CHARLOTTE, N.C., August 9, 2014 — Never underestimate the importance of light when you travel.
While traveling in Italy years ago, a local journalist asked me, “What do you like best about Florence?”
My answer was simple. “The light,” I said without hesitation.
From the expression on her face, I could tell the reporter was stunned by the answer. It was neither what she expected nor one she had ever heard before. More often than not the response would be Michelangelo’s David or the Ponte Vecchio or the Ufizzi Gallery.
One of the most overlooked aspects of travel is how we perceive a destination and, in many places, the light can make all the difference in the world. Quite often, the light can have a significant impact on the way you remember a place and the experiences you had there.
In Florence, Italy make your way to the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the Arno River and the city. Go just before sunset. There are places to relax and enjoy a drink at day’s end while you savor the misty earth-tones that envelope the city. Egg-shell whites, toasted yellows and rust-colored ambers permeate the surroundings. The noted author and adventurer, Paul Theroux, once described it as “a watercolor of itself.”
Much of what makes Italy a favorite destination is the uninhibited way light plays with your emotions. There’s a reason why Frances Mayes titled her book “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The soft scrim of Tuscan light is infectious as it is absorbed through the pores to penetrate your soul; a delightful contagious disease for which there is no cure.
All light is not the same, however. The dappled sunshine and shadows of Northern France are distinctly different than the soft pastels of Tuscany.
It’s easy to see why the Impressionist art movement was born in Normandy. Artists can barely apply paint to the canvas before the light changes. It’s a place where puffy white clouds often yield to layers of deep billowing mushroom gray thunderheads that constantly play with silhouettes and shapes.
The tiny harbor village of Honfleur and the port of Le Havre were favorite locations for the Impressionists, as they are for artists today. The term “Impressionism” was coined when an art critic referred to Sunrise, a painting by Claude Monet in 1872, as “Impressionism.” It was intended to be derogatory. The rebellious Impressionists liked the name however, and soon Impressionism was all the rage.
Most Impressionist paintings were made en plein air, or outdoors, where reflections and shadows provided an airy freshness never before captured on canvas. The fleeting nature of Normandy’s light with its swiftly alternating play of color from object to object was central to the Impressionist movement.
Further north, Scandinavian light is completely different. In Norway and Sweden, colors are brilliant and bold featuring chiseled high definition palettes of reality revealed in their purest primary richness.
Tuscan light seems almost out of focus when compared to the sharply delineated aspects of its Scandinavian counterpart. Rapeseed, a summer crop grown as feed for livestock, has a yellow blossom that is so brilliant that you almost need sunglasses to look at it.
Traditional red houses with white trim appear to be sculpted within the forest green settings of their Nordic woodlands. Colors are almost primeval in their intensity. Scandinavian light is illuminating in a way that is impossible to be ignored.
When summer sunsets slowly scrape the horizon with the glow of Scandinavia’s long days’ journeys into night, the rays of eternal sunshine can even make sleeping a challenge.
Even parts of the Middle East have a special aura about them. When viewed from the top of the Mount of Olives, just above the Garden of Gethsemane, Old Jerusalem conjures a sense of traveling back to biblical times.
Though the light resembles the earth-tones of Tuscany, Old Jerusalem retains a unique serenity that is magnified by its history. Here sand-colored desert buildings sprawl behind ancient walls where the roof of the Dome of the Rock glistens in the sun.
In nearby Jordan, the ridge of Mount Nebo is where Moses is said to have viewed the Promised Land for the first time. From the summit, another phenomenon frequently alters the light that streams into the valley below.
When clouds overtake the vast expanse of the valley, pinholes open in the atmosphere allowing the sun to splay its rays onto the desert floor. The multiple beams of misty light spray from the dusky canopy like majestic spotlights showering the earth. It is difficult not to be affected by the sensation of omnipotence from those heavenly rays, leaving little doubt as to how they might have had a dramatic impact on Moses.
To paraphrase the title of Milan Kundera’s novel, travelers should immerse themselves in the “bearable being of lightness.” If you do, you will be richly rewarded with an aspect of travel that goes largely unnoticed.
All you need to do is emerge from the dark ages to savor the joys of traveling light.
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. He was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime. Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod.