A few good links: Italy's holiday witch
O little town of Bethlehem, Pa. "White 26-point Moravian stars twinkle into life on every porch…" [Chicago Tribune]
Crapped out? Vegas still offers fun at low stakes These days looking for cheap fun isn't a sucker's bet. [AP]
Australia's National Breakfast Spread Gets Its Own Museum Vegemite is now behind glass, where it belongs. [Jaunted]
A bespoke tour of Manhattan Bicycling around the island on the Waterfront Greenway. [Guardian]
Taking Flight with Italy's Holiday Witch In many parts of the country it's an "ugly, broom-flying and present-wielding witch who keeps children on their toes" for Epiphany. [Spiegel]
First Venice, now Rome drenched by floods
The swollen Tiber River was expected to overflow its banks on Friday after days of foul weather in Rome and throughout Italy, according to Reuters. The city's smaller Aniene River already burst, and Mayor Gianni Alemanno declared a state of emergency: "In Rome, it has been like an earthquake, with more rain in one night than normally comes down in all of December." More than four inches of rain fell on Thursday night alone. Roman authorities are urging people to use public transportation instead of cars as many roads and tunnels have been affected. (A left-wing trade union cooperated by calling off a transportation strike planned for Friday, as reported in The Times.) Firefighters evacuated people stuck in cars and on the ground floors of buildings; police divers found one woman dead in her car, which was submerged in a suburban underpass. Earlier in December, Venice experienced its worst case of acqua alta ("high water") in 22 years. The NY Daily News published photos of people wading through knee-high water and St. Mark's Square awash in almost three feet of water. It's déjà vu for Venetians this week, with more alarm bells and another bout of high tides.
Exclusive: New York's holiday windows as festive as ever
It's been a wet, slightly grim week here in New York, and that means that we at least could use a bit more holiday cheer than usual. There may not be any snow covering the sidewalks yet (just puddles), but at least the holiday displays are out in full force. To get a taste, check out photographer Ian Gittler's slide show of the department store windows that make New York's midtown such an extraordinary place this time of year. What holiday windows and other decorations have you seen in your travels that make you pause and take a second look? Let us know in the comments.
How to see a space shuttle launch live
Go for lift off! NASA will conduct 10 more launches of space shuttles before it retires the Endeavour, Discovery, and Atlantis. If you don’t see one of these launches by the end of 2010, you may have to wait a while. A new series of manned spacecraft, Orion, might not take to the skies until 2014. Pick a three-day launch window NASA regularly updates the launch schedule on its website, but the agency usually changes the schedule repeatedly—including at the last minute. Plan to be around Cape Canaveral, Fla., for at least two days—the scheduled day and the day after. (We suggest you arrive a day ahead of the launch date so that you can take a tour and snap photos up close of the space shuttle on the launch pad.) The area immediately around Cape Canaveral isn't that interesting, but Orlando is about a 45-minute drive west, and the Spanish colonial town of St. Augustine, Fla., is only about two hours north. Here's where to catch the best views The closest you can get to a rocket launch is the NASA Causeway, which offers a clear view from a spot five-and-a-half-miles from the launch pad. At this spot, you'll hear official launch countdown commentary and have access to restrooms. Visitors must buy a launch transportation ticket and admission to the Kennedy Visitor Complex. The other officially sponsored option is The Rocket Garden at the main buildings at the Kennedy Visitor Complex. At the Rocket Garden, you’ll be able to hear launch briefings, talks by astronauts, and a live NASA countdown. You'll also see video presentations on a jumbo-sized screen. But the Center is six miles from the launch pad, and a treeline partially obstructs the view of the take-off. Tickets for both sites, which include a tour of the Kennedy Space center, become available from the Kennedy Space Center by phone at 321/449-4444 about six weeks before a launch. They cost $40 to $85, varying by the launch date you pick and the location you choose. Tickets are limited. The next launches are Discovery on February 12, 2009, Endeavour on May 15, 2009, and Atlantis on July 30, 2009. Updates about future launch tickets can be found on the space center website: kennedyspacecenter.com A word of caution If your launch is rescheduled up to the day before, your tickets will be valid for the rescheduled launch date. But if you enter the Center and the launch is rescheduled to another date, your launch viewing tickets are considered “used” and you'll have to buy a new ticket for the new launch date. And if a launch is canceled (or "scrubbed," in NASA lingo), you don't get a refund. Rather save money? Watch from an off-site location. NASA recommends four different locations (the first three listed on this webpage are free). Listen for launch details on the radio on AM stations 1240 and 1350. Can't make it to Florida? NASA TV streams the launch from its website. Here's a minute-and-a-half video with a synchronized collection of space shuttle launches. –Katie Jakub
This weekend: Model trains take over Traverse City, Mich.
Christmas has come early for those hoping for a model train under the tree this year: the Festival of Trains kicks off this weekend in Traverse City, Mich. The festival, a tradition in this town in Northern Michigan for nearly two decades, opens Saturday. Volunteers set up built-to-scale model trains, mostly in the N, HO, S, O and G scales. The result is a tricked-out giant display of models running on tracks through diorama-like scenes. The Northern Michigan Rail Road Club puts on the display at the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, a building that used to house a library. The Center is in a beautiful district that also has several mansions of 19th-century lumber barons. More than 8,000 people attended last year's installment, and organizers are expecting about 10,000 this year. In case you didn't know, Traverse City is a resort town that's about two-and-a-half hours north of Grand Rapids on Lake Michigan, between the pinkie and the fourth finger in Michigan's mitten. 322 Sixth Street, 231/995-0313, tickets from $2. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A family pass is available for unlimited visits for $25. MORE Read more in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Check out the Traverse City Visitors Bureau for ideas on what else to do. Shop in the city's historical downtown area. For more travel news, go to Alltop.