Friday, July 25, 2014

Fete de Geneve (Geneva Festival): The greatest fireworks show on Earth

Spectacular Fireworks at the Fete de Geneve
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND, July 25, 2014 – When it comes to fireworks, there are none better than the pyrotechnic show at the annual Fete de Geneve (Geneva Festival) in July and August in Switzerland.
The event traces its history to 1923 when flower decorated cars drove through the city. Though the floral parade never developed to the level of the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, it had an evolution of its own with a massive fireworks display that has become the signature event of the festival.

After World War II, the Fete de Geneve expanded to four days, but it did not capture the hearts of the people of Geneva until the 1990s.  This year, the official festival runs from August 1st through August 10th with a schedule of pre-festival activities beginning July 17th, making summer on the shores of Lake Geneva nearly a month-long celebration.

Geneva's English Garden
Pre-festival activities take place in the city’s English Garden where the Miss Geneva contest highlights the jamboree of food, carnival rides, dancing and international music. The festival kicks off with one of the newest and most popular events, the Beach Rugby Tournament. There are also parades with wacky costumes and a Waitresses/Waiters Race as well as concerts throughout the three-plus weeks of rejoicing.

Celebrations last into the wee hours of the morning, but by sunrise the city is once again clean as a whistle. In typical Swiss fashion, it’s as though a team of nocturnal elves descended upon Geneva in the middle of the night to scrub and polish the city back to its original pristine setting.

Shooting for the stars at the Fete de Geneve
For all the festivities however, the closing fireworks are what capture the imagination, and well they should.

One reason for the success of the spectacular hour-long sky-show is Geneva’s setting.

Geneva's flower clock
As home of the International Red Cross (the Red Cross flag is the reverse of the Swiss flag), Geneva is a global city situated at the western end of the Lake of Geneva which spills into the River Rhone.

The city wraps around both shores of the lake in the French-speaking region of Switzerland.  During the day, the landmark fountain known as the Jet d’Eau sprays water some 300 feet into the air.

The Fete de Geneve offers a new dimension in fireworks technology; a symphony for the heavens that seems to outdo itself each year. The viewing area for the spectacle is tucked along the shore of the French side of the lake.  Seats are available for 50, 60 or 70 Swiss francs, which is between 50 and 70 dollars. Loudspeakers surround the seating area for visitors to witness the fireworks and hear the music that are synchronized within 1/10th of a second by the computers that operate show.

Starbursts over Lake Geneva
Nearly 600,000 awed spectators will be dazzled by pyrotechnics from some 40 firing stations lining the shores of the lake that cover nearly 300,000 square feet. Swiss fireworks experts from Pyrostars and Sugyp, have designed a program called Man and Time that ranges from astronomical observations of antiquity, the sun dial, the hour glass and the clepsydra, to church tower clocks and grandfather clocks, wall clocks and watches, chronometers and the atomic clock.

People without seats can see the show from the street and listen to the music on a local FM radio station.

The Swiss side of the lake provides the backdrop for the display. All lights along the shoreline are turned off, creating a jet-black curtain for the spewing fiery stars that illuminate the night sky. Don’t be late because you can set your watch by the ten o’clock start of the display that is guaranteed take your breath away.     

(Video of Geneva's fireworks by copying and pasting)

In the event your vacation plans do not allow you to be in Geneva on the 10th there is a 30 minutes pre-festival fireworks show on Saturday, August 2nd at precisely 10:30 pm which still promises to rival anything you have ever seen anywhere else. This year’s theme is the 200th anniversary of Geneva’s accession to Swiss Confederation. Make no mistake however, spectacular as it is, there is nothing to compare with the finale.

Tickets can be reserved at Fnac, an international ticket service, either in person or online at their website. Tickets are also available at the Geneva Tourist Office, Rue du Mont-Blanc 18 in Geneva or they can be purchased in the English Garden during the festival.

Add this event to your traveler’s bucket list and witness the skies over Lake Geneva burst into stunning arrays of man-made shooting stars. It is truly unforgettable.

(Author’s note:  If you watch the video that accompanies this story, the most spectacular portion of the fireworks happen approximately three minutes into the program.  Be aware that the music is difficult to hear because the microphones were not patched into the sound system.  No matter, the visuals speak for themselves.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Baden Baden, Germany: The spa who loved me

A ride through Lichtenthaler Allee in Baden Baden  (Photo: Baden Baden Tourism)

BADEN BADEN, GERMANYJuly 18, 2014 – Germany's spa town of Baden Baden is so unique they named it twice.

In the Middle Ages the village was simply called Baden, or “bath.” It wasn’t until 1931 that it officially became Baden Baden which is a shortened version of the term “Baden in Baden,” similar to the way Americans say New York, New York.

Caracalla Spa  (Photo: Caracalla Spa)
The mineral springs were known by the Romans long before the Middle Ages, however. The Roman emperor Caracalla even visited once, seeking relief from his arthritis. Apparently he made an impression since one of the two public baths in town is now named Caracalla Spa.

No matter how you approach the village, there’s a special ambience in Baden Baden. It is a tiny, peaceful, cultural hub situated along the western foothills of Germany’s Black Forest; a thriving artistic community filled with all the elements of refined living and elegant hospitality without being pretentious.

By the middle of the 19th century, after a visit by the Prussian queen, Baden Baden became a gathering spot for the rich and famous. The main attractions: hot springs, gambling, horse racing, luxurious hotels and the serenity of Lichtenthaler Allee, the municipal park on the west bank of the River Oos.

A ride Lichtenthaler Allee  (Photo: Baden Baden Tourism)
The two-mile strolling area is now lined with more than 300 native and imported plants and trees as it peacefully meanders between the river, several museums and the theater before opening to the classical architecture of the world famous casino. Follow the Lichtenthaler Allee into town and walk through the village to arrive at the spas. Here visitors enjoy the traditions and modernity of a wellness experience in either of the two public baths.

For contemporary luxury, Caracalla Therme (Spa) features a variety of pools with a range of temperatures to accommodate any recuperative need your body may require. There are five indoor saunas and two log cabin saunas offering ultimate relaxation before treating yourself to a massage or a variety of sensory treatments.

A two-hour visit, which includes entrance to the spa and the sauna area, is about $18 per person, plus a full menu of massages and wellness treatments is available throughout the baths.

Traditional spa lovers may find the Friedrichsbad more to their liking. At nearly 150 years old, the Friedrichsbad has been known as a “temple of wellbeing” since 1877. Guests follow a designated route through 17 stations that include showers, baths, massages and pure relaxation. Single admission for one person for three hours is about $30.

Bathers be warned, Friedrichsbad follows a “traditionally garment-free” experience where both sexes participate together, except Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It’s a human “buff-et” of sorts and the ideal place to simply hang out.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for a place where you can be publicly naked in the morning and dressed to the nines at night.

If ever you wanted to walk into a casino, place a chip on the roulette table, and say, “Bond, James Bond,” Baden Baden is the place. With chandeliers, exquisite wing doors and luxurious red and gold furnishings, Casino Baden Baden oozes with seductiveness and style.
The elegant Baden Baden casino  (Photo: Baden Baden Tourism)
Admission to the classical games of roulette, black jack and poker is $7. To enter patrons must be 21 or over and present a passport or national identity card. Gentlemen are also requested to wear a jacket and tie in order to participate in the classical games.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to order a vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred, of course.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky  (Photo: Wikimedia)
With an obsession for gambling, Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky became fascinated with Baden Baden though his losses at the casino frequently left him drowning in debt. His short novel The Gambler takes place there, although it is identified by another name in the book.

Not surprisingly, Baden Baden retains a strong Russian influence even today.

In 2009, Russian art collector Alexander Ivanov opened the small but elegant Faberge Museum in the city featuring nearly 700 objects. Among the treasures is the Rothschild Faberge egg which Ivanov purchased for over ten million dollars at auction at Christie’s in London in 2007.

Baden Baden in winter  (Photo: Baden Baden Tourism)
With a steady calendar of events, Baden Baden is a year-round destination.

Four museums, including the internationally acclaimed Frieder Burda Museum, beckon to be explored along the Lichtenthaler Allee.

The Kurhaus and theater offer a continuous array of concerts, exhibitions and recitals, and with seating for 2,500 patrons, the opera house is second only in size to the grand opera house of Paris.

Spring, summer and fall bring international horse racing events to the area. There is also golf, tennis and mile upon mile of well- maintained hiking trails.

Christmas market in Baden Baden  (Photo: Bob Taylor)
From the end of November until just after Christmas, Baden Baden comes alive with more than 100 stalls in its Christmas market featuring local arts and crafts, live music, Christmas decorations and, of course, hot spiced wine and delicious food.

Once the summer residence of kaisers and kings, Baden Baden might just be the grandest spot in Europe to finish a holiday. Indulge yourself in a place of genteel, sophisticated pleasures where visitors may actually be wealthy or simply enjoy pretending they are. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Paradise found in the BVI’s Guana Island

White Bay Beach, Guana Island  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
GUANA ISLAND, BVI, July 11, 2014 – Now that the wicked winter weather that enveloped much the U.S. in a shroud of snow and ice is a distant memory, the warmth of the Caribbean still beckons, even if it is off-season. And if Mother Nature ever went on vacation, Guana Island might be one of the places she would choose.

Guana Island from the air  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Situated on the Atlantic Ocean side of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Guana is an 850-acre private wildlife and nature sanctuary just waiting to be explored.

For nearly 4-decades, Guana’s owner, Dr. Henry Jarecki, an American academic, psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his wife, Gloria, have cultivated their island treasure into a haven for birdwatchers and lovers of the environment in an elegant pristine setting.

In the 18th century, two families came to Guana as part of the “Quaker Experiment” in the British Virgin Islands.  Using African slaves, the Quakers cultivated sugar cane for about forty-five years.

In 1975, the Jareckis purchased Guana from another American family, and they have been improving accommodations and facilities ever since.  Today, Guana Island can host up to 36 guests in stone cottages nestled along the crest of one of its small mountain peaks.  There are seven white sand beaches, four of which are accessible only by boat, three reefs, a salt marsh and more plant life species than any island of equal size in the Caribbean.

Anegada living room  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Don’t look for telephones, TVs, restaurants or shops.  In fact, food for the superbly prepared culinary meals on Guana must be brought in by boat from neighboring Tortola.  What you can expect are magnificent sunsets, pervasive solitude and casual elegance.  So much so that in its earliest years, when Guana had no electricity or running water, guests still dressed for dinner
Guana is one of two islands the Jareckis own in the BVI.  The other is the uninhabited Norman Island which is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island.”

Life on Guana is eternal summer, and the livin’ is always easy.  White Beach Bay is the closest, and most accessible, beach to the island’s facilities.  Visitors can walk down from their rooms that nestle along the spine of the mountain or they can arrive by jitney.  Service is not a problem for guests who spend the day in the sun and sand, they just ring the ship’s bell and a jitney will arrive to provide drinks, lunch, towels or any other “necessities.”  This is no place for the television’s “Survivor” because no one would ever be voted off the island.

Timeless beauty   (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Lunch and transportation will also be arranged for those who wish to enjoy the seclusion of one the four “hidden” beaches that ring the island.

A natural veranda faces a breathtaking setting for nightly sky-shows that seem to swallow the heavens in a palette of brilliant yellow, gold and orange as visitors absorb the twilight through their pores. 

Peering down to the rocky shores below, some 50 species of birds glide along unseen currents of air as if they are drawing the darkening curtain of night across the water to envelope the surrounding cliffs that plunge to the sea.

Pathway to Paradise  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Hikers can enjoy a network of 20 trails that lead past flocks of Caribbean flamingos, colonies of brown pelicans, hundreds of species of insects and plants and fourteen species of reptiles and amphibians. 

Guana is not a place for travelers who enjoy glitzy nightlife, neon lights and crowded pubs that close in the wee hours of the morning.  It may take several hours or a day to ease yourself into Guana’s own unique rhythm and beguiling charms.  Be warned however, Guana is infectious, and once you yield to its contagious allure, it may take weeks to recover.

Typical room at Guana Island  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Rates are seasonal for a Sea View Cottage at $695 a night, per person, double occupancy to a high of $1,550 a night, PPDO.  Rates include three meals, wine at lunch and dinner, cocktails, most recreational equipment, laundry service and round-trip taxi and boat service for stays of four nights or longer.  There is a 17 percent tax added to the bill upon departure.

It is possible to rent the entire island of Guana if you have a group that wants to savor the experience of having an entire island to themselves.  Based upon 32 guests, the lowest exclusive rental is from October to mid-December at $22,000 per night.  The highest rate is $33,975 a night from mid
December until January 3rd.  Rates can also be quoted for less than 32 guests or for a maximum of 36.

Room with a view  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Getting to Guana is relatively easy.  You can fly into Beef Island Airport at the end of Tortola where Guana’s staff will pick you up for the short boat transfer to their elegant world of privacy and seclusion.  Commercial carriers offer service to Beef Island via San Juan, St. Thomas and Antigua.

Water, water everywhere  (Photo: Guana Island Club)
Just in case you were wondering, the iguana shaped rock formation jutting from Monkey Point is the source of the island’s name.  

If you’re looking for a total escape from the cares of the world, Guana Island might just be the answer, for it, too, is a “Treasure Island.”  Mother Nature would agree.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Zurich’s Kronenhalle Restaurant: A perfect blend of cuisine and art

Kronenhalle's staff of culinary artists  (Photo: Kronenhalle)
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND July 4, 2014 – The Kronenhalle Restaurant in Zurich, Switzerland is one of those unusual places where fact and fiction merge to make it bigger than life.

When it comes to “food for thought” the Kronenhalle is definitely the place to be in Zurich, and it is as popular with locals as it is with travelers.

Imagine elegant cuisine served within a grand museum where the likes of such creative masters as Picasso, Miro, Matisse and Chagall join you for dinner. If that comes to your mind, you have conjured the concept that Gottleib and Hulda Zumsteg had when they opened their landmark restaurant in 1921.

Hulda Zumsteg  (Photo: Kronenhalle)
The Kronenhalle was originally a beer hall until Gottleib and Hulda put their life savings into the venture. Soon it became a haven for musicians, writers and artists from all over Europe. By the mid-1930s and the onset of World War II, Kronenhalle’s legend had grown to grand proportions.

Not only was the restaurant a major gathering spot for Europe’s greatest thinkers and artists, thanks to Swiss neutrality, it also became an important international crossroads for espionage before and during the war.

Switzerland has an art heritage that is frequently overlooked due to better known museums and collections in surrounding countries. Combined with its neutrality and more than 700 years as a democratic nation (with no history of royalty), many of the world’s great private art collections reside in this country and remain intact.

Seeking refuge from a world gone mad, many members of the international creative communities over the ages made their way to Switzerland. Because the Zumsteg’s were art lovers and collectors themselves, the Kronenhalle became an important place to see and be seen.

Kronenhalle: Where dining is art  (Photo: Kronenhalle)
Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were regular patrons, as was James Joyce who wrote considerable portions of Ulysses while sitting at a corner table in the main dining room. Joyce’s presence is still commemorated today with a portrait that hangs over his favorite table.

It is difficult to determine where truth ends and legend begins at Kronenhalle. The story goes that Hulda would provide free meals to many of the impoverished artists who patronized her establishment. Basically, what she really did was recycle leftovers of unfinished dishes ordered by her wealthy customers to provide food for the artists.

Sometimes, so the legend goes, artists would donate original works of art in exchange for meals, but Hulda also encouraged them to hang their work in the restaurant in the hope that customers would like what they saw and buy something.

The concept was a win-win for everyone. As the artists became increasingly famous in their own right, the restaurant walls were now covered with priceless works of art. Kronenhalle had become a museum of dining as well as artistic pleasure/

In addition to the art, Kronenhalle became known throughout the region for its cuisine by employing world class chefs from Bavaria, Alsace and Switzerland. The most popular item on the menu remains the classic traditional dish called “Zurcher Geschnetzeltes” or sliced veal in gravy.

Regional specialties include smoked pork, shredded calves liver and filet of sole. Rosti, or hash browned potatoes Swiss-style, is also a favorite.

As might be expected, any place catering to the jet-setting lifestyles of the rich and famous will take a bite out of your wallet when you finish eating your meal, but if you plan in advance, then Kronenhalle is a dining experience to be remembered.
Giocometti and Picasso unite at the Kronenhalle bar  (Photo: Kronenhalle)
One suggestion if the menu is too rich for your taste: take a brief tour of the restaurant and then enjoy drinks in the bar. The house specialty drink is called the “Ladykiller.”

The Swiss sculptors Alberto and Diego Giacometti created all of the furnishings. Marc Chagall designed the stained glass window on the outside wall of the bar while Pablo Picasso donated several sketches, including a self-portrait.

Just look around and you will discover plenty of other original art adorning the walls.

Dining is an experience at Kronenhalle  (Photo: Kronenhalle)
Though Gottfried and Hulda loved art, it was their son Gustav who purchased most of the family’s private collection which sold at auction after his death for approximately $10-million. It was through Gustav that the family became personal friends with Chagall, Matisse, Miro and the Giacomettis, and today, when the current family proprietors are on site, they will gladly share delightful personal stories of their associations with these famous artistic acquaintances.

Simply put, Zurich’s Kronenhalle Restaurant is dining that is state-of-the-art.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Siena. Italy’s Palio is the Kentucky Derby on steroids

Frenzy around a turn in Siena
SIENA, ITALY, June 27. 2014 – Be it horses or horsepower, May is a month for racing…except in Italy. .Italians pay no attention because when it comes to racing, nothing matches the Palio of Siena.

As they dust off funky hats and mix batches of mint juleps in Louisville for the Derby; refrigerate milk in Indianapolis at the 500; ice down Coca Cola for Charlotte’s 600-mile stock car race, and chill champagne at Monte Carlo’s Grand Prix, in Siena they are preparing for two 90-second horse races filled with months of ceremony and celebration.

Each year, on July 2 and August 16, ten horses and bareback riders dressed in the representative colors of their districts, or contrada, circle the Piazza del Campo three times for the honor of winning the Palio. “Honor” is hardly appropriate, however, for Il Palio, as it is known to the locals. It is all about frenzy and war on horseback. The prize for winning is called the pallium, which is nothing more than a hand-painted silk banner, but it carries great significance for the victorious district.

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Known around the globe for its beauty and architecture, Siena’s shell-shaped Piazza del Campo is one of the great spaces of Europe. From the labyrinth of Siena’s ancient claustrophobic streets, no less than eleven gateways radiate toward the piazza that suddenly opens into a glorious medieval arena.

Following the initial mouth-dropping awe of the setting, the first thing visitors notice is that Piazza del Campo is anything but flat. The square slopes downward toward a row of administrative buildings known as Palazzo Pubblico, which, in turn, feed to the dangerous San Martino bend of the track. So treacherous is San Martino to navigate that during the races mattresses are placed against the walls to protect jockeys from injury if they fall. It’s not uncommon to see riderless horses at the finish line.

Race day at the Campo in Siena
Just before race day, operators lay a thick layer of dirt around the Campo to form the track. Thousands of spectators gather around the perimeter, peering from windows, balconies, loggias and rooftops.
Space in the center of the track is equally congested but far less desirable because the throngs of humanity become sequestered for several hours until the race has concluded. 

The Palio is not a manufactured tourist event. Rather its roots lie deeply ingrained within the history of the city. The Sienese (Contrade) are passionate about their races and, though they embrace anyone and everyone who wishes to participate, the Palio is a major part of the city’s identity.

Less than two minutes of chaos on horseback
Once divided into 59 contrada, today only 17 remain. The neighborhoods evolved during the Middle Ages as a means of defending themselves from their enemies in Florence and other surrounding city-states. As a result, each community has its own identity with a coat of arms, emblems, colors, patron saints and festivals. All of which adds to the rivalries and competitive fervor when Palio season rolls around.

For many decades Siena, and other cities, held horse races and competed in other games as part of their religious and ceremonial events. Today, only the Palio survives as a celebration of giving thanks to the Madonna.

The July 2 Palio honors Madonna dell’Assunta who protected Siena against Florence in the year 1260. The second race on August 16 is called Madonna di Provenzano resulting from a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near houses once belonging to Provenzano Salvani.

A gala traditional ceremony
For travelers, opportunities abound to experience the spirit of the Palio without seeing the races themselves. Each event features four days of parades, pageantry and ceremony leading up to the actual running of the race.

Selection day brings great excitement to Piazza del Campo when a traditional ritual announces the chosen ten contrade to compete in the race. Thousands gather as the banners of the selected individual districts are slowly unfurled from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tension mounts dramatically as each new banner displays, while officials agonizingly taunt the crowd by delaying the tenth, and final, pennant.

Dropping the rope, the race begins
Each district has its own traditions and events as well. In the evening, rows of 50-foot tables fillrd with pasta, fruit, vegetables and other local cuisine. Visitors are openly welcomed and provided with endless details about why each particular district is the best of the lot.

During the day parades of flag-waving minstrels dressed in medieval clothing make their way through the winding streets of the city.

Not to missed are the muse della contrada, or district museums. Each neighborhood has one that displays memorabilia, drawings, paintings, photographs, uniforms and costumes from previous Palio events.

When race time finally arrives, spectators pack themselves along both sides of the track anxiously waiting for the starting rope to drop and the three lap clockwise sprint to glory to begin.

Pandemonium on horseback
A brief 90 seconds later a riotous cacophony of colorful, enthusiastic celebration erupts in the square. Though the Palio has concluded,  preparations are already underway to see who will earn bragging rights in the next demolition derby on horseback known as The Palio. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Midsummer Night’s Dream Summer solstice in Scandinavia

SCANDINAVIA, June 20 2014 – If you are ever fortunate enough to be traveling during a national or regional holiday or festival, take the opportunity to participate.

Midsummer is one such event that is especially important in Scandinavia during the month of June.  Its roots lie in the pagan celebration of the summer solstice which pays homage to the longest day of the year.  In Sweden since the mid-twentieth century the holiday has been celebrated on the weekend between June 19 and 26.

The festivities are carefree and high spirited, featuring folk dancing, traditional clothing, parades, bands and, of course, plenty of traditional Swedish food.  Each village throughout Sweden observes the day in its own way, but much the same as the Fourth of July in the United States, certain traditions are similar throughout the country.

Typically a small band of revelers will begin the Midsummer festival by gathering at the far end of a village during early morning hours.  When enough people – ten or fifteen is enough -- have assembled, a cheerful parade is organized and runs through the streets of the town.

Flags wave.  Horns blare.  Neighbors greet neighbors encouraging others to join the party.  It’s a spontaneous affair signaling the onset of a daylong celebration.  There are no uniforms, floats, or marching bands, no clowns or massive balloons.  There is no pomp or ceremony other than the serendipitous invitation to partake in the fun.

The parade typically ends at a local park or an open area large enough to accommodate the revelry that will continue throughout the day’s journey into night.  Crowns of wildflowers are woven and placed on the heads of the women, especially the youngest girls who delight in honoring their Swedish heritage.
One of the primary responsibilities for the women and youngsters is decorating the maypole, which is an ongoing activity throughout the day until the big moment when the pole is raised. 

Often an elevated stage with a dance floor is constructed for the band and local entertainers to perform time-honored folk dances.  While many celebrants watch, others join in on the grass, swinging and swaying to the native music of the country.  Especially popular is the Chicken Dance, which is played on multiple occasions and always attracts the largest number of participants.

The big event comes in the early evening with the raising of the maypole.  Now the women and children yield to the burliest of the men who take to the testosterone challenge of lodging the pole into its resting place as the band plays an anticipatory drum roll.  When the task is accomplished, a roar goes up from the crowd and the band signals the achievement with a resounding blast of horns.

From that moment forward, dancing centers around the maypole as the food, drink and festivities linger until the soft twilight of day’s end.

At the popular island park of Seurasaari in Helsinki, Finland, Midsummer has a much different 
ambiance.  While parades with traditional clothing and flag waving are part of the ceremonies, the Finns take a slightly more somber approach to the holiday.  Dancing takes place in a large open area with seating for several hundred people.
At mid-day, a wedding is held at the small chapel on one end of the island.  It is regarded as a significant honor to be chosen to be married at Seurasaari on Midsummer’s Eve.  The festival proceeds through the remainder of the day with a variety of events that also include plenty of eating, drinking and dancing.

One of the more popular sporting events is the rousing game of Finnish skittles known as kuukka.  Originally a Russian sport, Finnish skittles consists of two teams throwing rolling pins at small cylindrical pegs which are about half the size of a soup can.  Several pegs are stacked on top of each other at either end of a rectangular court.  Team members take turns trying to knock the pegs out of the playing area with their rolling pins.  The first team to get all the pegs out of the court wins.

As the day draws to a close, Finns begin to gather at the shoreline of the park for a ceremonial bonfire.  Longboats that have been piled on lengthwise on end are heaped upon a small outcropping of rock in the water. 
As the Finns sing their mournful folk songs along the shore, the couple that was married earlier in the day is rowed around the rock in a procession of longboats.  The bride and groom are then docked near the pyre and leave their boat to walk up to the wooden stack of vessels to ignite the bonfire.
The blaze is tremendous, but the mood is solemn as the singing continues in the lingering lumens of light that bring a close to the longest day of the year.

Traditions are one of the best parts of the cultural awareness of travel.  Cherish those moments.  They are unforgettable. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Leipzig, Germany: Where candlelight brought down a wall

LEIPZIG, GERMANY  June 13, 2014 – Travelers to Germany in 2014, especially Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig may encounter a variety of celebrations honoring the 25th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of the country

From October 9 through 12 the “Festival of Lights” will be a highlight in Leipzig, but it is the story behind the festival that must be told.

Many European cities have grand musical traditions. Leipzig is no exception for it is the city of Johan Sebastian Bach.

Bach was choirmaster at the historic Thomaskirche (Church of St. Thomas) for 27 years. Even without his considerable influence, Thomaskirche would have had a rich legacy, but Bach’s reputation made the church even more notable.

It was at the Thomaskirche in May, 1539 that Martin Luther introduced the Protestant Reformation to Leipzig

Some 250 years later, in 1789, Mozart played the church organ there, and in centuries that followed both Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner also performed at the church.

 The church choir has been in existence since 1254.  During Bach's time there were 54 singers in the chorale. Today the world famous Thomaschoir features the voices of 80 boys singing music particularly dedicated to Bach in weekly performances of motets and cantatas, as well as during regular Sunday services.
Though the Church of St. Thomas was Bach's primary venue in Leipzig, he was also choirmaster at St. Nicholas Church during the same period of 1723 to 1750.  Oddly enough, St. Nicholas is nearly a hundred years older than St. Thomas dating to ll65. 

When it was built, St. Nicholas Church was situated at the intersection of two important north-south, east-west trade routes which not only played an important role in Leipzig’s past, but was also critical to the events that reunited Germany in 1989.

Walking through the front door of the Church of St. Nicholas a small, almost insignificant, sign stands outside with just three words written on it.  They simply say, "Open For All.”

Each November during the early 1980s, young people from all over the region would gather at St. Nicholas Church for ten days of prayer for peace. 

There had been large demonstrations all over East Germany protesting the arms race in those days, but the gatherings in Leipzig were regarded as little more than non-violent prayer vigils.  The only places where issues could be openly discussed in Germany were at meetings held in churches, and the Church of St. Nicholas was one of those sites.
Soon a youth group from the church decided to increase the meetings by having prayer services every Monday evening. At first there were only a handful of attendees, but before long more people came to demand justice and respect for human rights. 

Many who participated were non-Christians, but with no other place to gather they regularly attended the meetings. They studied the words of the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, and eventually they came to understood two things; that people should discuss urgent problems with each other and that they also needed to meditate and pray to God for support and guidance. 

Slowly the movement gathered strength.  Each day the church was decorated with flowers. Each night it was filled with the light of hundreds of glowing candles. 

After a while the government took notice and became concerned. From May of 1989 all access roads to Nicholas Church were blocked by police checkpoints. 

Authorities exerted pressure to cancel the peace gatherings, but the prayers continued.  Monday after Monday the meetings were held even though many were detained or arrested.  Soon it became impossible for everyone to get into the church because the numbers were so great.  Yet, still they came. 

In October, the militia battered defenseless East Germans in the streets, but they remained passive, refusing to fight back. 

Hundreds were taken away in trucks.  Many others were locked up in stables, but the people still prayed. 

In early October, St. Nicholas Church was filled with more than 2,000 people inside with thousands more out in the streets.  When the prayers ended, the bishop gave his blessing and made an urgent appeal to the congregation for non-violence. 

As people departed the church, they were greeted by thousands of fellow East Germans standing in the square, standing with candles in their hands. 

To carry a candle outdoors requires two hands.  One holds the candle while the other prevents it from going out.  In order to keep a candle burning it is not possible to carry a stick or a club or a stone. 

It was a miracle.  When police arrived and surrounded the crowd, they didn't know what to do. They were bewildered and quickly lost their incentive to fight.  For the protesters  this was a peace vigil, and they were armed only with candles. 

Soon the police began mingling and talking with the people. Eventually they withdrew.  As one officer said, “We were prepared for everything.  Everything, that is, except candlelight.”

The non-violent peace movement lasted just a few weeks more before the government collapsed.

Not long after, about two hours northeast of Leipzig in Berlin, the notorious wall went crumbling to the ground.. 

In Leipzig, not a single shop window was ever broken during the demonstrations.

Ironically, it all happened exactly 450 years after Martin Luther introduced the Reformation to Leipzig
Leipzig is well worth a visit to experience its two famous churches where Bach was so prolific; the Church of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Church

And as you leave St. Nicholas, be sure to look for thar little sign that says "Open For All” for there is power in those three tiny  words.