Monday, February 24, 2014

BERGAMO, ITALY: Pterosaurs and Mammoths at the Museum of Natural Science

Capella Colleoni, Citta Alta, Bergamo, Italy
Hundreds of millions of years ago, during the Dinosaur Age, winged reptiles called pterosaurs ruled the skies. Soaring on long, skin-covered wings, they scooped up fish from lakes and rivers and snatched insects from the air with their long, toothy snouts.  One of the oldest known pterosaurs is Eudimorphodon, whose fossil bones were found in northern Italy in 1973 near the town of Bergamo. In late February 2003, I was in Torino, Italy, with my husband Art, who was there for a conference.

The Eudimorphodon fossils are about 215 years old.
At the time, I was researching my book about pterosaurs, and since we were not far from Bergamo, we decided to go there for a few days after the meeting so I could visit the museum where the Eudimorphodon fossils were displayed.

Walk to our hotel in Bergamo's Citta Alta
Bergamo is nestled at the foot of the Alps and has a long history, dating back to medieval times. The city has two parts. The ancient hilltop Upper Town (Città Alta) is a tangle of tiny medieval streets. It looks over the more modern  Lower Town (Città Bassa) and the hills beyond. A funicular connects the two. We stayed in the Upper Town both because it was close to the museum and because of its historic atmosphere.

Model of wooly mammoth in the lobby of the Bergamo Natural History Museum.
After checking into our hotel, we headed for the Natural History Museum where a model of a wooly mammoth greeted us in the lobby.  The inner rooms had display cabinets with a variety of prehistoric fossils and a huge diorama showing what life might have been like when Eudimorphodon was alive.

Model of Eudimorphodon
Eudimorphodon had a wingspan of about 39 inches and an unusual arrangement of teeth in its jaws.  At the front were several large fangs, and along the sides were rows of smaller teeth, with two more fangs in the middle.  Such teeth would have been good for catching and holding fish.  Skeletons have been found with fossils of scales in the area of the stomach, indicating that fish were part of this pterosaur’s diet. Like the dinosaurs, all pterosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.
View of Alps from Valcomonica
On our next day in Bergamo we did a driving tour of the lakes region, visiting Valcomonica, where thousands of prehistoric petroglyphs had been carved on the rocks.
Since the Citta Alta  is a tourist destination it had a number of good restaurants within walking distance from our hotel.  Our last evening there I ordered rabbit salad, a meal that I have since tried to replicate but it has never been quite as delicious as it was that night.

Read more about Bergamo at:

Monday, February 17, 2014

LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA: Rock Cut Churches and Christmas Celebration, Guest Post by Kathryn Mohrman

Pilgrims came to Lalibela from all over Ethiopia--by plane, bus, car, van, donkey, and on foot.
My friend, Kathryn Mohrman, an avid and excellent photographer, recently visited the highlands of Ethiopia on a photo tour with about a dozen other photographers.  She has graciously agreed to share some of her photos and impressions of the trip. Kathryn is a professor at Arizona State University and travels widely for her job as director of several projects with partner universities in China and Vietnam. You can see photos from her trip to Morocco last year at her 2/4/13 post on this blog.  I have known Kathryn since we were students together at Grinnell College in Iowa.
This is the approach to the church of St. George (you are looking at the roof of the church).  Notice that the church is free standing--there is an open area all the way around the structure.
Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia celebrate Christmas in early January. In the 12th century, King Lalibela created a group of churches hewn out of rocky cliffs in the northern highlands to form a "new Jerusalem" for believers. Today many devout Ethiopian Christians make a pilgrimage to Lalibela to celebrate the birth of Christ. Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The heart of Lalibela is a series of churches hewn out of rocky cliffs.
Lalibela is in the highlands of Ethiopia at about 8000 ft or 2400 m above sea level.  This was winter so it was fairly dry with no crops growing.We saw lots of livestock grazing in the fields--and walking down the roads.  In fact, I was almost run over by a bunch of galloping mules.
A few of the churches had frescoes painted on the ceilings; others had Bible scenes on canvas or wood as wall decorations. Passageways were carved through the rock to connect one church to the next.
Many thousands of pilgrims crowded the little town of Lalibela.  Often they had to wait quite a while to get access to the sacred sites. We saw informal preaching, singing and dancing in the courtyards surrounding some of the churches.  People were having a good time in addition to celebrating Jesus' birth. Turbans signify priests--they are expected to marry and have families.  Monks are celibate.
Priests would shake this instrument to accent the rhythm of their hymns.
We visited a monastery where we saw a number of precious objects.  This beautiful book was created in the 9th century when Europe was in the Dark Ages.
In the past there were hermits in little caves near the churches.  No hermits today, at least not in the main areas in Lalibela. 

People were expected to remove their shoes to go inside the churches.  Most pilgrims took off their shoes in the courtyards as well.
There is a Bible verse that says "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!"  Historic Jerusalem had a Needle's Eye gate and this is the Lalibela version.
As Christmas drew near, more and more people crowded into the courtyards.  On the night of Christmas Eve, many people camped out overnight in or near the churches to be ready for dawn on Christmas Day when a huge procession culminated the celebrations. (Read more about the celebration in this Smithsonian article.)

Several hours before dawn on Christmas Day, pilgrims were jockeying for position.  Many of them carried tall tapers although some used LED flashlights or their cell phones for light. Some priests, especially those who were collecting donations, wore beautiful robes and carried decorative umbrellas.
A large group of pilgrims came in several buses, complete with portable kitchen equipment.  After the final ceremony, the group gathered near my hotel for lunch before heading home.

 Noon on Christmas Day. 
This guy was one of my favorites.  I learned a proper greeting in Amharic which I said to him as he passed.  He walked a few steps, then turned around and blew kisses to me.  !!!

Monday, February 10, 2014

SEA BIRDS AND SEA LIONS: Walking the Coast Trail, La Jolla, CA

Cliff walk, La Jolla, California
If you are in San Diego and want a taste of nature, the half-mile cliff walk in La Jolla is the perfect place to go.  There you can view hundreds of birds roosting on the rocks and flying about above the cliffs, as well as playful sea lions frolicking in the water and basking on the rocks along the shore.  On a nice day (and these are what you expect when you go to Southern California!) you can see kayakers and paddle boarders enjoying the ocean as well.

Cormorants perched in tree along the path
I recently had the chance to take this short hike on a day trip to San Diego. From the parking area we descended stairs to the dirt path that winds its way along the top of the cliffs.  From the path there is a spectacular view across the bay toward downtown La Jolla and as you round the bend toward the viewing platform at the end of the trail you can look back and see the sea caves along the bottom of the cliffs.

Gulls and pelicans
A group of cormorants perched in a tree greeted us as we approached, and then as we got closer we could see and smell hundreds of the black birds clinging to the cliffs below.  Next to them was a group of pelicans and some gulls, who seemed to preferred the flatter rocks for perching.  As we watched the sea lions diving in the water we saw flashes of orange, which I assume were garibaldis, the large colorful fish common in southern California waters, which were swimming just below the surface. No doubt, the reason so many birds and sea lions live here is the abundance of available food.
California sea lions
It was a glorious day and we just enjoyed being in the outdoors, listening to the calls of the birds and barking of the sea lions as we soaked up the fall sunshine.  I am always surprised that even so close to a large urban area, the natural world just goes about its business as usual and gives us the opportunity to marvel at the wonders of nature.
Cormorants on the cliff

For more information about getting to the trail and where to park, go to this post at Natural Born Hikers.

Monday, February 3, 2014

TERMESSOS, Ancient City in the Mountains of Southern Turkey, photos by Tom Scheaffer

Ruins of the Ancient City of Termessos, near Antalya, Turkey
My brother Tom recently returned from a three-week trip to southern Turkey, staying first in Selkuk (near the ancient city of Ephesus) and then in Antalya, overlooking the Aegean on the Turkish Riviera.  While in Antalya, he went with friends one day to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Termessos, located in a mountain pass in Gulluk Dagi National Park about 24 miles from Antalya.

He wrote to me in an email: “Today we hiked up to some amazing ruins called Termessos. It is an old Roman trading post on the road from the Aegean Sea to the Mediterranean where people used to cross the mountains. It was very beautiful and peaceful. The weather has been perfect and it is good to come in the off season because there are few people.”

Termessos is one of the best preserved ancient sites in Turkey and dates from the time of Alexander the Great (who was never able to conquer it due to the rugged terrain and its highly defensible position high in the mountains).  The city is built at an altitude of more than 1000 meters (3000 feet) in a mountain saddle. The mountain peak rises 600 more meters above it. The city was abandoned after the aqueduct that provided the its water supply was destroyed in an earthquake.

Termessos is only accessible by a hiking path, requiring sturdy shoes and some endurance. But once one reaches the top, the views are spectacular. Tom has graciously allowed me to post some of his pictures of his trip to Termessos.

The remains of Termessos include the city's main square and marketplace, or agora, a large theater, temples, tombs and more.
For hours, a more detailed description of the site, and more information about Termessos, click HERE.
Tom Scheaffer recently retired from a career in teaching.  He is also an artist and is currently exhibiting some of his watercolor paintings at the Blue Dot Cafe in Alameda, California.  You can read about his exhibit and see some of his paintings in my January 8, 2014 post at my Caroline Arnold Art and Books blog.