Photo credit: CC BY-SA-2.0 / GFDL (Giulia, 2008)
History folks know there is no progress without looking back. Culture lovers want to fully immerse and connect to what may seem a massive disconnect in terms of physical time, habits and rationality. “Did you say rare paintings or an outdoor art installation? Here’s my credit card for that flight booking,” the art connoisseur, recognising the value in pursuing creativity, says with hardly a flinch.
These characters typically don’t exist as standalone personalities, of course. Us travel creatures called the art-culture-history buff is at best complex and at worst, a beast. But hey, we really are misunderstood. Now excuse me — or us — while we detail our getaways to rest that wounded ego. (Ok, it was really just an excuse.)
FEBRUARY/MARCH: Carnival fun in Italy
In Singapore, the season of Lent is often a somber period as Christians prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the West, however, Lent is ushered in with much fanfare. Known as “Mardi Gras”, this season of festivities is typically held 47 days before Easter from February to March and marked with numerous carnivals throughout Europe.
And what better place to soak in the festivities than Italy, where carnivals spring up in almost every city, engulfing the country in a celebratory mood. Many of Italy’s carnivals have acquired international fame and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors locally and abroad, with the carnivals of Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea among the most famous.
Begin your Italian carnival experience at the romantic city of Venice, where the Carnival of Venice, the world’s largest and most renowned masquerade ball, is held annually at Piazza San Marco (15th February-4th March 2014). The carnival is both a step into the past and a feast for the eyes — it is characterised by the wearing of masks, a tradition dating back to the 14th century where the masks symbolise the eradication of social classes. Walk down the cobblestone streets and you will encounter Venetians wearing masks and decked out in elaborate whimsical costumes, many who are more than happy to pose a photo for camera-touting tourists and serious photographers alike. Parades are held daily at the square, where people compete for the most beautiful masked costume with street artists and traditional dance performances to add to the festive mood. Private masquerade parties are also held at various locations where tourists are welcome to dress up and participate.
A good time to visit Venice will be 22nd-23rd February, where one will not only get to see the parades, but also the “Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel)”, one of the traditional highlights of the carnival, where an artist attempts a breathtaking feat and descends by rope from the St. Mark’s Bell Tower to the Doge’s Palace.
Thereafter, head north to Viareggio in Tuscany for the Carnival of Viareggio, one of the most famous carnivals in the world. Be sure to time your visit to catch one of the parades to be held on 2nd March (other parade dates are 16th and 23rd February and 4th and 9th March), where giant papier-mâché floats make their way down the beach starting from Piazza Mazzini. Originally meant as a masquerade event by the rich to protest against exorbitant taxes, the carnival today has taken on a satirical nature featuring floats in the image of political and showbiz personalities. Tourists can dress up for the part with wigs, masks and hats and join in the parade and late-night parties in the streets. Viareggio is also conveniently located a short distance away from the popular tourist cities Pisa and Lucca, where you can see Roman ruins and the leaning Tower of Pisa.
Continue north to Ivrea in Piemont for more carnival fun at the Carnival of Ivrea, deemed as one of the oldest festivals in the world. Witness a reenactment of the civil uprising against a tyrant at the Battle of Oranges, to be held from 1st to 4th March this year, where competing teams pelt one another with oranges, followed by a grand parade with floats and actors dressed up as characters from the history of the uprising. As all the carnivals draw to a close, those with time to spare can tour the rest of the Piedmont region, which is home to world-renowned wines including Barolo and Moscato d’Asti.
MAY/JUNE: Celebrate tradition in Japan
The Japanese calendar is dotted with many matsuris or festivals throughout the year that provide interesting cultural insights to Japanese culture, and for me, the land of the rising sun is where to be headed just before the dreaded summer heat sets in.
One of the three biggest festivals in Tokyo, the Sanno Matsuri, is slated to be held in mid-June this year. What makes this annual festival special is its main event, jinkosai, is a parade that is only held on even-numbered years. 2014 therefore presents the perfect opportunity to catch the festival in its entirety. Originating from the Edo Period, the festival was held to honour the rulers. Although it has since been scaled down to reduce traffic disruption, the jinkosai procession is still an impressive spectacle.
In what seems like a merging of the past and the present, about 500 people dressed in colourful ancient costumes will march down the busy streets of Tokyo with traffic alongside for almost 20km. The procession comprises of several floats, and three portable shrines known as mikoshi with Shinto gods are carried around. Departing at 7.45am from the Hie Shrine in the morning which houses the guardian deity of Tokyo, the procession goes past the Yasukuni Shrine and enters the Tokyo Imperial Palace, where ceremonial rites are performed to pray for the imperial family. The contingent then continues to Tokyo Station, stopping for a rest at Nihonbashi Hie Shrine, and then passes through the heart of Ginza before concluding at the Hie Shrine in the evening.
There are also several smaller events during the week of Sanno Matsuri, including the Sanno Chinkasai, where people pass through a large circle made of chigaya and bamboo to purify themselves of sin and for good luck.
For those going to Japan in May, catch the Sanja Matsuri, another one of the three biggest festivals in Tokyo. Held in the third weekend of May each year, the festival draws millions of people each year and is held in honour of the Shinto gods enshrined in Asakusa Shrine. On Friday, priests, city officials and performers in traditional costumes take part in the Daigyoretsu Parade with song and dance, while on Saturday, a 100 mikoshis (portable Shinto shrines) are blessed at the Asakusa Shrine and paraded around the streets to spread the good fortune, followed by another parade on Sunday with the three mikoshis of the main Shinto gods.
To add on to your cultural experience, catch a bout in the May edition of the Grand Sumo Tournament (between 11th and 25th May), or learn more about the art of anime at the Studio Ghibli Museum by the animation production house labelled the Disney of the East and the creators of anime hits such as “Spirited Away”.
SEPTEMBER: Culture & couture in London
Home to many of the world’s best fashion brands, theatre groups, and musicians, London is the place to be for art lovers.
Arrive in early September to catch the last leg of the BBC Proms, touted as the “greatest classical music festival on earth”. Held annually by the British broadcaster, the Proms is a series of more than 90 classical music concerts primarily held at the Royal Albert Hall for eight weeks of summer, culminating in a grand Last Night Celebration held across the United Kingdom. The “Proms” derives its name from the old tradition of holding affordable outdoor concerts in the city’s public gardens, and the term now refers to the free standing areas in the concert hall where concertgoers stand to watch the performances at a cheaper price. Go beyond the goggle box to the live venue itself and indulge in the classical hits and contemporary pieces performed by some of the country’s best musicians in the comfort of the Royal Albert Hall, or attend the Proms in the Park live broadcast show on the last night at the Hyde Park under the stars. Even if you are not in London on the last night, one can also attend the Proms in the Park shows that will be held simultaneously in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
In mid-September, catch the London Fashion Weekend, a fashion event that comes on the heels of the world-famous London Fashion Week, one of the world’s biggest fashion shows. Unlike the latter, which is mostly attended by members of the trade or the media, the London Fashion Weekend offers consumers the rare opportunity to experience a world-class fashion catwalk event at the Somerset House. The fashion event is also the chance to get your shopping fix at exclusive pop-up stores by some of the world’s best designer labels.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and the city has laid many plans to commemorate the historic event. Many museums across the country have been revamped or are being enhanced to feature brand-new exhibitions dedicated to the war. Revisit the past at the Imperial War Museum where one of the world’s most extensive collection of WWI exhibits ranging from weapons and uniforms to photographs and letters are on display; and also the “HMS-Hear My Story” exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, where one can see the actual four-inch gun from the destroyer HMS Lance from which the first shot of the war was fired at sea.
OCTOBER: Movie mania in Busan
The end of the year marks the season of award ceremonies in South Korea, as television broadcasters and critics give out awards to honour the best songs, films and dramas of the year. Make your way to the port city of Busan for a movie marathon of the best films from Asia and some star-gazing at the Busan International Film Festival, one of the biggest and most prestigious festivals of its kind in Asia. Held in early October annually (the 19th edition will run from 2nd to11th October 2014), the festival presents more than 300 films from 70 countries, with a strong emphasis on Asian films.
Head to some of Busan’s best cinema halls for movie screenings (most movies have English subtitles), or even catch a movie under the stars at outdoor screenings. The festival is also a perfect chance to catch some of Asia’s biggest stars in the flesh at the opening ceremony, international movie premieres and meet-and-greet sessions. Celebrities who have graced the red carpet in previous years include Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, director Tsai Ming Liang, and many of the biggest film stars in Korea.
Some side events also include handprinting ceremonies of distinguished film personalities at the BIFF Square, which is similar to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and dialogue sessions with prolific movie directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho.
The film festival also coincides with the Busan Jagalchi Festival which is usually held on the same weekend at the Jagalchi Market, one of the most famous tourist attractions in Busan and the largest seafood market in Korea. With cooking demonstrations, cooking contests for foreigners, food stalls selling local dishes and wacky activities such as squid catching competitions and a relay race using sea eels as batons, the seafood festival presents tourists with the opportunity to learn more about Korean seafood cuisine and the seafaring culture of the Busan people. Parades and live performances also add to the buzz.
Consider a detour to Gwangju in the southwest for the Gwangju World Kimchi Culture Festival (held from 5th to 9th October last year; this year’s date yet to be released) to learn more about the fermented side dish that Koreans can’t seem to live without. Held at Jungoe Park, sample a wide variety of kimchi, learn how to make kimchi from the experts and even bring home the fruit of your labour — your very own pot of kimchi. Educational programmes, musical performances, and hands-on activities such as kimchi rice ball-making and cabbage harvesting add on to your unique cultural experience in Korea.