Category Archives: Travel

Whales and world class music in LA

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Los Angeles

Los Angeles at night

In January I made a trip to Los Angeles as a musical pilgrimage of sorts. I am a big fan of Henryk Górecki, a contemporary Polish composer best known for his haunting Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He wrote this piece in 1976 and initially it wasn’t well received. It didn’t become famous until a 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta, featuring the soloist soprano Dawn Upshaw. This recording to date has sold more than a million copies – more than any other contemporary classical record – making it a rare commercial success in the world of classical music. Górecki commented on this unexpected success,“Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music […] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” Read the rest of this entry

Helen of the Caribbean

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Marigot BayA few years ago I tested the idea of tropical Thanksgiving – and loved it. After a wonderful week in Puerto Rico the idea of escaping the cold during the holidays and doing something different has stuck with me. That is how my husband and I ended up in the tropics again during Christmas.

Saint Lucia is a tiny island in the Southern Caribbean. Volcanic in origin, the island is more mountainous than most and framed by two magnificent peaks, Gros and Petit Piton, that steeply raise out of the ocean near the town of Sourfiere. They are the island’s hallmark and a truly magnetic sight – you first see them on the approach from the plane and you just can’t avert your eyes! The Pitons anchor St. Lucia like two giant sails, as if the island were a boat sailing through the Caribbean.

Over several centuries since the first European settlers arrived, the island has changed hands many times between the French and the British. Their feud and competition for St. Lucia made it known as the “Helen of the Caribbean” or “Helen of the West Indies.” The British took definitive control in 1814 and today English is the island’s official language – and traffic moves on the left. But the French have left their mark, too. The majority of the population is Catholic and speaks French Creole (Kwéyòl) known as patois. Read the rest of this entry

Virtually there: Miami Beach

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Miami

Christmas Miami-style

I’ve been to Miami several times – and loved every single one of them. Miami and the surrounding area has so much to offer: Ocean Drive, Coconut Grove, Key West, the Everglades… the list goes on.

The first time I went there as a student on a spring break – just a kid on a classic American road trip in a crowded van, escaping frosty Pennsylvania for the warmth of the southern sun. As you can imagine, the long journey itself was quite an adventure and it made reaching a Miami tent camp feel like arriving in the promised land. In fact, Miami very much felt like some kind of foreign land full of what at the time were very exotic items to the young me raised up north: palm trees, alligators, ever-present salsa beat, and arroz con frijoles negros =)

My subsequent trips thankfully involved more civilized modes of transportation – and more sophisticated lodging and food choices. In fact, I was just there last week (unfortunately just for one night while in transit), enjoying amazing ceviche and mahi mahi tacos at my favorite Coconut Grove restaurant, Jaguar. I’m always ready to go back and explore more. That’s why I was excited to see that FlipKey picked Miami Beach as the location for one of its inaugural virtual tours, a new feature to enhance pre-trip research. Read the rest of this entry

Cars, palaces, truffles, and chocolate

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TurinTurin – Torino – does not usually come to mind when you ask someone to list the top ten cities to visit in Italy. Most widely known as the car city, or Italy’s Detroit, Turin conjures images of industrial bleakness – and that’s too bad. Yes, it is the home of FIAT, a popular car brand that hides its geographic origin in the acronym that spells out Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino. But Turin is also an ancient Roman city, Augusta Taurinorum, that for centuries was the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, later the Kingdom of Sardinia, and finally in 1861 the first capital of unified Italy. And it has opulent palaces, impressive piazzas, the famous Shroud, and the grandeur of world-class restaurants, cafes, museums, theaters, and opera houses to prove it.

Nestled at the foothills of the majestic Alps (that is what the Piedmont means literally, “at the foot of the mountains”), Turin is conveniently located close to France, Switzerland, and the Italian coast. It is surrounded by Piedmontese vineyards famous for Barolo Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, and close to the truffle capital, Alba. A compact city center makes it easy to reach major attractions by foot. All these make Turin a wonderful place to visit and the city has been reclaiming its fame in recent years, boosted by hosting the 2006 Winter Olympics. Ready for a quick tour? Read the rest of this entry

We will remember them

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London poppiesAs far as I’m concerned, every visit to London is a special treat. This year, an amazing art project commemorating the World War I, made it even more special. For a few brief months (August 5 to November 11, 2014 to be exact), the moat surrounding the mighty Tower of London was transformed into a crimson sea of poppies – one for each British soldier fallen during the Great War. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, the installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red filled the moat over the summer with 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies. Read the rest of this entry

One night in Bangkok

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BangkokOk, more than one… but that cult 1984 song from Chess kept playing in my head for the duration. What can I say? The city’s vibe is still the same =)

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me
(…)
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me

Read the rest of this entry

Kathmandu Valley: Part 3 – Bhaktapur

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IMG_2884In previous posts about the cities of the Kathmandu Valley I talked about Kathmandu (part 1) and Patan (Part 2). Last but not least is Bhaktapur, once the largest of the of the three Newar kingdoms of the Valley. The city was founded in the 12th century by King Anand Dev Malla and was the capital of the Malla Kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley until the 15th century when the kingdom split into three city-states: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bkahtapur. Many of its greatest monuments were built then.

Just like its sister cities, Bhaktapur boasts an impressive Durbar (Palace) Square anchored by the Palace of 55 Windows built in 1427 and adorned by a masterpiece of woodcarving – a balcony with 55 elaborate windows. The statue of King Bhupatindra Malla, who remodeled the palace in the 17th century, faces the edifice on a tall column. The palace remained the seat of the local Malla king until 1769 when Nepal was unified under the Shah monarchy. It now houses the National Art Gallery, with the entrance flanked by two guardian stone lions. Nearby, the magnificent Golden Gate or Sun Dhoka opens to the inner courtyard of the Palace of 55 Windows, stunning visitors with a masterful frieze featuring Hindu deities set against the red brick entryway and surrounded by the white palace walls. Read the rest of this entry

Kathmandu Valley: Part 2 – Patan

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PatanThe journey through Nepal’s fascinating Kathmandu Valley continues… After visitng the sacred spaces of Kathmandu (part 1), the next stop is Patan. Although today Patan is basically a suburb of Kathmandu located just south across the Bagmati river, it once was an independent city-state fiercely competing with the two other major cities in the valley – Kathmandu and Bhaktapur – over prestige and influence. Also known as Lalitpur, meaning the City of Beauty, or by its old Newari name, Yala, Patan was originally designed in a Buddhist tradition with four mounds on its perimeter known as Asoka Stupas. According to legend, Emperor Asoka of India visited Patan in 250 BC and built the stupas. But the heart of Patan, just like its sister cities in the Kathmandu Valley, is its magnificent Durbar (or Palace) Square.

The Malla kings ruled the Kathmandu Valley’s city-kingdoms through the medieval period until the ascension to power of the Shah dynasty and unification of Nepal in 1768. Much of Patan’s stunning architecture dates back to the Malla period. In some ways, Patan’s Durbar is even more eye-poppingly beautiful than Kathmandu’s simply because it’s more compact. While Durbar in Kathmandu consists of three loosely connected squares – all magnificent in their own right – here all the amazing temples fit into one very much postcard-like square. Read the rest of this entry

Kathmandu Valley: Part 1 – sacred spaces

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Kathmandu

Kathmandu panorama from Swayambhunath temple

Kathmandu is the gateway to the Himalayas. Tucked away in the eponymous valley, the capital of Nepal stands at 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) above the sea level and for most visitors is just an entry point in transit to even greater elevations of the majestic mountains. Me – I like to linger and enjoy things close by before going for the mountain peaks. Kathmandu Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect place to acquaint yourself with the rich cultural tapestry that is Nepal.

The valley once was an important trade route from India to Tibet, which explains a ubiquitous and fascinating mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences in local beliefs, architecture, and food. Historically the valley was settled by the Newars, a tribe of Indian and Tibeto-Burman origin. “Nepal” and “Newar” are phonetically different forms of the same word. Read the rest of this entry

White City of the North

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HelsinkiI must admit I was unexpectedly charmed by Helsinki. Visiting there in early March, I was envisioning a frozen Nordic capital. The weather was indeed on the chilly side but I barely noticed, having been totally amazed by the city’s stunning architecture and welcoming vibe. Above all, I was surprised – and delighted – by the “North-meets-East” feel of the place. The Northern part does not need much explanation: Helsinki is the second northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik. It is Helsinki’s eastern character that is less commonly appreciated. While in the common consciousness Finland, a member state of the European Union, is firmly a part of Western Europe, geographically and historically it also has strong ties to the East – namely Russia.

After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland came under Russia’s influence after the 1808-09 war fought between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire. As a result of the war, the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. When Tsar Alexander I moved the new duchy’s capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg, the city began its transformation into a modern metropolis. Its downtown in particular was shaped in the neoclassical image of the tsarist capital by a German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Read the rest of this entry