Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Most of my travel is done independently. I research the places I visit and make all my own arrangements for transportation, accommodations and sightseeing. Once in a while, however, I’m offered the opportunity to take a tour, where I travel with a group and stick to a set itinerary. I have always recognized the benefits of these trips, especially for those who are uncomfortable with solo travel, but I usually turn these offers down because I fear I will be dragged around to one tourist trap after another or have to endure the “cattle herding” that often defines packaged tours.

A few months back Tauck invited me to try one of their Tauck Events. I read up on the company, which bills itself as “the 88-year-old leader in premium quality guided travel” and browsed their events on offer. One in particular, the Tauck Jazz Event, piqued my interest. Not only did it include five days of exclusive events and access to experts in the field of jazz that would be impossible for me to arrange, the event was also curated by Ken Burns, the filmmaker responsible for the PBS documentary Jazz. I eagerly accepted their offer.

Private concert by Donald Harrison for Tauck Jazz Event

Private concert by Donald Harrison for Tauck Jazz Event

As the date of the event grew nearer, I began receiving literature about the event. A few things immediately caught my attention. Accommodations would be at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, a posh, historic hotel in the French Quarter. Although the event could accommodate up to 210 guests, the entire group would be together only for the major musical performances. The rest of the time we would separate into breakout groups of no more than 35, each of which would be on separate sightseeing tracks from other groups, ensuring that we would not be tripping over one another. Read More

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Wishes are powerful things. Last year, I wished that I could experience more live music as I travel around the world, learning about other cultures. Like photography and writing, music has the ability to transport me, but traveling perpetually makes it difficult to plan for live performances when I barely know where I’ll be next month. The wish fairy must have heard me, because the following week I received an email from Tauck, inviting me to attend a Tauck Event of my choice. These theme-driven one-of-a-kind tours focus on cultural, historical, nature or sports. I could have chosen to experience the 139th Running of the Kentucky Derby as a VIP in reserved seating at Churchill Downs or rung in the New Year on their Celebration of Roses Event, complete with grandstand seating for the Tournament of Roses Parade®. But one option stood out among the rest, the Tauck Jazz Event, which promised to explore the past, present and future of jazz in New Orleans, the city that gave it birth. Even better, this particular event was being curated by legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who spent years researching the history of jazz in preparation for his ten-part documentary series for PBS, entitled simply, “Jazz.”

Legendary documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, curator of the Tauck Jazz Event in New Orleans

Legendary documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, curator of the Tauck Jazz Event in New Orleans

I had always assumed that jazz was birthed in the early 1900’s, when Louis Armstrong was blowing his trumpet and singing scat in the smoky, dark clubs of New Orleans. The true roots of American jazz, however, hail back to the 19th century, to a time when almost every town in the U.S. had a brass band – some more than one. For decades these brass ensembles performed at every public event, ranging from a Fourth of July picnic to a political rally until, in the mid-20th century their popularity had all but died out. But they had planted a seed. Read More

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Like a proud peacock, the Big Chief strutted around the courtyard, showing off his hand-beaded and sequined costume. Carefully balancing his neon-orange feathered headdress, he strode purposefully toward the Big Chief from a competing tribe. Just inches apart, they stopped in their tracks. Arms crossed over their broad chests, they glared at one another.

Chief number one looked his challenger up and down.”You pretty, but I prettier!” he said, quickly following it with the traditional demand to bow down and pay respect: “Humba!

Chief number two closed the gap, pressing his crossed forearms against his opponent’s. “I the pretty one. Me no humba; YOU humba!

Big Chief and Queen costumes at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

Big Chief and Queen costumes at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

Had this been the late 19th century, fisticuffs would likely have ensued. In those days the secret society known a the Mardi Gras Indians used the annual celebration as an excuse to settle scores. Over the past century, the violent affair has evolved into an occasion for good-natured competition between the tribes, who now meet each March during the Mardi Gras parade and festivities. The posturing between Big Chiefs makes for great entertainment but most onlookers are unaware that this interaction Read More

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Like most visitors to Barcelona, Spain, Sagrada Familia Basilica was on my must see list, so I was surprised when an employee of the hotel where I was staying told me not to bother going inside. “Tickets are very expensive and there’s not much to see,” he said. If I hadn’t been convinced by his advice, the block-long line of people waiting to buy tickets sealed my decision; seeing the outside was sufficient. Two months later I returned to Barcelona during the off-season. The long lines were gone and I simply couldn’t resist the lure of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View from the center of Sagrada Familia's  Latin Cross floor plan, looking toward the apse

View from the center of Sagrada Familia’s Latin Cross floor plan, looking toward the apse

At the passion facade I paused to examine the twin bronze doors that display snippets of verse from the New Testament, noting the differing heights of the raised letters, as if the artist wanted some words to stand out more than others. Blinking in the dim light, I made my way to the center of the nave and stood at the intersection of the Latin Cross floor plan. Soft light streamed through stained glass windows that wrapped the nave, bathing everything in rich shades of purple, green, gold, and pink. I craned my neck, tracing massive tree-trunk columns to the vaulted ceiling, where a canopy of stone leaves spread, as if protecting parishioners from the elements. A tingle ran up my spine as I soaked in the atmosphere of serenity and prayer. It felt as if I was looking at the church through the eyes of Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalán architect responsible for the structure we see today. Read More

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My first visit to Barcelona had been much too short. With only a few days remaining before I was due in Paris, I hopped aboard a double-decker bus for an orientation tour, hoping it would help me choose from among the many interesting sites around the city. From my upper-level seat on the open-airbus I looked down into the labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter, making a mental note to explore this area on foot, but it was not to be on that visit. There was so much to see and do in Barcelona that I didn’t even have time to walk the entire length of La Rambla, the famous pedestrian street that connects Plaça Catalunya with the seafront.

After six weeks of wandering around France I returned to Barcelona, anxious to see more. Early the first morning I stuffed my pockets with snacks purchased at the Boqueria Market and headed into the Gothic Quarter. Within minutes I was deliciously lost in a maze of cobblestone streets where sinister gargoyles peered down from rooftop perches and narrow lanes emerged into broad plazas. Though awed by the beautiful architecture, I was also frustrated; I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. I decided to call in an expert.

Bogueris Market, just off La Rambla in the Raval District of Barcelona Spain

Bogueris Market, just off La Rambla in the Raval District of Barcelona

The following morning I met Nancy Daum Daily for a half-day “Undiscovered Corners of the Barrio Gotico Tour” with GetYourGuide. Nancy knew all the hidden courtyards and secret gardens within the quarter and was intimately familiar with its history and architecture. Surprisingly, much of what we think of as Gothic architecture in the quarter was anything but. The Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gótico in Spanish, or Barri Gòtic in Catalan) was originally settled in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C., though other than surviving coinage from that era, we know little about its first inhabitants. Read More

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The smiling faces behind the front desk at St Christopher’s Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain were a welcome sight after my bad experience with Equity Point Hostels the previous week. Their warm greeting was quickly followed up with an efficient check-in process and instructions for finding my females-only dorm room. My first big surprise was the attention that had been paid to security. I had to scan my key before the elevator would move, use it a second time to access the hallway leading to my dorm room, and yet  third time to enter my room. Inside my room, the pleasant surprises continued. Double bunks were securely attached to the wall and each had dark gray privacy curtains, an individual light and an outlet. Below the beds were large metal lockers on wheels that were easily pulled out for secure luggage storage, using a padlock that I carry with me. My 22″ rolling suitcase and my mid-size backpack both easily fit into the locker. Best of all, with three wifi routers on each floor, there was free rocket-fast Internet available in all rooms.

Front desk at St Christopher's Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain

Smiling faces behind the front desk at St Christopher’s Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain

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