Saturday, March 31, 2018

I can’t believe that it’s been already two weeks since we spent a short weekend in the Champagne region drinking champagne with friends in the snow.

Oui! It does snow in France, besides the mountains, just a 45-minute train ride from Paris to Reims. In fact, when we returned to Paris on Sunday afternoon, it was snowing in the City of Lights as well! I wish we had more time to spend in Paris so I could take photos, but we took the early Eurostar back to London on Monday because of work.

This was our first trip to Reims, but we were meeting up with other expat friends who have visited several times before. Luckily, one of our German friends, originally from Burkina Faso, Africa, speaks fluent French, which was quite handy to talk with the friendly French champagne house owners.
This UNESCO World Heritage city is perhaps best known for its champagne since the region surrounding Reims is ideal for growing chardonnay grapes, which are used to make champagne. The major champagne houses, such as Tattinger, Moet & Chandon, G.H. Mumm and Veuve Clicquot, are headquartered here. One of the days, we visited Vranken Pommery, a historic champagne house which achieved fame in the late 1800s under Madame Pommery, which was magically covered in snow. We had a snowy, nearly 2-kilometre walk from our hotel, but I enjoyed taking lots of photos of snow-covered spring blossoms.
Reims, with a population of 186,000, is still small enough to be quite walkable to everything. The first documentation of Reims dates to 57 BC when it was under Rome’s protection, and later became an important religious and political city. You’ll find several Roman ruins in the city center.
Another UNESCO site that must be seen is the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, a gorgeous Gothic church dating to the 5th century originally, but was rebuilt in the 13th century and then restored again following World War I. I visited the cathedral before it was even open, not a soul was around, and I took photos of it covered in snow on Sunday morning.
The Reims Cathedral played an important role for the French Kingdom as it became the site for coronations of French kings until the revolution. In total, 37 kings were crowned in Reims. In addition, in 1429, Joan of Arc knelt down in front of Charles VII when he was crowed King of France at the cathedral.  

Although Reims is an easy city to reach from Paris, I really wish we had one more day to see more in the Champagne region. Or maybe, I’m just looking for another excuse to drink champagne!

My Traveling Joys

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Imagine being surrounded and walking amongst brilliant shades of fuchsia, periwinkle and ruby red orchids.

That’s exactly what we did this past weekend at Kew Gardens as we caught the last day of the annual Orchids Festival in London. Unfortunately, I only had a little over an hour to admire all the orchids since I had to work that afternoon, but since we often go to Kew, that was plenty of time to see the highlights.

This year’s theme featured a celebration of Thailand’s vibrant colours, culture and diverse plant life. (Last year's show festival focused on India.) About 1,100 orchid species grow in the wild in Thailand, according to one of the exhibit’s signs. I had no idea! Many of these orchids grow in remote places and can grow in the ground in warm or cool-climate rainforests or even on trees, which are known as epiphytic.
Orchids seemed to fill nearly every inch of the Princess of Wales Conservatory – hanging in pots, planted vertically, suspended in air and even decorating a Thai palace. I took a ton of photos with my new Canon 50mm lens which allowed me to focus on the flowers themselves. I didn’t bother with finding out the names of the orchids, but if you can identify any of them, please feel free to comment.

Enjoy the orchid show!
Besides the orchids, Kew Gardens featured plenty of other spring blooms such as daffodils and crocuses, and even a random pineapple! I'm thrilled that spring is finally here!

My Traveling Joys

Friday, February 2, 2018

The magic of carnival gives Venice an enchanted feeling. Everywhere feels lively and jubilant, but the city also is very crowded.

This past weekend, we visited Venice during the opening weekend of “La Festa Veneziana,” which featured a music and light show parade on the Rio di Cannaregio on the first night. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t access this event because the streets were insanely overcrowded, so we went to a wine bar instead.) But on Sunday, we stood outside our hotel and watched the Carnival Regatta along the Grand Canal which consisted of countless gondolas and assorted boats with people decked out in splendid costumes. I couldn’t resist sharing many of the regatta photos I took, so I hope you don’t mind.
The theme of this year’s Carnevale di Venezia is “Playing,” and the carnival festivities run until February 13th. That means you still have several days to enjoy the carnival parties in Venice, or you can start planning your trip for 2019.

Gondolas with people decorated as pirates or animals seemed to be two of the most common themes. It was quite odd to see a cow and a zebra rowing a gondola!
And even more pirates!
History of Masks in Venice
I was surprised to learn that the history of Carnivale in Venice and the use of decorated masks dates back many centuries. In fact, carnival became an official public festivity in 1296, with an act of the Senate of the Republic of Venice, but its origins are even older. In official documents dating to 1094, they state there were already public celebrations held in the days preceding Lent.

For several hundred years, in the weeks leading up to Lent, people wore masks and costumes, making it easier to hide the wearer's identity and social status, or even to make fun of the aristocracy. The festivities also included public shows with musicians, dancers and jugglers throughout the city.

During the 18th century, carnival became internationally famous and reached its widest fame. You’ve probably heard of the writer Casanova, right? Well, it was during this period that Casanova spent his life in Venice attending wild parties and having love affairs. Then, the fun ended. At the end of the century, first with the French conquest of the Republic under Napoleon (1797) and later the Austrian Empire occupation, the tradition of wearing masks was forbidden and was even illegal. Surprisingly, the ancient traditions finally were restored 1979 when the city officially organized a Carnival program and that is what we see today.

This past weekend, many locals and tourists alike, dressed in extravagant costumes, walked around the main areas of Venice and happily stopped to pose for photos. I was impressed!
We even joined the Carnival fun and bought two handmade masks at Ca ‘Macana, an atelier started by penniless students back in 1984. This small shop, bursting to the brim with papier- mâché masks, gained fame when it produced the masks for the movie “Eyes Wide Shut” directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1999. You’ll find several ateliers in the artsy-studenty Dorsoduro neighborhood (which also contains several fun wine bars). Expect to pay at least 30 euros to more than 100 euros for an ornate handmade mask. However, you can find inexpensive plastic and fabric eye masks for only 3 euros at many tourist stands in the city center.
How about some kisses from Venice?
Here, I am wearing a cat mask along the Grand Canal.
More Carnival Regatta Photos
While the regatta rowed by, I tried to snap photos as fast as I could in the sports mode setting. Even if a few photos are out of focus, I think you can still admire how elaborate some of the costumes were.

We may have missed the main Carnival festivities in Venice, but we still had a wonderful time.

Have you attended Carnival in Venice or someplace else?

My Traveling Joys

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