Friday, November 9, 2012

Scotland's mysteries.


Particularly in the United States, where a large portion of our population claims Scottish ancestry, Scotland has an air of mystique, and Scottish culture enjoys a cult-ish following. I have received many beautiful postcards from Scotland (I wish I could show them all), but in order to keep this post focused, I've decided to explore a small region of Scotland called Argyll.

Argyll is part of the Scottish Highlands. Just by looking at this map postcard to your left, you can see how mountainous the northwestern two-thirds of the nation is - this comprises the Highlands, more or less. The Scottish Highlands are quite empty - they have one of the least-densely populated areas in all of Europe. Culturally, the Scottish Highlands is quite different than the neighboring Lowlands. The peoples of the Highlands were traditionally the Gaelic-speaking Scotsman, and some rural areas of the Outer Hebrides (the larger islands northwest of the mainland) still speak Gaelic. This makes Gaelic Highland Scotland more linguistically related to Ireland than to mainland Britain.

The region of Argyll (see here for map) is a coastal region of the Scottish Highlands, and the second largest county in Scotland. The name derives from the Old Gaelic airer Goídel, or "border region of the Gaels." The word airer carries the additional meaning of the word "coast" when applied to maritime regions, so the place name can also be translated as "Coast of the Gaels." The largest two towns in this sparsely-populated county have just barely over 8,000 people. The county's third-largest town, Campbeltown (pop. 5144), is historically known as a whiskey-producing region and home to distilleries such as Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

Campbeltown almost certainly received its name from the Scottish clan that presided over the Argyll region - Clan Campbell. (The chief of Clan Campbell eventually became the Duke of Argyll.) Although the British government attempted to quash clan culture following the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century, the clan culture has persisted, particularly in rural areas. In a recent Yahoo! Answers post I found during my internet research for this post, I found this interesting example of hostilities between clans that began over 300 years ago and continue to this day. I recommend you read the post, but I particularly loved the example of the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe (historically a region presided over by Clan Donald), which still hangs a sign on the door stating "No Hawkers or Campbells."

The Campbell clan's name derives from the Gaelic caimbeul, meaning "wry mouth," "crooked mouth," or "twisted mouth." The earliest known Campbell is Gilleasbaig of Menstrie, who was active around the year 1260. The Clan Campbell tartan, known as Black Watch, is highlighted in a red box on the above postcard. And in case you were wondering: your favorite pair of argyle socks do, in fact, get their name from the Argyll region of Scotland.

And this leads me to the postcard that inspired this entire post: the beautiful Kilchurn Castle, located on Loch Awe in Argyll. Kilchurn Castle was constructed around 1450 by Sir Colin Campbell as a five-storey tower house with a courtyard defended by an outer wall. The castle passed to Clan MacGregor for a time and then returned to Clan Campbell through marriage. The MacGregors remained stewards of the castle until the early 17th century, when a feud between the two clans brought the castle back into the possession of Clan Campbell. In 1760, the castle was badly damaged by a lightning strike and was completely abandoned. If you visit the castle today, the turret of a tower still rests upside-down in the courtyard as a result of the lightning strike 250 years ago.

The castle is now under the protection of the Scottish government, and you can visit it in the summer time by boat or on foot. You can read more history of the castle and see many lovely photos at this Undiscovered Scotland website.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The fortresses of Fujian province


CN-656595: Earthen House, or Fujian Tulou
I've been gone from this blog for two years now, but I hope I'm not forgotten. Postcards remain a favorite hobby of mine and I'm settled enough to begin writing about the beautiful cards I receive. I hope you'll come back and visit again!

This beautiful family scene comes from Postcrossing user sysukun, and depicts an entrance to Earthen House, more commonly known as a Fujian Tulou. There are about 46 sites in the mountainous region of Fujian province composed of these homes, and together they make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A tulou is a large, enclosed, earthen-made building, usually in a rectangular or circular shape. They are fortified and usually have a single entrance to protect up to 80 families who live there. These buildings have been constructed since the 12th century in Fujian province, and were originally designed to protect against armed bandits that frequently roamed the Fujian region.

Fujian Tulou are unique because they are one of the original examples of community housing for equals. All the rooms in a tulou were the same size and shape, built with the same quality materials, and decorated the same. Tulous were generally occupied by one or two large family clans. If a clan grew over time, additional concentric rings were added around the original ring. You can see the inner courtyard of a traditional Fujian Tulou above. It's easy to imagine how such a place would inspire a sense of safety and community.

I'm glad to be back - hope you'll keep checking in on my newly revived blog!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The world's oldest skyscrapers: Shibam, Yemen


Originally uploaded by krhocevar_postcrossing
It was a happy day at my house when an official Postcrossing postcard arrived from Yemen. For ages now, I've been contemplating the best subject to discuss in my post about this mysterious country. Finally, I've decided something: some places in this world are so unique, and so different from what we know, that posting some words on a blog will never truly do it justice. Yemen is such a place, so I'm posting a video I think will be much more instructive than anything I can write. It's a little over 9 minutes, so it's an investment of time, but you'll see what the streets of Shibam look like, you'll see a traditional ceremony, see the food the locals eat, and learn a little history. I've never seen a place anything like it.

A few words first: Shibam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is said to be home to the world's oldest skyscrapers. It is a walled city and the first known example of urban planning based on vertical construction, and has been called the Manhattan of the desert. Some of these buildings, made of mud brick and up to eleven stories tall, are over half a millennium old. Shibam itself is over 1700 years old.

The economy of the region of Hadramaut is largely agrarian. Cities exist mainly as a place to sell and distribute goods produced on farms. The region is home to the Arab ethnic group the Hadhrami, which has its own Arab dialect. The Hadhrami have diaspora communities around the globe, particularly in Singapore, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Please enjoy the video, I really did!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Krka National Park, a Croatian gem.


I'm pretty fascinated with Croatia, I have to admit it. And among the many beautiful scenes I've viewed on postcards from that country, I think their national parks might be among the loveliest of all.

This gorgeous postcard, which came from rlicul a few months ago, shows Krka National Park, an area surrounding the beautiful Krka River. (Which has its own impressive and informative website.) In particular, the postcard displays the beautiful Skradinski Buk waterfalls, the most popular area of the park. These cascades travel for 400 meters (1312 feet) and descend a total of 47 meters (154 feet), and they end in a broad, clear, and beautiful pool that is a popular spot for visiting swimmers. Nearby the cascades is the village of Skradin (click for stunning panoramic photo), an award-winning cultural experience with old mills, crafts, and other experiences for visitors. It was founded as an Illyrian settlement, Scardona, prior to its takeover by the Romans, and has been a settled area for thousands of years. Roman ruins are another important area to visit in Krka National Park.

Recently I received a postcard
showing another breathtaking spot inside Krka National Park: Visovac Island. This place, which perhaps looks like a tropical oasis or possibly heaven on earth, is actually very sacred ground: it is home to Our Lady of Mercy Franciscan monastery. This beautiful monastery was founded in the 14th century by Augustinian monks, and then expanded and adapted by Franciscans who escaped from Bosnia during the Turkish invasion of the 15th century. The present incarnation of the monastery was built in the 18th century. Housed in the monastery's historic library is a particularly rare incunabula of Aesop's fables (1487), a collection of sultan's edicts, and a sabre belonging to Vuk Mandusik, one of the best-loved heroes of folk epics. This monastery is still a very holy place; although ferries do take visitors to the island, they are only allowed to stay for 30 minutes in order to maintain the piety of the monks who live there.

This is a really nice video showing some beautiful spots in Krka National Park. You can view it here, or if you click on it and go to Vimeo, you can view it in HD. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Folk dance of Turkey: Horon


Not too long ago, I featured the dance of the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey here on Postcard Voyager, a dance reserved for an elite religious sect. Here I'm back again, ready to feature another traditional dance of Turkey, this time a folk dance from the Black Sea region in the northeast of the country. The back of this card provides very little information about the name of this dance, or even what part of the Black Sea coast it comes from, but I've managed to deduce some information based on how the dance looks and videos I've been able to find on Youtube. :)

Turkey has many folk dances, and the one featured here is called the horon. The name comes from the Turkish word "horom," which refers to a line of six or seven corn stalks tied together to form a lattice. From a distance, it appears to be a line of people joining hands with their arms raised. The horon is the most well-known dance of the Black Sea region (and is also performed in other countries located on the Black Sea, such as Bulgaria), and is meant to suggest the actions of fishermen, the swimming fish, and the sea. It features alert and tense shivering movements and sudden squatting. The horon is traditionally performed by a line of either men or women, but generally not both at the same time, except in rare cases called "rahat horon," or "comfortable horon." In these cases, the dance is slower, simpler, and more relaxed. (source: University of Florida website) The people of the Black Sea region live in fertile, isolated valleys, and are known for their merriness and their lack of inhibition. They remind me of Mediterranean peoples of Greece, and probably their culture was influenced by similar forces.

I've found another interesting website describing the people of Turkey's Black Sea region. As you know, it's important not to stereotype groups of people or consider them to be "all the same." However, it can be useful to determine typical traits. This is how a man of the Black Sea (or a "Laz") is described:
"He sports a majestic nose and speaks Turkish with an outrageous accent. His diet consists of hamsi (Black Sea anchovies), cooked to the legendary one hundred recipes that include hamsi bread and hamsi jam, with corn bread and dark cabbage to accompany. He dances a wild horon to the syncopated, manic tunes of his kemençe (bowed instrument that sounds like a fiddle). His oddball sense of humor makes him the butt of an entire genre of jokes. To a certain extent these jokes correspond to those of the Polish, Scottish, Marsilian or Basque variety, but they lack the crude ridicule that characterizes some of the latter. In most stories he either pursues an altogether wacky idea, or responds to situations with an insane non-sequitur. The best ones contain a hint of self-mockery, and it is not really clear who the joke is on. Inevitably the most brilliant Laz jokes are invented and circulated by the Laz themselves." (source: Kara Lahana)

I'd like to share this wonderful video (from what looks like 1971 or so) showing the horon in a very rustic village performed by a little old lady in all black.

Now watch this more modern and complicated version of the horon. It gets better and better starting at the 1:20 mark, so stick with it, it'll be worth it, trust me.

(h/t to Pinar for sharing the beautiful postcard with me!)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A sad day in Poland.


My sincerest condolences to the nation of Poland over the terrible loss of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and other government officials. My heart is full of sadness for you all, and could not imagine withstanding such a terrible loss myself.

My thoughts are with you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Berlin ist schön! (Germany Vacation Part 3)


Berlin is beautiful! Let's hope so, because it's the final stop on our three-part Germany tour. To get to Berlin, we'll have to take the train from Bremen, with a change in Hannover. Berlin is full of things to do - we could stay for weeks and not see everything. So what do we do in our short time here?

It would be wise to partake of Berlin's historical points, because it played a significant role in Europe after World War II. We should visit Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is a memorial section of the Berlin Wall which still stands, and is covered in murals by artists all over the world. (You can see it in virtual tour format - when you reach the webpage, read the history, then close it and follow the arrows on the ground through the opening in the wall - the murals are on the other side.) Next we'll visit the Brandenburg Gate, comemmorating the border between East and West that once stood there.

Next we'll want to stroll over the Reichstag, a five minute walk from the Gate. The Reichstag is home to the German Parliament, and from the top, offers a marvelous view over central Berlin. After taking in the view we'll head over to the Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to a number of fascinating museums and the Berlin Cathedral, seen on the postcard. Our tour guide Anja suggests visiting the Pergamon Museum, where many ancient excavation have been reconstructed, including the huge Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. The Pergamon Museum houses an Antiquities Collection, an Islamic Art Museum, and the Middle East Museum.

After enjoying Museum Island, we might decide to take a day trip to Potsdam to see the Palace of Sanssouci, the former palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It has been said that it rivals Versailles in France.

Sadly, this is the end of our trip through Germany. It's been splendid - not the real thing, but close! I hope you enjoyed the tour! Look for travels through Turkey with my friend Pinar coming very soon. ;)

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