Dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ the location of the original Amber Room is still a mystery.
Gifted to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia in 1716. This extraordinarily beautiful room glowed with tons of amber and other semi-precious stones and backed with gold leaf. Originally installed in the Winter Palace, in 1755, Czarina Elizabeth had the room moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Additional amber was shipped from Berlin as Italian designer, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli extended the design to fit a larger space.
There the room remained in splendour until, in 1941, Operation Barbarossa was set in motion with over 3 million German soldiers invading the Soviet Union. As the German army began its approach to Pushkin, a desperate attempt was made to disassemble the Amber Room and hide it from the invading forces. When it became obvious that this wouldn’t be achieved in time an attempt was made to hide the room behind a layer of wallpaper.
The Germans had lists of art treasures it wanted to acquire and was a priority as they progressed through the countries they invaded. They knew exactly where to find the Amber Room. Within 36 hours, its reported, they managed to disassemble the entire room and pack it in 27 crates. These were then shipped to Konigsberg and reinstalled in the Castle Museum.
When the writing was on the wall in 1943 and defeat became likely the Germans again dismantled the room and re-packed it in its crates. It’s at this point that the mystery begins. Konigsberg Castle was destroyed along with the city in allied bombing raids in 1944. Did the Amber Room survive hidden safely away or was it destroyed in the bombing? Nobody seems to know although many historians have tried to solve the mystery.
In 1979 it was decided to build a new Amber Room. Construction began and took 25 years to complete at a cost of over 11 million dollars (US). The new room was opened to mark the 300-year anniversary of St Petersburg by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in a unifying ceremony.
The room is on display at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve at the Catherine Palace outside of St Petersburg.
The Amber Room is just one of the many spectacular sights we’ll be visiting during our 19 days Cultural Exploration of Russia’s two great cities and ancient Golden Circle towns departing Moscow on 22nd August 2019.
The Roman poet Virgil put Arcadia on the traveler’s map when he described this mountainous district of the Peloponnesus as the quintessential land of milk and honey. The poet had a point: even today, Arcadia’s springs, streams and rivers nourish wildflowers and keep the hills and valleys green with strands of cypress, and groves of olive and fruit trees, well into the summer.
It is possible to leave Athens by bus or car in the morning and be sitting in the main square of most Arcadian villages by afternoon.
It is also possible to travel around Arcadia on enough unpaved roads to give yourself a reassuring sense of adventure. That’s what I did, when I revisited a clutch of still-isolated monasteries and toured the museums in two of Arcadia’s loveliest villages, Stemnitsa and Dimitsana. Sheep bells tinkled in the distance and the air was heavy with the scent of thyme and oregano as the road writhes up the mountainside to the final turn that reveals Dimitsana.
Like many Arcadian villages , Dimitsana was built amphitheatre style in the cleft between two hills. Most of Dimitsana’s handsome stone churches and mansions were built between the 16th and the 20th centuries, when the Lousios River powered some 100 mills strung along the steep gorge that twists for about 5 miles between Dimitsana and Stemnitsa. Many mills operated until the 1950’s, when modern technology made them obsolete.
On the road between Stemnitsa and Dimitsana, I took the turnoff for the Monastery of Our Lady of Aimyalon. Aimyalon is typical of many of the monasteries tucked into the clefts and caves in the cliffs of the Lousios River Gorge. According to local lore, several hermits retreated here in the late 16th or early 17th centuries and lived inside a cave. They kept some sheep and goats, and planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden on a narrow terrace below the cave.
Over the next century, a simple wood frame dormitory was built, projecting out from the cave, to house monks. The rough stone walls of the chapel, itself a small cave within a larger cave, were painted with biblical scenes.
The next morning, I took the paved road out of Dimitsana toward the village of Paliochori, the turnoff for more monasteries and the remains of the ancient Gortys, once an important religious site, all deep in the Lousios River Gorge. The gorge, whose red cliffs rise to more than 980 feet, run some 12 miles between the villages of Dimitsana and Karitaina.
I was almost on the monastery before I saw it, so perfectly are its brick and stone wall camouflaged against the deep red of the cliff. The camouflage was deliberate: this was once the home of one of the area’s “secret schools”, where the monks taught children during the Turkish occupation. Now the battlements and defense tower, and the monks dormitory and refectory, are in ruins, and the chapel is home to squeaking bats, who hang in a dark mass from the dome.
A five-minute drive took me steeply downhill to the Lousios River and the site of ancient Gortys, whose best days were behind it by the end of the fourth century B.C. By the riverbank stood the ruins of an 18th or 19th century water mill, the small, perfectly restored 11th century Byzantine chapel of St. Andrew and the remains of an earlier religious shrine, the fourth century B.C. Asclepieion, a shrine to the healing god Asclepius The tumbled remains of a Roman bath flanked the Asclepeion.
Just across the slender, arched stone bridge, a sign pointed off to yet another monastery, Kalamiou. Nearby on the citadel of Gortys, the walls now enclose an informal sheepfold. Sheep bells sounded everywhere, but the sheep, like the monasteries I had visited, were hard to spot on the cliffs.
I rinsed my face in the rushing waters of the Lousios River, wondering whether Pausanias, the indefatigable traveler of the second century A.D. had done the same. The river’s waters, Pausanias wrote in his Guide to Greece “are the coldest in the world”. I agree, but if there is a lovelier spot in all Arcadia, I have yet to see it.
Excerpted from an article written by Sherry Marker and orginally printed by the New York Times.
In September 2019 we’ll be hosting a fully escorted tour to the Peloponnese including a 5 night stay in a small private hotel in Dimitsana with stunning views over the Lousios Gorge. This small group tour, maximum of 10, includes visits to archaeological sites of Olympia, Epidaurus, Delphi and Mycenae, wineries, olive groves, cooking class and the best of locally produced food and wine in family run village tavernas.
San Miguel de Allende was voted best city in the world in 2018 by Travel & Leisure readers for an unprecedented 2nd time.
This colonial-era city located in Mexico’s central highlands has a thriving arts scene and is home to many weekend cultural festivals. It’s a popular destination for ‘foodies’ with its gourmet restaurants and inventive chefs providing an updated take on classic Mexican dishes using local produce.
The town’s name venerates the monk who founded it, Juan de San Miguel, and General Ignacio Allende, a hero in Mexico’s War of Independence.
The quaint cobblestone streets lined with boutiques and artisan shops, colonial Spanish architecture and numerous markets make it perfect for exploring on foot.
With its Gothic facade of pink limestone, the local Parish Church of San Miguel Archangel is said to have been inspired by Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Whilst not quite as impressive, it is the tallest building in town and overlooks the main square a popular place to congregate to watch the world go by or listen to local mariachi bands.
Parish Church of San Miguel Archangel, San Miguel de Allende
The major cities in Europe are now reportedly being swamped by tourists so there’s no better time to look to Mexico and towns like San Miguel de Allende as ideal future destinations. They never disappoint.
Mexico City, has itself, once again been included in the top 15 cities in the world. You’ll discover why as you unpeel the layers to discover a series of ‘villages’ each unique in its own way.
At Big Yellow Suitcase we’re passionate about Mexico, its people, history, stunning colonial towns, villages and incredibly varied landscape. We help our guests discover the true heart of Mexico. Join us in 2019 for our always highly rated tours to Mexico. To quote one recent guest … GO AND BE AMAZED.
European conquest, a Welsh buccaneer, pirates, treasure, elegant hats and a disputed canal all conspire to create the modern story of Panama.
These days, with a gentle stroll you can circumnavigate the peninsula of Panama in less than an hour. And yet, it was once the second largest city in the Western hemisphere. Away from the waterfront you’ll discover a thriving living museum of colonial heritage.
Its original wealth sprang from its ideal location for shipping the gold and silver stolen by the Spanish to send back to Spain.
In 1671 Welsh born buccaneer, Henry Morgan and his ruthless band of pirates sacked and burnt the city to the ground. They were supported by the English in their rivalry against Spain for the riches of the New World. Unluckily for them, most of the treasure had already been shipped out but they left complete devastation in their wake.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Panama became a byword for very distinctive hat wear. Actually made in Ecuador the hats were shipped from Panama to Asian and European customers. The international sales point became synonymous with the hat forever after known as the Panama hat.
The original concept for a canal was first muted by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V back in 1534. The first attempt was made by a French engineer. In 1881 work was commenced to link the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean however, the company was forced into bankruptcy. The challenge was taken on by the Americans who subsequently claimed ownership of the canal for almost a century.
Finally, in 1999 it was returned to Panamanian sovereignty.
To celebrate its 500th birthday the city is undergoing major works of renovation and construction and the results to date are impressive. The National Theatre, Civic palaces and old hotels are receiving a major face lift, and being rendered anew.
We’re excited to be including Panama with our tour to Costa Rica in February 2020. Both countries are recognized for their focus on creating sustainable eco-tourism at the highest level. With a maximum group size of 10, no single supplement and fully escorted there’s no better way to experience these two fascinating countries in the heart of Central America.
The Mexican art scene is undergoing tremendous change. A culmination of circumstances which include low-cost machine-manufacturing, cheap import copies from the far-east, and artisans moving to urban areas to earn a living (and thus abandoning their crafts) are causing original artworks to yield to second-rate, mass-produced pieces which are neither authentic nor a true reflection of genuine Mexican art.
Chapala Lake local, Marianne Carlson founded an art festival that seeks to raise awareness for genuine Mexican art and the Master Artisans who bring it into being. Feria Maestros del Arte, now in its fifteenth year, has become an important stage for genuine Mexican art.
Mexican art has a long and rich history that stretches back to pre-Hispanic times, with artists applying techniques and styles to their works which have been handed-down through countless generations: these are the works which retain and reflect an authenticity that only hand-made original art can convey.
Marianne and her team scout all of Mexico seeking the best art and artisans, and invite them to Feria Maestros del Arte. The artists have their expenses covered by the organization, and are not charged any fees for attendance, so they keep every peso in income from the sales they make at the fair.
The fair is unique. This is an art market where you’ll find a carefully curated collection of Mexican art works, crafted and sold in-person by the country’s finest living artisans, and where you can be assured that the art you purchase is hand-made in Mexico, and authentic in every sense.
Over 100 artisans will be present, offering an abundance of high quality and diverse art pieces for buyers to choose from, including:
Panama hats, the classic and timeless hat, made in Bécal, in the state of Campeche on Mexico’s Gulf coast
Handmade footwear, including fashionable ethnic shoes from Oaxaca
Kitchen utensils, including knives from the famous José Ojeda family
Wooden art works, including Alebrijes which are hand-carved wooden animals, individually painted and every one unique
An abundance of ceramics, including barro betus, barro canelo, barro bruñido, black ceramics, and high-fire ceramic
Unique Mexican jewelry, including silver Yalalag crosses, pieces made from recycled aluminum, cloth, and other materials
Woven art including beautiful rebozos, huipiles, blouses, and more
Straw art, including papier-mâché, hand-made paper amate, and hand-made hammocks using traditional materials
Furniture made of chuspata (a type of reed), and equipales (traditional Mexican furniture)
The artisan fair is held on the second weekend of November in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico.
Join us in November 2019 for our annual tour which includes a guided tour of the Fair to meet and spend time with the individual artisans. We also have a not-to-be-missed tour to Chiapas in southern Mexico in February 2019 focused on textile and pottery artisans who we’ll meet in their village homes to see them at work. A deep insight into the time and skills required to create these unique pieces using the ancient traditional methods. In both tours you will have an opportunity to purchase investment level art direct from the artisans.
It’s that time of year again. Early bird travel deals are now available. Great bargains to be had on early bird flights to Europe and beyond. Whether you fly economy or business it’s worth checking online or with your preferred travel agent to secure the best deals for 2019. As long as you have a fixed departure date later changes to your return are generally easy to make for a small additional fee.
Plus you can obtain an Early Bird travel deal on all our 2019 tours. Book direct with us by the end of November and enjoy a 10% discount.
We have some fabulous destinations to tempt you in 2019. Our Early Bird travel deals are not to be missed. In Europe, we’ll be heading to Puglia and the Amalfi Coast in May; Russia in August; Southern France and Northern Spain and the Peloponnese in Greece in September; Mexico, always our favourite destination, in February and November; and South India in October.
All tours are limited to a maximum of 10 and ideal for solo travelers as we don’t charge a single supplement fee.
We take you off the beaten track away from the ever-increasing tourist crowds; stay longer in each destination in small hotels of comfort and charm; gain priority access to sites and experiences, and enjoy exceptional food and wine all at a leisurely pace.
Following the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century the conquerors immediately set out to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.
Violence was the preferred method of persuasion of the Spaniards so, the Indians opted to incorporate elements of Christianity into their traditional beliefs as a means of survival. Avoiding the wrath of the Spaniards, by this accommodation, they managed to maintain their native spirituality and cultural identity. The Mayas came to accept the Christian god as a supreme power but held on to their traditional deities by transforming them into saints.
There were enough similarities between the Mayan religion and Christianity to make syncretism (amalgamation of different religions) possible. Both religions had priests to guide people, used images and statues to represent holy figures and burned incense during rituals. Both Christians and Mayans worshiped a god who died for others and was resurrected, for Mayans this was the Maize god. The concept of the cross also had meaning to the Mayans as it resonated with their belief in the World Tree, the tree of life, depicted in cruciform.
San Juan Chamula Church
This syncretic system is nowhere better observed than in the State of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. In San Juan Chamula, a small town near the lively town of, San Cristobal de Las Casas, the main church is lined with statues of Catholic saints dressed in local clothes and adorned with mirrors. Here, you’ll find no altars or pews just a stone floor covered in pine needles and thousands of candles. Worshipers, seated in groups on the floor, openly engage in unique rituals involving animal sacrifice (usually chickens) led by the Curandera (healer) and, rather bizarrely, the drinking of Coca Cola or the strong local beverage . Bodily expelling gases fuelled by these drinks is the final symbolic stage in ridding the body of the impurities thought to be causing emotional distress or ill-health.
The Virgin of Guadelupe, the Roman Catholic title for the Virgin Mary, is the revered patron saint of Mexico and depicted with a brown skin. Myth has it that she appeared to an Indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego, in 1531 and told him that a church in her name should be built on the site. The place where she chose to appear was Tepeyac the site of the temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess . The name Tonantzin translates from the native Aztec language of Nahautl to mean ‘Our Mother’. Another example of the blending of the imposed Catholic beliefs with Maya religious traditions.
These days the Basilica of our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City has become the most visited Catholic pilgrimage in the world and the third most-visited sacred site.
Interested in learning more of the fascinating culture and traditions of the Maya? Then join us in February 2019 as we explore Chiapas, its towns, villages, artisans and spectacular hidden Mayan ruins? A stunning and unforgettable destination physically and culturally.
“I want my house to be open to sun and wind and the voice of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere”
The words of Alex Munthe, Swedish physician, when he fell in love with the idyllic island of Capri off the Amalfi Coast.
He wanted to create a home for the soul, because
“the soul needs more space than the body”.
Villa San Michele, the home he created, is surrounded by an impressive garden, colonnades, pergolas and cypress trees with a view that extends forever. Behind the villa, in the Barbarossa mountain, Axel Munthe created a sanctuary for migratory birds. A place to rest on their journey from one continent to another.
Henry James, who visited the villa, wrote that it is “a creation of the most fantastic beauty, poetry and inutility that I have ever seen clustered together.”
Ravello, Villas Cimbrone & Rufolo
The two other stunning villas we’ll visit during our May 2019 tour to Puglia and the Amalfi coast are located in one of my favourite places on earth, Ravello. Perched high above the Mediterranean Sea, where the perfume of lemon blossoms and the spectacular scenery combine to seduce the visitor. Here, we’ll find the Villa Cimbrone with its expansive gardens and dramatic views from the belvedere, known as the Terrace of Infinity.
Terrace of Infinity, Villa Cimbrone, Ravello
Its origins date back to the 11th century. The villa and gardens were extensively renovated by Lord Grimthorpe in the early 20th century. It became a popular retreat for London’s famed Bloomsbury Group. Other notable guess included Winston Churchill and D.H. Lawrence. It’s a view , once seen, impossible to forget.
Next, Villa Rufolo, the historical and cultural centre of the beautiful town of Ravello. Built in the 13th century the villa and its owner featured in Boccaccio’s Decamaron, published in 1353.
Scottish botanist, Sir Francis Neville Reid, fell in love with its Moorish towers and expansive views and in 1851 began an extensive renovation of its rooms and gardens.
View from Villa Rufolo, Ravello
Visiting the villa in 1880 Richard Wagner was so inspired by the gardens he lingered in Ravello long enough to complete the second act of his opera Parsifal. The spirit of Wagner remains as Ravello has become known as the ‘city of music’. It hosts an annual summer concert series on a stage built jutting out over the Mediterranean Sea with the rugged Amalfi Coast below.
The Amalfi Coast deserves to be on everyone’s bucket-list. Why wait? Join us in May and discover for yourself the enchantments of these three stunningly beautiful villas and the towns in which they are located. Space for the soul, indeed.
New York City where one visit is never enough. When you’ve ticked off all the ‘must-see’ sights it’s time to go beyond the tourist hot spots. Here are some of my favorite things to do and see. This is a city constantly on the move but the list below contains some perennial favorites that survive the test of time. In no particular order …
Don’t Tell Mamaamazingly talented singing waiters and bar staff. My preference is the piano bar but you also have the choice of a restaurant or cabaret . W46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue.
Brooklyn BridgeWhy not walk one way and catch the ferry back to Wall Street. Under the bridge check out the coal oven pizzas at Juliana’s at 19th Old Fulton Street and the Best Ice Cream on Front Street.
Chelsea Market & High-Line Park It’s great to see the old overhead rail structure re-made into a park and Chelsea market the local residential area are worth exploring
Chelsea Harbour LineWhenyour feet need a rest head to Pier 62 and join the Around Manhattan Architecture tour. In 2 hours 45 minutes you’ll circumnavigate the entire island of Manhattan and be introduced to the history and architectural highlights of each of the Boroughs.
Red Rooster Harlem Perfect place for Sunday brunch with great music and traditional southern style food. Work off the meal with a stroll around the neighbourhood which has been undergoing a renaissance with many of the traditional brownstones being restored. 125th & Lennox Avenue
The Met Cloisters Located on 4 acres overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattans Fort Tryon Park this museum is dedicated to the art, architecture and gardens of Medieval Europe.
The Frick Housed in one of NYC’s few remaining Gilded mansions this relatively small museum is rich in Old Masters and European sculptures.. You’ll find works by Bellini, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Goya and Whistler.
Russ & Daughters Cafe Known for its ‘haimishness’ which is a Yiddish word expressing warmth, comfort, authenticity, conviviality and lack of pretence is a perfect place to eat at any time of the day.
Greenwich Village with Context Travel join a local walking tour with one of the guides from Context Travel. They specialize in local tours for ‘the intellectually curious traveller’. The guides are full of knowledge and great local anecdotes.
Weekend Brunch Try SOHO or West Village.The hot spots change but Sunday brunch remains the most important meal of the weekend. An accompanying glass of champagne is de rigueur.
Tenement Museum An 1863 preserved tenement brings to life the stories of the immigrants who made this city what it is today. 97 & 103 Orchard Street, Lower East Side
Off-Broadway With seats to the hit shows becoming more and more expensive why not try your luck at spotting the next big thing at one of the Off-Broadway theatres.
McCorleys Old Ale House Decisions on what to drink made easy. They only serve two kinds of Ale – light or dark. With sawdust on the floor this is NYC’s oldest continually operated saloon. Everyone from Abe Lincoln to John Lennon have ventured in.
And there’s more. NYC is the home of cocktails and there’s no shortage of bars to choose from to watch these cocktail artists at work. Up for a challenge, visit a Speakeasy if you can find the secret entrance. Please Don’t Tellis entered via a phone box at 113 St Mark’s Place or visitAngel’s Shareat 8 Stuyvesant Street in the East Village. Stuyvesant Street is one of the oldest streets in NYC borough of Manhattan often used in movie shoots depicting ‘old New York’. If jazz is your thing then NYC is the place to be with a number of excellent jazz clubs including the Blue Note Jazz Club, West Village.
Rome is full of so many ‘must-see’ sights it’s easy to become overwhelmed. For those people planning to spend an extended time in the Eternal City or on repeat visits here are 12 hidden treasures in Rome which will take you beyond the normal tourist spots. There are many more than 12 but this is a good starting point.
Jewish Quarter – Jewish Ghetto. One of the most vibrant and beautiful neighbourhoods. As well as great food and great shopping the area resonates with its history Jewish history in Rome dates back to the 2nd century BCE. Visit the Great Synagogue of Rome and the Jewish Museum with its collection of artifacts, documents and photography spanning over 20 centuries of continuous habitation in this quarter. You’ll also find the Teatro Marcello, resembling a mini Colosseum and the Portico di Ottavia, one of the four gateways to the Jewish Ghetto.
Testaccio This working class neighbourhood may not be the most picturesque but for ‘foodies’ it boasts an abundance of great food, history and character. The market is a food-lovers destination and a great place to shop and eat. Rome’s old slaughterhouse is home to a branch of Rome’s Contemporary Art Museum (MACRO) and Monte Testaccio, a large, man-made mountain dominating the neighbourhood was created from the shards of an estimated 53 million terracotta pots. Testaccio market is just down the road from our next recommendation so you can do both in one morning.
Protestant Cemetery The resting place of poets Keats an Shelley or as its officially known, the non Catholic Cemetery for foreigners described as ‘one of the finest places in the world to be buried’. A charming and contemplative spot, far removed from the noise and chaos of central Rome. Located next to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius and accessible by Pyramid Metro Station.
Porta Portese Market This flea market is a great place to find vintage clothing and given the quality of Italian fabrics and design they’re likely to be in very good condition. It’s open each Sunday morning in Trastevere. There’s also an excellent English bookshop located close to the central square which is another good reason to visit
Villa Doria Pamphili A 17th century villa in the largest landscaped public park in Rome. The Borghese Gardens teems with people most of the year now so these gardens offer a perfect alternative when you just need some time out or a great spot for a picnic.
I fell in love with, Ajijic, this little village beside Lake Chapala on my first visit some years ago. With its friendly local and ex-pat population, artistic community, some great restaurants, wonderful views and an almost perfect climate – what’s not to love. Above is a work by local artist, Efren Gonzalez whose stunning murals can be enjoyed as you wander the cobble-stone streets of Ajijic. Click on this link and read a first-time visitor’s impressions and why they decided to make Ajijic their new home.
Mexico is an endlessly fascinating country and should be on everyone’s bucket list who love history, culture, art, traditional artisan work, stunning and varied scenery, fascinating colonial towns, maya pyramids with some amazing murals,an extensive biodiversity and a friendly and welcoming population . It’s why I go back every year and have made it my mission to introduce as many people as possible to the joys of Mexico.
Designing a perfect small group tour requires a different focus from other group tours where seeing as much as possible with as large a group as possible in a limited time frame is what’s usually on offer. Lots of early morning starts, queues on to coaches and more queues to see sights. Trying to move through busy streets in an unwieldy group following a guide.
When designing a perfect small group tour, on the other hand, any number beyond 10 is already too large for comfort. An unhurried itinerary with a longer stay in each location is the order of the day. Depth rather than breadth of experience becoming the focus. A perfect small group tour combines group activities in the companionship of like-minded individuals with free time to cater to personal interests and reflection.
The chosen destination needs to lend itself to providing something beyond the ordinary tourist experience. An opportunity to engage with artisans and producers and taste local food and wine. Be invited into local village homes, villas and palaces and enjoy after hours private visits to museums, galleries and archaeological sites.