Portals of the World: Antigua, Guatemala

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I love taking photos of doorways, windows, and arches. Besides being interesting architecturally, they symbolize a journey from one place to another. They delineate inside from outside; they mark an end and a beginning—a movement through time and space, from one stage of life to another. This year, I want to share some travel photos of these portals into other worlds.

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Arch of Santa Catalina is an icon of the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, which I visited in 2008. I loved the town, with it’s colorfully painted stucco houses and its cobblestone streets. I loved the Mayan women selling their intricate, handwoven textiles. And I especially loved this arch, which welcomes people into the heart of the city with views of the mountains and (from some angles) the Pacaya Volcano.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and photographer

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, here’s a news flash: Star Wars: The Force Awakens will treat you to some eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Unveiled in the film’s closing minutes, the closely guarded secret ending to the newest Star Wars episode was filmed in September 2014 on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep it a secret, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It’s been so hard to keep this secret! It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my travels in Ireland:

Canadian Ski Holiday at Banff’s Eco-Friendly Juniper Hotel

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff's Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff’s Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Once in a great while, you find a hotel that seems tailor-made for you—with just the right character, setting, and attitude. I found my kindred-spirit lodging at the Juniper Hotel on the hillside overlooking the lovable resort town of Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.

Casual and relaxed, located in an outdoorsy setting, and environmentally conscious, the Juniper Hotel welcomed my husband and me with open arms. For three nights we were at home in a room with a balcony vista of majestic mountains, frozen lakes, and snow-flocked forests.

Natural Décor in the Canadian Rockies

In the 1950s, the Juniper was the well-known Timberline Motel, located in spectacular Banff National Park. In 2005 it was renovated to preserve its retro style, while using contemporary nontoxic finishes and salvaging original materials.

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

For instance, the lobby floor is fashioned from broken patio stones, and old slate shingles from the former staff accommodations are reincarnated as room numbers. Most of the wood finishes are done in reclaimed timber.

The Juniper’s owner is an avid collector of First Nations art, and much of it is displayed in the hotel, which is perfect for a property that’s surrounded by nature. Hiking trails begin right outside the back door.

Although the hotel is less than 10 minutes from the heart of downtown Banff, it’s adjacent to a wildlife corridor, a swath of protected land where local wildlife—grizzlies, mountain lion, wolves, caribou, elk—have unrestricted areas to roam and hunt.

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

Native landscaping around the hotel enhances the forest atmosphere, and a vegetative roof—covered with native grasses—is an eco-friendly way to keep the building’s temperatures down during summer.

Sleeping Green

The Juniper Hotel and Bistro is a member of EcoStay, a North American initiative that helps hotels measure their carbon footprint, identify and fund reduction strategies, and balance their greenhouse gas emissions through carbon offsetting. The hotel collects two dollars per night from hotel guests, and these funds purchase carbon offsets, so that basically made our stay carbon neutral.

The program also supports environmental measures, including low-flow showerheads, energy-efficient compact-fluorescent lighting, and recycling.

Panoramic Dining in a First Nations-Themed Restaurant

One of the first things I loved about the Juniper Bistro was its wall-to-wall glass overlooking the Bow Valley. All those windows offer eye-popping views of the glorious Bow Valley and iconic Mt. Rundle, which towers above the town of Banff. Beneath a handmade, birch-bark canoe mounted in the dining area, we ate several meals, and the food was satisfying and delightful—just like the scenery.

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

The menu highlights locally and Canadian-sourced food with international influences. The in-house bakery provides tasty biscuits and breads. (Yes, there are gluten-free options.)

One morning, I opted for a healthy egg-white frittata with roasted asparagus, aged cheddar and pickled shallots served with gluten-free toast and cherry-tomato and arugula salad. Ken dug into homemade granola and fresh fruit to fortify himself for skiing.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Another morning, we selected the more decadent Roasted Tomato Benny: oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, pumpkin-seed pesto, and poached eggs on a sundried tomato biscuit with hollandaise and brown-butter hash (what we would call “home fries”). This is the way breakfast on vacation should be!

Après ski hot chocolate at the Juniper Bistro. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dinner was also spectacular; of particular note was the Mushroom Gnocchi (roasted peppers, wild mushrooms, pistachios, goat cheese, romesco sauce, and arugula with brown-butter gnocchi). The wine menu featured many fine Canadian vintages from nearby British Columbia.

In winter, one of the best hours to visit Juniper Bistro is après ski, when the setting sun plays on the surrounding peaks. We arrived just days after the Mt. Norquay ski area opened. Because our stay was mid-week, we had the bar mostly to ourselves—no crowds. We enjoyed a hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and toasted the sunset and moonrise indoors next to the roaring fire in the bar. The staff offered to build us a fire outside on the patio, around the pit fires, but we preferred to cozy up beside the Christmas tree rather than brave the sub-zero arctic blasts.

Out and About in Banff

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

While the Juniper was our home base for three nights, we did leave its pleasant premises for some adventures. Ken drove up to Mt. Norquay ski area for telemarking the Canadian Rockies.

We also visited Banff Upper Hot Springs  under the full moon. The dash from the dressing room to the outdoor pool was shivery, but once submerged in the geothermally heated, 100-degree mineral water, we relaxed and enjoyed being toasty while surrounded by icicles and steam.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For visitor information, see Banff/Lake Louise or Travel Alberta.

Read more about Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada:

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin

Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.