Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Ancient Ritual of Panevin

On January 5th the ancient ritual of "panevin" (bread and wine) is still observed in many areas of Italy, particularly the Veneto and Friuli regions.

Originally panevin celebrated the solstice with fire that, according to the Julian calendar, fell on December 25th. Because it also coincided with the birth of Jesus, the celebration was moved to twelve days later, on the eve of the Epiphany.

The panevin consists of a pile of dead branches, brush,  wood and whatever else was once used but now destined to be burned. It is piled eight to ten meters high and a puppet, similar to an old lady (vecia) is often placed on top. This vecia is guilty of all of last year's calamities and so destined to be burnt.

People gather around to eat pinza (local cake) and drink vin brulè (mulled wine) while watching the smoke and sparks carried by the wind. If the smoke and sparks go south or west, this year's crop will be plentiful. If they travel north or east, the harvest will be poor.

After the bonfire, the children will anxiously await the arrival of La Befana. Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Discovering Finnish Lapland

I just returned from a week long trip to Finnish Lapland in the Arctic Circle sponsored by Visit Finland. I was there writing my very first story for and had an amazing experience discovering the culture of Rovaniemi and the Lappish people. Read all about it: Where's Jennifer - Rovaniemi, Finland

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Tenerife's Loro Parque

Incredible dolphins performed acrobatic stunts, mischievous sea lions show off their talents, a family of orca whales soared and dived and cheeky parrots had us laughing at Loro Parque in Puerto de la Cruz in the north of Tenerife. And that's not all. There are more than 300 species of birds, gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, sloths, jaguars, meerkats, and giant tortoises - just to name a few.

Just a few days before our visit, Loro Parque also welcomed the Canary Islands' and Spain's first  orca whale born in captivity. The baby weighed in at 150 kilos and measured 2 meters long. We were lucky to not only see a short video of his birth, but also got to meet Loro Parque's newest orca.

The Loro Show was quite cute with parrots showing off just how smart they are. One parrot loved riding his tricycle, another amazed us with his geography and yet another knew his car was out of gas. 

The largest replica of the Antarctic continent yet constructed is also located in Planet Penguin. There is ice and snow, courtesy of Loro Parque's machine that produces 12 tons of snow daily so that the penguins can feel perfectly at home.

Loro Parque was a great way to spend a day on Tenerife!

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spain's Highest Mountain: Mount Teide

Rising a staggering 12,200 feet above Tenerife in the Canary Islands, stands Spain's highest mountain and Europe's largest volcano: El Teide. The ascent to Mount Teide is like going to another world. As we left the beach and climbed, the landscape slowly began to change from black volcanic rock and cacti to an alpine forest and finally to a lunar-like landscape.

The park itself lies at around 6,562 feet above sea level and is home to the rock formations of Los Roques de Garcia. Here, you can see the work of thousands and thousands of years worth of erosion, where the wind and grit sculpt eerie and strikingly beautiful shapes out of standing pillars of rock.

The best way to reach the highest point of the peak is by the cable car, Teleférico del Teide. In just about 8 minutes, the cable car swooped us up to just 200 meters from the summit.We were literally above the clouds and enjoyed breathtaking views of the islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro.

With a pre-arranged permit, however, you can walk up to the very mouth of the dormant volcano itself. We learned, unfortunately too late, that to get the permit, you have to contact the Park Administration office in Santa Cruz and take your passport there to get the free permit. Limiting visitors in this way protects the extremely fragile ecosystem. 

Since we couldn't ascend, we hiked down to the Refugio de Altavista where we were hoping to locate the Cueva del Hielo, or ice cave, we'd read about. It too proved elusive; despite following the directions given to us at the Refugio, we never did locate the ice cave. None the less, the lunar landscape was beautiful and we both got quite the workout on our hike back up to the cable car station. 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Adventure on Eden Catamaran in Tenerife

The boat sails away from the busy Porto Colon harbor and we gaze back as El Teide mountain reveals itself, reaching into the clouds behind Tenerife’s popular coastal strip.

There are few sights more awe-inspiring than a whale or dolphin rising from the surface of the sea. The south-west coast of Tenerife is a privileged place for watching whales in the wild as there are permanent pods of dolphins and pilot whales living just three miles offshore. 

The pilot whales did not disappoint! As we idled halfway between Tenerife and La Gomera a shout goes up: "Look! Whales!" Breaking the surface a few meters away is a big black-backed pilot whale. Then there's more, lazing in the water on the other side. 

Pilot whales are smaller whales that seem to have permanently smiling faces. They are highly social and can grow to around 6.5 meters in length. 

After some time watching the whales, we sailed on to a cove along the coast where Tim and I had the opportunity to swim with a family of giant sea turtles living in the cove. What a great adventure we had with Eden Catamaran!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Buckingham Palace: Changing of the Guard

The men you will see in front of Buckingham Palace (and other locations like the Tower of London Jewel House) are not just ceremonial guards but also serving soldiers. While upholding the traditions of the past, they also perform duties throughout the world as professional soldiers and are known as some of the most elite and skilled soldiers in the British Army. The soldiers are drawn from one of the five regiments of Foot Guards in the British Army: the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards.

The Changing of the Guard is when a new guard exchanges duty with the old guard. The handover is accompanied by a Guards band. The music played ranges from traditional military marches to songs from films and musicals and even familiar pop songs.

The guards march out of one gate, around the Victoria Memorial, and back in to the other gate in front of the Palace. The Horse Guards parade down the Mall to the Admiralty Arch and back before exchanging duty. The whole process takes approximately 45 minutes.

To get a good spot, you must arrive very early at Buckingham Palace. The Changing of the Guard takes place in front of the place at 11:30am daily from May through July and on alternating days the remainder of the year. 

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

NFL International Series Game 5: The Chicago Bears Take London

Tim's dad called one Saturday and said he heard the Bears would be playing in London. American football in London? No way! A quick Google search confirmed that the NFL does in fact play in London as part of the NFL International Series in which one game per year is played the last weekend in October overseas. I didn't even have to ask if Tim wanted to go; I knew the answer would be yes! We had been planning to visit the Canary Islands for eight days, but a little shifting of our plans, a multi destination plane ticket, and two lower level tickets to Wembley Stadium, we added a stop in London to our itinerary.

On game day, Wembley Stadium was packed full of Americans and Brits alike all eager to cheer on the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Goo Goo Dolls kicked off the party with a pre-game concert. In a show of American patriotism, each seat on the lower level had either a red, white, or blue card to be held up during the national anthem. On queue we all donned our cards and from overhead, the cards made up a Union Jack inside the stadium while those on the field became the American Flag. Both the American and British National Anthems were performed.

The Bears led 21-5 going into the fourth quarter after touchdowns by Matt Forte, Roy Williams and Marion Barber. The momentum then switched to the Buccaneers with Kellen Winslow and Dez Briscoe both going over over in the space of five minutes. But a field goal and an interception made it safe for the Bears, who came back to win 24 - 18.

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