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London: 5 best March values

By Alex Robinson
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy <a href="http://mybt.budgettravel.com/_British-Museum/photo/3731890/21864.html">tickleddpink/myBudgetTravel</a>

London springs back to life with the first buds and leaves. This month, locals begin to leave the fireplace and venture outdoors with a series of festivals and events.

Kingdom of Ife Sculptures

The British Museum's African season continues with one of it's 2010 flagship exhibitions, showcasing 109 superb pieces of haunting sculpture, from the powerful medieval West African kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-fay). It's one of the first times that such an extensive collection — which is mostly drawn from museums in Nigeria — has been seen outside Africa. Previews have been hot with the critics. The Daily Telegraph heralded the show as "potentially the exhibition of the year." In Bloomsbury, the central London neighborhood north of the West End theater district. britishmuseum.org, March 4–June 6, $12.

The East Festival

This six-day festival, opened by the Mayor of London, celebrates the cultural life of the East of London — famous abroad as the perennial home of the crafty Cockney but known to Londoners for its striking architecture pre-Olympic games architectural renaissance, its cool Hoxton clubs, and vibrant South Asian cultural life. This year's East programme focuses on these—with music and art shows from British India and the Indian sub-continent, a series of events for families at the Barbican Center, architecture shows, and free concerts throughout the area. March 4–9 visitlondon.com/events/east

St Patrick's Day

This year St Patrick's day falls mid-week on March 17. So London's huge Irish community kick off several days of Guinness- and Beamish-soaked celebrations on the weekend before. Parties in scores of London pubs and bars kick off on March 13th and the following day there's a huge St Patrick's Day Sunday Parade with marching bands, floats, street theatre, music and a procession of representatives of all 32 Irish counties, dressed in their traditional colours. Parallel with the parade is a festival in Trafalgar Square with Céilidh music and dancing. The parade starts in Piccadilly at noon (subway: Piccadilly) and continues through Central London and Trafalgar Square, finishing at Whitehall Palace.

Homage to Rudolph Nureyev

This spectacular night of ballet features stars from Europe's top ballet companies—including the Royal ballet, the Bolshoi, Kirov, Paris Opera, the Berlin, and the Vienna Staatsballet paying homage to one of the twentieth century's greatest dancers. It's a rare treat to see so many wonderful dancers gathered on one stage, especially when tickets start at $19.50. March 21 at 7 p.m., eno.org

The Head of the River Race

London's largest and most spectacular rowing race takes place over a few hours on the Thames between Mortlake and Putney on the last weekend of March. Some 400 boats leave at timed intervals to create a colorful procession along the river. No one knows who wins until the last boat arrives at Putney Bridge. And only the crews really care — the point is the spectacle and an afternoon whiled away on the banks of the Thames the day before Summer time officially begins in Britain. Let's hope it doesn't rain. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat race (which I'll profile in a separate blog) also takes place in March. Mar 27, 1:15 p.m., horr.co.uk

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Inspiration

It's a prime time to visit Mexico, says this expert

Genevieve Shaw Brown is Travelocity's Senior Editor and contributor to the Window Seat Blog. You can also find her on Twitter @gsbrown. Airfares seem to be on the rise. Are there any popular destinations where good fares can still be found? It's important for travelers to remember that while airfare for spring is higher than is was at this time last year, it's still a relative bargain when compared to the average ticket price in spring 2008. Looking at Travelocity's Spring Data Report, there are several popular spring break destinations where both airfare and hotel rates are down. Maui, Kona, the Dominican Republic, New York City, and Reno-Tahoe are all examples. But far and away the best-value destination this spring is Mexico. How does Mexico's value now as a destination compare with other destinations?The top-booked Mexico destinations are all showing deep price declines, particularly on hotel rates. Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo are showing hotel rate declines of 14, 13, and 22 percent, respectively. So, compare that to the overall international hotel price decline of three percent for spring break and it's clear Mexico is a huge bargain. Factor in a favorable exchange rate and you're getting even more for your money. Mexico's value is particularly apparent when you look at average round-trip airfare from the U.S. to Mexico compared to spots in say, Western Europe. Now, these are totally different experiences but if you're just looking to get away, airfare to Mexico is roughly $500 cheaper than to London, Paris, or Rome. Last year was a tough one for Mexico because of swine flu and border violence. Are Americans realizing that the popular tourist spots in Mexico are now safe? It certainly seems that way. Mexico has jumped up the list of spring break destinations to take the top three international spots and has surpassed even its 2008 popularity levels. Cancun, Cabo, and Puerto Vallarta are the top three international destinations for Travelocity customers this spring break. Travelers with plans to visit Mexico this spring will likely be pleasantly surprised by the high level of service they receive&mdash;with all the hardships Mexico endured in 2009, the tourism industry is rolling out the red carpet for visitors. Will this weeks's renewed travel alert put a damper on Mexico's big comeback this spring? Or will the traveling public differentiate between the border cities where the violence is concentrated and the resort cities where there is virtually no violence?Well, it is a little early to tell. Certainly, the renewed travel alert won't be beneficial to Mexico's tourism industry, but I'm hopeful that the media reporting on the alert will do so responsibly and the traveling public will educate themselves on the distance between the border cities and the resort cities&mdash;often hundreds and hundreds of miles. My advice to travelers is to read the alert carefully and then make an informed and educated decision about your trip. What about hotels? Overall, domestic and international hotel rates are lower than last year. That's where travelers will find value this spring and beyond&mdash;not just from lower rates, but value-add promotions like free nights, free room upgrades, and resort credits. And most importantly, don't forget about packaging. Just booking your flight and hotel together saves hundreds of dollars with one click of the mouse. Is there anything relatively new in online travel booking that may make the process easier and less stressful?The great thing about online travel is that it's always innovating, but one challenge is that the choices can be a little overwhelming&mdash;especially when there's so many amazing deals to be had right now! A new tool Travelocity recently launched that helps address that issue is the is the Deals Toolkit (travelocity.com/travel-deals). It lets users view and compare travel deals and customer reviews side-by-side to make the most informed decision.

Inspiration

On the radar: A wry film from a Roman mama's boy

Writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio still lives with his 93-year-old mama Valeria, who stars with him in "Mid-August Lunch" (Pranzo di Ferragosto), shot in the apartment they share in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. The film will play New York City's Film Forum, March 17-30, and then select theaters nationwide. The slow-paced story unfolds over the weekend of Ferragosto, the peak of the Italian summer, when almost everyone flees to the beach or countryside&mdash;except for Gianni. He can't ditch his mother, of course, and suddenly finds himself caring and cooking for three other mamas. It all starts when the building manager makes Gianni an offer he can't refuse: late rental payments will be forgiven if Gianni lets the manager's mama sleep over. I caught an advance screening of the bittersweet film and enjoyed its subtle revelations about everyday life in Rome and generational dynamics. Out of groceries, Gianni speeds through Rome's deserted streets on his motorino and winds up buying fish just caught by an immigrant stationed alongside the Tiber River. Gianni tends to speak to the mamas with cajoling phrases typically used with kids (encouraging one to "fai la brava" (be good) and offering another "una carotina" (a little carrot)). The stubborn mamas&mdash;non-professional actors who go by their real names&mdash;each try to assert themselves against Gianni, with some funny results (the kind that make you smile, not laugh out loud). In a Q&A; after yesterday's screening at the Italian Cultural Institute, chef and TV host Lidia Bastianich shared her reactions. Lidia, too, lives with her mother, and she recalled her own Ferragosto holidays as a little girl in northern Italy, where her family would picnic with fresh meats and lots of wine. For her, there was water mixed with vinegar and sugar. When asked about food's role in the film, which culminates with a big, fancy Ferragosto lunch, Lidia reflected that the universal need to eat is disarming: we lower our defenses when we sit down to share food at the table, an act that also feeds our need for companionship. This message comes through in "Mid-August Lunch," which adds nuance to the stereotypes that Italians love their food and their mamas.

Inspiration

In Paris, and down at the farm

Two years ago, I accompanied a sheep farmer and his family to the Paris Salon de l'Agriculture. I was not excited to go. I reasoned that if I wanted to experience livestock and their attendant aromas, I could have stayed in Kansas. In truth, this annual salon is nothing like I'd experienced back in the American Midwest. For starters, there is no accompanying rodeo. In its place, the Paris version allows you to taste some of the best food and wine in France. I almost fainted, upon entering the food hall on that first visit and seeing the bounty of France spread out before me. Food and beverage producers&mdash;more than 1,000 of them&mdash;are brought in to sell and share their wares, and almost all offer samples. I staggered through stalls in a daze, accepting a slice of Basque brebis (sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrenees), tasting a sliver of sausage from the Auvergne region, and washing that down with a shot of artisanal pear cider from Normandy. In addition to these nibbles, there's a food court of sorts, with 38 restaurants selling more substantial portions of food from all corners of France. You'll find everything from cr&ecirc;pes to coq au vin, plus artisanal beers from the North of France that will restore your faith in French breweries. Those who prefer wine can drink themselves silly at the hand of hundreds of vignerons (winemakers). In short, this is an amazing food and wine festival smack dab on top of a livestock fair. And speaking of livestock, I found this part to be surprisingly compelling. France's AOC system ensures that certain animal breeds can be raised only in specific regions and according to time-honored methods. This results in real differences between cows from, say, Limousin and Charolles&mdash;differences that are accentuated by what I like to call "regional styling." The animals are accessorized according to breed, with variations including "shaved butt," "braided tail with ribbon," and so on. These tricked-out specimens have competed earlier in the week in a sort of agricultral beauty pageant, and the resulting ribbons are on display for all to see. My favorite grand prize winner, who preened inside his cage like a true champion, was the Dragon Bleu Barr&eacute;&hellip;a pigeon. Practical information: Admission is $13.50 for adults and $8 for students and children aged 6&ndash;12. Entry is not permitted for children younger than six. The salon runs February 27 to March 7, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It stays open late on Friday March 5 and offers half-price admission from 7 p.m.&ndash;11 p.m. Getting there: The Paris Expo center at Porte de Versailles is located in city's southern 15th arrondissement. Getting there is easy by subway: take the line 12 to the Porte de Versailles stop and you'll emerge directly in front of the center, or take the line 8 to the Balard stop and walk for five minutes. Salon de l'Agriculture. MORE Our Paris info page

Inspiration

San Francisco: Wine tasting in the city

For many, a San Francisco vacation isn't complete without a day of wine tasting up in Napa or Sonoma. But you can find great wine without even leaving the city&mdash;particularly in Fisherman's Wharf, where there are numerous tasting rooms. At Ghiradelli Square there are two tasting rooms. Wattle Creek Winery is a small family-owned Sonoma vineyard; Cellar 360 boasts more than 200 wines (including a good selection of bottles under $20), wine classes, a food tasting menu with items like bruschetta with roasted figs and goat cheese (served on Friday and Saturday nights), and an outdoor patio. Pair a trip to one of these tasting rooms with a trip to nearby Cannery, where the Winery Collective is located. The Collective is San Francisco's first multi-winery tasting room, with wines from dozens of California's small boutique wineries, like the award-winning Sol Rouge and Gregory Graham. My favorite, though, is the more social Press Club at the Yerba Buena Arts Center, in downtown. It has a hip lounge where you can enjoy sipping on wine from eight of Northern California's most acclaimed small wineries, plus seasonal small plates made with ingredients from Napa Valley and after-hour parties on Friday and Saturday nights. Any wine tasting is a guaranteed good time, but knowing a little etiquette can make the somewhat formal environment less daunting. Here are a couple do's and don'ts to get you started: DO Taste in this order: whites, then reds, and finally dessert wines. Always go from dry to sweet (which the pourer will help you with). You can always skip a wine, or ask to try only one kind&mdash;say, reds only. Use the provided crackers and water to cleanse your palate in between tastings so that you can really appreciate the different flavors. Water can also be used to rinse your glass if you don't get a new one. Use the tasting sheets that most places offer&mdash;can you taste blackberry? Coffee? Flowers? This is a fun exercise for even the newest wine drinkers. Ask the host questions. There's no need to be a wine connoisseur to have a good time. Toss unwanted wine in the bucket on the counter. This is not seen as an insult&mdash;hey, there's a lot of wine to get through! DON'T Pour the wine yourself. Spit directly into the bucket. Instead ask for a small Dixie cup. Ask for a second taste unless you are sure you'll buy a bottle. It's considered rude to drink more than offered. Treat the provided snacks as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Chew gum or smoke a cigarette right before tasting, since it will destroy the wine's flavor. Bring wine from elsewhere for a picnic (this goes for the Napa and Sonoma wineries, as well). Feel like you have to tip or even buy a bottle. Some, but not all, tasting rooms charge a tasting fee, anyway, to cover the cost of service and free booze.

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