Melk Abbey from Below
The charming Austrian town of Melk is under the watch of the 11th-century Benedictine Melk Abbey, which, together with its 18th-century Baroque abbey church, sits on a rocky promontory overlooking the Danube.
It was Day Five of our canal-boat cruise down the Danube River:
Early in the morning, our boat docked in the tiny city of Melk (population: 5,257) in Austria.
Melk is is best known for it’s magnificent Benedictine abbey, first established in 1089 when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, gave one of his castles to a group of Benedictine monks. Newer buildings on the site were built between 1702 and 1736 following Baroque designs by Austrian stonemason and architect, Jakob Prandtauer. The most famous monastery in Austria, Melk Abbey is known for its frescos and the countless medieval manuscripts in its library.
After a second cup of wonderful coffee with Austrian croissants – yes, croissants originated in Austria. The story is that 300 years ago, at the time of an Austrian win in ongoing battles with the Ottoman Turks, a French chef in the employ of the Austrian Emperor made flaky breakfast bread-rolls in the crescent shape seen on the Turkish flag so that all Austrians could ‘eat their enemies for breakfast!’
Anyway, after that breakfast of coffee and subversive croissants, we were bussed up the steep cliffside for a tour of the ornately decorated 900 year-old abbey.
As we leave our shuttle bus, the Melk Abbey grounds come into view: attractive, tidy, and surrounded by green. (iPhone6)
Entrance Gate – Melk Abbey
The arched gateway into the grounds bear the coat of arms of Melk Abbey: St.Peter’s crossed keys.
Main Entrance to Melk Abbey
The date of completion (MDCCXVIII or 1718) is marked over the arched entrance to the inner courtyard.
A fountain takes pride of place in the inner courtyard, the Prelate’s Courtyard.
Saints on the Abbey Roof
Local Guide Stephen
A local guide gives us a run-down on the building, and prepares to lead us through the monastery.
Stairwell Inside Melk Abbey
The Emperor’s Corridor
There are endless corridors in Melk Abbey. The 196-meter-long Emperor’s Corridor (Kaisergang) is lined with paintings of Austrian monarchs.
The Imperial Rooms (Kaiserzimmer) are now home to the abbey’s museum. The blue room houses precious manuscripts and artworks symbolic of a Benedictine monk’s task to ‘Höre’, the German word for ‘Listen’.
The green room in the abbey’s museum houses ecclesiastic treasures.
Admiring the Golden Cross
Treasures of Melk Abbey
Called by one blogger a ‘House of Mirrors’, the Mirror Room in the museum …
Treasures of Melk Abbey
… contains chalices and eucharists of great antiquity and value.
Golden Mitre – Melk Abbey
Ancient Song Sheet
Melk Library is renowned for its extensive collection of religious manuscripts and music.
The Baroque architecture leads to surprises at every turn.
Lock and Key
A single key, with very fine grooves made with a jewler’s saw, fits into the lock of this 16th-century steel strongbox; the wards then clang and bang as the whole mechanism tumbles into place.
Ceiling Fresco – Marble Hall
The Marble Hall once served as a formal dining room. The ceiling fresco, painted in 1731 by Paul Troger, shows the Greek goddess Pallas Athena on a chariot drawn by lions. The surrounding trompe l’oeil painting by Gaetano Fant makes the flat ceiling look as if it rises up much higher than it does.
View over Melk from the Abbey
Inside Melk Abbey Church
The pinnacle of Melk Abbey is the Stiftskirche (Abbey Church). In true High Baroque style, the church is ornately decorated in marble and gold.
Melk Abbey Church Organ
Down to Melk
It’s a short, easy walk down from the abbey …
Melk Town Centre
… into the charming little city of Melk.
I was really glad we had left enough time to browse the shops properly! Melk is in an apricot-growing area, and their apricot liqueur is wonderful; we stocked up on apricot soap, chocolate, and miniature liqueurs as souvenirs and stocking-stuffers.
Melk Abbey from the Town
The town is layered with history: the Abbey, where Napoleon stayed during the wars, watches over us, and just down the river at Willendorf, the 30,000-year-old fertility symbol, the Venus of Willendorf – the oldest-known piece of European art – was found.
Flowers on the Walk
We walk back to our boat on the Danube River through the wildflowers along the pathway with our bags full of shopping.
That’s how I like my history:
Built into the streets, buildings, and artefacts; and sandwiched between breakfast coffee and croissants and afternoon apricot chocolate and liqueur!
Until next time –
A smiling Himba woman welcomes us into a small, dark hut.
A word that entered into English in the early 1400s, meaning “servants of a household,” from the Latin familia “family servants, domestics collectively, the servants in a household.” The original definition includes the estate, the property; the staff, and any relatives.
How things change!
When I was growing up, “family” generally meant a nuclear family of two parents and their children, with an “extended family” of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. How this “family” was expected to look was pretty narrowly based on the models provided by 1950s-60s American television or Norman Rockwell paintings. For most “average” households, servants were nowhere in sight.
Of course, in an abstract way, we knew that “families” looked different in various times and places, but that which is “familiar” is that which we are comfortable with.
It continually surprises me how we confuse that which is “familiar” with that which is “correct”, or worse: that which is “normal”. Standing in one’s own skin, it can be difficult or uncomfortable to acknowledge how disparate models of relationships might work well for those participants within them.
Of course, it is a fine line. “Normal” relationship models can fulfil a socio-political function – usually serving to protect the status-quo and to protect the interests of those in positions of power. But, as we have seen with the colonisation of indigenous communities all over the world, dismantling old relationship structures is more likely to lead to a disenfranchised underclass than to an empowerment of those individuals from traditional communities.
With these thoughts (and similar) in mind, I was fascinated to spend some time – thanks to photographer Ben McRae and local Namibian guide Morne Griffiths – with a group of OvaHimba (Himba) people.
Staying near the magnificent Epupa Falls in northwestern Namibia is an extraordinary experience. Not only is the landscape other-worldly (see: Landscapes of the Kunene and In Search of Crocodiles), but the local communities are fascinating!
Dotted either side of the Kunene River – which separates northwestern Namibia from its neighbour: Angola – are small compounds of wattle-and-daub huts surrounded by rough-hewn fences. Called onganda, each of these homesteads include huts and work shelters for a single extended family of semi-nomadic Himba tribal people.
The Himba have maintained a traditional lifestyle that has changed little since the early 1500s. Their expectations of how “families” are organised deviates greatly from what is “familiar” to me. Although their tribal structure is based on bilateral descent; that is, all Himba belong to two clans: their father’s and their mother’s, young women clearly have less say in their own futures than the elder men. Himba are polygamous, with the average man having two or three wives. Marriages – first marriages, at least – are arranged by the father, with girls sometimes being promised from infancy. As far as I could establish, young men are in their early thirties before getting married, but young women are married off at puberty.
The Himba worship their ancestors and the god Mukuru. The small family-village homesteads are generally overseen by a headman, who is usually the oldest male. He is responsible for maintaining the residence; looking after the religious aspects of life – which include the okuruwo (sacred ancestral fire) and a central enclosure (kraal) for the sacred livestock; and for ensuring that the traditional rules and the specific mandates of the clan are followed, allowing the “proper relations between human and ancestor”. Because the god Mukuru is distant, and often busy, the ancestors act as his representatives in the onganda.
The women of the family/village are responsible for movable property and handling any money. They also do much of the practical daily work. Each wife within the commune usually has her own hut, and during the dry season, when the household might be split between the main compound and the cattle post, one or more wives will stay behind in the onganda.
Although girls have little or no say in their first marriages, fidelity is not expected: extra-marital affairs and children out-of-wedlock are apparently common. Women can leave a marriage if they wish – at which point they return to the homestead of their birth. It is also common for women to travel to visit relatives in other compounds.
So, with the relationship complexities and the lack of a common language, I had difficulty ascertaining who was related to whom in the little village of Otjomazeva in the Kunene region of Northern Namibia.
Our Himba Guide
Local Himba man, Tom, is our guide in the Kunene region. His smile shows the filed gap in his front teeth that the tribe are known for. He welcomes us to the small onganda – or extended family homestead – of Otjomazeva.
Tom in the Kraal
In the middle of the kraal, there is an okuruwo (a sacred ancestral fire) which is carefully kept burning at all times. There is also a central enclosure for sacred livestock, which represents the ”proper relations between the ancestors and humans.”
There are a lot people in the onganda. Some of them are visitors from other extended family homesteads in the region.
Himba people traditionally wear a lot of necklaces and bracelets. Made from a variety of materials – including shells, seeds, bone, leather, metal fencing wire, and other found materials – some of the jewellery is very heavy. This woman is not wearing her sculptured sheepskin Erembe headpiece; she may be widowed or less involved in the community decision-making, or may just be taking a break.
Man in the Kraal
Himba men often wear Western clothing, but pair it with traditional jewellery. Like many Himba – men and women – this man is wearing a heavy torque necklace as part of his outfit.
Himba men keep their hair covered from the time they are married. As far as I could discern, his marriage was recent, and he was very excited about being photographed with his young wife.
In the heat of the afternoon, the older Himba men return to the village …
Man and a Hut
… and find a patch of shade to sit in.
Mother Selling Trinkets
Late in the afternoon, the women and girls in the village lay out trinkets for sale to tourists who come to visit the village.
This young baby alternates between watching her mother …
… and amusing herself.
Stillness and Chat
Two elder women, visiting relatives from across the Kunene River in Angola, keep watch over the proceedings in the kraal.
Twice a day, women prepare boiling water for the staple porridge made from mahangu (pearl millet) or maize – …
“Mind your Skirts – Mind the Baby”
… being careful of their leather skirts and their young charges.
As the shadows lengthen over the village, it is time for us to leave for the night.
Old Auntie Smoking
The next morning we returned to the village …
Young Woman’s Smile
… and we join the women in a dark hut for their morning beauty ritual.
When the women have finished their morning beauty routine, the handsome husband of one of the visiting women joins us in the hut.
A young boy leans in the doorway of the dark Himba hut. Males do not wear the ochre paste that the women use, so his skin tones are natural.
Making Morning Tea
Outside the huts, a young Himba woman boils water for morning tea. Her toddler helps, putting things in the fire.
A youth – who is in worn western clothing – stands next to a daubed hut.
Putting out Trinkets
Another youth shows one of the toddlers how to lay out the trinkets for the expected tourists.
Siopis and her Man
The Himba are a graceful people, and used to being photographed; they fall into poses without being asked!
Carrying a Loaded Bundle
The balance and elegance of native women always amazes me.
Old Aunties in the Truck
When we leave the village, we give a number of women a lift to town, where they hope to hitch a ride back to Angola.
We drop our Himba passengers under a tree in the small hamlet of Epupa. We pack up our campsite in preparation for moving on in Namibia, while they sit and gossip and wait for transport back to Angola in the mid-day heat.
It truly is an unfamiliar world.
Until next week,
Rice and rice cultivation are at the very heart of Balinese culture.
In Bali, rice is synonymous with food. The word nasi (rice) also means “meal” in Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of the region.
But, rice is so much more than that: it is an integral part of the Balinese culture.
This little Indonesian island has been inhabited by Southeast Asian Austronesian people since at least 2000 BCE. From around the 1st century CE., the development of Balinese culture was strongly influenced by Indian, Chinese, and Hindu traditions. By 900 CE, Bali was an independent region with a distinct dialect, and Buddhism and Sivaism (Shaivism or Śaivism – a branch of Hinduism revering Shiva) were practiced side by side.
It was also around this time that the people developed subak, a complex cooperative irrigation system which incorporates traditional ecologically-sustainable land management under the authority of the priests in the water temples. UNESCO-listed since 2012, subak “reflects the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana,” which translates as “three causes to prosperity” or “three causes of well-being”. The three elements are: harmony among people with communal cooperation and compassion; harmony with God, expressed through rituals and offerings; and harmony with the environment, practiced by way of sustainability, conservation, and balance.
In practice, under subak, the forests which protect the water supply are themselves protected, and temples of varying importance and size mark the source or the passage of water as it flows through a managed system of canals, tunnels, and weirs, to water and irrigate the terraced subak lands. There are about 1,200 water collectives – each with between 50 and 400 farmers – managing the water supply that grows the rice – rice that is seen as the gift of God.
There is another remarkable facet to rice cultivation on Bali that struck me on our recent visit: on any given day, you can see rice at different stages of maturity. According to my 1999 edition of the Bali & Lombok Lonely Planet, there is a legend behind Bali’s continuous rice production:
A long time ago, a group of Balinese farmers promised the gods that they would sacrifice a pig if the harvest was good. The had a good season, and the rice was bountiful, but they could find no pigs. They thought they would have to sacrifice a child instead, until one resourceful farmer came up with a solution: they had promised the sacrifice after the harvest. If new rice was always growing, the harvest would never be finished, and the time for the sacrifice would never come.
To this day, Balinese farmers plant a new field before harvesting the ripening one.
Early into our January visit, we organised to go on a 25 kilometre bicycle ride through the rice fields and villages. Anyone who knows me knows that this is quiet adventurous: I have injured myself in bicycle accidents multiple times across three continents. But, the tour company promised that most of the ride would be downhill, and that the pace would be leisurely.
Our driver picked us up punctually at 7.30am and drove us the two winding hours up hill to the lookout – appropriately named Penelokan, “Place to Look” – where we stopped to admire the view over Gunung Batur before collecting our bicycle guide, and setting off through the rural villages and the many fields of rice.
Mount Batur from Penelokan
Penelokan literally means “Place to Look” or viewpoint, and it is a popular place to stop and admire Gunung Batur – the still-active volcano – and its surrounding countryside.
“Follow the Brown Brick Road”
We started our downhill ride through a very tidy village near Bayung Gede in Bangli Regency. The equatorial January rains had washed everything – including the sky – clean.
Like every temple and almost every home in Bali, the entrance to the village is guarded by a pair of Dvarapala or gate guardians.
The Golden Silk Orb Weaver
Before long, we are in true rural countryside. Our guide Devi stopped at a barn to show us the golden silk orb-weaver spiders (Nephila).
Hindu Family Shrine
Balinese Hindu family compounds include an area set aside for shrines devoted to their ancestors. I was allowed to take pictures from the gate, but not to enter.
The Path Ahead
Dirt tracks wind through the elephant grass and the jackfruit, banana, and papaya trees.
Our next stop was at a demonstration farm, where we admired the chickens, …
… the gentle-faced Balinese cows, …
… and the tall fruiting trees.
We stopped at a typical family compound in Gianyar Regency …
Carving Tourist Trinkets
… where a Balinese couple was sitting carving trinkets for sale in Ubud.
The family dog decides we are no threat and has a stretch as we enter the compound.
The compound contains separate buildings for the family elders, each of the sons and their wives, and the older children/grandchildren.
Matriarch in her Kitchen
The compound also contains separate kitchens for each of the families, as well as work areas, and of course, the family shrine.
Hindu Temple: Pisang Kaja Desa Taru
We made a brief stop outside a temple …
… before riding off the village pavement and onto the rutted, muddy tracks between the rice paddies.
Man in the Rice Paddies
It was an opportunity to get up close …
Man in the Rice Paddies
… to watch the arduous job of transplanting …
… rice seedlings into the larger rice field.
Further down the mountainside, we came across fields of mature rice, and villagers in the process of harvesting it.
Older women were sorting the the rice from the chaff.
Old Woman Sorting Rice
Tilling the Rice Fields
We continued through craft villages, and ended up at an elephant sanctuary (more about those places some other time). While in the stands for the elephant performance, I looked behind us to see men tilling fields; the shrines between the paddies watched over their work.
We had a enjoyable morning: we got an appreciable insight into rural Balinese life; it was – as promised – a pleasant mostly downhill ride; and I didn’t fall off my bicycle!
As we ate our lunch, we had a much better understanding of the cycle of work that had gone into the rice in our nasi goreng.
We said our thanks to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice.
Until next time –
Jeffrey Pine and a Numbered Sign
The Woodland Trail is a delightful 1 1/2 mile (2.4 km) interpretive circuit trail in the San Bernardino National Forest, Big Bear Lake, California.(iPhone6)
The rugged San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California are known for their outdoor activities: mountain biking, rock climbing, horse riding…
These days, I’m usually happy with a gentle hike.
Only two hours out of Los Angeles – but a world away – the charming year-round resort city of Big Bear Lake sits high in the San Bernardinos. There are hiking and biking tracks radiating in all directions around the seven-mile long (11.3 km) eponymous lake.
It was early summer – hot and dry – when we stayed there; ideal walking weather. Unfortunately, I was not-long off crutches after breaking my knee, and for the first several days had to satisfy myself with moderate strolls around town. Towards the end of the week, though, my husband and I grabbed our walking sticks and challenged ourselves to the short, but very steep, Castle Rock Trail.
As short as it was, that popular hike had me exhausted and sufficiently sore that I was happy to search out something really gentle for our last day. The next morning, before driving back to the LAX Airport in Los Angeles for our flight out of the area, we treated ourselves to the shortest and easiest hike in the area: the 1 1/2 mile (2.4 km) interpretive Woodland Trail on the north side of the lake in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Join us for an easy ramble in the woods.
The Woodland Trail sets off at a gentle climb …
Western Juniper (Juniperus Occidentalis)
… through the junipers which stretch high overhead.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja)
The arid soil is home to Indian paintbrush …
Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox Divaricata)
… and clumps of phlox.
California Black Oak (Quercus Kellogg)
Overhead, the leaves of the California black oak shine in the sun.
California Black Oak (Quercus Kellogg)
New leaves on the California black oak come through fuzzy and red.
“Water, Water, Everywhere?”
An underground water source keeps thickets of willows alive during seasons of low rainfall. (iPhone)
Desert Primrose (Oenothera deltoides)
Everywhere we look, there are delicate wildflowers in the dry earth.
Prickly Pear and Pine Cones
Piles of granite rocks on the ridge provide homes for lizards and snakes.
View over Big Bear
The ridge also allows views over the lake and city of Big Bear Lake to the Big Bear Mountain ski runs behind, and through to the grey, bare top of Southern California’s highest peak: Mt. San Gorgonia (11,499 ft; 3515 m) behind. Nicknamed “Old Grayback” for it’s bald appearance, San Gorgonia has an alpine climate too harsh for trees to grow.
Moss on the Trees
In the few shadier spots, moss and lichens thrive.
“Twisted Living and Dead”
Junipers can grow together over time, with dead trunks being surrounded by living trees.
Dead trees are an important habitat for many birds and animals.
Lupins on the Verge
After finishing our walk, we drove along North Shore Drive towards the Bear Valley Dam, stopping to admire the lupins growing wild along the roadsides.
Yellow Broom on the Verge
We stopped again, on CA 330 to admire the foliage at the side of the road.
The broom smells glorious! Unfortunately, Scotch, Spanish, and French broom are introduced invasive plants that actually contribute to California’s fire risk.
They are beautiful, though – and tougher than they look.
San Bernardino Mountains
We enjoyed one last view back over the San Bernardino Mountains before descending the mountain into the smoggy lowlands and following the highways back to Los Angeles.
It was a most enjoyable and interesting short walk – and a nice way to spend a bit of time before re-entering the madness that is Los Angeles International Airport.
Until next time,
Toilet Shelter on the Mongolian Steppes
It was a make-shift construction of rough planks around a hole that wasn’t half deep enough … but it was welcome! (Phone6)
It is hard to know what to say about a day on which one of the high points is a rough-hewn three-sided toilet shelter. For most of our bumpy drive across the Mongolian steppes, we made do with rocks to squat behind. Cross-country travel in Mongolia is not for the faint-hearted – or for those who are weak of bladder!
Truth be told, that toilet shelter wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: the open side faced the road, and the pit within it really was not deep enough… But, I love the picture it presents against the sweeping plains.
It was my second day of bumping across the vast Mongolian landscape in a Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive vehicle organised by Within the Frame and local guides G and Segi. According to Google Maps, the day’s drive from Kharkhorin to Tariat is about 280 kilometres; that they estimate a travel time of four and a half hours gives you some indication of the state of the roads!
Add to that, the fact that Air China still had no idea where my bag might be and I was wearing bits of borrowed clothing, and you get some of the bedraggled picture. Lets just say, I arrived at the end of the day like James Bond’s martini: well shaken.
Sheep on the Roadway
UAZs may be well suited to navigating Mongolia’s roads, but they don’t afford the passengers much of an outlook on the surrounds. I amused myself on the long drives by trying to capture small snatches of views through the front windscreen as we rattled and bumped along. (iPhone6)
Steppes and Highway
The first part of our day was on paved ‘highway’. The plains and the skies go on forever… (iPhone6)
Eurasian Black Vulture (Aegypius Monachus)
Huge vultures were thick on the ground at our first stop. They didn’t let me get very close before flying off – this photo is heavily cropped.
Mongolian Ibex Canyon Statue
I had to make do with a statue of a male Mongolian Ibex – we never saw a real one.
We were travelling with our own cook, which meant our meal-stops were anywhere we pitched the meal-tent. This was a mixed blessing: it meant we had great meals, but we didn’t stop in most of the towns we passed along our way, and only saw them from the UAZ windows as we skirted by.
A Nomad’s Ger in the Steppes
We made an afternoon stop at a nomad’s camp …
Inside the Ger
… and were invited in for dried yogurt.
Tasting a bit like hardened tofu, the dried yogurt pieces were strung up around the inside of the ger.
Nomadic Mongolian Patriarch
Pouring Out Homemade Vodka
Inside the richly decorated ger, we sample fermented mare’s milk, and buy a litre of homemade vodka poured into a water bottle. That plastic bottle got misplaced in one of the UAZs. Days later, one of our group took a large swig, thinking it was her water. Her choking gasp could be heard for miles!
Milk and the Foal
Back outside on the windy steppes, the nomad couple go back to their chores of milking the mares and moving their young.
The young horses are tied to a ground rope where they can feed.
Vultures on the Steppes
Once again, we come across cinereous vultures; once again they fly off as anyone nears them.
Cinereous Vultures (Aegypius Monachus)
View from the Truck Into the Larch Forest
Too soon, we are back in our four-wheel drives. (iPhone6)
Chuluut River Gorge
Our next stop was at the beautiful Chuluut Gorge, …
Chuluut River Gorge
… about 50 kilometres short of our day’s destination.
UAZs in Chuluut Gorge
The autumn-yellow of the larch trees provides a colourful backdrop for our UAZs.
Autumn Larch Trees
Larch trees are the dominant species in Mongolia’s remaining boreal forest.
Larch Tree Trunk
Autumn Larch Cones
Although they are conifers, …
Wind in the Larch Trees
… larches are deciduous: in autumn their needles yellow, then fall off.
Chuluut River Gorge
View from the Truck – Rain
Our break at the Gorge over, we drove out of the forest and into the rain… (iPhone6)
When vultures and outhouses are the high-points of your day, you know it has been challenging.
But, our cook Yagaanaa produced another terrific meal – including tiramisu for desert!
That, and a glass of scotch, and I was ready for the next day –
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