Paint it Orange! (Or King’s Day in Utrecht)

Revelers on the evening before King's Day, at the Utrecht vrijmarkt.

Revelers on the evening before King’s Day, at the Utrecht vrijmarkt, Friday, April 25.

If this were a sci-fi tale, it would begin with an extraterrestrial creature painting the Netherlands in a day-glow orange with magical properties that turns people inside-out, changes their personalities, and causes riots in the streets. Well, for two days this past weekend the Dutch were awash in orange, the national color, but the orange hues were self-applied, often in interesting styles. And while no one rioted in the streets (this year), the normally sensible, quiet Dutch were replaced by ecstatically happy, noisily-partying Dutch of all ages and stripes. The squares and parks were filled with musical entertainment for all ages, the streets and bars packed with party-goers, and orange-themed party boats sailed the canals, music and horns blaring.

 

Cute girl and father with matching hats. (Typical guy — still has the sales tag on it!)

I stopped to take a photo and in turn was toasted by these mid-day party-boaters. What fun!

I stopped to take a photo and in turn was toasted by these mid-day party-boaters. What fun!

The occasion? Koningsdag, or King’s Day, the first ever.  Hence the riotous parties and wild orange attire.  Since 1890, the Netherlands’ titular ruler has been a female member of the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch royal family. (The Dutch recognize the oldest child – not the oldest son – as the heir to the throne.) Back in the 1880’s, Princess Day was created to celebrate the birthday of the then heir apparent, Princess Wilhelmina. When Wilhelmina assumed the throne, the celebration logically became Queen’s Day. Since then, the country has usually celebrated the monarch’s birthday as Queen’s Day. (The exception was Queen Beatrix, Willem’s mother, who kept her mother’s April 30 birthdate as Queen’s Day as her own birthday was at the end of January – not exactly a great time to be having an outdoor party.)

More importantly, Queen’s Day (now King’s Day) has become the biggest national celebration in the Netherlands over the years. Sure, there are hard-core royalists who actually are honoring the monarch, but for the majority of Dutch, it’s just an opportunity to let loose and have one huge party all over the country. Flags were flown, public entertainment abounded, and the beer flowed, some of it orange…

The Dutch flag with an orange pennant at the top. The orange pennant, signifying the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch Royal Family, is attached on King's Day and on royal birthdays.

The Dutch flag with an orange pennant at the top. The orange pennant, signifying the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch Royal Family, is attached on King’s Day and on royal birthdays.

And why is this King’s Day so important? Last April 30, Queen Beatrix abdicated in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander, and there was neither a Queen’s or King’s Day, but a coronation. So, King’s Day 2014 was the highly anticipated blow-out of a party all over the country.

King’s Day in Utrecht

Even the Dom Toren was decked out in orange.

Even the Dom Toren was decked out in orange.

The major cities of the Netherlands are known for their unique spin on this annual celebration. Den Haag is known for its many musical venues at night, Utrecht for having the largest open air flea market, and Amsterdam, well, of course Amsterdam just has the biggest block party in the entire country.

Utrecht’s King’s Day celebrations begin at 6 p.m. the night before with the opening of the Vrijmarkt, literally “free market,” or flea market. Dutch throughout the country spread out blankets and set up stalls or card tables, to display for sale whatever trinkets, clothing, records, appliances or unwanted birthday gifts that have been collecting dust over the years. However, Utrecht simply has the biggest vrijmarkt in the country. Streets throughout the old part of the city were packed with gewgaws and people poring over them for something they just had to have.

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Because we didn’t get started walking through the vrijmarkt until after 10 Friday night, the streets were packed with bargain hunters and revelers were in full swing. Nonetheless, there were still many bargains to be had, often for € 1 or less, and the entire city was in party mode.

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What was remarkable was how neat the partiers were that first night….

Only the Dutch would neatly line up their trash. (It didn't last.)

Only the Dutch would neatly line up their trash. (It didn’t last.)

Saturday, April 26, was the main celebration of King’s Day. Michael and I donned our orange – sunglasses for him, an orange scarf & tee for me – and started out fairly early, shortly after noon, in search of the festivities. We walked a circular route through the binnestad (inner city) of old Utrecht, which is bisected by two canals, the Oudegracht (Old Canal) and Nieuwegracht (New Canal – which is over 500 years old!).

This being Holland, canals abound – everywhere – providing the perfect opportunity to get your friends together and take to the water for your party. Some boats brought their own DJ, other boats brought their own band. It’s a good thing these boats are fairly flat-bottomed: everyone was singing, dancing and tooting horns or whirling noise-makers.

Check out the various costumes and accessories on this party boat. Note the people sitting on the bridge above -- best seats in the house.

Check out the various costumes and accessories on this party boat. Note the people sitting on the bridge above — best seats in the house.

Happy party boat on the Oudergracht (Old Canal). Note the police patrol boat to the right and how amused they are!

Happy party boat on the Oudegracht (Old Canal). Note the police patrol boat to the right and how amused they are!

Party boats at a narrow section of the Oudegracht. The old Fish Market was held over the bridge; the small square is an outdoor cafe now.

Party boats at a narrow section of the Oudegracht. The old Fish Market was held over the bridge; the small square is an outdoor cafe now.

We stopped at several locales to quaff our thirst and take in the merriment. Part of the fun was checking out the various costumes. Unfortunately, I too often wasn’t quick enough or at the right angle to get a pic of some of the more entertaining, like a guy dressed in an orange “ermine” cloak and a huge crown on his head.

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Check out those checkered pants on the cyclist whizzing by.

Check out those checkered pants on the cyclist whizzing by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out that handsome dude with the orange zonnebrils (sunglasses).

Check out that handsome dude with the orange zonnebrils (sunglasses).

And walking through several streets converted to flea markets:

Hardbollen Street - the Ladies in Windows are no more. (The city relocated the prostitutes of Hardbollen St. to another party of Utrecht.)

Hardbollen Street – the Ladies in Windows are no more. (The city relocated the prostitutes of Hardbollen St. to another party of Utrecht.)

Breedstraat, around the corner from where we lived the first year, is normally a quiet interlude -- not during King's Day!

Breedstraat, around the corner from where we lived the first year, is normally a quiet interlude — not during King’s Day!

And of course, checking out the entertainment, from DJs on café sidewalks and in the smaller squares to bands galore.

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Willie and the Billies

Willie and the Billies

Our absolute favorite that day was a rockin’ band of guys in pink called Willie and the Billies. Their rousing, bouncy music was a combination of big band, jazz and polka along with on-stage antics. They were hysterically funny doing their schtick.

Ironically, Willie et al. were playing  in a little courtyard across from the apartment we had the first year in Utrecht. If we were still in that apartment, we could have sat on our balcony and enjoyed the band from there!

By about 4 in the afternoon, the inner city was packed. Some spots on our agenda we had to give up on because literally you could not push your way through the crowds. Sardines in a cannery have more wiggle room. Beer cans (almost exclusively Heineken – it’s like the Dutch version of Budweiser) and wine bottles rolled underfoot on all the streets – all attempts at tidiness had disappeared. We threaded our way through the crowds to a popular corner on the Oudegracht with four or five watering holes, didn’t see any of our friends (they’d given up too, it turned out) so we finally headed back home for a rest. Eventually we wandered back out for dinner and another short walk along the canals to round out our first King’s Day. And what an experience it was!

 

Some King’s Day Trivia:

  • April 26, 2014 was the first King’s Day EVER in the Netherlands. There has been no male monarch since 1890.
  • Utrecht had a major role in the origins of the celebration of the reigning monarch’s birthday. A Utrecht newspaper editor proposed a “Princess’s Day” in honor of the Crown Princess Wilhelmina upon her 5th birthday in 1885. When she became Queen in 1890, the holiday became Queen’s Day.
  • King Willem-Alexander’s actual birthday is April 27. However, the Dutch do not celebrate Queen’s or King’s Day on a Sunday, which is why the official holiday was the day before — a Saturday.
  • King Willem-Alexander was born here in Utrecht, at the Utrecht University Medical Center (where Michael teaches). He was born April 27, 1967.
  • He was the first Dutch male royal baby born since 1851.
  • King Willem-Alexander is the youngest monarch in Europe.
  • In his youth, the king was called “Prince Pils” because of his partying life at university. He’s been trying to repackage and restore his image ever since. (Oh those rollickin’ Royals! Who’d have ever thunk it?)

Happy King’s Day!

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Trabzon: Contrasts over a Century

Bust of Ataturk silhouetted against the Turkish flag

Bust of Ataturk silhouetted against the Turkish flag – Ataturk ansion Museum in Trabzon

Modern Turkey owes its very existence to their first great leader Mustafa Kemal, better known as Attaturk to millions of Turks and others around the world. “Ataturk,” which means “father of the Turks,” was an honorific name bestowed upon him in 1934. As a young army officer in the Ottoman Empire, he served with distinction and rose rapidly through the ranks. His successes did not stop him from being critical of the oppressive Ottoman political and social policies. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart at the end of World War I, he led the  nationalist movement in the Turkish War of Independence, which eventually resulted in the founding of the modern Turkish state. As Turkey’s president, Ataturk instituted a number of wide-sweeping reforms that brought the country squarely into the 20th century as a secular nation with political and social equality for all. Education of all men and women became a priority, as did granting both political and civil rights to all individuals, regardless of gender, religion or ethnic origins. Trabzon’s claim to fame vis a vis Ataturk is the Ataturk Mansion Museum, a lovely early 20th century villa on a hilltop overlooking the city.

Ataturk's mansion, given to him by the city of Trabzon

Ataturk’s mansion, given to him by the city of Trabzon

As we were to discover, claiming a house as belonging to Ataturk is somewhat akin to all the historical plaques in the U.S. that claim, “George Washington slept here.” In the case of the house we visited in Trabzon, the true story is even fuzzier. According to whichever source you believe, Ataturk slept here only one night or two or three. Regardless, the city of Trabzon in the 1930’s gave the mansion to him in appreciation for his leadership; decades later the local government turned it into a museum in his honor. Photography was forbidden in the house, which I discovered only after taking the opening photo of Ataturk’s bust silhouetted against a sunlit Turkish flag.

In contrast to Ataturk’s modernized nation — which has continued and prospered throughout the 20th c. — Turkey today has a vocal minority faction that wishes to de-secularize Turkey and return it to an Islamic state. Almost all of the demonstrations the last two years have been, at the root, about the increasing conservative direction of the current national leadership, be it secular or religious. Younger, urbanized, Westernized Turks want a change in government leaders and a return to a fully democratic state. More conservative people, especially recent immigrants from former republics of the Soviet Union, Syria and Iran, as well as less urbanized populations, approve of the increasingly autocratic, right-wing faction lead by the current prime minister,and egged on by religious leaders. Obviously, this is an over simplification of a complex, multi-ethnic society and the myriad of issues facing Turkey. Nevertheless, the rise of increasingly right-wing, conservative Islam leaders, laws and actions indicate the changing political landscape in Turkey. Unfortunately for us, as tourists, one result of this growing trend came to the fore during our day in Trabzon.

The Hagia Sophia of Trabzon

IMG_2164 The Hagia Sophia (above) in Trabzon is a mid-13th c., late Byzantine-style church. For over 200 years this architectural gem remained in use as a Greek Orthodox church. When Sultan Mehmet II conquered the Trabzon region in 1461, he ordered the church converted to a mosque. In 1964, the government turned the building into a museum that acknowledged the heritage of both Christianity and Islam. In 2013 local Islamic leaders won a suit to convert the museum back into a mosque, with the intention that it can only be entered by Muslims. Our guide told us that there are plans to remove or plaster over the beautiful interior frescoes and mosaic tiled floors; at this time, the interior art is mostly covered with sheets or rugs. Local architects and historians, supported by various international groups, have filed a counter suit against the Ministry of Religion to return the mosque/church to a secular museum. (Go to www.facebook.com/TheHagiaSophiaInTrabzonMustRemainAMuseum for several pictures of the former church’s interior as well as updates on the suit.)

Some particularly beautiful frescoes are sheltered under one of the porticoes. A few had sustained irreparable damage, but others had been restored quite nicely.

 

Portico of former Hagia Sophia of Trabzon.

Portico of former Hagia Sophia of Trabzon.

Fresco possibly depicting the Last Supper.

Fresco possibly depicting the Last Supper.

Fresco of Jesus.

Fresco of Jesus.

Sculptural detail on portico column

Sculptural detail on portico column

 

It seems to me a shame that such an historically and architecturally important site as the Hagia Sophia church, now mosque, should be forbidden to all but one group. More difficult to grapple with is that there is a real chance that much if not all of the beautiful Christian-inspired artwork could be removed or plastered over. One doesn’t have to be of either the Christian or Muslim faith to appreciate the fresco art and mosaic floors of the former church. Is religion truly a sufficient reason to keep interested art lovers from seeing these treasures — or worse — destroying them for all time? Would it not make more sense to keep the Hagia Sophia as a secular museum, open to all?

 

 

Sumela: Monastery in the Sky

Sumela Monastery

Sumela Monastery

High in the Pontic Mountains overlooking Turkey’s north coast, the Sumela Monastery seems partially suspended in air, as if it’s about to float off over the deep chasm below. The 1600 year old monastery, now a national museum, was founded by two Greek missionaries in 386 A.D. Remarkably, it continued to function as a Greek Orthodox monastery for most of the centuries until being abandoned in 1923. Several kilometers outside of Trabzon, a popular resort on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Sumela remains the major tourist draw in this northern region. Driving up into the mountains in our mini-bus was to experience a rapid change in altitude, vegetation and clime. Parts of the roadway were incredibly steep, with waterfalls cascading down the near-vertical slopes on both sides. IMG_2087   Waterfall in Pontic Mountains.

 

The steep hillsides turned out to be as difficult to maneuver as they looked. The last half mile or so we had to hoof it up the mountainside to the monastery, at about 3,900 feet (1200 meters). The government had purportedly widened the pathway to better accommodate tourists, but I think they missed some spots… IMG_2104 Despite surviving some true pitfalls, arriving at the monastery made the trek worthwhile. The original buildings of the monastery have largely been repaired and restored, thus helping us envision what this monastic village looked like by the 13th century. The Turkish government continues to fund restoration and preservation of Sumela.

Main plaza at Sumela Main plaza of Sumela. Left of center is the Rock Church, the edifice on site, built into a cave in the rock face. IMG_2116 IMG_2135 Above: The Rock Church, and in photo in middle, one side of the Rock Church, displaying beautiful frescoes on an outside wall. Many of the outer frescoes date to 12th c., while the earliest ones inside the church date to the early 17th c.

 

Legend has it that the two Greek priests discovered a “miraculous” icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on this mountain. Supposedly, the icon was made by St. Luke and transported to this site by angels. The two priests decided to build a monastery around the cave — hence the Rock Church — and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary.

One additional legend holds that the icon showed a black or dark-skinned Mary, hence the word “mela” in the name, which means “black” in Greek. The original icon itself is no longer at Sumela. When a forced “population exchange” took place in 1923 between Greece and the newly formed Turkey, the priests were not allowed to take the icon with them. One enterprising priest buried the icon under the floor of another of the monastery’s chapels before fleeing. In 1930, another priest returned to Sumela and secretly spirited the icon to the “new” Sumela monastery in Greece.

An interesting side note concerns the Virgin Mary’s role in Islam, which honors her as being the perfect example of womanhood. The virgin birth of Jesus is  a demonstration of God’s (Allah’s) great miracles. Surprisingly, Mary’s name is mentioned more times in the Quran than in the entire Christian New Testament. Over the first thousand years of Sumela, both Christians and Muslims came to the monastery to pray to the icon of Mary and ask for blessings or to be healed of various afflictions. In 1461, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered this region of Turkey. Perhaps in recognizing the of Sumela to both Christians and Muslims, he decreed that it not be converted to a mosque, but continue to function as a Greek Orthodox monastery. It’s a telling tribute to Mehmet’s stature that all succeeding sultans respected his decree until the early 20th c. when the Otooman Empire collapsed.

The interior walls and ceiling of the chapel were covered in beautiful frescoes that were created at three separate periods. The earliest of these date to the early 17th c., although archaeologists suspect that there are even earlier frescoes underneath the existing ones. Nevertheless, almost all have sustained damage, many severely so, from anti-Christian vandals and ignorant tourists. My favorite fresco, after the singing angels (above) is one depicting the biblical story of Jonah and the whale:

Jonah being swallowed by the whale.

Jonah being swallowed by the whale.

 

Another relatively undamaged fresco is of the Madonna and baby Jesus:

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

Extremely isolated as it was, Sumela Monastery’s inhabitants could not live completely sealed off from the outside world. For starters, the steep, rocky terrain was not conducive to crops. While water aplenty cascaded down the mountains surrounding the enclave, the water didn’t obligingly straight into the wells. The monks solved both problems by building both an aqueduct to direct the abundant water to them as well as a pulley system that allowed them to haul food and other supplies up the mountain.

The Sumela aqueduct

The Sumela aqueduct is built into the rock face of the mountain. Note the steep staircase  — it leads to the guard house and entrance to the monastery.

A sled on a pulley allowed the monks to more easily haul supplies up the mountain.

A sled on a pulley allowed the monks to more easily haul supplies up the mountain.

And a final look at Sumela from the roadway below:

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