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Glass Blowing And Other Distractions

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

Experiences are at the core of travel. But rather than simply experience a place through its aesthetics, cultures and flavours, perhaps we could take it one step further and explore these destinations through our avocations. With that in mind, read on to choose whether to visit the kitchens of Kyoto’s cherished confectioners to learn the subtleties of wagashi, take a tour of a Highland whisky distillery and bottle your unique blend of Whisky, or to take a seat in a smokey, tool-filled studio in Venice to learn the mesmerising art of glass blowing.

Learn Glassblowing in Murano

Not far from the cobbled streets of Venice, alleyways flooding and antique palazzi crumbling, an elite squad of artisans… some would say… artists, work over dusty furnaces in stifling, fume-filled studios on the colourful little island of Murano. There they manipulate molten glass into stunning heterogeneous forms: multilayered chandeliers in striking colours with otherworldly auras, elegant vases with exquisite curves and pin-point detail, and various ornamental baubles made for the masses from molten scrag ends. Murano’s fabulous glass creations are one of Venice’s most notable exports, and today there are studios led by glass masters dotted across the island, many open to visitors, some with tours and others that are, I’m afraid to say, best avoided.

To watch a glassblower at work is quite fascinating, though it can be nothing more than a tedious sales pitch depending on the studio/ factory so be sure to choose wisely. It’s best to take the Vaporetto to Murano and ignore the touts on the canal side who in recent years have gotten pushier in their efforts to lure visitors to less than reputable glass factories, selling glass for inflated prices — often imported from China. When buying, look for the Vetro Artistico Murano stamp to ensure any purchases are authentic and where possible visit a well-known studio. Anyone not wanting to make the trek to Murano should pay a visit to Massimiliano Caldarone whose studio is not far from Rialto, where he sells his art, runs classes and performs demonstrations, or opt for Alessia Fuga’s studio on Murano for more hands-on lessons. A better option for shoppers looking for something special is Cesare Sent, born on Murano and taught his craft by two master glassblowers. His work is arresting, avant-garde and an artistic, whimsy-filled elevation from the habitually mundane pieces that one might see posed in the windows of Venetian glass shops. 

Hands-On Whisky Experiences In Scotland

Taking the time to pull oneself away from the bucolic hills of the Highlands to taste a dram or two of whisky has been one of the great lures of any good trip to the Scottish countryside for years now. But in rising to the demands of the modern traveller and whisky lover, many of Scotland’s famed distilleries are elevating their copy and paste whisky tours to a more personal, interactive and much better hands-on experience.

Of particular note is Ballindalloch whose “Art of Whiskey Making” experience is a full day spent one-on-one (maximum groups of two) going over the various processes of whiskey making — from milling to warehousing and everything in between. While Glenturret’s Ultimate Whiskey Experience offers a similar “behind the scenes” format that takes one through the entire whisky-making process and includes time in the afternoon to make a unique, personal blend of whisky. Alternatively, try one of Lagavulin’s warehouse tours or tasting experiences if you’d prefer a lighter introduction to Scottish Whisky making. 

Commission Zellige Tiles In Morocco

Stroll the courtyards of the Ben Youssef Madrassa, take in the art within the Museum of Marrakesh and admire the grandeur of the Bahia Palace and one will note that these places have one striking thing in common — like much of Morocco, they are all covered in beautiful tile mosaics. From the streets and stately pillars to ornate fountains, pools and tables — intricately designed Zellige (or Zellij) tiles are everywhere.

Thematic tours of Marrakech often take in tile-jewelled highlights such as Koutoubia Mosque, the Saadian Tombs and Dar Si Siad, but Fez is a better option for travellers wanting to get a little closer to the artisans. Travel to the Ain Nokbi district where Fez’s numerous potters are located and stop at Art Naji, which has English-speaking guides and a shop where it’s possible to commission custom mosaics for projects back home, should one be looking to enhance their interiors.

Make Wagashi In Kyoto

Worlds away from Tokyo’s ultra-modern skyline and maze-like city streets filled with hawkers and gritty neon signs, Kyoto sits almost still and soft, its streets a littler meeker, less encumbered by modernity, lovingly adorned with shrines and mysterious temples. And mingled into these pretty streets are numerous artisans — some peddling traditional textiles, others fine teas and tasty tofus. But most charming are the confectioners serving up delightful wagashi — traditional sweets made from things like azuki beans and grains, and generally served before a cup of tea.

To taste, simply wander Kyoto’s charming streets and try delicate creations that are in tune with the seasons: sakura mochi in spring and moon-like Tsukimi Dango during the mid-autumn festival. But to learn how to make wagashi you’ll need to book in advance — somewhere such as Kameya Yoshinaga in bustling Shimogyoku, or with Toki.Tokyo who run Wagashi classes inside a private temple usually off-limits to travellers.

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