Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I could see the question on the faces of the owners of Can Dionis, a 700-year old farm in Catalonia, Spain as we sat down around a long table set up in their inner courtyard. How do you get a group of travel writers to put down their smart phones, cameras, and laptops?

A press trip with travel writers means constant tweeting, Facebook status updates, taking photos, Instagramming, sending emails and taking notes

A press trip with travel writers means constant tweeting, Facebook status updates, taking photos, Instagramming, sending emails and taking notes, until….

From the edges of the patio they watched us with cocked heads, puzzling over our strange behavior. Moments later, the wife smiled knowingly and signaled for her family to begin serving. To the baskets of fresh-baked bread, whose yeasty fragrance was already suffusing the air, they added plates of meaty red tomatoes, glass carafes of oil so rich it sparkled green in the sunlight, and giant chunks of farm-fresh cheese. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, Spanish Jamon and homemade yogurt followed. Last but not least, the father set a flat-pan cake coated in powdered sugar in the center of the table with a flourish. Neus Vila i Figareda, the director of the Visitors Bureau for the Girona Region and our guide for the day, cut into the golden crust, explaining, “This is a specialty of the house. I asked her to make it for us today. It is delicious spread with their homemade marmalade.” Read More

Ana Serra never thought she would end up being a dairy farmer. Like many kids who grow up in the country, after finishing her education she left her family’s farm in rural Catalonia, Spain for a career in the city. In 1987, stressed out by the demands of business, she and her husband, Alfons Mir, returned to the farm, Granja la Selvatana, for some much needed rest and relaxation. This time, they stayed.

These days, Ana has swapped her business suits for a full-length vinyl apron and a baseball cap, worn backwards to hold back her unruly curls. At the crack of dawn each morning she rolls out of bed and climbs into the “pit,” a concrete slot between two raised platforms where her cows wait to be milked. On this particular morning I watched from above as she cajoled the cows with a series of whistles and “hey-heys.” Once they were in position, she turned to our small group and demonstrated how to milk a cow.

“Press, go down, leave it,” she explained, gripping her forefinger with her other hand and sliding it down to her fingertip. “Come, you can try if you like.”

Ana Serra demonstrates how to milk a cow at Granja la Selvatana in Catalonia, Spain

Ana Serra demonstrates how to milk a cow

I descended the dung-coated metal steps gingerly, taking care not to slip, and stood beneath one of the enormous black and white beasts. Anxious for the pressure of her swollen udder to be relieved, the cow mooed and shuffled back and forth. I reached up, grabbed a teat and firmly slid my hand downward. Miraculously, a steady stream flowed out; I was milking a cow! My elation was soon tempered when the cow’s tail slapped me, painting my mauve t-shirt brown with poop. Read More

A few days ago a friend sent me a link to the new video created by Peru to promote tourism in their country. I expected another fluff piece but what I found was a touching video that not only showcased the magnificence of Peru, but also eloquently captured how easy it is to forget what is really important in life. It begins with a shot of a man at a desk in a sterile office environment in the year 2032. But I won’t spoil it for you – better if you just watch the brief video:

Can’t view the above YouTube video about Peru? Click here.

I traveled to Peru last November and spent a month discovering the country. Of course, Machu Picchu was a dream come true for me and met my every expectation, but what surprised me most was how much I loved the country in general. Read More

While history may not specifically record the presence of Saint Giles in the Spanish Pyrenees, Catalans insist he made his way into Vall de Núria, just over the present day border with France. A christian Abbot born in the middle of the seventh century, Giles left his native Athens in search of a monastic life of peace and tranquility. Eventually he settled on the south coast of France between Arles and Nimes, where he allegedly built the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Gilles. Since the abbey was the first stopping point for pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it is entirely plausible that at some point he wandered further up into the mountains, but Spanish pilgrims need no speculation. Their proof lies in legends that are backed up by a bell, a cross, a pot, and a venerated wooden carving of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin of Núria, believed to have been crafted by Saint Giles, who hid it in a cave in the valley in 700 AD

The Virgin of Núria, believed to have been crafted by Saint Giles, who hid it in a cave in the valley in 700 AD

According to tradition, Saint Giles arrived in Vall de Núria around 700 AD, carrying with him a cross. He lived in a cave and enticed local shepherds to listen to the word of God by sharing the food he prepared in a copper pot, ringing a bell to alert them when meals were ready. Giles preached Christianity to the local populace for four years, until Romans threatened religious persecution. He fled, but not before secreting the pot, bell, cross, and an icon of the Virgin Mary that he had carved from walnut wood and painstakingly painted.

More than three centuries later, an angel appeared in a dream to a pilgrim named Amadeo, telling him of a place marked with a white stone where St. Giles had hidden valuable objects. Amadeo found the marker boulder and built a small chapel honoring the Virgin on that spot with the help of locals, however he failed to find the precious treasures of Giles. One day, seven years after Amadeus had initially begun his search, “a bull with fiery red hair” started kicking a stone wall with his hoof. Recognizing that this was a sign, shepherds began digging through the rock. The moment they broke through, a bright light shone from the image of the Virgin. Next to her sat a cross, a bell and a copper pot. Read More

By the time I finally arrived in Spain from Lanai, Hawaii, I’d flown on five different planes, ridden in a taxi between La Guardia and JFK airports in New York City, and taken two trains. I’d been traveling for 41 hours straight and was dead tired, but the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) Conference I was scheduled to attend in Girona was due to start in four hours. Thankfully, the folks at Wimdu had arranged for me to stay in a comfortable apartment in the city center with three fellow travel bloggers.

Full kitchen was the nicest feature of our Wimdu apartment in Girona, Spain

Full kitchen was the nicest feature of our Wimdu apartment in Girona, Spain

As Heather Cowper from Heather on her Travels, Isabel Romano from Diario de a bordo, and Laurel Robbins from Monkeys and Mountains scoped out the three bedrooms I plopped my luggage on the polished wooden floor and sank down on the sofa. Too tired to move, I let the other girls take the bedrooms and claimed the fold-out sofa. I rubbed my aching feet and checked out my home for the next few days. The rental agent who checked us in explained that the apartments had just been completely redone, right down to the furniture; we would be the first people to sleep in the new beds. Our check-in time had even been delayed because a crew was still moving in furniture. Read More

Twenty-four hours after leaving Lana‘i, Hawai’i I am on my fourth of five flights that will carry me to Barcelona, Spain. I wriggle in the confining seat and and resign myself to another few hours of discomfort. To relieve the boredom I review the mental images of Lana‘i that are etched on my brain.

Deep green Cook Island Pines capture fog and mist that replenishes the island's aquifer

Deep green Cook Island Pines capture fog and mist that replenishes the island’s aquifer

The exquisite Hawaiian sky projects on the back of my eyelids, a bruised purple-blue color that might be a harbinger of storms in the Midwest but is an everyday occurrence on Lana‘i. Deep green Cook Island Pines march in single file toward the ridges above town, their upturned needles capturing precious fog drip that replenishes the island’s aquifer. Over eons, iron and sulphur-rich volcanic lava has weathered, depositing a thick layer of burnt carmine, rose, and ochre yellow dirt across the island. Read More