TAORMINA EXPOSED

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden was born in Germany in 1856. How could anyone know that his extraordinary life would give him a place in history as something of a gay icon among a fascinating group of friends in far off Taormina, Sicily? First, he wasn’t a Baron at all but apparently there were family rumors that in the past a relative was some kind of Mecklenburg official. He grew up to be a handsome, artistic lad from a family with a bit of money and he headed off to art school where we all know one thing can lead to another. But what is a young man with a developing taste for the beauty of other young men to do in conservative, religious Germany? The answers came from a trip to Italy where Wilhelm met his fascinating cousin, Guglielmo Pluschow, who had a studio where he was making art photographs featuring beautiful (often naked) young men!
This was the era of the Grand Tour when Europeans set off from the Northern countries to visit the great cities and monuments of antiquity.  In Italy there was a market for postcards and romantic imagery of draped figures posed by a fountain or a column. Presented in the format of foreign antiquity, a bit of artistic flesh was just the thing to sell and Guglielmo’s portraits made a real impression on everyone including young Wilhelm.  He continued his journey South and made his way to Sicily and in 1878, aged 22, he arrived in the sunny and gloriously picturesque town of Taormina.
Taormina was then a small fishing town with an ancient past.  Rising from beautiful beaches, the views stretch out over the blue Mediterranean to a flawless silhouette of Mount Etna.  Incredibly, the Mayor of Taormina was a fellow German! Otto Geleng was a very talented painter who captured the grandeur and romance of the land, sea and mountains in wonderful landscapes that are highly valued to this day.  Otto and Wilhelm became good friends and within a short time Wilhelm decided to buy a house and stay in Taormina.
Wilhelm got right to work, set up a photography studio and began to seriously apply his talent toward photography.  Released from the moral structures of the North he found handsome young local boys to model for him. He paid them for their work and even set up a system of reimbursement where they received additional payments as the images continued to sell over time.  His images for the public were somewhat chaste and sentimental. Local scenery made the backdrop for set pieces evoking ancient Greece or Rome, and his subjects were transformed into shepherd boys, satyrs and dreamy youths populating the classical ruins. For visiting clients with more rarified tastes, the boys lost their drapery altogether and were photographed singly or in groups gazing into each other’s eyes like figures from a Greek amphora.  The photographs do not depict sex acts but rely on the beauty of the young models to evoke an erotic mood. In this, you will agree, he is very successful!
Wilhelm spent most of his life surrounded by his friends in lovely Taormina interrupted only by the first World War when he and other foreigners were forced to leave for a time.  Over the years thousands of his images spread to Europe and had quite a following, even including inspiring artists in America like Maxfield Parrish. There were many famous visitors who came through Taormina and purchased photographs in the studio, including royalty, wealthy industrialists, and in 1897, Oscar Wilde!  Wilhelm formed a lifelong relationship with a boy named Pancrazio Bucini who became his lover at age 14, remaining with him and becoming heir to his house and huge collection of photographic plates.
This fascinating circle of friends grew larger when in 1899 a very handsome young English gentleman, Robert Kitson, inherited his father’s fortune and made his way to Taormina.  He was also a well-known painter with a desire to make an escape from English moral codes that could in fact land you in prison! Kitson bought a piece of land and built a large Villa high on the hill with a beautiful view out to the sea.  He called it Casa Cuseni. Imagine the wonderful life all these friends shared in beautiful Taormina. The sun, the beaches, the food, the parties, famous visitors, lovers, artists and, no doubt, any number of boys in togas!
When Kitson died he left his beautiful villa to his sister who came to Sicily to get it sold.  But she came to her senses and kept the house, converting it to a B&B which is still operating today.  Over the years a seemingly endless stream of famous people visited, including Ricard Strauss, DH Lawrence, Greta Garbo, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.  The city of Taormina sponsors a museum in the villa that is open to the public for tours. The museum houses a collection related to Kitson and the astonishing world of gay friends that made Taormina a heavenly refuge from the prejudices and closed-mindedness of the outside world.  This is a destination no gay traveler should miss.
Dan Gregory has worked behind the scenes researching locations for Toto Tours since 1992.
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A SPIRITUAL CONVERGENCE

There are so many reasons why we choose to travel. Not least among them is a desire for spiritual inspiration, to attain a fresh understanding of whatever we choose to call God, and seek out enlightenment—sometimes at a sacred historic source. The world’s most ancient cultures offer experiences both profound and exotic born of thousands of years of accumulated spiritual knowledge and practice. It is with that sometimes-undefined yearning for both adventure and illumination that Toto Tours has put together an amazing journey into the heart of India where you will join in the dazzling and transcendent Kumbh Mela celebrations.
“At the point of confluence of the rivers, a space opens up between this world and the celestial…” Prof. Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Lancaster Univ.
The Kumbh Mela is a sacred Hindu festival that takes place every 12 years according to the alignment of Jupiter, the sun and the moon. The location on the plain where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet attracts over 120 million pilgrims and visitors over a two-month period. The festival is a gathering that attracts the spiritual leaders and sects from every part of the Hindu world. Followers of holy men called Sadhus place their tent compounds along broad streets where visitors can stroll and enter into fascinating discussions or participate in age-old rituals. Demonstrations involving extreme physical contortions and ascetic practices are presented for everyone to see. All of this revolves around the practice of bathing in the sacred river Ganges on proscribed times and days. It is at once a spectacle beyond description and an interior journey of enlightenment for each individual visitor.
If this sounds fascinating but a bit daunting, fear not! Toto has secured space in a marvelous compound of individual crisp canvas safari tents. Each comes complete with a private bathroom and hot and cold running water! You can lose yourself for a time in the swirling sea of spirituality but then retire to your air-conditioned tent for a shower, a delicious lunch and a nap! This is the sort of thing you would be hard pressed to arrange on your own and Toto has done all the logistics so that you can relax and join in this incredible, life-changing adventure in comfort and security.
The tour begins in New Delhi where of course there are amazing sights to see. From Delhi progress to Budhgaya where the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the fabled Bodhi tree. The focus is on fascinating Buddhist holy temple complexes that must be seen to be believed. Next the tour moves to Varanasi on the river Ganges. This is the holy city all Hindus must visit once in their lifetime to bathe in the sacred river. The city is a gorgeous warren of temples and bazaars and Toto has arranged a lovely evening on the river at sunset where you will observe the spectacle of the aarti fire ceremony. From Varanasi the journey moves to the city of Allahabad and two days soaking up the atmosphere at the amazing site of the Kumbh Mela festival.
Moving on from Allahabad the tour continues to Lucknow and Agra ending with a pre-dawn carriage ride arriving at the glorious Taj Mahal just at sunrise! The “Eternal Rivers” tour promises a seamless joining of adventure and spiritual experiences that will enhance your life and open your heart in new and unexpected ways. “All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.” Swami Vivekananda
Click here to read the itinerary and prepare for an out-of-this-world experience!
Dan Gregory has worked behind the scenes researching locations for Toto Tours since 1992.
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SMIRKING INTO THE FACE OF DEATH

This October Toto Tours has put together a fantastical adventure into the heart of ancient Mexican culture, not just to witness but to join in the gorgeous celebrations of Dias de Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Predating the Spanish conquest by hundreds of years, the festival is a blending of native Mexican cultural rituals and Catholic All Saints celebrations. The festival is a national smirk into the face of…well…death. It is sort of… “Death, Ha! I mock you!” For days in advance people gather brilliant yellow marigold flowers and shop for the choicest ingredients for traditional delicacies. Families build elaborate altars in their homes to honor the memory of loved ones and decorate them with flowers, candles, photographs, mementos, food and cast sugar skulls! Families leave a trail of marigolds from their doors to the cemetery where their loved ones rest so that on the nights of November 1 and 2 the spirits of ancestors can find their way home. People dress in amazing elaborate 19th century—even Aztec—costumes. With masks and colorful face paintings, everyone becomes a grinning skeleton, angel of death, a dead bandito, a whimsical apparition—death is just a big joke and nobody is afraid! All night long there are picnics and singing and tequila and testimonials and poetry and more tequila as whole families spread out feasts of tamales, classic breads decorated with white bones and every delicious dish “uncle Julio” loved.
Let me whet your appetite and tell you a bit about the tour Toto has planned for this October that starts in the astonishingly beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel is a World Heritage Site nestled high in the mountains with the most heavenly climate. The city is a dream of golden domes and church spires, cathedrals and elegant buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Beautiful public squares, fountains, restaurants, shopping—San Miguel is a city you can never forget. A frequent Toto traveler and artist, Danny Cameron, has a charming home in San Miguel and all are invited for rooftop cocktails overlooking the city at sunset! What could be more exclusive?
After three days in San Miguel the group heads to Morelia. Morelia has a bit of a…uh… reputation. It is known to have the best gay bars in Mexico! (I close my eyes and hear Ricardo Montalban saying: “We have the best gay bars in all of Mexico!”) Dazzling and exotic bars like Rojas Pop, Open Mind, and Mama no lo Sabe (“Mama doesn’t know”…but I’m thinking she does) offer another kind of cultural experience not to be missed! Yikes! What happens in Morelia….
The tour moves on from village to village around beautiful Lake Patzcuaro, with plenty of eating and shopping and ancient ruins, until the Days of the Dead arrive. This is when things get really interesting. Toto has engaged an expert face painting artist to come to the hotel. If it were me I would pack an old tuxedo jacket and a black t-shirt! Grinning skulls all around! Out into the night, hopping from cemetery to cemetery and over the lake by private boat to the hauntingly beautiful Isla de Pacanda—this will be a night you will never forget! This is an experience you can never duplicate, and you will share it with the best of friends. In an atmosphere like Carnival, who knows what will happen or who you will meet? How can anyone resist this adventure?
Click here to read the itinerary and get ready to smirk in the face of death!
Dan Gregory has worked behind the scenes researching locations for Toto Tours since 1992.
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SARDINIA AND CORSICA

Toto Tours hosted a small group of veteran travelers in September 2017 as we explored regions of Italy and France which are totally separate from the mainland—the gorgeous islands of Sardinia (Italy) and Corsica (France). This was no hurried exploration, as we spent almost two weeks journeying from the bottom of Sardinia, across a ferry, and on to the very top of Corsica. Sardinia is known for its ancient settlements of the Nuragic peoples, its Roman ruins, and countless beautiful beaches. Corsica is much greener and mountainous in the interior. It even has a wonderful train through the mountains, which we used to get from one destination to another. Perhaps its most famous resident was Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born on the island. This diverse and exciting tour, offering us a savory taste of two countries, concluded in style at a luxury hotel on the ramparts of Bastia.
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THE BALKANS – April 17-30, 2017

This expansive tour wound through four Balkan countries formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It attracted a large group (26 of us), and many international adventurers, including four Mexicans, two Australians, one Brit and one Italian! We whooped it up through an unexpected snowstorm crossing the mountains between Serbia and Montenegro, and shivered through unseasonably chilly and rainy weather during some of our outings. But nothing could dampen our spirits! The sun shone brightly as we toured fabulous Kotor and Dubrovnik, and we thrilled to see the capital cities Belgrade and Sarajevo.
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THE HIMALAYAS – May 16-28, 2017

Our tour of Nepal and Tibet in May 2017 was “breathtaking” in so many ways! We were a little worried visiting Nepal just two years after their devastating earthquake that the historic sites would still be in a state of great disrepair. However, a tremendous amount of work has been done to restore ancient temples, and those that sustained damage are shored up to protect them until restoration can be completed. A highlight was our visit to Pokhara, and the views of the high Himalayas at sunrise! There are not enough superlatives to describe Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world! Our tour to the countryside took us as high as 16,000 feet, and it was encouraging to witness ancient traditions being carried on in the remote monasteries and temples. We will be coming back to this gorgeous region in the future!
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TANZANIA – March 19-April 2, 2017

This was a true adventure in every sense of the word, timed to witness the massing of wildebeest in the Southern Serengeti just after the calving season. We achieved that goal, but what we didn’t expect was an early deluge that turned the Serengeti into a bog. Can 4-wheel drive Toyotas power through anything? Not this! It took all the fortitude and ingenuity our guides and drivers could muster to get us out of a sticky situation one day! We enjoyed incredible sightings of the “Big Five” and the World Wonder of the Ngorongoro Crater. Following the safari, many of us continued on to visit the Spice Island: Zanzibar, for a luxurious and colorful conclusion to a spectacular expedition.
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MEXICO – March 2-12, 2017

Mexico is a magical place where old traditions and modernity live together with all their contradictions. In the bustling capital city, we plunged into the chaotically alive environment of one of the world’s largest metropolis, home to nearly 25 million people. We began and ended our tour in Mexico City, enjoying the incredible Ballet Folklorico in the National Theatre. Our tour also featured visits to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, Frida Kahlo’s House in Coyoacan, Tepoztlan, the historic town of Puebla, Cuernavaca, the Ruins of Xochicalco, Taxco, and the Caves of Cacahuamilpa. This adventure was truly a celebration of the spirit of Mexico, and we’ll be offering many more excursions to this region in the future!
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INDOCHINA – February 3-16, 2017

This tour was a classic journey to experience all the wonders of Indochina, including the best of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We decamped to luxury hotels each evening, and even spent one night on a deluxe “junk” enjoying the tranquility and otherworldly beauty of Halong Bay. We started with the hustle and bustle of Saigon, with a trip up the Mekong River. Next, we soaked in the mystical quietude of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and then continued on to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang in Laos, bringing it all to a rousing conclusion in Hanoi. Those who just couldn’t get enough of Indochina proceeded with our optional extension to Bangkok in Thailand to visit the highlights of this magical Kingdom.
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BOLIVIA

Our adventure in Bolivia during August 2017 featured the tropical lowlands of Santa Cruz, and from there things only went up. We flew to Sucre and saw an excavation of the largest set of dinosaur footprints in the world. From there we ascended to over 13,000 feet in Potosi to go spelunking in the famous silver mines nearby. Then it was on to the incredible salt flats for a truly other-worldly experience. Next was Lake Titicaca and the gorgeous drive along the Bolivian Andes range from La Paz. After some fun and indigenous experiences on Sun Island, we concluded our tour in La Paz with a gondola adventure and a visit to the local witches’ market. This tour was a unique experience far from the typical South American tourist hotspots. Our local gay guide was a delight, and we will return to see more of his country in the future.
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