Have you noticed that Christmas is approaching? I can tell even by just going online: the ads that are being pushed my way are now supposed to be festive, and beyond the Black Friday consumerism that flooded my phone and computer a fortnight ago, there is now an element of graphics depicting tinsel, pine trees, baubles and all that on most websites. Advent calendars are making their appearances, online and offline. But it is not just that: now, that the (record-breaking) travel season is over and there is a little more time for all of us at Peter Sommer Travels to sit back and consider what the winter will bring, I am looking forward to seeing my family in a few weeks...
These days, the Christmas season has many different meanings for many different people. For some it still contains the fervent religious beliefs that are its origins, for others it is a respected tradition to be enjoyed, for others again a convenient celebration, or maybe even an inconvenient one. Whatever it means to people individually, it is a period focused on an event that is usually celebrated by groups, by people spending time with their families and loved ones, by sharing togetherness, affection, goodwill and other values close to our hearts.
The Christmas gift blog has also become a tradition: we first offered our suggestions six years ago and we have posted every year since then. For many of our readers, it may be well worth looking back at the 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 posts, as they are still full of good reads and interesting ideas we and our guests have come across over the years. That's perhaps the key feature of our Christmas posts: they are real, they actually do represent things that we, the Peter Sommer Travels team, might wish for ourselves or might plan to gift to others. So, here they are: our Christmas gift suggestions for 2019.
PETER SOMMER'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Peter Sommer is our founder, the person whose initial idea it was to organise expert-led archaeological cruises and tours, the organiser of many of our activities and the strong influence behind others. Apart from his university studies of archaeology, he has been inspired by the great adventure of walking across Turkey in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, 25 years ago, but also by his subsequent work as the maker of documentaries concerned with life, place and history. Peter is not a man to sit back and let things happen. Peter Sommer Travels does not just bear his name: what we do bears his imprint at every step. Peter is running the company, and he has been centrally involved with all our Turkish itineraries and with everything we do in Croatia, and also in Britain. If you want to travel with Peter Sommer Travels, and with Peter Sommer himself, in 2020, he will be your expert on In the Footsteps of Alexander in Turkey, and on Walking and Cruising the Lycian Shore. Considering Peter's lifelong fascination with Alexander the great, his suggestion is highly appropriate...
Alexander the Great: From His Death to the Present Day, by John Boardman, Princeton University Press, 2019.
This is an unusual book in many ways, not by any means a biography of the exceptional Macedonian warrior-king, as it is not directly concerned with the man's life, but with his afterlife. Professor John Boardman is Britain's most famous living Classical scholar, with an immense track record of publications, mostly on Greek art. Like Peter, he has a lifelong fascination with Alexander, and lifelong means a lot: he turned 92 a few months ago! In the book, he offers a broad and sweeping panorama of the 'reception' of Alexander, from the time of his burial and the many versions of his life told by Greek and Roman authors, to his distinctive transformation into a quasi-legendary character in Persia, India and in the 'Alexander Romance', a literary genre of medieval and early modern Europe. Distant echoes in the Scots, Norse or even Ethiopian tradition all find their place here, as does the image of Alexander in the visual arts and even in film! There is no better way to grasp the long-lasting impact one of antiquity's most remarkable characters has had and still has on the human imagination.
MICHAEL METCALFE'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Michael has been celebrating ten years at Peter Sommer Travels recently. As a Greek epigraphist, an expert for reading inscriptions, he is a highly specialised academic, but at Peter Sommer Travels, we also know him as a mellifluous guide and as person of immense competence who instinctively understands the narrative and the practical detail of our tours. Michael has designed all our Italian itineraries, and has had a key role in the creation of our Greek and British trips as well. In recent years, he has been responsible for our private charters and tailor-made land-tours in all of the six countries we currently cover, and he is doing it with the immense passion and attention to detail that makes him a great asset to us and a great helper to our guests. It is difficult to get Michael to give a single reading suggestion, because he reads so much...
Troy: Myth and Reality, by Alexandra Villing, Lesley Fitton, Victoria Donnellan & Andrew Shapland, Thames & Hudson, 2019.
Troy: myth and reality is the title of a current major exhibition at London's British Museum; it opened a few weeks ago and runs until March 2020. Paul will review the exhibit itself on this blog very soon. As expected, it is accompanied by a handsome, well-produced and richly illustrated tome, not quite a catalogue, but rather a companion volume to the exhibit and its contents. As the title indicates, there are two main topics here. On the one hand, there is the actual site of Troy, an important Bronze Age city in a key strategic position at the north-western tip of Anatolia, giving rise to the complex history of the place itself, but also of its sensational rediscovery in the 19th century and of the more scientific excavations in the 20th and 21st - all of which is directly relevant to some of our Turkish itineraries! On the other hand, there is the pivotal role of the Trojan War narrative, a dominant tale for the Ancient Greeks, and one that has been reverberating across literature and art all the way to the present. The book is a beautiful introduction to these themes.
PAUL BESTON'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Paul Beston has been leading tours for Peter Sommer Travels since 2016, and became a full member of our team in the following year. He is a phenomenon, a person of immense knowledge, of great passion about the stories he tells, and of an inspired and witty way to tell them. He has been the face of our UK tours since their inception, and he is unmatched in his ability to tell dozens of important historic narratives in one place, and in using the place to connect them all. Peter Sommer's Exploring Rome is a superb tour because of his extraordinary command of the city's history, and the same applies to his work in Britain, on Exploring Wales, Exploring Wessex, Exploring Hadrian's Wall and our new Walking Hadrian's Wall, and also on the May version of Exploring Crete. A trip with Paul is an experience of unique depth and his suggestion is of direct use to those joining two of his tours.
Hadrian's Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier, by Patricia Southern, Amberley, 2016/19.
This book nearly made the list a few years ago, and its recent reprint has brought it back to our minds. It is actually much more than the title implies: it certainly does what that says, but it also provides a more general history of the Roman presence in Britain, from the initial conquest in the 1st century AD to the withdrawal in the 5th. Still, its key strength lies in the careful description and interpretation of the wall itself, and of the evidence for how it was constructed and how it functioned, based both on archaeology and on the textual evidence, especially from the inscribed wooden tablets that were found miraculously preserved at Vindolanda (the site is among the key visits on our tour of the Wall). Southern's very prudent approach to the evidence is exemplary, and it is greatly to be appreciated that she is not just focusing on matters that are well-understood, but also does not shy away from what we don't know (yet?). This book is recommended for anyone interested in the Roman army, but especially for those planning to visit Hadrian's Wall!
JULIE BROWN'S RECOMMENDED EDUCATIONAL READ FOR YOUNGSTERS:
If you've been in contact with Peter Sommer Travels, you've probably been in contact with Julie. Her title is that of Office and Operations Manager, but that describes her role inadequately. She knows our guests and their interests from talking to most of them directly, and she knows our guides from having met them and often also from having travelled with them and having seen them in action. During the travel season, she also knows where everyone is at a given time, not an easy task in recent years: there will be one day in 2020 when we have nine active tours! So, in case you approach Peter Sommer Travels anytime soon, there's a good chance it will be through her. Julie has visited many of the sites and areas that our trips focus on and she takes an active interest in all aspects of our tours and cruises. This year, she recommends an entire series of books.
Welcome to the Museum: Animalium, Historium, Botanicum, Donosurium & Planetarium, by various authors, Big Picture Press, 2014-19.
Making the content of museums accessible to children and young people is important. It is something we try to do on our family cruises, during which we often rely on brilliant publications to help our guides bring the past back to life. Producing such material is, to our minds, one of the most important tasks in scholarly publishing, and one that is too often neglected. Thus, it is immensely refreshing to come across a whole series (an ongoing one, it appears) of books that do so in a fresh and entertaining way, but not a patronising or dumbed-down one. The Welcome to the Museum series is beautifully presented in a nicely large format, superbly and richly illustrated without being cluttered (too many such books simply rely on supplying vast amounts of imagery) and accessibly written. Each volume is set out as a tour of an imaginary museum, with key artefacts from collections all over the planet (their actual locations are also indicated). A series of activity books is available as companion volumes. We can't imagine a better introduction to the historical or scientific material that museums display, and there is little doubt that us adults, too, will indulge in a more or less furtive perusal of these books!
TONY SPAWFORTH'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Professor Tony Spawforth is not just a senior Classical scholar, having taught for many years at the University of Newcastle, but also a very popular academic guide on several of our itineraries in Italy and Greece. Many of his numerous publications have become standard works of reference, and we have recommended two of them here, in 2018 and 2017. He is a compelling speaker, always in full command of his vast range of subject matters, and his skill at conjuring up the ancient past is second to none, bringing the experiences of millennia ago back to life and making them accessible and tangible for our guests. We are thrilled to work with him! In 2020, Tony leads our Exploring Sicily, Cruising the South-east Aegean and Cruising the Aegean: from Kos to Patmos.
The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us?, by Gregory & Alicia Aldrete, Bloomsbury 2019 (2nd edition).
Another unusual book, written by two senior Classical scholars. Their mission was not to provide an overview of Greek and Roman antiquity, but to set out a wide-ranging and highly accessible analysis of what aspects of ancient culture still play a major role in our modern world - and it is stunning to see how many direct connections and parallels they have found. The book is subdivided into nine chapters: food and shelter, family and life, entertainments and leisure, systems of government, architecture and science, superstition and religion, language and literature, popular culture, and (new to the 2nd edition) environment, celebrity, globalisation. Their story of our rich heritage from the Greco-Roman past is presented with admirable clarity, and each chapter concludes with an excellent list of up-to-date material for further reading. This volume will be of immense use to our guests and ourselves on many of our tours and cruises.
HEINRICH HALL'S RECOMMENDED READ:
My first time leading a cruise for Peter Sommer Travels was ten years ago, in 2009, and I became a full member of the team a few years later. My primary responsibility, apart from writing things such as this blog post, and looking after the company's social media, especially Facebook, is the design and running of most of our itineraries in Greece and Ireland. My initial specialisation as an archaeologist was in prehistory, but over time, I've tried to become more of an all-rounder, aiming to offer our guests hands-on access to the long-term history of the regions we visit. In 2020, you can meet me on many tours in Greece and one in Ireland.
Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: The Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon, by David Grant, Pen and Sword, 2019.
Forty-two years have passed since Manolis Andronikos discovered the astonishing royal tombs at Vergina, ancient Aigai, in the Northern Greek region of Central Macedonia. The superb museum, built over the tombs themselves and displaying one of the most breathtaking collections of ancient treasure worldwide, is a central feature of our new Exploring Macedonia tour. How convenient, so, to have access to this new book. Apart from providing the story of the discovery per se, it concerns itself with the long-standing and unresolved controversy about the site, namely about the identities of those buried in the richly-furnished tombs. Is the occupant of the richest grave, with its burial offerings of jewellery and weaponry and its fine painted façade, really Philip II, Alexander's father, who was murdered at Aigai in 336 BC, or is it one of his lesser-known descendants? Grant clearly has worked in close cooperation with the Greek archaeologists currently working at Vergina, so his book is very up-to-date as regards the current state of discussion. The scholarly verdicts are not in yet, but it's a fascinating read and it provides an overview of the debate that had been sorely lacking until now.
NOTA KARAMAOUNA'S RECOMMENDATION OF A GIFT TO ENJOY WITH BODY AND SOUL:
Nota is a Byzantinist art historian and archaeologist with academic credentials from Athens and Paris. Many of our guests on previous trips in Greece know her as an experienced and engaged professional guide, providing a lively voice not just for all periods of the country's history, but also for its present. Her interests are far-ranging, from prehistoric state formation and Classical urbanity via the convoluted politics of the Western 'Frankish' crusader kingdoms in medieval Greece to the intricacies of Byzantine pictorial art and the messages it is meant to convey. Another strength of hers is a profound and very finely-judged knowledge of modern Greek gastronomy, from the very practical aspects of how dishes are sourced and cooked to the more abstract science of wine-tasting. Her suggestion pertains to the latter.
Hoof & Lur, Moschofilero Wild Ferment, Unfiltered, Troupis Winery, Mantineia, 2017 onwards.
It's a rare wine we recommend here and you may not be able to find it easily: we found one source in the US. Ask your local supplier of Greek wines, or join us in the Peloponnese to try it. Meanwhile, settle for a more classic Moschofilero - those are very comforting and easier to find.
Only a few weeks ago, Nota participated in a short reconnoitre of the northern Peloponnese, making some adjustments to our Exploring the Peloponnese tour. One of the places included was Mantineia, an important city of ancient Arcadia, set along a major north-south communication route and site of two major battles, in 418 and 362 BC. Part of the mission was to explore more of the increasingly highly-regarded Mantineia wineries, as the itinerary usually includes a tasting in the region. The Troupis winery, a fairly young and innovative family-run business, was our key discovery here, and its produce impressed us. The vineyards are in the exact area where the battles most likely took place, so we can certainly claim that the grapes grow on historically fertile soil. The Troupis family make some classic (red) Agiorgitiko wines from Nemean grapes, but the local speciality is Moschofilero, the key Mantineian grape. It normally produces very refreshing medium-bodied whites with flowery accents and a buttery body - but not so Hoof & Lur. This very modern, 'wild' and orange-coloured wine, based on natural fermentation of grapes grown about 700m (2,300 ft) above sea level, brings out a more forceful note, with strong flavours of blood orange and minerals. The image of Pan, the earthy and untamed Arcadian pastoral god, on the label is more than appropriate.
AN OLD FAVOURITE
Life in a Medieval Castle, by Frances & Joseph Gies, Crowell 1974, most recently Harper Perennial 2016.
If you like history, and especially if you like visiting castles, this is a must-have book. Even 45 years after its first publication, it is a standard-setting achievement, and its influence can be felt in many later books about the topic, and also in many fine information panels, museum displays and so on. The late Frances and Joseph Gies were exceptional writers, and their medieval life series (it also includes Life in a Medieval Village and Life in a Medieval city) was ahead of its time in its focus on how people actually inhabited such places, how they used them and indeed how they lived in them. It is especially relevant for our tours in the UK and Ireland, but also in the Peloponnese and on many other itineraries. I was amused to see that the cover of the most recent edition bears an accolade by George R.R. Martin (the author of Game of Thrones) on the cover - but why not? If it helps to find a modern readership, it's worth it.
A GIFT FOR FOOD LOVERS:
Dalmatia: Recipes from Croatia's Mediterranean Coast, by Ino Kuvačić, Hardie Grant, 2017.
We have presented books on Mediterranean, Greek, Turkish, Italian, English and Irish cooking here so far on the previous Christmas lists. The obvious gap to be filled is Dalmatia, the coastal province of Croatia, with its surprisingly diverse cuisine, reflecting the many cultures that have affected the region throughout its history. At last, we have found a worthy one, by a Croatian chef active in Melbourne. It is thrilling to finally see recipes for so many of the dishes we have come to know and love during our Croatian travels. Many Dalmatian dishes are simple enough, relying on a deft hand and good ingredients, such as the typical shrimp buzara, cooked with wine tomato and onions, while others are more complex, perhaps reflecting the urban tradition of Ragusa/Dubrovnik and Split, with an added Venetian influence, the key example being pasticada, slow-cooked beef with prunes, achieving a delicate balance of flavours due to its marinade and seasoning... If you like cooking, you'll have fun with this one.
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.
Deb D. and Ken G. joined us on Exploring Crete in October; it was their first tour with Peter Sommer Travels. Both are botanists associated with Cornell University. Well-travelled and well-read, open-minded and with a vast range of interests, they were delightful guests and great company. Moreover, they appear to have enjoyed their experience with us, so we hope to see them again!
Bakken visits homes, restaurants, olive cooperatives, etc, all over mainland Greece and several of the islands, including Crete. He obviously loves Greek culture and older, traditional ways of cooking. On Crete, for example, he visits two women in different villages who are locally famous for their bread and who have a low-keyed rivalry over whose is better. They let him work with them in their kitchens to learn their secrets (well, some of them) for the baking of spectacularly good bread. His treatment of Greek foods - honey, octopus, lamb, olives, etc - gives a lot of interesting history on the subject at hand as well as the contemporary situation of farm production for a global versus a local market. It is not an archaeological survey, but it certainly gives the reader a very entertaining taste of Cretan and other Greek culture.
In most people's minds, the Arthurian cycle of legends is especially closely connected with the south-west of Britain, and the stories of the Once and Future King do indeed make an appearance on our tours of Wessex and Wales. Three years ago, we suggested what might be the most famous film about these tales in the English-speaking world, John Boorman's Excalibur, but we did not hide the fact that it was a tongue-in-cheek recommendation. Today, we propose more serious fare on the same topic. Bresson (1901-1999) is considered one of the great French directors of the 20th century. Described by Roger Ebert as 'the master of understatement', he was known for his 'austere' style, emphasising the observation of action over the acting out of emotions (and over the use of famous actors: there are none), thus leaving emotion to the audience. The effect is still striking, and Lancelot of the Lake is still a compelling and highly-regarded film, telling the Arthurian tale of love, betrayal and warfare in its own way, not glorifying or romanticising it, but imbuing it with a cold realism and a dystopian sense of gloom - be warned: parts of it are quite gory. Just what you need when TV is full of relentless Christmas cheer!
A READ FOR YOUNGSTERS AND ADULTS ALIKE:
Over Nine Waves, a Book of Irish Legends, By Mary Heaney, Faber & Faber, 1995.
Due to its late conversion to Christianity, and to the early monks' energetic recording, Ireland has preserved the second-richest tradition of myth and legend in Europe, only the Greco-Roman one being more extensive. Additionally, the Irish material provides the vast bulk of what survives of Celtic storytelling, of those tribes' gods and heroes, in other words of how they saw the world they lived in. Nonetheless, the Irish tales are far less well-known than the 'Classical' ones, in part because they used to be less easily accessible. More's the pity: they are full of remarkable narrative, with some characters representing familiar mythical archetypes and others remaining strange, intriguing and mysterious, and of great interest not just to those travelling to Ireland. One of the most successful attempts at making these stories available to the general reader, and to a younger audience as well, is this wonderful book, written by Marie Heaney, wife of the late poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Hers is not a comprehensive catalogue of Irish myth, but a careful selection of key stories, beautifully retold in a clear and unpretentious tone, each word carefully chosen. A book that is hard to put down!
A GIFT TO PLAY WITH:
There is no need to change what we initially wrote 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.
Peloponnesian War, by Mark Herman, GMT Games, 2nd edition, 2019.
Mark Herman's Peloponnesian War has long been seen as a classic among strategy boardgames set in antiquity, recreating the epic conflict between Athens and Sparta that dominated Greece during the second half of the 5th century BC, ending in the Athenian defeat of 404 BC. I still have a copy of the first edition (1991), which I played as a teenager, and I can certainly state that it contributed to familiarising me with the geography of Greece, the Aegean and Asia Minor (now western Turkey), but also with aspects of history itself. Remarkably, the original author, a giant among game designers, has finally reworked the game, 28 years after its original publication. The new edition is beautifully produced, with high-quality counters and an enormous fold-out map/board and rules modified for smoother playing. Peloponnesian War is notable for its unique system of solitaire play: the player begins the first round on the Athenian side, with Sparta following a matrix of options (randomised by throwing dice) reacting to the player's decisions. Should Athens gain the upper hand, the player has to switch to the Spartan side during the next round, and Athens becomes reactive. Multiple such switches can occur during the course of the game (the more successful the player, the more often they change sides), so that the player gains an understanding of the strategic constraints and possibilities of both Athens (primarily a maritime power) and Sparta (a land-based power) at different phases of the conflict. A new two-player version of the rules is also provided. While a full play-through will take 4 hours (give or take), several shorter scenarios are now also included, increasing the game's scope to other 5th and 4th century BC conflicts in the region.
A CLASSY GIFT:
Various items made of Cretan goat leather, silk-screen printed with motifs from Classical Athenian vase paintings, Zacharias Crafts, Athens, Greece.
For some years now, I have been admiring the window display of a humble little shop, just a block away from my home in Athens, because it had wonderful things in it. Someone had clearly been inspired by the striking black versus light orange contrast that characterises the famous Athenian red-figure and black-figure vase painting styles. Inspired to do what? To use another quintessential Greek raw material, goat leather, which has similarly rich orange tones, and to reproduce motifs from Greek vases (and other sources) on various items. Over the years, that window has displayed an ever-growing range of bags, pencil cases, coasters, purses, etc, and I occasionally dropped by to acquire presents, but more recently I see the same products for sale in other places, not least the New Acropolis Museum. The people behind the idea are Zacharias Petrakis and Alejandro Hernández (you can read about them here) and their work is a great example of an innovative, high-quality and practical application inspired by ancient art. The example illustrated is based on a famous (red-figure) vase in the British Museum, showing Odysseus's adventure with the sirens.
WHO'D HAVE THUNK OF THIS?:
Attire, stationery and other items with motifs from Greek vase paintings, The Panoply Vase Animation Project, UK.
More people are doing interesting things with Greek vase-paintings. A long time ago, we posted about online multimedia or interactive presentations of archaeology, and one of the sites we featured was the Panoply Vase Animation Project. These people (service announcement: one of them is a friend of mine), based in the UK, are doing excellent work, producing animated versions of Classical Greek vase paintings for use in museums, schools and other educational contexts. Their ever-growing range of videos breathes a lot of life into those ancient scenes, and they do so in a way that is not stuffy or didactic, but clever, amusing, whimsical and original - they are fun without lacking depth. It is a lovely idea, brilliantly executed and it deserves our support. So, do have a look at the Panoply Project's merchandise - you're sure to find a Christmas gift that nobody else has thought of!
THE BEST GIFT OF ALL:
(It is often said that a change is as good as a rest, but some things don't need changing. What we wrote under this heading in 2013 is still true, so the text has been left unchanged and is here for the seventh time. It won't be the last...)
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 2020 travel brochure instead - and treat your loved one(s) to the holiday of a lifetime?