Thursday, January 23, 2014

Spain's Salamanca, the Hobart conection.

                                       Salamanca Place named after the Battle of Salamanca.

Tasmania's capital Hobart was founded in 1804 during the Napoleonic Wars, so it was inevitable that important events would be recorded for future generations from these conflicts. The exploits of Wellington recorded in the naming of the city's  mountain backdrop. Mt Nelson  an inner city suburb, a reminded of Horatio Nelson's greatest victory against the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar [ Trafalgar Place] another Hobart landmark. The list is quite extensive Montpelier Retreat, Napoleon Street and of course the battle of Salamanca 1812, Duke of Wellington's victory in the Peninsular War when he drove the French out of Portugal and Spain.

                                                     Hobart's backdrop Mt. Wellington.

Salamanca Place a major market and entertainment area on Hobart's waterfront and is central to peoples idea of our city. I have often wondered what the original Salamanca looked like, I knew the city housed one of Europe's oldest and most distinguished university establish in 13th cent. and was quite beautiful. As a fairly inquisitive individual I felt that if ever the opportunity presented itself I would grasp it with both hands and visit. I had no visual picture of Salamanca and the ancient Roman town did not disappoint. A city of rich Renaissance architecture in golden coloured stone, of narrow cobbled streets, secured squares and  intense voices of its student population of around 50000. Central to the old town is Plaza Mayor one of the largest and grandest in Spain, a square boarded by cafes, bars and restaurants, and the stage for local events not dissimilar to Hobart's Salamanca Place and Square. The old warm stone buildings, narrow streets complete with a 1st cent. Roman bridge with few buildings more than a few stories make the town a walkers delight. This was the border territory between Moorish Spain and Christian Europe that ran along the hilltops on the other side of the river.

Looking across to the old town from the Roman Bridge.
A University faculty.

During my stay there, totally unexpected tome the annual Dia de la Hispanidad 12th October festival took place. The event commemorates Columbus's discovery of the Americas. The day turned out to be full of surprises starting with the playing of drums that drifted into the hotel room. At street level  the magnitude of the day  were apparent, various ethnic groups from all over the Spanish world in full national dress danced up the narrow streets to Plaza Mayor to take part in some sort of competition. Peruvian, Venezuelan, Chilean, Argentinian, they all seemed to be there dressed in an array of exotic costumes playing any array of musical instruments. As the day progressed the various groups performed national and folk dances, often there seemed to be more than one group of dancers dancing at the same time. The atmosphere was a little chaotic, but the crowd did not seem to mind. Whether many of these groups now lived in Salamanca I have no idea for all I know many may have been students here to learn classic Castilian Spanish.

One young women performed a sort of flamenco dance in bare feel accompaniment of three drummers much to the delight of the crowd who responded as though at a bull fight. It was just as well she had her drummers as her feet would have been unable the stamp the beat, her act was quite exceptional. All the groups were dressed for carnival, young and old, male and female, all danced as though their life depended on it. Many costumes were from head to toe and quite out of this world. The day finished around 8pm and the Plaza returned to normal. The day had been so unexpected and was all the more pleasurable for that.

Dancer entering the Plaza.
Dancer group entering the Square.
Entering Plaza Mayor.
Solo Dancer.
Costumes to kill for.
Looking across Plaza Mayor Salamanca.

Waiting their turn.
Relaxing after another hard day!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cygnet Folk Festival 2014

Cygnet Folk Festival 2014.

On the other side of the hill that raises behind my home lies the small Tasmanian town of Cygnet, a town that has over the years reinvented itself as it has moved its focus from a purely rural town of local farmers to becoming a centre of sorts for the creative arts. Each year Cygnet holds a Folk Festival now on its 32nd year, and over time the quality of the performances has continued to grow to the point that the Festival now has an international reputation. I must confess that over the years I have not taken as much interest in the events as I should, confining my visits to the free performances and the craft and food stalls that seem to be heart of such Festivals. Events that are scattered throughout the town over the three festival days, some of questionable quality and have wondered at times what all the excitement was about. This year I decided to buy a full day ticket and listen to  events that are held in the various halls.  This year there were some 120 different performers drawn from around the world and it would be impossible to classify all  the styles and quality of their music.


Naturally, various acts appeal to different tastes and with this years Festival’s theme of World Music the task of what to visit was not an easy one. Many of the musicians held workshops and master class in addition to their performances. Personally I felt four groups stood out, well from the ones I heard. Horse and Wood, a recital by Mongolian, Bukhchluum Gangbured and John Robinson was one they produced some amazing sounds. The music could best be described as a mix of Arabic Mongolian, Scottish mix jazz and heaven knows what. Bukhu sang with a mixture of deep throat vocals switching to different stunning sounds of singing that you would have to describe as amazing while playing his Mongolian guitar. The effect was quite unworldly, whether this is a traditional type of singing in his country I do not know, but it underlines the tremendous diversity of cultural life now present in Australia.


Mara Trio whose throaty rendition of Balkan, Turkish, and Bulgarian songs, struck a cord with the audience. To my ear she had that untrained voice from the throat rather than the lungs so much loved in Romania. Nicholas Lens’ Latin Mass, Flamma Flamma that I heard a few years ago had the same quality. He used some untrained Romanian female singers in the mass to produce this haunting sound that stays with you almost for ever.


The two headline acts, one the Afenginn Group from Denmark, fresh from having just won a Best World CD award, and other Gordie Mackerman and his Rhythm Boys were the crowd favourites. The Danish group had a wider range of musical repertoire moving from soul music to full jazz. The Rhythm Boys however were hard to beat in performance presence. This Canadian group from Prince Edward Island played a vibrant bluegrass jazz. At first I thought Gordie the violinist was Irish, a thin young man who could dance on rubber legs, play music plus held the audience spellbound. He was able to extract sounds from his violin that I am sure Stephane Grappelli would have been proud. Their music had that Tigar Rag quality so much loved by  early jazz fans. There were times when the floor seemed to be moving as much as the violinist from the tapping of so many feet. How Gordie is able to dance, play at such a tempo at the same time begs belief. These were for me the standout performers and the Cygnet organising committee for this Folk Festival need our congratulations for enticing these musicians to our little island at the bottom of the world.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Karabagh a nomansland?

                                  Grandma and grandfather monument. We are our mountain.

Armenian Karabakh.


Standing on the hilltop of Shoush, it is easy to see why the capture of this strategic town was so important to Armenian success in their struggle for independence. Evidence of war is still all too apparent in this small town where bombardment scares are worn like badges on buildings. Looking down on the roof tops of Stepanakert from this height it is little wonder that this tempting target was subjected to almost constant rocket bombardment on a daily bases. Historically Shoush had been the centre of Armenian and Azeri art and culture and in the 19th cent was one of the largest towns in the Caucasus, but now sadly has been reduced to a mere 3500 souls. The capture of this town in the middle of the night in a daring raid had been the turning point in the war. The operation took place on 8-9th May, 1992 under the command of A Ter-Tadevosyan who led a body of Armenian commandos in scaling mountainous slopes to reach the hilltop. Sadly he died in the battle, but the bold enterprise proved successful. The commandos had built their own rifles that may be seen today in Stepanakert Museum. At the time the undertaking was considered crazy, but such was the inner strength of the Karabakh population no obstacle was too great in their struggle for independence.. A memorial to the fallen in the form of a captured tank stands by the side of the road as you return to the capital. The town was significantly damaged during the conflict and only recently has restoration taken place to the Ghazanchetsot Cathedral, while many buildings still wait their turn. The operation was codenamed Wedding in the Mountains a name that has a great significance as annual mass weddings are held in Stepanakert in the hope that some of the newlyweds will settle here. Nagorno-Karabakh is home to only 150000 people, so population building is a high on the agenda. This Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan is still awaiting some sort of peaceful mutual settlement, but like so many things in life politics gets in the way. Life goes on however and much building has taken place in the last few years, large squares and tree lined streets give the town a pleasant feel along with several substantial buildings.. One new development has been the construction of ‘ wedding steps’, a broad large staircase lined with brides on one side and grooms on the other in the form of street lights, a rather novel and amusing sight. The town itself is typical Armenian, built around its market and central squares, the general impression the visitors gets is one of struggle and hardship for the people who live here. I did notice the temperature was considerably colder than Yerevan which would have to be expected given the regions height above sea-level, a light fog veils the town most mornings.

                                                Road to Shoush. Heather and the tank.

Foggy morning.

Stepanakert boast a fine museum that is well worth a visit, it allows the visitor to gain a better understanding of their struggle for independence, among the military exhibits such as the handmade rifles are various other ingenious weapons. The museum also houses items of historic interest, carpets, ceramic, clothing etc. In order to gain a better understanding of the current situation we drove up to the Askeran Fortress and on to Tigranakert archaeological site. The road took us through the destroyed town of Asterin with its field of destroyed tanks among shell craters near the Azerbaijan boarder. The town itself is now deserted with its destroyed houses standing forlornly in shadow among the tanks. The Tigranakert Museum contains a number of ceramic objects dating from 1500BC to more recent times. Unfortunately the site is not registered as a heritage area as it still stands in no-mans land, there are still large areas near the border where visitors should tread with caution. 

Mass weddings in Stepanakert.
                                                             City market.

Bride street lights.
On our drive back to town we pass a massive sculpture carved out of the local stone. It represents two elderly Armenians reinforcing their claim to be the true mountain people , The image is reproduced on many items sold to tourists.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Beyond Mt Ararat to The Republic of Mountainous Karabakh.

                                                      Watercolour sketch by Peter Kreet.
                                                             Saghmossavank. Ararat.

Mt. Ararat and beyond.

Mt Ararat will always remain close to the heart of Armenians, lying now within a Turkish embrace it still draws busloads of Armenian and foreign tourists anxious to gaze out across the border at their mountain. Legion claims the mountain to be Noah’s arch’s final resting although no archaeological studies have ever been able to confirm or deny this. However, recently a Chinese team from Hong Kong claims to have found the arch in a crevice on the mountain, but to date the location is top secret, only time will tell if this is it. The Creationists in America have been looking for the arch for years all to no avail. If the arch is found it would have significant impact on the authenticity  of the Old Testament. An understanding of the mountain’s place in Armenian history and the sadness many locals feel about their mountain now lying across the border in Turkey is fundamental to the Armenian sense of place.

Driving south out of Yerevan en route to Khor Virap Monastery and Mt Ararat the visitor becomes aware of another Armenia, a country still struggling with deprivation, you realise Yerevan is not the total picture. Nothing underlines the economic fragility of the State more forcefully than the forlorn rows of empty industrial buildings standing now in various states of rusty decay, products of the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Block economies in the 80s’. The result of wholesale stripping of machinery and plant from these enterprises for shipment back to Russia that left these sad looking monuments to their fate, now old iron statements of what once was. Unfortunately the market for their products also seems to have disappeared along with the Berlin Wall, leaving  landlocked Armenia with limited means of survival. Such momentous events have qualities all of their own, qualities that cannot be made to fit into any timeframe. History after all is a living thing that represents what happens to people in new circumstances. It expresses to any onlooker the struggle people must endue and how they survived. Those first years of independence that created economic difficulties particularly noticeable in the countryside were economic development is marginal.  Clearly any observer needs to understand the balance between these relationships to arrive at any valid conclusion about how the country is fairing. Looking out of my bus window, observing the passing obsolete building creates a feeling melancholy, it is easy to understand the black nature of the Armenian story, its history and literature. All I am able to do is observe and record my personal impressions and trust that better times are ahead.


In addition to the view of Mt. Ararat from Khop Virap Monastery, this hillside monastery was once the prison of St. Gregory the Illuminator, held here as a prisoner for twelve years. The pagan King Trdat held him captive in an attempt to crush Christianity before Armenia became the world’s first Christian state in 301. This conversion of Armenia resulted in the need to construct houses of worship,  St. Gregory  the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church set about the task with enthusiasm undertaking a  church building on top of pagan temples, a legacy of Greek, Persian and Roman religious belief and invasions. Khor Virap houses the cellar he was held in, and naturally everyone “needs” to climb down the steep steel ladder into the well he called home. I must confess it is a long way down and dark and how anyone let alone a Saint lived here for that length of time is truly amazing. The area is not large and I suspect very damp in winter, Armenia may reach minus 30 degrees in winter.  Standing there in the middle of this empty space you feel a sense of entombment and wonder how a Christian women secretly feed him for those twelve long years.  While my fellow travellers gazed out across to Mt Ararat cameras clinking, I slipped away and made a couple of quick sketches one of Mt Ararat and another of Khor Virap, like most monasteries in this part of the world  hillside sites are preferred resulting in  monasteries that appear to grow out of the surrounding rocky landscape.  These hillside sites were for protection from invading armies or rouge elements of human kind a constant threat to Armenian settlement.

                                                                Khor Virap Monastery.
                                                      Watercolour sketch. Peter Kreet 2013

The countryside once you leave the Araks river flats becomes hilly and offers little of agricultural value as far as I could see, the road now passes through scared hills of deep gorges, [we are in earthquake country,]  overgrown with weeds and badly eroded. We continued driving eastwards until eventually we arrived at the 13th cent Noravank Monastery. Most of these the old monasteries had been turned into museums during Soviet times and now as its not considered desirable for a practicing monastery and museum to co-exist together in the same building ,they have remained museums.  Noravank is a complex and consists of several churches a common practice in Armenia as new family patrons required new places of worship to be built next to older ones, or as the number of resident monks grew. This complex is located in a very dramatic hilltop setting seeming to grow out of the mountainside.  Additional places of worship have been carved into the mountain itself, one chapel containing a “holy” water well were on drinking  the water your wish may come true. A narrow stone stairway on the outside wall of Surp Astvatsatsin allows the adventurous to take a closer look at the inside of its dome. These two story churches are quite common, the faithful often buried on the lower floor, while the upper story was used for worship. Armenian churches are highly decorated in relief sculpture on the outside walls an architectural practice often extended to secular buildings even today. Nearby is the smaller church, St. Karapet that once claimed to have held a treasured piece of the True Cross stained with the blood of Christ. After completing a few drawings we adjourned to a riverside cafĂ© just down the road for lunch and sat listening to the rushing waters of the stream as it works its way around the stony river bed. My fellow bus companions are mainly expats Armenians from America, France and possible everywhere else. It is their remittances and investments in this “new” Armenia that has enabled the country to reconstruct itself. But for now they are content to laugh and sing over a typical Armenian lunch.
                                                 Noravank Monastery Complex.

Our journey now took a more dramatic turn as we wound our way over the mountainous terrain to the Nagorno-Karabakh border and towards Stepanakert the provincial capital. Passing through Syunik into Karabakh the surrounding countryside became far more rugged, steep rocky cliffs raising up and towering in a threating way over the road. Looking across the gorges and mountainous valleys it is easy to see why this region is sparsely populated. Hidden within this mountainous landscape are abandoned moss covered churches and monasteries. The people here call themselves mountain people and although Armenians think of themselves as people apart, a people who belong to these  mountains. Now caught in this cease fire zone life goes on and the Karabakhi hospitality and belief in the future makes it all worthwhile. Their long struggle for independence with handmade gun has been a hard one.  When we finally round yet another bend to reach  Stepanakert night has fallen and any possible secrets the city may hold will have to wait till the morning.