Mexican tradition ¡FELIZ DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!

The release this fall, just before Halloween, of Guillermo del Toro’s new animated film THE BOOK OF LIFE, based on the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is yet another sign of the ever-increasing cultural cross-fertilization between Mexico and the United States.

Mexican Tradition – Día de Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition - Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Indeed, Día de Los Muertos and Halloween have quite a bit in common, but there are important differences as well. Halloween, as practiced today in the U.S., is mostly about dressing in costume and collecting enormous quantities of candy. Symbols of death and otherworldly images are used as decorations, but mainly in a sanitized, non-threatening way. In contrast, Day of the Dead, a holiday that spans two days in Mexico, is a time for families to remember departed loved ones, and to feel their presence in the lives of the living. In the United States, we tend to regard death as something final, foreign, something to be feared. In the Mexican tradition, Día de Los Muertos festivities reflect a recognition and acceptance of death as an integral part of the human experience, and a belief that dying does not remove a person from family and community. Death is still scary, but it’s confronted with humor, irony, and a touch of fatalism.

In preparation for Día de Los Muertos, much time and care is devoted to cleaning and decorating graves. Elaborate altars, called ofrendas (“offerings”), are constructed in honor of dead loved ones, both in homes and in cemeteries; photographs of the departed are surrounded by candles, Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil), sugar skulls (calaveritas), written messages, religious items, and food, drink, or belongings that were dear to the departed in life. All of this effort is to invite the souls of the departed to come back for a visit, to know that they are still a part of the lives of those who love them. There is sadness, of course, but there’s also celebration, with eating, drinking, music and laughter as people share humorous stories of the departed. Like a New Orleans funeral, it’s as much about celebrating life as it is about mourning.

History of Día de Los Muertos

Like many religious traditions in Latin America, Day of the Dead is a mixture of ancient native practices and Catholic beliefs. The Aztec festival commemorating the dead occupied a full month in the 16-month calendar. It was presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the “lady of death,” wife of Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the Land of the Dead. The figure of the goddess of death has come to be associated with La Catrina, a character created by the artist José Guadalupe Posada, a very elegant skeleton dressed in the European style of an upper-class 19th-century Mexican woman.

Mexican Tradition - Dia De Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Dia De Los Muertos

In the modern Mexican tradition, Día de Muertos festivities coincide with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day, November 1, and All Souls’ Day, November 2. The 1st of November is Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), dedicated to the memory of children who have died, while the 2nd of Nov. is Día de Los Muertos, when departed adults are honored. It is believed that the souls of the departed come back to visit loved ones on their respective days.

It’s no wonder that Día de Los Muertos is being celebrated in a growing number of U.S. cities and towns. Brought here by immigrants, the color, beauty, and spiritual depth of this Mexican tradition is resonating with more and more Americans.  Along with the ofrendas, festivities, and pan de muerto (a Mexican sweet bread baked specially for the occasion), Dia de Los Muertos offers a chance to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us.

Set Yourself Apart When You Travel to Mexico: 10 Things You May Not Know About Mexico

With all the bad news coming from Mexico these days, it’s easy to forget that if you choose your destinations with a bit of care, it’s still a beautiful and welcoming place to travel.

Travel to Mexico : Oaxaca Church

Oaxaca Church

When you travel to Mexico you can find spectacular scenery, mind-blowing pre-Colombian ruins, and beautiful colonial cities and towns. Mexico has 32 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List scattered throughout the country. It’s a country full of warm, friendly people who love to laugh, and there’s lots of great food to be had. And of course, there’s tequila. For those who would like to travel to Mexico armed with some knowledge that will set them apart from other turistas (knowing a little of the Spanish language goes a long way too), I’ve compiled a list, in no particular order, of facts and places of interest.

Get ready to travel to Mexico!

  1. We’re not the only United States. Mexico’s official name is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States). The country has 32 States. Unfortunately, 16 of them are currently under U.S. State Department travel advisories, but that still leaves many options for safe travel to Mexico. The list of states that our government recommends avoiding can be found here.
  2. Mexico formally abolished slavery in 1820, 53 years before the U.S.
  3. You can see the oldest olive trees in the Western Hemisphere. The town of Tzintzuntzan, in the state of Michoacán, in addition to having a really cool name, is home to the monastery of San Francisco, where you’ll find olive trees said to have been planted by Vasco de Quiroga in the 1500’s. There’s also a glass coffin housing a wax figure of Christ whose arms and legs, according to the locals, are continually growing – an extension was added to the coffin to accommodate them.
  4. View a volcano that ate two towns (slowly). On February 20, 1943, a farmer and his wife in Michoacán saw ash and stones erupting from a fissure in their field. The eruptions soon grew into a full-blown volcano, which slowly engulfed the villages of Paricutín and San Juan Parangaricutiro.
    Travel to Mexico: Paricutín volcano

    Paricutín volcano

    The residents of the two villages safely relocated to land nearby. The Paricutín volcano continued to erupt until 1952; it was the first time the entire life cycle of a volcano was witnessed by scientists. Today, when you travel to Mexico, you can hike to San Juan Parangaricutiro to see the remains of the town, including the church bell tower and altar, which were left exposed.

  5. There’s no worm in tequila, though sometimes you’ll find one in mezcal, which is made from a different variety of agave. “Tequila” is a controlled appellation: in order to bear that name, the spirit has to be produced in the state of Jalisco or in certain areas of 4 other states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the area surrounding the town of – that’s right: Tequila! Travelers in Mexico interested in learning about tequila’s production and history can take a trip on the José Cuervo Express, a train from Guadalajara to Tequila that allows visitors to tour distilleries, sample and purchase tequilas and other spirits, and return to Guadalajara without having to drive.
  6. Travel through Canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a group of canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental in southwestern Chihuahua. The more remote areas are home to the Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, Indians, renowned for their endurance running. A popular train takes visitors from the city of Chihuahua through the canyons to the West Coast at Los Mochis.
  7. See amazing murals. From the 1920s to the 70s, a large number of murals were painted on public buildings in several cities. The most famous muralists of the era, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, painted many masterpieces filled with social and political messages, which can be seen at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, the Hospicio Cabañas and the Jalisco Governmental Palace, both in Guadalajara, as well as many other sites.
  8. Great reefs for snorkeling & scuba diving can be found on both coasts, including areas in Veracruz and Quintana Roo on the Gulf Coast and Baja California Sur on the West Coast.
  9. Visit beautiful colonial cities. Visitors who find Mexico City a bit overwhelming can enjoy a number of charming smaller cities. San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Mérida, and San Cristóbal de las Casas are a few fine examples.
  10. Indulge in the food, from simple to sophisticated. One of the perks when you travel to Mexico is that you can find great meals for all budgets, from small tacos made with double tortillas to hold their bulging contents, to complex and picturesque dishes such as chiles en nogada and an infinite variety of moles. The adventurous can also try different types of larvae, crickets, and other crawly things! Like many things in Mexico, there’s something for all tastes.

Top 10 Unusual Sites to Visit when you Travel to Italy (Part 2)

In choosing my Top 10 places to see on your travel to Italy I purposely avoided Rome, Florence, and Venice, the cities most visited by tourists on their first travel to Italy.  If you’ve missed Part 1 of my Top 10 places to visit when you travel to Italy, you can check it out here.  Otherwise, let’s continue with the 5 remaining off the beaten path destinations in Italy.

Beyond the Gondolas and the Colosseum: Top 10 Offbeat Sites to See When you Travel to Italy

5. Ravenna and Its Early Christian Monuments
Just a bit further south of Bologna is Ravenna, the old capital of the Byzantine Empire in the west. The Nobel poet Eugenio Montale described Ravenna, saying,
                     And here where ancient life
                     is marked by the sweet
                     anxiety of the Levant.

Ravenna Travel to ItalyRavenna was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then the seat of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and finally the capital of the Byzantine empire in the west. Eventually it became part of the Papal States. In Roman times it had its own port but now it’s a cruise port and the city center is located eight miles from the Adriatic coast.

Ravenna is famous for its early Christian monuments that go back 1500 years. The mausoleum to Empress Galla Placida was built in 426 CE and the Baptistery is from 430 CE. The Basilica of the New Saint Apollinare, Saint Apolinnare in Classe, and Saint Vitale are all from the sixth century CE. All have magnificent preserved mosaics. The basilica of San Vitale probably has the best known. If you ever looked at any college history text, you will have seen a picture of the mosaic from San Vitale depicting the Emperor Justinian and his court and another of the Empress Theodora and her ladies in waiting.

If you thought Dante Alighieri’s tomb was in Florence, you have been misled by the “cenotaph” in the Santa Croce church there. The poet of the Divine Comedy is buried here in Ravenna, as he had been exiled and could not return to Florence under penalty of death.

4. The Valley of the Temples in the Area of Agrigento and Pirandello too
Valley of the Temples Travel to Italy
About Sicily Goethe said: To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. On your travel to Sicily I particularly recommend the temples.

The sixth century BCE Greek Doric Temples are not in a valley, but are lined up on a ridge that climbs to a summit dominated by the Temple of Juno. At the lower end is the Temple of Jupiter and Hercules. (Juno seems to have had more power.) In the middle is the Temple of Concordia, the best-preserved Greek temple. These temples and other archeological remains are in the largest archeological site anywhere in the world. Agrigento’s panorama is visible from the temples. On the way you can stop to visit the house of Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Nobel for Literature and of Six Characters in Search of an Author fame. Nearby His ashes were laid to rest by his favorite pine tree.

3. Palermo and Monreale
The Cathedral of Palermo encompasses the various influences of the various conquerors and periods: Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque. As with most churches, it is an eclectic museum. Kings were crowned here and here are the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry IV of Hohenstaufen and his son Fredrick II, who is credited with creating the first literary language of Italy at his court.Palermo Travel to Italy
The Palatine Chapel is a wonder of different mosaics , both Byzantine and Arab. It was as well the chapel of the Norman Kings.

Monreale – The Monreale Cathedral is on a hill outside Palermo, overlooking the Valley known as the “Conca D’Oro.” It is the church with the most extensive mosaics after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and they are wonderfully preserved. The adjoining Romanesque cloister is also a major attraction.

2. Vicenza and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)
The city of Vicenza is not even on most tourists’ radar when they travel to Italy. Travelers to Italy will go to Venice of course and will stop at Verona, but in between often simply overlook this wonderful city built along the lines of what a humanist thought a city should be. Its chief architect, Andrea Palladio, gave it its distinctive classical look. Vincenza travel to Italy Palladio rediscovered the classical style of the Romans and developed it into a style called Palladian ever since. It spread all over Europe and North America. When you see a neo-classical building, think of Palladio. You cannot turn into a corner in Vicenza and not see another wonder of a building, a villa or palazzo built by Palladio. In all there are over twenty Palladian structures, including The Palazzo Thiene, the Palazzo Barbaran, la Rotonda, and the Teatro Olimpico, and the Villa Malmarana.
This does not mean that Vicenza has nothing to see outside of Palladio. There is an early Christian basilica of Saints Felice and Fortunato which dates back to the 4th century. Although previously destroyed it was rebuilt in the tenth century. Some the earlier structure and artifacts have been preserved.

1. Cinque Terre (Five Lands)
If in your travel to Italy you want to see nature in addition to great structures and monuments, then the Cinque Terre is the place to visit. However it is not just wild nature: in Italy nature is adapted to man by man. Cinque Terre Travel to ItalyThe name Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is from the five small villages on the eastern coast of the region of Liguria that borders with Tuscany. The villages are Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza. They are all built on the rugged coastline without disturbing the natural contours that nature has created. They are all very colorful and take you back to another time since they do not allow cars in the towns. You can park outside two of the villages and take a shuttle. Going by train is recommended. There are many paths and hiking trails that you can go on for long walks–the views are well worth it. Two of the famous paths are La Via dell’Amore (the Road of Love) that goes from Riomaggiore to Manarola, and the Sentiero Azzurro (The Blue Path) that goes from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. Don’t forget to try the local sweet white wine called Sciacchetrà [shaketrA] with your dessert or cheese.