We are finally back after spending most of September in Tuscany, Italy. We had actually planned to get to Florence from Aix-en-Provence by train but a rock slide in the Alps covered the train tracks leading from France to Italy, so that plan got shelved. In the end we managed to fly to Florence from Marseilles, so everything worked out in the end.
There were lots of photo taking opportunities, so I took more than a few. Here (below) is a link to a web page that has some of them.
We recently spent 3 weeks living in Provence in a trip sponsored by the Smithsonian. Among other things we took a French language immersion course, a cuisine course and a course in French art and culture.
After 3 weeksm=, we headed off to Florence, Italy. For more photos from. Provence, please follow the link below.
Back in the USA for almost a full month, we paid a visit with friends to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) in Winchester, Virginia. By car, the Museum complex is about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Reston Town Center, but it feels like a different world. Reston Town Center is decidedly urban; Winchester Virginia, next door to where the Museum is located is rural. Instead of high rises, it and the surrounding area is a mix of rolling hills, working farms and vineyards.
The Museum has periodic exhibits and various types of activities. (For a schedule of events, exhibitions and directions see https://www.themsv.org/). In addition to the Museum gardens we saw an exhibition entitled Sean Kenney’s Nature Connects ® Made with Lego Bricks ®. The exhibition celebrated nature with a display of various wildlife animals, all constructed with Lego ® Bricks.
The animal statues were actually pretty difficult to photograph because the temptation is to get up close to take a picture. But that is like getting a close-up view of an impressionist painting. You wind up getting a view of the individual bricks (or dots of paint or pixels) while missing the overall effect. And the overall effectis pretty amazing.
Beyond the animal statues were the gardens, which were immaculately laid out and maintained. There were walking paths, flower gardens, streams, a pond and park benches to sit on and just observe the surroundings.
All in all, the MSV was pretty impressive and well worth a visit if you are in the area.
When we sailed into Barcelona on May 30 we were ready for a planned 3 day stop with a side trip to Girona. Except for what we needed for the next few days, our luggage was on its way back to the States.
We checked into a 5-Star NH Hotel with a fabulous location on the Rambla de Catalunya, a wide boulevard that is the equivalent of the Champs Élysées in Paris, or the via Veneto in Rome. It was within walking distance of a lot of places we wanted to see. And it had a rooftop bar overlooking the city, which we, of course, visited. The Rambla, like the Via Veneto, also had plenty of outdoor dining spots, which we frequented as well.
One of the first things we did was to go on a guided walking tour of Barcelona. (We did a lot of walking tours). The tour included a visit to the exterior of the Sagrada Familia, designed by the famous Catalán architect, Antoni Gaudi. Later we got tickets and saw the interior of the church.
After visiting the church we did a walking tour that included some older neighborhoods. In our travels we walked through numerous town squares with outside dining. One street we came upon was shielded with colorful umbrellas.
We also paid a visit to the MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art. The architecture of the building was very interesting; the exhibits less so. As it happens, the area outside the MACBA Museum is popular with skateboarders. There they practice their skills jumping onto ramps with skateboards. Not a sport for the faint-hearted.
The second day of our visit we went to Girona where we did a walking tour of the old city. It was a stunningly beautiful place. We walked through neighborhoods that had been revitalized with artisan shops, along a river running through the city, as well as historic UNESCO designated neighborhoods with stunning architecture.
Later that afternoon it was back to Barcelona where we spent the following day visiting a farmer’s market type of a place, traveled around the city on a hop-on, hop-off bus. Then we had a fabulous dinner at La Cabrera Barcelona, an Argentinian steakhouse.
After 3 days in Barcelona and Girona it was time to fly back to Dulles and life in Virginia. But, as they say: Wait–there’s more! We will be traveling through France and Italy in August and September. You can keep up just by going to joebenningphotography.com where we will continue to post. And if you want to log-in to the site, just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “Register” in the Subject line.
We arrived in the Spanish province of Granada on the European mainland on May 28, 2023. Now I know how Columbus must have felt after he landed in the New World and finally got a halfway decent WIFI signal. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.
So upon docking in Granada we settled back to have a couple of Bloody Marys (to fight scurvy of course) and went on tour. Maybe another slight embellishment. Anyway, we had already been to Alhambra so we went on a tour that included a small village in the mountains as well as the Nazari Gardens.
We also visited the Bodega Senorio where we toured the vineyard, tasted some wine and bought a bottle to take back to the ship. Surprisingly enough, the wine was gone by late evening.
All told the village was charming, the Nazari Gardens were refreshing and well laid out. The tour guide from the gardens was excellent.
The vineyard and hotel complex were well maintained, and the wine was delicious.
It was very nice to get back to mainland Europe. Now it’s off to Barcelona for a few days before we fly back to Virginia to complete our trip.
We sailed into Morocco on Thursday, the 26th of May, for our last day on the African continent. Overall we found the people living in Africa to be extraordinarily friendly and welcoming. They constantly waved hello and seemed eager to tell us about their countries. But the contrast in material wealth between Africa and Europe (just around the corner) is just staggering.
Upon seeing this, the temptation is to blame it all on colonialism. It is a temptation often shared both by Westerners and people who live in what is now called the Global South—formerly called the third world or the developing world.
But I’m not so sure that colonialism is all there is to it. Surely Europe wreaked plenty of havoc wherever and whenever they set up their colonies. For one thing, they created artificial countries rather than true nation-states. As the colonial era drew to a close and former colonies gained independence, the borders that remained often reflected great power politics that ignored local conditions. Tribal and ethnic histories were all but ignored. The same can be said about the Middle East, South America and parts of Asia.
There are other factors that bear consideration as well, including culture and political economy. The departing European powers had often attempted to suppress local culture and languages. By and large these efforts were largely unsuccessful. It is reasonable to suppose that this engendered African distrust of Western institutions. It is also reasonable to assume that is one (among many) variables that explains why so many former African colonies adopted socialist-authoritarian models upon achieving independence. That didn’t really end until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. But the wreckage of that experiment is still visible. Something to think about.
On a brighter note, Mary Anne and I went on a brief tour of Agadir, Morocco. From what we observed, the country is in far better shape than most of the other African countries we visited. We went to a fantasia, which involved a show of dancers in native costume, acrobats and a horse riding show that featured synchronized movements and simulated charges for battle.
Then we went to a souk—a real souk that was maybe a square mile in size. It looked like whatever you wanted, you could buy. Basically a quasi outdoor shopping mall. Everything from household furniture, freshly squeezed juices, souvenirs and clothing were on sale.
After the souk we went to a Casbah, which essentially refers to a castle. But Casbahs are not isolated; generally they were built inside cities that were walled-off for protection against would be invaders. Casbahs tend to be on hilltops for the same reason. This Casbah (largely reconstructed) had cannons facing out to the Atlantic Ocean to protect against invading navies.
There were plenty of tourists and merchants in the walled city. In fact, the Casbah seamed to be mostly for tourists. In some ways it looked like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Among other attractions there were donkeys, camels and goats meandering around while under the watchful eyes of their owners. A number of tourists went for the camel rides on offer. Not us.
After leaving the Casbah we headed back to the ship. It was our last day in Africa, and it really leaves you thinking. Next, we to set sail for Spain.
We arrived in the Canary Islands, “the Canaries” as the locals refer to them on the 24th of May. After a spending a few weeks visiting countries on the coast of West Africa, it was a bit of a relief.
The Canaries are claimed by Spain, and have been for centuries. So landing in Santa Cruz on Tenerife was like landing in Europe. After Tenerife we went on to Arrecife on the island of Lanzarote, also one of the Canaries.
The Island of Tenerife
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands. It is also the most populous, with about 1 million inhabitants, or 43% of the archipelago’s total population. It is often frequented by Europeans on holiday. It gets about 5 million tourists (from all over the world) every year.
The city of Santa Cruz, the capital, is charming and clean. In fact it is pristine. It has the amenities you would expect if you were visiting Spain.
While there, we viewed Mount Teide. Located in Mount Teide National park, a UNESCO heritage site, it stands as the highest elevation in Spain, and the tallest elevation on any Atlantic Ocean island. We also went on a walk on a walkway high up in Santa Cruz overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
After going through Santa Cruz we visited a banana planation where we learned about banana plants. Then we made our way to a well laid out botanical garden before returning to the ship.
The Island of Arrecife
Arrecife on island Lanzarote, where we arrived on May 26, was next. Lanzarote is in many respects very different from Tenerife. While Tenerife is a bit of a playground for European tourists, Lanzarote is far less populated. There are only about 155,000 people living on the island.
Vineyards are a particular attraction of Arrecife. Needless to say, we visited 2 of them in La Geria, a Government protected wine region on the island. One of the unique features of La Geria vineyards is that the soil consists largely of lava from various volcanic eruptions over the years. Another is that the island is very windy.
Consequently the wine growers ply their trade by planting the vines in holes they dig in the lava and then building walls around them to serve as windshields. The vineyards wind up looking like moonscapes.
We also visited the Monument to the Peasants, Monumento al Campesino, built by Cesar Manrique, a local hero. It is designed to pay homage to the local workers, especially the farm laborers who do the backbreaking work of picking the grapes in the vineyards. It is an impressive display, and well worth viewing.
We expect to dock in Agadir Morocco on May 26. That will be our last stop in Africa before we dock on the Spanish mainland. Which means that we will be in Barcelona before too long.
On Sunday morning, May 21, we docked in Mindelo, the port city of the island of Sao Vincente. It is known for its carnival traditions, first originating from Portugal. Later cultural influences came from Brazil. Mindelo, home to 93% of the island’s population is often considered to be the cultural capital of the Cape Verde archipelago.
Mindelo, which is now essentially a fishing village, was founded by Portugal in 1793. Cape Verde formally achieved its independence from Portugal in 1975. After 15 years of one party rule Cape Verde became a multi-party democracy in 1990. It has made considerable progress since then. For instance, the think tank Freedom House gives Cape Verde its highest ranking in its Freedom in the World survey.
Cape Verde is a high scoring country for Freedom of the Press. The Heritage Foundation ranked it the 47th freest country in the world and the 2nd out of 47 in Africa. To put that in perspective: it’s a little worse than Peru (44) and better than Spain (51).
Cape Verde is also doing better economically than many other African countries with a per capita a bit above $7,700. That is much higher than Sao Tome, Mozambique, Senegal, Madagascar and Togo, for instance.
Mary Anne and I took a shuttle into the town to take a look around. It was quite pleasant. There were plenty of boats of all shapes and sizes tied up in the harbor; the city was clean and the European influence on the architecture was more than obvious. While wandering around the city we stopped in a local cafe and had some delicious coffee and then headed back to the ship. Cape Verde was an interesting place to visit and we’ll see how it stacks up compared to Tenerife and the Canary Islands.
On May 19 we docked in Senegal, officially known as the Republic of Senegal. The ship’s captain reported today that we are currently in the process of exiting an area known for the highest risk of attack by pirates, which in its own way is sort of comforting.
Now to Senegal
With an estimated population of about 17 million people, Senegal is classified as a heavily indebted poor country. Per Capita GDP is estimated at slightly over $4,000. Its government is secular even though 95% of the population is Muslim.
Islam as practiced in Senegal seems to be a rather low key affair, especially when compared to the strict application of Sharia law in Islamic states. (Senegal has a secular Government). The country is said to peaceable; according to our guide, the promotion of peace and harmony is the order of the day. He also claimed that Senegal stood for equality for women. That has to be taken with a grain of salt inasmuch as polygamy is legal in Senegal, and not that unusual. The National Institutes for Health estimates that 48% of women and 32% of men are in polygamous unions in Senegal.
Although classified as a poor and highly indebted country, Senegal appears to be in a lot better shape than some, actually a lot, of the other countries we visited in Africa. For example, Senegal’s per capita GDP is about double that of Sao Tome and Principe; more than double Madagascar’s, triple Mozambiques’s and 1.5 times Togo’s. All comparisons are adjusted for purchasing power.
Mary Anne and I visited Senegal and did a half day tour of Dakar, the capital. It certainly didn’t seem so poor as some of the other countries we visited; not by a long shot. It had its relatively affluent sections as well as poorer areas. We did see some dilapidated shacks, but they were not routine the way they appeared to be in other places.
There also appeared to be a thriving urban scene in the capital. As usual, the people in the country were very friendly.
Among other things, we visited a village with a tour group. There the women performed native dances for us. We guessed that only the women danced because they don’t mix the sexes for dancing because it’s largely a Muslim country. Or maybe that is just the tradition. Then they invited women in the audience to join in—and Mary Anne turned out to be one of the volunteers!
We also visited a gallery where they showed us how to create sand art. (Note we are getting close to where the sand from the Sahara will blow all over us if the wind changes direction.) We saw the presidential palace, which they call the Senegal White House. And we visited the African Renaissance Monument and a couple of local markets, including ones with large catches of fish. There were also plenty of goats and cows wandering around (Friday would be the day to slaughter a goat for the Islam holy day). We also did a very quick stop at the Divinity Mosque.
Before too long we expect to dock in Cape Verde. Then we sail to islands claimed by Spain (for instance Tenerife and the Canary Islands). The African Union has announced that these islands are African territory. That is starting to sound a bit like the Falklands in the 1980s. Anyway, overall it was a very interesting visit.