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The Year of the Horse Gallops into London

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This Chinese New Year will come galloping in.  The celebration for the Year of the Horse in London is slated to be as bright, noisy and happy as anywhere in the world.  London is reputed to host the largest celebrations marking the Chinese Lunar New Year outside Asia.

In China, Hong Kong and Taiwan the festivities and rituals carry on over a period of 15 days.  In London, however, it will be restricted to the weekend.  2nd February will be the highpoint and main day for celebrations.   The Chinese community and many others too will be celebrating just as vigorously.

Chinese new yearOfficially the celebrations will kick off around noon at Trafalgar Square.  It will be followed by several performances involving acrobatic troupes and traditional dancers from China.  Local artists will perform at a number of sets at a venue on Shaftesbury Avenue.

The West End too will put on a show as befitting its status.  In fact the New Year Parade, led by the Lucky Money God will start here at 10am.  It will then wind its way through the theatre district, down Charing Cross Road before arriving at Trafalgar Square for the official opening.

Chinatown, which stretches from Shaftesbury Avenue to the area around Gerrard Street and includes a part of Soho, will be the main focus of the celebrations.  There will be traditional Horse themed decorations, crafts and food stalls, plenty of dancing drumming and classical Chinese music.  One of the treats will be watching the dragon dancers making their way past the crowds on the streets.  Fireworks!  There are going to be plenty of those and lots of bangs to go along with them.chinatown london

Like the previous years, several thousands will turn up to watch the many events and participate in the numerous parties at the roughly 100 bars, restaurants and cafes in Chinatown.  Of course there will be plenty of delicious food to sample as the restaurants come up with special menus.

Not to be left out, Madame Tussauds will be lighting up the building in lucky red and festooning it with traditional Chinese decorations.  Among the likenesses of Chinese celebrities will be those of martial arts legends, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  They have been specially brought in from Shanghai and Hong Kong for the New Year celebrations and will remain in London till April.

Joining in the New Year celebrations, the British Film Institute will be casting the spotlight on Chinese cinema by showing over 80 films.  This is part of an extended four month China season and will feature director Feng Xiaogang, China’s Steven Spielberg.

Besides the above, there will be plenty to see and do over this Chinese New Year weekend in London.

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In Salvador Dalí’s Footsteps

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Salvador Dalí was the master and greatest creative practitioner of surrealism.  During his life, Dalí lived and worked in many places in Spain. However, he spent most of his life in his home province of Girona in Catalunya. The region inspired much of his work and also houses the largest collection of his works in the world.
 
Whether you are out to explore the Costa Brava or to discover Dali’s works for yourself, travelling through the northern part of Catalunya will be one of your most rewarding journeys.

For instance, his birthplace Figueres (meaning ‘fig trees,’ which used to grow around it) is a picturesque town with winding streets, cosy cafés and a small yet picturesque ‘Old Town’ section and Square.  It is archetypical of a sleepy Spanish village.

Dali Museum-Its fame is forever entwined with that of its son Dalí and the Theatre Museum Dalí. This museum was built on the remains of a 19th century theatre and incorporates a tower from those ruins. The museum is Dali’s own creation and is reckoned to be the world’s largest surrealistic work.

Another attraction of the town is the well-preserved pentagonal Sant Ferran Castle.  It was built as a military fortress in the eighteenth century and completed in 1753.  It spreads over 5 kilometres making it the largest monument in Catalunya.

Not far from Figueres is the fishing village of Cadaques, another Catalunya gem, which has Dalí connections.  Its white-washed Mediterranean houses, quiet streets, beautiful beaches and the perfect blue waters of its cove simply grab your heart and make you want to stay back – many do and many did.  Some of its most famous visitors were Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Walt Disney, Richard Hamilton and Melina Mercouri.

Cadaques has an official population of around 3,000 people but at the peak of summer, many times that number visit and stay here. There are also some rather remarkable houses like the Casa Blava (Blue House) that are scattered around the town.

Dali statueCadaques has honoured Dalí by putting up a statue of him on the beach.  The statue captures his eccentric style, his manic yet haughty expression, his famous upturned moustache and trade mark walking stick.  It was in Cadaqués that Dalí first met his wife Gala in 1929.

Just a little way along the coast is Port Lligat, where Dali lived with Gala for over 40 years.  It is now a house-museum that is just as magical and stunning as the surrounding area. It comprises of several fishermen’s huts that Dalí and Gala joined together.

The house features a labyrinth of passageways and rooms, including his workshop, library, garden and a very lovely pool.  The tiny rooms are crammed with many of Dali’s creations including his last painting which he did not finish and paint brushes.

The highlight of the building though is the whispering room. The acoustics are so brilliant that you can hear a whisper from across the room – over 30 feet away.  The building and its gardens are ‘Cultural Assets of National Interest.’

Dali himself once described the area thus, "… as always, in the perfect and dreamy town of Cadaqués. There, alongside the Latin sea, I have been quenched by light and colour."  And so will you be when you are there.

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Nightlife in Istanbul

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Bosphorus IstanbulNightlife in Istanbul is exciting and varied with a plentiful choice for all tastes.  The city straddles the Bosphorus connecting two continents.  The diversity and contrasts of its night time activities and the entertainment available reflects this geographical spread.

Istanbul has establishments that offer both western and oriental entertainment and both are hugely popular.  It is not uncommon to see lines of people stretching from the doorways of venues and going around the block – all just trying to get in.  Many of these venues are world famous and frequently attract celebrities from around the globe.

One of the factors that make night time entertainment great in Istanbul is accessibility.  This is a very large city and getting around (and across the Bosphorus Straits) can be just that bit challenging – especially at night.  However, there are many venues, which are spread out across several entertainment centres around the city.

For instance there is the Kadiköy district, on the Asian side with many pubs, restaurants and clubs on Iskele and Kadife Streets.  The European side has several well known districts such as ?i?li, Be?ikta?, Ulus, Taksim and Beyo?lu that are packed with pubs, bars, restaurants and venues featuring live music.

Most of the places combine eating, drinking, dance floors and live shows.  However, you need to check first because many night clubs offer only dancing and a bar but no food.  Another thing you should be prepared for is the dress code.  A surprising number and variety of places will insist on a jacket and leather shoes – no jeans, sneakers or flip-flops please!

However you wish to spend your evening, one thing is sure – the venue you choose will have plenty of “attitude” and atmosphere.  You will find every style of interior design from plastic, post-modern, harem-like and traditional English pubs to elegant neo-baroque.  All try to hype up the picturesque view(s) of the Bosphorus or their location on its banks.  Then there are the very popular river cruises on the Bosphorus that also feature live entertainment.

Finding your cuisine for the night will never be a problem.  Seafood, Cretan, Middle Eastern, Turkish kebabs, pasta or classic French and Italian eating places are abundant.

Istanbul night spots have trendy “in” places that serve only cocktails, which are frequented by rising banker types.  Music of all genres can be heard blasting out of entrance doors.  Take your pick – jazz, reggae, world music, electronic, Latin, Turkish, Arabic, indie, rock (Turkish and Western), funk, soul or pop.  Many have world famous DJs and live bands performing regularly.

Of course – as a visitor you cannot miss out on the belly dancers.  And Istanbul has plenty of bars, restaurants and dance places that feature belly dancing as a part of the fare.  The Turkish style of belly dancing is very lively, vigorous and often gymnastic.  Its energy differs from its more contained and conservative Egyptian cousin.  Most belly dancers in Turkey are of Romani ancestry and that has had a strong influence on the Turkish style.

A very popular part of Istanbul’s night scene is the bright, brassy, outrageously gay and transsexual scene.  Be prepared to be shocked and dazzled.  

It is no exaggeration to say that Istanbul’s nightlife rivals any other city in Europe or in the world for that matter.  There is no shortage of the glitzy or shady.  You are bound to find something to satiate your taste for new experiences.

Have Fun!!!

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The Old City of Palma

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The city of Palma on the island of Majorca is an ancient one.  It has always been important in the history and culture of the western Mediterranean Sea.  That has resulted in a rich, diverse and, at times very tumultuous past.  That past has left behind magnificent reminders that are still visible, intact and available for visitors to enjoy today.

The best place to get a glimpse into Palma’s past is the Old City (or Old Town).  It is a charming combination of an intricate web of shady, narrow, winding streets lined by pink Mediterranean style houses and lovely gothic buildings mixed in for good measure.  Many of the houses are adorned with window boxes and narrow wrought-iron balconies, detailed metal carvings and overhanging eaves that add to its lure.

While there is much that is attractive and worth seeing in the Old City, it is the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma that dominates and receives the most visitors.  It is a very, very large and magnificent Gothic, neo-gothic, restored building that took about 300 years (1299 to 1601) to complete.  It sits between the Royal Palace of La Almudaina and overlooks the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea.

There are still some aspects of the town that are reminders of Palma’s Arab/Moorish past and their influences can still be seen.  Nowhere more so than the locality called Bany Arabs or Arab Baths.  You take a quiet street called Ca’n Serra that is close to the Cathedral to reach this small two-roomed brick building.  It dates back to the 11th century and was once part of a larger residential complex.  The bath room itself has a cupola, and twelve columns that were removed from some Roman era building.  The baths are surrounded by beautiful gardens – Ca’n Fontirroig.

Then there is the ancient and still operational fishermen and sailors locality of El Jonquet. The most notable features of this area are the old mills that overlook it from above.

Bellver castleBellver Castle is a unique structure because of its cylindrical form.  While not technically a part of the old city, Bellver Castle is quite integral to the medieval history of the city and the island.   It was built in the 14th century upon the ruins of a Moorish site and set high on a hill giving it fabulous (no doubt strategic too) views of the whole island.  This distinctive fortress has three large towers and a central courtyard and houses an archaeological museum filled sculptures of times gone by.  It has served as a residence for the Majorcan kings, a fortress and a prison.

While you stroll through this beautiful and old part of Palma you are bound to see a rather more modern addition to the area.  They are the rubbish bins!  They are attractive, like so much else in the Old City, and made of bronze.  These rubbish bins are made up of two sections – an upper cylindrical part where you place your garbage.  You turn a handle on the side, which then drops the refuse into the lower, rectangular storage portion.

When you are done seeing the area you could relax in one of the quaint little restaurants along the sea front and admire the view.

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Mirador Del Rio Sunsets And El Golfo Lagoon, Lanzarote

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Lanzarote is the most remarkable of all the Canary Islands.  The eastern most of the seven islands that make up the archipelago, its extraordinary landscape seems to be of another planet.  Great parts of Lanzarote are covered by ash and lava.  Lanzarote also offers a wide array of quiet beaches with fine sand unspoilt, beautiful bays and turquoise waters.  It has many spots that are undisturbed making for a serene environment.

Sunset at Mirador Del Rio

Of all the numerous scenic pleasures Lanzarote has to offer, its sunsets are the most memorable.  The island is not very large, which means that you can get a view of the glorious phenomenon from almost anywhere.  However, the most sensational views are to be had at the north of the island – at Mirador Del Rio.

Mirador Del Rio is a slight, rocky hill, which is a beautiful place to sit and watch the sun go down.  The salmon pink, orange and purple of the setting sun are complimented by other Lanzarote delights.  Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the sea, you will have fields of bluebells on one side and a panoramic view of the sea and its changing colours on the other.

The tiny island of La Graciosa, not far from the Lanzrote coast, adds further magic to the already incredible vista.

A picnic hamper with a bottle of one of Lanzarote’s many excellent wines are great accessories to accompany your viewing of the celestial special effects of the setting sun!


El Golfo Lagoon

On the opposite side from Mirador Del Rio, on the southwest, is another spectacular Lanzarote gift.  This is El Golfo.  It is the remains of a volcanic crater that has been broken into and eroded by the might of the Atlantic Ocean.  Inside this crater the lagoon – “Charco de los Clicos” – has emerged.

This semi-circular lagoon is intriguingly bright green because of the algae and minerals in the water.  This crater is one of the few and rare examples of hydro-volcanism, a phenomena produced by the interaction of magma or with salt water.  The concentration of special seaweed blossoms pretty well due to the extreme high salt content present in the lake.  This makes an oddly interesting contrast against the sand and rock formation of the crater.

The remains of the volcano are like a painter’s palette with grand brush strokes of black, red, yellow-green and russet layers of cooled lava.  The beach comprises of black volcanic pebbles interspersed with semi-precious green stones valued by jewellers.

The nearby village also called El Golfo is a lovely, small community that has restaurants where you can get some excellent seafood.  You can dine al fresco and enjoy the sunset.

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Al fresco Tapas Bars In Lanzarote

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TapasBefore we start out lets understand what Tapas is.  Tapas are a wide variety of mouth-watering appetizers or snacks of the Spanish cuisine.  It is not the Sanskrit word for deep meditation, though after a tummy-full of Tapas you might want to drift off into a very satisfied mental state.

Tapas can be cold or hot and of many different kinds.  From the humble snack it has become sophisticated.  In most instances, it is a whole meal in itself with diners combining several tapas dishes.  It evolved from light snacks you nibbled on while you sipped your sherry, chatted and waited for the main meal to arrive – to the main course.  Having tapas has grown into a ritual in Spain – a favourite one too.

Way back in time tapas would be a piece of meat (usually salty) like Jamón (cured ham) that would be nibbled on while sipping drinks.  Bars and restaurants then became creative in their snack-making and started incorporating ingredients from around the world.  The Romans brought the olive; whole almonds, citrus fruits and spices came from North Africa and the Americas delivered tomatoes, peppers, corn and potatoes.  All these edible incursions have turned the tapas into gourmet must-do.  

Its evolution continues with the regular use of garlic, chillies, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron, other seasonings and olive oil.  The fillings often include anchovies, sardines, mackerel, squid or a huge variety of produce from the sea.  These are all mixed in an infinite variety of combinations and accompanied by tomato-based sauces, with a number of types of bread including Boccadillo, the Spanish version of the baguette.  It is quite usual for bars and restaurants to have over a dozen kinds of tapas sitting in warming trays to temp and cajole you into ordering them.

Now that you have a much better understanding of what makes tapas, let’s move to its consumption and the culture surrounding it, especially on the island of Lanzarote.

Al fresco dining started out (more or less) in cooler climates where a sunny day was a good reason to sit out in the garden or and have a meal.  Al fresco is Italian meaning “outside” or “in the fresh air.”

The gorgeous warm and sunny Canaries weather of Lanzarote means that it is almost de rigueur for bars and local restaurants to have sit-out arrangements where dining is casual and encourages a party-like scene.  All the villages in Lanzarote have numerous al fresco and so do the beaches.  The bars in the larger towns place tables out on the sidewalks and pavements.

Enjoying a leisurely tapas meal at these bars is usually enhanced by fantastic blue skies, pink and orange sunsets and the magical scenery of the island.  Your happy taste-buds and the location that made them so, ensure you will remember the experience(s) for years to come.

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Timanfaya National Park

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The landscape of Timanfaya National Park is absolutely unreal.  In fact it is so alien that it could well be on another planet.  The Park occupies the southwestern portion of the island of Lanzarote (one of Spain’s Canary Islands).  It is a harsh and barren region formed by volcanic activity.  In that harsh alienness lies its magic and beauty.

Timanfaya National ParkTimanfaya National Park covers some 51 square kilometres (20 square miles) and the soil is entirely volcanic.  As late as 300 years ago the island was treated to some very large eruptions.  That activity continues till today as geysers of steam still spout occasionally from volcanic tubes, sometimes aided by park attendants pouring into them for the benefit of tourists and their cameras.

Timanfaya volcano is still an active one and is the highlight of some amazing volcanic features.  The blue-black lava fields (known as the malpais – meaning badlands), craters, lava tunnels, lava lakes and multi-coloured volcanic cones make for spectacular viewing.

This bleak and awesome landscape is however, thanks to Mother Nature, showing signs of life.  There are some rare plants growing among the volcanic rock.  There are over 200 lichen species and some very ancient fig trees growing, incredibly, among the volcanic cones.  So valuable and rare is the environment of Lanzarote that in 1993, UNESCO designated the entire island a Biosphere Reserve.  The heart of the reserve is Timanfaya National Park.  

camels in timanfayaTo protect and preserve the delicate ecology and rare flora and fauna, getting into Timanfaya National Park is very tightly regulated.  Private vehicles are not allowed into the park and one can tour it by coaches.  The care for the region extends to treks and walks too.  You can only take a trek in the company of authorised guides and even that is via one or two footpaths.  There are also camel safaris through the park.

One of the highlights of a visit to the park is having a meal at the El Diablo restaurant near the Timanfaya crater.  It has a natural oven where food is cooked on a grill by the heat arising out of a vent.  It can be quite a sight to watch chicken legs and potatoes being cooked by the underground heat.  The heat comes from superheated magna some 4 kilometres below the surface!

A trek or a coach ride through the amazing and awesome Timanfaya National Park will leave you with a lasting memory and experience that is like no other you have had or will have.

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Whooping It Up At Rancho Texas In Lanzarote

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Lanzarote is one of the largest Canary Islands and closest to the Spanish mainland.  Without meaning to give a geography lesson, it is interesting to note that it was created by volcanic activity way back when.  The results are huge tracts of solidified lava fields, rugged, craggy mountains, fantastically shaped rock formations and the El Jable sand dune desert.

In fact the ancient name of the island was Titerro(y) gatra meaning “red mountains.”  All these physical features are very reminiscent of the rocky badlands and deserts of the American southwest.  So to have a theme park called Rancho Texas on an island in the Atlantic Ocean just off Europe doesn’t seem so incongruous.

What is not widely known is that folk from Lanzarote had immigrated to the US many, many years ago and settled in the ‘southwest’ of that nation giving it a Spanish flavour.  So that is another connection!

In addition to nature’s handiwork the Rancho Texas has created a setting, including Cowboys, Cowgirls and Indians redolent of the old west adding some modern touches.  It has plenty for small and older children and adults to do.  You can spend the whole day enjoying its pleasures and in the evening some energetic entertainment.

Rancho Texas has compact, beautiful and carefully maintained promenades, flower-filled gardens, terraces, mini waterfalls and outdoor spaces.  The animal and bird areas are kept meticulously clean and as natural as possible.

Rancho TexasThe park houses snakes, boa constrictors, pythons, sea lions along with rabbits, donkeys, goats, small pigs and hens.  There are free-flying eagles, vultures, falcons and a giant condor hovering around, sometimes just over your head.  The bird section has smart and cheeky parrots and cockatoos that perform and show off their skills with panache. They guarantee everyone a good hearty laugh.

The California sea lions are not far behind when it comes to displaying intelligence, talent, fun, frolic and entertainment.  They are noisy, playful and relish the attention and contact with people.  Visitors can swim and interact with them too.  Then there are the big guys!  Rancho Texas Park’s animal section features rare white tigers, pumas, buffaloes and Nile crocodiles.

There are pretty little ponies for children to ride on. The Rancho Texas has a water feature section called ‘El Corral del Agua.’ It has a splash pool with play area for children, this has buffaloes standing in the water, a play house, slides, a canoeing facility and water jets everywhere.  There is also a swimming pool that provides relief from the Lanzarote heat.

The park also has an Indian Village, which is a trifle kitschy but forgivable.  In keeping with the western theme Mister Dakota is a lasso and whip wielding cowboy who puts on a daily and regular display.

Food at the Park is basically burgers, pizzas, chips and salads.  Servings are large but very reasonably priced.

To keep the grownups involved and interested there is evening entertainment.  In case you may have missed the point of the park’s theme, it is billed as Country & Western Night.

The ambience involves Cowboys and Indians on horseback and saloon girls.  The entertainment is made up of comedy sketches, dance demonstrations, and Mister Dakota’s whip and lasso show.  The interactive parts involving the guests are a western style all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet, free flowing beer, sangrias and soft drinks.  There is a live band playing popular old and new country tunes.  You can get up and join in the line dancing.

Rancho Texas Park is genuinely one for the whole family where both the kids and parents can come away very happy.

The Park is open daily 9.30 am to 5.30 pm.

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Dining Out On Traditional Food In The Medina, Marrakesh

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Eating out in Marrakesh is, to use that overworked term, an experience.  Without exaggeration it is an enriching, fulfilling and a gastronomic one.  Marrakesh is a bustling, energetic and colourful living thing at any time of day. Textiles, mosaic tiles, heaped spices and other goods in the souks in the massive-walled Medina or the stalls around Jamâa el Fna make it a riot of colour.

However, it takes the evening and night to really bring out Marrakesh’s personality.  As the sunset paints the walls and glass windows of the houses and the minarets, a brilliant orange, the smoke from sizzling kababs and the stoves of the food stalls waft up into the evening air.  This is when another sensory pleasure drifts through Marrakesh.  It is the fragrance of cumin, saffron, harissa (red pepper sauce), and other spices rising from sizzling lamb chops, koftes and steaming piles of food.  The aroma is really something to experience.

Marrakesh is the best place to get your belly full of North African cuisine.  You can get it at either the relatively new, upmarket and pricy restaurants of the Guéliz or other outlying areas of the city.  These restaurants also serve a combination of French, Italian and Moroccan cuisines.  While there are many restaurants scattered around the city, they are not the favoured choice of Moroccans – yet.

The joy comes from eating at the food stalls and side walk restaurants of the centuries-old Medina, the crossroads of trade and culture in North Africa.  Here the eating places and the food are local and traditional.  They are inexpensive and really satisfying.  The feasting generally begins around 9 or 9:30pm.

You can choose to eat under the white canopies of the numbered food stalls set up in the huge Jamâa el Fna square.  You could pick from one of a number of movie set hole-in-the-wall eateries in the narrow, winding alleys with plenty of atmosphere.  Then there are the traditional riad Marrakesh restaurants.

Moroccan foodWhatever you choose, you can gorge on hot, steaming mechoui (slow roasted lamb) using your fingers (the best and probably only way to eat Moroccan food).  Burp (it’s alright) as you scrape your plate clean with a piece of warm bread.

To give you an idea, here is a brief list of the delicacies on offer: tangia (lamb or beef slow-cooked in an earthenware pot and left in hot ashes for the whole day); succulent merguez sausages; minced lamb koftes; beef brochettes; flash-charred lamb chops, skewers of liver or brains; incredibly tender teyhan (spleen) kebabs and pigeon bstilla (pie).  Of course you must have the taktuka, a garlick, tomato-and-green-pepper relish to go with your meats.  There are more, believe me.

Lest you think that Moroccan food is only for carnivores, here are a few veggie treats.  Mountains of classic couscous dishes and traditional Berber-style barley pellets with the more familiar durum wheat that is light and fluffy as snowflakes.  Another Berber dish is the Bisarra which is a wholesome white bean soup said to have restorative properties.  The dessert pastille is made with apples and saffron while there are wide selections of fresh juices.  The most dominant are oranges.

Even if you are not a foodie you will be deeply satisfied.  Rest assured that when you leave Marrakesh, you will be carrying more weight than when you came and an expanded waistline.

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Tuscany – A Many Faceted Jewel

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What do you say about the Tuscany region of Italy that has not already been said, written, painted, photographed or filmed?  As a visitor it is impossible to decide what to see and what to skip – and you don’t want to miss any of it.  There is so much embedded in the place that you could spend an entire summer exploring just one facet of this fascinating part of Italy.  It is not an area that you can cross off your bucket list with a casual ‘been there, done that.’

Tuscany is located in the west-central region of Italy with a coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  It is crisscrossed by several mountain chains including the Apennines.  The mountains and hills make up more than 65% of the region and that distinguishes and defines Tuscany.  Its achingly beautiful multi-hued rolling hills capture your heart like no other.  It also partly explains why it is the most visited part of Italy.

Even the diversity of the climate seems made for your pleasure.  The coastal region is fair and mild; blessed with wonderful beaches and magical coastlines.  Away from the coast, among the mountains, it can get very cold in winter.  This fluctuation in temperatures and weather cycles combined with its soil and agricultural output once made Tuscany the main food source for Ancient Rome.  Today it is also probably the vineyard of the country.

Tuscany has many famous and notable towns but the large and important cities have grown and developed on the banks of the River Arno.  Their names – Florence (aka Firenze), Empoli, Pisa, Siena, Livorno, Viareggio – roll off the tongue like poetry (even if your Italian isn’t good) and conjure up images of splendour.

The region had a civilization and culture long before that of Rome.  Known as the Etruscans (from where the name Tuscany is probably derived) they developed an enduring cultural (and language) identity that survives till this day.  This long, rich and vibrant history has turned the whole region into a veritable museum and storehouse of extraordinary art – whether it is architecture, painting or sculpture – all masterpieces.

So numerous, wondrous and well-preserved are the historical, artistic and cultural legacies that UNESCO has designated seven whole areas as World Heritate Sites! They are the Historic Centre of Florence; the Historical Centre of Siena; the Cathedral of Pisa and the Piazza dei miracoli (square of miracles); the Historical centre of San Gimignano (a hilltop village with 14 fantastic towers); the Historical centre of Pienza; the Val d'Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens.
 
One could go on and on about Tuscany’s churches, palaces, villages and piazzas.  The region has an incredible number of amazing towns like Pisa and its leaning Tower and Cathedral Square and the renowned Uffizi Gallery and Museum but the two shining jewels in this glittering land are Florence and Siena.  

Florence is the birthplace of Renaissance and two incredible men – Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  These three factors alone would have made many other renowned cities culturally rich.  However, Florence is also the beneficiary of the wealth, power and extraordinary legacy of the Medici family.  Without them Florence would not be what it is. Their efforts and patronage either directly or indirectly spawned the Florentine School of art with such alumni as Fra Angelico, Botticelli and a host of others.

TuscanySiena is another great treasure chest.  Its rich artistic tradition generated the Sienese School.  It’s well-preserved art and architecture date from the medieval period.  An outstanding example of the city’s artistic richness is its huge and beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, the Cathedral and the Palazzo Pubblico.

Tuscany however, is not all art and architecture.  The other face to the region is its natural side.  Travel across the rolling hills with their quilt patchwork of olive groves and vineyards; the changing colours of the fields and forests; the fairy tale houses of the small towns and villages and past the picturesque gardens of the villas and you will feel that you are imbibing the Tuscan essence through every sense.

Tuscany has over 120 protected nature reserves and parks.  They are home to some of Europe’s oldest forests.  One of the most beautiful is Pinocchio’s Park.  Carlo Collodi, the creator of The Adventures of Pinocchio, took his pen name from his mother’s village – Collodi.  The Park has lovely winding pathways that are populated with statues of characters from the story.

There are other things you can do and experience in Tuscany.  You can indulge in gastronomic tours and sample (or gorge on) the fabulous food.  Each district seems to cook things their own way, producing their own distinct flavours.  Then you could get well and truly happy by signing up for a wine tasting tour.  This is after all, Chianti country.  The region boasts over 30 wines!  Don’t get me started on this aspect of Tuscany.  I could spend a whole summer just doing wine tours!

No matter what you do, where you go or what you see, one thread binds all of Tuscany – stunning beauty!

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