite of the rain. The church of the ancient monastery nestled into the base of a mist-topped green mountain, its cultivated fields and vineyards, still producing sustenance after seven hundred years, spread around it down the slope of the hill like a lady’s skirt in variegated patterns. Decani Visoki looks the very picture you’d expect of an active monastery: tidy, quiet, and prosperous.
Until you come to the KFOR barrier gate, draped in camouflage and topped with barbed wire, where incoming vehicles must state their purpose, surrender their passports, and submit to a search if the guards armed with AK-47s think it’s necessary.
Such is the protection required for Kosovo’s only UNESCO site, the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (actually four separate sites spread across the country, but grouped under the same listing). The trouble is that the monasteries are tiny islands of medieval Serbian Orthodoxy nestled among a sea of Albanian Islam, and such beautiful and potent symbols of the resented old regime that they can’t help becoming targets – in this part of the world, memories don’t have to be long to remember violence and genocide. It seems that most Serbian sites require this kind of protection, even from the visiting public – Gizmestan Tower, the intensely Serbo-nationalistic monument to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, also required me to surrender my passport to an armed guard before entering the tower’s barricaded enclosure. And the protection is warranted – in 2004 some isolated tit-for-tat violence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo escalated into a nationwide orgy of anti-Serb violence which, in addition to costing thousands of lives, also resulted in the deliberate burning and bombing of Serbian churches and heritage sites.
As recently as a year ago, Islamic extremists were arrested trying to pass a truck full of weapons through this very same barrier to the Decani Monastery that I passed through, and there have been incidents of ISIS and other extremist hate-graffiti appearing on the ancient stone walls.
The world is becoming a scary place, and the fact that heritage sites are at the epicentre of conflict just shows that history is anything but past. In Gjakova, the site of another of the UNESCO monasteries, Serbian worshippers were prevented from entering a church on Christmas Eve by Albanian protesters who stoned their bus. Not half a mile outside the Decani Monastery’s gates, the citizens of Decan are right now protesting a recent ruling that favored the monastery, in a conflict over some disputed land rights with the town. Kosovo’s recent bid to join UNESCO was an important effort to use heritage as a platform for increasing recognition of its statehood. But the rejection of Kosovo by the committee elicited relief from Serbs who feared for the fate of their monuments under a potentially hostile Albanian-dominated government.
But walking through the gates of the monastery, one can leave all the madness behind. It was quiet, we were the only group visiting and we had to wait for the monks to finished lunch before a lay brother could give us a guided tour of the church. Photos are disallowed, perhaps for copyright purposes or to protect the sense of seclusion, but photos would not have done justice to what we saw.
The exterior is luminous, and the carvings as crisp as if they’d been executed yesterday. Other than a recent cleaning of the stone, our guide was uncertain what conservation had been done to the outside. It’s possible the carved decoration has been restored, but considering how little restoration (or even maintenance) we saw elsewhere in the region, I’d say it’s unlikely, which means that the beauty of the stone has been preserved magnificently unaltered for seven centuries.
It was the interior that was truly breathtaking though, and pictures wouldn’t begin to do it justice. To modern eyes accustomed to bright colors and poppy graphics, medieval frescoes probably seem like a pretty lame medium, as their colors tend to be more muted than those of other medieval art. And the frescoes that entirely cover the walls of Decani monastery are at a particular disadvantage because they have not been cleaned or conserved, and so are dulled by the smoke and dirt of centuries. But photos, as usual, can’t convey the spirit of the place, which is what makes it so powerful. Delicate but strong stone columns frame the entryway, or narthex, footed with roaring beasts and depictions of sin and salvation.
As soon as you walk in, you are struck with the weight of seven centuries that have had time to gather and mature here, between walls whose images of kings and saints – a visual chronicle of Serbian history – soar upward until they’re lost in the shadows of the ceiling.
The UNESCO monasteries were built by monarchs so enshrined in epic and history that they were canonized in their own eras, each king of the Nemajic line entering sainthood upon his death. One of these king-saints, Stefan Decanski, the patron of the monastery, rests just next to the altar, where his tomb is opened every Thursday so that worshipers can view (and kiss!) his embalmed body, miraculously uncorrupted after seven centuries.
But I don’t think its the beauty of the frescoes that make the Decani monastery so special, but rather what they represent. The physical survival of the mural paintings alone is remarkable – the world has a very limited supply of frescoes that old and that intact. But this monastery in particular sits in a region that has seldom known peace since the medieval period. The monastery has stood like a rock while different tribes and empires and regimes have swept over the region, bringing their own religions, prejudices, and political agendas. Under the Yugoslav state, communists attempted to void traditional religious sites by chipping out the eyes of statues and painted figures, disfigurement that was still obvious at several sites we saw. The medieval heritage sites of Kosovo have had more than their share of volatility to contend with, and their very survival is humbling and awesome.
And all it would take is one factional, sectarian idiot with a bomb to blot it out forever. Building is the work of heroes, but destruction takes just a coward’s second.
If you’re a human living in the world today, you’ve probably heard about how awesome Iceland is. Well I’m here to tell you that everything you’ve heard is true. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve probably watched Game of Thrones (or James Bond, or Tomb Raider, or Beowulf…), but I’ll also tell you that none of these really prepares you for what you’re going to see. In brilliant 3D color, with the wind whipping past you through the sweeping mountain slopes and over the vast volcanic floodplains, the variety and scale of what you’re looking at is overwhelming. In four days and five nights, we managed to make it around the whole of the country and, while there were certainly places and experiences that didn’t fit into our timeframe, armed with just a 4WD and an adventurous spirit, we managed to have some remarkably unique experiences. And these are all IN ADDITION to all the top tourist attractions we also visited – the Blue Lagoon, geysers, waterfalls, etc.
Get up close and personal with a glacier
Glaciers, like waterfalls, are everywhere in Iceland, and the best ones (and the most easily accessible by car) are tongues of the vast Vatnajokull ice cap found in Skaftafell National Park. Now there are a plethora of guided tours, glacier walks, and cave excursions – definitely DON’T go onto a glacier without a guide. But we, being fans of the more impromptu “let’s see where that twisty-looking road goes” method of adventuring, found ourselves practically (but safely) on top of several awesome glaciers. The first was Skeidararjokull, which we found by accident by turning onto a dirt track and following it until the road stopped. After a bumpy ride which took us into the bounds of Skaftafell national park, the road terminated before a vast floodplain of dark grey gravel with the glacier tongue massive and wide in the distance. A quick scramble up the flood barrier (in place because massive glaciers tend to also cause massive flash-floods) gave us a panoramic 360-degree view of the countryside.
The second, even awesomer one we found next, was Svinafellsjokul, which we came upon by following potholey but paved road branching off from the Skaftafell turnoff. A small trail leading from a parking lot leads past an iceberg-choked lagoon and along the northern side of the glacier, where you can look down (from relative safety) into the crevasses and, as you keep walking, get a sense of the superhuman scale of the thing. Among the deep blue ice, you might get a glimpse of an ice-climber no bigger than a gnat, and you’ll understand how enormous even a relatively small glacier is.
To get to Skeidararjokull: Heading east along the Ring Road (1), exactly twenty miles east of Hof (not to be confused with Hofn, which is elsewhere), there is a turnoff to the left. It’s marked on Google maps as Haoldukvisl (so you can plug it for directions) but in reality the only marker is a picnic bench by the side of the road. The road is gravel and mostly good, though if you’re not in a 4WD I’d go quite carefully. It terminates after about a mile and a half.
To get to Svinasfellsjokul: Continuing east along the Ring Road, with the titanic mound of Vatnajokull looming ever closer, there will be a well-marked left turn for the 998 toward Skaftafell. Don’t turn here, but continue another half mile until you see a dirt road turn off to the left. Take this and bear to the right until you come to a small parking lot, with a trail leading off through a gate and along the glacier.
2. Chase the Northern Lights
No winter visit to Iceland would be complete without a view of this spectacular phenomenon. There are tour companies that offer “Northern Lights tours,” which promise to take you out nightly until you’ve sighted the lights. I’m skeptical of these, as they keep you tied to Reykjavik, obligate you to someone else’s schedule, and cost money with no guarantee of success! I’d use apps such as Aurora Watch or Aurora Notifier which will alert you when activity reaches a certain threshold – meaning the lights are more likely to be visible. If it’s a clear night just get in your car, park yourself in some wide open place with a view of the sky, and spend some quality time staring upwards. Worst-case scenario, you’ll spend a night bonding with the breathtaking northern sky, resplendent without the light-interference you’d likely get back home. Best case scenario, what begins as a faint glow, like moonlight without the moon, might blossom into undulating cathedrals of flickering green light. It’s not as vivid in real life, the colors you see in photos come from long exposures which have time to gather the light and make it look brighter. If you have any kind of camera that will hold the shutter open for a few seconds, have some fun playing around capturing the effect. You’ll want a tripod to hold the phone/camera absolutely still (or just balance it on the hood of the car like I did).
3. Drink champagne in a geothermal hottub
Hottubbing is the national pastime of Icelanders. Any hotel worth its salt will have at least one little pool sunk into the hillside, probably fed by natural hot springs, where strangers or lovers can hang out and keep their bodies warm while their ears freeze off. Because it was a special occasion, we requested a bottle of champagne from our hotel, but you can pick one up more cheaply at the airport dutyfree. The magic of Iceland is grounded in its nature, so there’s no better way to spend an evening than out of doors. And the freezing temperatures will keep your drinkypoo chilled, although you might want to hang onto your glass in case the wind takes it away. Oh, and don’t let the cold daunt you. You really haven’t lived until you’ve run out of your hotel room into sub-zero temperatures in your bikini, and getting back out is even worse – you might just need to linger all night before you get up the courage to dash back to your room…
(Hot tip: The Icelanders use their volcanic resources in all sorts of cool ways. Besides heating their houses, and their saunas and spas for romantic sexytimes, our hotel let us cook our eggs in a volcanic steam vent. No lies – it took eight minutes, and it was totally legit!)
4. Spend the night in your car
I can’t recommend this way of traveling enough. The experience itself is a cozier version of camping. We used cheap duvets in addition to our sleeping bags to make a snug nest in the back of our Suzuki (but you don’t need an SUV to be comfy – any car will do as long as you can put down the back seats!). It’s not that you can lie in the warm comfort of your car and watch the landscape as the sounds of nature lull you to sleep. For one thing, the condensation of your breathing will quickly block the windows, and without the heater running the inside temperature of the car will soon match the outside temp (but don’t worry, with a duvet or a sleeping bag you certainly won’t freeze, particularly if you have somebody to snuggle with!). No, the magic of car-camping is picking your perfect spot to spend the night, whether it’s looking over a beautiful valley, by the seashore, or, as we didit, by the shore of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It’s getting your bedding and luggage
all sorted out, and passing back and forth a bottle of wine as the sun sets. It’s wondering what strange sounds are in the night, or waking your partner up at 3 am because your phone just sent a Northern Lights alert and stumbling out into the crackling blackness to try and spot them. Then it’s waking up with the dawn and washing your hair with a bottle of water, then brushing your teeth while you contemplate the misty landscape, none of which you would have done if you’d slept in a boring old hotel room.
5. Find the Solheimsandur Plane Wreck
The wreckage of a US plane that made an emergency crash-landing on the southern coast of Iceland in 1973 (nobody died – yay!), makes a weird and unique tourist site. The burned-out shell of the plane, a decaying sort of ruin, rests in the strange landscape of a black-sand beach surrounded on one side by a bowl of impressive mountains, and on the other by the powerful motion of North Atlantic waves. There are companies (or individuals!) based in Vik that will drive you out to the wreckage, but the most popular – and definitely the best – way to access the site is by walking. (Note: you used to be able to drive up to the site but now the owner has closed the road to private vehicles). Here is a great description of how to get there – you’re really just walking south in a straight line, but the sand dunes and contours of the land make it slightly disorienting. The walk is about 2 miles each way, and as it’s flat and not too difficult, it makes a great and low-risk way to get yourself out of the car, off the road, and into the Icelandic countryside. The plane and its setting are a Disneyland for photographers (some of whom have damaged the wreck by lighting fireworks inside to get cool exposure shots – naughty!), but after you’ve posed for a Biggles photo, I’d urge that you take the extra few minutes and continue down to the beach itself. We spent as much time hypnotized by the crashing waves – that amazing contrast of the white sea foam on the black sand – as we did poking around the plane wreck.
6. Drive through a mountain pass in a blizzard
I suppose this isn’t something you can exactly plan to do, and I wouldn’t *quite* recommend doing it if you can help it, but it’s definitely an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s not exactly surprising that if you travel to Iceland at the end of March, some of the roads will still be closed from the winter snow, and even those that aren’t can get pretty bloody cold. We’d had a bit of a scare two days previously as we were driving into Vik, which you reach by going up over a short, but not inconsiderable pass between two mountains. It was snowing slightly, which made us nervous about ice, but the real bogeyman was the wind. During the day I’d felt it trying to blow me across the road while I drove, and when we parked it rocked the car back and forth. In this pass, with the snow and the day getting dark into night, it was extra scary. The worst moment was when we passed an RV that had actually been blown off the road, and was blocking one lane, while another car seemed likely to get blown into the blown-away RV. Morty was driving, so naturally I was filming.
We spent our last day on a driving marathon: we woke up (in our car) at Jokulsarlon, and our goal was to make it around the whole of the island and back to Rejkjavik in time to catch our flight at 7 the following morning. It would appear that we, too, like to live dangerously. We probably should have been tipped off by the two road closures we encountered before noon. But we took the detours and kept going. We probably should have been tipped off by the mountain pass out of Reydarfjordur which, even though it wasn’t closed, was so snow-covered that the only thing visible was the road itself.
The entire world, hills and sky, was a perfect, impenetrable white – a very disconcerting experience. But we made it to Egilsstadir without incident, got petrol and hotdogs at the gas station, and set out on the next leg with a full tank and plenty of coffee. Half an hour later found us two inches deep in new-fallen snow (read: unplowed) and visibility almost zero in spots.
7. Go bond with some horses
One of the strange things about Iceland is that there are horses everywhere. You would think with such a harsh and mountainous climate the main livestock would be sheep, but apparently not. And they’re not just regular old horses, but these wonderful shaggy ponies that seem perfectly adapted to the frigid cold. Some of them are skittish when you approach them, almost wild-seeming, whereas others come right up to the fence and are quite friendly. Perhaps too friendly for my taste… I had the weird impression that this girl was trying to steal my man!
8. Watch the waves crash at the Dyrholaey cliffs and lighthouse
One of the most beautiful sights we saw on our trip was the view around Dyrholaey point, about half an hour west of Vik. You get there by following a tiny single-track road branching off to the right/south of the main road. At the end of it is a parking lot just at the edge of the cliff, with the most spectacular 360-degree views: the ocean to the south, the cliffs and black sand beaches to the east and west, and the mountains disappearing off to the distance to the north. You can walk up to the top of the cliff and get a panoramic view across Reynisfjara, Iceland’s most famous stretch of black sand, with the black basalt sea-stacks of Vik in the distance. You can watch the waves crash spectacularly against the rocks and through naturally-formed blowholes, forming rainbows against the sun:
Honestly, the waves and the scenery were so mesmerizing, we actually spent almost two hours just at this one spot:
Then, when you can finally tear yourself away from watching the waves smash against the rocks, you can take another short road (definitely recommend 4WD for this road, otherwise it’s only about a 15-minute walk) up to the lighthouse that towers over the point, and this was the point at which I wasn’t even sure what world I was in anymore – Middle Earth? Narnia? Asgard? – because the view was so spectacular I still have trouble believing I really saw it, even when I look at the pictures.
These are just a few of the non-typical adventures we had in Iceland. We had a lot of the more traditional tourist experiences as well: the Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, geysers like Strokkur, and waterfalls like Skogafoss. But I figured there are probably a million blog posts out there on those things – I thought I’d write one on some of the more special things we did that didn’t come from a guidebook, but that made our trip even much more magical. Hopefully they can make your trip wonderful too 🙂
Survived Week 2! Turns out life isn’t so bad when you’ve not got a cold – this whole crazy commuting thing might turn out alright after all!
After our Week 1 crash course on history and theory, we have finally gotten to the fun bits: actually getting our hands dirty with the real work of conservation. My first attempt to survey the dimensions of a room using a ruler, a compass, and a technique called “triangulation” was pretty comical, but we’ll leave aside tales of me on my hands and knees crawling under antique furniture and poking my nose into really really dirty corners of staircases to examine their construction for another post, when I have a better sense of what I’m actually doing.
This week was also our first taster of elective courses, and mine – World Heritage – is totally awesome. By now pretty much everyone has heard of the UNESCO World Heritage sites – if you’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, visited Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or set foot in the city of Edinburgh, congratulations! You’ve experienced a monument of “outstanding universal value” to the entire race of mankind. Really the list is quite extensive – now over a thousand entries – and growing every year. Here’s a version from the World Heritage Centre’s own website, grouped by country: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/
But the rationale behind the list might be surprising. Okay, the sights I listed above – you might think the Statue of Liberty, how *yawn* very American (even though it’s French) – seem like an obvious “who’s who” of tourist destinations, almost to the point of being trite. But really the list (which you should totally spend a couple hours poking about and getting lost in), is a lot more complex in its composition. Even though lots of people turn it into a kind of to-do list, the “attraction” of the site, or the ability to take a selfie in front of it, takes a backburner to the significance of the site, which might not be that instagrammable, or even suitable to visitors. If the list were all just castles, cathedrals, and national parks, it would hardly be a comprehensive representation of globally valuable heritage. No, the scope is so much broader, and encompasses, for instance, sites that illustrate progress in human development. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is very impressive, but think of the power of a site that tells a story not just about one nation at one time in history, but actually links in with our evolution as a species. For example this site near Mount Carmel in Israel, contains an unbroken record of human habitation, stretching back over 500,000 years, leaving archaeological remains that actually trace our development from pre-human species, to hunter-gatherers, to settled cultivators of the land. But pictures won’t tell you that, and millions of tourist feet tramping over the site would only damage it. (This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the list. Inclusion on the list does not come with funding for maintenance, but it does usually come with hordes of tourists who use UNESCO as a sort of hit list)
Apart from including sites important to humanity, UNESCO also tries to include a diversity of types of sites, that can be representative or typical of some particular aspect of nature or culture. This includes sites of colonization or settlement, such as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of pre-Colombian Viking settlement in Canada, as well as testaments to human technological and industrial achievements, such as the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Kraków, Poland.
Natural sites are fair game as well, and are selected for inscription based on their extreme aesthetic beauty or remarkability, for their perfect illustration of geologic phenomena, or by representing phases of the earth’s formation. The Grand Canyon seems a no-brainer judging by its listing description as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.” The Galápagos Islands were the very first site to be listed, based on their clear evidence of the volcanic processes that formed them, and on their status as a “living museum” of evolution.
More recently, the focus has shifted to sites that span both the human and the natural worlds, under a category called “cultural landscapes,” that illustrate ways in which spectacular natural formations have interacted with outstanding human settlement or achievement. This encompasses sites such as Thingvellir National Park in Iceland, where the medieval Norse settlers used the dramatic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates as a titanic ceremonial stage for their sophisticated and participatory system of law.
The spectacular and dramatic formations of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are littered with prehistoric human settlements and contain the largest concentration of cave paintings south of the Sahara. And the Tokay Wine Region in Hungary is remarkable for its centuries-old tradition of a very specific, highly regulated viticulture, making use of the landscape and traditional methods to make [really really delicious] wine. In an otherwise unremarkable region of Sweden, one large hillside is littered with the remains of an ancient people, who carved tens of thousands of images into the rocks of the landscape, over a period of several thousand years. The Tanum Rock Carvings depict an amazing variety of very human images, such as two lovers embracing, or a woman mourning a man, and they interact with other archaeological features in these hills, such as enormous chambered cairn tombs.
Here are the 12 sites that comprised the very first list published in 1973, and from which the present list has grown: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/13/travel/unesco-first-12-world-heritage-sites/
Check it out, and prepare to be surprised – given what we think of as the world’s great tourist sites, the ones that made the list of the dozen most important sites in the world as of 1973 are probably not what you’re expecting… 🙂
As I write this I’m sitting in the communal living room of an 18th century kulla, a traditional Ottoman-Albanian tower-house, in the small historical village of Drenoc in the west of Kosovo. The “guest room,” as they call it, is a large elegant space in the top floor of the tower, with a perimeter of sheepskin cushions for sitting on. The floor is covered in red woven carpets, while the datk wooden beams of the ceiling add to the cozy atmosphere.
The shoes come off at the door, so we’ve all padded softly up here in socks and house slippers. Our hosts have explained that this room was the traditional cultural hub of village life – the place where disputes were settled, business deals struck, and marriages arranged – while Turkish coffee stimulated the mind and eased conversation.
This is where we’ve come to work for two weeks. The magnificent top floor was refurbished in 2006 by a USAid project, but the second floor, the less formal domain of women and children, still needs work.
But a walk through the village yesterday afternoon showed that Drenoc’s traditions extend beyond the seven historic kullas that make the village a significant cultural site. I got a taste of how life operates in a historic village, in the foothills of the mountains, far from any public transit link, in a region still recovering from a war that touched every family less than a generation ago.
The village is wonderful. From a certain spot you can stand and see nothing in either direction that postdates the 18th century, giving you a chance to visualize, if you can, what the world looked like centuries ago when every village looked like this.
Our walk took us past a local mosque, which stands in the middle of the village cemetery. Overgrown with an abandoned air, the best-kept graves are of those who died in the recent wars and ethnic attacks of the late 90s. A boy of 19 stands dressed in his dugs holding his kalishnikov while an Albanian flag flutters brightly over his grave.
A husband and a wife lie next to each other, dead on the same day in 1998. The graves of the war victims generally have a more kempt appearance, local communities ways of commemorating their fallen and working through grief. As we wander quietly through the weeds, we notice that all the stones share the same half-dozen surnames. Nita, one of our hosts, stops at a worn unmarked stone to light a candle, which sits beside several others.
“She is a person who used to live in the village,” she explains. “She had no arms or legs, so she was very good.” Nita doesn’t know when she lived or died, but people from the village come regularly to light a candle and make a wish at her grave.
Once we leave that solemn place and shut the gate behind us, the village takes on more life than I’d previously noticed. Two men escort a line of five or six reluctantly obedient cows down the street and into a dirt lane.
Every spare patch of land is cultivated in its small way, with a few rows of potatoes or onions, and perhaps a few fruit trees. The courtyard of our Kulla has fig and plum trees, and stands selling fresh strawberries line the roads between the village and the capital.
We stick out – were as conspicuous as can be in our practical work clothes (everyone here seems impressively well-dressed all the time, even in the countryside), with our backpacks and our wallets (comparatively) heavy with euros, snapping photos of the most mundane sights with our iphones. But the locals seem pleasantly intrigued. They invite us into their homes for coffee even though we don’t speak a word of each other’s language, and don’t seem to mind us poking around their village taking pictures of their houses, their cows, or even them.
Everyone I see seems to be out-and-about doing something, from the woman out hoeing her garden with a tool straight from the 18th century to the man mowing his lawn with a sickle. Perhaps people with few possessions take care of them all the more diligently: boys out riding bikes stop at a roadside fountain to wash the dust off their bikes; men hand-buff the hubcaps of their ancient cars; and the living room of our host’s house – even though the entire family has been living and sleeping in this one room since we’ve put them out of their own bedrooms – is immaculately spotless.
So I’ve painted a picture of a pastoral paradise – and I hope these depictions don’t come off paternalistic or condescending: “Oh look at these charming poor people who live such simple but wholesome lives, aren’t they charming!” No, it’s obviously much more complex than that.
But there’s no doubt that a different attitude governs the speed of life here, and it’s refreshing. Because we’re here to complete a project – there is work that we must complete before we leave – it’s very tempting, particularly to some of us who are used to a more intense pace, to focus on the job – wanting the work to move efficiently, to begin on time and for breaks to be for strict lengths at specific times. But so often we show up at the time were told, to find that despite our supervisors being present and all of us being assembled, another 45 minutes might elapse before we head up to start working. Then in the middle of the day, the work might be suspended as by some unspoken agreement everyone drifts outside to spend a few minutes chatting and sitting in the sunshine. The workday ebbs and flows to a natural rhythm as people pay attention to their bodies and the weather instead to to the clock. In the evenings we all sit in the same room – Albanian-speaking family with hopelessly English-speaking guests – to pass the time however we please. Some play cards, some flick through faceook, some play around with face swap, and some try to expand their Albanian vocabulary through a combination of charades and pidgin German (which most people seem to have studied in school here).
Could the work get done more efficuently? Yes. But as someone has spent so long doing what I “ought” to do that I have trouble knowing what I actually want to do, this way of doing things is different… But nice 🙂
The Western Isles of Scotland are a magical place. Although many were once heavily populated, famine, migration, and clearances have left them peopled mostly by ghosts, and the structural remains of past peoples.
For me, it is the archaeology of remote places that create that particular “magic of the desolate” that was so beloved of Romantic poets and painters. From undateable cairns to Iron-Age broch forts, all the way up to the roofless stone crofts of the past century, remote Scottish islands like Rum, Barra, Orkney, Shetland, and the world-famous St. Kilda are littered with evidence that for a long time these places were of great importance to a great number of people. Important enough to fight great sea-battles over, pitting Norwegian Vikings against fledgling Scottish kings; important enough to defend with castles and hill-forts and brochs, expensive and labour-intensive statements of dominance and power; important enough to erect cairns, stone circles, and massive burial mounds for figures whose long-forgotten names are commemorated only in the remains of structures that required an astonishing feat of labour, engineering, and social cooperation by the “primitive” peoples who build them.
For whatever they can tell us about history, to me such remains ask a question that thrums in the insistent western wind, and repeats with the waves that pound inexorably at the barren coast: Where did everyone go?
The Isle of Skye is hardly the remotest of the islands, and is by far the most visited by tourists (on account, I have always suspected, of its beautiful name), but its not difficult to find places on Skye that evoke that same feeling of poetic desolation, particularly if you can manage to turn off the well-traveled road that takes the ubiquitous coach tours from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.
At the very south of the island on the Sleat peninsula, a rough single-track with a constant obstacle course of sheep leads seven miles to a small cluster of houses called Tokavaig (in such places, a collection of three or four houses is enough to earn a name on a map), just past which, on an outcropping of rocky coastline, are the remains of a castle.
Dunscaith Castle (or Tokavaig Castle, in honor of the village) was originally a stronghold of Clan Donald (or MacDonald), but there is no definitive beginning date for the structure, the earliest terminus ante quem being sometime in the 14th century, when the castle is already referred to as changing hands (ergo, already built in some form) to the MacLeods.
But it’s not the history of the castle that continues to fascinate me – it’s how little we know of it. Other than its capture by James I in the 15th century, its abandonment in the 17th century, and its designation as a protected scheduled monument in 1934, almost nothing is known about it.
And the question that obsesses me is, How can that be? How can a place that has been continuously inhabited for at least the past millennium forget its own history?
Now of course I speak from a particular place: the severing effect of warfare and emigration means that I only have four generations to keep track of since my ancestors came to America from Poland and Austria-Hungary, and any knowledge of or ties with family who still live in the Old Country are mere luck. The astonishment I felt when I found out that my Polish relatives have equally little idea of our ancestry beyond a few generations – despite living in the same village for centuries – was enormous.
I am a historian (if only a fledgling one), and so I understand the forces that lead people to lose their own history: lack of documentation, indeed of literacy means that for most people in most places, preservation of history must be oral – how many families do you know that maintain a formal oral memory, like the King Lists of Ancient Ireland? Even today the surest way to preserve family history is orally. Sure, if you wanted to know the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather, there are many resources to hand that can give you the answer, with a little digging. But even this requires a kind of “re-discovery” of genealogy, not to mention requiring an interest in the first place. Whereas if you were told from a young age that your great-grandfather’s name was Stefan and he was born in Detroit… The knowledge is that much more able to play a part in your cultural consciousness and self-identification. It is known, rather than learned or studied.
Dunscaith Castle has a manifold allure. Its situation on an almost-island connected to the mainland by a particularly treacherous bridge makes it exciting – you can vividly imagine the castle defending itself under siege, rival clansmen trying desperately to take that bridge.
And the setting is spectacular – surrounded by sea on three sides, with majestic views of the sun setting behind the mountains of Rum.
But even though it’s a scheduled monument under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it has this overwhelming air of forgotten-ness. Through warfare and clearances, the people of Tokavaig have survived in an unbroken line from the people who built and lived in this castle. Where is their self-history? How did Dunscaith Castle go from the fiercely contested regional stronghold, to “That old run-down thing? The clan hardly uses it any more,” to “Wow, what an amazing old pile of stones. I wonder who built it, and why?”
And that, in a nutshell, is my castle quandary. How do we come to forget what’s been right in front of us all along?
If I really go back to the very beginning, my love affair with Scotland began with a castle. I was volunteering on an organic farm in Fife, and one afternoon I was taking a walk in the surrounding countryside, when I saw this in the distance:
So obviously, I had to tramp through every farmer’s field and cow pasture in outer Kirkcaldy until I reached the bloody thing! I never did manage to get inside it – I could say I was deterred by the enormous “Danger – Unstable Ruins” sign, but let’s be honest, it was really the impenetrable thicket of nettles that kept me out.
Pitteadie Castle. Run of the mill 15th/17th century tower keep with a fairly intact but unremarkable structure and few remaining decorative features. That’s how I understand it now, after I’ve spent a year intensely studying castles. But then, in that adventurous summer of 2011… It was awe-some.
I might chock it up to having never seen a castle before. Now, I’d recently spent two days in Edinburgh and, yes, visited the castle, but I feel it doesn’t count. It may sound rich to say that Scotland’s most famous castle is not really a castle at all, but honestly I don’t consider Edinburgh Castle a castle. In look, in atmosphere, in historic material – it’s more of an 18th century fortress turned into a tourist attraction by the lure of the crown jewels and a few key restorations. But I digress.
So I stand by my guns, that I was a castle virgin until I came across Pitteadie, and that that unmarked, neglected, shabby ruin of a building was the starting point for my castle addiction, although it took me several years and several more trips to Scotland to recognize it.
I had been staying in Fife for a week already. I had been briefed on “things to do and see” in the area quite thoroughly, I was assured, by several people, including my host family, yet somehow no one had mentioned that marvelous old Pitteadie Castle was only a fifteen minute walk northward.
And so I think it boils down to this: What kind of magic must there be in a place where marvels like this are so commonplace, so frequent, as to not be worth the mentioning? If this country, this Scotland, could hide a treasure like that beautiful bloody ruin out of sheer blasé-ness, what other heart-stopping secrets must be out there, hidden behind watchful forests, lurking in the deep glens, waiting for discovery down winding single-track roads?
My hostel in Innsbruck was easily the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to stay in. I won’t subject you to a whole ranting post about it, but suffice it to say… It had bedbugs. My bed had bedbugs. After two nights, my shoulders and legs were covered with some two-dozen huge red bites that itched like crazy. I still can’t really wear shorts or tank tops in public, because it looks like I have some horrific rash…
So after the trials of Innsbruck, I really, really needed a break. Unfortunately, I saw almost nothing of Salzburg but the inside of the laundromat where I washed every article of clothing I own, including my purse and my whole backpack. Bedbugs spread because their eggs stick to anything that comes in contact with them, like, I don’t know, my pajamas, lots of my clothes, my bra, my underwear, my purse, my jacket, my fleece… I had to purge everything before my skin would stop crawling at the thought…
But one thing I did catch in Salzburg was an all-puppet version of Die Zauberflöte at the Salzburg Marionette Theater.
The famousest aria of them all! The Queen of the Night II, performed by a puppet!
And one of my favorite duets, between Papageno and Papagena. Papageno gives Papagena until the count of three to appear, and when she doesn’t, he tries to hang himself. But before he does, the three spirits stop him and produce his Papagena!
Unfortunately, this was not an all-out musical production of The Magic Flute. I’m almost positive that everything, including the dialogue, was prerecorded and that the only performing going on was the puppeteering. But they did a great job! Of course it can’t be completely realistic, but the number of body parts that they manage to manipulate is amazing, down to the characters’ eyebrows!
There’s a lot more to do in Salzburg than I had time or energy for – Mozart’s house, a castle, a palace, a cathedral, many theaters and concert halls, and of course the obligatory Sound of Music tours, but all that will have to wait for next time! And there will definitely be a next time. 🙂
Oh, and speaking of trippy fantasy plots and singing puppets… these two videos from Labyrinth. That’s all!
So remember when I went to the lovely folk concert in Gimmelwald? The famous Tirolerabend in Innsbruck is the evil, commercialized twin sister of the one in Gimmelwald. It’s kind of the “don’t miss” thing to do in Innsbruck, though, and I guess it was a good way to spend the evening. “Tirolerabend” is so called because it’s in the evening (“abend”), and because Innsbruck is in the region of Austria called the Tirol, which is culturally very similar to Bavaria in Germany – you know, the beersteins, the buxom tavern-wench costumes for women, the lederhosen and green feathered hats for men…
So since the whole city looks to be in a perpetual state of Oktoberfest, why not drink the koolaid and go to a concert of traditional music and dancing and beer?
Tirolerabend was actually pretty cool, considering how shamelessly it caters to groups of Japanese and American tourists. Well, the complimentary beer helped. But also, this particular family, Gundolf, has been putting on these folk concerts continuously since 1967, so I guess it’s even a tradition to go to a concert! And even if the performers were performing weird and traditional musical acts for a hundred-odd boorish tourists, the performers were still… performing weird and traditional musical acts!
The yodeling in particular was pretty impressive:
And my other favorite was the various dances performed by tall skinny men in lederhosen.
I’m sorry, I still can’t watch these without laughing…. They’re literally prancing.
I can’t decide if I prefer the guy on the right, who looks super femme and is really into it, or the guy on the left who has his top button undone and is somehow really going for “manly man…”
Annnnd one more video of the singing saw, which really does sound eerily like a human voice…
All in all a fun show, and it went perfectly with beer and sausages. Yummm.
I leave you now with two relevant and entertaining videos:
(be sure to listen at 1:47, as Snow White casually floats a high Eb. Like it’s no big deal.) (Oh dear, and also the blatant racism at 1:40… Womp.)
(and at around 1:55, Julie Andrews has a rather awesome yodel-y descant)
And that’s a good place to end because the next post will be from Salzburg (like Maria and the Von Trapps), and will also feature marionette puppets! Aufwiedersehen!