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  • Sep 15, 2014
  • Updated: 10:57am

Winter wonderland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am

Paris

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris reminded us - with characters happily walking the streets in the rain - that the French capital is both photogenic and a pleasure to visit, no matter the weather.

A walk along the banks of the River Seine in the centre of the city takes in a handful of the city's landmarks: the gothic magnificence of Notre Dame Cathedral; the obelisk at Place de La Concorde; the colossal temple to impressionist art, the Musee d'Orsay; the iconic Eiffel Tower and the beautifully restored glass-roofed Grand Palais, originally completed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900.

The centre of Paris is walkable and even in the chilly winter season, if the sun is shining, it's the most pleasant way to get your bearings and admire the impressive architecture that lines its streets. The river perspective is a bit warmer from inside a tour boat - the best known company is Bateaux Mouches, one of several operators whose enormous vessels ply the waters day and night. More exclusive is River Limousine (www.river-limousine.com), a company with two small Venice-built wooden water taxis. Holding up to eight passengers comfortably, select your time of day - and request wine, Champagne, canapes or hot drinks, as you fancy.

If you are seeking a good art exhibition, two worth seeing include Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso ... The Stein Family at the Grand Palais (www.rmn.fr/Galeries-nationales-du-Grand), until January 16.

At Musee d'Orsay (www.musee-orsay.fr) a 19th-century British aesthetic movement, is showcased in Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde until January 15. Breaking away from Victorian morality, it includes works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Aubrey Beardsley.

If a stage show is more your thing, there is the touristy high-kicking cabaret at Moulin Rouge (www.moulin-rouge.com) in Pigalle, currently performing a 100-cast show called Feerie (meaning Enchantment); which can be watched with a drinks or meal package.

For something less French, Abba fans may be interested in knowing Mamma Mia is on, until the end of March at Theatre Mogador.

To soak up some festive atmosphere, from December 15 to January 2 a retro-style funfair will be in full swing outside the Grand Palais. In its third year, Jours de Fetes (Fair Days) offers rides, games and stalls that range from classic wooden merry-go-rounds to modern funfair attractions, attracting both adults and families.

Additionally, tease the senses with the smells or tastes of toffee apples, candy-floss, waffles and crepes.

There are cafes, bistros, brasseries and fine dining restaurants galore in Paris, but current recommendations include new and very popular La Patisserie des Reves on Rue de Longchamp (www.lapatisseriedesreves.com), whose excellent choux pastry and millefeuille with cream fillings are hard to resist; it also bakes a number of regional French breads.

To avoid queues for a view at the Eiffel Tower, book a table at Le Jules Verne (www.lejulesverne-paris.com), a restaurant that is accessed by its own lift from the ground, perched some 125 metres in the air, with fine food prepared by a kitchen under big-name chef Alain Ducasse.

Cycle off a few calories while seeing some sights with the established Paris Bike Tour (www.parisbiketour.net). The few routes provide a sturdy bike, helmet, basket, rain poncho, map of Paris and a professional guide, available in English or a few other European languages.

Among the many hotels in the city are two new ones that will ring a bell with the Hong Kong visitor: Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental have both recently opened. If you are missing authentic Cantonese fare, the former - set in a restored 1896 mansion that once belonged to the Bonaparte family (Emperor Napoleon's grand-nephew Roland) - has a Shang Palace outlet there. The latter, a new-build is more contemporary than its Hong Kong counterparts. For something old-school lavish French, consider Hotel Plaza Athenee in Avenue Montaigne, also known for its high fashion boutiques. Or you could opt for the traditionally opulent 19th-century Hotel le Bristol, the hotel Allen chose for his Midnight in Paris protagonist.

Tianjin

Tianjin is known as a major business and industrial centre, and it is the sixth-largest city and one of the five national central cities of the People's Republic. But it is also an ancient port and colonial trading centre, with a history that stretches back to the opening of the Grand Canal of China in the Sui dynasty (581-618). Visiting Tianjin in winter, wrapped up in a thick coat and gloves, and with regular stops at teahouses for a hot drink and one of the city's famed fried dough twists, pancakes or stuffed buns, is a fascinating experience.

The best way to get a sense of the colonial history of the city is to take a stroll around the Italian-style Area, south of Hebei district. Here churches and attractive villas line the avenues, architectural reminders of the self-contained concessions colonial powers including Great Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Belgium and Italy set up after the Treaties of Tianjin were signed during the second opium war.

For another taste of colonial culture, the Ludwig 1308 Beer House at Jinwan Plaza in Heping district is the only German-style beer house in Tianjin to serve home-brewed beer. The decor imitates a beer house in Bavaria, while the restaurant upstairs serves an approximation of German-style food.

Going further back in time, Ancient Culture Street on Shuigao Avenue in Nankai district, is home to the beautiful Mazu Temple, which dates to 1404. There is a festive atmosphere around the temple, with food artists creating delicate shapes out of sugar syrup, calligraphers writing lucky slogans and stalls selling souvenirs and games for children.

Also offering insight into the ancient history of the area, Tianjin Museum on Yinhe Square, Hexi district, which is housed in a building designed to look like a swan about to take off in flight, has more than 200 relics including earthenware, porcelain, paintings and royal seals. Porcelain House on Chifeng Road, Heping district, also houses more than 4,000 pieces of porcelain from successive dynasties.

A boat trip along the Haihe River is a good way of getting an overview of the city, the new sitting comfortably alongside the old. These trips can be taken at night or during the day and start at the Tianjin Eye, the city's Ferris wheel at Yongle Bridge.

After all the sightseeing, a trip out to the Regal Riviera Hot Spring Resort in Jingjin New City, Baodi district, is the perfect way to relax. The attractively designed resort is said to have Asia's largest outdoor hot springs, the hottest of which is at 96 degrees Celsius. Sitting in one of the hot pools, surrounded by snow, is a magical experience. Victoria Burrows

Lowest December temperature about minus 5 degrees Celsius

Getting there

Air China flies direct from Hong Kong to Tianjin several times a week

Kathmandu

While Nepal is known more as a spring and autumn destination, especially with walking enthusiasts looking to do one of the country's world-famous treks, visiting the capital, Kathmandu in the winter has its own joy. There are far fewer tourists, it is usually dry, and wrapping yourself up in a thick yak-hair scarf from one of the many shops in the main tourist area of Thamel lends a cosy feel to your holiday.

There is enough to see and do in and around Kathmandu to fill a relaxed week. Start with the Unesco World Heritage Site of Durbar Square; the construction probably dates to the 11th century, with successive kings adding their own palaces, courtyards and temples. Kumari Chowk, at one side of the square houses the Raj Kumari, is a young girl selected through spiritual divination believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Durga. Visitors can sometimes see a flash of eyes as she looks down from her windows.

Also pay a visit to the Hindu cremation ghats at Pashupatinath Temple, the monkey temple of Swayambhunath, and Boudhanath stupa, one of the holiest sites for Buddhists in the city.

Pick up a masterful thangka - a Buddhist spiritual painting with details sometimes painted with a single hair - silver and stone jewellery, artefacts and other souvenirs in Thamel, but avoid staying there unless a backpacker vibe is what you are after. The boutique property of Hotel Vajra (www.hotelvajra.com) is a short rickshaw ride away and offers good views, peace and large, comfortable rooms.

Schedule in a side trip to the hillside village of Nagarkot, a couple of hours' drive from the city. Stay at the Nagarkot Farmhouse (www.nagarkotfarmhouse.com), an old Nepali building converted into a guesthouse. Ask for a room with its own private balcony, set your alarm clock for sunrise and watch the light change over the snowy peaks of the entire Himalayan range. Ensconced in a warm blanket, sitting out on the wooden deck chairs, it is an experience you will never forget.

Rooms are tastefully furnished in warm browns, with woollen carpets featuring local designs covering the tiled floors. The food is outstanding: home-baked Nepali breads served with homemade jam and wholesome dals. Staff are happy to act as guides for drives or walks. The serenity of the village contrasts with the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. Victoria Burrows

Lowest December temperature about two degrees Celsius

Getting there

Dragonair and Nepal Airlines fly direct a few times a week

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