How time flies when you are busy. Just two weeks ago, I was showing the year’s last group of guests around the sunny Northern Peloponnese, but now I am receiving “Happy New Year” emails (bit early, admittedly) and invites to events that entail mulled wine, the question of a present for my niece and nephew is looming and some Lebkuchen has mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter. Elementary, my dear Watson: it’s Christmas-time.

I cannot know what Christmas means for you, dear reader. Maybe it is a moment of quiet devotion or thoughtful contemplation, perhaps it is the time for fond company and joyful celebration, or might it be just a welcome chance to relax and recharge, to get ready for the challenges of a new year? At Peter Sommer Travels, it is a period “between the years”, when we complete our taking stock of the past season and start setting our sights on the coming ones. Whatever your choices as to how to pass the “Holiday Season”, there is a chance it will include what most of us have come to associate with Christmas: giving well-chosen gifts to our friends and loved ones, and – fingers crossed – also receiving some.

It has been a Peter Sommer tradition to offer a list of gift suggestions for a while now: we first did so in 2013, four years ago. Thus, you may want to have a look at our earlier lists (also 2014, 2015 and 2016) as they all include some good and interesting ideas. Like every year, what you find below is a genuine list of our suggestions, the kind of things that we consider might be interesting, intriguing or enjoyable for those who enjoy our trips, and for their friends and families. They include things our team members are giving to their loved ones, and things they would enjoy being given. They reflect the same interests that go into the design of our tours and gulet cruises:  history, archaeology and culture, quality and beauty, delight and authenticity, perhaps a tiny bit of quirkiness now and then. It’s the perfect combination of these features that we are after. As always, many of our suggestions are books, which is hardly surprising. So, here it is, our gift suggestion list for 2017:

PETER SOMMER’S RECOMMENDED READ:

Peter is the founder of Peter Sommer Travels. Having started off as an archaeologist initially, followed by the time he spent as a documentary film-maker, by now he is looking back at over 20 years of organising archaeological and cultural tours and cruises, during which he has carved out the company’s identity and principles, all based on a central ambition: to offer the best-prepared travel experiences in the areas we are active in. Therefore, Peter’s influence is present in all our itineraries in the six countries we currently travel. His passion for the past and his enthusiasm for sharing it are as compelling as ever. In recent years, he has been especially strongly involved in designing our growing range of Croatian cruises. In 2018, you can meet Peter on Exploring Hadrian’s Wall tour in England, as well as on Cruising the Lycian Shore, Walking and Cruising the Lycian Shore and other tours in Turkey.

Three Stones Make a Wall – The Story of Archaeology, by Eric H. Cline, Princeton University Press, 2017.

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We might not have realised, but this is a book we have all been waiting for. Its author, professor of archaeology in Washington DC, is a highly-respected scholar, specialised in the Late Bronze Age of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, and especially in the Sea Peoples. Only a few years ago, his 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, received much well-deserved attention. His new book is taking on a huge task: aimed at a non-specialist audience, it is a lively and lucid re-telling of the history of archaeology itself, focusing especially on the Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions, but also on Egypt and the Americas. In many ways, it has a similar scope to C.W. Ceram’s monumental Gods, Graves and Scholars (1949), with one key difference: Ceram was an informed enthusiast, but not an archaeologist, whereas Cline is not just a top-range expert, but also an extremely experienced practitioner of the spade and trowel, with over 30 years of fieldwork under his belt. It is rare for a scholar of his calibre to undertake such a work. Of special value are his “digging deeper” sections between chapters, each explaining particular aspects of archaeological method in an accessible way. Three Stones Make a Wall includes stories of many sites we visit on our archaeological tours.

Michael MetcalfeMICHAEL METCALFE’S RECOMMENDED READ:

Michael is responsible for the design of our Italian tours and also has the enormous task of organising our private gulet charters and further our tailor-made land tours in those countries, as well as in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Specialised in Greek inscriptions and the information they provide on life and politics in antiquity, he is a person of profound knowledge, a superb eye for detail and a deep understanding of archaeological and historical narrative, as well as great presence of mind, all of which he delivers with great eloquence, contagious passion and characteristic wit. In 2018, you can test his skills on Exploring the Aeolian Islands in Italy, Walking and Cruising the Dodecanese in Greece, Exploring Wessex in England and other tours. His suggestion is especially pertinent to our itineraries in Italy:

The Land Where Lemons Grow – the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, by Helena Attlee, Penguin, 2015.

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A slightly pricier hardback edition is also available

The author specialises in writing about gardens, focusing principally (but not exclusively) on Italy. She writes beautifully and evocatively, and interweaves a clear historical strand into her chapters, which range from the introduction of citron to Calabria by Jews fleeing Jerusalem in 70AD to the Arabic introduction of the sour orange and lemon to Sicily in the 9th century AD, to the prestigious role that citrus trees played in Renaissance gardens, to the organisation of the violent annual orange battle in Ivrea. She looks at the way in which the uses of citrus fruit have changed over the centuries, and looks to the future that this once rich and extremely varied crop may have. It’s a unique look at a foodstuff that has shaped Italian and Mediterranean culture, and a way to explore a side of the Italian nation that will intrigue and entrance most people. The traditional role of citrus fruit in Christmas rituals also makes it an apt gift for this time of year. We naturally encounter a lot of citrus on our Sicily tours, and it might surprise our clients to learn that the burgeoning lemon harvest of Palermo was the factor that led to the rise of the Mafia in the 19th century…

PAUL BESTON’S RECOMMENDED READ:

Paul Beston is the newest member of our core team and we are thrilled to add his unique talents to our portfolio. His tasks are many, including the design and running of our tours in Britain and our tour of Rome. Paul is the ideal guide, combining an intrepid mind with a seemingly endless storage capacity for historical detail and narrative, complemented by a unique gift to transfer that knowledge into story-telling, combining innumerable strands of history on the spot. He is a one-of-a-kind raconteur of history, able to communicate complex detail in an extraordinarily entertaining style, drawing expected and unexpected connections and conjuring up fascinating details at very step. Next year, you can experience his talent on our Exploring Wessex tour, Exploring Hadrian’s Wall tour and Exploring Rome tour.

Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and History at the Limit of Rome’s Empire, by Nick Hodgson, Crowood Press/Robert Hale, 2017.

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The Roman era in Britain is complex. There are multiple strands – ‘native’ communities, ‘Roman’ towns and villas in the countryside, the military presence – which were traditionally subject to rather compartmentalised and sterile study, as if this were not a period of great cultural flux, competition and mixing. Books often presented dry, simplistic opposites – Roman/Celt, soldier/civilian and so on with few grey areas between. Some of this was due to the era people were writing in, some to the nature of the archaeology: Roman remains are more durable and visible – the Romans, and people behaving like them have a louder archaeological voice. Put like that, Hadrian’s Wall – 80 Roman miles of stone snaking across the north of England – practically bellows. Traditionally, it was looked at primarily in terms of garrisons, strategic purpose. More recently, our interests have broadened, and new techniques (survey, geophysics) demand, and allow, a deeper understanding. We’ve become more interested in the impact of the Wall on locals, in what was happening north of the Wall, and how the lifestyles, status and culture of the soldiers and those living with them developed. Hodgson’s book is a good representative of this more interesting approach. He doesn’t ditch the traditional topics – how the Wall was built, what it was for and so on – he has a long-standing interest in them, but he enriches them with greater emphasis on those other aspects. This makes both a great introduction for new readers and an eye-opener to new thinking if you’ve read previous works. Hodgson is well-qualified to write it: an experienced Wall archaeologist, he’s written site guidebooks and an excellent gazetteer of the Roman army in the north. It’s an ideal read for those joining our tour of Hadrian’s Wall and its region.

JULIE BROWN’S RECOMMENDED READ:

Julie is one of a kind. Her title, Office and Operations manager, may be formally correct but does not begin to describe her tasks or her skills. If you have travelled with us before, there is a high chance that you have spoken with her, as she is often the first point of contact. Her intuition for our guests’ needs and interests and her encompassing view of all the various travel options we can offer are second to none. During our busiest seasons, when we may have half-a-dozen trips running concurrently in multiple countries, she is the calm centre that knows where everyone is. Her role is much more than this: she is familiar with many of our itineraries because she has helped design them (e.g. Rome. the Aeolian Islands, Wessex and Ireland) and she knows our guides better than they do themselves.

Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, by Hugh Warwick, Square Peg, 2017.

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Another extraordinary book, received with much acclaim. Warwick is one of the UK’s currently foremost writers about the country’s natural life, noted for his immense sensitivity and connected perspective. In Linescapes, he focuses on the last residues of wild natural landscape in Britain – a country that has lost half of its primeval forests in the last century, and if that weren’t sobering enough, has also lost 98 per cent of its wild-flower meadows in the same period. His focus is on the inadvertent survival of untamed nature through human-made linear features, such as roadsides, railway lines, hedges and power lines: residual places set between human use of the land. Their role in maintaining an element of biodiversity, hosting plants, fungi, lichens, insects, birds, mammals and more, all of them vital to local ecosystems, is at the core of his book. Linescapes is relevant far beyond Britain, being a manifesto for a detailed understanding of human impact on nature, and of nature’s ways to adapt to that impact.

HEINRICH HALL’S RECOMMENDED READ:

I am Peter Sommer Travels’ resident expert in Greece, where I have been living for well over a decade; I have developed all our tours in Greece and I lead most of them throughout the travel season and beyond. My other passion is Ireland, where I spent over a decade as a student, travelling and exploring. Academically, my field is European prehistory and my narrative for any period is based on that: re-imagining how past people lived and thought not just from literature, but also from the evidence on the ground. I believe that travel is a wonderful thing, allowing us to experience and rethink our world in all its complexity and all its beauty and I hope to share that experience with my guests, for example on our Exploring Crete tour, Exploring the Peloponnese, Cruising to the Cyclades, Exploring Ireland tour and various other itineraries.

A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece 700 BC – 200 AD, edited by Angelos Chaniotis, Onassis Foundation, 2017.

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The title of this book is also that of a very special exhibition, organised for the Onassis Foundation by Princeton’s Angelos Chaniotis, one of the key scholars of ancient Greece currently active. It was on show in New York from March to June 2017, and in Athens from July to November. With about 300 objects from 21 of Greece’s archaeological museums (Acropolis, National, Agora, Delos, Heraklion, Samos, Thessaloniki, and so on), as well as from key museums in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Vatican, it has been one of the finest international displays of Greek art recently seen, including small-and large-scale sculpture in stone, terracotta and bronze, frescoes, vase paintings, but also less glamorous objects, such as lead cursing tablets. The theme, as implied by the title, was emotion, its meaning and its expression: anger, hatred, fear, envy, scorn, hubris, gratitude, sadness, grief, regret, despair, hope, desire, lust, passion and love are among its protagonists. Nearly every single piece was of huge interest, and more often than not of heart-breaking beauty! It is rare enough that we get to visit exhibits of this quality, but it is even rarer that we have access to a full catalogue. This one is breathtaking. Ten well-written essays elucidate the themes of the exhibit, accompanied by countless high-quality images. It is an arrestingly beautiful volume – out of all the new books this year, it’s my favourite.

NOTA KARAMAOUNA’S RECOMMENDATION AS A GIFT TO ENJOY WITH BODY AND SOUL:

Nota has been working with Peter Sommer Travels since 2012, guiding on land and boat itineraries in Greece and Turkey. Her training is in archaeology and art history, where her chief expertise is Byzantine Art. As a result, she has a broad scope of stories to tell, many of them set at the historical interfaces between East and West. Perhaps as a result of her art-historical background, she has developed a keen instinct for quality, beginning with art and architecture but extending much further afield, to the range of experiences a tour can offer and – very importantly – to the foods and wines we provide on our tours. In 2018, she guides on Cruising the Aegean: from Kos to Patmos and other itineraries.

Skouras Nemea (labelled and marketed in the US as Saint George), Nemea, Peloponnese (Greece).

(Skouras winery)

A few years ago, I wrote about Xinomavro, the great red wine variety of Northern Greece. The time has come to present its southern equivalent, Agiorgitiko (pronounced AyiorYEEtiko and meaning “of Saint George”), the wonderfully evocative red grape of Nemea and other parts of the Peloponnese. Nemea is Greece’s largest and most established wine region, and Agiorgitiko is what defines it as a protected designation. A great variety of wine styles can be made from Agiorgitiko, but the Nemea region concentrates nearly exclusively on deeply-flavoured dry dark reds that have great ageing potential, becoming smoother with the years. This Agiorgitiko is produced by the Skouras winery, which we visit on some of our tours in the Peloponnese. We also serve this same wine on many of our gulet cruises in Greece. The grapes are harvested from 30-year-old vines growing at an average altitude of 2,132 ft (650 m) above sea level, which permits the grape to build character by experiencing both the winter chills and the high heats of summer. It is matured in French oak for twelve months, and then in the bottle for another six. The result is a deep, dark red wine, with aromas of red berries and spices such as clove and cinnamon. It is characterised by an elegant balance, combining subtle acidity with a mild tanny note, opening up lingering flavours of plum, vanilla and pepper. Served with a rich Christmas meal, Skouras Agiorgitiko is a perfect accompaniment to share with friends and family.

(In the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Ireland you will, with a little effort, find good-quality Nemean wines. With a little more effort, you will find Skouras, as they export extensively. If you need information on distributors, you can start with the list of importers on the winery’s website).

AN OLD FAVOURITE:

The Complete Greek Temples, by Tony Spawforth, Thames & Hudson, 2006.

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Tony Spawforth is one of our academic guides, leading our Exploring Sicily tour in Italy and our Cruising the Aegean: from Kos to Patmos in Greece. Until recently, he was Professor of Ancient History at the University of Newcastle in England. He is a well-known scholar and an authority on many topics, as his wide range of publications aptly demonstrates, ranging from the Oxford Archaeological Guide of Greece to a cultural biography of the palace of Versailles! One of Tony’s fields of expertise is the Greek temple: his Thames & Hudson volume is the standard English-language work on the topic and there is probably no recent student of ancient architecture who has not used it at some point. The book covers the history of the Greek temple from its earliest beginnings to its decline in late antiquity, encompassing Mainland Greece, the Greek Islands, the Western Shores of Anatolia, North Africa, Sicily and Southern Italy. It is distinguished not only by its wealth of illustrations (about 400), but by its masterful narrative and thematic structure, explaining the development, construction, use, meaning and setting of these wonderful monuments. Tony’s book is certainly of interest to all travellers on our archaeological tours.

A GUEST’S RECOMMENDATION:

We’re not the only ones who enjoy reading. Most of our guests do, too, inspired by their own interests and – maybe – sometimes by our trips. We’re always curious to hear what they’ve found.

This year, we have recommendations from an American guest who joined us on Cruising to Ephesus in 2013, Cruising to the Cyclades in 2016 and Exploring the Peloponnese in 2017. Jim Pringle (shown here at Monemvasia) is an immensely widely-travelled person and has an academic background in history, an interest he has actively maintained throughout his life, making him the kind of guest from whom our guides can learn at least as much as he can from them. We hope to welcome him and his no less erudite better half, Sally, on future trips!

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, by David Potter, Oxford University Press, 2015.

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I first saw Theodora and Justinian solemnly posed amongst their attendants in the mosaics of the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna. Some years later, in Istanbul, after admiring Hagia Sophia, I stood on the site of the Hippodrome and wondered why this ancient circus had such a prominent place in the city. David Potter’s biography of Theodora (who lived from about 500 to 548 AD and was the wife of the great Byzantine emperor Justinian) brings to life these three places and many others as he charts her rise from childhood as an entertainer in the city’s circus factions, to savior of the Emperor at the Hippodrome during the Nika riots of 532, to Empress and power broker among the Empire’s political and religious elites. Along the way, he looks at the religious, military, and political history of the Byzantine Empire through the eyes of one of history’s great women, offering a window into Constantinople’s society and culture in the 6th century.

 FOR FOOD LOVERS:

Irish Traditional Cooking – Over 300 Recipes from Ireland’s Heritage, by Darina Allen, 2nd edition, Kyle Books, 2012.

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Irish cuisine may not have great standing internationally – perhaps no wonder for a country that counts a devastating famine among its formative historical experiences, but Irish foodstuffs have been exported for centuries and enjoy a very fine reputation. Ireland is a country rich in superb local ingredients, from fish to seafood, from meat to dairy, and from vegetables to summer fruit. Until the 1990s, the Irish cuisine accessible to visitors used all those wonderful things in a very restrained and often bland fashion, trying to fulfil convention and not daring much more, keeping local and traditional recipes off restaurant tables. All that has changed – just ask our guests on the 2017 Exploring Ireland tour. The last decades have seen a veritable explosion in Irish cuisine, a discovery of external influences and a re-appreciation of the country’s tradition, which was always based on making the best of simple and delicious produce. Darina Allen had a leading role in this development and her book is a classic. Look out for her potato bread, her beef-and-Guinness stew, her colcannon (potato and cabbage mash), her buttered lobster and so much more.

SOMETHING TO WATCH:

Rome, the Complete Collection, 1981.

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Has it been ten years already? Rome‘s two seasons (only!) originally aired between 2005 and 2007 and they were mind-blowing in many ways. So far, we’ve only recommended cinema-released movies in this category, but times are changing – and Rome has a distinctive role as a pioneer of that change. It was, at the time, by far the most expensive TV series ever produced, and one of the most elaborate, especially because of its enormous sets and the vast amount of actors appearing in speaking roles. Dramatising the roughly two decades from 49 BC to 30 BC, i.e. the transition from the Late Roman Republic to the onset of Octavius/Augustus’ Empire, based on two semi-historical protagonists (Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo) interacting with the much better-known grandees of of the era, it opened up a panorama of what could now be done on TV, including copious then-scandalous sex and violence, all of which appears tame compared to current trends. In hindsight, Rome is a well-told and spotlessly-produced narrative, with a commendable – and also pioneering – focus on the psychology of its many characters, including Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Cleopatra, Brutus, Mark Anthony and so many more. Its seven Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards were certainly deserved.

A GIFT TO PLAY WITH:

There is no need to change what we’ve been saying about quality toys. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: playing is not just for kids. Since time immemorial, it is a way to relax and open our minds, to re-engage with aspects of our world in new ways and to mix up the way we see things.

Antike II, by Mac Gerdts, Rio Grande / PD Games, 2014.

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Time for an old-fashioned board game! Antike II is a fairly new game, offering a light-hearted but exciting chance to try your hands at running an ancient civilisation: Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians or Babylonians. The playing field is a map of the ancient Mediterranean and the three to six players compete to found cities, explore their world, invent new technologies, build temples and – of course – fight one another with fleets and armies (but note that this is not primarily a war game). The rules are quite simple, considering the complex panorama this well-crafted game unfolds. Antike II is recommended for players aged 13 and upwards (these assessments are relative: Antike II is certainly accessible for a bright 11- or 12-year old) and a round takes up to two hours. It is good exercise for your sense of strategy, and it helps familiarise its players with the geography of the Ancient World.

A READ FOR YOUNGSTERS:

The Hound of Ulster, by Rosemary Sutcliff, (Bodley Head, 1963,) reprint by Red Fox Classics, 2013.

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In recent years, a surprising proportion of our younger guests, those between six and sixteen years old, is showing an astonishingly good knowledge of Greek mythology. We are very happy about that, and it inspires me to venture beyond: what about Celtic myth? Admittedly, it is one of the lesser known ancient European mythologies, due to the scarcity of the sources, but the scriptoria of medieval Ireland and Wales did manage to salvage some of this rich and mysterious tradition, just as it was being replaced with Christian narratives. In Irish mythology, Cúchulainn is a major character, a Heracles and Achilles rolled into one, of semi-divine birth, virtually invincible, driven by super-human passions and eventually tragic in both victory and defeat. He is the protagonist of the Táin, the greatest of the surviving Irish epics, and his story was rivetingly retold by Rosemary Sutcliffe, one of the major British writers of historical fiction for young readers in 20th century Britain (we will surely meet her again on these pages before long). Her version of Cúchulainn’s life is by no means definitive, but it is dramatic and compellingly well-told, and it offers an easy opening into another strand of European myth.

A CLASSY GIFT:

The Handyman Swiss Army Knife, by Victorinox

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This year, I’m drawing on my experience as a field archaeologist, having worked on both excavations and surveys for over two decades. The excavator’s main tool is often said to be the spade. That is not really true: depending on what part of the world the project takes place in, and thus on what soil conditions prevail, the dominant digging tool is a pointed trowel or a small pickaxe. That said, the job at hand, be it the manifold tasks of unearthing an ancient site or the never-ending challenge of exploring a living landscape for its ancient remains, does often require more tools. Sometimes, you need a sharp blade to cut various things, a saw to saw other things, an awl to pierce hole-less things, pliers to fix or unfix things, a scale to help take a picture of interesting things, a file to get beyond difficult things, tweezers to pick up little things, a screwdriver to drive screwy things, a can-opener to access edible things, or a corkscrew to access pleasant things. The same needs often apply when travelling, and the classic answer to them is an authentic Swiss Army Knife. They are made by Victorinox, supplier to the Swiss Army since the 1890s. I have been using the “Handyman” model since the mid-1990s.  Made of Swedish steel, and having about 25 different functions, it’s a handy gift for any traveller (except small children)!

WHO’D HAVE THUNK OF THIS?:

A functional replica of a Roman oil lamp, Graham Taylor (Potted History), Newcastle on Tyne, United Kingdom.

(Potted History on Etsy)

For the fifth time, I have searched the internet from top to bottom to find something unusual, striking, odd or quirky that might work as a gift and that is relevant to Peter Sommer Travels’ themes: travel, antiquity, archaeology, food, wine etc. Once again, the Etsy portal has come to my rescue. This year, I would like to propose a simple, but interesting and – within limits – functional item. It is a clay replica of a typical mould-made Roman oil lamp (we have described a more elaborate version of such a lamp in detail on this blog a while ago). The replica is based on an example from Roman Britain, but the simple, industrially manufactured type it represents was used all over the Roman Empire. Hand-made by Graham Taylor (aka Potted History), a traditional potter and experimental archaeologist based in Northern England and specialised in hand-made reproductions of ancient pottery, this is a usable item: all you need is some oil and a wick and there will be light!

THE BEST GIFT OF ALL:

(What we wrote under this heading in 2013 is still true, so the text has been left unchanged.)

That would be love. And not just for Christmas.

It’s all over the place and it’s for you to find and enjoy, to receive and to give. Whatever it takes you, it’s cheap at the price.

Evidently, we cannot offer links for finding that, but why not have a look at our 2018 travel brochure instead – and treat your loved one(s) to the holiday of a lifetime?

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