Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seeking the free expression of ideas

In June 2010 Eric Francis wrote of Aquarius (my star-sign) on the Omega Institute website:

"For a person who loves ideas as much as you do, this is a great time to be alive. You are in territory where you can surpass all limits, yet to get there you need to embrace an idea that is rarely spoken of: intellectual freedom. You understand this intuitively, of that I am certain. Yet because we live in a society that so desperately tries to repress anything it does not understand or that does not follow today’s economic rules, we’re all a little hobbled here.

Yet you have a special advantage: you seek yourself in the free expression of ideas. They may belong to you; they may belong to someone else—but you know a free idea when you see one, and you are gathering the momentum to bring something you love and value to fruition.

You’ve spent a lot of time, perhaps years, thinking about how much you love and value this concept—whatever it is. Now you have an opportunity to do something about it. I am sure you sense the potential: to help people, to establish a new kind of beauty within planetary consciousness.

The ingredient you must work with is a form of discipline called focus. Yes, odd synchronicities will guide you on your way, but you need the full strength of your mind on this. And I suggest you be aware of a factor that feels like living two lifetimes at once. Through this endeavour, you will finally integrate them."

What I think
Baby boomer who likes new ideas.
I have quite often thought of myself as living more than one lifetime in one, but not simultaneously. Perhaps this is where the confusion and frustration comes in. Why is it that my so-called talents in the world have brought so little self-actualisation? Why did I not persevere and become an accomplished painter or movie director? They have always been right there - passions ready to be developed - but to no avail. On the other hand, it is true that I have always “sought myself” in the free expression of ideas.

I remember quite clearly sitting on a bus as a schoolboy, quite confident and comfortable with the idea that one day religion (spirituality) and science would meet – as I saw it, at an imaginary apex in the sky. That is happening today and being clearly articulated by the likes of Deepak Chopra, whose books are among my favourites, not because of this idea necessarily, but because of the stimulating and liberating ideas he has brought to my understanding, not least of all concerning the life and role of Jesus. At the time I sat on that bus I sought myself in Christianity, yet not as a religion, but as a beautiful and mystical way of understanding through free ideas!

So where to from here? I will always be warmed and inspired by visual beauty of any kind. I will always recognise the dramatic in any set of circumstances, and enjoy the images that this conjures in my mind. But behind all that is something that does not necessarily bring worldly recognition and financial reward. It is the intellectual serendipity that comes from really wanting to understand. I now accept that bringing something I love and value to fruition is likely to come through the medium of the written word, and I am comfortable with that, whatever form it may take. Perhaps, as always, the gathering momentum is more than one thing happening simultaneously. I think it is true that focus is needed, that the time has come to realise intellectual freedom, which I do understand intuitively. The time has come to let a society that so desperately tries to repress anything it does not understand and that does not follow today’s economic rules, simply be. I have my own path to follow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cruising Europe along the Danube

Fascinating: The village of Durnstein on the Danube.
As the Iberia Airbus A320 swooped low on its approach to Munich airport, and banked steeply over the impossibly neat and colourful Bavarian farmlands in the bright summer sunlight, rousing Spanish guitar music played over the sound system. I felt a surge of excitement. I had not been to central Europe for many years and felt sure I would not be disappointed after the long break. My partner and I were on our way to Passau, a pleasant German town just inside the border with Austria, and departure and arrival point for Peter Deilmann riverboat cruises up and down the Danube.

The trip by train from Munich to Passau was demanding after the long flight from Cape Town via Johannesburg and Madrid. Our pre-booked train tickets took us the long route around via Regensburg with much battling up and down flights of train station stairs, changing from Metro to local train and eventually to the comfortable mainline ICE train. On the return journey, however, we discovered a short-cut by coach which takes you directly to Terminal 2 at Munich International. But our struggles were over when we arrived at Passau station to be met by personnel from Peter Deilmann with a trailer for our luggage and a waiting coach to take us and other passengers to the boat.

I had never seen the Danube before, and hadn’t realised what a huge river it is, averaging about 300 to 400m across and five to six metres deep, the strong current taking it effortlessly on its long journey to the Black Sea. It flows through eight countries - Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. At 2850km it is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga.

River cruising is obviously big business on all the major rivers of Europe, and enormous barges carrying all manner of freight pass by regularly, a major means of transport on these routes. But these freighters are never offensive in any way, the crew often waving as they sail past, national flag fluttering astern, always neat and tidy, with just a grumble of engine noise as they go by. Apart from a couple of floating plastic bottles we spotted at the far end of our cruise, entering Budapest, I did not see one scrap of litter along the entire route.

As they say, the advantage of cruising, on river or sea, is that you unpack only once and then relax. Not only that, your accommodation and three meals a day for the entire trip are assured.

Our first, and in some ways best stop along the river was the village of Durnstein, population 931, in the Wachau wine-producing area, enclosing the Danube with rocky tree-clad hills and terraced vineyards. Historically, it is well known as the place where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by Duke Leopold V of Babenberg who had clashed with Richard during a crusade to Jarusalem. Leopold had reason to feel cheated and insulted by Richard and when Richard tried to sneak back to England via Germany after being shipwrecked off the Italian coast, he was apprehended and jailed, later released only after a huge ransom had been paid.

The highlight of the visit to Durnstein was the Monastery Church. Originally built in 1410, the “new” Baroque building was erected in the 1730s. It is magnificent, and one could spend a whole day getting to know it. The sculptures on the outside and inside, the breathtaking nave and the six murals were our first taste of the magnificence of European art along the Danube. On this trip I was particularly enchanted by the beautiful sculptures wherever we went. The depth of Christian devotion is remarkable – everywhere you go there are beautiful images of Christ on the cross, and the churches everywhere are adorned lavishly.

We strolled through the charming village, bathed in bright morning sunlight, with its quaint cafes, taverns and little shops. There is a hotel called the Hotel Richard L(o)wenherz. Some of the historical buildings are literally built into the rockface of the hill behind it. We took the “donkey track” trail up towards the ancient castle ruin right on top of the hill. Along the trail you get beautiful views through the trees of the river below and the buildings on the other side of it.

That afternoon we reached Vienna, to collect crew, but had to wait for the return voyage to go into town. Across the river from the old city are Vienna’s ultra-modern silver and white skyscrapers.

The next morning we awoke to Budapest, a grand city bisected by the Danube, with seven stately bridges crossing the river and magnificent buildings on both sides, dominated by the Castle District up on the heights and the stunning parliament buildings down at the river’s edge - a city with many dramatic stories to tell.

Life aboard the boat is a large part of the fun of a European river cruise. With breathtaking scenery often no more than a couple of hundred metres away, you can relax and take it easy, especially on the sun deck, which provides the best location for sightseeing. There are a number of locks along the Danube, and guests aboard the Danube Princess were always keen to watch proceedings at these large concrete installations, each with a control bridge and huge steel gates that open and close, allowing water to be pumped in or out. The whole operation always went very smoothly and within 20 or 30 minutes we were on our way again.

Budapest: One of the many bridges across the Danube.
Budapest is an impressive city and you need to study the tourist brochure to get an idea of how much it has to offer. Unfortunately the advantages of river cruising have to be balanced by the disadvantage of limited time in the various ports of call, although we had a full day and a half in the city. My partner and I decided to do our own tour on foot and started with a walk in the general direction of the Royal Palace. While Budapest is obviously emerging as a world-class destination, the effects of years of Nazi and then Communist oppression still hangs over the city, it seemed to us, and is reflected in the faces of some of the people. Some historical buildings are boarded up and graffiti is widespread. Many other buildings look as though they haven’t had a coat of paint since the 1930s. It appears there is a lack of funds to rectify these problems.

The woman serving in the ticket office for the funicular to go up the hill to the Palace displayed Communist-style abruptness and simply signalled with her finger when I asked where we might change euros into the local currency - but then language was probably the problem. The local tourist guide we met on the funicular with a couple of her clients wasn’t parting with any free secrets either.

But the Buda Castle District made up for it all with its magnificent Royal Palace and more of the wonderful sculptures that I so enjoyed on this trip. After a long and turbulent history, including complete destruction during World War II, the Palace has been completely restored and offers a dramatic view of the river and the rest of the city. There are a number of museums housed here, but access seemed limited that day. The rest of the district is dominated by the breathtaking Matthias Church, named after one of Hungary’s greatest monarchs, King Matthias, who presides from horseback in the form a beautiful statue nearby. This is part of modern tourist Budapest with cafes, curio shops and restaurants, with friendly service.

The next morning we crossed the bridge and took a walk half way up Gell(e)rt Hill towards the summit, known as the Citadel - the scene of the last stand of the Nazi occupation, marked by the Liberation Monument. While most of the once-revered (and feared) gigantic Soviet-inspired statuary has been transferred to Statue Park outside the city (a tourist attraction in itself, apparently), this figure of a woman holding aloft a palm frond remains a landmark. In a little church in a cave at the base of the hill a service was in progress, and the plaque outside indicates that it is a place of thanksgiving for the fall of Communism.

At sunset, a floodlit Budapest viewed from the Danube Princess’ sundeck dispelled any doubt about the grandeur of this fascinating city.

The Slovakian city of Bratislava is charming. They call it the Little Big City, which is apt. On the sunny morning we spent there the place seemed oddly under-populated and everywhere there is a feeling of colour and brightness. If you don’t feel like walking you can catch one of the veteran bright red tourist taxis which are a common sight around the city. There are many beautiful architectural landmarks and a human-scale feel to everything. We slipped into a beautiful church and watched for a while as congregants attended mass on a Tuesday morning. It is a cultural city full of museums, theatres and galleries. The opera and ballet at the impressive Slovak National Theatre enjoy great popularity, we were informed.
That evening we arrived in Vienna and took a walk with friends around the neighbourhood not far from where the boat was moored. Here we came across the famous fun fair with its enormous big wheel. We watched in fascination as people subjected themselves to some of the scariest rides imaginable, making a Cobra-style roller coaster a tame experience.

At the beginning of the trip my partner Estelle proclaimed that on short visits to all these wonderful places it was more important to get the “essence and spirit” rather than follow a tour guide around like sheep, and I think she was right. We did take an organised tour of Vienna with a very interesting and knowledgeable guide. But to try to get your head around the history and art of Vienna in a morning is, of course, impossible. It is a breathtaking city and would need months to get to know it at all well. It is known as the “comfortable city” (it is 50% green) and one needs the comfort of time to enjoy it. Everywhere you look are stunning buildings and artworks.

We started at Belvedere Palace, where prince Eugene of Savoy once spent his summers. And how he must have enjoyed them on days like the one on which we visited. We drove past the residences of Mozart, Stauss and Freud and disembarked next to St Stephens Cathedral, known as Austria’s most important Gothic building and most conspicuous icon of the imperial capital. It was undergoing a clean-up at the time, revealing its true beauty under the black coat of pollution. Of course we saw the famous Sachers hotel and chocolate shop and CafĂ© Mozart (the real original). It was a religious holiday and perhaps the most colourful experience of the morning was the procession that came past as we strolled in the sunshine. Smart young men, four-abreast, in many different historical uniforms and knee-high boots, a military band (not playing at the time), city dignitaries, politicians, monks and the archbishop all went by. It was a magnificent human spectacle.

Halfway back to Passau we moored at Melk, to visit the famous Abbey. For 900 years its monks have lived and worked here following the rules laid down by Saint Benedict. It is known as Europe’s “great cultural ensemble”, which is in no way an exaggeration. The Abbey Museum, the Marble Hall, Library and Abbey Church are almost beyond description in their artistic riches. The Abbey is responsible for 23 parishes and runs a secondary school. Modern monks in neatly ironed black cassocks stride across the courtyard with briefcases and cell phones. They would tell you that Melk Abbey exists “so that God is glorified in everything”. I would not argue with them.

This story appeared in Weekend Argus Travel.