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 1)

When traveling to Italy, choosing any top 10 destinations is a very difficult, almost impossible task because of the embarrassment of riches. Although the much-quoted statement that Italy holds two thirds of the Western cultural heritage is still debated, it is a fact that UNESCO has designated more World Heritage Sites in Italy (49) than in any other country to date and more are currently being considered.

Why so many more sites?

Unlike other European countries, Italy, after the fall of Rome, remained divided for 13 centuries. It maintained its political, cultural, and linguistic divisions, thus creating many capitals of culture. Cities that are now often not even considered by a casual tourist traveling to Italy would rate as major cultural centers in another country. Does that stir your imagination and whet your appetite for travel to Italy?  You won’t be the first.

From the Grand Tour in the seventeenth century on it was a requirement for aristocrats and literary figures to travel to Italy for the culture experience.

“The land where the lemons bloom”

Two famous travelers were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain; both, with some exceptions stayed on the well-traveled routes.  In The Innocents Abroad, which detailed Twain’s  travels to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 15 chapters were dedicated to his travels in Italy, more than any other country. Goethe wrote The Italian Journey after visiting Italy, the land he described as the “land where the lemons bloom.”

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

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.

10. The “Trulli” of Alberobello and Castel del Monte
Most tourist who travel to Italy don’t venture to an area close to the heel of the Italian booth in the region called Puglia. There are many surprises there, but none more enchanting than the town of Alberobello.

Travel to Italy - The “Trulli” of Alberobello

The “Trulli” of Alberobello

On first sight you would swear you are “not in Italy anymore,” to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. All structures consist of a square base of white walls with conical roofs of grey bricks, split from rocks in the area, stacked in such a way as to end in a point. No mortar is used to hold the coned roofs together. The story goes that, in the 1400s, to avoid paying taxes on structures, the inhabitants built these houses without mortar, thus conveying the idea that they were only temporary. Today the town is still inhabited. The trulli, as these structures are called, can be single or several of them can be connected. The biggest complex connects 15 trulli. The largest trullo in the town, built in the mid 1700s, consists of two stories and serves as a museum. There is even a church in the form of a Greek cross built in the early part of the 20th century

9. Bologna
If you are on the road or on a train between Venice and Florence, you will pass by Bologna.
Don’t just bypass this city on your travels in Italy; it is worth a visit. Bologna is called “La dotta” (the Learned) for having the oldest continuously running University in the world (founded in 1080 CE); “La Grassa” (The Fat) for its great cuisine; and “La Rossa” (The Red) for its famed red roofs. However it is also a great art center. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bologna rivaled Florence and Rome.

Travel to Italy - Arcades in Bologna

Arcades in Bologna

If you want to see a leaning tower, Bologna has two of them that stand as the symbol of the city. There are several great churches, starting with the Cathedral of Saint Petronio on the main square. Don’t let the unfinished façade mislead you. It’s the sixth largest church in Europe. Inside you’ll find a gigantic fresco by the main altar, which is a great example of late Italian Gothic. Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor here and sessions of the church-transforming Council of Trent were held here.

Among the various museums are the National Gallery with paintings by Guido Reni and others from the Bologna School, the Palazzo Fava whose first floor is covered with frescoes by Annibale Caracci, the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Medieval Art, and an Archeological Museum.

Another distinctive feature of Bologna is its arcaded walkways. You can practically walk through the city always protected from the sun or rain. One particular arcade, the “longest arcaded walk in the world,” is almost 4 kilometers long and it leads to the Church of San Luca situated on a hill outside of Bologna.

8. Urbino
As you approach Urbino, in the region of the Marche in Central Italy, you suddenly realize you have gone back in time. The city with its turreted palace and walls has maintained the look and feel of the renaissance structure of its heyday.

Travel to Italy - Ducal palace in Urbino

Ducal palace in Urbino

It had been one of the great Renaissance centers of culture, but it saw its decline when it became part of the Papal States.  Under Federico II da Montefeltro, whose profile was immortalized in the portrait by Piero Della Francesca, the court became a center of humanism with many of the great scholars of the time. Federico built a great library second only to the one in the Vatican. In addition to the imposing Ducal palace, there are churches and piazzas to explore on your visit to this city where the famous Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) was born. His house is still there for you to visit as well.


7. Villa d’Este in Tivoli
and Hadrian’s Villa
Situated in the hills about 20 miles west of Rome, Tivoli offers magical gardens with fountains and walkways and mythical statues and structures. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este after his appointment as Governor of the city. There are fountains everywhere in the gardens.

Travel to Italy - Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Since they are on a slope, water from a river is used as the source to feed all the fountains, which then empty again into the river as it follows its path to the Tiber. One of the most visited sites is the Cento Fontane (One Hundred Fountains). The fountains are decorated in bas-reliefs with tales from the Metamorphoses of the Latin poet Ovid. Now they have been overgrown with moss, but the sight is still magnificent. These gardens were used as a model for many parks throughout Europe. Villa D’Este of Tivoli famously inspired the Jardin de Tivoli in Paris, which in turn inspired the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
Originally Villa d’Este itself was inspired by the Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is located just outside Tivoli, so you can enjoy this visit as well

6. 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta
In the 1700s Naples, known as the city of Kings, was one of the major cities of Europe.

Travel to Italy - Royal Palace in Caserta

Royal Palace in Caserta

Under his reign, the Bourbon King Charles commissioned a Royal Palace in 1751. He wanted the structure to rival Versailles and become the largest of all royal palaces.

He built it away from the sea, for better protection. At the time it was the largest Baroque structure in Europe. It has 1,200 rooms, gardens with many fountains, a park with a waterfall, a huge library, and a theater modeled after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, also commissioned by Charles. The king never resided in the palace, for he later became the King of Spain as Charles III. It was used as the headquarters for the allies during WWII and later the first war crime trials were held there.