Sunday, December 19, 2010

Running Santas, Sand Nativity and a Snowy Beach - Jesolo, Italy

Each December, running Santas, or Babbo Natale in Italian, take to the streets and beach in Jesolo for the annual Babbo Natale Run. There is a 2.5K family run and a 10K competitive run. The only requirement - you must don a Santa suit!

Nativity displays or presepi are an important part of the Christmas to Epiphany season in Italy. An unusual nativity is displayed in Jesolo's Piazza Guglielmo Marconi - a nativity sand sculpture made by top international sand sculpture artists. This year's 9th edition winds through a picturesque itinerary through the streets of Bethlehem until reaching the grotto with the Sacred family.

Works representing Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Pope John XXIII have been exhibited during the past editions.  This year's edition is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa and protagonist of the struggle against apartheid and donations from the exhibit will go to the construction of two school buildings and some administrative offices in the village of Mfadena (Cameroon). 

With a surprise dusting of snow just in time for this year's run, the day was picture perfect in the snow, sand and sun. 

Natale di Luce in una Cometa di Vetro - Murano, Italy

Murano is an island in the Venice lagoon, easily reached from Venice by vaporetto.  Murano’s reputation as a center for glass-making was born when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction to the city’s mostly wood buildings, ordered glass-makers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. Murano glass is still interwoven with Venetian glass.

The process of making Murano glass is rather complex. Most Murano glass art is made using the lampworking technique. The glass is made from silica, which becomes liquid at high temperatures. As the glass passes from a liquid to a solid state, there is an interval wherein the glass is soft before it hardens completely. This is when the glass-master can shape the material.

Natale di Vetro (Christmas of Glass) is an annual Christmas celebration in Murano, Italy, beginning on St. Nicholas Day and lasting one month. Simone Cenedese designed a glass sculpture for the 2008 Natale di Vetro celebration, and this stunningly beautiful work of art is on permanent display at Campo Santo Stefano. Titled “Natale di luce in una cometa di vetro,” (Christmas of light in a glass comet) this blue glass sculpture has become Murano’s symbol of Christmas.

During Natale di Vetro, several of the larger glass-works are open to the public, allowing anyone an opportunity to experience the glass artisans honing their craft.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Paris, France

Known as both the City of Light and the City of Love, Paris is one of the most romantic cities in the world. Paris at Christmas, decked out in its holiday finery, makes it even more beautiful than usual.

Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe stands at the top of the Champs-Élysées and honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.

Underneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. Interred here on Armistice Day 1920, it has the first eternal flame lit in Western and Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins' fire was extinguished in the year 394. It burns in memory of the dead who were never identified, now from both World Wars. A ceremony is held there every November 11th on the anniversary of the armistice signed between France and Germany in 1918.

Climb the 284 stairs to the top for panoramic views of Paris and the Place de l'Étoile, or Square of the Star, where 12 straight avenues lead directly to the Arc. The square is surrounded by two streets forming a circle around it: the rue de Presbourg and the rue de Tilsitt which have been so named since 1864, after diplomatic successes of Napoleon I which led to the signing of the Treaty of Presbourg in 1805 and the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is known in France as La plus belle avenue du monde (the most beautiful avenue in the world). Champs-Élysées runs for 2 kilometers from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. The chestnut box trees are strung with blue lights and the Grande Roue de Paris (wandering ferris wheel) lights up the Place de la Concorde and the Obelisk of Luxor. Paris' largest Christmas market stretches along the Champs-Élysées with the many wooden stalls selling vin chaud (hot mulled wine), roast chestnuts and other traditional Parisian holiday treats.

Musée du Louvre
The museum is housed in the Palais du Louvre, which began as a fortress built in the late 12th century under Philip II. Remnants of the fortress are still visible. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace.

In 1983, French President François Mitterrand proposed the Grand Louvre plan to renovate the building and relocate the Finance Ministry, allowing displays throughout the building. Architect I. M. Pei was awarded the project and proposed a glass pyramid to stand over a new entrance in the main court, the Cour Napoléon. The pyramid and its underground lobby were inaugurated on October 15, 1988.

La Pyramide Inversée can be admired from the Carrousel du Louvre and serves as a skylight for the underground entrance to the museum. Directly below the tip of the downwards-pointing glass pyramid, a small stone pyramid is stationed on the floor, as if mirroring the larger structure above: The tips of the two pyramids almost touch.

Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe. It stands majestically on the Ile d la Cité with Pope Alexander III laying the first stone in 1163.

The legendary gargoyles actually serve as drain pipes and have carried rain from the roof of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame for more than six hundred years. Through the years they allowed rainwater to fall free of the cathedral, thus preventing damage to the masonry. Some believing in superstition claim that the grotesque figures frighten away evil spirits along with serving its practical duty.

During Christmas, Notre Dame hosts Paris' Christmas tree on its forecourt, which is more than twenty feet high and is covered with lights and embellished with beautiful decorations.

Trocadero Christmas Village
The Trocadero Christmas Village opposite the Eiffel Tower offers Parisians and tourists alike the opportunity to soak up a little Christmas spirit. Visit the 120 chalets for a wide selection of gifts, treats and decorations for the holiday season.

Not to be missed is the outdoor ice skating rink. Nothing is more romantic than skating hand-in-hand at dusk as the Eiffel Tower twinkles near by! Warm up afterward with some vin chaud while admiring the Eiffel Tower hourly light show.

Bateaux Parisiens Seine River Cruise
Bateaux Parisiens cruises along the Seine River with the illuminated buildings and bridges of Paris passing by all the way from the Eiffel Tower to the Ile d la Cité. The cruise begins with the song 'I love Paris in the summer' playing. To learn History along the way, plug in your audio-guide and the host will also provide lesser-known stories: famous lovers met in this town house…dancing the tango along the banks of the Seine...

Eiffel Tower
Originally built to impress spectators at the 1889 World's Fair, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be a temporary addition to the Paris skyline. Still in working order, the double-decker elevators and mechanisms from 1900 were automated in 1986.

Three levels of the tower can be visited. The first level, at 187 feet, has a post office, restaurant, shops, cinema and cafe. The second level is at 376 feet. On a clear day from the third level, 905 feet above the ground, its possible to see for 45 miles!

The Tower has been re-painted 18 times since its initial construction, an average of once every seven years. It has changed color several times, passing from red-brown to yellow-ochre, then to chestnut brown and finally to the bronze of today, slightly shaded off towards the top to ensure that the color is perceived to be the same all the way up as it stands against the Paris sky. Sixty tons of paint are necessary to cover the Tower's surface, as well as 50 kilometers of security cords, 5 acres of protection netting, 1500 brushes, 5000 sanding disks, 1500 sets of work clothes…and more than a year for a team of 25 painters to paint the Tower from top to bottom. 

If it's literally freezing with a wind chill, like on our visit, warm up in the cafe with a hot chocolate and watch the latest team of painters paint the Tower from top to bottom.

Galeries Lafayette
The Galeries Lafayette is a 10-story department store. The store's unique Belle Epoque architecture, which features a dramatic colored glass dome and an ornate Art Nouveau staircase offering dizzying perspectives, contributed to the department store being named a Paris city heritage site.

Don't miss the Galeries Lafayette for holiday lights and windows that arguably rival those of New York department stores. Classic American musicals are being celebrated in the windows of Galeries Lafayette for Christmas 2010. Blonde haired dolls wearing Santa suits, gold clogs, and red tams are the Radio City Rockettes, teddy bears in bathing suits with snorkels and fins dancing away to the tunes of Mamma Mia, and a mannequin with a snow white Afro sitting on a huge shiny red Christmas ornament belting out Life is a Cabaret Ol' Chum are some of the highlights of the singing windows. The theme is called Show Chaud Noel. Inside, the famous 20 meter tree under the glass dome is gorgeous as ever this year with gold, turquoise, violet and pink balls.

Galette des Rois
The galette des Rois (King cake) is found in Paris at Christmas time. Its most notable feature is the hidden fève (prize), usually a porcelain figurine, in the cake. Whoever finds the fève in their slice of cake gets to wear a paper crown and be King (or Queen) for the day.  I can imagine that in the U.S. a hard, pointy figurine baked into a cake would be considered a safety risk, but that’s not at all the case here in France, with lines of galette-hungry customers snaking out of every bakery that you pass. Tim found one of these porcelain collectibles in his cake and was king for the day! Of course, we only learned of the tradition after he thought a piece of the mixer had fallen into his cake. Definitely a memorable experience!

To see all our pictures of Paris, visit

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Château de Versailles

Originally a small royal hunting lodge, this structure became the core of the new palace, or Château de Versailles. The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.

A visit to the chateau begins with the Grand Apartments, which are known as the grand apartment du roi and the grand apartment de la reine (the private apartments of the king and queen respectively). These are richly decorated with colored marbles, stone and wood carvings, murals, velvet, silver and gilded furniture. Beginning with the Salon d'Hercule, each room is dedicated to an Olympian deity.

The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) connects the apartment of the king with the apartment of the queen and is where the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was ratified, ending World War I. Here seventeen mirror-clad arches that reflect the seventeen arched windows that overlook the gardens. Each arch contains twenty-one mirrors with a total complement of 357 used in the decoration of the Galerie des Glaces.

Not to be missed, even on a crisp winter day, are the Gardens of Versailles. In addition to the meticulous manicured lawns, parterres of flowers, and sculptures are the fountains, which are located throughout the garden. Dating from the time of Louis XIV and still using much of the same network of hydraulics as was used during the Ancien Régime, the fountains contribute to making the gardens of Versailles unique.

The Bassin de Latone, constructed between 1668–1670, depicts an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Latona and her children, Apollo and Diana, being tormented with mud slung by Lycian peasants, who refused to let her and her children drink from their pond, appealed to Zeus who responded by turning the Lycians into frogs.

With a length of 1,500 meters and a width of 62 meters, the Grand Canal, which was built between 1668 and 1671, was the setting for Louis XIV's many boating parties. On a clear, crisp day, it's the perfect place to purchase a delicious topped baked potato from a hot potato vendor and enjoy the picturesque gardens and glistening golden chateau.

We were lucky to plan our visit with the Les Feeries de la  Reine at Marie-Antoinette's Estate. The Queen gathered her favorites and staged refined, elegant fêtes where courtiers tried to seduce her with fireworks, trying to outdo each other’s wittiness and inventiveness. Fireworks, water effects and characters made of light glitter on the pond between the Dairy and the Mill, and illuminate the Queen’s splendid houses. It was the perfect end to a perfect day in Versailles!

To see all of our pictures of Versailles, visit