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“Imperium sine fine”, they termed their empire: “dominion without limit.” Well, the Goths, Huns, Vandals and Moors had something to say about that. But Philip Parker’s new book, The Empire Stops Here, has a most intriguing concept:

to travel the entire length of what the Romans themselves termed the “limes”, the frontier zone of their empire. As The Guardian reviews it, the result was a journey epic enough to satisfy even a Virgil. As Parker sums it up, with justifiable pride, “I have encountered more than five centuries of Roman history, in some 21 modern countries, covering a range of climactic variations from a snowstorm in Switzerland to a sandstorm at 45 Centigrade in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis, and have covered more than 20,000 kilometres on the ground.”Yet his book is far from being a conventional travelogue. Once the introduction is done, the first person barely intrudes. Neither a work of history, nor a scholarly gazetteer, nor a guide, but rather a blend of all three, The Empire Stops Here is a book in which weather-beaten masonry serves to crowd out human beings, and in which the people who most truly come alive are those who have been dead for 2,000-odd years.

Read more from The Guardian here.

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stellenboschSouth Africa is coming up in the world. Just a couple of days ago it hosted the UEFA Confederations Cup of soccer, in which Brazil defeated the U.S. (yes, the United States!) 3-2 for the championship; next year the country will host the World Cup.

South Africa is also “the world’s ninth largest producer of wine, an up-and-comer in the global marketplace, and the winner of more than its share of accolades in international competitions.” But a canker grows amid the vineyards of Stellenbosch, and her name is Jane MacQuitty, a wine critic for The Times of London.

According to The New York Times, “In late 2007, she tasted a run of South Africa’s flagship reds and wrote that half were tainted by a “peculiar, savage, burnt rubber” odor. In a later column she called a selection of the country’s best-rated reds “a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment.””

This was, of course, something that Stellenbosch’s luminaries needed to tackle head-on. So, for the past year, “vine-and-wine detectives from the department of viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University have been working the case. The “burnt rubber team” includes sensory scientists and analytical chemists. They taste, they sniff, they scratch their heads. They are looking for the golden thread that ties together a single taste that was born in multiple locations. Is the problem with the root stock, the soils, the storage, the bottling, the techniques of fermentation? Gas chromatography is being used to separate wines into their chemical compounds, searching for a culprit among the molecular units.”

The story of this sleuthfulness is completely worth reading in full.

The Beautiful South

Chahlstun,” you’d say if you were speaking like a native. We’re heading down to this languorous antique of South Carolina on our cruise of America’s Historic Atlantic Shores, in late September of this year, and in May and October of 2010, and just in the nick of time Forbes.com has a delightful piece on the changes and continuity seen in the city where the Civil War began.

“Come Hell or High Water” – that’s the title of a great book on Charleston my dad (born in Georgetown, halfway up the coast between Charleston and Pawley’s Island) had on his bookshelf; and that’s the way it goes when you live in Hurricane Alley. 1989’s Hurricane Hugo blasted through the town, leaving in its wake “a degree of devastation unprecedented in anybody’s living memory,” according to Charleston’s once and present mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. But, as Forbes reports,

“…what came in Hugo’s aftermath was a surge of investment and prosperity that has washed over Charleston and left it sparkling in the Low Country sun.

The city that once liked to say it was “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash” has reclaimed its magnificent downtown; inaugurated a nearly year-round slate of tours, exhibitions, and festivals (including the 17-day culture party, the Spoleto Festival); spawned a culinary awakening; and erected a new signature structure, the sail-like Arthur Ravenel, Jr., Bridge. Oh, and ponied up for the paint–lots and lots of paint. Charleston is more fun now than it has been since the predawn fireworks show of April 12, 1861, when P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter. You might even say the city has been transformed. Sort of.

“That’s true!” she answered. “But, well…not true. For instance, I can look at the bird’s-eye map of Charleston from 1850 on my office wall and still recognize every street. I could use it today to get around town.”

That’s Charleston for you: The place, to put it mildly, is not afflicted with the amnesia effects of American Progress. Around here, the new must always accommodate itself to the stubborn tenacity of what came before. It was Charleston where Oscar Wilde claimed he had complimented the moonrise over the harbor only to be told, “You should have seen it before the war!”

This is a city famously marinating in self-regard. The old wheeze about Charleston being located “where the Ashley and Cooper rivers join up to form the Atlantic Ocean”–you will not leave town without hearing it–is meant to be taken as self-deprecating: See, we can joke about thinking we are the center of the universe. The subtext: Actually, that is exactly what we think.

Here are a few of the American “firsts” claimed by Charlestonians during my visit: first historic district, municipal college, country club, golf course, water buffalo, fireproof building. Charlestonians have convinced themselves that they invented the cocktail party, too. Perhaps it’s just that parties elsewhere didn’t count.

Read more of this really entertaining article that definitely captures the spirit of Charleston, SC.

RoyalOntarioMuseumIf you’re heading to Toronto this summer, The Washington Post has thoughtfully written up a number of good restaurants in the Yorkville neighborhood, around the Royal Ontario Museum – designed by Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind’s tetrahedric design works perfectly for the museum’s restaurant, C5.

“Chef Ted Corrado, who has the boyish looks of a teen pop star, sources local products at C5 to produce a limited yet sublime menu on which the ethnic flavors of Toronto shine through his studied technique. Offerings change with the seasons, but recent choices included porcini papardelle with white anchovy and paquillo peppers, and rack of wild boar with eggplant cream, baby leeks and litchi. On a budget? Order a cocktail and an appetizer, and savor the city view through the enormous tilted windows.”

Read more from The Washington Post.

In her book, A Classical Education, Caroline Taggart says the ancient Greek and Roman influence is still alive and well in many aspects of the modern world, from language, architecture and science to art, maths and astronomy. But do you know your Plato from your Pluto? Take The Guardian’s quiz to find out.

You could do something else, too. But we’re not telling. Okay, here’s a hint.

Now this is an amazing story, reported by Johann Hari in The Independent:

Hari writes, “Earlier this year, Peru’s right-wing President, Alan Garcia, sold the rights to explore, log and drill 70 per cent of his country’s swathe of the Amazon to a slew of international oil companies. Garcia seems to see rainforest as a waste of good resources, saying of the Amazon’s trees: ‘There are millions of hectares of timber there lying idle.'”

Now, this is a pretty shocking decision, because the Peruvian Amazon, upriver of Iquitos, is an especially pristine region.

But here’s what happened next:

“The indigenous peoples acted in their own self-defence, and ours. Using their own bodies and weapons made from wood, they blockaded the rivers and roads to stop the oil companies getting anything in or out. They captured two valves of Peru’s sole pipeline between the country’s gas field and the coast, which could have led to fuel-rationing. Their leaders issued a statement explaining: ‘We will fight together with our parents and children to take care of the forest, to save the life of the equator and the entire world.’

Garcia responded by sending in the military. He declared a ‘state of emergency’ in the Amazon, suspending almost all constitutional rights. Army helicopters opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition and stun-grenades. More than a dozen were killed. But the indigenous peoples did not run away. Even though they were risking their lives, they stood their ground. One of their leaders, Davi Yanomami, said simply: ‘The earth has no price. It cannot be bought, or sold or exchanged. It is very important that white people, black people and indigenous peoples fight together to save the life of the forest and the earth. If we don’t fight together, what will our future be?’

And then something extraordinary happened. The indigenous peoples won. The Peruvian Congress repealed the laws that allowed oil company drilling, by a margin of 82 votes to 12. Garcia was forced to apologise for his ‘serious errors and exaggerations’. The protesters have celebrated and returned to their homes deep in the Amazon.”

Read the entire story here. Travel Dynamics International is scheduling three cruises of the Amazon in 2010, and for every guest on these trips, we will be donating funds to The Rainforest Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the pop singer Sting and his wife Trudy Styler for the precise purpose of educating and assisting indigenous tribes of the Amazon to protect the rainforest – just like the peoples of Peru did, above.

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This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Off Mackinaw City, in a particularly cold winter, the water in Lake Huron below the surface ice supercooled. It expanded to break through the surface ice and froze into this incredible wave (courtesy codgy.com).

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We sail to the Great Lakes during the summertime, so no frozen waves for us (thankfully!). Normally, to see anything remotely like this, you have to go to Antarctica.