Europe’s Magical Holiday Markets

Galeries Lafayette, Paris

Galeries Lafayette, Paris

Happy Holidays!

Greetings, readers! I’ve been away waaaaaaaay too long so I’m sleigh-riding back into the blog-o-sphere with a post full of holiday cheer! Put on your ugly Christmas sweater, heat up the eggnog and crank up the Sinatra holiday tunes! With this post we’re time traveling to Europe to have a look around the ever-amazing holiday markets! I was there just a year ago, indulging in the smorgasbord of sparkling lights, ornaments, gluhwein, cookies, pretzels, marshmallows, nougat and enough Nuremberger sausages to classify as Obsessed. If you’ve never been to Europe during the holidays, you’re in for a treat. There’s nothing quite like it. So let’s push the sleigh out and get on the road to Paris, Strasbourg, Luxembourg City, Wiesbaden and Nuremberg! Allons-y!

Paris Holiday Market

Paris Holiday Market

The City of Light is so glorious during the holidays that a market seems almost unnecessary. Yet its location on the strip of land between the Rue de Rivoli and Les Jardins de Tuileries makes it an easy stop for anyone hanging out in the city center looking for holiday cheer. The Paris market has a Ferris wheel and a few carnival rides, along with lots of sweets and indulgences. Slabs of chocolate and perfectly stacked rows of marshmallows are displayed next to potent liqueurs in glass bottles shaped like La Tour Eiffel. Half-wheels of raclette rest under individual heat lamps, rendering the exposed edge into a malleable strip that can be scraped onto a plate. Scoop it up with bread and a mug of hot wine for a French holiday delight.

When you tire of the market, the surrounding streets of Paris keep the spirit bright with all the glitz and glitter of the season. Walk the Champs Elysée and stop by Hotel George V to see what inspired décor they’ve created for the holidays. For a special treat, take a few minutes to gaze up at the exquisite display of changing light and color within the central dome of Galeries Lafayette.

 

Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette

Strasbourg Holiday Market

Strasbourg Holiday Market

Hugging the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg has all the characteristics to qualify it as a quintessential holiday market village. The heart of the city, surrounded by waterways, can only be reached by crossing one of approximately 20 stone bridges to the island. Near the center of this island sits Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg – a tall and glorious example of Gothic architecture that has existed on the site in some form since the 11th century – that’s a lot of holiday seasons! Just a few steps down the cobblestone street, Place Kléber draws crowds to the illuminated Christmas tree and surrounding stalls selling hot spiced wine in souvenir mugs. Strasbourg’s skinny streets and storefronts are dressed in light and adorned with angels, stars and even teddy bears.

Strasbourg offers a few foodie delights we didn’t see anywhere else – hanging salmon that smokes all day next to a small fire and huge toasted baguettes piled with rich spätzle and bacon. The usual holiday treats were also present including loaves of nougat, beignets filled with strawberry jam, and some of the longest displays of holiday cookies I’ve ever seen. So many to choose from and all so fun to taste! Fill up a bag and take some home.

Strasbourg’s holiday market is sprinkled throughout the city center so walking in any direction takes you to more and more stalls filled with blown glass and wooden ornaments, miniature hand-painted tudor-style houses and so many handmade trinkets it’s impossible to see them all. The connecting streets, too, are lit up and festive with unique decorations like a suspended Christmas tree decorated with reindeer. How can you not stand underneath for a photo?

Luxembourg Holiday Market

Luxembourg Holiday Market

On a two-hour stop while riding the train between Wiesbaden and Paris, we had just enough time to catch a cab into Luxembourg City to see its central holiday market. Luxembourg City is refined and beautiful, made even prettier by the unusually warm light of dusk. The market was just getting started but there looked to be plenty to enjoy with food, crafts, a children’s train ride and Ferris wheel towering above the festivities. Being still so close to Germany, we of course had to try one more sausage baguette with an accompanying beer. Prost! All in all, this holiday market was a worthy way to kill two hours and enjoy a fantastic dinner in the process.

Wiesbaden Holiday Market

Weisbaden Holiday Market

We found ourselves in Wiesbaden unexpectedly when we decided to (while riding the train to Heidelberg) literally change direction and go to a city neither of us had been to before. This is one of the best benefits of not booking ahead – you can make it up as you go and see places you never expect to.

We checked into Hotel Nassauer Hof and then walked to Wiesbaden’s Market Square where stalls of holiday crafts and food were tucked around the perimeter. The Evangelical Market Church is not old by European standards, but is stunning nonetheless as the backdrop of this holiday market. Flowers of light top the market stalls, selling the widest array of items of any of the markets we’ve been to – hats, toys, candles and home décor in addition to ornaments and treats. It was here in Wiesbaden that we saw the one and only suspended, rotating wheel of grilled brats – quite unlike anything we’ve seen before and very convenient for the folks spinning and serving from it.

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt

Nuremberg Holiday Market

If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to refill your mug of gluhwein and get ready for the grandmother of all holiday markets. Few, if any, can rival the history and handmade nature of Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt. The market has existed in some form since the mid-1600s and, as a result, conveys a strong feeling of tradition and the true meaning of Christmas. Nearly everything sold at the market is made by hand so there’s a special quality to the gifts and souvenirs found here.

My husband J spent many years of his childhood in Nuremberg, so returning here was a chance for him to reconnect with the city while also enjoying the market … and lots of Nuremberger sausages, too. I have heard about these Nuremberger sausages for years. They are lore in his family, and have even been hand-carried by his mother all the way back to the U.S. as precious cargo to be consumed and savored from abroad. Part of my market experience would be to eat one (at least) and see what all the hullabaloo was about. Anyway, Nuremberg is a charming city and the Christkindlesmarkt starts on the Friday before Advent and lasts through Christmas Eve. It was pouring rain and very cold on the first night of the market but we waited it out, heard the opening night speeches and songs, and watched as the lights turned on.

We stayed in Nuremberg for about five days, visiting the market every day and night – sometimes just to eat and other times to walk the rows and rows of market stalls and side streets all dressed up for the holidays. We strolled with gluhwein and marveled at the craftsmanship of everything on display. Frauenkirche Nürnberg (Church of Our Lady) looks over the market from the east side. We climbed the stairs to the deck late one afternoon to see the Christkindlesmarkt from above, in all its bustling splendor.

Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt really is a sea of Christmas! The stalls overflow with color and light, and nearly every inch of space holds a trinket or ornament or character. The vendors are sometimes hard to see amidst the effusive display of everything holiday. To really see and appreciate everything takes some time, which is why staying primed with food and drink is so crucial to any foray into this spectacle!

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt

Among the handmade items of the Christkindlesmarkt, you’ll find painted cookies made into ornaments, edible cookies and various kinds of lebkuchen, stacks of dark and dense fruitcake, and shelves full of painted Santas and nutcrackers. If you desire some kind of heirloom, start a collection with a painted house and build a village over the coming seasons. Or maybe a painted glass ornament with the town and the year is the perfect small token to box up, slip into your suitcase and hang on your tree at home.

By the end of our days in Nuremberg, I had eaten my fair share of Nuremberger sausages. Verdict? They are delicious. With so many grills full of them at the market, and options to eat them sliced or lined up and stuffed into buns with spicy hot mustard (only a few Euros!) it was futile to resist. They are uniquely spiced and pair perfectly with mulled wine and a sweet dampfnudel for dessert.

We ended our stay in Nuremberg with a wonderful meal at the Heilig-Geist-Spital restaurant, tucked away in an old stone building overlooking the River Pegnitz. This restaurant oozes German character with its heavy interior, communal tables and menu filled with Bavarian classics. Plates are heaped with steaks, schnitzles, knuckles, potatoes, spätzle and more. The atmosphere gets livelier as the day goes on – you can linger over a late afternoon lunch or prost with your neighboring diners during the dinner hours when every seat is filled. This is the kind of place that every city needs, where people go to share great food with friends old and new.

If you love the holidays then Europe’s magical markets really are something to experience at least once in your lifetime. Skip the holiday shopping and splurge on travel instead. You’ll have stories to tell, photos to share and memories to keep forever. Happy holidays!

Culture Experience Festival

Februburied at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

It was only about two weeks ago that we went out for a winter kayak on Lake Tahoe. The water was so placid it felt like an illusion — like sitting on a mirror. The sunsets had been stunning and there was no hint of the snow yet to come. The calm before the storm.

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Since then, it hasn’t stopped snowing and snow totals for the month have topped 200″ at most resorts around the lake. Season snow totals are topping 400″ (492″ at Squaw Valley) and it’s only February. We’ve had some breathtaking ski days at Heavenly.

Uploading on the tram at Heavenly

Uploading on the tram at Heavenly

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Downloading at Heavenly Resort

Downloading at Heavenly Resort

The views around the house have been pretty spectacular, even if it’s meant shoveling out every few hours. From white-outs to brief moments of small flakes, the snow has been relentless. The color of the lake shifts constantly with the weather, from light gray-green to the deepest, most beautiful sapphire blue.

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Path to the Beach

Path to the Beach

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

Winter at Lake Tahoe

The long road home

The long road home and the lake beyond

Here’s to a deep winter and a full lake for the summer. I already can’t wait for long hikes, paddle boards and cocktails at sunset. Cheers!

Miscellaneous Outdoors

Happy New Year!

Winter sunset at Lake Tahoe

Winter sunset at Lake Tahoe

I’ve missed you. Today I reconnect and say hello to whomever may be listening. My voice has been quiet, muffled by the events of life. Writing is a practice and when life presents twists and turns, the time and space to write becomes harder to locate. But now, I’m sitting beside Lake Tahoe – facing west! – making up for three years of facing east, missing the daily sunset from my perch in Vancouver. I’m adjusting to life in the U.S. after living out of the country – first Singapore, then Canada – for nearly seven years. This, I’m only now realizing, requires more adjustment, thought and reflection than I expected. I was a different person when I left and I’m a different person upon return. And in some ways I barely recognize my own country in turmoil.

But life moves forward and change is invigorating. Choice is invigorating. Do I choose to live passively and be guided by what most people would think or do? Or do I choose to live actively, with a dash of discomfort, leaping into the realm of the unknown while knowing absolutely that this is where life’s greatest rewards are found?

2018 was an unexpectedly rewarding year: Tulum, Paris, Nuremberg, and cabin life at Lake Tahoe, none of which were planned more than a couple weeks in advance. We (hubby and I) look for opportunity at every turn in the road. We seek to enjoy life – in the moment, every day, now. We don’t wait for enough time or enough money or enough anything. We choose now because the world is changing. The thing you most want to see or do in life may not exist some time from now. Simple moments – standing freely under the Eiffel Tour as we did 10 years ago – have already been stolen away, gone to a new era of barriers and fear.

I wish you specific happiness in 2019. I hope you see or do the one thing in life that you’ve always wanted to, before it’s too late. Be fearless. Walk a path, take a flight, open a door, lend a hand, experience the world, near or far. I’ll do the same. I’ll get back to sharing my world and my travels if you’d like to come along. I’ve craved it. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed all of you who savor the thoughts and images that only a magical world can provoke and produce.

Let’s believe in the magic and go forward with gratitude. With an active mind and an open heart, beauty and opportunity are everywhere. Happy New Year.

 

Moon setting over Lake Tahoe

Moon setting over Lake Tahoe

Miscellaneous

Tulum

Cenote :: Mexico

Cenote :: Mexico

We’ve been here for one month visiting friends, working remotely and relaxing in Tulum, Mexico after leaving Vancouver, Canada. Many have asked what we’re doing and we don’t have an immediate answer to that question. We’ve embarked on a nomadic lifestyle, at least for now. We’ll see how long it lasts based on budget, desire and knocks on the door from my husband’s world of film and visual effects. We came here for tropical heat, cheap tacos and a slower pace of life. We’ve found all of that plus a few adventures, some big surprises and an alluring dose of Mayan history.

We’ve been staying in a great apartment on the edge of town, which also happens to be a 20-minute bike ride from the Tulum ruins. I’ve been to the ruins once before — about 15 years ago — but that was long before history and culture really began to make my heart beat. Being here again, in the context of the Yucatán Peninsula, has been given me a new awareness of the richness and depth of culture in this region. The highlights of spending time here have included watching the Travesia Sagrada, and learning about the vast network of caves and cenotes below the surface of Tulum and its neighboring towns.

The Travesia Sagrada honors a historic journey from centuries ago. Mayans traveled by canoe (departing north of Tulum) to the sacred island of Cozumel and its temple honoring Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. The pilgrimage was important for women hoping to have children and men praying for a good harvest.

Nowadays, about 300 men and women in 30 canoes row to Cozumel and return the following morning. In the process of learning about the Travesia Sagrada through a friend who participated, I’ve also learned about temescals (sweat lodges) and a Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa who single-handedly did more than anyone else to both record and destroy Mayan culture. It was de Landa who documented the travesia in the 1500s, but it was also de Landa who burned essential Mayan manuscripts and images out of his religious intolerance.

As for the caves and cenotes here, they may be Tulum’s most enjoyable secret, although they’re not really a secret. Many people know of them but they aren’t too overcrowded. Yet. Typically, a cenote is a large hole in the ground that leads to a larger hole filled with fresh water draining to the ocean. Most cenotes are very deep (in some, you can’t see the bottom) and often connected to other cenotes by caves and channels.

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

If you’re an adventure scuba diver, cenotes are a unique paradise. If you’re not comfortable in the water, you will hate cenotes. They can be very dangerous if you’re inexperienced, unprepared or your equipment fails (which Jay was witness to at a cenote/lagoon south of Tulum). We explored Cenote Labnaha with a guide, which was both fascinating and freaky. For one hour we snorkeled through low caves, dodged stalactites, looked down at the scuba ropes leading into even deeper caves, and turned off our flashlights to 15 seconds of complete and terrifying darkness.

Cenotes played a part in Mayan history as a place of worship and sacrificial offerings. The Tulum ruins include a “House of the Cenote” and at Ek Balam there’s a cenote visible from the La Acrópolis. Our next door neighbor, who we call the Jacques Cousteau of the Yucatán, has been exploring and mapping Tulum’s network of caves and cenotes for the past two decades. He’s found artifacts and human remains in several.

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Tulum itself is a gritty little town with upscale construction threatening its charm at every turn in the road. It’s straddling an impossible line between retaining its character and leveraging the considerable foreign interest it holds as a seaside destination not far from Cancún. A bigger, pressing issue may be global warming. The coastline here is showing signs of the battle — not against trash, but against a super-bloom of sargasso macroalgae that is relentlessly dumping ashore in a rotting brown mass (pictured above). No one can keep up with it and hardly anyone is hanging out at the beach as a result. In addition, Mexico’s elections are just a couple weeks away and running for office here can be a life-threatening pursuit. This is a country battling many forces against it, including its neighbor to the north.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Beneath all of this patina, the history here shines brightly. The region is punctuated by the magnificent temples of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam and Cobá, and countless smaller sites cover the peninsula. It would take weeks — if not months — to see them all. Yet it feels like layers and layers remain to be discovered in the crumbling limestone and tropical vegetation.

The Tulum ruins stand alone as a unique coastal site — the only one in Mayan history — and old port for the city of Cobá. Originally called Zamá (dawn or sunrise), the site of Tulum flourished from 1200-1500 AD, and declined in the 75 years after the Spanish made first contact in the early 1500s.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 people lived at Tulum. Based on the wall with four small doorways protecting the ruins, people living within the site may have been of a higher social class than people living outside the wall.

El Castillo (The Castle) sits at the cliff edge overlooking the ocean. Surely the view is spectacular from it’s highest level although you’re not allowed to climb the steps. Standing alongside the east wall facing the sea, it dominates and feels fortified against the weather with its battered construction. But the articulation of the stone ledges and borders adds delicate beauty. Whoever designed the castle and surrounding structures had an evident appreciation of design and proportion.

The Descending God

The Descending God

The Descending God, a notable deity of the Yucatán peninsula, is portrayed at the Tulum Ruins. This figure holds a characteristic pose — inverted, with feet at the top and face at the bottom looking forward. The Descending God is associated with bees and war, and interesting combination. Honey was a vital export of the region and war was a way of attaining power. You can read more about the Descending God here.

The Temple of the Frescoes holds weathered depictions of deities above the colonnade. Even a bit of color remains from the natural pigments (achiote, chochineal and palygorskite or Maya Blue among them) that once painted the sites of this region but have since washed away. What I find most striking about Mayan art is that it so closely resembles the style of indigenous art throughout western Canada. The depictions of gods and animals in both regions share a highly graphic quality of thick lines, robust shapes and bold expressions. Is it coincidence or relation?

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

 

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Walking around the rest of the site, all of the structural remains have simple rectangular footprints with finished-floor elevations above ground level. Could the varied floor heights have indicated status even within the social hierarchy of the select people living here? Could this detail have helped keep the bugs and reptiles out — of which there are many! Or the rain? Did the added elevation simply keep the floor dry? It has rained in solid sheets over the past few days so this had to have been a concern at such an exposed site bordering the ocean.

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

There are so many unanswerable questions, lost to the forgetfulness of time. Even I have questions related to my own life that have surfaced while being here. When I was a kid — four or five years old — I had two imaginary friends for a period of time. I have no recollection of how I conjured them up. I only remember their unusual names: Chaka and Cobba (as I spelled them). Since coming here, I’ve learned two interesting names that correlate: Chaahk, the Mayan god of rain and Cobá, the historic Mayan city that once dominated the region.

Have I lived here before? Is it coincidence or memory?

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Miscellaneous

Finding the Unicorn of the Sky

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

Last March, we decided it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver — such is the life of opportunists and world travelers always looking ahead to the next stop. But before we left we were surprised with one late-season, last-minute opportunity to see the Northern Lights — a big item yet to be checked off our bucket lists. Forecasts predicted the Lights would be active over the coming weekend due to a coronal hole and resulting solar wind entering earth’s atmosphere. Yay, science!

We did what any ardent Northern Lights chasers would do: we booked a last-minute flight and a tiny remote cabin in the Yukon Territory. Two days later, we were fastening our seat belts for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere, in search of the Unicorn of the Sky (Jay’s name for the Northern Lights).

“Nowhere” doesn’t do it justice. The flight to Whitehorse was full of spectacular mountain views and the town itself is pretty cool. Whitehorse has managed to hang onto some of it’s vintage charm, blended with indigenous art and a new community center, interspersed with a few little shops and cafes.

The best thing about the weekend was our one-bedroom cabin on the 80-acre ranch of a Renaissance outdoorsman. He milled the wood and built the cabin himself with a fantastic front porch and firepit facing directly north to the horizon where we hoped to see the elusive green glow of the Aurora. The cabin had no running water but the luxurious outhouse was far better than some bathrooms, and the efficient heat and fast WiFi made the whole outpost perfect for our weekend camp. Located 45 minutes outside Whitehorse, the sky was plenty dark for our adventure in light.

Whitehorse, Canada

Whitehorse, Canada

On the afternoon we arrived, we explored the vicinity of our cabin and discovered other myriad things the Renaissance outdoorsman had built including a handful of additional cabins, an enormous solar array to power the site, and the “Boyleville Saloon” just beyond his backyard (closed for the season, but probably host to some really fun parties).

To the east of his home, he had a large yard and housing for a team of 30 sled dogs, and his wife tipped us off that he’d be taking some of them out for an “afternoon run” around 4:30 p.m. (Fun fact: You probably don’t know this, but I wrote the introduction to a sold-out coffee table book about Iditarod sled dogs called Born To Run by Albert Lewis.) Seeing these dogs here in person, from behind the fence (they are VERY enthusiastic creatures), was an unexpected treat.

All hooked up and harnessed to run, OFF THEY WENT barking madly and racing for the hills. They didn’t return until 50 kilometers and one frozen river crossing later, in full darkness at 10:00 p.m. that evening.

That same evening was the first time we saw the Northern Lights. I was using three websites to track the activity. The Lights had been extremely active over Scandanavia but by the time they reached western Canada, they had calmed to a sleepy Level 2 — nothing too special, but still a fuzzy green glow above the distant mountains to the north of us along with a blob of light above us that was so subtle I mistook it for a cloud until I realized it was shifting in all directions. We ducked in and out of the cabin until 3:00 a.m. that morning, checking to see if the Lights were becoming more active. The forecast predicted better activity during the following two evenings so eventually we gave in and slept.

The next day, we took a walk around the property to a bluff near the cabin. We could see all the way to the next mountains with a flat expanse of land in between and a few stands of trees like ribbons running north to south. With the lingering snow, branches not yet budding for spring, and the frozen Yukon River in the distance, the sparse landscape had the look and feel of The Revenant — minus the grizzly bear (hopefully sleeping).

That night, Jay succumbed to the primal need to make fire in the wilderness and built a glowing pyramid in the firepit out front. We alternated between the warm cabin and the fireside heat until the wood ran out around 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Jay took a look out the front door exclaiming, “The band’s here!” That ethereal green band was getting brighter as darkness finally arrived. But Aurora activity again remained low and steady throughout our gaze until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It was easy to see and enjoy with our eyes but not so easy to photograph with a camera.

On Sunday, our last full day in Whitehorse, we made the most of it. We drove out to walk on the frozen Yukon River and then went for an evening soak in the local hot springs — a community gathering spot with two large pools at different temperatures.

We returned to the cabin and checked the Aurora forecasts, knowing the conditions were right for increased activity. A coronal hole in the sun was releasing solar wind that was striking the atmosphere with high-level intensity as the earth rotated through it. Activity had again been elevated over Scandanavia but tonight it had continued over eastern Canada, too. We knew that if we were lucky we might catch the tail end of the show.

We were drinking wine, making dinner, waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear from the western sky. And then … it happened. The band’s here! Brighter and greener than ever. GET THE CAMERA!

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

I was excited, frantic, running around trying to get my camera attached to the cold tripod I had staged on the front porch. Jay was turning off all the lights and, with less and less light to work with, my camera wouldn’t focus on anything. I switched to manual but the scene was so dark through the viewfinder and I was so filled with glee that both IT and I could not focus. FAIL. More attempts, more failures, but pretty nonetheless! I finally had to stop, take a deep breath, and make Jay be my focal point (standing in the front yard holding up a lighter like he was at a Northern Lights concert) to bring the full depth of field into focus. With a few experimental exposures, I finally got it dialed, and captured a shooting star in the process.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The most memorable part of the following two hours was something I could barely capture with the camera. The green band continued to glow, but long fingers of light started to descend from above us down to the horizon. When those disappeared, more fingers would extend from the horizon up into the sky. Sometimes three, four and five at a time would reach down or up, shift left or right … and be gone. THIS was the solar wind blowing through the atmosphere right in front of us. MAGIC!

Here was a moment to put down the camera and watch the science and beauty of the Northern Lights as two tiny human beings in an infinite galaxy. As fellow blogger Ron Mitchell often says, “Thank you, Abundant Universe.” We have seen the Lights and they are divine.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

Experience Miscellaneous Outdoors Travel

Sunset in Carvoeiro

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Right at this moment, it’s sunset at my little outpost on the world map and I’m reminiscing about this moment of magic on the southern coast of Portugal.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Out for a sunset stroll, we found the boardwalk in Carvoeiro. Looking east … a blue-green sea below sandstone cliffs. Looking west … a glowing sky becoming more radiant by the second.

There is always that brief, exact moment when the colors hit peak saturation before letting go and drifting over the horizon.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

One last look as Carvoeiro rested under the light.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

I’m late for the Rise/Set Weekly Photo Challenge but didn’t want to miss sharing this coastal moment, real and unfiltered. It’s nice to resurface and take a breath after a long stretch of work. Now all I need is a bottle of Madeira wine.

Miscellaneous wpc

Into the Tanneries of Fez, Morocco

Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.
~
Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakech

Hides at the tannery

Hides at the tannery

Death hangs constantly in front of us as we visit the Chaouwara tanneries in Fez. In the West, we rarely see where our food comes from, or our leather products come from. But here in Fez, we confront the truth directly as an aspect of life in Morocco.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

We wind our way upstairs through the leather shop onto a large terrace overlooking the tanneries. Our guide/salesman gives us a bit of mint to hold in front of our noses to mask the acrid smell of skin, lime, urine and pigeon dung. What’s transpiring in the tubs below is far less glamorous than all the colorful leather products on display inside.

The process of tanning leather by hand is arduous and toxic. Hair and flesh is removed from animal hides (mostly goat, from what we can tell) through techniques like soaking, salting, liming and scudding (trimming). Hides are submerged for hours or days and treated with enzymes and acids. In a sort of morbid, closed-loop production process, the natural byproducts of life — salt, urine and dung; from numerous sources — is applied to the hides to preserve them, make them pliable, and condition them for their end use.

Only some of the men working these tanneries wear gloves and boots. Others are submerged thigh-high, unprotected into watery contents of every color. No one wears a mask. This is a job that endangers and shortens lives.

What looks like mad chemistry to us surely has order and process from centuries of practice. Each man carries out his task alone. Hides go in, hides come out. Hides are dyed in various hues and set aside to dry. Nature holds an entire palette of plant-based, natural dyes but these days many colors are achieved through the use of unhealthy synthetic chemicals that pollute bodies and environments.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Dry hides are carried out and somewhere in some room within the labyrinth of Fez, workers are busy sewing the skin into shoes, skirts, jackets and handbags — made to order if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the shop.

Wandering through Fez the following day, we meet a boy on the street who offers to show us another tannery. We follow him down a few narrow paths to a sturdy wooden door. Behind the door we find more death — enormous piles of hides with the hair still attached, somehow seeming more alive than the hides from yesterday.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

This tannery is a smaller operation. The tubs sit at ground level surrounded on all sides by stairs, balconies, drying racks and doorways leading to the unknown — maybe housing for the men who work here. Most men working the tanneries are born into the job and carry it out for a lifetime. But many of them suffer from exposure to toxins through their skin and lungs. Breathing at a tannery for just ten minutes is proof enough that this a dangerous job. But for these workers it’s a way of life in an industry that shows increasing worldwide demand for beautiful leather goods from companies like Coach, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and even VF Corporation (a company I used to work for).

We climb the stairs for an overhead view into the stewing maze below us. Two men seem to be debating an issue in one of the tubs. “What do you think? Is it ready? I don’t know. Do you like the color?”

At the top of the stairs we emerge onto a rooftop where more skins are drying but the view of the blue sky feels hopeful and fresh. Our young guide shows us the bags of pigeon dung on the way out — collected and sold to the tanneries from a town nearby.

As always, traveling has taught me another lesson: be aware of the lives you affect by the choices you make. Do I really need a pair of those blue Moroccan slippers? Judging by their pretty design, one would never suspect the pain behind the product.

Local Color Miscellaneous Photography

A Thousand Shades of Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Near the northern tip of Morocco, in a pocket of sunshine at the base of the Rif mountain range, we arrive at Chefchaouen. Often called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, the town is a collage of blue and white against the earth tones of the landscape.

Since its founding in 1471, Chefchaouen has felt the influence of neighboring countries and cultures. Portuguese, Spaniards, Arabs and Berbers have all contributed to the town’s eclectic character and, according to many, the earliest Jewish residents left the most lasting, visible effect on Chefchaouen through their choice to paint the town blue — symbolic of sky, heaven and god above.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Wandering through Chefchaouen, the variations of blue feel cool and calming, aligned with the psychology of this color choice. Robes and rugs in warm hues contrast against the walls and the whole medina feels like an exercise in color theory. Johannes Itten would have loved this town.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

A shopkeeper, dressed in a shade of indigo, sits in front of a composition of orange. It’s as if he’s been surrounded by blue his entire life and has staged an unspoken revolt, creating a complementary universe.

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

The beautiful imperfection of Morocco continues throughout Chefchaouen. Everything is handmade and nothing is a standard size. It’s fun to speculate what’s behind each door, especially this tiny work of art. Probably not a king-size bed!

The shades of blue shift lighter and darker as the sun comes and goes, shining into each narrow lane only for a brief amount of time each day. We wander downhill and eventually find Plaza Uta el-Hammam where everyone is passing through and hanging out on a peaceful afternoon in Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

We meet a man who tells us he’s a trader from the Sahara desert. He has a stunning collection of jewelry, talismans and silver boxes. We’re drawn to a particular charm that he claims is a Bedouin compass. We buy it and he makes me a necklace for free. We’ve either paid too much for the compass or we’ve been given the gift of his kindness. I like to think it’s the latter.

The following day we take a day off from traveling and languish in our room. We’ve been on the road exploring for more than two weeks and it feels great to stop and rest for an entire day — something we rarely do. Perhaps the calming blues of Chefchaouen have had a deeper effect on us than we expected. It’s nice to sit and stay awhile.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Miscellaneous Photography