The Women of Peru

During my travels through Peru, I was fascinated by the women of this beautiful country. Their looks, their clothing, their arts and crafts, their day to day lives – be it weaving beautiful textiles or preparing delicious food – I was in awe.

Throughout my two week stay in Peru, women seemed to have a greater presence then men. It was women who usually held the market stalls, women who prepared our food, women who we bartered with, and women who gave us a glimpse into the way of life of both the rural and urban Peruvian people. From the mountains of the Lares Valley to the islands of Lake Titicaca, it is the women of Peru who are most deeply etched into my memory.

One thing which I was particularly intrigued by were the distinct region differences in women’s native clothing. The women of the Lares Valley, also know as The Weaver’s Way (which accurately highlights their talent for weaving beautiful textiles), wore a flat topped hat, usually red or deep orange in colour, which was narrower at the bottom than on top. Their clothes were usually made of brightly coloured woven textiles, primarily of a red/orange hue. In Cusco, the women were usually dressed in more Western styled clothing, with a number of them wearing a white or brown hat, in a similar style to the turn of the century, English gentleman’s top hat. In contrast, the women of Manu National Park in the Amazon Rainforest were plainly dressed in distinctive western clothing. Like the women the the Lares Valley, the women of both Raqchi and the Uros Islands wore very distinctive clothing. The former wearing deep terracotta coloured jackets, with either a large, disc shaped black hat, or a brown ‘top hat’. The latter wore natural straw hats with eye-catching, brightly coloured clothing of fluro oranges, bottle greens, fluro pinks, deep reds, royal blues, lime greens, etc.

Here are a selection of photographs taken in Cusco, The Lares Valley, Manu National Park, Raqchi, La Raya, Sicuani and The Uros Islands.

The Children of the Lares Valley, Peru

November last year I spent one amazing month travelling through parts of South America. One highlight of the trip was a three day trek through the Lares Valley, from Lares hot springs to Ollantaytambo. The trek, also known as ‘The Weaver’s Way’, is named after the weaving communities of Vilcabamba, Huacahuasi and Patachancha which one passes along the way. Although it passes some breathtaking scenery, it isn’t a trip for the faint hearted, as it consist of three days of trekking at high altitudes, with a high mountain pass (The Ipsayjasa Pass) at a height of 4450m. The most memorable aspect of this trek were the children which we passed along the way. Their happy, yet dirty faces, lightened our long days of trekking. At times a few of them joined us for an hour or two as we crossed valleys and rivers, and some came by our campsite to play a few games, to show us their homes and to receive a share of our popcorn and chocolate.

Le Bois de Vincennes et Le Bois de Boulogne

Just outside Paris, on the outskirts of Le Peripherique, are two magnificently beautiful parks – Le Bois de Vincennes on the eastern side and Le Bois de Boulogne on the western. After the cold, grey, drizzly days of winter (Unlike most people, I don’t think Parisians are arrogant – they’re just depressed. In winter, the weather in Paris is constantly overcast and drizzly – if I had to live through it every year, I think I’d be depressed too!), the warm and sunny days of spring are very much welcomed by the people of Paris. During these spring days, particularly on the weekends, many Parisians flee the city in favour of spending the day in one of these two beautiful parks. (Unless you happen to be well off, like the family I was living with in Paris, who spent their spring weekends horse-riding at their country estate, just a 90 minute drive from Paris.) 

Both Le Bois de Vincennes and Le Bois de Boulogne were originally hunting grounds for the French kings and their courtiers, Vincennes since the 11th century and Boulogne as early as the 7th century, when Dagobert, the king of the Franks, hunted bears on the grounds. The parks were utilised solely by the aristocracy (with the exception of Vincennes which was used as a military exercise area during the French Revolution) until they were given to the city of Paris by Napoleon III, Boulogne in 1852 and Vincennes in 1860. Under the direction of the baron Haussmann (the man responsible for the ‘modernisation’ of Paris in mid-19th century), the parks underwent a drastic aesthetic transformation and became sites of leisure and enjoyment and an escape from the grey and depressive concrete jungle. 
Today, both parks offer a vast array of activities, including canoeing, horse-riding, cycling paths, running tacks, bush-walking and fishing, as well as zoological parks and children’s playgrounds. The parks also have a number of ‘specialty’ gardens, including tropical plant and bonsai gardens, as well as open parkland and floral displays. Both Vincennes and Boulogne are extremely large – both cover a nine to ten square kilometre area each. I’d suggest taking a map with you on your first visit – it’s relatively easy to get lost in the myriad of pathways, lakes and areas of thick bush.
During spring weekends, both parks are teaming with people eager to take advantage of the fresh air and natural surroundings. And no wonder, it’s a little piece of paradise, only a short metro trip from the heart of Paris (to Vincennes, take metro line 1 to Chateau de Vincennes and to Boulogne, take metro line 10 to Boulogne, Pont de St-Cloud – the Paris metro is a fantastic public transport network – it runs frequently, all lines connect reasonable well to one another and it’s relatively cheap – definitely the best way to get around Paris. I utilised it so much during my stay there, that I can still hear the screech of the alarm, people running through the station so not to miss the train, and then the bang and click of the doors shutting). 
On the outskirts of Le Bois de Vincennes, is Le Chateau de Vincennes (above). The site has been a royal residence since the late 12th century but was fortified by King John II The Good during the hundred years war. It became the principle residence of Charles V and his son Charles VI and was renovated accordingly. Besides being a royal residence, the castle has a colourful history – it was utilised as a military school, it’s workshops were used as factories for the fabrication of weaponry, it served as a prison (even housing the Marquis de Sade) and also a military stronghold in defence of the capital. Unfortunately, much of the original castle complex no longer exist (like many architectural structures in Europe which have witness many wars or deemed unsuitable by various poliltical leaders, thus leading to their decay), but what remains is an impressive piece of French architecture of the middle ages, still as imposing and forboding a structure as ever. Today it houses a military museum detailing the history of French land, sea and air warfare.
So next time you’re in Paris, particularly if you happen to visit in the springtime, I recommend you take half a day out to explore one of these two pieces of paradise. Stroll along the lakeside promenades or hire a canoe; hire a bike and take advantage of the well constructed bike paths; or simply take a book, find a peaceful spot and read amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
For more information, see the following websites:

Monschau, Germany

This obscure small town on the Belgium/Germany boarder is up there as one of my favourite places in Europe. Thanks to my Belgian cousin, who is incredibly knowledgeable about about places to see and things to do in Northern Europe (he was an excellent tour guide), I was fortunate enough to visit many places in Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands which I had no intention of seeing, let alone having any knowledge of, but in the end was completely amazed by. During our little road trips, he constantly pointed out places of interest (there’s so and so church, there’s that cathedral, there’s an amazing gallery), explaining the history of a monument or town (that is dedicated to so and so, this event happened here, so and so visited this town on this particular date), and he was excited to take me me to little-known, yet amazing towns (including Monschau, Leuve, Aachen and Maastricht), which the average tourist would have completely passed by, utterly unaware of what they had missed out on. One of those towns was Monschau.

Monschau is situated in north-western Germany, only 2km from the Belgium boarder. Originally, the town was given the French/Belgian name of Montjoie, since the  town was under French rule from 1795. In 1918 the town was awarded to Prussia and was given the German name of Monschau, as it remains so until this day. The town’s cobbled streets and timber framed houses have change very little over the last 300 years. Monschau was extremely lucky to escape air-raid bombings during the Second War World, and as a result, is it one of the few towns in the region to be almost completely preserved.

Driving through the Belgium countryside one morning, I was completely unaware about where we were going as we crossed the German boarder – Jean-Marie tended to just drive, as though he made the decision about where we were going on the way there. Even when we entered the hills of North Eifel and began to descend the long winding road down into the valley where Monschau is situated, I had little idea about the uniqueness of the town which we were about to visit. As you cross the bridge from the parking bays, you being to feel as though you have stepped back into time, or are living some sort of Disney fairytale. The town feels somewhat empty and eerie as you walk through the narrow grey cobblestone streets (these streets are only for pedestrians as there is no access for cars – I’m sure the town planners three centuries ago did not envisions cars zooming down these picturesque streets), almost as though you are in a movie set for a film such as Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (that’s it, Monschau has a Burton-ish feel to it – eerie, peculiar and magical, especially on a grey overcast autumn day, such as the one when we visited the town – I’m sure it would have completely different atmosphere if you visited on a warm and sunny spring day).

If you take a walk up to the ruins of the 13th century Monschau castle, once the seat of the powerful Counts of Julich until it was besieged by Emperor Charles V in 1543, you are afforded with a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and the isolated town in the valley below. Once there, imagine if you were to place an empty gilded frame in front this landscape, it would be easy to mistake the pointed grey rooftops and church spires, set against the lush green foliage of the encircling forest, as an oil painting from the Danube School – it’s almost that idealistic.

If you’re in Germany or Belgium, or any other part of Europe, or the world for that matter, take time out to diverge from the regular tourist route and you might be surprised at what hidden gems you might discover. (It also helps to have the assistance and knowledge of a local).