Sunday, March 29, 2009

Switzerland's Labyrinthe Aventure

Just off of autoroute E27 in Evionnaz, Switzerland, lies one of the most entertaining and often-missed tourist attractions: Labyrinthe Aventure, home of the world's largest and permanent labyrinth. After a week of traveling in Italy, and after visiting countless museums and cathedrals, my husband and I itched to stretch our legs outdoors. En route to Interlaken, and surrounded by the Alps, lush green grass, and the sound of cow bells, we stopped for a day of fun.

The most famous labyrinth in the world is arguably the one in Crete from Greek mythology; the home of the dreaded minotaur, the child of an unnatural union between the queen and a bull. Theseus, through cunning and the support of the princess Ariadne, conquered the labyrinth. Labyrinthe Aventure doesn't play host to a minotaur, but the maze is chalk-full of obstacles such as zip cords, walls and balance beams, all of which
go over water. Of course for every obstacle there is a way to avoid it, but you risk taking a much longer route. When you enter the labyrinth you are given a code with which to hunt down hidden treasure chests. Although our code never opened one, we felt like we were in the middle of a video game or movie, searching for lost treasure around every corner. Labyrinthe Aventure also has a bicycle rodeo where you are able to try out just about every conceivable wheeled monstrocity ever created. There are toboggan slides, and a play room with table tennis, and when you are hungry, there is even a small restaurant.

The words maze and labyrinth are used interchangeably, but the most commonly agreed upon usage by scholars is for labyrinth to designate a one-directional path, and the word maze to designate a puzzle. Labyrinths have been used through the centuries for meditation, for gathering energy, for solving problems, and for spiritual guidance. Labyrinths appear all over the world, on the floors of cathedrals such as the one in Chartres Cathedral in France to the one in the palace gardens of Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria. If you visit The Labyrinth Society's website, there is a feature that will let you find labyrinth nearest to you.

Labyrinthe Aventure may not present the traditional form of spiritual meditation for its visitors, but it does present challenges and obstacles and is a welcome escape for those with kids and those who are young at heart.

Labyrinthe Aventure Website

The Labyrinth Society

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

The title alone is an indication of the chaos and insanity that results when you take Greece's Olympian pantheon and force them to co-habitate in a London flat. And, in the tradition of all the poor mortals who have gone before them, in stumbles shy, sweet-tempered Alice and her would-be boyfriend, Neil. As the heroine, Alice is poised to save the world, but forget swords and magic wands; Alice's arsenal consists of a mop, a dust-rag, and her ability to obey a few simple rules: only speak when spoken to, be on time, and whatever you do, stay away from Apollo, since he has a penchant for mortal women.

Phillips' book features most of the well-known Greek pantheon: Artemis as a professional dog-walker, lamenting over the days when women cherished their chastity; Apollo, a young and lusty television psychic; Aphrodite who spends her time as a phone sex operator, and Eros, who covets the Christian way and keeps asking questions about death. For classical scholars, only a few inconsistencies are noticeable - such as the poor woman who spurns Apollo and is forced to live out the rest of her short life as a tree. In mythology, Daphne turns herself into a tree (or has the help of another sympathetic deity). And Athena, portrayed as fiercely intelligent and aloof, somehow lacks her namesake wisdom in order to communicate effectively with the other gods.

But Phillips makes it work, and work well. Gods Behaving Badly is a fast-paced romantic comedy that is hard to put down. She focuses on the Olympian experience - not the grime-infested house, but on the thought of their death as mortals cease to worship them. Only an other-worldly intervention can stop their demise, and that is where Alice steps in.

Witty and poignant, Phillips brings the reader to understand the ancient Greeks who believed the gods walked among us. And just maybe, after reading this book, they still do.

Visit Marie Phillips' website here:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bacchus: A Biography by Andrew Dalby

Bacchus is affectionately known to some as the Roman god of good wine, but to others, he is the god of debauchery and whips women into a cannibalistic frenzy. Andrew Dalby, an English linguist, classical historian and graduate of Cambridge University, has left food writing to delve into the lives of the Greek and Roman gods. In his book Bacchus: A Biography, Dalby encourages you to review the evidence about this little-known god and to make the decision yourself: is Bacchus merely trying to have a good time, or is he a dangerous and fearsome god, one who should never be crossed?

By using quotes from classical literature, as well as a storybook format that, but for its adult subject matter, reads like something you would read to your children as a bed-time story. He covers the major parts of Bacchus's story: his birth from Zeus's thigh, his childhood game of cross-dressing hide-and-seek from the vengeful goddess Hera, his creation of the grapevine and wine as a young adult, to his marriage to the jilted Princess Ariadne. Dalby describes in detail what is currently known about the mysteries of Bacchus, as well as the truth behind the maenads, Bacchus's devoted and frenzied female followers. Illustrations of Bacchus through archaeological antiquity are included to help the reader see how Bacchus has been portrayed through the centuries.

The combination of story, myth and scholarship works well here, and treatment of other gods and goddess in this regard would be a welcome addition to any classical library. Luckily, there is also one about Venus, the goddess of love, and hopefully there are more on the way.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Time Abroad: What to Purchase

Given the opportunity to take my parents to Italy this past November, and seeing the mingled looks of amazement, confusion, excitement and bewilderment on their faces when shopping, it made me think: what should you buy as a souvenir when abroad? When in a foreign country, everything can seem special, even something as simple as shampoo. Whether you are the type of person who wants to bring back only a few special items, or the type of person who wants to bring back a suitcase full, knowing that it might be a while before you fly overseas again, there are three types of souvenirs that I feel are integral to making sure you don't feel like you have any regrets.

1. The stupid.
The worst thing about buying this type of item is summoning up the courage to go into one of the tourist shops, especially if you are trying to blend in. But if you are coveting that three-inch tall plaster model of David, or that apron that lists the various types of pasta, or that gladiator helmet magnet, by all means, buy it. Generally these types of souvenirs will not break your budget and will allow you to smile and laugh every time you see it, and that should be worth it in and of itself.

2. The local specialty.
This could be a food item (such as chocolate in Belgium, or wine from France, or specialty
vinegars from Vienna), or it could be a craft. In Roatan, an island just off of the coast of Honduras, artisans specialize in crafting out of mahogany. In Murano, near Venice, the specialty is glass. Every country, region, or city you visit will have something that they would like to share with you, and you should bring it home and display it (or eat it) with pride.

3. The practical.
This third category is often overlooked, but one of the most important. Clothing, make-up, jewelry, writing utensils, music, books - these are the items that you will be able to use again and again, and where they might not say the city that you purchased them in, these items can easily remind you of your trip for a fraction of the cost. For example, charity shops such as Oxfam in England offer you the opportunity to bring home a piece of England at a fraction of the cost of a regular store, and also go to help people in need.

Whatever you decide to purchase when overseas, do research ahead of time. Look at sites like Virtual Tourist where world travelers have offered their recommendations on stores and specialty items. Visit the markets and enjoy the crowds full of people from all over the world. Make a list of birthdays and holiday gifts that are needed, and try to do some of your shopping ahead of time. Even if you don't want to buy for yourself, there are few people who wouldn't appreciate something special from a different country.

But however much or little you purchase, the worst experience is to arrive at customs and not be able to bring your souvenirs home. So make sure to check your country's import laws and regulations, otherwise your shopping may have been fun, but you'll end up empty-handed, and full of regret.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes

Helen of Troy is not a woman to take lightly, and neither is the author of the most impressive and comprehensive book ever written about her. The book's title is Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, and the author is Bettany Hughes, a woman who spent fifteen years researching and compiling information on one of the most beloved, feared, and hated women of all time. With a simple, erudite, and personal style, Hughes deftly weaves mythology, history, and her own experiences and observances tracing Helen's journey into a book that is as much educational as it is fun to read. Hughes doesn't set out to prove Helen's existence or to determine Helen's innocence in the Trojan War; instead, she expertly covers all facets of Helen, and how she has been seen for the past three thousand years: an awe-inspiring princess of Sparta, a powerful priestess, and a wanton woman who took pleasure in the countless deaths she is said to have caused.

Rife with quotes from both ancient and more modern authors, poets, and playwrights, Hughes pieces together the life of a woman who would have inhabited a late Bronze Age Sparta. Hughes' imagery is crisp and sensual, and she encourages you to join her as she visits Helen dancing free as a young maiden on the banks of the Eurotas, conducting the rites of a female-centric religion, and solemnly watching over her dowry as men come from leagues away to vie for her hand in marriage. Hughes also takes you to many new places where you wouldn't expect to see Helen: as a she-devil during the Christianization of Europe, as a quasi-divine creature in the gospels of the Gnostic faith, and as a strumpet in Elizabethan England. Then she catapults back twenty-seven thousand years ago to show you the statues of women found all over Europe, as a potential fertility cult, or perhaps even more as proof that the female spirit, or perhaps Helen, has always existed.

Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore should be requisite reading for any classical studies curriculum, and would be an excellent fit for women's history as well. When reading this book, Hughes is like the university professors of history you wish you had. Her exuberance and fascination for her subject shows, and after finishing, I can't help but want to revisit every painting, every urn, and every sculpture from classical antiquity with her eye for detail, and her passion for discovery.

Hughes succeeds where Xeuxis never did, in putting a very human face on Helen, the perfect woman.
The timelessness of Helen is apparent, and hopefully one day the world will see a bejeweled skeleton pulled from the ancient ground bearing the name Eleni, and we will know Helen, not as fiction or myth, but finally as fact.

Visit Bettany Hughes's website here:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Surf Photography by Ryan Tatar

Often seen sans clothing, and towering above tourists with trident in hand, Poseidon is the Greek god of the seas. But my favorite image of Poseidon isn't one where he is static, it is one where he feels eternally in motion, riding his chariot on top of the waves, proving that he is at one with that which he is said to rule.

Bereft of chariots, and armed only
with a ritualistically painted and carved piece of wood, foam, or polyurethane, surfers try to recreate this feeling of being with something that much larger. They pay daily homage to the god of the seas, and his many oceans. It is a symbiotic relationship; the surfer has a deep reverence for the ocean, and the ocean in turn provides sustenance, both physical and mental. The ocean offers freedom, but it offers many dangers, for two of the most feared monsters in Grecian mythology live here: Charybdis, and Scylla. Sirens are said to perch among the rocks, waiting for sailors, or perhaps for surfers who stray too far from their path.

The ocean is eternally beautiful, fickle, dangerous, overwhelming and unforgiving. Yet Ryan Tatar, surfer and surf photographer, manages to capture and bottle its ferocity, and its serenity. He captures those moments where men and women, with only a board to guide them, claim the ocean as their own. A Detroit native, he heard Poseidon's call long ago and has traveled the world. His photography stretches from California to North Carolina, to as far as Bali and Brazil. His photos are gritty and retro, yet full of clarity, even when washed for effect. No part of the surf culture and life is off limits: from the birds that circle the sun-kissed crests of waves to the flourishes of surf and waveboard design.

Bring one of his photographs into your home. Feel the sand brush your cheeks, feel the waves massage your toes, see the rainbow of blues and greens dance across your eyes, and hear the call to ride with Poseidon.

Photos Above:
Top: 2nd Century B.C.E. mosaic flooring of a bath in Ostia Antica, Italy
Bottom: Photo courtesy of Ryan Tatar

Visit Ryan Tatar's website here:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lyon's Theatres Romains de Fouviere

While enjoying a nutella and coconut crepe, courtesy of a street vendor, and watching university students strolling down Vieux Lyon, baguettes in hand, I did not expect to encounter Rome. Most people underestimate the reach of the Roman emperors, and exactly where and who fell under their influence. Lyon was no exception, and is in fact, home to the largest Roman ampitheatre in France. Built by the Order of Augustus in 17 to 15 B.C.E., this theatre gives one a breathtaking view of the city of Lyon. Not only did this theatre see use a couple thousand years ago, but it is currently home to plays and music festivals. Unfortunately I was not able to partake in one of the many events hosted here, but the opportunity to listen to a play or a concert while under the stars and overlooking the glittering city must be a experience of a lifetime.

The climb up the Fouviere Hill can be mitigated by taking a funicular. Or if you are up for old-fashioned Olympic training, hoof it up the winding, narrow, brick-covered streets that seem to wind forever until you reach the ruins. Old walls and columns poke out between the lush grass and lead the way to the ampitheatre itself. Wooden fillers help the visitor maintain an even gait when descending towards the stage.

The stage itself still contains much of its marble and porphyry, and is backdropped by broken marble columns which once contained a temple to the goddess Cybele. Cybele has been worshipped in many cultures, from Anatolia to Greece to Rome. She is most frequently known as Rome's Magna Mater, or "Great Mother". Her worshippers performed rites full of ecstatic dancing, and other practices which would offend a 21st century human's sensibilities.
In sculpture, Cybele appears similar to Hera, complete with throne and diadem, though she can also be depicted in a chariot being pulled by lions, such as the fountain in the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid. She demands respect, and so does this ampitheatre, which is a must visit, if you ever find yourself strolling the streets of Lyon.