It is a cliché to say that travel broadens one’s horizons, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. That’s why, despite a life on the road for 40-some years as a journalist, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs still likes to be on the move. He just returned from his latest trip, and found new horizons he hadn’t found before.
A brilliant man of the Renaissance once made a brilliant observation: “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.” In Leonardo da Vinci’s day, it had to be but a flight of fancy… with no risk of jet lag. In my day, in a career that took me millions of miles (when I was young enough to hardly notice jet lag), it was a flight over oceans… countless flights, endless oceans.
But in the five centuries since da Vinci’s death— five hundred years this very month— the moral to the story hasn’t changed: walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.
That’s what made an airborne ocean crossing that my wife and I just took to Spain and Portugal so relevant. Choosing parts of both countries that we hadn’t seen before, we went as tourists, but came home with new perspectives of the world we all inhabit under a single sky.
To begin with, in our country we venerate the iconic early landmarks of the nation. Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, they date all the way back to the early 17th Century. In many parts of Europe though, solidly fortified cities by that time already had been around for five centuries, like this one in Spain called Caceres.
And while our nation began with modest dwellings of wood and straw and small stones, great cathedrals in Europe already by then were soaring skyward. This one, in Seville, begun in 1401, was built in segments— 80 years for one part, 110 for another, and so on. Generations of workers in the early stages of each segment’s growth knew they would never see anything even close to the finished product.
You cannot take in the majesty of European churches without also taking in their wealth. It is a reminder that despite the scandals that now rock the Catholic Church, its resources have not dwindled.
And while religions have come to crossroads that divide them in the United States, they still live by tradition in some of Europe. We were in Spain over Easter week, and saw several processions with what I can only characterize as religious floats, richly adorned, carried not on wheels but on the shoulders of dozens of the devout. This one, with a plaster replica of The Last Supper, weighs some three tons.
Every float had an escort, and from the costumes, we could not help but have a bad first impression. But these costumes predate the KKK, and merely are meant to mask one’s vanity so that all the focus is on God.
In a cathedral in Portugal, there is this limestone tomb. It contains a mid-14th Century king named Pedro.
But every cathedral has many tombs with the remains of queens and kings and cardinals. It was the carving in one small section of this one though that caught our eye. What would the Religious Right say about this today?
One more note about religion. The most compelling sight in a Portuguese city called Évora is also the most chilling: the Bones Chapel. Back in the 16th Century, in what is believed to have been an effort to incite fear in the hearts of non-believers, every wall of this chapel was covered with bones from bodies exhumed from the city’s graves. Thousands of them. On an arch over the entry are the words, “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours.”
Okay, I lied. That was one more note about Christian religion. But there’s another, about Jews. Ever since the days of the Inquisition, when Christians campaigned to punish heresy, Jews have been the targets of hostility and hate. Even of genocide. But Jews still are around today, because they refused to please their tormentors and just vanish. We stopped in a town in Portugal called Belmonte. It hosts a Jewish community that has survived everything from the Inquisition to the threats of World War Two. This stone, dated to the 12th Century, is thought to be part of Belmonte’s earliest synagogue, the first on the Iberian Peninsula.
Over the years, many of the Jews of Belmonte came to be known as “New Christians” because they converted to Christianity to avoid exile or worse. But they always secretly practiced their true religion. To their credit, their Christian neighbors knew, and didn’t share the secret. Those who left their homes during centuries of oppression always kept their keys. Sad to say though, Belmonte today is a tired town, and from a Jewish population of about 200 at the turn of this century, it is down now to 49.
Now, to the sheer beauty of Old Europe. I once helped an American woman, a tourist, find her way out of the subway, the Tube, in London. I asked how she liked Europe. Her answer? She didn’t. Why not? “Because everything’s so old.” Hmmm, isn’t that the point? This Portuguese university library is old, and elegant.
Sidewalks all over Portugal are old, and amazing, with literally millions, probably more like tens of millions of tiles, hand-set before the United States was even a republic, and still intact today.
In some cities, the new is enriched by the old.
In some, like this train station in northern Portugal, it is enhanced by the old.
In others, it is dominated by the old. The Romans, in their heyday after the birth of Christianity, stretched their reach all the way to the Atlantic… and as testament to building techniques we don’t fully understand to this day, structures from temples to aqueducts still stand. Of course if you think the Romans provided health care and a living wage to those who laid their tiles or erected their temples, you haven’t studied medieval slavery.
On our trip there also were reminders of the modern times in which we live, even if they sprout up in a medieval setting.
And reminders of some of the perils of these times. In an election in Spain while we were there, the governing center-left party prevailed, but for the first time, a far right party picked up ten parliamentary seats. It is a party in the mold of the old fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (remember the months-long laugh line on Saturday Night Live, “Franco is still seriously dead,” after the diplomatic correspondent for my network, ABC, mistakenly reported that Franco had died, when he hadn’t?). It makes Spain one more Western nation with an active and alarming nationalist movement with tendencies toward fascism. It made me mindful of fears in our own country, voiced last week by a syndicated columnist: “The road to authoritarianism winds its way through darkness.” But not every moment was historical, or religious, or political. A European market is one of the most colorful places on earth.
And when a fishing boat comes in from the sea, the seagulls are waiting, making it the funniest sight on the trip.
Finally, rest assured, some moments in our travels were focused only on the present. When you’re steering a Segway, which requires two hands, but trying to photograph your wife ahead of you, which requires another, you’d better be focused only on the present.
I’ll end as I started, with another quote about travel. It is not as profound as da Vinci’s, nor uttered by a man known for profundity, but it fills the bill. T’was Al Gore who said, “Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo.” I can vouch for that.