White Sands

Following several visits to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes in recent years, in May of this year I finally had the opportunity to acquaint myself with White Sands in neighboring New Mexico. Both sandscapes rise like physical anachronisms from the surrounding land and seem to be the product of a painter who wielded her brush in sinuous movements across the canvas. From her palette, she used grey and reddish tints in Colorado, and what appears to be essence of snow in New Mexico, where the sand consists of gypsum. Water dissolves this white mineral from the nearby San Andres Mountains, and deposits it in Lake Lucero in the Tularosa Basin where evaporation transforms it into translucent selenite crystals. Once they erode into the tiny grains that make up the dunes, they sparkle and glisten in the sun, blinding the observer, despite sunglasses.


In the core of what has been designated a National Monument, the road is lined by sandbanks. Snow, or sand plows have to clear it regularly, lest it be overblown, and become impassible for vehicles. Sand banks remind of snow banks, sand drifts of snow drifts, sand storms of snow storms, sandalanches of avalanches. My fellow traveler through life who conceived of the word sandalanche, also described White Sands as “glacier of the desert.” Yet, unlike a snowy environment, this world was hot. Windy conditions mitigated the heat, but also left shoes and skin feeling gritty, a detail not appreciated by my companion. He prefers the crunch of snow to that of sand, which likely inspired his wintery neologisms.

Covering nearly 300 square miles, with individual dunes reaching heights of approximately 100 feet, the undulating scenery would be disorienting were it not for the vertical posts which mark several trails, and try to keep the hiker from getting lost. A limited number of backcountry camp sites on the Monument are accessible by foot only, but since we were not equipped for backpacking, we hope to experience the solitude and vaunted views of the desert night sky during a future foray.

That plants and animals survive in what appears an extremely inhospitable environment is worthy of marvel. White Sands’ vegetation is more dense and varied than at the Great Sand Dunes, and comprises grasses, bushes, and flowers well adapted to desert life. Among the most impressive is the Soaptree Yucca whose stem can extend 20 feet below the surface. Animal tracks bespeak the diversity of the local fauna which includes insects, reptilians, birds, and mammals, but are evanescent, waiting to be swept away by the next breath of wind.


Light-colored lizards and foxes represent a perfect adaptation to this bright habitat, jet-black ravens notwithstanding. Several camouflaged reptilians made an appearance at mid-day, but most mammals, apart from humans, took a siesta during the mid-80s heat. Despite the air temperature, we were surprised by the persistent coolness, and chalky consistency of the dunes to the touch of our hands and feet.

Red, or white, in Colorado or in New Mexico, the sandy mounds in both locations are permanently in flux, rippling like waves, swirling in the breeze, relentlessly blanketing whatever enters their path. Both transport the human visitor into a realm of contrasts: at once soft and harsh, attractive and deterring. And both continue to ripple through my consciousness and evoke images of otherworldly beauty. IMG_2038


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Travel begets more Travel

When one of Goethe’s poems entitled “Mignon” was on our lesson plan during high school in Germany decades ago, we mockingly quoted it to one another in our adolescent inanity: “Do you know the land where the lemon trees grow,…”. I had already been reminded of Goethe’s memorable visit to Italy when I happened upon his monument in the park surrounding the Villa Borghese, but when I beheld a lemon tree in the middle of Rome, on a busy sidewalk, surrounded by buildings and pavement, his verses returned unbidden.

It did not take me long to realize that what, at first, appeared exceptional and exotic in this urban setting, was widespread and common, reflecting its Mediterranean climate. Despite living at 38 degrees northern latitude in Colorado, compared with Rome’s almost 42 degrees, one does not get the sense of living in a “southern” environment at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Rome, on the other hand, kept serving reminders of its position on the globe.


I was captivated by the verdant, lush, and, to me, tropical flora, including emblematic stone pines, descriptively called umbrella pines, enchanting mimosa trees whose pink plumes fluttered in the breeze, climbing vines covering old stone walls and rooftops, and flowers issuing in all shapes and sizes.


Even though my destinations were mainly structures built of stone, their charm was enhanced by the plants that grew on, between, and over them, and never was I as aware of this as on my last morning in Rome. I was out of the hostel at first light, knowing that I would have to be at the airport early in the afternoon. To save time, I traveled by metro to San Giovanni station in the city’s southeast quadrant, where I intended to visit St. John Lateran Basilica. When my entrance was barred because of a bishops’ conference, a glance at the street map convinced me that I could follow the old town wall, and reach the nearby Via Appia Antica, or Appian Way. In the gyri of my brain, likely in the vicinity of Goethe’s verses, lay the memory that this main travel corridor connected ancient Rome to Southern Italy’s port city of Brindisi, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which served as the focus for trade with the Orient, before Rome built its own harbor. I did not have enough time to explore it thoroughly, but I marched on its cobblestoned surface against the busy morning traffic to the famous Quo Vadis church where Peter, during his flight from Rome, encountered a vision of Jesus, which resulted in the apostle’s return to the city and his death by crucifixion. The church was closed, so I veered onto an inviting, tree-lined side street leading to one of three catacombs, the Catacombe di San Callisto, final resting place for thousands of early Christians. While this subterranean experience was impressive, even more so was the feeling of having left the big city behind me, and of being in the Italian Campagna, the busy city within walking distance notwithstanding.


Azalea-lined paths, and expanses of meadows bordering pastoral villas invoked rural Italy, with its rolling countryside and groves of olive trees, possibly the country’s most characteristic, next to lemon trees.


It became evident within hours of my arrival that my ravenous appetite for Rome would not be stilled with this trip, and within hours of my departure, I was also overcome by a hunger for additional Italian destinations, and for more sun, blooming flowers, burgeoning trees, rolling hills, the Mediterranean, sandy beaches… For Goethe, his time in Italy was life- and career-changing. I suspect that few people can visit this country without being moved to their core. I was.

To guarantee a return to Rome, I had already followed the custom of tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain over my shoulder. I accidentally left a cardigan hanging over a fence south of Rome, and hope that this might ensure a return to rural Italy. So far, I am still dreaming about the fulfillment of my wishes.

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A View of Rome

At any new destination, I like to obtain a bird’s-eye view, if possible, and during my sojourn in Rome, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica provides one such perch. This imposing landmark is visible from multiple vantage points throughout the city, and once inside the nave of the church, I feel dwarfed when glancing up at its height of nearly 450 feet. To reach the cupola, one has to mount 551 stairs, even though it is possible to bypass the initial 231 by taking an elevator. There is never any doubt in my mind that I will ascend all of them under my own power. With the ubiquity of high-carb foods in the country synonymous with pasta and pizza, burning off a few extra calories will make my next meal more pleasure-, and less guilt-laden. Only a few hours earlier, I saw a restaurant advertise “habemus pizza”. The allusion to “habemus papam”, the official declaration following the successful election of a new pontiff, made be both hungry, and laugh.

After the first set of steps, I enter a balcony at the base of the dome.

Cupola of St. Peter's Basilica

Cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica

From the ground level, vertiginously distant from this altitude, I only saw its gilded surface, but from here I appreciate its artistic details, its frescoes, and angelic mosaics.

One of many mosaics at the base of the cupola

One of many mosaics at the base of the cupola

A circular inscription from the Gospel of St. Matthew below the balcony revolves around Saint Peter who was reportedly crucified where this temple of Catholicism is now located. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” translates as “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven”.

The remaining 320 steps are enclosed in a narrowing spiral staircase which would be a nightmare in case of claustrophobia, from which I, thankfully, do not suffer. When I finally emerge into the open, Rome stretches out in all directions, surrounded by the hilly Campagna which adds a picturesque backdrop to the urban tapestry, under the canopy of a blue sky dappled with clouds. Closer at hand, the statues of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles lord over St. Peter’s Square from the rooftop of the basilica and seem to bless all of Rome, and the Tiber River, lifeblood of the city.

St. Peter’s Square and Tiber River, seen from the top of the dome

St. Peter’s Square and Tiber River, seen from the top of the dome

To the north and west the Vatican’s meticulously groomed and verdant gardens doubtlessly benefit from the river’s presence. Beyond the stream, the emblematic walls of the Colosseum invoke ancient Rome’s might and terror, as well as its architectural ingenuity, similar to the Pantheon, also in the line of sight. Both edifices have survived nearly two millennia and the cupola of the latter served as a model for Michelangelo’s dome which holds me up at present. His life from 1475 until 1564 fell into the period when the current basilica was erected, at the site of an older one, dating to the fourth century. I recall my woefully short hours at the Vatican Museums earlier in the day whose walls also enclose the paintings of the Sistine Chapel, arguably Michelangelo’s greatest creation. While I stood agape before his superb artistry not so many hours ago, little did I expect to experience elation again so soon, but it should not have come as a surprise. In this metropolis where one superlative supplants another, it seems improbable that this current pinnacle will be equaled, or even exceeded, but somehow I expect exactly that.

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Scio me nihil scire

It has been said that a year would not suffice were a pilgrim to the Holy City to seek out one church daily, and I for one believe it. Two greeted me in the vicinity of the main train station immediately upon my arrival, and I was never far from one throughout my stay. During the few days at my disposal, I dedicated one to St. Peter and the Vatican, but at least one more ecclesiastical edifice piqued my interest: Santa Maria della Vittoria, home of “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, a sculpture by the seventeenth century Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Though I am no connoisseur of Catholic Saints, or of Baroque art, a likeness of the monument features prominently in a spellbinding contemporary novel, Cutting for Stone, by Dr. Abraham Verghese, and after my literary acquaintance, I was determined to encounter it “in the stone”.

The church’s impressive but understated earth-tone external façade did not prepare me for its opulent interior.

Interior of Santa Maria della Vittoria

Interior of Santa Maria della Vittoria

Sumptuous paintings, ornate marble columns, and stucco angels occupied the sacred sphere, but despite their brilliance, my eyes did not rest on them long, and were drawn to one the side chapels. There, in a world of marble, the life-size luminous figures of Teresa and an angel float on a cloud, surrounded by a shrine illuminated by a circle of golden rays. The Saint is half-recumbent, her head extended, her eyes closed, and her face enraptured. The angel lifts her billowy dress and points an arrow at her heart.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

By her own report, Teresa had visions of being tormented by this angelic arrow whose flaming tip pierced her repeatedly, setting her on fire with a great love for God. The Carmelite nun who lived in Spain in the sixteenth century (1515-1582), was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, and the sculpture was completed by Bernini in 1652, in response to a commission by a Catholic Cardinal who desired it as the crowning jewel for his burial chapel.

I can’t judge whether Teresa’s ecstasy is carnal, rather than chaste, which seems to have been a perpetual debate since her creation, but this realistic and exquisite piece of art by Bernini aroused my curiosity about the artist. Not knowing much beyond his name before my sojourn in Rome, repeated references to him in my guide book attested to his pervasive influence throughout the city. Next to Teresa’s inspired rendering, he was instrumental in the redesign of St. Peter’s Basilica where he created the immense bronze baldachin covering St. Peter’s tomb, and later fashioned the semicircular colonnades that contribute to the beautiful symmetry of St. Peter’s Square.

Fountain of the Four Rivers with the God representing the Ganges; the others show the Nile, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata, each representing one of the four known continents of the era

Fountain of the Four Rivers with the God representing the Ganges; the others show the Nile, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata, each representing one of the four known continents of the era

Other masterpieces include the Fountain of the Four Rivers on The Piazza Navona, the Triton Fountain on the Piazza Barberini, and the whimsical Elephant with Obelisk on the Piazza della Minerva near the Pantheon, though the latter was likely completed by one of his students. Bernini, precocious artist extraordinaire, proved his special talent before the age of ten, and his mastery of sculpture and architecture proved as rich as his eighty-one years on earth, in the course of which eight successive popes employed his services.

During my all-too-brief stay in Italy’s capital, and my semi-accidental stumbling upon Bernini, I recalled a phrase attributed to Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”. I am reminded of this sensation daily, but traveling to new frontiers has a way of magnifying it. Rome was no exception, and it would take an eternity to explore all the city has to offer. For lack of this, I must content myself with the hope of an occasional visit, and prepare to be surprised each time.

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