Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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My first view of the ruins of Pompeii did not inspire awe or wonderment. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, I was perplexed. A few days earlier I had visited Herculaneum, the ancient Roman ruins that lay at the bottom of a 60-foot deep excavated pit. The same eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Herculaneum in A.D. 79 had also entombed Pompeii, yet here there was little in the way of excavation. At Pompeii I looked up to a town that roosted atop lush green hills.

Unexpectedly, the ruins at Pompeii perch atop a hill, rather than within a deep excavation pit

Unexpectedly, the ruins at Pompeii perch atop a hill, rather than within a deep excavation pit

Shrugging off my confusion, I strode into what was once one of the most magnificent cities of the Roman Empire. Ruins of homes and shops lined both sides of the steep cobbled roadway. Here and there, artifacts testified to the luxurious lives led by Pompeiians. Once-burbling fountains in private courtyards stood silent and decaying. A large terracotta jar awaited flour from an adjacent millstone. Wells in the counter tops of tabernas, the fast food joints of ancient Rome, stood yawning and empty. All this and more stood in plain view, as most of the rooftops and many of the walls had succumbed to the crushing weight of ash that fell on the city. Read More

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Walking through the Italian town of Torre Annunziata, one would never suspect that some of the most luxurious villas of the Roman Empire lie buried some 25 feet beneath its streets. The only indication that earlier structures existed comes from a notation on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a twelfth-century copy of an ancient map of the Roman road system. Just three miles west of Pompeii, the mapmaker indicated a cluster of villas, next to which he wrote the word, “Oplontis.”

Villa di Oplontis, more commonly referred to as Villa di Poppaea, was owned by Emperor Nero and used by his notorious second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

Villa di Oplontis, more commonly referred to as Villa di Poppaea, was owned by Emperor Nero and used by his notorious second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

This small seaside suburb of Pompeii might have remained buried for all time had not a grain mill and arms factory required more water than the present-day town could supply. In the early 1590′s, work was begun on the Conte di Sarno canal, which would carry water to Torre Annunziata from the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. During construction, the ancient villa was discovered but no excavations were pursued until 1734, when Charles III of Spain conquered the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. The King of the Two Sicilies, or Charles of Bourbon, as he was referred to by local people, was an enlightened monarch who instituted reforms that strengthened the economy and civic structure. He avoided wars, facilitated trade, modernized agriculture, and promoted science and the arts, thus upon learning about the ancient cities of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Oplontis, he ordered that tunnels be dug to determine the extent of the ruins and search for objets d’art. Much of the statuary he unearthed landed in the gardens of royal palaces or was sold to members of the aristocracy, but to his credit, Charles shipped many of the most important pieces to the Naples National Archaeological Museum, where they are displayed to this day. Read More

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In the early afternoon of August 24 in A.D. 79, more than 300 residents of Herculaneum, Rome fled to the shores of the Mediterranean. Some lingered on the beach, others huddled inside seafront boathouses, and all were terrified. For the past several days the earth had been rocked by tremors. Earthquakes were a fairly common occurrence in the area and not a great cause for concern; 17 years earlier, a quake had severely damaged the town. This time, however, the rocking earth was accompanied by a tremendous explosion from nearby Mount Vesuvius, which had been dormant for more than 800 years. Hot ash and pumice spewed 12 miles high, forming a classic mushroom cloud that blotted out the sun and turned daylight into dusk. Wind-carried ash rained down on the community, but unlike nearby Pompeii, which was rapidly covered by nearly 60 feet of the hot material, only a few inches fell on Herculaneum.

Residents tied pillows to their heads as a protection against falling rocks as they fled. Throughout the night they trembled with fear, awaiting rescue boats that never arrived. As dawn broke the mushroom cloud finally collapsed. Volcanic gas and ash combined with the soil, sending wave after wave of liquified material rushing down the mountain at more than 100 miles per hour. With temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the superheated material instantly incinerated the residents of Herculaneum and buried the town beneath more than 60 feet of volcanic mud.

House of the Alcove in Herculaneum ruins

House of the Alcove in Herculaneum ruins

For almost 1700 years, Herculaneum was lost to history. Centuries after the A.D. 79 eruption, unaware that they were building atop the site of an ancient Roman city, a new town sprung up. Gradually, as foundations and wells were dug, artifacts began to emerge. Official excavations of the ruins, which began in 1738, found very few bodies, thus it was assumed that the town had been mostly evacuated prior to the eruption. It wasn’t until 1981 that the boathouse was discovered and, shortly thereafter, more than 300 skeletons began emerging from the volcanic tuff. Read More

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Cornwall has always been a distinctive part of England. Eons ago two plates of the earth’s crust rammed into one another, uplifting and twisting the underlying rock into the wild and windswept headlands that created its magnificent scenery. Geographically, this southwestern-most tip of England dips it’s toes in the English Channel at a point where the Atlantic Gulf Stream comes closest to Britain, which blesses it with more temperate weather than the rest of the country.

Even the cultural identity of Cornwall is unique. Though everyone speaks English, locals have also carefully preserved their Cornish dialect, which is derived from their Celtic roots. Pasties, a kind of pastry pocket most often filled with beef steak, onion, potato and, turnips, originated in Cornwall, as did that mainstay of English tea and scones, Cornish clotted cream. Today Cornish cream has protected status; it can only be produced in Cornwall and is one of the county’s most important industries.

For a few decades, mining supplanted agriculture and fishing as the area’s most important industry, as rich deposits of tin, copper, and a pure white clay used in the manufacture of porcelain were discovered beneath its bucolic green hills. But by the late 20th century, mining was no longer economically feasible and, with the exception of a few clay pits, the mines ceased operation. Instead, Cornwall turned it’s view toward tourism, capitalizing on its natural beauty and the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, which provides Cornwall with the mildest and sunniest weather in the UK. This unique climate proved ideal for gardens that today feature scores of plant varieties that cannot exist in other parts of England.

The Biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England

The Biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England

One of these gardens, The Eden Project, was built in a 160-year-old china clay quarry that had been closed down in 1995. A year after the pit’s closure, Tim Smits, who conceived the idea for the Eden Project, drew initial sketches for the garden’s design on a cocktail napkin in a pub. Smits wanted a place to showcase the world’s most important plants and he realized he would need a very, very big site. The abandoned clay pit seemed perfect and gradually, the design evolved into a series of giant bubbles because dome-like structures can settle on any surface, even an irregular clay pit.

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It all started with a tweet. I shared a fellow travel blogger’s story about stargazing in Florida on Twitter and Amanda at St. Mawes Retreats replied:

Tweet from St.. Mawes Retreats

I didn’t know anything about St. Mawes Retreats, but Cornwall was a part of the world I had been itching to visit. A year earlier I’d spent time in Dorset, where I went hunting for Ammonite fossils on the Jurrasic coast in Lyme Regis and hiked the South West Coast Path between Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. It was a place of unexpectedly stunning beauty, with soaring white chalk cliffs swathed in thick green grass, and turquoise coves framed by heaved-up, twisted rock formations that provide evidence of the tortured geologic history of the area. Each time I mentioned the gorgeous Devon scenery to a Brit, I was told, ‘If you think Devon was pretty, you must visit Cornwall.’ I replied on Twitter and we began chatting back and forth.

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I’ve never been a “bucket list” kind of traveler. At the very least, the idea of checking places off some tally before I die seems crude; at worst it seems an irreverent measure of one’s worldliness. And yet, I must confess to having one item on what I prefer to call my “travel wish list.” I am dying to see the Northern Lights.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried. For an entire year, at the tender age of 19, I scanned the skies nightly from my unheated log cabin, deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. One winter night, during the decade I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, auroral activity was predicted to be strong enough that the Northern Lights would be visible that far south. I sat up all night on the rear deck of my house, which was surrounded by 12 acres of maritime forest,  shivering violently inside a thick down comforter. No lights appeared that night either.

Last winter, Norway Tourism invited me to visit Norway, offering an itinerary that almost surely guaranteed seeing the coveted Aurora Borealis. Alas, I could not accept because I had spent the previous 90 days in France and Spain, and regulations demanded that I leave Europe, as Americans can only be in any of the 27 countries that comprise the ‘Schengen zone’ – a border-free area that includes 23 European Union member states – for 90 out of every 180 days.

Our group in front of Hurtigruten's MS Richard With during a stop in Hammerfest

Our group in front of Hurtigruten’s MS Richard With during a stop in Hammerfest

I had just about given up when I received an invitation from Hurtigruten to sail around the northern tip of Norway aboard one of their working ships. I weighed the offer carefully. I am not a good sailor; rough seas always defeat me, and sailing above the Arctic Circle sounded like an adventure for someone with better sea legs. On the other hand, I had managed heavy seas during an eight-day sail around the Galapagos Islands. How much worse could the Arctic Ocean be? In the end, my yearning to see the Northern Lights won out, especially since we would be sailing in remote seas where there would be no light pollution. Read More