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A World Full of Cherries

Cherry Blossoms The cherry blossom (Sakura) is a well-known and ubiquitous symbol of Japan frequently depicted on traditional Japanese goods and art. The cherry blossom is particularly important in Japanese culture as it represents the end of the winter and the new life and growing season of spring.

The most popular cherry blossom in Japan is the Somei Yoshino, which has nearly pure white petals, with a hint of pink close to the stem. This variety of cherry blossom takes its name from the village of Somei (now part of Toshima in Tokyo). It was developed in the mid- to late-19th century at the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period. The Somei Yoshino is so widely associated with cherry blossoms that jidaigeki and other works of fiction often depict the variety in the Edo period or earlier. Each flower has a short life; lasting for about a week. That lifespan can be cut even shorter by strong winds or rain. The short, dramatic and potentially fickle life of the cherry blossom influences its role in traditional Japanese culture.

Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

The castle was constructed in the mid-14th century and is said to resemble a White Heron. The castle hosts the Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Fair. The castle grounds, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located 60 miles northwest of Toyko and has more than a thousand cherry trees, many of which are illuminated at night. The festival and typical peak blooming time takes place during the first two weeks of April.

Copenhagen Sakura Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Sakura Festival in Copenhagen is scheduled for April 25-26th this year, so you still have time for a last-minute trip. The Dutch cherry blossom festival is one of the youngest, only in its 8th year. The two-day festival is full of events from drum shows to martial arts demonstrations.

International Cherry Blossom Festival, Macon, Georgia USA

The city of Macon considers itself the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World with more than 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees. It holds the Pinkest Party in the south. The dates for this year have already passed so you should check back for the dates next year around the end of March or the beginning of April.

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, Jinhae, South Korea

This festival gives you a rare look at the Republic of Korea Naval Academy as the grounds are opened to the public to show off the hundreds of blooming cherry trees. The city of Jinhae is also lined with cherry blossom trees creating a “flower tunnel” in some areas immersing you in the delicate petals.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival Washington, DC USA

The festival, which we’ve mentioned on this blog before, runs this year between March 20th and April 12th. The celebration of Japanese culture and friendship with the United States (along with the simple pleasure of viewing the more than 2,000 trees along the tidal basin) has become a signature event in the nation’s capital.

 

The Cherry Trees in bloom along the tidal basin in Washington, DC.

The Cherry Trees in bloom along the tidal basin in Washington, DC.

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The Jefferson Memorial

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It’s Small, But Important

A riddle: Which country’s area is only 110 acres and has the smallest population worldwide, yet it also boasts the most “members” at 1.2 billion (almost the population of China)? It’s also considered one of the richest countries, yet estimates itself to be one of the poorest, valuing its most priceless assets at $0.

The answer: The Vatican

The tiny nation, and capital of Catholicism, was established as an independent nation by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 within the city of Rome, Italy. The city’s boundaries are in many cases defined by stone fortifications, some old and some new. In the case of St. Peter’s Square, the only thing that marks where you leave Italy for Vatican City is a white line. You won’t even get a passport stamp after you cross, since the Vatican considers its borders open to the faithful and tourists alike to share all its treasures accumulated in the 2000-year history of the church.

If you’d like to visit the Vatican as a pilgrim or a tourist, here are a few tips:

  1. Book in advance – I don’t think it matters if you planning on going with a tour group or doing it yourself, book early. The Vatican has some of the world’s greatest treasures, including the master works of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and almost any other great renaissance artist you can think of. So you aren’t the only one who wants to visit. A $17.50 ticket gives you admission to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel with its legendary painted ceiling. It’s also home to the Conclave of Cardinals when electing a new Pope. The Vatican Museum ticket office is a clearing house for tickets, information and booking guided tours.
  2. Ask if you can see that thing – The Vatican likes to consider itself open with many of its treasured works of art. If there’s a particular piece of art you’d like to see, check with them; they might be willing to accommodate you.
  3. Cover up – You may not be Catholic, but they are. Access to the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately. Even if it’s in the middle of a hot Roman summer, no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts and like your grandma said, “take off your damn hat when you’re inside.” A comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts (but mainly don’ts) from photography to phones is under the Helpful Hints tag on the website.
  4. Papal Audience – Even if you’re not Catholic, you’ll want to do this. It’ll impress your Catholic friends, and it never hurts to cover your bases in case your view of the afterlife is … inaccurate. The Pope gives an audience every Wednesday beginning at 10-10:30 a.m. If you want to get a good look, arrive early (you’ll have to go through security).  The audience is held in the Paul VI Hall of Audiences, but for big events he speaks from the balcony or a stage in St. Peter’s Square. You will need a ticket for the audience in the hall or the celebration of mass, but the tickets are free. The Pope also speaks from the window of his study on Sundays. Remember this pope is a traveling man so check his schedule before hand for tickets and times.

 

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Early Artists

Claude Monet and his “Waterlilies,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” Paul Cezanne and his post impressionist work “The Bathers,” and Edgar Degas and his ballerinas are all giants of French art whose contributions to western culture have been felt for more than a hundred years. But not all great French artists are remembered by the world so well, in spite their major impact on western culture. The names of these ground-breaking masters are lost to time and their works don’t hang in a museum, but in the dark corners of our past in the caves of the France.

I can imagine how hard it must have been like for those early artists, stepping into the dark with only a flame to light the way, with only pigment rendered with their own hands creating great murals of the world around them.

I did a little research and was surprised at the difficulty of finding companies that specialize in these cave-hopping tours. I imagine, as with most tours, you get what you pay for.

The Archaeological Institute of America offers a 13-day Prehistoric Cave Art of Spain and France tour lead by Dr. Paul G. Bahn. He’s a Cambridge-educated historian and a published expert on the cave paintings and prehistory and as your the tour leader he’ll guide you from Bilbao, Spain to Toulouse, France while filling your mind with the educational experience of a lifetime.

The Smithsonian offers Smithsonian Journeys Traditions of Southwestern France: Sojourn in the Dordonge. While it doesn’t exclusively focus on the prehistory of man, it does touch on the topic as part of a larger look at the history of the Dordonge River Valley. The focus on the cave paintings at Lazcaux II and Rouffignac as well as the location of the discovery of fossils Cro-Magnon Man dating back 35,000 years are shared as part of the amazing history of a region dotted with medieval fortresses and small villages.

I’m sure you could find your way through the valleys of France, seeking out the caves and hotels on your own.  I do know it can be done. But I’ve found that when you’re dealing with such a niche as cave paintings, finding an expert helps even if you’re just looking for advice, not a complete tour. You can also use the more formal itineraries as inspiration to develop your own plan — with a more conservative budget in mind.

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A Flying First

I’ve been traveling around for more than 20 years, taking flights to exotic and not-so-exotic destinations. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the last 10 years in the winter months, mainly February and March, due to the availability of time off from my day job that time of year and Amanda’s desperate need to escape winter.

I’ve also had my share of travel hiccups, such as planes delayed due to mechanical problems, late pilots and kittens.  But this February was the first time the weather had ever actually canceled a flight I was booked on and impacted the length of my trip.

A few weeks ago, old man winter was pounding the northeastern US like a red-headed step child, again. We didn’t have much snow in Pittsburgh, but that wasn’t the problem. The issue was our connection at New York’s JFK airport.

We breezed through check-in at PIT and were loaded onto the plane — and sat. The push-back from the gate was only a few minutes late and we began taxiing along the runway. The live seat belt demonstration was especially entertaining due to the flight attendant’s hand slipping, which brought the loose end of the belt extremely close to a passenger’s head. She didn’t even notice because she was too busy being obnoxious with the girl next to her (she was plucking the girl’s eyebrows and — according to the girl — missing the hair and pinching and pulling on her skin; this caused a great deal of squealing and whining from both parties). Neither of them were paying attention. Amanda and I shared amused looks with the flight attendant.

Our plane got all the way about to the runway, and we were next in line for takeoff when the captain got on the speaker and announced a ground stop at JFK — for at least the next four hours. We would be returning to the gate and getting off the plane. I was happy for that because back in the old days they would make you just sit on the plane and wait. The new laws penalize the airline if they do crap like that now.

Watching hockey at the airport

Watching hockey at the airport. #LetsGoCaps

So we got off the plane and decided to get a bite to eat. We also got the chance to sit at a bar and watch the hockey game. We tend to watch a lot of sports in airport bars; we watched football as we waited for our flight the day we left for our honeymoon.

We took our time at a sit-down restaurant and treated it like a mini-date (at the airport, but who cares?). We were also excited that due to the flight delay we’d been upgraded to business class for our transatlantic flight. A few hours later, we got in line to board the plane again. The cabin crew explained we had to board as quickly as possible because the window of opportunity to get off the ground and to JFK was limited. Everyone cooperated, strange for a group of passengers I know, but we loaded the plane in record time.

The doors were closed and cross-checked but as I was looking out the window, I saw the death knell of our flight. One of the baggage crew (who, for the second time had just finished loading our plane) shook his head and tossed his his gloves in the air with a sigh of defeat. It wasn’t long after that we heard the captain come on the speaker and apologize that the flight was now canceled and they would re-book us for the next earliest flights to get us to our destinations.

Crowded gate at PIAAmanda talked to the ticketing agent, because she’s good at that kind of thing, and selected a flight that connected in Atlanta rather than New York. There weren’t any options leaving for another 20 hours. I was annoyed that this meant our short trip to England was going to be made shorter, but we knew there was nothing we could do. The weather was the weather, and we’d heard of planes sliding off the runway in the northeast.

It helped that we were close to home, too. Pittsburgh International Airport is just 25 minutes from our apartment, so we were able to go home and sleep in our own bed.

We also got to spend that time together. I know for some of you that kind of sappy sweetness of a couple that loves to spend all their time together is a little much, but because of our work schedules the last year time together is something we’ve had very little of.

So there you have it: Our very first flight cancellation. Certainly not ideal, but we rolled with the punches and started our trip a day later than we originally planned.

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Lyme Regis: The Quintessential English Seaside Town

When you travel along the Dorset Coast in South West, England, you’ll come across many small towns dotting the coast, but none quite like the beach-side community of Lyme Regis. The town, with its mix of pastel and white-washed homes climbing up the hillside away from the beach, is reminiscent of much sunnier and tropical locales. I can only assume that the picturesque village becomes even more vibrant in the summer months since both times I’ve visited has been in late winter/early spring.

The village has connections to some great women in English history, too. Jane Austen uses the town as a backdrop in the her story Persuasion. The lesser-known (but no less important) Mary Anning was one of the greatest fossil hunters in the earliest days of paleontology (we’ll talk more about her when we tell you about our fossil walk).

The town is most of all a beach town and the center attraction is the sand and water. The town boasts of an “award-winning environmental protection scheme that ensures the waters around the town are safe and clean.” You can spend your summer days relaxing on the beach and soaking up the up the sun or going for a dip. The constant breeze makes the coast a great place for wind surfing, kite surfing and sailing. I have to say one of the most striking things along beach is a collection of small pastel sheds that seem to be used for everything from beach storage to shelter for residents spending the day at the beach.

A great sea wall that juts out into the water sheltering the harbor and calming the surf is simply known as The Cobb.  The sea wall is an impressive stone structure that dominates the seascape and is an attraction all its own. It’s popular for evening walks in the summer, watching the waves crash over it in the winter, or fishing no matter the season or weather. John Fowles used the dramatic setting of The Cobb in his book The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the film adaptation features Meryl Streep.

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The town is packed with cafés and art galleries and is a great place to spend a windy day sheltered from the weather.  A range of activities from a Jazz festival, Carnival, and regattas pack the yearly calendar ensuring visitors have more than enough to keep them busy.

I’ve been to this little village twice now, and would love to go again to see it in the warmth of summer.  I do recommend a trip if you’re ever in Dorset, regardless the weather.

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Stonehenge, Then and Now

Stonehenge has changed a lot over the years, but what’s important remains the same.

The first time I visited the most famous stacked stones in the world was almost 20 years ago. We just hopped in the car and drove toward Salisbury from London and followed a set of road signs. I remember rolling down the narrow road as the Stone Age site came into view and being amazed at how the structure just seemed to be sitting there in the middle of a field. We pulled into a small parking lot about 20 yards from the monument and walked in the grass around what felt like a lonely monolith. I can’t remember anyone else being there other than me and my group of friends. I was surprised again that the only barrier separating me from the stones was a low-hanging rope around the perimeter. I got some amazing photos that day due to the lack of modern intrusions. The site really felt like it hadn’t changed much from what it might have looked like centuries ago.

The world's most famous stacked stones.

The world’s most famous stacked stones.

“Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument begun as a simple earthwork enclosure, it was built in several stages, with the unique lintelled stone circle being erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BC. Stonehenge remained an important cultural and religious site into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built nearby.”

Well, my dear, times have changed. For one, you can’t drive up to the site; the road is closed and there’s a lot more security. You even have to buy tickets.

Let’s explore the more modern updates to the simplest of ancient structure. The site is now managed by English Heritage Trust and in the long run it will be better for preservation. But the management comes at a bit of a cost; it was so simple before, and now it’s not.

Now you have to book timed tickets in order to gain access to the site ($22); which you can buy online or at the swanky new visitor’s center a little more than a mile away from the site. You can choose some add-ons, too, like a guidebook or audio tour. The audio tour can be downloaded for free through iTunes. The English Heritage Foundation also offers memberships for $80 that will give you free access to Stonehenge and 400 other historic sites including castles and abbeys throughout England.

The visitor center houses a museum detailing the history of the site, with a permanent exhibition of bones, tools and pottery collected there. The center is also where you can either begin a 20-30 minute walk to the site along the now-closed road, or hop on one of the free shuttles. I would recommend the shuttle unless you’re really interested in stretching your legs; there isn’t much to look at as you walk. The visitor’s center also includes a large café and gift shop.

I will say, despite all the bells and whistles they’ve added, the monument to early man is still every bit as impressive. The new center and its massive parking lots are well hidden by the trees and rolling hills as to not intrude on the site. The only thing you really have to watch out for is the throngs of tourists and school groups. I haven’t figured out the best time to go to avoid the crowds, but when I do you can be sure I’ll pass it along.

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England Bound: The Visit

I mentioned back in January we were getting ready to run off to warmer weather near the end of February, and we did find warmer weather.  The post just before we left was all about the arctic temperatures gripping western Pennsylvania, so, finding weather in the 40s was a major improvement.  We hoped for a little sunshine, but that might have been a tall order for Dorset on southwest coast of England. The warm welcome we received was more than enough to thaw our bones and shake off the drizzle.

Paul and Kate Wiscombe are proprietors of the Anchor Inn in Seatown, a tiny village at end of a long one-lane road flanked by hedgerows along the Dorset coast. (They’re also our friends; Zeke met Kate and her sister, Anna, on his first trip to Greece many moons ago.) The inn and its associated pub – founded in 1790 — lay right along the water in a small valley created by two of the large, craggy cliffs that dominate the shoreline.

I have known Kate for almost 20 years now. We’ve managed to stay in touch, first by writing letters and then by email, but only managed to meet in person twice in those intervening years. That’s why this trip was so important; we both realized it had been way too long since we sat down across a table and shared stories about our lives. I doubt you’re too interested at hearing stories about children and families you don’t know, so we’ll focus on the best Inn we’ve ever encountered.

The Anchor Inn Seatown is a bed and breakfast and pub with classic whitewashed walls and a thatched roof, sitting right on the beach with the waves of the Atlantic crashing to shore a stone’s throw away. From the outside it’s everything you’d expect of a quintessential English, seaside structure.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

You enter the pub/check-in desk off the large stone patio. The bartender was expecting us and showed us up to our room. I had seen pictures of the rooms, and don’t know what I was expecting, but was absolutely blown away by what we saw.

The spacious room (called Thorncombe) was filled with light and looks as though it popped right out of a designer’s catalogue.  A leather love seat, a table made from a rusted trunk, a very large bed and the repurposed wooden end tables all added to the effect of being someplace special.

And then there was the bathroom. When I think of bathrooms in England, I think tiny, cold and dark (this impression is based off my first experiences in the country). But this time I found what may be my dream bathroom. The large room included twin sinks, mirrors that looked like repurposed portholes, a huge shower, and — in a separate section — a large claw-footed soaker tub. I want this bathroom when I grow up.

The other rooms in the inn were decorated with equal elegance, to add to its romantic atmosphere. Our breakfast was served in a small room of the pub, decorated with photos and knickknacks sharing the history of the community. You could order a full English breakfast (if you felt up to the delicious challenge!), or stick with simpler fare, like cereal or toast. We never felt hurried to get in and out, and used that time to plan our day and figure out which way to go exploring.

I’m sure I will say this several times in the next few posts, but the inn, regardless of the fact that we’re friends with the owners, was one of the most romantic places we’ve ever been.

I look forward to telling you more about the pub, the food, the things that went right and the things that went wrong — and how we rolled with all of it to make our trip a wonderful little escape.

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