Thursday, April 08, 2010

Exploring the Mediterranean

Our family did something that was a first for a shared spring break this year. We decided that, with three of us in the U.S.A. and two in Qatar, we'd meet in the middle and take an exotic vacation together. The result - a 3-day Roman holiday weekend and an eight-day cruise of the western Mediterranean. This was a bit extravagant but, in retrospect, well worth it.

Without going into the travelogue of the entire trip, I'll comment on highlights of history and people that struck us as particularly intriguing. You can also check the link from my blog for pictures of our experience.

Starting in Rome one can't avoid being in awe of a culture so powerful and progressive two thousand years ago. Looking up into the vaulted dome of the Pantheon and realizing that it stood for centuries as the largest free-standing dome on the planet is truly amazing. Looking out across the Forum was another breath-taking moment. As we stood there, reflecting on the names of those who walked the stone paths among the columns and sculptures, one feels small in the course of human history.

In Barcelona we encountered a freedom of expression and innovation in a more contemporary age - the late 19th and early 20th century. The Palau De La Musica Catalan has been recognized as one of the most significant examples of Art Noveau architecture in the world. It was constructed to provide a place for vocal musicians to perform at their best - with resonant and warm acoustics, natural light, and colorful flourishes of stained glass everywhere one looks. Then there's Gaudi - the apartments, incidental buildings standing in complement to many other forms of architecture throughout Barcelona, and then of course, the Sagrada Familia. I've always wondered what Gaudi architecture would feel like in person and I was not disappointed. The greatest moment was being enveloped by the interior cathedral vaults that appear to be mighty, towering trees. While not finished, the Sagrada Familia will surely be one of the architectural wonders of the world when completed 20+ years from now. The lessons of personal freedom are everywhere in Barcelona and one can't help but be moved to wonder what forces unleashed such artistic creativity and what can be done to release equally powerful sources of art today.

Malta - a small island by comparison to many in the Mediterranean. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. As we walked the streets on Good Fridy in the brilliant sunlit blue of sky and sea, it was hard to imagine that this tiny island has seen so many battles and has been a strategic military stronghold time and again. That Good Friday, Malta represented both the peace and the stife that the world has seen, all crammed into one visual space.

Tunis and Carthage were very different than the rest of the places we visited. We had a short time there but made the most of it. Carthage was an ancient Phonecian settlement, taken over by the Greeks and eventually the Romans. In some ways it's a mystery what might be under the ruins that are now on the surface. The amazing section was of the Greek settlement that had been filled in with debris; because it had been filled in, the ancient structures were preserved better than others. Because of the short stay, we were a bit challenged in returning to the ship on time. In fact, we thought we were going to miss the departure; as a result, one of the most tense and eventually hilarious moments was running through the streets with packages flying and everyone gasping for breath as we raced to the boat. It wasn't so fun when we were doing it but it is a great memory.

The Costa cruiseship itself was something to behold. Twelve-stories tall and carrying 3,600 passengers, most of whom were Italian families out for a good time. Germans, French, Japanese, and a few English-speakers (only 167 U.S.A.) were sprinkled in for good measure. We were all served, entertained, and shown gracious hospitality by our Filipino and Indian dining room servers, cabin stewards, and other personnel. What a blend of cultures, all with their different roles and perspectives yet all able to celebrate together as the nights grew long and the tours became tedious.

During our Mediterranean cruise we mainly enjoyed each other and had the pleasure of seeing places none of us had seen before. In addition to the pleasure and family camraderie, we were able to see history, culture, art, and people that make our world a rich and wonderful place. We were able to see the products of human imagination and striving. And, the warmth of the people we encountered along the way convinces me that the striving will not cease...