And once again, Christmas is approaching fast. Where I am, in Greece and under lockdown, this year's advent season may be a little less obvious than it would normally be, since I have far less exposure to shop displays, piped muzak and street lighting than in other Decembers... But it's on our minds nevertheless. At home, I put up my minimalist Christmas decorations last week; a parcel with seasonal sweets from my family arrived a couple of days ago; and I'm beginning to consider plans for a Christmas dinner - the first time I'll prepare it myself, since our usual Christmas trip and reunion is not a viable option this year, due to quarantine requirements...
I guess it will be an unusual Christmas not just for me, but for many. What the situation clarifies - at least to my mind - is that, irrespective of one's beliefs, what Christmas is really about is people: people one looks forward to spending time with, people one might not see often enough, people one might want to give presents - in short, people one loves. All the various Christmas traditions revolve around that. Perhaps, this unusual 2020 Christmas is an overdue reminder of this, an occasion to think ahead of the future's gatherings and a chance to recognise how much of that love one often takes for granted!
Talking about traditions, the Christmas gift blog has also become one in itself: this is the eighth time we are offering it. So, if you have not looked at the lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, you might want to do so - there's a lot of interesting, original and fun suggestions we and our guests have made over the years. I stress this every time: our list is the genuine article. It contains items that we, the Peter Sommer Travels' team, appreciate, that we might intend to give to our loved ones, or even that we hope someone else might consider giving to us! That's enough introduction - what follows are our Christmas gift suggestions for 2020.
PETER SOMMER'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Peter Sommer is what the ancient Greeks would have called our 'eponymous hero', the founding figure whose name we bear. Unlike the eponymous heroes of antiquity, however, he is very much a real person, an archaeologist, documentary film-maker and tour expert. His 1994 walk across Turkey in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is what triggered him to create Peter Sommer Travels, aiming to provide uniquely informative and enjoyable archaeological and cultural travel experiences. Apart from coordinating all our activities, he is involved hands-on in everything that we do, from the design of new itineraries via many direct conversations with our guests (or potential ones) to the actual running of some of our trips, especially in Turkey. In 2021, you can meet him on Walking and Cruising the Lycian Shore, and probably on several other of our Turkish gulet cruises. His suggestion for 2020 reflects Peter's fascination with archaeology as a vibrant and constantly modernising discipline.
Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past, by Sarah Parcak, Henry Holt, 2019 (paperback edition 2020).
Receiving enormous praise on its publication last year, this is an exciting book by an innovating scholar. If you are an avid follower of archaeological news and documentaries, you may well have come across Parcak before. She is an archaeologist and egyptologist with a Professorship of Archaeology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (USA), where she has founded the Laboratory for Global Observation. Parcak is known for her pioneering work in what she calls 'space archaeology'. More formally described as 'remote sensing', this is essentially the use of satellite imagery in archaeological research, one of the most recent techniques applied in adding to our understanding of the past. She has used such data in multiple regions and contexts, from Viking settlements in Iceland to Egyptian pyramids, both to discover 'new' (hitherto undiscovered) sites and to document the changing conditions of them, due to issues like looting. Her book is not a jargon-rich scholarly tome, but a brilliantly accessible narrative of fascinating discoveries, written as a refreshingly fluid story, full of passion, warmth and humour!
PAUL BESTON'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Paul Beston has been a core member of Peter Sommer Travels' staff since 2016, working in multiple capacities, including as a writer, as a tour designer and as a tour expert. Paul is the proverbial 'walking encyclopaedia', with an uncanny ability to recall vast amounts of historic information, ranging from the grand narrative to intricate and quirky detail. This skill is matched by his wit and panache in telling it all as a lively and fascinating tale, often combining many strands of knowledge into a coherent and compelling whole, very much enjoyed by his guests. In 2021, you can be one of them, on Exploring Rome, Exploring Wales, Exploring Wessex, Exploring Hadrian's Wall and our new Walking Hadrian's Wall, and also on the May version of Exploring Crete. His idea for 2020 is of direct relevance to some of his tours.
Hadrian's Wall: A Journey through Time, by David Breeze, Bookcase (Carlisle), 2019.
This really is a must-have for anyone interested in Hadrian's Wall, in the borders of the Roman Empire, or more generally in the Roman army. The author is a well-known British archaeologist, having published dozens of books and articles and having served as Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic Scotland from 1989 to 2005. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire as the first multi-national UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005, comprising Hadrian's Wall in England (listed since 1997), the Upper Germanic/Raetian limes in Germany (2005) and the Antonine Wall in Scotland (2008), with considerable potential for future additions. His book is exemplary in its clear and concise explanation of Hadrian's Wall, its components, function and construction, but also in the sheer beauty of the many superb line drawings and the many excellent photographs. There can be no doubt that it will be a standard for those visiting the monument and those intending to for generations to come.
JULIE BROWN'S RECOMMENDATION OF HOW TO GIVE:
Julie is our Office and Operations Manager, usually 'holding the fort' at our Monmouth offices while our tours are taking place, often many at the same time and in multiple countries, making it quite the task to keep in touch with all of them. Although many of our guests have not met her in person, most will have spoken to her, even repeatedly, while deciding what itinerary to book. Julie has visited many of our destinations and personally met most of our guides and tour experts, and she frequently participates in the design of new itineraries. Thus, she combines detailed familiarity with our tours and cruises and their content with a profound understanding of and affinity for our guests' very own interests and needs - a perfect combination to inform them about the nature of each trip and to help them choose the one(s) best suited for them. Thoughtful as she is, in 2020, Julie has decided to make a different kind of recommendation.
Donating for a worthy cause that needs support in 2020
(Multiple options linked below, and many more you can find easily wherever you are)
How about a gift that gives back? There are lots of options to support a good cause instead of handing out socks for the 10th year running! Also, these places are suffering just as much as the high street. There is perhaps nothing that reflects the original message of Christmas better than the act of supporting something that makes or keeps the world a better place, in your own name or in that of a loved one.
Julie has compiled some UK-based suggestions that overlap with the typical interests of our clients, and we've added a few that deserve support in the other countries we travel. We have limited our links to issues quite directly connected with Peter Sommer Travels' activities: conservation of heritage and nature. In the same spirit, you are bound to find worthy causes wherever you are - and humanitarian ones worldwide.
Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital - A trust and hospital devoted to injured wild animals. Donations, memberships and adoptions are among the options.
An Taisce - The National Trust for Ireland, engaged in preserving both natural and cultural heritage.
FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) International - Help Italy stay beautiful. Modelled on the UK's National Trust.
Zelena akcija / Friends of the Earth Croatia - Supporting multiple environmental projects across the country.
BIAA / the British Institute at Ankara - We have long-standing connections with this institution, dedicated to supporting, enabling and encouraging world-class research in Turkey and the Black Sea region in the fields of history, archaeology and related social sciences.
BSA / The British School at Athens - A venerable institute for advanced (and international) research in Athens, founded in 1886, with a strong focus on archaeology. The BSA has been a formative influence and support during the early careers of several of Peter Sommer Travels' staff - including myself - and we wouldn't be what we are without it. It does excellent work, and to maintain its many activities, it now requires our support.
TONY SPAWFORTH'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Tony, or Professor Anthony Spawforth, is one of our most prominent academic guides, well-known for his countless publications about the Ancient World, including books that manage the tightrope of being at the same time deeply scholarly and very accessible to the non-specialist reader. Two of them have been recommended on our Christmas list, in 2018 and 2017. Tony spent many years teaching at the University of Newcastle in England, but also taught in other places, such as Princeton. Most importantly, he is a charming and compelling storyteller with the gift of using his extraordinary knowledge to bring the past back to vibrant and colourful - even tangible - life, his guests hanging on to every word. In 2021, you can experience his skills on Exploring Sicily, and Cruising the Aegean: from Kos to Patmos. Tony's recommendation for 2020 is an important new book by another well-known British scholar.
Thebes - the Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, by Paul Cartledge, Picador/Pan Macmillan 2020.
This is probably one of the most significant new books on Greek history published in recent years. Cartledge is a major character in British scholarship on antiquity, with an illustrious career beginning with studies in Oxford, then teaching in Belfast, Dublin, Warwick and eventually Cambridge. The surviving ancient Greek histories are virtually all written by Athenians and for Athenians, short-changing us of the complex history of a culture that was never focused on just one centre. Cartledge has spent many years and many books struggling against this, trying to elucidate other perspectives on the Hellenic experience. After several fine books trying to throw light on the perspective of Sparta, the proverbial enemy of Athens in the Classical era, he has now used his immense skill on doing the same for Thebes, the 'dark horse' that suddenly (or perhaps predictably?) gained dominance in Greece for a generation or two during the fourth century BC, after having been presented as the 'other' in Athenian drama for generations. Thebes, modern Thiva, is not yet on our itineraries, but it has prominent roles in our narratives of Athens, the Peloponnese and Macedonia. We're sure it will be part of a Peter Sommer Travels' itinerary before too long, and Cartledge's book will be key reading for it.
NOTA KARAMAOUNA'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Since 2012, many of our guests in Greece and Turkey have met Nota as their local tour expert. Born and raised Athenian, she has studied Byzantine archaeology and art history in that city and in Paris, but her knowledge and interests are much more wide-ranging, covering all periods of the past. Her focus is often on understanding the motivations that led - and still lead - to the many types of human endeavour, from conflict and warfare to the creation of edifices and works of art. At the same time she is a lively source on all aspects of modern Greek culture, and a veritable connoisseur of the country's culinary traditions, an expertise that offers many enjoyable moments to her guests. In 2021, she will accompany our guests on Easter in Athens, Exploring the Peloponnese, Cruising to the Cyclades, Exploring Crete and on our Family Cruise in the Dodecanese. This year's suggestion by her reflects her wider interests and connects well with our stories in the UK.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Pen & Sword, 2020.
A delightful read that provides great insight into the lives, experiences, challenges and struggles of aristocratic women of thirteenth-century England, how they influenced or were influenced by Magna Carta (the 1215 Charter of Liberties - its full text is included as an appendix!) and by the civil war that was the background to its creation. Connolly is a historian and tour guide on historical sites, and she specialises in writing about medieval women. Ladies of Magna Carta is her third book - following the Heroines of the Medieval World (2017) and Silk and Sword: The women of the Norman Conquest (2018). In her Ladies the author begins with an account of the events that led up to Magna Carta - a superbly concise version of the first Plantagenet era. She delves into medieval archives, court reports and letters to vividly illustrate the world(s) of wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who became - due to their abilities, rather than simply their connections - significant personas of their time, such as: Matilda de Braose, the tragic and legendary Lady of Hey; Nicholaa de la Haye, sheriff of Lincolnshire and the first woman to hold that office in England; Eleanors, Isabellas and Joans who asserted their rights to inheritances and family estates. A very interesting book about women striving to control their fate, its stories remaining inspiring even today.
HEINRICH HALL'S RECOMMENDED LISTENING:
I have been leading tours for Peter Sommer Travels since 2009, joining the company's core team a few years later. Apart from producing much of our social media content, especially on Facebook, Instagram and on this blog, my principal task is to design and maintain our itineraries in Greece, and to run most of them, as well as those in Ireland. By training, I am a prehistorian, but my interests have always ranged across many periods. My central ambition is to use the material remains of the places we visit, in other words their archaeology, in a hands-on fashion so as to create a comprehensive and comprehensible 'image' of what life was like in the past. In 2021, I would love to meet you on one of our many tours in Greece. This year, I have decided to break my habit of proposing books and wines here, to suggest something quite special.
Christmas in Europe, by various artists, performed by the Balthasar-Neumann-Choir, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2020.
Christmas as the great winter festival is very much a European tradition, and the festivities are celebrated in many ways, from seasonal sweets to specific decorations. None of those ways is more expressive than music. Each country or region has produced its own expressions of Christmas through the medium of song. The Balthasar-Neumann-Choir, considered one of the finest ensembles in the world and specialised in old music, has selected examples of Christmas songs from all over Europe. A far cry from the commercialised rom-pom-pom-poms that tend to dominate the season, this collection includes many surprises, songs you have probably not heard before, from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, England, Germany, France, Spain and Russia. As samples, I suggest the heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of the English carol "In the Bleak Midwinter", and the stunningly dynamic Icelandic "Það á að gefa börnum brauð", but you're sure to discover your own favourites!
MICHAEL METCALFE'S RECOMMENDATION OF A GIFT TO ENJOY WITH BODY AND SOUL:
With the exception of Peter himself, Michael is the longest-standing member of our team of tour experts, having joined Peter Sommer Travels in 2009. While his academic specialisation is in the field of Greek epigraphy, the reading and interpretation of inscriptions, he, too, pursues a kaleidoscope of interests across many eras of the past. Michael is responsible for the design of all our Italian itineraries, and has also participated in shaping tours in Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom. His work for Peter Sommer Travels further includes the planning and the coordination of our private charters and tailor-made land tours, and his keen eye for detail is central to that aspect of his activities. Based on his broad knowledge of the areas we travel, Michael is a passionate narrator, conjuring up antiquity in a way that draws in and fascinates the listener, evoking the drama of ancient life, its settings, protagonists and events, in rich detail. In 2021, Michael will be leading Exploring the Peloponnese and - probably - some of our cruise itineraries in Turkey.
Ben Ryé dessert wine by Donnafugata, Sicily
Books are easy to summarise, but wines are not. Donnafugata is a virtually legendary winery in Sicily, a bellwether one might say, always ahead of trends that might affect Sicilian wine production, perhaps by years and perhaps by decades. Most Sicilian wines are considered high-quality internationally, because of the superb soils and climate. Donnafugata is beyond such generalities: they produce wine most carefully and to the highest quality they can. Ben Rye is their sweet version, made of sun-dried grapes from the islet of Pantelleria, and it fits in with a long Mediterranean tradition of making wines sweet, quite possibly going all the way back to Greek and Roman antiquity. We know for sure that sweet reds became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and remained so until quite recently. All of us who 'prefer' wine more 'dry' should remember that wine-making proper covers a range of produce and flavours. Sweet wines have their place, a way of bringing out much grape aroma in the early fermentation, and - if you have the patience - great depth in matured versions. Sweet wines are fun, for sure, but high-quality sweet wines can surprise you, and aged ones can astonish you.
AN OLD FAVOURITE:
Blue Guide, Greece: the Aegean Islands, by Nigel McGilchrist, edited by Michael Metcalfe and Heinrich Hall, Somerset Books, 2010.
Did you know that, due to its many islands, Greece has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean? And as a result of many historic factors, each of the islands has a rich cultural heritage, going back millennia. It's been a decade now since Michael and I spent many long weeks finalising this book. Even ten years later, the Blue Guide to Greece's Aegean Islands remains the only comprehensive single-volume cultural guidebook to cover the many islands to the south and east of the Greek Mainland. The book is immensely useful, including detailed accounts of what there is to see and discover in 53 major islands, in the Cyclades, Dodecanese, Sporades and Argo-Saronic archipelagos, as well as Euboea (Evia), accompanied by numerous maps of islands, towns and sites. It accompanies all of our Aegean gulet cruises (the image actually shows my travel-battered copy) and we highly recommend it for anyone travelling in the Aegean, or planning to do so. We also recommend the entire series: the Blue Guides remain the best-researched cultural guidebooks for any region they cover and it is always worth checking whether one is available for where you plan to travel next.
A GIFT FOR FOOD LOVERS:
Al Dente - A History of Food in Italy, by Fabio Parasecoli, Reaktion Books, 2014.
If you have read any of the recipes we present on this blog, you may realise that we take food very seriously, as an immensely approachable and enjoyable aspect of the cultures and traditions in the countries we travel. In the same context, we are fascinated by 'food history', the ongoing processes, exchanges, influences and innovations that have created the various cuisines we experience. Reaktion Books have done sterling work in this regard, publishing a series of wonderfully written and beautifully produced volumes on this topic ('Foods and Nations'), and Secoli's is one of the finest. The author is Professor of Food Studies at New York University and his book explains the evolution of Italian cooking and its role as an expression of the country's identity - and it does so in a compellingly entertaining way. Mind you, reading it will make you hungry!
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.
Apart from having met our tour experts, many of our guests have also encountered Jim Cleary. That's because he has travelled on more Peter Sommer Travels' cruises and tours than anyone else, 18 times so far, on itineraries in Turkey, Italy and especially Greece. He is particularly enamoured with our Cruising to the Cyclades, which he has done multiple times. I often joke that he could take over the guiding! Joking aside, we are thrilled to have many guests returning to us time and time again - it's lovely to travel with friends, old and new! Jim is a knowledgeable gentleman with a plethora of cultural interests that match our own. He is a voracious reader, blessed with a laid-back approach to life and a distinctive sense of humour - his company is never less than a pleasure to us. His suggestion for 2020 could not be more apt!
Lords of the Sea - The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy [title may differ slightly according to edition], by John R. Hale, Penguin, 2010.
Without Triremes, the world we live in today would be substantially different. With a massive invasion force of Persians ravaging Greece, the Oracle of Delphi advised the Athenians to trust their wooden walls, and Themistocles convinced the Athenian assembly that this meant ships - triremes - and the navy they constructed not only defeated the Persians at the battle of Salamis, but then went on to dominate the Aegean for 150 years. This fine book tells how that happened, and details what is known about the triremes: there is documentation, substantial physical evidence of what triremes looked like in relief carvings, and ship-sheds to confirm their dimensions. However, due to their light, wooden construction, no physical examples have survived: what a prize that would be for some future archaeologist!
SOMETHING TO WATCH:
Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953.
As evenings are long and pre-Christmas TV is flooded with inanities, why not go for some high-quality entertainment?
Treat yourself to this star-studded adaptation of Shakespeare's classic play about the death of Caesar and its aftermath. There is no need to point out the qualities of Shakespeare's writing, so let me stress that the beauty of the bard's words is matched here by a wonderful production (critics at the time called it 'sumptuous') and a superb cast made up of British and American actors. Perhaps most notably, Marcus Antonius is played by a young and dashing Marlon Brando (whose previous reputation as a mumbler was laid to rest by this movie), but Deborah Kerr as Portia and John Gielgud, in the very prime of his career, as Cassius also stand out. The film won an Academy Award for best Art Direction. Incidentally, the score is by Miklós Rózsa, best known for the music accompanying another classic, Ben Hur, a few years later. Praised as one of Hollywood's greatest achievements at the time, this classic version of a Julius Caesar is currently rarely mentioned or remembered. Let's change that! You will not regret watching it.
A READ FOR YOUNGSTERS AND ADULTS ALIKE:
Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths, by Lucy Coats and Anthony Lewis, Orion Children's Books, 2002.
On our family cruises and on many of the private charters or tailor-made tours we run with families, I am often struck by how familiar many of our guests' children (or rather, our youngest guests) are with Greek mythology - and by how fascinating they find it. It makes sense, as Greek myth is a rich and colourful repository of stories that once explained how those people saw their world - thereby conjuring up a universe of gods and heroes, of monsters and personifications, of high drama and great adventures. After all, who does not enjoy a great story! Coats's book contains highly accessible retellings of all the key stories, from the making of the world itself via the deeds of Perseus and Herakles (Hercules) to the Trojan War and the travels of Odysseus, arranged as a voyage through those ancient lands and all accompanied by Lewis's lovely illustrations. And that's not all: two sequels, each with a hundred further stories, are also available- enough to quell even the most insatiable appetite for myth!
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.
History - Greek mythology series, by Playmobil, 2020.
(Playmobil UK website) [NB: these figures are not yet available on the company's US site, but you can also find them on the German and Greek sites, and occasionally on Amazon]
Four years ago, we were excited to include Playmobil's Zeus and Athena in our gift suggestion list - it was the first time that the iconic German toy brand engaged with Greek myth. Soon after, the series was expanded to include all of the Twelve Gods of Olympus, and as these special figures were only available in Greece, we have seen quite a few of our guests' children leave with some of them in their luggage! Well, a few weeks ago, an entire series of figures from Greek myth has been announced, including so many familiar tales: Odysseus, the Cyclops, Achilles, Herakles/Hercules, Ikaros/Icarus, the Argonauts and their ship (shown in our image), Aesop's fables and more. Both collectable and playable, these promise to be great fun!
A CLASSY GIFT:
This year's classy gift is also actually something to play with. We placed it in this category because it is rather pricey - but also rather spectacular. In its Creator series, Danish toymaker Lego has just released the Colosseum. An accurate model of the famous Flavian amphitheatre in Rome, the lucky receivers of this gift will spend many hours putting together the edifice from 9,036 Lego bricks - the largest number of any Lego kit so far! It depicts the building in its current state, with its partially ruined facade, the substructure underneath the arena and so on. For those interested in the Colosseum's complex inner workings, it is also possible to remove a wedge of the structure so as to look into the intricate system of stairs and passages that allowed an audience of up to 80,000 to enter or leave relatively quickly. Incidentally, if you have a spare Lego Colosseum, I'd like one! And if you feel that the Lego kit is a bit excessive, the paper model specialist, Schreiber, offers a thriftier alternative...
WHO'D HAVE THUNK OF THIS?:
Face mask with a Mycenaean octopus print, by Victoria Barron, 2020.
Every year, I look for something whimsical or amusing to present here - and 2020 is no exception. Over the years, many of my guests have been amused by my habit of wearing T-shirts printed with motifs relevant to the tours I lead, and especially with prehistoric Aegean octopus imagery. I just like them: there are many depictions of these creatures on Minoan and Mycenaean pottery and metalwork and I think they're beautiful!! Well, being realistic, I expect that I'll have to wear a face mask for at least a part of next year, so it might as well be one that's nice to look at. I was thrilled to find this one, designed in England, on Redbubble, a website where artists can submit their designs to be printed on shirts, bags, masks and many other items. If you have a look around the site, you will find many more historical and archaeological motifs.
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 eighth 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 2021 travel brochure instead - and treat your loved one(s) to the holiday of a lifetime?