How time flies sometimes. This time, I have two reasons to say that. The first one is, like every time I write this annual post, that December has crept up on us. Like I intend to every year, I had planned to compile our ideas neatly and early, and like actually happens every year, November, the month immediately following upon the conclusion of our last tours in the year, turned out busier than anticipated. So here we are - the advent season has arrived. It really hit me a few days ago, as I was inspecting a few hotels at Nafplio in the Peloponnese: each lobby sported a Christmas tree, the streets were decorated with motifs on the lines of stars, bells and fir trees, and shop windows bore the telltale signs of impending festivities. Sure, I could write something grumpy now about muzak and commercialism, but then, I also look forward to sharing some quiet time with loved ones.
That's what it's all about, really: sharing happy moments and meaningful experiences with people we hold dear, be they family, companions or friends. To be clear, that's what we should all strive to be doing all of the time, not just at certain dates of the year - but in the busy and tumultuous world we live in, perhaps such imposed moments of togetherness have their rightful place. For us at Peter Sommer Travels, it has certainly been a very busy year, the first one with a full-length travel season, from early April to late October, since 2019. We saw many old friends this year and made many new ones, and we feel we can look back at 2022 with satisfaction, and forward to 2023 with optimism.
There is a second reason to say that time flies. Our Christmas gift post has certainly established itself as an annual tradition on this blog - this is the tenth time we are compiling it! As always, we have assembled an array of suggestions that is by no means facile: it really consists of things that we at Peter Sommer Travels are planning to give to others or are hoping to receive. Ten years of Christmas lists also means that if you don't find quite the right ideas here, you can browse the preceding ones, from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 to see what might hit the spot. Although we tend to favour (relatively) newly-available books (and other items) on this list, we also try to suggest ones of lasting interest! Enough introduction: what follows are our Christmas gift suggestions for 2022.
PETER SOMMER'S RECOMMENDED READ:
It was Peter Sommer's suggestion, back in 2012, to come up with a gift list (originally, it was intended to be just for our newsletter). That's obviously not just a coincidence: Peter is the founder and leader of the company that bears his name since twenty years ago. That foundation came some eight years after he had walked across Turkey in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, a walk that certainly proved a formative experience for himself and beyond. It instilled in Peter a great enthusiasm for the culture, the history, the antiquities and not least the people of that wonderful country, and even more importantly a lasting desire to share that enthusiasm with others. It is from this initial idea that Peter Sommer Travels has grown to its current range of activities, with a programme of expert-led gulet cruises and land tours in six countries. Peter's eye for detail and his ambition to offer truly enjoyable and informative experiences of high quality are present not just in the tours he leads himself, but in all our offerings. He also takes a very active role in maintaining contact with our guests, so if you have travelled with us already there's a high chance that you've spoken to him, and if you intend to join us in the future, that you will. In 2023, Peter will likely be leading several of our Turkish gulet cruises. His reading suggestion for 2022 is on a topic that's always close to his heart.
The Ottomans: a Cultural Legacy, by Diana Darke, Thames & Hudson, 2022.
Published just a few weeks ago, this fine and richly illustrated volume will be fascinating to anyone interested in Turkey itself, but also in its former domains in the Balkans and Western Asia. The author is a veteran journalist and has spent much of her career travelling those regions, with previous publications including guidebooks on Syria and Oman. Her take on the Ottoman Empire is an interesting one, not dwelling on its final downfall a century ago, but on its longevity as the dominant regional power for the five centuries before. To explain the reasons for this longevity, she identifies a series of key features that enabled the Ottomans to be a formidable presence, creating a heritage that is still present beyond the Turkish borders. Her focus is on the considerable innovativeness of the Ottoman Empire, on its skilful management of the diverse peoples contained within it, on its efficient bureaucracy and so on. She touches on many striking cultural aspects, such as aesthetics, architecture, and the role of women. The image she creates is of a sophisticated urban civilisation, embracing both art and science and formulating cultural ideas that reverberate through space and time.
MICHAEL METCALFE'S RECOMMENDED READ FOR WINE LOVERS:
The past season was Michael's fourteenth as a core member of staff at Peter Sommer Travels! Peter certainly had a lucky hand in choosing Michael, a scholar who is as well-travelled as he is well-read. His academic field, epigraphy (the study of ancient inscriptions, Greek ones in his case), sits at the interface between history and archaeology and thus enables Michael to look at ancient sites from multiple perspectives. This advantage is matched by his great skill in developing and presenting a nuanced and often dramatic narrative, drawing his guests right into the lives and the events of the past. Michael has many interests and pursues them actively, expanding his understanding of the regions we travel and of how they were 'discovered' by scholarship across the centuries. Michael's roles are likewise many: he has designed our Italian itineraries and has had much input in our Greek, British and Turkish ones, and equally importantly, he sets up our tailor-made gulet charters and land tours in all six countries we travel - a task he excels in. In 2023, you can join him on Cruising the Dodecanese, Cruising to Ephesus and other cruises in Turkey. His recommendation for 2022 is especially pertinent to our tours in Sicily!
The New Wines of Mount Etna: An Insider's Guide to the History and Rebirth of a Wine Region, by Benjamin North Spencer, Gemelli Press, 2020.
This is an unusual book, and one that many of our guests will enjoy thoroughly. The author, a poet, journalist and novelist from New York State who found a home and a passion on the slopes of Mount Etna. As a winemaker and founder of the Etna Wine School, he has contributed to what we do in Sicily. Spencer is contagiously fascinated with the mountain that is Sicily's dominant feature and Europe's most active volcano, and also with the viticulture that has taken place on its slopes for millennia and is currently one of Italy's most vibrant wine regions. He has spent years exploring, tasting, studying, visiting and talking to local producers and all of that effort is brought together in this very special book. Defying definitions, it really is much more than a guide (and as such, it does explain sub-regions and grape varieties), combining a thorough history of Etna wines with profound contemplations on soils and climate and many other aspects that make the product so unique, and also with accounts of the author's travels and encounters. By allowing the reader to follow him on his quest to discover and understand the Etna wines in their totality, Spencer achieves an extraordinary immersion not just in a small region of Sicily but in his own engagement with it. The result is a book that is certainly a must-read for anyone aiming to learn about Sicilian wines, but that can also be read with great pleasure by anyone whose interests touch the mountain itself and the wonderful island it is part of. It was awarded by Gourmand International as the Best European Wine Book for 2021.
PAUL BESTON'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Paul Beston has been a member of our core team of experts for six years now, and it is a privilege to have him as a colleague. Our British tours are his domain, as he designed them and leads most of them, but you can meet him on our tours far beyond those shores. Pauls's scope is exceptionally profound and wide and versatile. Trained in Classical history, he has an extraordinary brain, able to absorb and retain all kinds of information and then to dispense it, carefully filtered and rearranged, when needed. From monumental world-historical storytelling to the arcane practical details of ancient life, be it domestic living, warfare or worship, Paul has the knowledge in store and the wherewithal to share it with our guests in the most accessible and most entertaining fashion. If any one of our experts should write a book, it's Paul. In 2023, Paul will be leading Exploring Wessex, Exploring Hadrian's Wall and our recently introduced Walking Hadrian's Wall, and also the April Exploring Sicily and the May running of Exploring Crete. His 2022 recommendation is wonderful.
Country Church Monuments, by C.B. Newham, Particular Books, 2022.
This is a classic example of the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover'! Newham's book, published in October, is an absolute delight and should become a must-have for anyone who enjoys travelling in England and Wales, but also for anyone who likes reading about their history. The author has spent decades exploring rural churches across the country, seeking out the funerary monuments they contain and assembling an enormous archive of images, notes and transcriptions, recording thousands of individual works. The book is a 'best of', a selection of 365 such monuments, spanning over a thousand years (from the 10th century to the modern era). For each, he provides a short description, including an explanation of the person buried and an excellent colour photograph. Thus, the volume is both an introduction to some of the finest British sculpture in stone and brass through the ages, but also a panorama of history and a treasury of historical characters, some famous and some obscure. Reading it from start to finish or browsing it randomly will put you in the mood for exploring the beauties of rural England and Wales!
JULIE BROWN'S RECOMMENDED READ:
Julie is one of a kind. She has been a mainstay of Peter Sommer Travels for thirteen years, and by saying mainstay I am presenting her far below her worth. As Office and Operations Manager, she has innumerable roles and responsibilities within the day-to-day work of Peter Sommer Travels, and she looks after all of them with the utmost diligence. Possible bookers, phone calls of any sort, late arrivals, last-minute changes, and so on and so forth, are all within her domain. She is often the first voice of Peter Sommer Travels a new guest encounters - and directs them to the tours or cruises that best match their interests with great care and competence! Julie knows many of our tours hands-on, as she is eager to explore the areas we travel and to see the things we show our guests, and she is likewise familiar with most of our guests, guides, experts and local partners, in other words with the various people that make our travels what they are. For 2022, she suggests a bit of natural history.
The Lost Rainforests of Britain, by Guy Shrubsole, William Collins, 2022.
Most of us associate the concept of rainforests with countries far afield, and with great biodiversity. The second association is correct - but what about the first? Shrubsole, an environmental journalist and campaigner, has discovered an aspect of the British landscape that most Britons are completely unaware of: the presence of (temperate) rainforests across much of the western parts of the country. Defined by their wet conditions, these habitats are rich in species, constituting an important aspect of the island's natural heritage. Unnoticed even by many experts, they have not been cherished and are, already much reduced from their extent just a few centuries ago, under constant threat. Shrubsole has made it his mission to raise awareness and in doing so he has produced a beautiful book that is receiving much acclaim, not just for his excellent writing but also for the wonderful and evocative photographs accompanying it. Shrubsole's deep engagement with the topic is tangible on every page, as he argues for the recognition and the preservation of the unique landscapes he presents, in words that are as poetic as they are passionate.
TONY SPAWFORTH'S RECOMMENDED READ:
We are very proud to have Professor Anthony Spawforth, probably our most prominent academic expert, on our list of tour leaders. We are not really a company that relies on big names for recognition - so what makes us so happy to work with Tony is not just his illustrious career, as Professor Emeritus at the University of Newcastle (he also taught at Princeton). Nor is it his rich catalogue of publications on Greek antiquity (and other aspects of the past) - we have actually recommended two of his books in previous versions of this list (in 2018 and 2017) and needless to say, they're still worth a look! Most of all, we appreciate Tony for what he brings to our tours: an ever-restless mind, and his great skill in explaining the Ancient World in a way that is a pleasure to behold, making his vast knowledge accessible to our guests, as he will next year on Kos to Patmos. His 2022 recommendation is especially relevant for our Turkish and Greek tours.
Persians: The Age of the Great Kings, by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Wildfire, 2022.
In school, even in university, most of us come across the Persian Empire only briefly and indirectly, through its unsuccessful attempts to conquer Mainland Greece in the 'Persian Wars' of 490 and 480 BC and through its conquest by Alexander the Great 150 years later. The Western view of Achaemenid Persia, a vast entity for over two hundred years, from its foundation by Cyrus the Great around 500 BC to its demise under Darius III, is tempered - or distempered! - by these events, tarring the Persians as the 'other'. Lllewellyn-Jones, professor at Cardiff (previously at Edinburgh) sets out to redress that and to focus directly on this first 'golden age' of Persia. He presents a sophisticated multi-ethnic empire that can be seen as history's first superpower. Using historical, epigraphic and archaeological sources, he tells the story, including the soap-opera-like conflicts within the royal family, with great panache to match his profound command of the topic. Reviewers have used words like "masterful", "compelling", "definitive", "brilliant" and "lively".
HEINRICH HALL'S GIFT TO ENJOY WITH BODY AND SOUL:
I joined Peter Sommer Travels' core staff in 2011. My main areas of activity are Greece (where I spend most of my time) and Ireland (where I studied archaeology with an emphasis on Aegean prehistory). In both countries, I am the primary designer of (most) tours and cruises and also tend to co-lead most of them. I also lead tours in Turkey now and then, and have had a role in designing tours in some of the other countries we travel. My other roles include work on the social media, including this very blog. Having first worked in archaeological excavations while still in secondary school, I maintain a lively interest in fieldwork, especially in archaeological survey, and still actively participate in such projects. As a result, I am eager to explain the processes by which archaeological information is gathered and analysed, and I am eager to show my guests how archaeologists have to think from the ground up, building an image of the past based on the sites and artefacts they study. In 2023, I will be hosting many of our tours in Greece and also Exploring Ireland. This year, I suggest something edible!
Organic Irish Smoked Salmon from the Burren, County Clare.
[We've chosen an excellent producer who is able to deliver internationally quite expediently. Unfortunately, they are unable to deliver to Australia and New Zealand for customs reasons. Of course, you may be able to source quality Irish salmon in your own country, which is a fine alternative.]
One of the aspects our guests on Exploring Ireland most regularly remark upon is the high quality of the smoked salmon available at some of our hotel breakfasts and also during some of our lunches and dinners. They are, of course, right. Ireland generally produces very fine seafood, but smoked salmon in various forms and presentations may be the most emblematic product it has to offer in that context. Salmon has been a part of Irish culture for a very long time: we know it was consumed by the islands earliest settlers in the Mesolithic and Neolithic. And in Irish (Iron Age/Celtic) mythology, there is the Salmon of Knowledge, a creature that swallows some acorns fallen from the Well of Wisdom and is thus infused with all the world's wisdom. The poet Finn Eces (Finegas) spends seven years trying to catch the fish and when he finally does, he strictly instructs his servant, the young Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool), to cook it but not to eat any of it. Fionn does not disobey, but as a drop of hot fat from the salmon falls on his finger, he instinctively sucks on it, thus accidentally gaining all the wisdom there is! We can't promise that, but if you find a quality piece of Irish smoked salmon, you will find it soft but firm in texture and delightful in flavour. I prefer it as it is, perhaps with some good dark bread and butter. The Burren Smokehouse in County Clare offers a wide array of options, cold-smoked, hot-smoked, with herbs and more. Definitely an Irish tradition worth exploring.
NOTA KARAMAOUNA'S RECOMMENDED READ:
It has been ten years since Nota first joined me in leading one of our tours in Greece, marking the beginning of a long cooperation with Peter Sommer Travels that continues to go from strength to strength. Nota is an Athenian by birth and spirit, trained in Greece and France as a specialist in Byzantine art, but with a range of interests far beyond that field. She is a highly engaged and engaging guide, passionate about the topics and places she presents. Be it the cultural milieu that led to the creation of Byzantine masterpieces, the sensual beauty of Classical sculpture, the endless shenanigans of 'Frankish' medieval Greece, or the historical and cultural complexities of modern Greece, besides so many other stories, she presents it all with a lively touch that is never superficial. In 2023 she will be present on Easter in Athens, Exploring the Peloponnese, Cruising the Dodecanese and Kos to Patmos. Her suggestion for this year is essential for any reader wishing to learn about twentieth-century Greece.
George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel, a Biography, by Roderick Beaton, Yale, 2003.
It's the second year in a row that we recommend a book by Beaton, one of the greatest experts on Greek culture in the English-speaking world. Although Waiting for the Angel is not a new book, it will be new to most of our guests. It tells the story of a key representative of Greek culture, George Seferis (1900-1971), an important diplomat and pioneering poet, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Based on a careful study of archives, correspondence and Seferis's writings, Beaton beautifully tells of a life that ranged from Smyrna on the western coast of Asia Minor (and a home lost to the Asia Minor 'catastrophe' in 1922), via studies in Paris, a wartime diplomatic post in Cairo and later an ambassadorial role in London to Athens, where he spent his later years. Seferis's presence is still felt in Greek culture; his words and politics shaped the Greek intellectual environment of the late twentieth century. He spoke out courageously against the military dictatorship established by a coup in 1967, and his funeral in 1971 was one of the largest mass demonstrations against the regime. The book remains the definitive account of this fascinating character in English.
CAITLIN WHITE'S RECOMMENDED READ:
It's the first time that Caitlin is contributing to our Christmas gift list. A native of County Tipperary, Caitlin has been the co-leader of our Exploring Ireland tour since 2019. Academically, she is a historian with degrees from Galway and (soon) from Dublin, where she is working on a study of commemoration through public statuary in her home country. Her interest and her expertise in the ways history is presented in public and to the public add a rich and thought-provoking layer of content to our tour and have enabled her to design superb approaches at various sites in and around Dublin, such as the National Museum, the venerable Abbey Theatre and Glasnevin Cemetery. She is a delightful guide and host, with a natural talent for narrative, infused with a refreshing sense of humour that cannot conceal her sharply analytic mind. What she suggests is a book that exemplifies the role of story-telling in Irish tradition.
An Irish Folklore Treasury: a Selection of Old Stories, Ways and Wisdom from the Schools' Collection, by John Creedon, Gill, 2022.
This is a lovely book. Highly entertaining, insightful and informative, it opens up a window on one of the richest aspects of relatively recent Irish culture: oral folklore. For historical reasons, being a late participant in industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation, Ireland preserved a much larger proportion of its local traditions for much longer than most other countries in Western Europe, not least music and story-telling. Soon after its foundation a century ago, the fledgling Irish state sought to collect and preserve what it could of this large but dwindling body of material by various means, one being the Schools' collection. Between 1937 and 1939, 50,000 schoolchildren across the country were asked to write down stories they had heard, resulting in 740,000 pages of tales. Creedon, a popular broadcaster, has undertaken a selection from this enormous body, and divided them up thematically (there are sections on ghosts, farming life, mythology, crafts, games and so on), providing a charming introduction to each section.
AN OLD FAVOURITE:
Description of Greece, by Pausanias, circa AD 180. The edition shown here as "Guide to Greece", Penguin Classics, 1984 (two volumes).
[There are quite a few versions available in English: full text, bilingual, abridged and so on. Choose one that suits you.]
The first time we posted this list, our 'old favourite' was Herodotus, and strangely enough, we have not recommended an ancient text since. Now, on the tenth occasion, it's overdue, and it's an obvious choice. Pausanias (I wrote a post about him quite a while ago) is one of the most unusual ancient writers and one absolutely central to the tours we run in Athens and the Peloponnese. His Description of Greece, apparently penned in the third quarter of the second century AD, i.e. during one of the more successful eras of the Roman Empire, is unique. Although it remains disputed what the intended purpose of his book was (a guidebook for travellers, or an encyclopaedic work for those unable to travel?), it stands alone as a systematic series of descriptions of all the major cities and sanctuaries in Central Greece and the Peloponnese, focusing on the things "worth seeing", which mostly means remains from the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods, many centuries before it was written. Pausanias is often criticised for his occasional lack of precision, for evident mistakes and - most unfairly - for his constant digressions. Those digressions are, of course, essential to his attempt at explaining and connecting the places he describes, embedding them in mythological and historic context. It may be tiring to read Pausanias from cover to cover, but it is fascinating to delve into his extraordinary work again and again, as it is the only such text to survive from antiquity.
A GIFT FOR FOOD LOVERS:
Chewing the Fat - Tasting Notes from a Greedy Life, by Jay Rayner, Faber & Faber 2021.
This immensely enjoyable book appeared just too late to make this list last year. Yes, normally, we use this entry to recommend cookery books or food histories to do with the countries we travel, so just for once let's do something different. This is an example of modern British food writing at its very best, and it will please and amuse any reader who likes eating food, preparing it or just pondering it. Jay Rayner is the venerable Observer's decidedly irreverent food critic, well known for his loving praise of places he likes and his withering (and often very funny) takedowns of those he doesn't, but he also provides the paper with culinary columns that attract a faithful readership, knowing his larger-than-life style also from appearances on radio, television and on theatre stages. The book is an edited compilation of such columns, Rayner is certainly a seasoned (see what I did there?) expert - or indeed connoisseur - of the topic, but he really is much more than that, a comedian of the cooked, a philosopher of flavour, veering effortlessly between anarchic humour and deep insight. An unusual book that may just leave you hungry for more.
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.
Ruth K. has so far travelled with us on two occasions, both in 2022, first on Exploring the Peloponnese and then on Cruising the Dodecanese. She's an experienced traveller with a broad range of cultural and historical interests and that's hardly surprising, considering that she was a history teacher for three decades. Together with her other half, Ian, she is a sociable guest, interested in the places we show her and the stories we tell her, willing to laugh and happy to discover new things. We hope to see her on many trips in the future! Needless to say, she's also an avid reader, as her suggestion shows.
The Wolf Age: the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Battle for the North Sea Empire, by Tore Skele, Pushkin Press, 2022.
"What is so exciting about this book is that it follows one person and it really is a page-turner - perhaps unusual for a book citing such well-researched archaeological, historical and literary sources! The Danish incursions into tenth and eleventh century England are seen from the point of view of the skaldic poets, as well as the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Tracing events which led to the fall of the Wessex dynasty, Skeie intercuts developments across Europe with the career of Olaf Haraldsson in a way which kept me reading late at night to find out what happened next. Having travelled with Peter Sommer Travels in Greece this summer, I also appreciated links to archaeological evidence. The Wolf Age tells us the armies used the same basic tactics as the Greek hoplites and that archaeological surveys of medieval battlefields reveal a ‘strange damage’ to the teeth of fallen warriors, the result of forceful gritting of those teeth as shield walls clashed. The intensity of individual experience is felt throughout this book and I recommend it highly."
SOMETHING TO WATCH:
Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1951.
We've worked our way through some of those sword-and-sandal classics in the previous nine posts, so here's a famous and early example of the genre, or should I just quote the poster and scream "the most colossal ever"? Quo Vadis is a profoundly silly movie, based on what I would consider a profoundly silly book, with all the bombast typical of its era, the Christian subtext and the mid-century Holywood take of what the press then called "sex and violence" (we'd barely recognise either from our jaded 2020s perspective). Nevertheless, its Rotten Tomatoes rating remains quite high, so there must be something people see in it. I suspect it's the bombast and silliness themselves that attract people, plus the highlights among the mostly unremarkable cast. There is Deborah Kerr as Lygia, the love interest, there is Elizabeth Taylor in a tiny cameo, for sure, but it's really about Nero, played in the most exuberantly decadent fashion by a young Peter Ustinov with all the camp and all the gusto that role requires. It's not Kubrick, but it's a good three hours of light entertainment!
A READ FOR YOUNGSTERS AND ADULTS ALIKE:
Asterix in Britain, by R. Goscinny and A. Uderzo, Orion/Sphere [2004/05].
It's a few generations ago since people thought that comics are only for children, and of course Asterix, a series that began in 1959 and still continues, has long been hailed as a classic. I grew up with those volumes and their rambunctious humour, but also their well-designed stories set mostly in Roman-occupied France and other parts of the Ancient World. I'd really want to recommend the entire series, but as I had to choose a cover, I picked Asterix in Britain, first published (in French) in 1965. Is it still funny? Yes, even though some of it is based on what was then contemporary comment, it still works! The story is compelling (if somewhat unhistorical): Britain has been conquered by Caesar's Romans, with one last village resisting. British villager Anticlimax travels to Brittany to seek help from his cousin Asterix in the famously unconquered Gallic village. The two of them set out to bring a barrel of the Gallic druid's magic strength potion across the Channel, accompanied by invincible Obelix (when a baby he fell into a cauldron full of the magic potion), and all kinds of chaos occur, including much beating up of Romans, an early rugby match and a rather precocious appearance by the Beatles but also overcooked wild boar with mint sauce. If you're new to Asterix, what are you waiting for? It's European culture and insight and humour, all in one volume, and then there's more to discover.
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.
Xerxes and Leonidas, Playmobil, 2022.
(Playmobil GR - this set is only available in the Greek market for the moment, but we expect that to change soon)
It's been six years since we first presented Playmobil, the famous German toymaker, with its take on Greek mythology, initially just offering Zeus and Athena. And we listed them again when they increased that series to offer all twelve gods and a selection of characters from Greek mythology in 2020. Well, this year marks another step, towards Greek history. There are two new sets available now. The smaller one is of Alexander the Great on his trusty steed Bucephalus. And the much more extensive one is a short version of the Battle of Thermopylae, the story you may know as the 300 Spartans. On the Persian side, there are three warriors, a royal tent (complete with throne) and an ornate chariot carrying Xerxes, the great king, bedecked in fineries. On the Spartan side, there is king Leonidas, accompanied by two Spartan hoplites with the characteristic shields bearing the letter lambda, all perched on a rocky outcrop. Let the battle begin!
A CLASSY GIFT:
Accurate reproductions of prehistoric and historic Greek painted pottery (multiple designs), by Thetis/Attic Black, Athens.
On our acclaimed Easter in Athens tour, we visit a pottery-making and vase-painting workshop for an unforgettable and hands-on experience of one of the most famous Athenian achievements: painted pottery. It took the ancients many generations to perfect the skill of creating the typical shiny slip known as Attic Black, and it likewise took modern archaeologists and craftsmen a long time to replicate it. Our friends at Thetis are among the very few who have managed to work out the correct technique, and they now produce some of the finest replicas of Greek pottery, prehistoric to Hellenistic, available anywhere. Much of what they make is sold at selected museums, but they also run an online shop that offers breathtakingly beautiful ceramics in various styles. Their wares are not cheap and cannot be: many hours of work, all by hand, go into each piece, and the skills required are quadruple: the shaping of the pottery vessel, the preparation of the slip, its application with or without paintings, and finally the three-phase firing, a process that has to be accurately timed. If you are looking for a truly special present, this is it!
WHO'D HAVE THUNK OF THIS?:
Byzantine fork replica, by True History Shop, unknown date.
As always, we conclude this list (not quite yet!) with something odd or surprising that we've found and this year it had to be the Byzantine fork replica. Why? Because for years I have used the history of the fork, its introduction to Europe in the Middle Ages and its evolution from two to many tines as a deliberately boring conversation stopper, a way to make fun of the sometimes obsessive interest archaeologists take in everyday items. Until my colleague, Nota, took that story and ran with it, actually turning it into a really interesting and highly enlightening narrative about attitude problems between West and East, and also about the staggering influence of Byzantine princesses on Western court culture. It's a fascinating tale and its hers, so I won't reveal it here, but it does involve a pope ranting against the use of forks - and he meant forks like this one! So here's your chance to indulge in Eastern decadence...
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 tenth 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 website - and treat your loved one(s) to the holiday of a lifetime?