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Belgian Beer Weekend: Brussels, Belgium (September 1 to 3, 2006)

Those crafty Belgians -- they certainly know how to invite and entice. Sure they are the masters of chocolate, producing the finest specimens anywhere on this planet, but they are also master brewers of some of the most delicious and potent beers on the market. In fact no other country can boast as wide an array of distinct beer styles as Belgium and no other country brews as many beers with the depth of complexity as Belgium. Belgium is only one of only two countries where the practice of brewing in monasteries is kept alive. Celebrate all things beer-like at the Grand'Place at Grote markt in central Brussels, the location of the eighth annual Beer Weekend (www.belgianbeerweekend.be) run by the Belgium Brewers' Association in collaboration with the City of Brussels. The event is free and beers are served from 48 Belgian breweries (including major producers, micro and boutique breweries) at what the organizers deem "very democratic" prices. The Grote markt itself is a stunning location -- a traditional Gothic architecture square, so if you don't over-consume, take a moment to admire your surroundings. If you have only ever tasted Stella Artois or Chimay, get ready to tantalize your taste buds with Brugse Tripel, Cristal Alken, Duvel, Kwak, Maes, Orval, Sloeber, Westmalle Double and Zulte and dozens of other varieties.

Onam Festival: Kerala, India (September 5 to 15, 2006)

Onam (www.onamfestival.org) is the largest and most spectacular festival in the Indian state of Kerala. Celebrated in towns and villages throughout the state, like most Indian festivals, the festivities last for a full ten days with the first day - Atham, the ninth day - Utradam and the final tenth day - Thiru Onam, being the most significant. This also means that most people are on vacation for ten days so getting things done (i.e. conducting business) may be a little difficult during the period. Onam celebrates the golden age of King Mahabali, a mythical ruler of Kerala, and has been part of Kerala's festive calendar for over 1200 years. It also coincides with the start of the harvest season, a traditional time of celebration. Colorful processions (with elephant parades), feasting, boat races, temple visits, singing and dancing are the hallmarks of this festival with the most impressive element being a grand feast called Onasadya, prepared on the final day. It is a nine course meal, served on banana leaves consisting of 11 to 13 essential dishes where diners traditionally sit on the floor to eat. Another highlight is Vallamkali, a Snake Boat race, held on the river Pampa in the towns of Aranmulai and Kottayam. This colorful event features dozens of decorated boat manned by hundreds of oarsmen chanting traditional songs under red umbrellas to the rhythm of drums and cymbals while thousands of spectators line the river shores. Another custom is the playing of games, called Onakalikal Â? for the men these include ball sports, archery and combat like activities, whereas the women and children participate in more cultural endeavors like creating floral decorations that adorn the houses, dance performers and intricately designed flower mats which they lay out in the front of their houses to welcome King Mahabali.

Rock Al Parque: Bogotá, Colombia (October 15 to 17, 2006)

Rock al Parque (Rock in the Park) is the largest annual festival of Latin American rock music. More than 300,000 people squeeze into Parque Simón Bolivar for this three-day concert spectacular which happens to be free thanks to the government. International, national and local bands perform and this year's line up includes Suicidal Tendencies, VHS or Beta and Volumen Cero from the U.S., A.N.I.M.A.L., Capri, Miranda and Cabezones from Argentina, Desorden Público from Venezuela, Siq from Ecuador, Guiso and The Ganjas from Chile), Fritanga from Spain, Adhesivo from Salvador and Nortec y Jaguares plus a band with the unfortunate name Dildo from México.

Now in its 11th year, if you want to uncover the best Spanish language bands, this festival should be your number one destination this fall. For more information (albeit in Spanish), visit the event website at www.rockalparque.gov.co.

Melbourne Cup Racing Carnival: Melbourne, Australia (November 4 to 11, 2006)

Australians love their sports and horse-racing is no exception -- however with over 120,000 people attending one race on the first Tuesday in November (November 7, 2006), you'd be surprised how many race-goers will tell you that they didn't see a horse all day. That is because the Melbourne Cup (www.vrc.net.au) is also the social highlight of the year with flamboyant parties and tailgating events held in the surrounding members' and public car parks. If you are a member of a U.S. horse racing club, you should investigate reciprocal rights to secure your members' tickets or try to arrive in Melbourne earlier and get yourself invited to a member's party. Women -- you must wear a hat and men -- dress smart (suit, even a traditional morning suit with top hat is not out of place here). Actually the Melbourne Cup is just one day in a series of events during a almost two month long Spring racing carnival, and a week of special races held at Flemington starting on Derby Day (November 4, 2006) and culminating in Stakes Day (November 11, 2006). You also have the option to watch the racing from the public enclosure (approximately $30 for entry) or the grand stand and fight for a good vantage point. The Emirates Melbourne Cup is the biggest and richest racing event in the southern hemisphere, worth almost four million dollars. It is so much more than just a horse race - it is a 145-year old social and cultural tradition that stops the nation. It's a national holiday, with people around the country throwing parties and invariably stopping at 3pm to watch the three-minute race on television.

Burning Barrels: Ottery St. Mary, Devon, U.K. (November 5, 2006)

Have a flaming night out and celebrate the traditional British Guy Fawkes night with a burning twist. On the evening of November 5 each year, people all over the U.K. celebrate a failed royal assassination plot, commemorating the capture of perpetrator Guy Fawkes with bonfires and fireworks, and by burning an effigy of Guy. But in the otherwise quaint Devonshire town of Ottery St Mary, they take the burning to a new level with the annual "Burning Barrels" festival. The crazed local folk of this town located about 130 miles south west of London roll and carry barrels full of burning tar being up and down the streets and through the main square. Each pub in the town sponsors a barrel, making up to 17 barrels over the course of the evening. These are then soaked in tar until they become highly flammable and men, women and children participate. By midnight all the barrels make their way to the River Otter and get thrown on a massive bonfire illuminating the night sky and a carnival/funfair located on the banks of the river. This tradition dates back to the 17th century and possibly earlier so it is likely that it has more of a link to banishing spirits and the pagan celebration of Halloween, than Guy Fawkes. In fact on October 31, the annual festival gets started with a traditional procession through the town with an anointed Carnival Queen and Princesses and brightly-colored floats. Since the rolling of burning barrels at Lewes in Sussex was banned after a tragic accident several years ago, this is the only remaining festival of its kind. Although the website isn't working too well at present, you can see photographs of previous years' events at www.tarbarrels.co.uk.

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