Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

With all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

What’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this year and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

Carnival in Rio: Behind the scenes of Brazil’s famous fest

It’s summertime in Rio de Janeiro, which brings hot, humid days–sometimes of breathtaking intensity. Afternoon thunderstorms provide occasional relief, though these often erupt without warning, sending everyone scattering for cover under the awning of the nearest juice bar as the skies open up.

Summer also coincides with the tremendous spectacle of Carnival, held in Rio on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This year, Carnival officially begins on Friday, February 12th, when the mayor gives the keys of the city to King Momo, the portly pleasure-seeker who ushers in the bacchanalia. The next four days are marked by neighborhood parties, lavish masked balls, open-air concerts on stages all over town and the all-night Technicolor parades held in the specially designed Sambadrome.

When I arrived in mid-January, the city was on holiday for the patron saint of Rio, Sao Sebastiao (the city still has many holidays that revolve around Catholic traditions, Carnival being the best known). Rua Visconde de Piraja, a normally bustling thoroughfare through Ipanema, was empty. Meanwhile a few streets over, the long narrow shoreline was packed. From the rocky outcropping overlooking Ipanema beach, all I could see was a dense mass of yellow umbrellas, with vendors barking their wares (‘Agua! Mate! Cerveja!‘; water, sweet tea, beer) as they wound through a maze of beach chairs and supine sunbathers, racing children and arcing soccer balls. Cyclists and joggers sped along the beachside path, which appeared to run like a straight line into the magnificent green peaks of Dois Irmaos (‘two brothers’) rising majestically in the distance.For most Cariocas, especially residents of Ipanema and neighboring Leblon–another well-heeled district–Carnival was still weeks away. But for those involved in the samba schools, the grand fest was a rapidly approaching deadline for work that had begun many months back. In Rio, all eyes turn to the favelas during Carnival. Sometimes translated as ‘slums’, these informal shantytowns contain as many as one in six residents and cover huge swaths of the forested hillsides around town. Several dozen of the favelas are home to escolas de samba (samba schools), around which the entire celebration revolves. In favelas like Mangueira and Salgueiro (two of the top samba schools), drum corps have been practicing for months, choreographers busily working on routines for dancers numbering in the thousands, while seamstresses piece together the elaborate costumes that will, with luck, bring their school top honors.

On a clear day later in the week, I joined my friend Aurelio who lives up in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Like many of the favelas in the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city), Rocinha enjoys stunning views from its hillside perch, behind which the surrounding tropical forest threatens to envelop the building. From the Terraco da Gavea, an open-sided performance space that Aurelio inaugurated late last year, we could see the solid rock monolith of Pedra da Gavea and hang gliders skimming through the air on a lazy descent from another rockface (Pedra Bonita) to the beach 500 meters below.

Five young drummers from the drum section, all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged and worked through some samba steps and spins.

Here a few visitors had gathered to watch a show by some of Rocinha’s escola de samba members. Five young drummers from the bateria (drum section), all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged (he in white suit, she in a twirling sequined costume) and worked through some samba steps and spins. Later, a man with a microphone joined in, singing a few traditional samba enredos (theme songs) over the beats. Also on hand was a film crew from TV Roc (a Rocinha-based TV station) to shoot footage for a weekly show covering goings-on inside the favela.

Afterward I chatted with some of the school members. Despite their relative youth, all of them had played in past Carnivals and were excited about the upcoming ensaio tecnico, when they would do a practice run inside the Sambadrome (fans and anyone else could come for free to watch these rehearsals). This year, Rocinha’s theme was Ykamiabas, a mythical tribe of female warriors from the Amazon. Courage, a love of nature and magic amulets were all part of the story, which would be related in the song that everyone marching for the school would have to learn.

Preparations for Carnival begin early in the year, when the carnavalesco, or creative director of the school, sets about choosing the theme, selecting the costumes and overseeing general design plans. In October, school supporters help choose the song. I recall a night some years back standing in the steamy halls of Imperatriz, one of the top-tier escolas de samba, as four different puxadores (the lead singers of a school), auditioned songs for the audience, who subsequently voted for their favorite by roaring in approval. It was also the night when they were introduced to the regally dressed couple who would present the school to the judges: the mestre-sala and his spinning queen, the porta-bandeira (flag bearer). As one of the school’s main focal points, the pair must give a flawless performance as they twirl through the Sambadrome. Then there are supporting roles like the couple’s core passistas (the best dancers of the school) and the rainha da bateria (the queen of the drum section, often a well-known singer or soap opera star), the baianas (women with oversized hoop skirts who spin like whirling dervishes through the parade) and the carros alegoricos, or giant mechanized floats, atop which the school’s notoriously underdressed dancers show off their samba skills.

In the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival.

Although the origins of Carnival are shrouded in mystery, some believe it all began as a pagan celebration to mark spring’s arrival during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the celebration to Brazil in the 1500s but it took on a local flavor by the introduction of Indian costumes and African rhythms. (The word itself probably derives from the Latin carne vale, “goodbye meat”, whereby the Catholic population would give up meat and other fleshly temptations during the 40 days of Lent.)

The first festivals in Rio were called entrudos, with locals marching through the streets in colorful costumes and throwing mud, flour and suspicious-smelling liquids on one another. In the 19th century, Carnival meant attending a lavish masked ball or participating in the orderly but rather vapid European-style parade. Rio’s poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to celebrate, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms. Then in the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged in Rio. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival–as even the upper class adopted the celebrations happening on the streets.

Since those days, Carnival has grown in leaps and bounds, and this year Rio is spending in excess of R$100 million (US$54 million) to throw the party. For some Cariocas, Carnival is all just a bit too much, and they prefer to escape to a quieter locale (though everywhere in Brazil celebrates Carnival). Others look forward to the merry-making, beginning with the 420 street parades (called blocos) happening around town over the next few weeks.

When I left Rocinha that afternoon, Aurelio invited me to join the school in the technical rehearsal through the Sambadrome. There was also much more to come with open-air concerts, costumed balls and spontaneous street parties popping up around town–all made livelier by the entrance of merry makers flying in from all across the globe.

I’m excited to see what happens next week as the unfolding celebration takes to the streets.

Read Part 2 of this series, “Rio’s Big Fest: Carnival Hits the Streets.”

Heading to Rio? Try The City’s Newest — And Most Dangerous — Art Gallery!

Vila Cruzeiro is a dangerous shanty town (or favela) in the heart Rio. How dangerous is it? Recently, military policemen launched an assault on the favela, killing at least 6 “suspects” and wounding several civilians. Teens roam the area with grenades hanging from their shorts. In 2002, the favela saw a Brazilian journalist get dismembered and incinerated by local drug traffickers. The area isn’t nice.

However, the area is getting prettier, thanks to Jeroen Koolhaas — a Dutch illustrator — and Dre Urhahn — an art director from Amsterdam. Together with several local residents, they’ve recently completed the first “installation” associated with their Favela Painting Project. Ultimately, Koolhaas and Urhahn (who hope to attract other muralists from around the world) will design and implement what promises to be one of the world’s largest, and most unique, outdoor “organic museums.” The best part: free admission!

According to Koolhaus, “By making huge paintings in the favelas we hope to inspire the kids … to pursue a career in a creative field… Our final goal is to paint a whole hillside favela depicting one single image.” Imagine: rather than a hillside of dull corrugated aluminum, there will be a hillside of vivid colors and never-ending possibilities. If you want to learn more about Rio’s favelas, check out the Koolhaas- and Urhahn-produced video after the jump.