Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Everything in Ruins: Greece, Croatia, and Cyprus

I’ve seen a few ruins over the years. Some have been dedicated sites, and more than a few were announced with dedicated plaques overshadowed by a multi-use high-rise in the name of progress. I am amazed when a city has encroached upon a famous monument, resulting in a flower-among-weeds landmark.

Limassol, Cyprus.
This was the case in places like Zadar, Croatia, and Kourion, Cyprus, where the effects of Moorish, Venetian, or Roman conquests attempt to blend into the scenery. If you lived near these places, it would just be the regular view on your daily commute. As a visitor from a relatively
young country, I enjoy this anachronistic blend of history with modern adaptation. An adaptation to what is there and what was meant to last gets repurposed or worked around, much like a scar becomes woven into one’s beauty and personality. 

When people travel, they look for what is similar because they notice what is not. Our history, and the history of those before us, shapes our perspective. We have worked around and adapted as best we could. Rather than harbor fear or disdain for the past, we can appreciate its contribution to our current perspective and look for how the contrast contributes to its beauty. It’s all about perspective.

Zadar, Croatia

Zadar, Croatia
Zadar inlet.
Zadar, Croatia, has a quiet, relaxing feel to it. I imagine the summer brings all types of city folks wanting to soak up the sun on its beautiful coast and eat olives all day [well, at least I would] and drink a real maraschino cherry liqueur. The olive trees and distant views of the famous Croatian mountains, and the fact that it is not currently as popular as its sister cities down
the coast, would make this a perfect vacation destination.

Limassol, Cyprus

Limassol, Cyprus.
In Limassol, Cyprus, the cobalt blue of the sky is breathtaking. It resembles the indescribable blue of the South Pacific and makes me appreciate the gift of sight. I also became captivated by the smells. It smells like summer, even in late fall: Warm grass, olive trees, and salt air.

The people seemed cautious in the city and curious in the countryside. In the city one could see the influences of Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Russia. A mosque shares an alleyway with a Greek Orthodox church. A street musician plays a sad melody in front of a store selling handcrafted leather items. Passersby drop coins and half-smoked cigarettes while locals haggle for bargains at the open-air market peddling dried fruit and olive oil on the corner. 

Ruins at Kourion in Cyprus.
Kolossi Castle, Cyprus.
Many Cypriots were displaced (by force) by the Turks who decided they wanted resort-like conditions for their military on the northern part of the island. Others have been displaced by rising prices caused by Russian billionaires buying up the property that locals can no longer afford because they entrusted their savings and retirement to the government, which invested in Greece. That has not been the most profitable economic trajectory over the past decade.  Resilient but cautious was a theme common to many places I visited. 

In the countryside, while exploring some paths behind a castle that may have sheltered Crusaders in former times, I met a grandma who insisted I have coffee at her friend’s house. I
noticed her wine gourd drying on a tree, and she was quite animated in explaining exactly how I could make my own. We could not use words, but gestures and a smile go a long way. I will have to update you on the progress of my own gourd someday...

Athens, Greece

Everywhere in Athens you could run into a ruin. You could walk past one to the corner store in a neighborhood, or head up to the Acropolis via narrow streets lined with orange trees. Despite a few “leftover” arches here and there, the Greeks found many ways to build up and around them in Athens. Considering that half of the 11 million people in all of Greece lives in this city, the people have to live somewhere. From the top of The Acropolis, though, you can imagine how the gods would have looked down on all that craziness and preferred the view from the top. 

The weather, like the gods’ humor, seemed quite
fickle. A little rain earlier in the morning made the concrete slabs a little slick. There are more rocks and rubble than tourists, and that would be saying a lot in the summer. The ruins have endured quite a bit over their lifetime, so lets hope they survive the average intelligence of some of the tourists I observed. 

After a while ruins and churches and temples and museums and … start to look the same. Except here. A slight shift in light or perspective changes the view and the wave of awe refreshes itself. Thank the gods there are not some giant condos and shopping malls going up here with a fabulous view of the Parthenon. 

Olympia, Greece

The Olympic Stadium!
Ruins galore! Columns galore. This would be a great place to play hide-and-seek. In addition to it being the site of the original Olympics [I believe they had sponsors even back then!], the architectural garden of columns overgrown with plants and vines, has a magical, meditative feel to it. While walking through the various sites, and enjoying the relative solitude [it is not crowded at all this time of year], it reminded me of walking a labyrinth. Compared to the craziness of Athens, Olympia offers a more peaceful, contemplative site.

You can take the train or a bus from the port city of Katakolon, which has markets, a typical white-washed church, and plenty of cafes with fresh local seafood, wine, yogurt, and honey. And, my favorite: Olives. ;-)

All Photos by Nicole D. Mignone. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Nazareth & The Sea of Galilee

Street vendor stall in Nazareth
When I visited Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee last December, I thought it would be easy to share it with others through this blog. I usually allow a little time to pass, so I can revisit the experience through my photos, and then I set out to share the impressions that have lasted the longest or made the biggest impact. 
At first I blamed writer’s block and other obligations for my delay in writing about it. I have recently considered, though, that visiting these places, along with a few others on my trip last fall, was like a personal pilgrimage. No matter what I share, it has to be personally experienced to be appreciated. Even when I share the photos and a few remarkable facts, I could never fully describe the trip because these were not typical “vacation”spots to share. They affected me on a much deeper level.

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Regardless of one’s religious upbringing and current spiritual practice, it would be difficult not to have expectations of the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. It is similar to reading a book and formulating preconceived images in my mind, and then going to watch the movie. Often times, some parts I found important in the book were either left on the editor’s floor or never even included in the adaptation. It is not the same experience, and even when it exceeds expectations (like Peter Jackson’s Hobbit/Lord of the Rings interpretation), it can still be challenging to share all of that emotion in a way that another person would fully appreciate. Certain places must be experienced personally, without external influence.

The Church of the Beatitudes
So, last December, at the octaganol Church of the Beatitudes (one side for each beatitude),
This is the spot for the Sermon on the Mount
I stood in a beautiful meditation garden while overlooking the heart-shaped Sea of Galilee. The sunlight glistened on the water’s waves. It was peaceful. The farmer's field beneath the “mount” where Jesus delivered his famous speech remained bucolic, with a few cows, abandoned farm equipment, and grass. Something monumental happened here. And yet, life was normal. Sure, thousands of people from all over the world come to this site, this church, with their own expectations—seeking peace, redemption, answers, perhaps forgiveness, or perhaps nothing but the experience. And telling someone to go without expectations is like telling a child not to think about Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. You must go for yourself and show up as you are.

Church of the Beatitudes

The elegant Church of the Beatitudes, built here in commemoration of the Mount, was built in 1938 for a Franciscan order of nuns. As noted, each of the sides represents one of the Eight Beatitudes recited in that sermon, and around the church’s central altar inside, sits a mosaic of symbols representing the seven virtues (justice, charity, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope and temperance). 
Altar at Church of Beatitudes

The Sea of Galilee

The Sea

It is interesting to note that the Sea of Galilee is one of the lowest-lying bodies of water on earth (some 210 metres below sea level), and is actually fresh water, fed mostly by the Jordan River.  This is the place where Jesus calmed the storm, walked on water, and made a few sermons.

The Beatitudes

One of those popular sermons is The Sermon on the Mount, believed to be near where the Church of the Beatitudes now sits. 

The term beatitude comes from a latin word meaning happiness. The visit to this site, and the view, invoked a feeling of peace and serenity. Perhaps, this is what allows more happiness to come in!

City of Nazareth
At the risk of sounding irreverent, I admit my brain automatically started singing the opening lines of  The Band’s "The Weight" as soon as our tour bus stalled in traffic entering the city of Nazareth:
“I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead….”
It had been a long day already, and internally, I had many expectations for what this famous city would look like. It is crowded. Narrow stone streets, with vendors selling rosaries and crosses could have been the same so many years ago. But giant buses full of tourists and honking cars likely were not.

The Cupola
The Church of the Annunciation, an architectural masterpiece, cannot be oversold: The art; the stained glass; the acoustics; the symbols; the energy; the music. All of it was sensory overload then, and remains so for me all these months later as I try to describe it.

On the day we visited a priest was delivering a sermon in Spanish to a group in the main chapel. The towering cupola almost hypnotizes with its lily-pattern. The stained glass throughout the church has the brightest, most vivid colors I have ever seen.

The church is built on a site believed to be the home of the Virgin Mary, where she was told at age 14 that she would become the mother of the son of God. There is a grotto enshrined in the lower level of the church to commemorate this site and event. 

Despite the long day and traffic, the visit to Nazareth revived me. So much hope, love, and peace radiate from this space. It is a great metaphor for how, despite what is going on in the external world, I can seek refuge to peace and calm within. 

Inside Church of the Annunciation
May you all be so blessed.

The Grotto

**All Photos by Nicole D. Mignone. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Church of the Annunciation

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


In previous posts, I have compared cities in which I’ve lived to lovers. (e.g., New York, and Austin).

Venice, in contrast, is the city that has had many lovers. After being one of his many lovers, for a brief time this past December, I wanted to keep my experience a secret; otherwise, the other lovers would come forward with their own experiences, and dilute my own exuberance and passion. Some lovers you date, wondering if perhaps you could make a long-term go of it, while others you regret before making it out the door. Then, there are the Venice lovers, who you take, as is, when you can, with no strings attached.

He is not just about the love between lovers, but the lovers of life—all things passionate, sensual, and beautiful. The rough stone curves of the bridge soften in late autumn light, as their erotic arches reflect in the canals. This is not the landscape for a map imposing the previous conquests of those before you; wander instead with the adventurer’s spirit and you will not be disappointed. 

Venice is an active lover in the summer, with one-night stands and seasonal flings. But, I suspect, his passion emerges most tenderly in those months of late autumn, when the waning, muted light casts a more flattering glow.

Thirst drove me down to the water 
where I drank the moon’s reflection. 
Rumi, (tr. by Coleman Barks)

Our first encounter, under a dark, cloudy sky, brought the smell of the cold salty lagoon and a promise of redemption. Venice has seen it all and would forgive all that has or would happen. One finds redemption not in the waterways--his external charm-- but in his secret personality within the unnamed alleys, passageways, bridges, and courtyards. As the darkness descends and the shadows hide the obvious exits, one must instead trust instinct for guidance.  There are no wrong turns. I am exactly where I need to be.


Much has been written about Venice, and much more will come. What intrigues surpasses the food, the people, and the history.  The Venetians left their mark throughout the Mediterranean in Athens, Cyprus, and Croatia. By all outward appearances, this city embraces the Merchant of Venice with the flair of Mardi Gras.  It is the city of contrasts, and the city that speaks to the mystery of love-- sensual, timeless, and uncertain. 

In the early morning fog, I navigate the promenade, caressed, lured, and soothed by the gentle fog. 
Through the fog, the light distorts a fountain, flower, bacari, and cobblestone streets, which take on different shapes, teasing my eyes (and brain). The mind always searches to make sense of everything. That is not necessary here.

How many have walked before me, some with reverence, some without...

While love, like the fog, just moves on… 

The fog comes 
on little cat feet. 

It sits looking 
over harbor and city 
on silent haunches 
and then moves on.

                       Carl Sandburg

All photos by Nicole D. Mignone. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Israel: The Dead Sea & Masada

Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey.
-Pat Conroy

The view on the road to Masada
The picturesque drive East, then South, from Haifa to Masada, Israel, shows a land of contrast, both literally and metaphorically: The contrasting landscapes of desert and fertile farmland, and of overpopulated cities and then limitless barrenness; stories borne of history and culture over thousands of years that may take that many more to be unearthed and told; and the Dead Sea which gives life and a beauty contrary to its name. 

The view from Masada

As the tour bus headed south to the fortress of Masada, a refuge build by King Herod, I was torn between the eastern view of the mesmerizing, uninhabited banks of Jordan River, and the western view of elements-sculpted hills. In those hills I occasionally spotted the Ibex nearly camouflaged by the rocky topography, but I tried to imagine how, in 1947, the Bedouin shepherd tending his flock in the hills of Qumran (just south of Jericho), in the normal course of his day, changed history by finding the caves that held the perfectly preserved Dead Sea Scrolls. These 850 scrolls include some fragment of every Old Testament book (except the book of Esther), along with insight into the culture and society into which Christianity started.

The Dead Sea as seen from King Herod's bathhouse.
Even with this stunning desert scenery, sprinkled with an occasional oasis of date palms, nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping beauty of Masada. At the time Herod built this refuge, it must have been an unbelievable architectural feat, with its fortified walls, towers, bath houses (with heated floors) and swimming pools [remember, this was on a high mountain plateau in the desert!]. Currently you can get to the plateau via cable car, a convoluted snake path, or the siege ramp the Romans built in about AD 74 to eventually breach the shelter defended by the 960 Jewish refugees who had fled there from Jerusalem.

One interesting attraction at the site [as if its history is not enough], is a sacred room with a glass viewing window, where a scribe comes daily to write Jewish texts. You can ask him questions and he may write your name in Hebrew on a piece of paper. For me, the experience seemed simultaneously natural and surreal. (Rather than oversimplify it, here is an interesting article explaining this). 

All the Holy Land sites call to followers of different faiths, each a pilgrim with her own story, journey, and destination. At the top of Masada, with a chilly wind and overcast skies, one realizes the light becomes most evident in the darkness. King Herod first built this as his own refuge, and Masada offered the same to the refugees for nearly 3 years before they took their lives rather than succumb to the Romans. Even amidst the ruins--a monochromatic moonscape of sorts, it felt sacred and alive. I could imagine the dovecote being tended to provide both food and fertilizer for the crops; water being collected from the cisterns that had been painstakingly crafted and supplied thousands of years prior; and people living their lives against the odds. It felt sacred because of its ordinariness.

I normally write more on these travel blogs. I let the experience marinate a bit before sharing the imagery through words. This time, though, the muse will not give me words. The words make a multidimensional experience seem two-dimensional. I will let my photos express my journey, so that you can have your own experience, too.

*For a post about my visit to the River Jordan, please visit here.

The Dead Sea:

All photos by Nicole D. Mignone. 2016. All Rights Reserved.