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Al fresco Tapas Bars In Lanzarote

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TapasBefore we start out lets understand what Tapas is.  Tapas are a wide variety of mouth-watering appetizers or snacks of the Spanish cuisine.  It is not the Sanskrit word for deep meditation, though after a tummy-full of Tapas you might want to drift off into a very satisfied mental state.

Tapas can be cold or hot and of many different kinds.  From the humble snack it has become sophisticated.  In most instances, it is a whole meal in itself with diners combining several tapas dishes.  It evolved from light snacks you nibbled on while you sipped your sherry, chatted and waited for the main meal to arrive – to the main course.  Having tapas has grown into a ritual in Spain – a favourite one too.

Way back in time tapas would be a piece of meat (usually salty) like Jamón (cured ham) that would be nibbled on while sipping drinks.  Bars and restaurants then became creative in their snack-making and started incorporating ingredients from around the world.  The Romans brought the olive; whole almonds, citrus fruits and spices came from North Africa and the Americas delivered tomatoes, peppers, corn and potatoes.  All these edible incursions have turned the tapas into gourmet must-do.  

Its evolution continues with the regular use of garlic, chillies, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron, other seasonings and olive oil.  The fillings often include anchovies, sardines, mackerel, squid or a huge variety of produce from the sea.  These are all mixed in an infinite variety of combinations and accompanied by tomato-based sauces, with a number of types of bread including Boccadillo, the Spanish version of the baguette.  It is quite usual for bars and restaurants to have over a dozen kinds of tapas sitting in warming trays to temp and cajole you into ordering them.

Now that you have a much better understanding of what makes tapas, let’s move to its consumption and the culture surrounding it, especially on the island of Lanzarote.

Al fresco dining started out (more or less) in cooler climates where a sunny day was a good reason to sit out in the garden or and have a meal.  Al fresco is Italian meaning “outside” or “in the fresh air.”

The gorgeous warm and sunny Canaries weather of Lanzarote means that it is almost de rigueur for bars and local restaurants to have sit-out arrangements where dining is casual and encourages a party-like scene.  All the villages in Lanzarote have numerous al fresco and so do the beaches.  The bars in the larger towns place tables out on the sidewalks and pavements.

Enjoying a leisurely tapas meal at these bars is usually enhanced by fantastic blue skies, pink and orange sunsets and the magical scenery of the island.  Your happy taste-buds and the location that made them so, ensure you will remember the experience(s) for years to come.

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Timanfaya National Park

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The landscape of Timanfaya National Park is absolutely unreal.  In fact it is so alien that it could well be on another planet.  The Park occupies the southwestern portion of the island of Lanzarote (one of Spain’s Canary Islands).  It is a harsh and barren region formed by volcanic activity.  In that harsh alienness lies its magic and beauty.

Timanfaya National ParkTimanfaya National Park covers some 51 square kilometres (20 square miles) and the soil is entirely volcanic.  As late as 300 years ago the island was treated to some very large eruptions.  That activity continues till today as geysers of steam still spout occasionally from volcanic tubes, sometimes aided by park attendants pouring into them for the benefit of tourists and their cameras.

Timanfaya volcano is still an active one and is the highlight of some amazing volcanic features.  The blue-black lava fields (known as the malpais – meaning badlands), craters, lava tunnels, lava lakes and multi-coloured volcanic cones make for spectacular viewing.

This bleak and awesome landscape is however, thanks to Mother Nature, showing signs of life.  There are some rare plants growing among the volcanic rock.  There are over 200 lichen species and some very ancient fig trees growing, incredibly, among the volcanic cones.  So valuable and rare is the environment of Lanzarote that in 1993, UNESCO designated the entire island a Biosphere Reserve.  The heart of the reserve is Timanfaya National Park.  

camels in timanfayaTo protect and preserve the delicate ecology and rare flora and fauna, getting into Timanfaya National Park is very tightly regulated.  Private vehicles are not allowed into the park and one can tour it by coaches.  The care for the region extends to treks and walks too.  You can only take a trek in the company of authorised guides and even that is via one or two footpaths.  There are also camel safaris through the park.

One of the highlights of a visit to the park is having a meal at the El Diablo restaurant near the Timanfaya crater.  It has a natural oven where food is cooked on a grill by the heat arising out of a vent.  It can be quite a sight to watch chicken legs and potatoes being cooked by the underground heat.  The heat comes from superheated magna some 4 kilometres below the surface!

A trek or a coach ride through the amazing and awesome Timanfaya National Park will leave you with a lasting memory and experience that is like no other you have had or will have.

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Whooping It Up At Rancho Texas In Lanzarote

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Lanzarote is one of the largest Canary Islands and closest to the Spanish mainland.  Without meaning to give a geography lesson, it is interesting to note that it was created by volcanic activity way back when.  The results are huge tracts of solidified lava fields, rugged, craggy mountains, fantastically shaped rock formations and the El Jable sand dune desert.

In fact the ancient name of the island was Titerro(y) gatra meaning “red mountains.”  All these physical features are very reminiscent of the rocky badlands and deserts of the American southwest.  So to have a theme park called Rancho Texas on an island in the Atlantic Ocean just off Europe doesn’t seem so incongruous.

What is not widely known is that folk from Lanzarote had immigrated to the US many, many years ago and settled in the ‘southwest’ of that nation giving it a Spanish flavour.  So that is another connection!

In addition to nature’s handiwork the Rancho Texas has created a setting, including Cowboys, Cowgirls and Indians redolent of the old west adding some modern touches.  It has plenty for small and older children and adults to do.  You can spend the whole day enjoying its pleasures and in the evening some energetic entertainment.

Rancho Texas has compact, beautiful and carefully maintained promenades, flower-filled gardens, terraces, mini waterfalls and outdoor spaces.  The animal and bird areas are kept meticulously clean and as natural as possible.

Rancho TexasThe park houses snakes, boa constrictors, pythons, sea lions along with rabbits, donkeys, goats, small pigs and hens.  There are free-flying eagles, vultures, falcons and a giant condor hovering around, sometimes just over your head.  The bird section has smart and cheeky parrots and cockatoos that perform and show off their skills with panache. They guarantee everyone a good hearty laugh.

The California sea lions are not far behind when it comes to displaying intelligence, talent, fun, frolic and entertainment.  They are noisy, playful and relish the attention and contact with people.  Visitors can swim and interact with them too.  Then there are the big guys!  Rancho Texas Park’s animal section features rare white tigers, pumas, buffaloes and Nile crocodiles.

There are pretty little ponies for children to ride on. The Rancho Texas has a water feature section called ‘El Corral del Agua.’ It has a splash pool with play area for children, this has buffaloes standing in the water, a play house, slides, a canoeing facility and water jets everywhere.  There is also a swimming pool that provides relief from the Lanzarote heat.

The park also has an Indian Village, which is a trifle kitschy but forgivable.  In keeping with the western theme Mister Dakota is a lasso and whip wielding cowboy who puts on a daily and regular display.

Food at the Park is basically burgers, pizzas, chips and salads.  Servings are large but very reasonably priced.

To keep the grownups involved and interested there is evening entertainment.  In case you may have missed the point of the park’s theme, it is billed as Country & Western Night.

The ambience involves Cowboys and Indians on horseback and saloon girls.  The entertainment is made up of comedy sketches, dance demonstrations, and Mister Dakota’s whip and lasso show.  The interactive parts involving the guests are a western style all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet, free flowing beer, sangrias and soft drinks.  There is a live band playing popular old and new country tunes.  You can get up and join in the line dancing.

Rancho Texas Park is genuinely one for the whole family where both the kids and parents can come away very happy.

The Park is open daily 9.30 am to 5.30 pm.

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Dining Out On Traditional Food In The Medina, Marrakesh

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Eating out in Marrakesh is, to use that overworked term, an experience.  Without exaggeration it is an enriching, fulfilling and a gastronomic one.  Marrakesh is a bustling, energetic and colourful living thing at any time of day. Textiles, mosaic tiles, heaped spices and other goods in the souks in the massive-walled Medina or the stalls around Jamâa el Fna make it a riot of colour.

However, it takes the evening and night to really bring out Marrakesh’s personality.  As the sunset paints the walls and glass windows of the houses and the minarets, a brilliant orange, the smoke from sizzling kababs and the stoves of the food stalls waft up into the evening air.  This is when another sensory pleasure drifts through Marrakesh.  It is the fragrance of cumin, saffron, harissa (red pepper sauce), and other spices rising from sizzling lamb chops, koftes and steaming piles of food.  The aroma is really something to experience.

Marrakesh is the best place to get your belly full of North African cuisine.  You can get it at either the relatively new, upmarket and pricy restaurants of the Guéliz or other outlying areas of the city.  These restaurants also serve a combination of French, Italian and Moroccan cuisines.  While there are many restaurants scattered around the city, they are not the favoured choice of Moroccans – yet.

The joy comes from eating at the food stalls and side walk restaurants of the centuries-old Medina, the crossroads of trade and culture in North Africa.  Here the eating places and the food are local and traditional.  They are inexpensive and really satisfying.  The feasting generally begins around 9 or 9:30pm.

You can choose to eat under the white canopies of the numbered food stalls set up in the huge Jamâa el Fna square.  You could pick from one of a number of movie set hole-in-the-wall eateries in the narrow, winding alleys with plenty of atmosphere.  Then there are the traditional riad Marrakesh restaurants.

Moroccan foodWhatever you choose, you can gorge on hot, steaming mechoui (slow roasted lamb) using your fingers (the best and probably only way to eat Moroccan food).  Burp (it’s alright) as you scrape your plate clean with a piece of warm bread.

To give you an idea, here is a brief list of the delicacies on offer: tangia (lamb or beef slow-cooked in an earthenware pot and left in hot ashes for the whole day); succulent merguez sausages; minced lamb koftes; beef brochettes; flash-charred lamb chops, skewers of liver or brains; incredibly tender teyhan (spleen) kebabs and pigeon bstilla (pie).  Of course you must have the taktuka, a garlick, tomato-and-green-pepper relish to go with your meats.  There are more, believe me.

Lest you think that Moroccan food is only for carnivores, here are a few veggie treats.  Mountains of classic couscous dishes and traditional Berber-style barley pellets with the more familiar durum wheat that is light and fluffy as snowflakes.  Another Berber dish is the Bisarra which is a wholesome white bean soup said to have restorative properties.  The dessert pastille is made with apples and saffron while there are wide selections of fresh juices.  The most dominant are oranges.

Even if you are not a foodie you will be deeply satisfied.  Rest assured that when you leave Marrakesh, you will be carrying more weight than when you came and an expanded waistline.

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Tuscany – A Many Faceted Jewel

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What do you say about the Tuscany region of Italy that has not already been said, written, painted, photographed or filmed?  As a visitor it is impossible to decide what to see and what to skip – and you don’t want to miss any of it.  There is so much embedded in the place that you could spend an entire summer exploring just one facet of this fascinating part of Italy.  It is not an area that you can cross off your bucket list with a casual ‘been there, done that.’

Tuscany is located in the west-central region of Italy with a coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  It is crisscrossed by several mountain chains including the Apennines.  The mountains and hills make up more than 65% of the region and that distinguishes and defines Tuscany.  Its achingly beautiful multi-hued rolling hills capture your heart like no other.  It also partly explains why it is the most visited part of Italy.

Even the diversity of the climate seems made for your pleasure.  The coastal region is fair and mild; blessed with wonderful beaches and magical coastlines.  Away from the coast, among the mountains, it can get very cold in winter.  This fluctuation in temperatures and weather cycles combined with its soil and agricultural output once made Tuscany the main food source for Ancient Rome.  Today it is also probably the vineyard of the country.

Tuscany has many famous and notable towns but the large and important cities have grown and developed on the banks of the River Arno.  Their names – Florence (aka Firenze), Empoli, Pisa, Siena, Livorno, Viareggio – roll off the tongue like poetry (even if your Italian isn’t good) and conjure up images of splendour.

The region had a civilization and culture long before that of Rome.  Known as the Etruscans (from where the name Tuscany is probably derived) they developed an enduring cultural (and language) identity that survives till this day.  This long, rich and vibrant history has turned the whole region into a veritable museum and storehouse of extraordinary art – whether it is architecture, painting or sculpture – all masterpieces.

So numerous, wondrous and well-preserved are the historical, artistic and cultural legacies that UNESCO has designated seven whole areas as World Heritate Sites! They are the Historic Centre of Florence; the Historical Centre of Siena; the Cathedral of Pisa and the Piazza dei miracoli (square of miracles); the Historical centre of San Gimignano (a hilltop village with 14 fantastic towers); the Historical centre of Pienza; the Val d'Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens.
 
One could go on and on about Tuscany’s churches, palaces, villages and piazzas.  The region has an incredible number of amazing towns like Pisa and its leaning Tower and Cathedral Square and the renowned Uffizi Gallery and Museum but the two shining jewels in this glittering land are Florence and Siena.  

Florence is the birthplace of Renaissance and two incredible men – Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  These three factors alone would have made many other renowned cities culturally rich.  However, Florence is also the beneficiary of the wealth, power and extraordinary legacy of the Medici family.  Without them Florence would not be what it is. Their efforts and patronage either directly or indirectly spawned the Florentine School of art with such alumni as Fra Angelico, Botticelli and a host of others.

TuscanySiena is another great treasure chest.  Its rich artistic tradition generated the Sienese School.  It’s well-preserved art and architecture date from the medieval period.  An outstanding example of the city’s artistic richness is its huge and beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, the Cathedral and the Palazzo Pubblico.

Tuscany however, is not all art and architecture.  The other face to the region is its natural side.  Travel across the rolling hills with their quilt patchwork of olive groves and vineyards; the changing colours of the fields and forests; the fairy tale houses of the small towns and villages and past the picturesque gardens of the villas and you will feel that you are imbibing the Tuscan essence through every sense.

Tuscany has over 120 protected nature reserves and parks.  They are home to some of Europe’s oldest forests.  One of the most beautiful is Pinocchio’s Park.  Carlo Collodi, the creator of The Adventures of Pinocchio, took his pen name from his mother’s village – Collodi.  The Park has lovely winding pathways that are populated with statues of characters from the story.

There are other things you can do and experience in Tuscany.  You can indulge in gastronomic tours and sample (or gorge on) the fabulous food.  Each district seems to cook things their own way, producing their own distinct flavours.  Then you could get well and truly happy by signing up for a wine tasting tour.  This is after all, Chianti country.  The region boasts over 30 wines!  Don’t get me started on this aspect of Tuscany.  I could spend a whole summer just doing wine tours!

No matter what you do, where you go or what you see, one thread binds all of Tuscany – stunning beauty!

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Kanchanaburi – Beyond The Bridge On The River Kwai

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Kanchanaburi is the provincial capital and location of the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai.  Many feel that the town would not be what it is were it not for the bridge and the tragic history behind its construction.

Sitting close to the Myanmar (Burmese) border Kanchanaburi was initially established as a defensive outpost by Thai King Rama I in the mid 1800s.  It is located on a mountain range, which makes it much cooler than many other Thai regions.  This adds to its attraction for European tourists.  

The main attractions at Kanchanaburi itself are the Bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced as in air); the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum; the JEATH (acronym for Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland – the nationalities of those involved in the building) Museum and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.  The dreaded Hellfire Pass is some distance away though.  All these are related to or inspired by the history of the Death Railway.

There is an annual River Kwai Bridge Festival to mark the Allied bombing on November 28, 1944. A spectacular light and sound show is the highlight of the festival with some fireworks thrown in.

Kanchanaburi is situated at the confluence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers that flow into the River Mae Klong.  Most of the town sits on the northern banks and is rather easy to navigate, though a little too large to comfortably walk around.  The town runs north-south with the main Saeng Chuto Road running its length, connecting the Bridge on the River Kwai, the bus station and the railway station.

Close to the river is a thriving and rather hedonistic community that has become an increasingly attractive destination for the backpacking species.

Kanchanaburi, today however, is much more than a World War II pilgrimage and a remembrance place.  For a start, the region has an abundance of natural wonders all soul satisfying, visually stunning and a paradise for nature lovers.  There are mountains, rivers, caves, waterfalls, streams, lush jungles and temples, which make it one of the most beautiful provinces in Thailand.  All the attractions are in fairly close proximity and a day excursion of the town.  Every one of them is worth a visit and exploration.

There are several notable and beautiful temples such as the Don Chedi (an archaeological site), Giant Tree temple, Kuan Yum, Wat Ban Tham, Wat Tham Sua, Wat Tham Mungkornthong and Wat Tham Khao Noi.  The Wat Tham Khaopoon is a cave complex, 5 km outside the town (past Chongkai War Cemetery), with Buddha images.  

One of the most popular and interesting temples is Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua or Tiger Temple, which is the biggest tourist attraction of the region.  Here you can see tigers lounging around a canyon, surrounded by minders.  There are also water buffaloes and deer roaming around the place.

KanchanaburiThere is no dearth of dazzling and incredibly beautiful waterfalls around Kanchanaburi.  There are the spectacular seven-tiered Erawan Falls.  All the tiers are great for swimming and extremely beautiful.  You need to watch out for the monkeys scavenging for food that oft times make off with tourists’ possessions.  Erawan can become very crowded with package and group tourists.

The Sai Yok National Park includes the Sai Yok Noi Falls, the Phra That Falls and Hin Dat Hot Springs.  There are also numerous limestone caves and hot springs as well.  It is relatively quiet as not many tourists come here.

Another great attraction of Kanchanaburi is the elephant camps, the largest of which is Taweechai Elephant Camp.  It houses about 30 elephants and you can ride, bathe and take training courses with them.  Another camp is the Elephant's World, a charity based elephant camp, situated 32Km from Kanchanaburi town.   The camp cares for abused and retired elephants and offers visitors the chance to help the staff in caring for the giant creatures with one day visits and overnight stays.

Transportation to and from local attractions is fitful, often slow and erratic.  Within Kanchanaburi, songthaews (orange pickups) act as local shuttle services and connect the train and bus stations with the bridge. Motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks are also available.

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Disneyland Paris – Frosty But Fabulous!

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Disneyland is about 20 miles to the east of central Paris.  Paris Disneyland is located in the picturesque little town of Marne-la-Vallée.  It became two theme parks when they added the Walt Disney Studios Park.

disneylandEach of the parks has different theme-based sections.  Every section has rides, games, arcades, entertainment and dining areas.  There are plenty of shops and seven hotels.  The two related complexes have turned out to be France and Europe’s most visited recreational parks.  That means crowds and long lines.

Knowing all this, I decided to change my programme for my second visit to avoid the Parisian heat and the other tourists.  Besides I had never been to Paris in the winter.  I found so many benefits, with some weather downsides.

The Paris weather in October, November and December can be very fickle.  It can range from a brisk 7° Celsius with a bright sky to freezing sleet or rain.  That was the only drawback.  So packing plenty of warm clothes and rain protection gear was a good idea.  From my previous visit I had learned to take good sturdy walking shoes.  Paris Disneyland covers a rather large acreage and plenty of walking is required through the course of the visit.

Paris Disneyland is relatively quiet during the weekdays (unless there is public holiday), which makes a massive difference.  During the season, waiting periods to get on rides and attractions can be between 30 to 50 minutes.  In the winter that can drop to 10-15 minutes, which is a huge relief especially when you have kids and you don’t have to hang around too long in the cold or rain.

Accommodation too is very attractive.  I found so many terrific discounts and packages that choosing was difficult.  The best offerings were by Disney hotels.  You can get healthy discounts – up to 30% – on your room rates, free stay for kids, free stay nights, free park entry tickets and rides for children.

The added benefit is that they are right next to the resort.  That eliminates travel time and when either you or the kids are tired you don’t need to go far to take a break.  You need to book in advance, of course, to enjoy the freebies that are genuinely great savings.

Staying close is a smart plan of action because you can get into the park early.  The gates open at 8:00am.  At that time you will find the queues are small so the kids (and you, if you are of a mind) can get into or on Small World, the Carousel, Peter Pan’s Flight, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Quest and Space Mountain, which are next to one another in AdventureLand.

Restaurant mealtimes are liberal.  However, it is a good idea to plan your meals in advance, even when crowds at the park are smaller.  That way you can guarantee a table or service for a sit down breakfast, lunch or dinner with the family.  You don’t want to stand around when you and the kids are hungry or tired.  It also means that you can book the kid’s favourite Disney character to come over.

The best part to visiting Paris Disneyland during the cold season is the brilliant displays, fireworks and parades in the evening.  They are always spectacular.  Even though they are meant to thrill the children you cannot help but get excited and find your blood rushing around.

Winter time is really fabulous at Disneyland.  They put on Mickey's Magical Fireworks and Bonfire, Fantillusion and Christmas Parades.  You will see the lighting up of the castle and snow on Main Street, which is really something and altogether spectacular.  You get sucked right into the festive mood.

The fireworks and other pyrotechnics take place just before the park closes for the night.  It is then that the wisdom of staying close to the park becomes apparent.  It saves you the necessity of having to travel a great distance back to your hotel.

There is one small catch though.  If you have chosen to visit Disneyland during the week, you will miss the Fantillusion Parade which happens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings about 7pm.

The winter is a lovely time to go.  Everything is so pretty, festive and magical for all ages.

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Mount Titlis – Eternal Winter Wonderland

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Travelling to Mount Titlis is a joy in itself.  The journey from Zurich unrolls picture postcard perfect scenery that only Switzerland produces.

Mount Titlis is located in the heart of the Urner Alps of Central Switzerland.  At 3,238 metres, it is the highest mountain in this region.  It has three main faces.  The Titlis Glacier occupies the north face.  The steeper and rockier southern face houses the Wenden Glacier.  The east side is also covered by the Firnalpeligletscher.

What gives the mountain its greatest attraction is the fact that a large part of the mountain is above the snow line.  This means that its slopes are clad in eternal snow for all 12 months of the year.  It is subject to freezing temperatures, even in summer, and that brings in the visitors and snow enthusiasts.  You need a good pair of sunglasses whatever time of year you go as the snow reflection can be quite strong.

The mountain dominates the surrounding region – the Engelberg valley – in the Obwalden Canton.  The slopes offer absolutely clear and stunning panoramic views of the area around.  Titlis and Engelberg provide much more than scenic photo opportunities for visitors.  The facilities are excellent and typical – if rather expensive – Swiss high quality.

Skiing is the biggest and most obvious activity taking place here.  The Engelberg-Titlis combination has over 82 kilometres of slopes and five cross-country ski runs.  However, you cannot ski all the way down from the top.  Despite that, there are several great runs down the mountain, one of which is via Jochpass, that takes you right to the village.  The FSI organises an annual world ski jumping event in Engelberg.  This year it will be held on 21st and 22nd December followed by the Four Hills Tournament on 27th and 28th December.

The many slopes can be used for sledding, tobogganing, free-style or cross-country skiing and other snow-related activities.  There is long sledging slope of almost 4 kilometres.  You can also go winter hiking or don a pair of snow shoes and take one of several trails.

Also what makes Titlis really attractive for visitors is its cable car system.  The system was inaugurated in March 1967 and incorporates a rotating gondola.  Known as the Rotair, this revolving car is the first of its kind in the world.  A ride in it is a must for the sheer novelty of the ride.  It takes about 45 breath-taking minutes to complete the journey from the valley to the summit.

mount titlisThe system comprises of three stages that take you all the way – from Engelberg to Klien Titlis (the summit).  The first stage takes you up 1,262 metres to Gerschnialp; the second to Trübsee (1,796 metres) and finally the Stand (2,428 metres).  There are shops and restaurants around the cable car station at every stage.

The last part rises above the glacier and from the station you can visit a glacier cave.  The cave is brightly lit, which is a bit cheesy.  It would have been more fun and exciting if you had to walk in with only a torch!

If skiing is not your style; if you don’t know how or if you don’t have the time you could take a guided coach tour and spend the whole day at Engelberg-Titlis. If you are staying overnight in Engelberg then you could see Mount Titlis in a different light, so to speak.  Catch the cable car at 6:30pm and go the restaurant at the top and enjoy a sit down, candlight Fondue Chinoise (all you can eat) dinner.  If you are lucky or timed it right there could be a lovely moon, which is even more magical.

Travel time from, Berne and Basel is just an hour and a half and only 30 minutes from Lucerne.  You can enjoy the scenery and snow without the pressure (or expense) of staying and skiing.

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Exploring New Jerusalem

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New and old are relative concepts in Jerusalem.  Wherever you go, in this historic city, the ‘old’ and the ‘new;’ the modern and ancient live in close proximity.  As a visitor it is sometimes difficult to sort out which is which.  There is so much history and religion embedded in every stone, wall and street that it can be a little overwhelming.

Though the Old City of Jerusalem is only 0.9 square kilometres in size, it attracts all the tourist attention.  There is another side to this town though, which is pleasantly at odds with the universal perception.  It has a good mix of ethnic and cultural attractions.  The food is just as varied while the nightlife is a big draw for the young Israelis and foreigners.

The generally accepted ‘new’ Jerusalem includes the neighbourhoods that came up during the last decades of the 1800s.  Some of these localities are Even Yisrael, the German Colony, Yemin Moshe, Me’a She’arim, Makhane Yisra’el, Nakhla’ot, Nakhalat Shiv’a, Ein Karem (an artists’ colony), Komemi’ut, Rekhavia, the Bukharian Quarter and the Ethiopian Quarter.  They are only a very short drive from downtown Jerusalem and you can cover several of them

They were built in and around ancient villages and kept the winding streets, stone houses and look and feel of the original surroundings.  Here in narrow alleys bordered by cypress groves you can sip cappuccinos at charming cafés or have brunch next to art and antique studios.  The shops of jewellers, potters and a whole lot of other artisans featuring different world traditions are interspersed with restaurants dishing out exotic and enticing Middle Eastern fare.

Oh yes!  The food in these parts is simply amazing and worth doing a tour just to get your fill and find the source of the tempting aromas that waft out as you passes by.

Escaping the ever present reminders of the world’s three great religions is almost impossible but a hike through the picturesque hills around Ein Sataf in the Jerusalem Forest and Abu Ghosh nearly accomplishes it.  Nearly but not completely because you just might find yourself amongst tourists clicking photos of each other around a spring that is reputed to be where Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist are supposed to have met.

Outside Old Jerusalem there are several sites related to the New Testament and Jesus.  The Mount of Olives is the site of the oldest – still in use – Jewish cemetery from the time of the Canaanites.  Apart from being the place where Jesus was arrested it offers a fantastic view of Old Jerusalem and its holy sites.  Then there is the chapel on the legendary site where Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven, the Pater Noster Church, Dominus Flevit, Garden of Gethsemane and Mary’s Tomb.

If you are into museums then New Jerusalem has a whole host – around 60 of them.  They offer Islamic Art, biblical archaeological discoveries, recreations of life from the time of Jesus and exhibitions dedicated to the holocaust and the fascinating Dead Sea Scrolls.

To name some of the museums:  The Israel Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Bloomfield Science Museum, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Rockefeller Museum, the Bible Lands Museum, the Islamic Art Museum, the Old Yishuv Court Museum, the Armenian Museum and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art.  monastery of the crossOther attractive places are the Monastery of the Cross, the Supreme Court, Ammunition Hill, the Knesset, and the Makhane Yehuda Market.

New Jerusalem’s night life is also well and kicking in the German Colony, the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, Nakhalat Shiv’a, Shlomtsiyon HaMalka Street, and the Russian Compound.

If you know where to go or know someone who knows and is willing to take you then you enter a wonderfully different world (beyond the religious) that offers character, history and fulfilment far from the spiritual.

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Halloween – A New Orleans Speciality

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As the days grow shorter, the nights longer and the season of mist rolls in, it is time for the ghosts, ghouls and other scary creatures to begin their annual visits through the streets of the living.  It is the time of superstitions; keeping vigil for passing spirits and performing rituals that ward off the ‘ha’ants.’  In other words it is Halloween!

Shortened from “All Hallows’ Eve,” Halloween is one of the western world’s oldest festivals.  Derived from an ancient pagan Celtic festival it was surreptitiously incorporated into the Christian Calendar.  It marks a series of special religious ceremonies to prepare the people for a feast to honour the saints – Hallowmas.

Halloween made its way to North America after the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 drove more than two million Irish to the New World.  They brought with them Halloween and the fun and games that go along with it.  Children would play "knock-a-dolly," a prank in which they would knock on the doors of their neighbours, but run away before the door is opened.  A traditional delicacy barmbrack, a type of fruitcake, would be made and eaten.

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In the US some of the traditions underwent changes and “knock-a-dolly” morphed into “trick-or-treating” for candy.  During the 1930s the practice of dressing up as witches, scarecrows, mummies and vampires was the norm. In the 1950s decorating front yards and houses with lights and carved pumpkin lanterns became common. Get-togethers with family and friends turned into raucous parties.

Commercialisation has played a large part in many of these changes.  There is a whole industry devoted to making costumes and creating Halloween themes for children’s parties.  Halloween is now a roughly 7 billion dollar industry making it the second largest festival in the US of A.  Local department stores and businesses host parties with games for the whole family and throw in treats for kids as part of their effort to boost sales.

While Halloween is a big event all across the US (second only to Christmas when it comes to holidays), it seems to me that the city of New Orleans has imbued it with a spirit of its own.  Perhaps it has something to do with the well-earned reputation for being the most haunted city in the country.

Whatever the reasons, Halloween in New Orleans is now the second biggest party of the year after Mardi Gras. The city has turned Halloween into a weekend long festival of street parades and costume extravaganzas.  If you are in New Orleans for Halloween don’t be surprised if you bump into ghastly creatures like vampires, witches or comic superheroes of all ages, sizes and genders wandering around the streets – day and night.

There are plenty of voodoo and costume shops around so you can pick up the accessories that you need to get into your creepiest mood.  To really get into the spirit of Halloween in New Orleans you might want to start by taking one of several organised haunted tours.

These ghostly walking tours take you to spooky cemeteries and haunted houses in the Garden District and places where ghosts have been sighted and other supernatural activity reported.  They take you through the French Quarter, which boasts of being the most haunted part of the city.  In the heart of the Quarter on Royal Street is the La Laurie House, reputeduly the most haunted house in the area. This is where the monstrous Madame LaLaurie tortured and killed her slaves before fleeing to Paris. 

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New Orleans even has an Official Halloween Parade in the French Quarter, which is renowned for wild times, innovative themes and fantastic floats and costumes. This year promises to be even more visually stunning and unrestrained making New Orleans THE destination for Halloween shenanigans.

Halloween night in 2013 falls on October 31, a Thursday, so all the action will take place the preceding weekend.

See all tours in New Orleans.

 

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