One of the best reasons to travel is to acquire a store of memories, intangible souvenirs that become a lifelong source of contemplation and wonder. Here are seven experiences from the past 12 months that will live with us in the years and decades to come.
The thousand-year-old Brihadisvara Temple, one of the grandest ever built on the subcontinent, is situated close to the center of the ancient South Indian city of Thanjavur. Its ornately carved gopuram, or monumental tower, watches over the throngs of devotees who worship there daily. The huge temple complex is one of three that comprise the UNESCO Great Living Chola Temples World Heritage site in the state of Tamil Nadu. On the afternoon of our visit, the temple did indeed feel alive. Pradosham, an auspicious bimonthly occasion on which to worship the god Shiva, had filled it with his followers, along with wreaths of incense and rhythmic music. Generally, we’re not much moved by ritual, but we found ourselves entranced by the energy and color of the scene. As the sun was setting, the celebration climaxed with priests pouring milk and turmeric over a giant golden bull, Shiva’s vehicle or mount. We had visited India to look for treasures off the well-trodden tourist trails; our afternoon at Brihadisvara was the culmination of that search.
Hoanib Valley, Namibia
We had many beautiful sundowner drives during our recent travels through southern Africa. But one, in Namibia’s Hoanib Valley, stands out as truly breathtaking. We had our excellent guide, Frank, all to ourselves. He drove us through the curvaceous valley, bound by low, weather-weary mountains, silent witnesses to hundreds of millions of years. Around a bend appeared a herd of elephant. A mother walked with her week-old baby close beside, an adorable little wrinkly thing with a fringe of black fuzz. Others tussled with one another and trumpeted, kicking up dust and quickening our pulses. Another turn in the valley revealed a full moon rising above the valley walls. It looked unreal and enhanced: a movie moon. As we headed back to camp, a small animal darted in front of our vehicle. “That was an African wildcat!” Frank exclaimed. “I have never seen one since I started working here!” We looked at each other in amazement and laughed.
Valley of the Kings, Egypt
For nearly 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th century B.C., the necropolis known as the Valley of the Kings received the mortal remains of Egypt’s pharaohs. These were interred in a huge complex of rock-cut tombs situated on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor, the ancient city of Thebes. On arrival, there is little to see, just arid, leafless hills and dusty wadis, a desert landscape oppressed by heat. The tomb entrances are unobtrusive, with usually just a small sign or number to reveal the identity of the former occupant. Virtually all the tombs were robbed in antiquity — the famous exception being that of Tutankhamen — but much of their decoration is intact. From the monochrome desert landscape, we headed down a ramp into the tomb of Ramses IV and abruptly found ourselves in a brilliantly colored world of hieroglyphs, deities and mythical creatures, depicted in vibrant shades of gold, crimson and cobalt blue. Owing to the lack of humidity, many of the murals were in an astonishing state of preservation. We explored the tomb’s extensive lower levels, scarcely able to believe that we were looking at paintings that were created more than 3,150 years ago. Suddenly, we realized that a small group of tourists had left and that we were entirely alone. The huge tomb, with its multiple shafts and corridors, was well-lit, so the atmosphere was not intimidating. But to be abruptly immersed in the silence of centuries was overpowering. We stood next to the pharaoh’s massive sarcophagus, conscious of our own breathing, and waited for the reassuring sounds of footsteps and voices.
From the Damascus Gate in the walls of the Old City, we walked down the steep, narrow street that separates the Muslim and Christian quarters until we reached the Via Dolorosa. There, on a corner, we came to the Austrian Pilgrim Hospice, the oldest Christian guesthouse in Jerusalem, founded in 1854 by the archbishop of Vienna. We rang the bell, and after a brief delay, the heavy wooden door swung open and we were admitted by a nun. Successive flights of stairs led up to the roof. It was a sunny day, and we stood close to a flagpole, from which the red-and-white Austrian flag flapped energetically. A 180-degree panorama of the Old City was set against a backdrop of the distant Mount of Olives. To the left, in the middle distance, the view was dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock and the adjacent Al-Aqsa Mosque. On higher ground to the right it was possible to make out the golden cross atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We stood for close to an hour in the gusting breeze, gazing down at the most historically saturated, spiritually significant and fiercely contested cityscape in the world.
Back in the 1960s, the town of Kep, on the Cambodian Riviera, was at the height of fashion, a chic seaside enclave where King Norodom Sihanouk socialized with high-ranking diplomats as well as Parisian luminaries like Catherine Deneuve. But then the Khmer Rouge seized power. Today, Kep is a somnolent, slightly shabby place of strangely indefinable charm. One evening, our hotel organized a sunset cruise for us, aboard a small traditional wooden fishing boat. Equipped with a large wicker basket of hors d’oeuvres and sufficient quantities of cold white wine, we set out along the coast in the direction of the Vietnamese border. Amid the trees, above the beach, we could still make out the remains of the royal palace, as well as the art deco villas once owned by the Cambodian elite. Eventually, we had to turn back, but before heading for home, we cruised out into the Gulf of Thailand, directly into the sunset. The rhythmic motion of the boat, the warm scented breeze and the rich golden light (and possibly the effects of the white wine) induced in us a state of well-being that bordered on the transcendental.
I arrived in the ancient Romanian village of Mălâncrav after a slow drive along a 12-mile gravel road. I wanted to see the murals in the 14th-century fortified church, and my guidebook said the keys could be had at Casa Parohială, which I guessed meant Parish House, but I didn’t know where it was. Then I noticed three children sitting on a log bench under a chestnut tree. I approached them with a smile and a greeting of “Bună ziua.” They giggled and returned my greeting. I spoke to them, hoping they might understand that I was trying to find the key for the church. One of them nodded at my notebook. He opened it to a blank page and drew a little map. They made a place for me on their bench and indicated that I should sit down. I learned they’d been studying English for two years, which was surprising, because they spoke it quite well. Then, a nearby arched doorway opened and a woman in a flowered housedress stepped out and called to the children. Next, the girl took me by the hand and led me to her family’s kitchen, which smelled of nutmeg and cinnamon from the cookies just out of the woodburning oven. The mother put some on a plate and poured me a glass of caramel-colored apple juice. I was regretting that I had nothing to offer in return when it occurred to me that I could give them my guidebook, which I did. When I left, the girl kissed me on each cheek, and her mother handed me a plastic bag with a jar of plum preserves. The paintings in the church turned out to be very beautiful, but they weren’t the reason that I will always remember Mălâncrav.
St. George’s, Grenada
Sailing in the Caribbean is one of the world’s great pleasures. It’s a travel cliché of which it is impossible to tire. Grenada is an ideal place from which to charter a boat, so we booked a private excursion. Our sailboat had wonderful vintage details, including wood trim and candy-striped cushions. We sailed first to the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, where we snorkeled among the eerily beautiful artworks. In nearby Flamingo Bay, we found a school of reef silversides. The shimmering mass parted and then reformed as we approached, and we watched as the thousands of fish morphed into curvaceous shapes. For our return trip to the 18th-century harbor in St. George’s, we headed to the cushions at the bow, rum punches in hand. Reclining there, it was hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else in the world.