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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts from August, 2013

La Tomatina, Buñol – A Sanctioned Tomato War

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Buñol is a small, quiet town about 38kms from the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Valencia.  It has a population of about 9,000 souls.  Every year on the last Wednesday in August it goes crazy with an influx of mainly British, French, German and Spanish tourists who come to indulge in a tomato fight of epic proportions.  This year the tomato-fest is on the 28th of August.

The tomato fight started in 1945 when a group of young men were not allowed to participate in the local festivities, which involved costumed figures of gigantes y cabezudos, or “Giants and Big-Heads.”  They staged an impromptu tomato fight in the Plaza del Pueblo.  This was instantaneously popular; repeated the next year and has been carried on till today becoming a traditional, free-for-all, fun sport with an international flavour and participation.

In 1980 it became an official event with the local authorities organising the spectacle. In 2012, about 40 tonnes of tomatoes were trucked in from the Extremadura region as ammunition for the festivities.  La Tomatina has even acquired religious sanction.  The tomato throwing is now done to honour San Luis Bertrán and the Mother of God of the Defenceless (Mare de Deu dels Desemparats- another attribute of the Virgin Mary), patrons of the city of Buñol.

La Tomatino begins at 10am, with a greasy, two-storey pole climb.  The pole is coated with soap and a ham tied to the top.  Whoever reaches the ham gets to keep it!  As the climbers attempt to slither up to the prize, the crowd sings and dances, all the while being showered with water.  Once the ham prize has been acquired, the tomato fight begins, signalled by a loud shot.

That is the ideal situation but most times it takes too long to get to the ham, sometimes not at all.  So the fun part – throwing the tomatoes – begins regardless.  There are no teams and each man has to fight his own tomato battle.  The pandemonium lasts for an hour when another loud shot is fired to signal the cessation of the tomato war.

By this time the whole town square is a gory, pulpy scarlet and so are the participants, of course.  Fire trucks shower the players and the streets to remove the tomato paste.  A side effect of the festivities is that the cobblestones in the square and surrounding streets become spotlessly clean because of the tomatoes’ acidity!

You would think that indulging in the messy pleasure of throwing tomatoes would be a simple affair.  Well think again.  There are rules, instructions rather.  They are:

  • The tomatoes have to be squashed before throwing to avoid injuries.
  • No other objects except tomatoes are allowed.
  • Participants have to give way to the trucks.
  • The festival doesn't allow ripping off T-shirts.  (This one is seldom adhered to.   The players will often tear each others’ shirts off – man or woman.)
  • After the second shot signalling the end of the tomato battle, no tomatoes should be thrown.

Here are couple of tips when going into this purée making battle.  One is – wear goggles to protect your eyes or take a cloth to keep them clean.  The other is – for heaven’s sake; don’t take your camera in to the square.

Last year some 50,000 people showed up for the festival.  That was a tad too many for the limited confines of the square.  So this year (2013) the town authorities have limited the number of entrants to 20,000 people and are issuing entry tickets to the square.  The town residents get 5,000, while outsiders get 15,000.

The tickets are not free, of course!  They will cost €10 each.  Tickets can only be bought online from the town’s official website.  The ticket will take the form of a wristband.

I wonder if a few rebellious souls will stage a parallel red war to protest the regulations and limitations placed on them.  Will 1945 repeat itself?

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The Little Mermaid Celebrates a Hundred Years!

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She has been sitting on that rock for the last hundred years, staring longingly towards the shore.  According to the touching fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the little bronze mermaid, with the far-seeing eyes, swims up to the rock from the bottom of the sea every morning and evening hoping to see her beloved prince.

While she waits, perched on her rocky pedestal, over a million people a year come by to photograph her.  Her popularity has made her one of those icons that define or identify a city.  The Little Mermaid is now regarded as the embodiment of Copenhagen.  So much so the city has been celebrating her birthday for a number of years.

The Little mermaid’s birthday is celebrated on 23 August.  For it was on that day, in 1913, sculptor Edvard Eriksen’s creation was unveiled.  He was commissioned by brewer Carl Jacobsen who was entranced by the fairy tale character and the ballerina Ellen Price.  Ms. Price had danced the character in a performance, at the Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, in 1909.

Since then the little (she is only four feet, one inch tall) lady has been decapitated, had her arm sawed off, paint poured on her and a burqa tied on her face.  She was even blown off her pedestal with explosives on the night of 10th September 2003.  Each time, though, she has been rescued, repaired and restored.

One of the annual events to mark her birthday has real life ‘mermaids’ jumping into the water and forming the number of her years of existence.  It has been done for so long now that it has become a tradition.  This year the mermaids will swim around the rock on which she sits to form the number 100.

Besides the swimming mermaids the city of Copenhagen has planned a series of activities for 23rd August 2013.  The celebrations include story-telling, about mermaids, by the Blue Planet Aquarium staff; a mermaid concert; birthday songs by the Tivoli Gardens’ Boys Choir; a scene from the Russian musical The Little Mermaid and a dance performance by Selene Munoz of Hans Christian Andersen’ fairy tale.  The finale will be a fireworks display.

All the while Den lille havfrue (Danish for The Little Mermaid) will be sitting on her rock at Langelinje Pier.  Keeping her lonely vigil and braving the the winds, vandals and tourists.

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Bodrum – From Greek Outpost to Opulent Hotspot

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Bodrum is a port city on the south-western Aegean Sea Coast of Turkey.  Its location is beautiful and so is the weather.  Unlike many, once picturesque, fishing villages that were ‘discovered’ by holiday makers and mutated into a hotel/motel and garishly lit tourist-targeted towns, Bodrum has retained its original character.

The local authorities have played a big part in Bodrum retaining its charm.  Building regulations and town planning control the height of buildings and preserve the traditional whitewashed houses with their distinctive blue-trim. The surrounding green-clad hills, numerous coves, bays, marinas and winding backstreets make this once unknown seaside town a very attractive place to spend a few days.

However, Bodrum has changed.  It is now the favoured retreat of the wealthy and powerful.  It has a number of high-end boutiques, salons, and elegant restaurants that cater to them.  There are also petite cafes, dressed with bright flowers, several excellent museums, shopping areas and other attractions that draw the package tourists too.

Despite the million or so tourists who pack its streets, beaches and hotels every summer, Bodrum has managed to keep its essential nature.  The Ottoman era mosques, ancient relics and the Crusader era castle have helped retain that lost-era flavour.

While the town has essentially become a ‘getaway’; a place to relax there are several historical attractions for the sightseer.

Before he died King Mausolus (376-353 BC) planned and started to build his own tomb.  It was designed by Pythius and Satyros.  When he died, his wife (who was also his sister) Artemisia completed it.  It was a massive and impressive temple-like structure.

It consisted of tonnes of white marble crowned by stepped pyramids and decorated with carvings and statues.  The tomb was among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It survived for 1700 years till earthquakes brought it down.  Today, only its foundations and few bits of statuary can be seen.  It is from this man and his tomb that we get the word “mausoleum.”

The Crusader Knights Hospitallers showed up in 1402 and began to build a castle in 1406.  They used the marble and stones from Mausoleum’s ruins for their construction.  They finished it in 1437 but kept adding fortifications, a cistern and a moat.  It is still a very impressive and well-preserved structure.  They named it The Castle of St Peter and the town around it Petronium.  Over time the name was turkicised to 'Bodrum.'

Within Bodrum Castle is the French Tower containing the tomb and remains of Queen Ada (died sometime between 360 and 325 BC).  Along with her body were buried a gold crown, necklace, bracelets, rings and an exquisite wreath of gold myrtle leaves – all incredibly valuable.

Bodrum Castle is also home to one of most important museums of the world.Bodrum castle  The Museum of Underwater Archaeology houses items collected from underwater missions.  The exhibits are creatively displayed and include maps, drawings and murals.

Another relic from ancient times is the Myndos Gate – now restored.  It the only remaining portion of what was once a 7km wall built by King Mausolus.  In 334 BC many of Alexander the Great’s soldiers perished at the wall and the moat around it.

Fate and forethought has been kind to Bodrum and saved it from becoming like other Turkish fishing villages that have become touristic nightmares.

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Sightseeing In Old Jerusalem

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One of the great things about sightseeing in Old Jerusalem is that nearly all the sights and shrines are close to each other.  Cheek by jowl you could say.  The other thing is that despite the millions of people who visit every year, you don’t get that squashed, crowded, hemmed in feeling.  Oh yes.  The streets are narrow too.

King David laid the foundation stones of Jerusalem City in 1004 BCE (Before Common Era) making it one of the world’s oldest cities. It has been built and rebuilt since.  The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and a whole host of others came and went destroying and building in turn.  Jerusalem has been destroyed twice and captured and recaptured 44 times.

JerusalemThe Old City is demarcated by the walls that Suleiman the Magnificent built in 1538.  They make it convenient for the visitor when navigating through the maze of streets.  Since 1981 the Old City is a World Heritage Site and is also on the World Heritage in Danger list.

Old Jerusalem is literally divided into four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.  The Old City of Jerusalem is only 0.9 square kilometres in size!  What is amazing though is that so much of the world’s human history, culture, religion and conflicts have their roots in this tiny area.

The Jewish Quarter includes the Wailing Wall (or The Western Wall and the Kotel), which was a part of the Temple of Solomon.  Also here you will find the Burnt House.  This residential remnant from 2000 years ago was destroyed by the Romans.

Then there is a remarkable street – The Cardo – built by the Romans in the 6th century. Several columns, arches, shops and sections of floor still remain.  This area was the Roman Aelia Capitolina and the business district then.  You can almost expect to see people from that age going about their business with mule-drawn carts and legionnaires passing by.

The Christian Quarter has numerous churches, chapels and road side memorials dedicated to or recalling the deeds and life of Christ.  You can attend a service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried after being crucified.  You can retrace his final journey along the Via Dolorosa and recall the Stations of the Cross.  The route starts at what was the courthouse but is now Lions’ Gate – or St. Stephen’s Gate – and winds through the Arab souk and Moslem Quarter before ending at the hill of Calvary or Golgotha.

A non-religious attraction of the Christian section is the thriving and very colourful Bazaar.  It is a great place to pick up souvenirs and religious and ornamental items.  Bargaining is an accepted and expected part of shopping here.  Another lovely feature is the numerous little food stalls – the appetising aromas will ensure you taste something before moving on.

The largest and most populous is the Moslem Quarter.  Take the Cardo through the Arab souk and into the Moslem Quarter.  There are several churches and mosques here.  More importantly it is the location of two of Islam’s holiest sites.  One is the Dome of the Rock.  Another is Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.  Both sit on the Temple Mount.

The last and tiniest is the Armenian Quarter.  Most of the Armenians live around the St. James Cathedral.  Through two thousand years of Jerusalem’s turbulent history they have retained their ethnic, cultural and religious identity.

Taken in totality the Temple Mount has huge meaning and importance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam making it the most contentious and disputed piece of land.

A tour of the Old City of Jerusalem should take you a little over half a day.  Incredible, how so much history can be packed into a matter of hours!  You will go away very touched and thoughtful.

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The Fairy Tale Land of Mont Saint-Michel

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One kilometre off the northwest Normandy coast of France sits the unique little island of Mont Saint-Michel. It is cut off from the mainland at high tide while vast sandbanks are exposed at low tide, which can be just as deterring as the powerful water flows. Today there is a motorable causeway connecting it to the mainland and unaffected by high tides.

All of 247 acres in area and 300 feet at its highest, this strategically situated rocky island embodies the expression that ‘life is stranger than fiction.’ The ancient monastery, massive stone fortifications, winding climbing streets, houses with sloping roofs and tiny quaint shops give Mont Saint-Michel an ambience that could very easily be the setting for a fantasy tale with dragons, elves and wizards in it.

Mont Saint MichelFor most of its history, Mont Saint-Michel has been a redoubtable fortress. It was a Roman outpost till the 460 AD, followed by Gallic occupation till the Franks came along and pushed them out. Sometime in the 8th century the island’s role changed when the first religious buildings were constructed.  However, its strategic importance remained and is even featured in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It was the Normans however who were the architects of the grand and imposing abbey that gives the town and the island so much of its character.

In the 11th century William de Volpiano, an Italian architect was charged with building the Abbey. He designed the Romanesque church seen today. In the early 12th century Philip Augustus paid for the construction of new Gothic-style sections, which included a refectory and cloister. Thereafter Charles VI added more fortifications, built the towers and added courtyards. Today many of them are filled with flowers that make the place very pretty.

For many centuries Mont Saint-Michel was an important pilgrimage centre but that function slowly declined and by the time of the French Revolution the abbey was almost abandoned. The Republicans converted into a prison.  In the nineteenth century such luminaries as Victor Hugo petitioned to restore the buildings, resulting in it being declared a historic monument in 1874.

In 1979 Mont Saint-Michel and its Bay were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The isle attracts more than 3 million visitors every year. Compare that with the permanent residents who number only 44, at last count.

That is Mont Saint-Michel for you – tiny in size but large in history and heart.

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Touring the Sistine Chapel in Rome

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The Sistine Chapel is probably the single most impressive, influential and famous art-filled room in the whole world.  Intended to be the private chapel of a pope, the whole world now comes to worship at this altar of artistic creativity.  It also serves as the election room of new popes.

Sistine ChapelThe building and the painting of the Sistine Chapel was completed in three major phases.  The first was the building and wall painting phase.  Commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (of the della Rovere family) it took about eight years (1475 to 1483) to complete.  It was consecrated and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August 1483.  The architect was Baccio Pontelli and the construction was supervised by Giovannino de'Dolci.

In 1481, while the chapel was still being constructed, Pope Sixtus IV brought in several great Florentine artists to paint the walls.  They were Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Bartolomeo della Gatta.  They took only eleven months to complete their commission.

The walls are divided into three horizontal sections.  The uppermost comprises of pilasters that support the vault.  The middle section (or order) tells two stories from the bible.  The left wall relates the life of Moses while the right wall tells the life of Christ.  At ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls are covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.

There are six windows on the long walls.  Between each window is a niche with painted images of the first popes – Peter to Marcellus – who were all martyred.  A beautiful and delicately carved marble screen, with an inset wooden door, divides the presbytery from the nave.  The screen is the work of three sculptors – Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno and Giovanni Dalmata.  The screen used to divide the chapel into two equal parts but was moved making the presbytery much larger.  The floor is a marble mosaic beautiful in workmanship and design.

The second phase saw the introduction of Michelangelo.  In 1508 Pope Julius II (a ‘nephew’ of Sixtus IV) wanted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel repainted.  The ceiling was originally frescoed by Piero Matteo d'Amelia with a star-spangled sky in 1481.

He had originally called upon Raphael (a passionate enemy of Michelangelo) to take up the project but he refused.  Instead he suggested Michelangelo’s name in an attempt to discredit him knowing Michelangelo was a sculptor and not a painter.  Raphael created one of art history’s greatest gaffes.

Michelangelo worked on the ceiling from 1508 to 1512.  What he created has become a beacon of art throughout the world.  He demonstrated control and understanding of detail, proportion, colour, texture, form and an unmatched originality that has illuminated the world – let alone art.  He brought perfection to reality.  The Sistine Chapel is a display of one man’s incredible creative genius.

The pope wanted paintings of the 12 Apostles.  Michelangelo dismissed the idea as a “poor thing”.  Thank heavens for his courage and ‘artistic licence and integrity’ or we would not have the most amazing works in the history of Western art.  Instead what Michelangelo painted were stories from the Book of Genesis – from the Creation to the story of Noah.

This phase of Michelangelo’s work included the incomparable and stunningly daring fresco, the Creation of Adam.  Michelangelo’s portrayal of God as a muscular figure with long white hair and big white beard is the one many of us, today, picture him to be.  In earlier works God was represented only as a hand reaching down through the clouds.

The near touching of God and Adam’s hands is one of the most replicated, parodied and iconic images of the world.  It also goes against the common perception of God breathing life into Adam.  Michelangelo also shows Adam with a ‘navel.’  Other departures are the serpent in Eden depicted with a woman’s head; the forbidden fruit is a fig and not the commonly accepted ‘apple.’

To paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo built his own platform, extending over half the chapel area.  It allowed him to stand upright (Sorry! He did not paint it on his back).  However, it denied him the possibility of viewing his work from the floor.  Despite that he painted huge scale figures from a distance of only a few inches.

Twenty-eight years later Michelangelo was back.  This time it was Pope Clement VII who commissioned him.  Shortly after Pope Clement died and was succeed by Pope Paul III who pushed the artist to quickly finish the fresco.  In this phase Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment on the altar wall – the largest fresco of the century.  He started work in 1535 and finished it in 1541.

Winding staircase in the Sistine ChapelEven if Michelangelo had not created what he did in the Sistine Chapel, it would still be a room filled with an extraordinary collection of masterpieces.  From this single room emanates more creativity, beauty and inspiration (artistic and religious) than any other collection of art anywhere.

Despite its amazing fame there is nothing outstanding about the Sistine Chapel’s architectural features.  Its dimensions are based on that of the Temple of Solomon as detailed in the Old Testament.  It is 40.93 metres long, 13.41 metres wide and 20.70 metres high.  The roof is barrel-vaulted.  The exterior is a remarkably bare brick-walled edifice with no ostentatious embellishments, sculptures or carvings.  There is no grand entrance door.  Entrance to the Sistine Chapel can only be made from within the Papal Palace.

Visitors today are blessed because what they view is the restored and cleaned frescos, which took about 30 (1965 to 1994) years to accomplish.

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