Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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An employee handed us each a sprig of mint as we filed into the door of the Chouara Tannery. “Oh, they’re going to make tea for us, how nice,” I thought. I picked my way up the dark, narrow stairway, emerging three flights later into an open-air leather goods shop, where we were led to a terrace overlooking the tannery pits. The stench of rotting flesh and ammonia hit me full-force. Sheepishly, I held the mint under my nostrils, realizing it was meant to help mask the odor that emanated from the pits below.

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

Chouara Tannery, largest of the three tanneries in Fez, Morocco, was built in the 11th century and leather goods have been produced there using the exact same method for more than a thousand years. Skins are first placed into the white vats, which contain a mixture of water, limestone, and pigeon droppings. The limestone helps to remove hair from the skins while the acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides. Three days later the skins are removed and washed, after which they are placed in the dying pits. Read More

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Our 4×4 jeep was trouncing over hardpan sand at the edges of the Sahara Desert when I noticed an ominous black cloud rising behind the low hills over my left shoulder.

I think there’s a sandstorm on the way,” I said to the driver.

Is nothing,” he tossed back casually.

I hesitated. I was certainly no authority on the Saharan Desert or Morocco, so I was inclined to trust him, but having lived in Arizona for 12 years, I’d been through my fair share of sandstorms. “No, I’m fairly sure it’s a sandstorm, and a pretty big one at that,” I reiterated.

As we drove toward our Saharan Desert camp, I looked over my shoulder and saw a sandstorm coming over the distant hills

Sandstorm flows over the distant hills as we drive to our tent camp in the Saharan Desert of Morocco

As we drove the last few kilometers to our tent camp the driver casually suggested to our tour host, Dror Sinai, that we could do a sunrise camel ride the following morning rather the evening sunset ride. Before he could reply we crested a final rise in the dirty washboard sand and descended into a Laurence of Arabia landscape. Wave after wave of caramel-colored dunes stretched to the horizon. Scattered around the sinuous peaks and valleys, a caravan of ratty-looking camels nonchalantly chewed their cud. Read More

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At the Bristol, England airport, I handed my boarding pass and passport to the EasyJet ticket agent at the check-in counter. He punched my locator number into his computer, then looked up at me quizzically. “You’re a bit early,” he said.

“Yes, I like to get to the airport with a lot of time to spare,” I replied.

Amused, he shook his head. “No, I mean that your flight is for tomorrow, not today.”

“You’re kidding!” I grabbed the boarding pass back from him and, sure enough, my flight was for the following day. Sadly, it was not the first time this had happened to me. One of the drawbacks of perpetual travel is having to keep track of lots of travel plans and sometimes things just go awry.

Winford Manor Hotel in Bristol, England

Winford Manor Hotel in Bristol, England

“We might be able to get you on the flight today, but you’d have to pay a change fee,” he suggested.

Unfortunately, I was headed for Paris, with a quick connection the following morning. Since my layover was only eight hours, I had planned to sleep in the airport. Going a day earlier meant getting a pricey hotel room at the Paris airport. Instead I asked about accommodations near the Bristol Airport and learned there were two hotels just minutes away, both of which had shuttle services. The first was fully booked but the second, Winford Manor, had a room available for a reasonable price of £78 (about $118) and immediately dispatched their shuttle to pick me up. Read More

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Stonehenge. The word conjures up visions of thousands of slaves struggling to set giant stone lintels atop colossal standing stones. Of Druid priests in flowing white robes performing ultra-secret rituals within the sacred circle. Of summer and winter solstices, when sunbeams pierced the precisely spaced stones and fell on the monolithic sandstone altar, alerting priests to the shift of seasons.

I couldn’t leave England without seeing this iconic site and my friend, Heather Cowper, who so graciously let me camp out at her house in Bristol, offered to be my chauffeur for the day. Shortly before the 9 a.m. opening hour we stood at the head of the queue, hoping to get photos before the swarms of tourists descended. English Heritage, the organization charged with managing the site, had agreed to grant us access slightly before the official opening time. We had about a three minute head start on the crowd but by the time we made it around to the far side, where the light was good enough for photos, people were already congregating.

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

I was disappointed. In addition to the crowds, the walking path is so far away from the site that it’s difficult to conceive of the immensity of the stones or the tremendous undertaking it must have been to raise them. Stonehenge seemed less significant, less imposing than I had expected. Hoping that the audio guide would provide inspiration, I put away my camera, donned the headphones, and retraced my steps to the beginning of the self-guiding tour.

I learned immediately that Stonehenge was never a Druid site. This false belief likely stems from the work of William Stukeley, author of the 18th century book, Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids. In it, he correctly deduced that the site had been constructed by residents of ancient Britain, rather than Romans or Danes. Read More

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The moment Measha Brueggergosman sang her final note the audience in the ballroom of the Bath Assembly Room erupted in applause. I enthusiastically joined in and prepared to rise for a well-deserved standing ovation when a deep rumbling rose through the soles of my shoes and reverberated off the walls.

What are they doing,” I whispered to the man seated next to me.

It’s like extra applause,” he whispered back. “We Brits stamp our feet on the floor when we’re particularly pleased with a performance.

Bath Assembly Rooms, built in Georgian style in the mid-18th century, hosted Brueggergosman in the ballroom

Bath Assembly Rooms, built in Georgian style in the mid-18th century, hosted Brueggergosman in the ballroom

Brueggergosman has been captivating audiences since she first stepped onto the stage in 1998, but it was her performance of the Olympic Hymn at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games that finally thrust her into the international spotlight. Serendipitously, I was visiting Bath, England on the day that Brueggergosman was scheduled to appear at the annual Bath International Music Festival. I settled into my third row center seat, tingling with excitement to hear this master operatic soprano perform selections from Ravel’s Sheherazade, Britten’s On This Island, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Poulenc’s Chansons, and Turina’s Tres Sonetos.

Brueggergosman climbed the few steps to the stage, revealing bare feet when she lifted her floor-length gown. Once front and center she smiled and playfully arranged the yards of fabric flowing around her feet with her toes, then clasped her hands formally in front of her waist and stood statuesque. Read More

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From the roof of Thermae Bath Spa I looked out over Tudor and Georgian rooftops with row upon row of cylindrical black chimneys as Charlotte Hanna, assistant sales & marketing manager for the spa, gave me a primer on the history of Bath, England. Archeological evidence suggests that humans were visiting and worshiping the hot springs in Bath as far back as 8000 B.C., but it wasn’t until 2,000 years ago, when the Romans colonized Britain, that written documentation began. The invaders wrote of a lush, uninhabited valley where natural hot springs bubbled up from the ground. Locals lived in forts atop the seven hills that surround the valley, descending each day to graze their livestock, fish, and to worship the water. But each night they retreated to their hilltop abodes, leaving the pristine valley to Sul, the pagan goddess of water, healing, and wisdom worshiped by Britons. “Clearly, the ancient people of Britain considered this a spiritual site,” Charlotte explained.

Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England

Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England

The Romans erected a temple to Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and healing, but acknowledged the pagan goddess by naming the site Aquae Sulis, which means waters of Sul. By the first century AD they had constructed the Roman Baths, a five-foot deep rectangular basin lined with 45 sheets of lead and topped by an enormous barrel-vaulted hall. People from all over the Roman empire flocked to the the site: Germans, Italians, the Gauls (French), Spanish, northern Africans, some as slaves but many as travelers determined to visit what had by then become one of the most important destinations in the Roman empire. Read More