I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

The Book of Kells — Christ Enthroned

“Christ Enthroned,” from the Book of Kells.

For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:

Jesus Christ sits on a throne and solemnly cradles something very important — a book, the holy word of God. He has a lush head of curly flaxen hair and a thoughtful expression. Seated under an arch, he’s surrounded by a labyrinth of colorful, intricately woven designs.

This illustration from an old Bible tells the story of Jesus. This particular drawing came right at the point in the story (Matthew 1:18) where this heavenly Jesus was about to be born as a humble mortal on earth.

It’s just one page of the remarkable 1,200-year-old gospels known as the Book of Kells. Perhaps the finest piece of art from the so-called Dark Ages, this book is a rare artifact from that troubled time.

It’s the year 800. The Roman empire has crumbled, leaving Europe in chaos. Vikings were raping and pillaging. The Christian faith — officially embraced during the last years of the empire — was now faltering, as Europe was reverting to its pagan and illiterate ways. Amid the turmoil, on the remote fringes of Europe, lived a band of scholarly Irish monks dedicated to tending the embers of civilization.

These monks toiled to preserve the word of God in the Book of Kells. They slaughtered 185 calves and dried the skins to make 680 cream-colored pages called vellum. Then the tonsured monks picked up their swan-quill pens and went to work. They meticulously wrote out the words in Latin, ornamented the letters with elaborate curlicues, and interspersed the text with full-page illustrations — creating this “illuminated” manuscript. The project was interrupted in 806 when Vikings savagely pillaged the monastery and killed 68 monks. But the survivors fled to the Abbey of Kells (near Dublin) and finished their precious Bible.

Christ Enthroned is just one page — 1/680th — of this wondrous book. On closer inspection, the page’s incredible detail-work comes alive. To either side of Christ are two mysterious men holding robes, and two grotesque-looking angels, with their wings folded in front. Flanking Christ’s head are peacocks (symbols of Christ’s resurrection), with their feet tangled in vines (symbols of his Israelite roots). Admittedly, Christ is not terribly realistic: He poses stiffly, like a Byzantine icon, with almond eyes, weirdly placed ears, and E.T. fingers.

The true beauty lies in the intricate designs. It’s a jungle of spirals, swirls, and intertwined snakes — yes, those are snakes, with their little heads emerging here and there. The monks mixed Christian symbols (the cross, peacock, vines) with pagan Celtic motifs of the world around them (circles, spirals, and interwoven patterns). It’s all done in vivid colors — blue, purple, red, green, yellow, and black — meticulously etched with a quill pen. Of the book’s 680 pages, only two have no decoration.

As Christianity regained its footing in Europe, monasteries everywhere began creating similar monk-uscripts — though few as sumptuous as the Book of Kells. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, books became mass-produced…and thousands of monks were freed from being the scribes of civilization.

Siena: Italy’s Medieval Soul

I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. Stow away with me to Siena, Italy, in this excerpt from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite places, people, and stories from a lifetime of European travels. 

Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers perhaps Italy’s best medieval experience. Courtyards sport flower-decked wells, churches modestly share their art, and alleys dead-end into red-tiled rooftop panoramas. This is a city made for strolling. With its stony skyline and rustic brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.  

Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by its Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater — and it’s been one ever since. Siena’s loss became the traveler’s gain as its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic identity.  

This is most notable in Il Campo, where I begin my stroll. At the center of town, this great shell-shaped piazza, featuring a sloped red-brick floor fanning out from the City Hall tower, is designed for people, offering the perfect invitation to loiter. Il Campo immerses you in a world where troubadours stroke guitars, lovers stroke one another’s hair, and bellies become pillows. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.  

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers Siena’s citizenry around its City Hall with its skyscraping municipal tower. Catching my breath after climbing to the dizzy top of the 100-yard-tall bell tower, I survey the view and think of the statement this campanile made. In Siena, kings and popes took a back seat to the people, as it was all about secular government, civic society, and humanism. 

The public is welcome inside the City Hall where, for seven centuries, instructive frescoes have reminded all of the effects of good and bad government. One fresco shows a utopian republic, blissfully at peace; the other fresco depicts a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny. 

But the Church still has its place. If Il Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo is its soul — and my next destination. A few blocks off the main square, sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, this white- and dark-green-striped cathedral is as ornate as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The stony heads of nearly 2,000 years of popes — that’s over 170 so far — ring the interior, peering down from high above on all those who enter. 

Great art, including statues carved by Michelangelo and Bernini, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the exquisite marble pulpit in 1268. It’s crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling. I get up close to study the scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment. 

Trying to escape the crowds in the cathedral and on the main square, I venture away from the city center. I get lost on purpose in Siena’s intriguing back streets, studded with iron rings for tethering horses and lined with colorful flags. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhoods), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio, a wild bareback horse race that turns Il Campo into a thrilling and people-packed racetrack. 

Wandering further into the far reaches of the city, I’m tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto, and the city’s favorite treat: panforte. 

Panforte is Siena’s claim to caloric fame. This rich, chewy concoction of nuts, honey, and candied fruits impresses even fruitcake haters. Local bakeries claim their recipe dates back to the 13th century. Some even force employees to sign nondisclosure agreements to ensure they won’t reveal the special spice blend that flavors their version of this beloved — and very dense — cake. 

A key to enjoying Siena is to imagine it in its 14th-century heyday while taking advantage of today’s modern scene. After chewing on a chunk of that panforte, I decide to linger here into the evening, after the tour groups have boarded their buses and left town. I duck into a bar for aperitivo (happy hour), which includes a free buffet and now I’m primed and ready to join the passeggiata — an evening stroll. I time my arrival back at Il Campo to savor that beautiful twilight moment when the sky is a rich blue dome, no brighter than the proud Siena towers that seem to hold it high. 

Picasso’s “Guernica”  

Watching the recent events in Afghanistan unfold in the headlines, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to humanize far-away tragic events — and the unique ability of artists to do so. 

Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica” — more than 25 feet wide — is a powerful example of this. It’s not only a piece of art but a piece of history, capturing the horror of modern war in a modern style. 

The painting (which has been recreated, in this photograph, on a wall in the Basque market town of Guernica itself) depicts a specific event. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was the target of the world’s first saturation aerial-bombing raid on civilians. Spain was in the midst of the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), which pitted its democratically elected government against the fascist general Francisco Franco. To quell the defiant Basques, Franco gave permission to his fascist confederate Adolf Hitler to use the town as a guinea pig to try out Germany’s new air force. The raid leveled the town, causing destruction that was unheard of at the time (though by 1944, it would be commonplace). 

News of the bombing reached Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris. Horrified at what was happening back in his home country, Picasso immediately set to work sketching scenes of the destruction as he imagined it… 

The bombs are falling, shattering the quiet village. A woman howls up at the sky, horses scream, and a man falls to the ground and dies. A bull — a symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby…a modern “pietà.” 

Picasso’s abstract, Cubist style reinforces the message. It’s like he’d picked up the bomb-shattered shards and pasted them onto a canvas. The black-and-white tones are as gritty as the newspaper photos that reported the bombing, creating a depressing, sickening mood. 

Picasso chose universal symbols, making the work a commentary on all wars. The horse with the spear in its back symbolizes humanity succumbing to brute force. The fallen rider’s arm is severed and his sword is broken, more symbols of defeat. The bull, normally a proud symbol of strength, is impotent and frightened. The scared dove of peace can do nothing but cry. The whole scene is lit from above by the stark light of a bare bulb. Picasso’s painting threw a light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco. And, suddenly, the whole world was watching. 

The painting debuted at the 1937 Paris exposition and caused an immediate sensation. For the first time, the world could see the destructive force of the rising fascist movement — a prelude to World War II. 

Eventually, Franco won Spain’s civil war and ended up ruling the country with an iron fist for the next 36 years. Picasso vowed never to return to Franco’s Spain. So “Guernica” was displayed in New York until Franco’s death (in 1975), when it ended its decades of exile. Picasso’s masterpiece now stands in Madrid as Spain’s national piece of art. 

With each passing year, the canvas seems more and more prophetic — honoring not just the thousands who died in Guernica, but the 500,000 victims of Spain’s bitter civil war, the 55 million of World War II, and the countless others of recent wars. Picasso put a human face on what we now call “collateral damage.” 

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: The fabled Khyber Pass from Kabul to Pakistan

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this final journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I travel from Kabul over the fabled Khyber Pass to Pakistan.  

 

Friday, August 4, 1978: Kabul to Rawalpindi, Pakistan 

This was the morning I was psyched for. I don’t think I could have woken up feeling bad and I didn’t. Both Gene and I felt good. We had a last big Sina Hotel breakfast and caught our little 8:30 bus to Pakistan. 

This bus was the way I wanted to do Khyber Pass. I had dreamed of crossing this romantically wild and historically dangerous pass for years and it was very high on my life’s checklist of things to do — in the top five for sure. Now I was sitting on this kinky old brightly, but badly painted, bus next to a wonderful open window that let me lean half of my body out if I wanted to. Our seats were big and high yet crowded and the bus was full of Pakistanis and “Road to India” travelers. 

I was glad to get out of Kabul and almost immediately we were in a scenic mountain pass. From here to the border, while nothing by Pacific Northwest standards, was the closest thing to lush that we’ve seen in Afghanistan. We even passed a lake, but I saw no boats. I wondered how many, or how few, Afghans had ever been in a boat. 

Stopping in Jalalabad for a hurried lunch break, we were back on the road in 20 minutes. We were nearing the border and apprehension grew. We hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle but by now nothing surprised us. 

The Afghanistan border station, while time consuming, was easy. We just sat around eating a melon and wishing we had money for a Coke. Actually, we had planned our cash reserves very nicely and were leaving with no afghanis. We waited our turn to be searched, filled out the form, got our passports stamped — the usual process, and loaded back on only to stop 100 yards later for our introduction to Pakistan. 

This place was pretty unruly. We piled into a room and one by one we were called up to the desk. The customs official “hunt and pecked” our vital statistics into his register and stamped our passports. 

Passports in hand, we knew we were just halfway through the process, but we weren’t sure where to go next. We wandered into one ramshackle building, and in a dark room, two men jumped up from two cots and welcomed us to lay down. No thanks! We got out of there and were overrun by dope dealers and black-market money chargers. Everything was so open and blatant that it almost seemed legal. We bought $10 worth or Pakistan rupees and then tried to get our bags searched so we’d be done. Frustrated in the chaos, we just got on the bus and skipped the baggage check. At our window we were entertained by lots of hash sellers and a particularly persistent man with a small bottle of cocaine — 4 grams for $30. I took his picture and told him to get lost. 

Finally we were loaded and ready to do it — to cross the Khyber Pass. I was thrilled. Physically, it was just like any other rocky mountain pass, but when you’ve wondered, dreamed, and thought about something for many years, it becomes special. Up and up the bus climbed. Hanging out the window, I tried to take in everything — every wild turn in the road, every fortress-crowned hill, every stray goat, every gaily painted truck that passed us, and every mud hut. I looked at the rugged people who inhabited this treacherous pass and wondered who they were, how they lived, what stories could they tell. Dry, rocky graveyards with wind-tattered flags littered the hillsides. Clouds threatened. We were moving out of the arid Arab side of South Asia and into the wet Indian subcontinent. From now on we would feel muggy — but enjoy the green countryside. 

We crossed the Khyber Pass and passed through a tribal village to pay a toll for the privilege. I could see the men around with rifles ignoring the bus and gathered in circles trading both goods and stories. 

In a few minutes we were in Peshawar and found that a direct train to Lahore was leaving in an hour. We saw nothing to keep us in Peshawar and the magnetism of India was getting stronger and stronger as we got nearer and nearer. We hassled around trying to decide how, what, and where to buy our tickets. This was a new experience — learning how to handle the Pakistani train system. A little bewildered and not sure what was our best move, we bought $3.50 ticket (first class) for the 12-hour journey, wolfed down a quick 60 cents dinner, and found a spot on the not-so-classy first-class car. 

The only difference between first and second class was padded seats and $1.50. We figured for 12 hours it would be nice to have the pads. Our car was very crowded. I was happy to be near a window that blew in hot, muggy air. We pulled out at 5:50, almost on time, and I savored the breeze.  

The countryside was flat, lush, and interesting. After a while, I began reading Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was good and the time passed nicely. Then it got dark, and the bugs came. The lights worked like on my old bike — the faster you go, the brighter they shine. This was not a very bright train. The bugs got on me so to speak and I made a bloody declaration “Death by ruthless squashing to any bug that lands on me from now on”. I decided that I would just mash them with my thumb or fingers and roll them through my arm and leg hairs until they disappeared — either rubbing in or falling off. 

The ride dragged on. We decided to break up the ride to Lahore at Rawalpindi, the halfway spot, catch an early train in the morning to complete the trip. 

It was nearly midnight as we stepped into the muddy puddled streets of Rawalpindi. There was a 5:15 train to Lahore in the morning so we could catch a good four hours of sleep — if we could catch a hotel. It looked very bad — every one was full and other people looking for a place were also frustrated. Luckily, I found a guy with a single open and a shower next door (Gene didn’t tell me about the lizards until later). Otherwise, it was a hole barely worth the10 rupees ($1) we paid. But it did serve its purpose. I took a cooling shower and found a comfortable spot among the bumps and curves of my cot and soon I had worked myself to sleep. Today was a good day — lots of miles covered, a new country and I had crossed the Khyber Pass. 

 

(This is journal entry #5 of a five-part series. If you missed any along the way, scroll back to Tuesday, Aug. 17 on my Facebook page.) 

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: 500 Miles across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I ride 500 miles across Afghanistan and explore the capital city of Kabul.

 

Tuesday, August 1, 1978: Herat to Kabul 

At 4:00, we were woken up and it was dead night. No one should be awake at that hour but there I sat on the edge of my bed. We had a melon and caught our 5:00 Qaderi bus to Kabul. 

The bus was organized, punctual, and we were moving. Dawn was cracking as those sleeping on the sidewalks began to stir. Our boisterous bus honked loudly as if it was psyching itself up for the 800-kilometer ride that lay ahead. The road was good and we kept a good speed, stopping only for a quick Coke all morning. The countryside was desolate, hot, and foreboding. A herd of camels, a stray nomad or cluster of quiet tents, a mud brick ruin melting like a sand castle after being hit by a wave, and the solitary electricity line accompanied the narrow, but well-paved, US and USSR-built road across the Afghanistan desert. It really was not a scenic ride, but I gained an appreciation for the vastness of this country of 10 million people by the time the 14-hour ride was over. 

We had one short lunch stop where Gene and I had a Fanta and some peanuts and I got some use out of my zoom lens and then we raced on. This was the greatest ride. Our driver actually wanted to keep a good tempo. The countryside didn’t change all day. The same lazy, goofy camels and sleepy gray-brown mud castle towns kept passing with the stark dirt mountains jaggy in the background. We had three stops to pray to Mecca during the afternoon and just as darkness fell, we entered Kabul. Gene wasn’t feeling well so we took a cab to touristy “Chicken Street” and found the nicest hotel we could — the not too nice, but OK, Sina Hotel. 

Gene went straight to sleep while I had a lousy dinner with a friendly student from Philadelphia who was here to study the language. I’m spoiled after our great Herat hotel. 

Oh well, I’m in Kabul. Imagine that — so close to my dream — the Khyber Pass and India. I do believe I’m more than halfway around the world from Seattle. I’ll have to check a globe. I hope Gene’s better — and I’m still good — in the morning. 

 

Wednesday, August 2, 1978: Kabul 

It’s a mistake to go to bed without a watch. I slept ok but got up too early. Gene was in pretty sad shape so he stayed in bed. For breakfast I had a melon, a big carrot, and two boiled eggs and tea in the Sina Hotel courtyard. I was laid back from the start today because I knew we had two days in Kabul and there wasn’t much to get excited about. I talked with a German girl who was just recovering from an eight-day bout with “Tehran tummy” and who wanted to go home. Home is a very nice thought when you’re travelling to India. It’s even more heavenly when you’re sick. 

Getting down to business, I walked to the Pakistan bus company and got tickets for over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan for Friday morning. Then, with several incredibly persistent shoeshine boys tailing me, I ducked into the Pakistani embassy and was happy to learn that Americans need no visas to travel through Pakistan. We were set. Wow — Khyber Pass, Pakistan, and then on to India!  

Back at the hotel, I checked on Gene. He was feeling very rugged still. I brought him special magic tea and two boiled eggs and hung around for a while. His tendency was to fast and sleep it off.  

It was quite hot now as I set out to cover Kabul, what an unenviable task. I had no map or information. I really couldn’t get oriented in this blobby, hodgepodge capital. The city is like a giant village sprawling out along several valleys that come together. It seems to love its sadly dried-up river, which is very little water with a wide and rocky bed. It was hot and dusty, shade was rare, and I felt very obvious being alone and wearing my shorts. Nevertheless, I walked and wandered covering a good part of Kabul. 

I walked through some very seedy parts, searched in vain for the tourist information place, and caught a taxi to the Kabul Museum. It was a long ride and he fiercely resisted the 40 afghanis I paid him. He wanted 60. I thought 40 was very fair and finally, just to lose him, I paid 50. Then I found out that the museum I came to see was closed. Feeling a bit frustrated and down on the people who heckled and gathered around me, I hopped onto a crowded bus and rode it to its end which was just where I wanted to be. This was a busy place. The only real city in Afghanistan and it had quite a number of large buildings and fancy institutes. But the tribal chaos permeates everything. Around a modern department store there’s old men with donkey loads of tomatoes, little girls selling small limes, piles of honeydew melons with a guy sitting on top sleepily smoking hash. 

I checked out a fancy hotel and sat in the cool bar sipping a Coke and eating a nice girl’s bread and then I walked up to the top of “Afghan store,” the closest thing to a Western department store, and found a nice restaurant with a beautiful view of ugly Kabul. 

An old man had me sit with him and he said, “I am professor so and so. What is your name and fame?” He was very excited to have a meal with an American but I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the proper mood and I wasn’t very talkative. He told me he would never forget his meal with “Mr. Rick”. I taught him the do-re-me scale and what a radish was. That was the only thing on my plate that stumped him. He left and I finished my meal under the silent stares of the other diners and then I headed home. 

The evidence of the recent revolution is everywhere. Our bus was checked (for guns I assume) upon entering Kabul, copies of the headlines on the day of the change are seen posted, there’s an 11:00 curfew and soldiers are everywhere with poised bayonets. On the street I saw what was left of a tank, blown to bits and left as a reminder that the old regime was dead. 

Later we ventured into our cozy little Sina Hotel courtyard for the mild dinner. I worked on a honeydew melon, we both had boiled eggs, and tea. Gene had some of Sina’s special sick man’s tea. The rest of the evening was lazy and dull. I wasn’t looking forward to another day in Kabul but there was no earlier bus and this would be better for Gene.

 

Thursday, August 3, 1978: Kabul 

Today was malaria pill day and the end of our third week on the road. We were at the doorstep of India, most of our work was behind, and most of the adventure was ahead. Our health was tenuous at best but both of us were determined that nothing would stop us now. I swallowed my super vitamin with zinc pills with black tea and had toast and eggs before going out for a walk. I had no big plans for today — just to pass the time and enjoy myself. 

I walked down “Chicken Street”, the touristic high-pressure point of Afghanistan, oblivious to the countless “Come into my shop mister, just look”s and realizing that out of all the junk everyone’s trying to see, there was nothing I really wanted. 

I dropped by the American center to do a little reading and escape the noon sun and later I got Gene to join me. That was about the first time he’d been out of the hotel in nearly two days. We just relaxed and read old news. The latest Time magazine was censored by the new government here. They censor any issue with articles about the USSR. That has left us with old news to read. It’s just not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Reading American magazines on the road is like going to an American movie on the road — it brings you home for as long as you’re immersed in it. 

After laying around the hotel for a while, I put on Gene’s baggy, white Afghan pants, grabbed my camera, and caught a bus to the edge of town. It’s kind of nice not knowing or caring where you’re going. I just got on any old bus, paid one afghani, and rode it for as long as I wanted — which was the end of the line. The bus driver invited me for tea, I accepted, and the gang gathered around to stare. Boy, I must really be a strange looking dude to these people — they can stare endlessly. Last night I wrote a poem called “Afghan Eyes” about a little girl who stared at me for five hours on our bus ride from Herat. 

I put on my zoom lens and wandered into a group of tents where an entire community was living. It’s really a pity they were camera-shy. I managed to find plenty of Afghans, however, who were dying to have their picture taken and I did my best to accommodate them. Hopping back on a bus, I was soon back in the touristy world of “Chicken Street.” 

Gene was tired of being cooped up and he finally had an appetite. I was having a little loose-bowel trouble myself and, after taking several alternate turns each on the toilet, we walked slowly down the street to find dinner. 

The “Steak House” caught my eye when we first came to Kabul, and now we would try it out. I wasn’t counting on anything fantastic — just hoping. Actually, I got a very good steak and vegetable dinner for less than a dollar, complete with soup and a pot of tea. That hit both of our spots wonderfully. After the meal, we did a little money changing — getting rid of our Iranian and Turkish money and getting 50 Pakistani rupees. 

We felt better after that good meal and went back home. I spent the evening in the courtyard catching up in this journal, repairing a strap on my pack, and enjoying tea and a Fleetwood Mac tape. It will be very good to be on the move again tomorrow.  

Being so rich (even as a lowly backpacker) and so white in this poor and struggling corner of our world puts me in a strange bind as a traveler that I wish I could change. It’s kind of sad, but I realized today that I tend to build a wall between me and any potential friends in this beyond-Europe part of the world. In Europe I love to talk with people and make friends. That’s even a primary reason for my travels there, but here there’s something in the way. I think a lot of it is suspicion, lack of understanding, and fatigue. Also, most of the people who I encounter around here who speak English, seem to speak it only to make money off the tourist. I wish I spoke the local language, but I don’t. 

 

(This is journal entry #4 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me travels from Kabul over the fabled Khyber Pass to Pakistan.)