Cuzco’s Top Luxury Hotel

March 24, 2010 at 7:53 am | Posted in history, lodging, Peru, South America, travel and health | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Peru, cuzco, monasterio hotel, luxury hotel cuzcoPicture it: the atmospheric onetime capital of the Inca Empire, high in the Andes of Peru. I’d stepped off the plane from Lima fully aware of soroche, aka altitude sickness, and its unpleasantries. After accepting the standard paper cupful of coca tea — meant to help acclimate me to suddenly transferring from sea level to 11,000 feet (3,350 m) — my friend and I spent what little was left of that afternoon strolling around Cuzco’s colonial core, admiring Baroque churches, grand gold and silver altars, and Cyclopean Incan walls. Then we went to dinner on the central square, the Plaza de Armas.

We were so tempted by the menu we proceeded to do precisely what we knew we should not do: overeat. Already feeling a mite unsteady as we paid and left, by the time we embarked upon the two-block walk uphill to our hotel, we were both gasping for breath, our heads were pounding, and believe it or not, it was a struggle to even walk upright.

cuzco, inca wallSo thank Inti, the Inca sun god, we had the best digs in town to coddle us as we lay stunned in bed that night and, as I recall, a good part of the next day. In Cuzco there’s probably no hotel quite as grandioso and histórico as the 126-room Hotel Monasterio. Built as Franciscan monastery San Antonio Abad in 1592, just 60 years after Francisco Pizarro’s marauders had barged in and sacked the Inca capital, it was converted into luxe lodgings in 1995, now owned by über-upscale Orient Express.

As you might expect, it ain’t cheap; nightly rates are mostly north of US$400.* And though for that you don’t even get the usual high-end perks like pool, spa, and workout room, there’s no question the rooms are hardly monastic anymore, and for that my friend and I were especially grateful. Fortunately we managed to get through our misery without having to resort to a snort from the oxygen tank kept on hand for guests in soroche distress.

Now, you may wonder: Is this place worth the price tag? Well, to bunk in such a palatial setting in such a special city, a splurge might well be in order, at least for one night. Just to be in one of these guest rooms, a lesson in mixing Spanish Colonial-style antiques (like our huge wooden armoire) with modern amenities is an eye-opener. But even if you don’t stay there, it’s well worth a visit to ogle the magnificent courtyard and painting-adorned Baroque chapel, or to spring for a meal, including local specialties like alpaca and cuy (a relative of the guinea pig) in the Monasterio’s fine-dining restaurant. Just be smarter than we were and do keep the stuffing of the face to a minimum on your first night — and you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

*at press time, about £267 / €296 / CA$408 / AU$437 / ZAR2,939

photos: Hotel Monasterio, iStockphoto
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Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias Tarts It Up Yet Keeps It Real

March 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, history, lodging, South America | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

When it comes to birthday parties in Latin America — these days at least — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet here they were, a pretty young Colombian señorita and maybe a hundred or so of her family and friends, happily celebrating her quince (“Sweet 15”) in the walled garden of Cartagena de India‘s Palacio de la Inquisición, now a history museum, where once upon a time, hapless wretches were gleefully tortured by so-called Christians. Off to one side, yellow and white balloons tethered to a wooden gallows bobbed gaily in the sultry breeze.

This bemusing snippet of surrealism brought home for me what truly sets this walled Spanish colonial gem of a city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — apart from others of its ilk, such as Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, Panama City’s old town, or the most splendid of all, Old Havana. Cartagena’s 16th-century ciudad amurallada (walled city) achieves by far the most felicitous balance of the bunch: a largely restored, amenity-laden living museum that’s truly living. By day I saw thousands of locals going about their daily lives — entrepreneurs selling cell-phone calls and recharges; vendors hawking coconuts, grapes, and more; office workers scurrying hither and thither. Rarely did I notice obvious tourists outside the occasional backpacker and of course in a few key spots like outdoor-café-thick Plaza Santo Domingo. At night, there was still plenty of street life until late into the night, which feels, incidentally, just about as safe as daytime; whatever you’ve heard about Colombia, in recent years the country has made great strides safety-wise, and especially in Cartagena.

Of course tourism has definitely made its mark; in just the past several years a veritable abundance of riches has sprung up in terms of restaurants (some of them elegant Nuevo Latino stars that could hold their own in New York, London, or Sydney), hotels, and shops (fortunately, the honky-tonk factor has so far been kept to a minimum on this front). The trend of the moment is the so-called “boutique” hotels occupying colonial-era townhouses of usually smallish size. Some, like the seven-room LM, are impeccably restored period pieces, while others have given their historic quarters contemporary twists. My own home base, the 24-room, two-month-old Anandá,  was obviously reaching for something of a Zen vibe, while others like Delirio (17 rooms) and the latest, Hotel Tcherassi (just seven, below right) have gone in the direction of white-toned minimalist-mod. Many have small pools, in courtyards or on rooftops, and high rates (most starting north — in some cases well north — of 400,000 pesos*), while several are more down-to-earth, such as the four-room Hotel Cochera de Hobo (also with a pool, albeit a teeny-weeny one, and starting at just US$80). There are also plenty of other options under US$100 a night, as well, by the way, and like Cochera de Hobo not all of them fetid hostels; personally, next time I plan to rent an apartment through a site like CartagenaApartments.com.

Oh, and about all those pools I mentioned? You might actually find them quite handy, because much of the year it’s effing sweltering down here.  You can break a sweat just by casually strolling a block, and after a visit to monumental San Felipe Fortress south of town I felt like I must be leaving a sluglike trail in my wake.

But hang in there, because the rewards are vast. Besides the aforementioned Palace of the Inquisition and San Felipe, you can explore a small but fascinating museum of gold and pre-Columbian culture; the Emerald Museum (emeralds being a big deal in Colombia, even if they’re mined in the interior, not on the coast); the offshore Rosario Islands with pristine beaches and fab seafood; the usual array of elaborate colonial churches; an interesting monastery south of town on a hill called La Popa; a onetime jail complex now occupied by tourist shops; and the colonial walls themselves.

But quite honestly, much of C-town’s allure is more than anything about just hanging out in this remarkable city.  Yes, the touts trying to pull you to the café tables in Plaza de Santo Domingo are un poquito annoying — but still, what a swell place to chill and watch the world stroll by the swelling buttocks of Fernando Botero’s Reclining Woman. Catch the sunset and a cerveza amid centuries-old cannons at the Café del Mar, perched atop the old city wall. Or have a street vendor hack you a cool natural drink out of a fresh coconut.

All this, plus some truly tasty dining at upscale spots like La Vitrola, Café San Pedro, and El Santísimo, mid-rangers like El Bistro, and a slew of budget-friendlies from contemporary Quiebra-Canto to many local holes in the wall (many of them surprisingly good), has me eagerly watching my airfare alerts for that magic SRS — Cartagena airport, through which I’m anxious to pass again ASAP.

*at press time, about US$212 / £140 / €155 / CA$218 / A$233 / ZAR1,566

photos: David Paul Appell, Hotel Tcherassi

Udaipur, Still To Die For

March 3, 2010 at 9:33 am | Posted in Asia, history, India, lodging | Leave a comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Udaipur, Rajasthan, IndiaEveryone who’s ever visited India’s Rajasthan — or even just seen photos of the magnificent palace complexes in Udaipur — may have one primary question these days: After last summer’s drought, just how low is Lake Pichola, from whose shores and whose waters the palaces rise? Last summer, people could drive and play cricket on the lake bed.

A second question, inevitably, is about affordable lodgings in Udaipur. Unfortunately, the historic Taj Lake Palace, which costs a minimum of 33,000 rupees* a night, isn’t exactly within everyone’s budget.

The first of Udaipur’s palaces was built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 when he founded the city, and his successors built more on the west shore. This went on for scores of generations, so you might expect the 11-palace complex on Pichola Lake to be an architectural mess, what with stylistic elements from Rajasthan, the Mughal Empire, China, and Europe — and from different centuries, no less.

Yet it works, and that’s putting it mildly. Elements like silver, marble, paintings, inlay surfaces, and the very intricacy of the wall and pillar carvings somehow pull it all together. Visitors gain entry through heroic gates, towers rise 100 feet (30 meters) over the 800-foot-long (244-meter) complex, and balconies evoke images of Mewar Dynasty rulers looking out over Pichola Lake — their lake. Just listening to the names of some of these palaces, which are linked, tells you what you’re in for: Krishna Vilas, Palace of Glass, Palace of Pearls.

The Mewar family still controls all this, in part through a number of trusts. It has also encouraged the establishment of craft shops and a must-see museum within the complex, not to mention a bank and even a post office. Obviously, much of this is open to the public.

But the question remains: How romantic can the Udaipur palace complex be right now if views of it from the lake — or views of the lake from the palaces — show mud flats?

Right now Pichola Lake is, at best, half full. Yet this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker; the buildings themselves are unaffected by the drought, and when you visit, you spend a lot of time admiring the walls and artwork, not just the setting. Moreover, winter is the dry season, so there was never much chance that the lake would refill in early 2010. Most probably, this spring will bring some much-needed rain to Udaipur.

Even so, where to stay without spending money like a rajah? Udai Kothi occupies a white, multi-story, confection in a quiet spot just a few minutes outside the Old City. The amenities are modern (swimming pool, health club, spa, etc), but the décor conveys the romance of history. Rooms here start at just 5,000 rupees.

Meanwhile, Jigat Niwas, dating back to the early 1600s, is right in the palace complex, yet you can book a lovely room here for just 1,550 rupees. That said, I’d recommend upgrading if you can to a 2,550-rupee “Heritage Room,” with views of Pichola Lake — especially once that water level starts to come up again.

*at press time, about US$722 / £478 / €528 / CA$743 / AU$797 / NZ$1,043 / R5,418

Basking in Palm Springs Sunshine — and History

March 1, 2010 at 11:40 am | Posted in California, culture and museums, festivals/celebrations, gay/lesbian travel, golf, history, lodging, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Emma Krasov

Twin Palms Frank Sinatra house Palm Springs CaliforniaCalifornia’s eternally sun-drenched desert resort is of course famous for a number of things, among them for being “the playground of the movie stars,” for its golf, its eponymous hot springs, its scorching summers, and its gay/lesbian resorts (even the current mayor plays on that particular team). All of which help make Palm Springs a tourism magnet —  its 48,000 population doubles in winter, while in July and August locals — mostly transplants from colder climes – have their oasis to themselves.

What I find particularly fetching is Palm Springs’ wealth of a special type of Americana – its distinctive mid-20th-century modern architecture. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you can explore it all with Robert Imber (below right), whose Palm Springs Modern Tours runs daily two-hour minivan tours (US$75* per person).

Robert Imber, Palm Springs Modern ToursIt all started, Robert explained to me, in the 1930s, when Hollywood contracts wouldn’t allow actors and actresses to venture farther than 200 miles (322 km) from Los Angeles. So a quaint, sun-drenched desert village with a serene mountain backdrop quickly evolved into a glam getaway for the likes of Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

You can get really up close and personal with the glamour epoch by staying at one of the first modern properties, the Movie Colony Hotel (below right; rooms from $99), with its clean lines and simple/practical layout (Jim Morrison famously jumped from his balcony into the swimming pool). The 16-room property was designed in 1935 by Swiss-born Albert Frey, whose lifelong mission was to reshape the face of the desert (today’s PS visitors center is in a futuristic onetime gas station designed by Frey, complete with hyperbolic paraboloid roof). Or how about the recently renovated, Spanish-Colonial-Revival Colony Palms Hotel (from $149), with its dense orange trees and azaleas, decadent poolside terrace bar, Moroccan-style spa, and décor of antique furniture, oriental rugs, and retro-style B/W photography?

Movie Colony Hotel, Palm Springs, CaliforniaYou can also stay or just stop by for a soak or a spin of the wheel at the Spa Resort Casino (from $184), built in 1963, its entrance and bathhouse by legendary architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. The hot springs after which the town was named percolate directly into luxurious blue-tiled bathtubs, and its trademark “Taking of the Waters” treatment (from $40) is equally beloved of locals and visitors alike. Or rent Twin Palms, Sinatra’s old digs (top right), for just $2,600 a night.

On our group tour with Robert, he regaled us with accounts of how in the 1940s-50s John Lautner, a pioneer of “real architecture” (so called because of the use of new affordable materials) became enamored of concrete; how John Porter Clark strived to align the design of houses with that of automobiles; and how developers George and Robert Alexander left a legacy of 2,500 single-family homes whose designer Bill Krisel cleverly manipulated identical square floor plans to create diverse dwellings within the same style. If you can make it here in early December, more desert modern architecture is on display in an annual Walking Tour of the Inns, free to the public, and more popular every year. It usually starts at the Palm Springs Art Museum (home to quite the collection, including Moore, Remington, Tamayo, and Frankenthaler).

I learned quite a bit both about the springs, and about the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians who first discovered them, on another eye-opening excursion: one of the walking tours of Indian Canyons (from $11). Ranger Rocky Toyama leads groups on itineraries that range from a 90-minute Andreas Canyon loop to multi-hour hikes. Ancient artifacts found here date back at least two millennia, providing glimpses into the life of a well-structured hunter-gatherer society.

Another great thing to do in Palm Springs – especially in the scorching summer – is to take a ride ($16-$23) on the Aerial Tramway, soaring over the cliffs of Chino Canyon 8,516 feet (2,595 meters) up, where heat turns into celestial coolness. Designated a historic civil engineering landmark, it was built using helicopters back in the early 60s.

I should mention, too, that Palm Springs abounds with good restaurants, cafés, and cozy coffee shops, many concentrated in its 10-block downtown. A popular breakfast choice, Pinocchio in the Desert, serves humongous omelets, plate-size pancakes with all the trimmings, and generous mimosas, while lunch is always good at Jake’s Ready to Eat, with delightfully fresh salads and lick-your-fingers sandwiches. Come dinnertime, Copley’s Restaurant chef-owner Andrew Manion Copley turns out amazing Hawaiian ahi tacos, sweet and tangy roasted pumpkin ravioli, and tasty main courses using organic and sustainable ingredients. Meanwhile, Mindy Reed’s Zini Café Med serves the scrumptious Italian/Mediterranean likes of pappardelle with braised rabbit and smoked paprika, and couscous with sweet-sour lamb; Mindy’s international wine list is fabulous, and her staff versed in the vino.

Finally, for a relatively tiny town in the desert, there’s a surprising wealth of events going on year round. Modernism Week just finished up, and upcomers include the Festival of Native Film & Culture (March 10-14); Palm Springs Wild West Fest (March 12-14); Crossroads Old World Renaissance Festival (March 19-21); Dinah Shore Week (March 31-April 4); Coachella Valley Music Festival (April 16-18); Stagecoach Country Music Festival (April 24-15); and Elvis Honeymoon Weekend (May 1-2).

You’ll find Palm Springs a tonic, worth a trip even from afar; because among other things, even if you’re not a movie star, here it’s not hard to feel like one.

*at press time, €56 / £50 / CA$78 / AU$83 / NZ$143 / R572

Michigan’s Mackinac Island: Americana to the Max

February 17, 2010 at 10:16 am | Posted in festivals/celebrations, history, Michigan, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Max Pesling

Mackinac Island, MichiganThe USA’s Midwesterners have long known that a swell strand doesn’t necessarily have to be on an ocean. After all, that’s what the half-dozen mighty Great Lakes — North America’s great freshwater inland seas — are for. And especially as of Memorial Day weekend (May 29-31), lots of them head up to this Lake Huron island on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, six hours by car north of Detroit. Just under four square miles (10 sq. km), Mackinac Island‘s resort pedigree stretches back to the 1880s, leaving it with a charming collection of Victorian architecture (for this reason the entire island’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places) and lots of horse-drawn carriages (thanks in part to a policy of no motor vehicles on-island). Mackinac (pronounced “MAK-i-naw,” by the way) also makes an engaging destination for overseas visitors in the market for a mix of historic Americana and outdoorsy pursuits like hiking, biking, fishing, boating, and swimming. Oh, and did I mention the festivals? They’re a big part of the island scene and its appeal, including the Lilac Festival (June 11-20 this year), the Music Festival (August 17-19), and perhaps the most famous of all, the Fudge Festival (August 21-22); you’ll want to book well ahead for these. Finally, while overnighting here can certainly be pricey — the top of the food chain, the Grand Hotel, starts at US$240 per night — you can find more moderate rates even at other lovely historic properties, such as Mission Point Resort (from $150) and Main Street Inn and Suites ($80).

A Big Amsterdam Secret That Wasn’t: Our Lord of the Attic

December 7, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Posted in Europe, history, Netherlands | Leave a comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Any visit to the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular offers plenty of evidence that tolerance — you might even call it an intolerance of intolerance — is part of the national character, from the famous smoke shops to the Red Light District. Those two examples, mind you, are not quite as “out there” as they once were, but even so, you will not confuse live-and-let-live Amsterdam with Salt Lake City — or even with the relatively freewheeling likes of London or Berlin.

This tolerance has long extended to religion, too — which I was reminded of on a recent visit to a quirky museum that’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest. Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord of the Attic) has an offbeat history that evokes this country’s live-and-let-live ethic even in a stormy time in its history: it’s a 17th-century merchant’s house that once doubled as a “secret” Roman Catholic church.

In the 1500s, you see, the Netherlands was ruled by Catholic Spain, and the Duke of Alba took it upon himself to crush the Protestant Reformation in the Low Countries, an effort that did not endear the locals to Catholicism. Dutch Calvinists fought back, declared their independence, and — tit for tat — prohibited Catholic worship.

Enter Jan Hartman, a Catholic merchant. In 1661 he bought a canal house with two rear buildings, joined its attic with that of the other buildings, and created a “clandestine” Roman Catholic church. Except here’s how clandestine that church was:

  • Dozens of workmen—and prodigious quantities of materials—went into building and furnishing it.
  • Up to 150 worshippers would troop in and out of masses every weekend.
  • Eventually, the church even added a pipe organ—not the least assertive of musical instruments.

Now, didn’t any of those workmen snitch, or get loose-lipped over a glass of gin in some pub? Didn’t the neighbors—or the authorities–ever notice scores of families entering Hartman’s home every Sunday morning? Can we believe that no neighbors or passersby ever heard a peep from that mighty Wurlitzer?

For that matter, what had made Hartman so sure that Catholics could get away with this? I think the example of 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews finding a refuge in the Netherlands didn’t hurt. Dissidents from England had fled to Holland for religious freedom, too. Americans know them as the Pilgrims, and one of the primary reasons they moved on to North America was not Dutch discrimination, but lack thereof — a fear that their children were (understandably) becoming too attracted to the tolerant local ways.

In any case, the “hidden” church lasted for 200 years. Catholicism may have been illegal, but the Dutch, characteristically, were loath to pursue the issue. Classic “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In 1887 a Roman Catholic church opened at street level, and Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder upstairs soon became but a curiosity, then a year later Amsterdam’s oldest museum after the Rijksmuseum. Last year it purchased an adjoining canal house to accommodate temporary exhibitions, and now the original living and worshipping spaces are being restored. “The museum will remain open during all the works,” museum spokesman Hans Gramberg assured me. Thus, even when there’s work going on, folks can still visit this immense “secret” space and smile over the fact that such an imposing thing could ever have been considered “hidden.”

Admission is 7€ (US$10.4o/£6.30), but free to holders of the Amsterdam Pass; for more info, see www.OpSolder.nl, and just for fun, check out the fine panoramic renderings of the place — especially options #3 and #4 — at Panoramsterdam.com.

Berlin Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Its Infamous Wall’s Fall

November 4, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Europe, Germany, history | Leave a comment
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pic Spotlights Berlin wall iStock_000009673520XSmallby Tripatini staff

November — and especially Nov. 9 — mark a huge, emotional anniversary for this country and its capital — and for that matter, for Europe and the world. Namely, it’s the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall (fall of the Berlin Wall), leading to the reunification of the Bundesrepublik and the GDR, and of course to tectonic shifts in world politics, culture, and more as the Cold War started fading into the past. Visitors to unified Germany’s capital this month can attend various art and history exhibitions and presentations around the city including an open-air exhibition in Alexanderplatz. If you happen to be in town on the 9th, events include a huge street fair and a concert by the Staatskapelle on famous boulevard Unter den Linden near iconic Brandenburg Gate. Besides all that, there are sites that will remain into the future, such as the artist-decorated preserved segment of the Wall and ominous border-guard tower on Muhlenstrasse; a museum devoted to escapes from the GDR; and a re-creation of the famous “Checkpoint Charlie” border crossing. If you’ve got time to head beyond the city into eastern Germany, you’ll also find memorials, museums, and other monuments to the era of division. More info: Tripatini’s Berlin group.

Perplexing Prepuce: An Excerpt From “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town”

July 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in books, Europe, history | 2 Comments

by David Farley

"Irreverent Curiosity" author David Farley in Calcata, Italy, north of Rome.

As Don Dario Magnoni draped the sacred vestments over his apple-shaped body, the pinch in his stomach blossomed into a knot. He had some bad news he’d been keeping from his congregation. He’d decided late one recent night, after polishing off a bottle of cheap Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, that this Sunday would be the day to tell them—after all, the New Year’s Day procession was just weeks away. The reason for the knot of nerves was that he didn’t know how he was going to make the announcement to his small audience. Church attendance had been decreasing since he arrived in the village in the early 1970s—now only a sprinkling of villagers regularly attended the Sunday mass—and Dario hoped the chilly December weather would keep more of the faithful from their weekly obligation. He straightened out his white chasuble and took a deep breath before sliding open the door that connected his house to the adobe-like church.

“This year,” Don Dario began the announcement, “the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home.” The priest paused, waiting for calamity to ensue. But the smattering of worshippers, simply stared back at him in silence, a reaction Don Dario took as indifference.

The holy relic that Don Dario spoke of wasn’t just the residuum of any holy human—nor was it just any body part. It was the carne vera sacra, “real holy flesh,” as his fellow townspeople of Calcata admiringly referred to it. It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the only bodily piece that he could have conceivably left on earth after his ascension into heaven, jealously guarded over in this secluded medieval hill town for the past four and a half centuries.

But now, in 1983, the relic was gone. After Mass, some of the parishioners retreated to a nearby bar. Amid the posters and scarves of the Lazio football team, the churchgoers sipped espresso and prosecco and shook their heads in disbelief. “Who would take our cherished relic?” someone said without looking for an answer. But ancient Giuseppina shook her tiny fragile fist in the air and said: “I know who took it—they took it!”

The mystery of just what the Holy Foreskin was doing in the priest’s house—in a shoe box at the back of his wardrobe, no less—and why and how it disappeared, kicked off the most cryptic case of relic theft in centuries. Who would steal it? And what would they want with it?

For the last century, the Church’s official position on the foreskin was one of silence, set out in a decree on February 3, 1900. Pope Leo XIII stated that anyone who talked about, wrote about, or commented on the Holy Foreskin would face excommunication. The Church feared the relic was being sought out simply as an “irreverent curiosity.” The people of Calcata could still hold their New Year’s Day procession with the relic, but that would be the only time each year it would be on display—and it would have to be from a distance and without commentary. The decree also stated that the word prepuzio (foreskin) should no longer be used when referring to the object inside the reliquary. Reliquia (relic) or cosa (thing) would be just fine from now on.

But long before this “thing” had its quiet falling-out with the Church, Christ’s foreskin was one of the most popular relics in Christendom. Saints pined for it: St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century Doctor of the Church and self-proclaimed spiritual bride of Christ, said she wore the foreskin around her ring finger; that same century, St. Bridget of Sweden claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told her that the Holy Foreskin (then kept in Rome) was the real deal. From the 9th to 18th centuries, several popes wrote about the pious prepuce and/or granted indulgences to those who celebrated it, including Leo III, Innocent III, Eugenius IV, Pius II, Sixtus IV, Sixtus V, Urban VIII, Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Benedict XIII. The thirteenth-century saint Bonaventure tried settling a theological dispute about the foreskin’s existence. And many of the players in the 16th-century Reformation (or those who inspired it)—Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Erasmus among them—have weighed in. While in Rome, nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal had hoped to visit Calcata to see it, and several other scribes have included it in their novels: James Joyce (Ulysses), Umberto Eco (Bandolino), Chuck Palahniuk (Choke), Jonathan Gash (The Grail Tree), and José Saramago (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ).

And now, I was about to become the latest writer, not merely to be drawn into the lore of this most singular relic, but also into the mystery of its disappearance and the quest to solve that mystery.

Bogota’s Tasty Historic Center

July 14, 2009 at 11:05 am | Posted in Colombia, history, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

For reasons that certainly don’t need repeating, until fairly recently informing your nearest and dearest you’re considering a vacation in Colombia might’ve been considered grounds for dialing the dudes in the white coats. But these days, the country’s capital is optimistic, as safe as anywhere in Latin America, and in the midst of a boom in restaurants, la rumba (nightlife), and the economy and society in general. Apart from an impressive mountain setting and comfily cool weather all year round, what makes a visit well worth the flight is the city’s intensely atmospheric colonial core, La Candelaria. Dating back to Santa Fé de Bogotá’s 1538 founding and anchored by the expansive Plaza Bolívar and the neoclassical presidential palace, Casa Nariño, the old quarter’s 2¼ square miles of sloping brick- and cobblestone-paved streets are crammed with enough sites, sights, and stuff to do for several very rewarding days, all against the dramatic, cloud-wreathed backdrop of the surrounding Andes.

Start with the digs – there’s a nice selection budget hostels and midrange small hotels; folks seem to particularly like the Platypus, and others include Hotel Internacional and El Dorado. If you can spend a bit more, check out a pair of restored buildings that combine the colonial with mod-cons: the elegant 81-room Hotel de la Ópera (check out that fancy spa and pool in the basement, ay, caramba!) and the smaller, less pricey Hotel Casa de la Botica, with a more contemporary flavor inside. Getting fed is fairly easy, too, from tasty street food to a range of cafés and restaurants.

Stops on your sightseeing itinerary should of course include several of the old churches, of which the cathedral is the largest but far from the most interesting (for truly over-the-top art and gilt, check out San Ignacio, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). Must-visit museums, meanwhile, are devoted to conquistador-era art and furnishings; the roly-poly folks painted and sculpted by the world-famous Fernando Botero; and above all pre-Columbian gold tribal artifacts that will just knock your knickers off. You can even apply for a tour of Casa Nariño.

One thing especially worth noting is that, unlike, say, Old San Juan, La Candelaria is far from just a kitschy tourist zone. A dizzying spectrum of bogotano society bustles along its streets every day, and you can easily dine with them (a variety of eateries range from humble and funky to fancy and pricey) and shop with them (there are several colorful covered markets, and green-bling fans can even browse for the local gem specialty on an “emerald alley” along Carrera 6). Some have noted a crime problem at night, once the daytime crowds are gone — but anyone used to navigating big cities with care and common sense should be able to manage just fine.

So yes, by all means take time out to hop the funicular up looming Monserrate hill with its Sugarloaf-style Virgin Mary statue and va-va-voom city views; to hit the restaurants and clubs in North Bogotá’s Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93; to browse the Sunday street market and charming old plaza in Usaquén; and to take day and even overnight jaunts to coffee country and the impressive salt-mine-turned-underground cathedral in Zipaquirá. But just make sure to give yourself the leisure to soak up the atmosphere of La Candelaria, one of the most historic and flavorful working neighborhoods in the Americas.

For more info, see go-lo’s Colombia group.

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