What inspires travellers to go, often at great expense, to foreign lands? What is it that tempts and intrigues them to such a degree that they will willingly shrug off the comforts of their routine existence and venture forth? Is it not that they are wilfully seeking a disconnect from the familiar?
Depending upon a traveller’s level of disposable income the discomfort-factor can be considerably diminished these days, but even those who are able to travel in swaddled comfort – on tours, in resort stays or on ocean cruises – will experience somewhere along the way that disconnect and, whether they had sought it or not, will measure this difference, this disconnect, against their lives as experienced in their place of residence.
For travellers from either the New or Old World, visiting from one to the other, these differences will manifest themselves through language, food and beverage, clothing styles, antiquity, architecture, history, music, societal behaviour, uncommon use of colours, the climate, levels of public health and hygiene, and even ambient light. Any, and sometimes all of the above, will cause the traveller to pause, to consider and compare the unfamiliarity. It’s a key factor in the pleasure to be had in travelling.
Guilds, Crafts and Artisanry
For us, the Old World’s artisanry and craftsmanship have increasingly become a focal point of our travels: They epitomise cultural difference. In particular, our shared interests are found in the skilled artisanry evident in architecture, food, history and music; these alone are broad enough subjects to keep us happily stimulated while travelling.
In some instances, skilled craftsmanship has been handed down through the centuries and is still preserved by tight-knit craft guilds or family groups. This is not so common but, fortunately for us, there has lately been a marked resurgence of interest in the preservation of ancient, almost-lost, crafts; the skills and methods are being researched and re-introduced by dedicated new artisans and small-production manufacturers.
The reader will know that most countries have rich traditions (some retained only by its indigenous people), so you need to seek beyond the shallow façade of modern living, beyond the flashy and fleeting trends, beyond mass-production and mass-consumption to where quality is the supreme and only discerning factor; it is here that true artisanry will be encountered.
Food and Beverages
While ‘art’ may sometimes be present in Nouvelle Cuisine, one finds artisanry only when long-standing traditions reflect the selection of ingredients, their compilation, construction and cooking: recipes having been committed to memory long-ago. ‘Presentation’, noticeably, is not necessarily a component.
You will find little artisanry in a supermarket’s aisles. Rather, it may be found in the daily market, in small businesses handed down through generations. Where fresh fish is expertly gutted, gilled, scaled, chopped or filleted and assorted molluscs and crustaceans prepared for sale; or where meat, game and fowl of outstanding quality are pared, dismembered, chopped or sliced to order and concoctions made with the viscera.
Or in a back-street bar-cum-restaurant where, often, Nona is the cook: preparing, baking, frying, roasting or stewing food as her mother and grandmother did before her. It could also be Nono; still cooking up his family’s long-standing traditional and excellent fare learned at his mother’s apron. You will find much equality of the sexes in traditional kitchens.
You can find bread made and baked as it has been for aeons with little or no change in the ingredients. And cheeses – unquestionably the very best you will find will be made by artisans using traditional methods and materials.
Beverages such as wine and its fortified, aligned products come from such ancient tradition too and we like to seek out the small, traditional vineyards or bodegas where tradition rules and there is little use of stainless steel.
“In artisanry veritas 🙂 ”
The decorative artistic craft skills of old have largely been lost in many countries, and because of the time involved in creating such artistry it is doubtful whether new works of such a standard would be viable in today’s economic climate; it would require philanthropy on a grand scale. Fortunately, however, much beautiful and decorative art and craft has survived through the centuries and we are still able to see fine examples of the artisans’ work in stone, wood, plaster, fabrics and ceramics. We find them most frequently in cathedrals, basilicas, churches, monasteries and mosques (those societies that could afford to sponsor and support the skills). But they are also to be found in some government buildings, and the castles and mansions of the aristocracy who have now been forced, through a change in their circumstances, to open them up to the public.
Music & Dance
Traditional music and dance is not everybody’s cup of tea, and we are very selective about our interests here. Suffice to say that while much of the meanings of some dance forms have been lost in the mists of time, the music, at least, has survived in written form or been passed down through families or societies so we can still enjoy it. In many countries the traditional forms of instruments are still made, too. Much African and Middle Eastern music is still rooted in the past, as is Portuguese Fado and Spanish Flamenco and, especially around the Mediterranean, if you are lucky, you will get to see and hear it in its natural environment rather than forced for tourism.
Note: I write from Australia where there exists a culture perhaps older than all those I allude to above. Gradually, Australian Aborigines are making their culture more accessible to interested travellers, but the experience is currently linked to high-end tourism with its on-call performances, art and food, much like the Maori ‘experience’ in New Zealand.