Panama celebrating 500 years

Panama celebrating 500 years

Panama celebrating 500 years in 2019

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.

Genuine Mexican Art

Genuine Mexican Art

The Fair that Supports Genuine Mexican Art and Artisans

Artisans from Oaxaca, Mexico

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

Catrinasskeleton dolls, hand-made in plaster and individually painted. They are one of the most traditional artwork displays for celebrations around Day of the Dead

An abundance of ceramics, including barro betusbarro canelobarro 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 rebozoshuipiles, 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.

Early Bird Travel Deals 2019

Early Bird Travel Deals 2019

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.

boutique small group tour

Delphi, Peloponnese Tour 2018

Saints and Shamans coexist in the Mayan World

Saints and Shamans coexist in the Mayan World

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.

boutique small group tour Chiapas Mexico

Ancient Mayan City, Chiapas

 

Amalfi Coast – Views to Soothe The Soul

Amalfi Coast – Views to Soothe The Soul

Capri – Villa San Michele

“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 – beyond the tourist hot spots

New York City – beyond the tourist hot spots

 

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 Mama amazingly 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 Bridge  Why 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 Line  When your 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 Tell is entered via a phone box at 113 St Mark’s Place or visit Angel’s Share at 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.

Brooklyn Bridge
12 Hidden Treasures in Rome

12 Hidden Treasures in Rome

 

12 hidden treasures in Rome

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.

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Ajijic small group tours – well worth a visit

Ajijic small group tours – well worth a visit

Ajijic small group tours

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

Designing A Perfect Small Group Tour

A perfect small group tour

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.

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Day room access in hotels goes one step further

Day room access in hotels goes one step further

Day room access in hotels goes one step further with the introduction of ‘by-the-hour’ rates.  Not a novel concept in red light districts for hotels with a reputation for being used for illicit purposes.

But now, some high end hotels are targeting middle-class to affluent business and retail guests offering access to their hotel rooms for a minimum of 4 hours between 9am and 7pm.   Perfect for travellers with extended layovers, business people needing a quiet place to work and perfect for locals on a day visit to the city looking for somewhere to relax and change between shopping and an evening out on the town.

Rather than trying to manage the logistics of selling rooms for these short periods they are being serviced by companies set up specifically to help the process.  HotelsbyDay.com has established a presence in more than 60 cities with more than 600 3 to 5 star category hotels available.  Dayuse.com has 4,000 hotels listed in 22 countries with a three hour booking minimum.      This offers hotels a potentially significant boost to their revenue and a service that the likes of industry disruptors such as Airbnb will find difficult to match.

Isola Comacina

Isola Comacina

A medieval curse and an exorcism with every meal

Isola Comacina is the only island on  stunningly beautiful Lake Como.   For centuries it remained uninhabited.  It was abandoned after the destruction of its fortifications and buildings in 1169.  One of the casualties of the wars between Milan and Como.

The island was on the side of Milan and following its destruction the Bishop of Como issued a curse which stated that the bells will not ring anymore and that anyone playing host on the island would suffer a violent death.  Despite its magnificent location, centuries past before anyone was brave enough to challenge the curse.

Finally, in 1947, ignoring the curse three friends decided to build the restaurant, Locanda, on the island.  One of the three lost his life in a boating accident and another was killed by his girlfriend.  The remaining investor, Lino Nessi, was persuaded to continue with the project and a suggestion was made to hold an exorcism by fire.

To this day following an always superb lunch a bell is rung and the host of the restaurant gathers his guests around a bubbling cauldron.  Guests listen as he tells the story, witnessing this exorcism by fire and imbibing the magic mixture.  We may not believe in curses and exorcisms but something seems to be working as the restaurant has gone on to charm and delight thousands of visitors since it opened.  Why not be one of them and experience it for yourself.

Just one of the many wonderful stories and experiences to be shared during our tour of Northern Italy.

Our boutique small group travel tour to Northern Italy in 2019 includes 8 days in the walled city of Ferrara and 3 days in Bellagio, the most beautiful town on the Lake.  It also includes a visit to Venice to experience the highlights of the Venice Biennale.  Perfect for solo travellers who will enjoy sole use of a queen size room with no single supplement.  Not to be missed.  Head to the tour page for full details of the itinerary.

Travelling around Mexico

Travelling around Mexico

One of the biggest surprises about Mexico is the quality of their inter-city bus services. They boast one of the most modern bus fleets in the world.

Buses run every 15 to 30 minutes between the major cities and key places of interest.

Even in small towns and villages you can select which class of travel you want to enjoy or pay for.

Affordable first class bus travel provides air conditioning, wide reclinable seats, leg rests and a layout with a single seat on one side of the aisle with two seats on the other. On-board male and female toilets plus a boxed lunch provided for longer journeys.

mexico-bus-2

I recently travelled from San Miguel de Allende to Mexico City in one of these buses and the 4-hour journey was a wonderfully relaxing way to enjoy the ever-changing passing scenery.   If you have the time and want to see as much of the country as possible then take a bus. The service, on-time departures and comfort make this a much better option than hanging around airports and the inevitable delays with check-in and waiting for luggage. What’s more the bus stations are generally located in or close to the heart of the city which makes accessing your hotel so much quicker and easier.

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