Friday, December 29, 2017

New Year's around the world

London is a great setting for New Year's  (

CHARLOTTE, NC – When the ball drops at Times Square om New Year's Eve, most Americans consider that the traditional start of the New Year. Being in the West, by the time New York celebrates, the rest of the world is already enjoying the new beginining. Here are some customs from around the world that are just as unique.
Ancient Babylon was the first place to celebrate New Year's
Did you know, for example, that making New Year's resolutions dates as far back as 2600 B.C. with the Babylonians. Using that as a guide, here are some other Day 1 traditions from around the globe.

Continuing with all good intentions of resolutions, the most common promises deal with diet, exercise, bad habits and other issues regarding personal wellness. Much like making the turn in a round of golf, a new year symbolizes a fresh start, which, also as in golf when the drive off the tenth tee goes askew, resolutions typically only last until January 2nd.
Some folks think a New Year's
swim is fun (wikipedia)

In America, New Year's is a time filled with champagne, fireworks, football, concerts, confetti and parades often while gathering with friends and loved ones to celebrate.

Often the New Year's Day menu consists of circular shaped cuisine to remind us that the first day of the year sets the precedent for the upcoming days of the calendar.
Irish pastries are known as
Bannocks (wikipedia)

Eating any ring-shaped treat, such as a doughnut, harkens to the idea of "coming full circle" which represents good fortune.

In Holland, fritters called olie bollen are served, while the Irish enjoy pastries known as "bannocks" and in India and Pakistan rice brings promises of prosperity. The typical Jewish tradition is eating apples dipped in honey.
The Dutch eat fritters called "olie bollen" (wikipedia)
There is frequently a midnight feast in the Philippines that consists of twelve rounds of fruit symbolizing each month of the year. Also popular is sticky rice and noodles, although chicken or fish are regarded as taboo because those creatures are foragers and, therefore, a symbol of bad luck for the coming year's food supply.
Spaniards eat twelve grapes at midnight for good luck
(Spain info)
At the stroke of midnight Spaniards eat twelve grapes to represent each month of the year. Though a nice tradition, others might prefer to drink their way through the custom only to suffer the "wrath of grapes" in the morning.
Greens and black-eyed peas are the food of choice in the South
in the United States (wikipedia)
In the southern United States, black-eyed peas, collard greens, cornbread, hoppin' John and Pot Likker soup are favorites. Other parts of the country find cabbage and pork more to their taste.
Swiss fireworks are among the
best  (
Meanwhile, the normally ultra-fastidious Swiss prefer to drop dollops of whipped cream on the floor and allow them to remain there!

Being the first day of the year, it is always a good idea to "put your best foot forward." Thus the superstition goes that the first person, therefore the "first foot," to cross a threshold after midnight will predict the family fortune for the coming year.

The "first foot" tradition has numerous variations, but the people deemed the most fortunate "first footers" are new brides, new mothers, tall-dark, handsome men or anyone born on January 1. By the way, "first footers" are also known as "Lucky Birds."

The key to activating this superstition to the fullest however, is not to let anything leave the house on New Year's Day except people.

According to tradition, don't take out the trash on New Year's Day. Leave anything else you might want to remove from the house outside the night before. The only option, if you must take something out, is to replace it by bringing something else inside in order to maintain balance.

Also, you should avoid paying bills, breaking anything or shedding tears.

Wassail is a spicy hot drink in
the UK  (
Toasting is, of course, one of the most popular New Year's traditions. In some parts of England, a punch-like drink called Wassail, after the Gaelic term for "good health," is a favorite.

The Scots have their own version of Wassail which is a spiced "hot pint" that is traditionally guzzled in honor of each other's prosperity. The toast is also usually accompanied with a small gift.  

Otherwise, champagne is the toast of choice throughout most of the world.
In northern regions, swimming in frozen lakes and rivers is
considered "fun"  (wikipedia)
On the other hand, there are a few odd traditions such as running into a body of water in coastal regions as a means of cleansing or "rebirth."

The crowds in Spain rival Times Square in New York
(eye on spain)
Some of the more hardy northern regions of Canada, Scandinavia, the UK, the Netherlands and, even, the US enjoy a "Polar Bear Plunge" by diving into icy or semi-frozen bodies of water to raise money for charity.

Since religion was suppressed in Russia for many years, Christmas was banned, thus making New Year's an even bigger celebration. In Moscow there are fireworks and a massive holiday party is televised from Red Square and decorated trees, which were forbidden until December 26th suddenly make an appearance during the week leading up to New Year's Eve.

The French start the year off
with mistletoe (wikipedia)
The French typically celebrate New Year’s by marking the first moments of New Year’s Day with kisses under the mistletoe, a custom most other cultures associate with Christmas.

The day’s weather forecast for the upcoming year’s harvest is also important in France taking into account aspects like wind direction to predict the fruitfulness of crops and fishing.

New Year's just wouldn't seem right without noise. Celebrations in the Philippines, for example, are very loud, believing the noise will scare away evil beings.
Rajahstan, India lights up the New Year's night (India Today)
In ancient Thailand, guns were fired to frighten away the demons, but in China, firecrackers routed the forces of darkness. The early American colonies employed the sound of pistol shots.

Today, Italians let their church bells peal, the Swiss beat drums and North Americans sound sirens and   party horns to bid the old year farewell.
Scottish writer Robert Burns
published "Auld Lang Syne"
(Poetry Foundation)
And finally, the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world.
Partially written by Robert Burns in the 1700’s, it was first published in 1796 after Burns’ death. Early variations of the song were sung prior to 1700, inspiring Burns to produce the modern version of an old Scottish tune that literally means “old long ago,” or simply, “the good old days.”
Fireworks at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland are breathtaking
(welcome to scotland)
And so from the "good old days" to the hopefully "good new days" of 2018, here's wishing everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2017

When Normandy is in bloom

Monet's Japanese Bridge at his beloved lily pond  (wikipedia)
NORMANDY, FRANCE -- In 1883,  Claude Monet moved to the tiny village of Giverny and established one of the most famous gardens in France. Today, thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream and ever changing weather patterns alternating between rich sunshine and soaking rain, the French region of Normandy region of France is an agricultural wonderland where Giverny is only the beginning.
Clos Normand at Giverny is a rainbow in bloom year-round
Lower Normandy features dozens of gardens filled with all manner of colors and forms ranging from knot gardens, to sweeping parklands to arboretums and rare tropical collections. Mix in hundreds of manor houses and chateaux from Caen to Cherbourg and you have a recipe for landscaping treasures at their finest.

The gardens at Chateau de Canon seem to beckon visitors to
draw near  (cherbourg tourism)

 The Gardens of Château de Canon: Château de Canon’s expansive 37 acre gardens express their originality in the period statues and follies that adorn the lawns, trails, ponds and waterfalls. Among the garden’s attractions you will discover the neoclassical Temple de la Pleureuse, the Mirror of Glass pond, a Chinese Pagoda and the magnificent "Chartreuse" with a dozen separate walled sections or "chambres" that once harbored Canon’s espaliered fruit trees. 

Opening times:
April, May, June and September: Every day except Tuesday from 2 pm to 6 pm
July and August: Every day from 10:30 am to 1 pm and from 2 pm to 6 pm
Château de Canon14270 MEZIDON-CANON

Hidden gazebo at Chateau de Vendeuvre  (calvados tourism)
 The Gardens of Château de Vendeuvre: Château de Vendeuvre has the benefit of viewing four gardens in a single visit: a perfect jardin à la française, the Utility Garden with its pyramidal ice-house, the water gardens (prepare to get wet) and the recently created Exotic Garden.  Featuring rare trees, countless topiaries, a host of ornamental constructions, fountains and ponds, tropical and aquatic plants, there’s almost too much to see in one visit.

The formal gardens of the 18th century château on the edge of the Pays d’Auge are the inspiration of the present day Count of Vendeuvre. The classic lay-out is strictly symmetrical with scrolling designs that are accented by gravel reserves and box hedges set in the lawns.

Opening times:
April: Every day from 2 pm to 6 pm
May to September: Every day from 11 am to 6 pm
October: Sunday, school breaks and public holidays: from 
2 pm to 6 pm
Château de Vendeuvre14170 VENDEUVRE

Brecy was favored by many French authors
(calvados tourism)

The Gardens of Château de Brécy: Brécy’s park is one of the best conserved 17th-century parcs à la française in France. Designed by architect François Mansart in the late 1600s, the house, terraces, gateways and ornamental statuary form a harmonious ensemble. You’ll discover topiaries, two-headed stone dogs and artichoke-shaped fountains.

Novelist, Jacques de Lacretelle, restored the boxwood knot garden in 1958. Another French author, Jean de la Varende, was struck by the garden’s "inexplicable magnificence." If France’s famous literary sons struggled to put Brécy’s splendor into words then perhaps we shouldn’t try – simply enjoying the experience is enough.

Opening times:

From Easter to All Saints: Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday and public holidays from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm (plus Saturday in June)
Château de Brécy, 14480 SAINT-GABRIEL-BRECY

Les Sources d'Elle Gardens links a series of pond derived from
the River Elle  (

Les Sources d'Elle Gardens: The name of this series of ponds is derived from the River Elle which begins its meandering journey here among 90 acres of woods and flower-filled meadows. Long a favorite place for fishermen, this vast arboretum is well worth a visit, especially in May and June for the flowering rhododendron, and from June to October for the wildflower meadows.

Opening times:

March to October: Every day from 7:30 am to 7 pm
Parc des Sources d'Elle, Rouxeville 50810 SAINT-GERMAIN-D'ELLE

Vauville's exotic botanical gardens feature 1200 species of southern-hemisphere plants  (

The Botanical Gardens of Château de Vauville: Situated just a stone’s throw from the west coast of the Cherbourg 
peninsula, an exotic botanical garden at Château  deVauville surrounds the property with 12th-century origins. Ten acres of gardens, created in 1947 by the Pellerin family, are home to more than 1,200 species of southern-hemisphere plants.

Many tropical species thrive due to the Gulf Stream’s warming effects. Here visitors encounter eucalyptus, gunneras, echiums, 

bamboos, azaleas, amaryllis, rhododendron as well as France's

most northerly palm trees. 

This bud's for you

The nearby 150 acre Vauville Nature Reserve is also well worth a visit. This natural heathland is a haven for wild birds including woodcock, mallard duck and warblers.

Opening times:

April to June and September to October: Every day from 
2 pm to 6 pm
July and August: Every day from 2 pm to 7 pm
Château de Vauville, 50440 VAUVILLE

Chateau Ravalet now belongs to the city of Cherbourg
(cherbourg tourism)

The Park of the Château des Ravalet: Vicomte René de Tocqueville, the nephew of noted French aristocrat, diplomat and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville,  restored this park in 1872  creating  35 acres of French/English-style landscapes. 

Abundant wildlife is a feature
of Ravalet  (cherbourg tourism)
The well-preserved Renaissance château now belongs to the town of Cherbourg, and visitors flock to appreciate the water features, exotic species, meadows and beach woods that surround it. A superb 19th-century rotunda glasshouse is one of the many treasures. The Mandala Garden and the Island Meadow are recent additions by French botanist, Gilles Clément

Opening times:
January, November and December: Weekends and public holidays
February: 8:30 am to 6 pm
March and October: 8 am to 6:30 pm
April and September: 8 am to 7 pm
May, June, July and August: 8 am to 8 pm
Château des Ravalet, 50110 CHERBOURG-EN-COTENTIN
Nacqueville has ties with Alexis de Tocqueville
(normandie tourism)
The Park of the Château de Nacqueville: Château de Nacqueville bears yet another link to Alexis de Tocqueville who described it as “one of the prettiest places on Earth." Never mind that the landscaping was competed by de Tocqueville's brother
Tocqueville's brother did
the landscaping
(normandie tourisim)
Hippolyte, the 16th-century manor house with its charming gothic gatehouse is surrounded by a manicured landscape of lawns and beech woods complete with a meandering stream that spills into a shimmering lake. Rhododendron, azaleas and hydrangeas grow in abundance in a microclimate warmed by the Gulf Stream. Come in May and June to catch the best of the blossom.

Opening times:
From May to September: Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and public holidays from 12 pm to 6 pm
Château de Nacqueville, 50460 URVILLE-NACQUEVILLE

Chateau de Canisy dates to William the Conqueror  (Taylor)
The Gardens of Château de Canisy: Created in the English style in the 19th-century, the park of Château de Canisy covers 90 acres. A long avenue of chestnut trees brings the visitor to the vast but secluded landscape, past the animal park, botanical garden and finally the chateau itself: a late-16th-century historic monument. Behind the main house is a lake bisected by a causeway. 
Canisy is a thousand years old

Via a rushing waterfall, the lake feeds a lower pond, created in the 1990s. Wild duck, geese and swans are permanent residents. A network of trails can be followed through the park and into hundreds of acres of surrounding farmland.

Opening times:
Open every day throughout the year
Château de Canisy, 50750 CANISY

Normandy is filled with garden treasures to suit any taste

The website WeLoveNormandy offers even more information detailing everything you need to know about the region of Normandy in France. Even Mr. Monet would be proud.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Italy's wondrous collection of small towns (Part II)

Souvenir shops in the quaint village of Alberobello  (Taylor)

ITALY – Perhaps no country has a greater concentration of charming small villages and towns. Continuing our look at Italy's ten best undiscovered villages as rated by "Conde Nast Traveler", here is the second group of five.
Pietrapertosa clings to the edge of the cliff on which it is built

Pietrapertosa: With a reputation as one of the most dramatic towns in Italy, Pietrapertosa is the highest village in all of Basilicata, a little known region in southern Italy.

Sitting precipitously on the edges of the rock upon which it is built, Pietrapertosa is justifiably known as the "City in the Clouds," a designation that often scares and amazes visitors.

The zipline is a main attraction
At 3,500 feet above sea level, more adventurous travelers thrill to the views of the town and its surroundings from Il Volo dell'Angelo, reputed to be the world's longest, highest and fastest zipline.

More sedate visitors will enjoy countless ancient ruins including the 9th century Saracen castle, a fortification dominated by a natural arch that was once used as a look-out and offers spectacular panoramas.

Belluno nestles within a mountainous setting along the
shores of a lake  (wikipedia)
Belluno: Everyone knows about Venice but roughly 60 miles north, slightly more than an hour's drive from the meandering Grand Canal, sits Belluno, one of the best kept secrets in northern Italy.

Filled with Renaissance architecture, palazzi and churches, Belluno is tucked beneath the snowcapped Dolomite Mountains while rising upon high bluffs overlooking the Piave River. The result being 360-degree views that led to its Celtic name belo-dunum  which means "splendid hill.

Founded sometime between 220 and 200 ABC, Belluno's geography made it strategically advantageous not only for itself but for other villages to the south. It was also an important supplier of iron and copper.

In more modern times Belluno was an important hub for transporting lumber on the Piave River.

An earthquake in 1873 heavily damaged much of the town including the cathedral, however the campanile was spared.

Sperlonga peers out the the infinite from its cliffside perch

Sperlonga: While most people are more familiar with the island of Capri as a former hideaway for many Roman emperors, the coastal town of Sperlonga sits half the distance between Rome and Naples making it more convenient for weekend escapes.

Located near the Via Appia, or Appian Way, Sperlonga, with its lovely pristine beaches, was originally known for the sea grotto along its coast which gave the town its name.

Emperor Tiberius later embellished the grotto with a magnificent villa filled with exquisite sculptures that are today exhibited in at Museo Archeologico di Sperlonga. Many of the sculptures celebrate the deeds of Odysseus.
Sperlonga's grotto is a main attraction
(en wikipedia)
For scenery, the Torre Truglia, which sits at the tip of 

Sperlonga's promontory is the best place for taking pictures.

Cefalu's picturesque coastline makes it a favorite for film
makers  (Taylor)
Cefalù: When it comes to seaside villages, Cefalu, Sicily, just an hour outside of Palermo, is one of the best. Not only is Cefalu famous for its cathedrals filled with mosaics, it is also popular, thanks to its notoriety as a favorite setting for many Italian films, including the Academy Award winning "Cinema Paradiso" (1968)
Cefalu capitalizes on its ties to
"The Godfather"(Taylor)
Thanks in large part to the success of "The Godfather" trilogy, which has its roots in Sicily, Cefalu has capitalized on those films as a means of promoting its close associations with Italian film-making.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Cefalu each year to stroll leisurely along the picturesque seafront promenade and to view the sunset from La Rocca, the city's beloved mountain.

Quaint narrow streets of Cefalu  (Taylor)
There is evidence of human activity in the area dating as far back as prehistoric times and, sometime during the 5th and 4th centuries BC the sacred Temple of Diana was built over an existing cistern associated with the worship of the waters.
Alberobello's trulli will capture your imagination  (Taylor)
Alberobello: It has only been in recent years that the back side of Italy's boot has become a popular destination for visitors. One of the main attractions in the region of Puglia is the tiny hamlet of Alberobello with its distinctive buildings known as "trulli."

Trulli are traditional dry stone huts that are specific to the Itria Valley in Puglia. Typically, a trullo is rectangular building with a pyramidal, domed or conical cornbelled roof.

Rush hour in the sleepy village of Alberobello  (Taylor)

Roughly worked limestone boulders are collected from nearby fields, whitewashed and built directly onto the limestone bedrock without using mortar or cement.

So unique are these enchanting little dwellings that Alberobello was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

Italy's small towns are as much fun as they are unique  (Taylor)

Alberobello is great fun for a casual stroll through town and shopping, but the best overall views of the village can be seen from Piazza del Popolo at the Belvedere Trulli lookout.

So there you have it, a dozen new places (less two) to visit in your search for some of the best kept secrets in Italy and on the planet.