A very British Christmas

This year marked my first Christmas away from a familial home, instead deciding to remain in my English domicile. Upon relaying this intention to friends, the oft-reply wished me glad tidings, “you’ll be having a Charles Dickens Christmas!” Somewhat confused by this comment because I intended to stay in posh North London, not removed to the 19th century Victorian era. Nevertheless, I decided to ponder the prospective meaning of an English Noël.

One lovely aspect of Christmas in the U.K. (a nominally Christian country) is the unabashed awareness and unreserved “Happy Christmas” that passes many lips. Most everyone celebrates the holiday in some fashion regardless of religious persuasion, largely due to the cultural importance and inclusivity of the day.

My Christmas-day dawned with midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s with excited chirps of children blended into carols and Latin sung choruses. Evergreen branches sparsely decorated the church’s towering columns with vaulted ceilings compelling the eye toward enormous stained glass windows rising above the ornate gothic altar. When the pipe organ bellowed the closing hymn, Adeste Fideles, the church bells gracefully began to chime and I instinctively reached for my iPhone to capture the uplifting experience. Suppressing the notion, I momentarily chastised myself, closed my eyes and continued singing.

Somewhere betwixt the quaintly illuminated High Street decorations, a BBC special showcasing the nation’s best loved Christmas food and my own feast finale of flaming traditional pudding, I realised the magical merriment of Christmas in Britain – a truly Dickensian* Yuletide.

*Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] b.  characterized by jollity and conviviality a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree

Joyous sentiments of British Christmas culminate in New Year celebrations and fireworks over the Thames ~ for those observing the Gregorian calendar, best wishes for 2013!

Villages, Vineyards and Villas… oh my!

Oh yes! That was my answer when I was invited to a friend’s weeklong milestone-birthday celebration at a Tuscan villa. Although I have been to Italy numerous times over the years, I’d never been to Tuscany. Despite my love of all things Italian from coffee and pasta to art and history, in my recent travels I have exchanged Europe’s accessibility for more exotic far eastern locales. Still you would be crazy to decline a week in Tuscany, touted as one of the most beautifully romantic and vibrantly picturesque places on earth.

To describe the landscape of the region break out the adjectives, add a generous helping of superlatives and you have the loveliest-quaint-bucolic-most serene Tuscan countryside. Cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves dance along the rolling hills and intermittently scattered along the vast tracks of fertile fields are charming towns which provide endless potential for day-tripping adventures. While Florence is as marvelous as Pisa is infamous, Lucca, Volterra, Siena, San Gimignano and many, many more are well-worth a sojourn.

Another local pursuit is winery-hopping, the Italian version of a pub crawl, and each vineyard has its own unique history, barrel methodology and tasting choices. You may not know your Brunello di Montalcino from your Vino di Nobile di Montepulciano but touring the wineries is a master class in the Sangiovese grape and the art of the vine. Some of the most interesting were Castello Banfi l’Enoteca ~ a castle in a gorgeous location with lovely people and delicious wine; Casato Prime Donne ~ despite being a traditionally male dominated profession, the winemakers here are all women and this vineyard produces bottles of Cenerentola or “Cinderella;” Villa Le Corti ~ wine is literally on tap but unfortunately the proprietress-owner is a most unpleasant Duchess; Fattoria Corzano e Paterno ~ Arianna and her family run this vineyard, farm and working dairy which produces artisanal sheep cheeses making tastings especially scrumptious; Antinori’s Badia di Passignano ~ in the Chianti Classico region, barrels here are aged in the property’s 4th century monastery and you should not miss an exquisite dinner with wine pairings at Osteria di Passignano.

After a day’s indulgence you need somewhere to lay your head. Accommodation options in Tuscany are plentiful but if you are traveling with friends why not rent a villa; for roughly $12K per week you can stay at Enzo and Annagloria Corti’s spectacular Villa Torre Il Santo located in Tavernelle in Val di Pesa. Ah, la dolce vita.

Ciao!

3 Photos, Tuscany Revealed

Roman Quickie

Prior to a holiday in the Italian countryside, I opted for a few days in the eternally everything city of Rome. Not my first rodeo on the city’s tourist track, I elected to visit some quintessential sites along the well-trodden Appian before scouting the local haunts.

Colosseum

First on the must-see-again list is Vatican City. Regardless of your religious preference, spending a few pleasurable hours seeking out the Masters’ works in painting and sculpture should not be missed. Beauty emanates throughout the museum’s ornate hallways from mosaic floors to gilded ceilings.

School of Athens ~ Raphael

Post-art intoxication, pick a neighbourhood to explore like trendy Tridente. Enjoy a gelato whilst window shopping for the latest fashions on display in the area’s designer boutiques.

Gelateria… stracciatella per favore!

Meander down the stylish Via Condotti towards the crowd-filled Spanish Steps. As evening descends unwind with cocktails and a view at the Hi-Res bar in Hotel Valadier, which could compete with the best of L.A.’s see-and-be-scene. Prosecco darling?

Hi-Res Bar

Before you leave, remember to toss a few coins in Trevi fountain. It’s a must. Oh Rome, you are a feast for my eyes and sweet nectar for my soul.

Fontana di Trevi

London Nightscapes: Parliament, Big Ben, River Thames

London puts on a show for Christmas. We have Trafalgar Square’s giant Norwegian Spruce, the glamorous glitz of Oxford Street bursting with lights, a Winter Wonderland extravaganza in Hyde Park, and various “traditional German” Christmas markets. Multi-cultural Londoners universally wish each other “Happy Christmas” bidding glad tidings and good-will to one and all. When I recently visited the Christmas market held on London’s South Bank, it was one beautiful night in the capital. Here are my seven favourite photos.

~ Season’s Greetings from merry old England 

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Getting Christmas-y in Prague

Germany and Austria reign supreme among Europe’s best traditional Christmas markets, however Prague is consistently a top ten pre-Noël destination in part for its atmosphere, market food, and Bohemian crafts, but more-so for the quaint picturesque city that has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since I saw Tom Cruise dashing through Prague’s postcard framed streets in the film Mission: Impossible, I planned to visit the city that seemed to have captured an aura of romance, elegance, and beauty of a by-gone era. Prague does not disappoint.

History

The Czech Republic has a variant and tumultuous history for such a young European country. For quasi-historians like myself here is a very brief romp across the centuries. The area known as Bohemia was settled by and named after a Celtic tribe called the Boii. From early Slavic dynasties to the fourteenth century’s Golden Age, Prague developed into an important cultural centre and capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars, upheaval, Catholic Church versus Protestant Reformers, and the subsequent 300 years of Austrian-Habsburg Emperors. After World War I Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918 however the freedom of this first Republic ended abruptly in 1939 with German occupation. Nazi Protectorate then post-war communist Republic until 1968 when political liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring” (and I thought CNN coined that phrase this year) resulted in Soviet invasion and occupation. Not until 1989’s Velvet Revolution did Czechoslovakia’s dissidents defeat communism and democratic presidential elections followed. After an amicable “Velvet divorce” from Slovakia on 1st January 1993, the Czech Republic was born – the country is not old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US.

Today

Six million tourists a year visit the Czech Republic. According to guidebooks (Lonely Planet’s Encounters by Brett Atkinson was my favourite this trip) Prague has something for everyone – history, culture, art and architecture, music, clubs, and the famous Czech beer. Despite Prague’s recent reputation for a bit of debauchery, wild stag and trashy hen nights courtesy of cheap beer and budget airlines, it is not seedy and being mistaken for a working girl by taking a solo late-night stroll in Wenceslas Square is easily avoided. The four quarters that comprise central Prague each have a distinctive character; the historic Castle District (Hradčany), Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město). Buildings, bridges, and spires aplenty paint the town Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Everything is accessible via bus, tram or metro, but provided you have decent walking shoes it is better to wander through the cobblestone streets and explore hidden alleyways on foot.

Prague Christmas Market

Spring and summer are probably stunning and mid-winter with a blanket of snow must be magical but take the city centre– a European Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade painting– add decorative lights, Christmas trees, festive market faire and you have the charming Christmas markets in Prague. There are two main markets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas came out on the feast of Stephen” (oh you know it) was in fact a Duke and a Czech patron saint. Hum that tune for a minute and already you’re in a festive mood. Shops and stalls sell all kinds of local crafts in varying levels of quality as you’d expect. I bought multi-coloured Bohemian crystal wine goblets and several bottles of Becherovka, a bitter-sweet herbal drink served as an aperitif or liqueur. If you like duck or pork based dishes, you are in for a real treat in the Czech Republic; roast pork served with dumplings and red cabbage is a national favourite. I opted for street stall dining; dinner for two cost less than £10.00 at the Old Town Square –including grog and mulled wine. For dessert a tubular sugar-crusted cake called trdelnik or trdlo. This special pastry is made by ever-so-carefully wrapping dough around a long wooden pole or “trdlo” and then roasted golden brown over an open fire. The hot tubes of crispy-outside-soft-inside baked cylinders are then rolled in a mixture of almond, sugar, and cinnamon powder. For an extra ten crown you can have Nutella spread around the inside. Delicious. To end the day, many churches and venues like the Municipal Building host classical concerts during the holiday season. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

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Enjoy a little of Prague at home – Have a Pilsner Urquell. Czech’s consume more beer (pivo) per person than any other country. Listen to Mozart and wish for someone to invent time travel. Mozart himself conducted at the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 and the legendary Casanova attended. Wish I was there. Be inspired to read or re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka, a Prague hometown literary hero.