juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Julia's Travels is the go-to blog for independent travel. Over the last two decades, Julia has visited over a hundred countries spanning six continents. Ask her how to get the best deals and save a bucket load of cash on expensive tours. A published travel writer, you can follow her on Facebook at Julia Hammond Travel Writing or visit her website www.juliahammond.co.uk.

Latest

Six special places to stay

In my travelling life, I’ve been fortunate to stay in some pretty amazing places.  They’re not always budget-friendly as these picks illustrate, but then sometimes it’s worth pushing the boat out and splurging on somewhere that’s likely to stick in the memory long after you return.  Here are six of my all-time favourites that are worth blowing the budget for.

Patagonia Camp

patagonia-camp

A treat for our first wedding anniversary, this small group of Mongolian-style gers clusters on a hillside overlooking Lago del Toro at the entrance to the Torres del Paine National Park.  The views from the tents are fabulous, whether of the stars in the night sky through the glass window in the roof or the sunrise casting a pink sheen to the lake first thing in the morning.  The oversized double bed and en-suite bathroom made this the most luxurious camp I’d ever stayed at.  Mealtimes showcased the best in local produce, with tender Chilean lamb the stand out winner.

Canal House

img_4458

Daniel Craig stayed there before me when filming Quantum of Solace, but I’m more than happy to have copied him.  This tiny place, a converted mansion in the Casco Viejo, only had three rooms but each one exuded style, as did the communal areas.  These days it’s only available for long stay rentals but its sister property Las Clementinas looks promising.

Riad Dar Karma

img_1117

It’s not hard to find a decent riad in Marrakesh, if what you mean by find is stumble upon one on the internet and book a room.  Finding that same riad in the labyrinthine alleyways of the medina is altogether more difficult as I know to my cost.  That’s why Dar Karma makes this list: not only is it wonderfully restored with all the finishing touches you’d expect – Moorish architectural details, hamman, courtyard pool and roof terrace – it’s also a few minutes’ walk away from the action.  A stone’s throw from the Djemaa el Fna in the heart of the Kasbah district, your taxi can pull up right outside so you’ll never get lost.

Heritance Tea Factory

dsc_0355

The Heritance Tea Factory in the hills above Nuwara Eliya is so much more than just a hotel.  My window looked out over verdant slopes that came and went as the mist rolled in and out.  My back ached as, sari-clad, I picked tender tea shoots from those same bushes and threw them over my shoulder into the wicker basket that I carried with a strap across my forehead.  With samples ready for inspection, we headed indoors to learn about tea.  Accidentally I became the class dunce as I swallowed rather than spat at the tasting session, but it tasted too good to waste.

23 Hepburn

23-hepburn

Auckland’s Ponsonby district was the setting for the place which made me feel most at home.  Run by the delightful Beth, this three room bed and breakfast was a real treat.  Her warm welcome, the loan of her boxer Finn for company on the veranda and a great night’s sleep made for a super start to my New Zealand trip.  Beth’s closed the place now to focus on other projects, which is a shame as she made the best Greek yoghurt I’ve ever tasted.

Hiiragiya Bekkan

img_7532

If I had one piece of advice for visitors new to Kyoto’s Hiiragiya Bekkan it would be this: embrace what you don’t know.  This traditional ryokan was an experience from start to finish, particularly the many course Kaiseki-style dinner that contained not one single recognisable dish.  We were immersed in Japanese culture from the yukatas they gave us to wear to the ritual of bathing in a Japanese hot tub.  We slept surprisingly soundly on the futons provided and emerged the following morning fully-prepared to tackle the bustle of Kyoto once more.

If you’ve stayed somewhere memorable (for the right or the wrong reasons!) then I’d love to hear from you.

Just back from – a day trip to Regensburg

I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least.  My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe.  This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.

dsc_0116-2

This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg.  A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in.  The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November.  Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted.  I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver.  My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.

I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich.  The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing.  It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities.  The cost?  A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk.  Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price.  As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.

It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt.  Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier.  The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts.  Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up.  There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery.  To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten.  Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.

I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany.  Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.

dsc_0082-2

The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace.  Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown.  The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels.  The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!

dsc_0123-2

But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market.  Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her.  The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.

dsc_0137-2

The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well.  The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all.  It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.

dsc_0103-2

As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere.  Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse.  It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail.  Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.

dsc_0163-2

The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.

The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on.  At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists.  The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.

dsc_0171-2

Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg.  The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing.  My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.

I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.

Will you be trying Eurostar’s cheap deal?

Interesting article in the news today that Eurostar will be offering some very cheap deals  on its fares to Paris, Brussels and Lille.  The fares will be available for trains from the end of November to mid-January and you can book from next week.  Simon Calder was explaining the offer during a breakfast television segment this morning, and the Independent article he wrote on the story can be read here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/lowest-ever-eurostar-fares-to-paris-but-seats-not-guaranteed-a7421771.html

paris

On the face of it, £19 each way sounds like a bargain and I’m certainly one who’d usually espouse the benefits of train travel over flying.  However, I’m not sure I like the terms and conditions – if it wasn’t enough that you don’t find out which time train you’re on until almost the last minute (you could end up trying to get to St Pancras very early!), if the train they allocate for you gets full at the last minute you’re going to be bumped to a jump seat.

I had a look at easyJet’s website to see what kind of prices they’re offering from Luton, Gatwick and Southend – there are some good deals to be had especially in January, with Southend coming out as the cheapest at the time of writing.  It looks like flying won’t cost much more than the Eurostar, and of course you get to choose exactly what time you depart and return.  In terms of travel time, it would take me as long to get to LTN, LGW and SEN as it would to central London, so for me that factor doesn’t influence my decision.

Personally, I’m no great fan of Paris or Brussels, and as I’m off to Nuremberg soon with Ryanair for the princely sum of £4 return including tax, I shan’t be booking.  What about you?  Would this special offer tempt you?

New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

image

High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.  Right now, it’s in its test phase, so entry’s free on Saturdays and Sundays.

image

Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

dsc_0051

City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

image

Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and next April, check out the Ten & Taller installation, fleshing out the stories of New York’s 250 buildings that stand ten storeys tall or more.

img_6956

Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

dsc_0166

Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

img_7220

Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

Bryant_Park_Xmas_shopping_jeh.JPG

Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

new_roosevelt_tram_fr_qbb_jeh

New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

img_7418

An island for every month of the year

For many of us, an island holiday is the ultimate in escapism.  There’s something about it which engenders a kind of “pull up the drawbridge” mindset perfect for recharging the batteries.  What follows puts together those islands that for one reason or another have made a lasting impression on me, with a suggestion for a good time to visit weather-wise.

Gorée – January

Senegal’s Île de Gorée is at once a melancholy and vibrant place.  The focus for the country’s remembrance of those lost to the slave trade even though few were ever shipped from its shores, it’s also colourful and charismatic, a favourite of artists and craftsmen.  It’s an easy day trip from the Senegalese capital Dakar.  In January the weather is sunny and mild, making this the perfect winter escape.

img_6588

Roatan – February

Honduras might have a hellish reputation in terms of safety and security – its largest city San Pedro Sula is considered to be the murder capital of the world – but the languid island of Roatan off its northern coast is about as far from trouble as you can get.  It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a Caribbean island: a laid back welcome, turquoise warm waters and fresh fish dinners.  In February, it’s busy enough to feel buzzing, yet you’ll have no problem finding space on the beach to soak up those tropical rays.

img_8328

La Digue – March

The Seychelles has a reputation for luxury – and all the costs that come with achieving it.  The good news is that La Digue manages to offer accommodation for all budgets.  Better still, it’s one of the prettiest islands on the planet and compact enough that you can explore it by bike in a few days.  In March, the weather’s on the turn, but unless you’re really unlucky, visiting La Digue in the shoulder season means you’ll dodge the worst of the crowds as well as the rain.

DSC_0939

St Lucia – April

One of the lushest islands in the Caribbean, St Lucia is also one of the prettiest.  But that verdant setting has only been achieved with rainfall totals higher than many in the region.  April is statistically the driest month, so time your visit to the island’s cocoa plantations, hot springs, iconic peaks and of course fabulous beaches to hit the best of the weather.

img_1440

Gozo – May

Malta’s firmly on the beaten track when it comes to Mediterranean escapes, but visit Gozo before the main tourist season kicks into gear and you’ll be impressed.  This rural and characterful island combines fascinating historic attractions with impressive coastal scenery.

malta-gozo-countryside

Lanzarote – June

If you’ve ruled out Lanzarote on account of its nickname, Lanzagrotty, then you need to have a rethink: this place is seriously cool.  Avoid the crowds of tourists tied to school holidays and get in ahead of the crowds to explore Cesar Manrique’s fabulous architectural legacy and some of the hottest volcanic scenery on the planet.

img_9648

Zanzibar – July

There are few islands with names that conjure up as exotic an image as that of Zanzibar.  The reality is as satisfying: the narrow alleyways of the capital Stone Town are lined with mansions made from coral stones held together with lime mortar, built by merchants who traded spices, silks and slaves.  To the north of the island, you’ll find plenty of excellent beaches where you can enjoy the dry, hot July weather.

img_7408

Tanna – August

Faraway in the South Pacific lies the archipelago of Vanuatu.  Its most fascinating island is without a doubt Tanna.  Dominated by one of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet, visitor interest is piqued by the John Frum cargo cult, and in particular the offshoot Prince Philip movement that think our Queen’s husband is a god.  Toast him with kava, the local firewater which numbs your mouth and sedates your brain.

img_4782

Bali – September

Well on the beaten tourist track, Bali offers a winning combination of culture and relaxation in one neat and tiny package.  Its resorts make the best of the sandy beaches and September sees the crowds thin ahead of the October to March wet season.  Watch the sunset over the ocean at Uluwatu temple or head inland to the green rice terraces that encircle the pretty town of Ubud.

indonesia-tanah-lot-temple-at-sunset

Kyushu – October

The most southerly of Japan’s big four, Kyushu packs a punch.  It’s a good choice for those wishing to get up close to the country’s tectonic action, with mud pools, hells and hot sand baths at Beppu and the active volcano Sakurajima an easy ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima.  By October, the humidity that plagues the summer months is long gone, but temperatures are still high enough to make sightseeing a pleasure.

img_7782

Easter – November

Despite its isolation, remote Rapa Nui is recognisable the world over for its moai, the oversized stone heads that gaze out over the Pacific from all parts of this mountainous island.  The five hour flight from the Chilean capital just to get there is arduous, but when you do, you’ll agree it’s well worth the effort.  Its history is fascinating, but it’s the location that  blows your mind.

image

Cuba – December

Go there before it changes, they said.  So I did.  But that was well over a decade ago and the tour companies are still saying it.  Nevertheless, I haven’t yet met a visitor who was disappointed.  Cuba’s one of those places that gets under your skin, from the old ladies in Havana who’ll puff on their cigars for a dollar to the horses that you’ll still see trotting down the cobbles of backstreet Trinidad.  Forget generic Caribbean, this place is unique and special because of it.

cuba-the-cigar-ladies

So there you have it, my favourites.  What are yours?

Checking in to come home, Russian style

img_9445

I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.

Why I’d rather celebrate Day of the Dead than Halloween

Halloween is upon us and with it, the excessive commercialism that has, sadly, come to characterise this holiday.  I know some parents make the effort to teach their kids some context, but I suspect many young trick or treaters will have no idea about the origins of the occasion.  In fact, trick or treating is thought to have started in Ireland, Wales and Scotland where knocking door to door resulted in the exchange of food for a song.  The origins of Halloween go back further: an adaptation of the Celtic pagan festival known as Samhain according to some, while Christians mark it as the evening before All Hallows, an 8th Century attempt to eradicate pagan celebrations.  Both however, have something in common: it’s seen as a time when the spirits return and the dead are remembered.

img_7712

My issue with Halloween, my only issue, is its materialistic bent.  Encouraging children to demand treats doesn’t sit well with me.  Sure, it’s a bit of fun and what kid doesn’t like dressing up and carving pumpkins?  I have no problem with that!  However, it seems, as with Christmas, that the true meaning of the occasion has been well and truly buried under all that candy-begging and even harassment of the vulnerable.  And if you’re still in any doubt that this is big business, then consider these statistics from a recent Daily Telegraph article:

£283 million: predicted sales of Halloween-based products in the UK in 2015
$6.9 billion: total Halloween consumer spending in the US expected for 2015
$2.1 billion: total amount expected to be spent in the US on candy in 2015
3 million: number of pumpkins Tesco expects to sell this Halloween

img_7536

If you’re a Halloween fan and still reading, and I haven’t well and truly pissed you off by this point, then let me tell you what I prefer about Day of the Dead.  Known as Dia de los Muertos, it’s been part of Mexican culture for three thousand years.  I first experienced this festival a few years ago with a visit to Oaxaca and was immediately struck by the way that it blended religion, respect, commemoration and celebration.  And let’s not forget that last one.  Day of the Dead is anything but dull: there are fancy dress parades, carnival floats and of course, much music, drinking and dancing.

img_7502

At the heart of the festivities is the dressing of the graves of the ancestors and the construction of homemade altars built to honour their spirits and encourage them to return for a visit.  Work starts on these ofrendas in the last few days of October, and every street corner is occupied by flower sellers surrounded by buckets of vibrant orange marigolds known locally as cempasuchil.

img_7567
On November 1st, the souls of deceased children are the focus, while on November 2nd, it’s the turn of the adult ancestors.  Families visit the cemetery and sit at the graveside to raise a glass of Mezcal and eat a special feast.  It’s all at once a poignant, private and public occasion, as visitors are welcomed and encouraged to join in.

img_6986

Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton and iconic figure of Day of the Dead, is everywhere.  Clearly, commerce plays a big part in Dia de los Muertos too: vendors sell everything from sugar skulls to folk art skeletons, Mezcal to garlands of marigold petals.  I don’t have a problem with that.  But in Mexico it sits side by side with ceremony and tradition, with both given their proper place.

img_7431

Dia de los Muertos touched me as a way to remember my grandparents, much loved but long departed.  Amid the hectic day to day activities of “life goes on”, over time, I found myself thinking of them less and less.  It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I began to worry that as the memories faded I’d one day forget to remember what a significant contribution they made to my life.  Their photos are on the altar we made:

img_7505

When I went to Oaxaca, I took with me their photographs, and, having been privileged to help build an altar at Casa de las Bugambilias, felt a stronger connection to them than I’d had in years. So this year, I’ve built my own altar and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, I’ll raise a glass to toast these very special people and thank them for all they did for me when they were here.

 

For more photos from the Oaxaca trip, please visit:

http://www.juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/DIA_DE_MUERTOS.html