The fortified church in Bazna

The village of Bazna (“Baaßen” in German and “Bázna” in Hungarian) is technically a commune comprised of three villages: Bazna, Boian and Velt. Settled by Saxons in the 13th century, the land was great not only for agriculture but also gave forth natural gas and springs of water containing salt and iodine.

The fortified church you’re about to see in my photographs was built in the 15th century. A hundred years or so later, it gained the surrounding fortified walls and defense tower. You’ll find an oddity in that tower: it’s also a bell tower and it has three bells made sometime between the 14-15th century. That’s not something often seen in Transilvania, where most of the bells were melted to make weapons during WWI.

The church has a caretaker and is well-maintained, which is more (much more) than can be said for most of the other fortified churches in Transilvania.

Enjoy the photographs! I took them in April of 2010.

A visit to Villa Vizcaya

The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, previously known as Villa Vizcaya, is the former villa and estate of businessman James Deering, of the Deering McCormick-International Harvester fortune. It’s located on Biscayne Bay, in the present day Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Deering used Vizcaya as his winter residence from 1916 until his death in 1925.

The estate property originally consisted of 180 acres of shoreline mangrove swamps and dense inland native tropical forests. The villa was built primarily between 1914 and 1922, at a cost of $15,000,000, while the construction of the extensive elaborate Italian Renaissance gardens and the village continued into 1923.

The estate’s name refers to the northern Spanish province Vizcaya (In English Biscay), in the Basque region along the east Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay, as ‘Vizcaya’ is on the west Atlantic’s Biscayne Bay. Records indicate Deering wished the name also to commemorate an early Spaniard named Vizcaya who he thought explored the area, although later he was corrected that the explorer’s name was Sebastián Vizcaíno. Deering used the Caravel, a type of ship style used during the ‘Age of Exploration’, as the symbol and emblem of Vizcaya. A representation of the mythical explorer “Bel Vizcaya” welcomes visitors at the entrance to the property.

Vizcaya is noteworthy for adapting historical European aesthetic traditions to South Florida’s subtropical ecoregion. For example; it combined imported French and Italian garden layouts and elements implemented in Cuban limestone stonework with Floridian coral architectural trim and planted with sub-tropic compatible and native plants that thrived in the habitat and climate. Palms and Philodendrons had not been represented in the emulated gardens of Tuscany or Île-de-France.

James Deering died in September 1925 on board the steamship “SS City of Paris” en route back to the United States. After his death Vizcaya was inherited by his two nieces, Marion Chauncey Deering McCormick and Ely Deering McCormick Danielson, and that’s where the tale turns even sadder, at least for me. I do wish heirs could hold on to these grand estates after they inherit them. Surely they also got some money as inheritance. Couldn’t they have become proper stewards of the place? History answers that question with a no. Over the decades, after hurricanes and increasing maintenance costs, they began selling the estate’s surrounding land parcels and outer gardens. In 1945 they sold significant portions of the Vizcaya property to the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, to build Miami’s Mercy Hospital. 50 acres (200,000 m2) comprising the main house, the formal gardens, and the village were retained.

In 1952 Miami-Dade County acquired the villa and formal Italian gardens, needing significant restoration, for $1 million. Deering’s heirs donated the villa’s furnishings and antiquities to the County-Museum. Vizcaya began operation in 1953 as the Dade County Art Museum. The village and remaining property were acquired by the County during the mid-1950s. In 1994 the Vizcaya estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark. In 1998, in conjunction with Vizcaya’s reaccreditation process by the American Alliance of Museums, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust was formed to be the museum’s governing body.

Visitors can now see the villa, estate and surrounding gardens at 3251 S Miami Ave, Miami, FL 33129, USA. You can get tickets and consult visiting hours at the official website.

I have prepared a gallery of 103 photographs we took there, and I hope you enjoy seeing them!

A visit to Las Vegas

Situated in the Mojave Desert, its Spanish name means “The Meadows” because of the wild grasses and desert springs originally found there. An oasis in an otherwise dry and unwelcoming place, it became known to Native Americans over 10,000 years ago. It was discovered by the modern world in 1829, when a young Mexican scout named Rafael Rivera put it on the map. Settlers were slowly but surely drawn there and in 1905, it became a city. In 1911, it was incorporated.

Its growth back then was limited by the small water supply, but in a couple of decades, things were about to change in a big way. The year when Las Vegas came to be known as the place we know it today was 1931, when it legalized gambling and reduced residency requirements for divorce to six weeks. This move was “blessed” later that year when construction on the massive Hoover Dam started nearby. This meant the city now had access to an incredible water supply and it began to grow in spite of the Great Depression, helped by the influx of workers who stayed there to work on the Dam. The workers wanted to have fun when they weren’t working and thus Las Vegas began to gain its reputation as Sin City. After WWII, the big real estate developments began and the Strip as we know it today began to take shape. Hotels, casinos and stores, each bigger, more colorful and more lit than the other, dotted the ever-changing cityscape. And let’s not forget the appearance of heavy-duty, commercial air conditioning units in the 1950s, which can be credited with the tremendous growth in human settlements in what were uninhabitable areas. None of the large real estate developments in any of the hot places in the world would function without air conditioning.

Here is a gallery of photographs I took back in 2010 during a visit to Las Vegas. Drab during the day, its colors washed out by the desert sunlight, this place truly comes alive at night and it stays that way till morning. Throngs of people always crowd its sidewalks and the car traffic slows to a near halt on the Strip due to gawkers. If you’re going to visit, I recommend you do it during the cooler seasons (autumn, winter or spring). Visit the shops and museums during the daytime and save your evenings for walking around on the Strip and taking in the lights and the entertainment. It is unlike anything on Earth at night. The place screams abundance and availability of anything and everything. It is the pinnacle of consumerism. While I was there, I got a clear sense that everything you could want was readily available. Ads are everywhere, for every thing. All of the luxury brands have a visible presence there. Every big hotel has its own shopping mall inside, exquisitely decorated, lit to perfection and air conditioned to keep you comfy and happy. Restaurants are everywhere. Bars are everywhere. Should you want to go outside, hustlers on the sidewalk hand you phone numbers for “entertainers” of all sorts. Young women invite you into the casinos. Big LED panels flash ads at you non-stop. The buildings are all lit to perfection, to accentuate their architecture and make them stand out and draw you in. You will get visually and mentally overwhelmed by it all, so be ready for that. As I said above, I took these photos in 2010. The city has changed yet again since then. Some places already look different. Frequent change is the only constant there.

Enjoy the photographs!

Italian road trip – Day 6 – Rome

Day 5 ended with us exhausted, crashing onto our beds and having a sound night’s sleep after a paradoxical search for a hotel with available rooms in what is one of the largest cities in the world with plenty of hotels. But that’s how things were that night. We woke up to a beautiful day and we set out to explore Rome.

I had set a grand goal: to show my companions the Rome I knew from 1999, ten years earlier. The part I hadn’t worked out yet in my enthusiasm, was that I’d explored Rome in three weeks, by myself, and now I was going to drag four people in tow to see a lofty list of places in a single day. Make no mistake about it, there were repeated protestations as the day progressed, but it was hard to hear them as I walked ahead at a military pace…

When it was all said and done, after putting my incredibly patient companions through a full day of exploration with little food or drink (there was no time, we had to see everything on my list…), I set another goal: reach a seaside town called Ladispoli by nightfall and find a hotel. Yeah, I did that to them, too! I didn’t let them sleep, I packed them into the car and off we went. I still can’t believe they put up with me. I know I wouldn’t have. Now that I’m in my 40s (this was back in 2009 mind you), I know I wouldn’t do this to myself or to others. The pace was too hectic, we couldn’t take things in. By the end of the day, it was all a blur. Thank goodness we took photos, or else we wouldn’t remember much.

Enjoy our memories from that day!

The fortified church in Sebes

This fortified church looked quite different when it was first built using the Romanesque style in the beginning of the 12th century AD. It was soon destroyed by the Tartar Invasion of 1241-1242. Afterward, the work progressed more slowly and in the Cistercian Gothic style which we see today. Parts of the older structure were used and integrated into the new architecture, resulting in a larger, unified whole where you can still see that some things don’t quite belong. For example, at one of the main entrances you get to glimpse part of the older, lower entrance to the left of the Gothic arches.

The chorus balcony dates back to 1370, is 23 meters tall and the columns which support it are 11 meters tall. The main structural work ended around the year 1420, the Saxons having made a lot of progress in the late 14th century due to a period of prosperity. The church itself was fortified and an impressive defense wall was built around the edifice. A separate chapel was built on the side of the church where religious objects and clothing are stored.

In the 15th century, Sebes entered a period of Ottoman occupation that lasted 40 years. Somehow the guilds prospered in this period and that meant the church was further developed and decorated. The Renaissance altar is 13 meters tall and 6 meters wide and dates to 1520. The Gothic ceiling supports are decorated with sculpted Green Men, mythological and biblical creatures. The church has a beautiful and functional organ built in 1791 by the brothers Reiger and a black grand piano built in the second half of the 19th century. When we skip forward to WWI, we find out that the church bells were confiscated and used for cannonballs, but they were replaced in 1925. A restoration effort in the mid-1960s brought the church somewhat modern amenities such as electric lighting and it took care of various structural and decorative issues.

Services are still held in the church (see the schedule posted in the photo gallery) but very few Saxon parishioners are left (about 20 of them attend regularly).

Enjoy the photographs!

The fortified church in Moardas

There is a fortified church in the small village of Moardăș in Transilvania, also known as “Mardisch” in German and “Mardos” in Hungarian. A strange-sounding name in Romanian, Moardăș it seems has cuman origins and comes from the precursors of the Hungarians of today. The older name seems to have been Ardesch (as the Saxons pronounced it), first mentioned in written documents in 1373 along with a priest named Michael of Ardesch. The village later became known as Mardesch, with the other variations being Muardesch and Muerdesch in the Saxon dialect.

In the village of Moardas, Transilvania, Romania

Just to show you how small it was, a census taken in 1516 counted 40 households, three widows, a shepherd, a miller and a schoolteacher. By 1532, when Johannes Honterus visited the region to draw a map of Transilvania, the count shrunk to 32 households. In spite of the village’s small size, it had a schoolhouse even in the early 1400s, a fact known because one of its bright young people, a Michael Eckhard of Ardisch, enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1434 to become a lawyer.

We jump to 1850 or so, when the village school gets rebuilt (1848) and a new census reveals the place has gotten bigger. It now has 545 inhabitants. In 1930, 628 inhabitants live in the village. That number shrinks in 1945, when the Communist regime ships quite a few of the Saxons in the village to the Soviet Union, into forced labor camps. Another census taken in 1946 reveals that 44 Saxons had been sent to the USSR, 45 emigrated to Germany and 262 were still in the village. After the Romanian “revolution” (read coup d’etat) of 1989, almost all of the Saxons emigrated to Germany.

I took the photographs you’ll see in this gallery in 2009, 20 years after the Saxons had left the village, leaving only a few of their elderly around. You’ll see them in these photographs below. We stopped to talk with them a bit.

Gypsies had moved into the empty Saxon houses and had systematically destroyed them: sold whatever they could (furniture, goods, etc.), burned the rest for firewood and when one house would fall down, they’d move onto the next one and suck it dry until it fell. By the way, in the States there’s a term for this: it’s called house-squatting and it’s illegal. It’s also illegal in Romania. It’s easier to evict illegal squatters in Romania than it is in the States. All that needs to happen is for the families of the Saxons who own the homes to reclaim the property. Even if it’s been decades, the heirs can successfully reclaim a house. It takes a few months to work that through the legal system but then the problem’s solved for good. I say these things because my heart aches when I see solid, beautiful Saxon homes, built by hard-working, honest farming folk, defaced and brought to the point of ruin by irresponsible social scum. I could show you stuff that’s much worse, in this village and in many others in Southern Transilvania, but I don’t want to go near those places because I’ll get too angry when I see the horrible damage.

Enough crap! Let’s get to the good stuff! Here are images of the fortified church. When we visited, the surrounding fortified wall had mostly fallen down but the church itself was in surprisingly good shape, and so was the parish house next door. That’s because they had the good luck to be renovated in 1913 and again in 1959. By 2009, the altar had been robbed of its valuable center painting and the various religious symbols and objects. The organ had been sold off. The church walls were still standing though. The floor could do with repairs and there were some leaks coming through the roof.

Good news though! Only a year later, in 2010, a work of restoration was spearheaded by a local Saxon, Fritz Roth. Specialists from Germany (Hans Seger and Hans Gröbmayr from München) came to help, a workforce of 30 volunteers was brought in and funds were obtained in part from the US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation. Mark Gitenstein was the US Ambassador to Romania at the time. The restored church was re-consecrated in October of 2011. My photos don’t tell this last part of the story, because they were taken in 2009. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to revisit the place and see how it looks now.