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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Hobbies, Courses & Interests’

Aanchal goes to London for the WTM!

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            Twice every year, a few members from Isango! travel to a work conference, known as the World Travel Meet (WTM) to discuss how things are going with their companies and get in contact with their suppliers face to face. This past month, Isango worker Aanchal Dhar headed over from India to London for her first WTM and experience in England.

Aanchal with her friends

            Q: How long have you been working with Isango!? How long have you been in the work force?

A; I’ve been working with Isango! from the past 2.5 years. This is my first job, so I was flattered when the company decided to send me over to London to represent them for the WTM. It really broadened my cultural experience both in the work force and in travel in general.

            Q: Since this was your first time in London, what else did you do once the work portion of your trip was over?

A: After a long few days of hard work, it was time to have fun! Since I had never been to London before, I wanted to make sure I had a good balance of all of the top tourist attractions and off the beaten path activities. It was also nice to be there during the holidays, as Christmas lights were already up! Top attractions that I really enjoyed were Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath, doing the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral with VIP access (I’m also glad I was able to make it there before the poppies were taken down) and experienced traditional high tea at Hotel Savoy. Harrods was another incredible (and expensive) experience. Also, the markets in London were so incredible. This is something I know you can’t experience anywhere else. Camden market and Borough Market are two of the best markets in London. Once I arrived, I was surrounded by endless clothes, affordable prices and great food!

            Q: What was your favorite experience?

A: I really enjoyed visiting the Tower of London: Yeomen warders marching to open the gates with the Queen’s keys was so great to see. You’re able to learn so much from this visit. One of the things that stuck out to me was that the Yeomen warders had to be in the army for at least 22 years before they actually got the title of Yeomen warders. When you’re at the tower, you’ll see a lot of ravens. According to a myth, if they leave the tower, the tower will collapse! In order to keep them inside, their feathers are trimmed. You can spend countless hours in the tower educating yourself on all different aspects of London’s history. I would recommend taking the visit to all!

Tower of London

            Q: What tips do you have for anyone traveling to London?

A: Definitely bring an umbrella! It rains all the time in London. City Mapper App is an absolute must for getting around. I would have been lost without it! Purchase an Oyster card for tube rides and buses but despite all the public transportation, you will still have to do a lot of walking so wear comfortable shoes when you go out for sightseeing. You’ll get plenty of exercise this trip!

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Travel Guide for Brazil

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Welcome to South America! Brazil is full of fun and festive things to do. If you’re ready to see top tourist destinations, places such as Rio de Janeiro are a must do. While you’re at it, definitely do a sightseeing tour with a sugar loaf and cable car. The views are absolutely incredible with their top of the line beaches, mountains and more. For the visitor of Brazil who’s not all about the top touristy locations, you’re in luck. Brazil is FULL of wild life. Here, you’ll be able to become one with nature and hike through the Amazon Forest. Finding a traveled route is probably a good idea here, unless you’re going for research or etc. The Amazon is huge, so finding a well traveled path will help you out while still giving you the best views. Since the right hand portion of Brazil opens right up to the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean, you’re able to enjoy Brazil’s top beaches or even take a Sea Turtle Discovery Tour. Brazil is a huge country with endless things to do, so take advantage of every experience while you’re there!

The Rio de Janeiro stands tall and proud in the city center of Rio as one of the seven wonders of the world. Tourists from around the world come here to view, study and get their picture taken with the statue itself, mirroring its body structure with its arms fully extended on both sides. To really get all out of it, purchase a Rio De Janeiro sightseeing tour, covering Corcovado, Christ Statue & Favela. If you’re up for seeing the city from a different point of view, another tour that’s worth taking is the Full Day Rio Sightseeing including Christ Statue and Sugar Loaf Mountain Cable. Getting a birds eye view of the city is something to never forget.

Brazil Rain Forest

If you’re tiring of the crowds and want to see more of the wild side, dare if you will, take a trip on over to and through the Rain Forest. If you’re up for the hike, like mentioned above, make sure you take it on a path that’s monitored or approved. With so much unknown wildlife in this forest, you don’t want to put yourself in danger. If hiking is not you thing, consider taking a jeep. The Tijuca Rain Forest Jeep Tour From Rio De Janeiro is a fun and easy way to see the wild side of things. With this tour, you’ll see more forest in less time, with an expert tour guide and the best photo opportunities around. If your wildlife side is headed more in the opposite direction towards the beach, the Sea Turtle Discovery Tour is the greatest way to see these endangered species close up and personal. Whatever you think you’d like to do or see, Brazil offers plenty of things for you to uncover.

As far as when to go and how long to travel, luckily, Brazil is typically warm all year! The southern part does go through a cool period for a few months between June and September, but otherwise you should be good to go. There is never a bad time to visit. Whenever you want to book your vacation, Brazil will be there waiting for you!

Experience all Brazil has to offer, from the city center of Rio to the depths of the Rain Forest. Get online and book your trip now, at www.isango.com.

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Popular Australian Wine Tours

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Australian wines are now well-established around the world.  They compete for space with the best of European wines on the racks of bars, restaurants, and household tables.  It has taken a little while but the vintners and vineyards from Sydney to Perth and places in between have a large world-wide base of loyal tipplers.  Some of these wine producers have a history going back 150 years and more.

 Now that it’s spring down under hop on to one our comfortable air-conditioned coaches and come along with isango!  Get a tour of some of Australia’s most popular wine-making regions.  While on them you can pleasure your palette with a variety of heavenly wines.

Hunter Valley

The wonderfully lush green and picturesque countryside of Hunter Valley is just a two hour drive north from Sydney.  This is the oldest wine making region in Australia and home to more than 80 wineries including such renowned names as Lindemans, McWilliams, Rothbury, Hardy’s, Wyndham Estate and McGuigan. There are also several independent family-owned boutique wine makers like Tyrells and Draytons.

This tour not only takes you through picturesque Hunter Valley but also gets you a-behind-the-scenes view of wine making.  Since it is spring you will get the added visual pleasure of seeing the ‘budburst’ on the vines.

 Your expedition will involve 3 to 5 wine tastings when you sample up to 30 delicious premium wines.  You will also sit down to a gourmet lunch at one of Hunter Valley’s best restaurants.  The meal will feature fresh local grown produce.  Post lunch you will have a chance to indulge in postprandial snooze under a shady tree.

HunterValleyWine

 Swan Valley

Swan Valley is the oldest wine producing area of Western Australia.  It is just a 25 minute drive from the centre of Perth city but the best way to get there is to take a cruise up the Swan River on a wine tasting tour.  The tour incorporates the best of all worlds – a gentle cruise on a beautiful river, stunning scenery, plenty of fine wine and delicious food.

 Many of the wineries are award winners, producing a wide range of speciality whites, full-bodied reds and some of the world’s finest fortified wines.  This tour focuses on one of the best known and finest wine makers in Australia, Sandalford Wine Estate.  The house is one of the oldest and largest family owned winemakers.

 You get to see how they conjure up their liquid magic in a behind-the-scenes tour.  This is followed by a tasting of 6 varieties of their finest premium wines.  While sipping, choose your favourite wine to accompany your sumptuous two course lunch.  Fresh bread rolls, roasted free range chicken and Mediterranean salsa are just some of the treats on your lunch menu.

 The Swan Valley Cruise and Wine Tasting is such a memorable experience you may want to repeat it.

Barossa Valley

The Barossa Valley lies 60km Northeast of Adelaide.  It is a premier wine producing region of Australia.  This picturesque valley is distinguished by the vast acreage of vineyards.  It is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions and started by German settlers.

 It is famous for excellent red Shiraz and other varieties such as Reisling, Semillon, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon and several fortified wines.  It is also renowned for its over 80 Cellar doors and 160 wineries.  Some are still owned and run by the original families.  It is also famed for its food, cultural experience and the biennial Barossa Valley Vintage Festival.

 A Barossa Valley wine tasting tour is a must and the isango! tour covers five of the best world renowned names including the Wolf Blass, TeAro Estate, Kellermeister,  Pindarie and Saltram Wine Estate.  The tour also includes a delicious gourmet lunch at the Wolf Blass Visitor Centre with wonderful views of the spectacular Barossa Ranges.

This is a perfect tour for wine enthusiasts.

BarossaValleyWines

Yarra Valley

Just an hour from Melbourne is the wine-producing region of the Yarra Valley.  The entire area is pristine, dominated by gorgeous views and stunning mountains.  It has a richly deserved reputation as one of the world’s great wine and food regions.  The Yarra Valley has a relatively cool climate allowing for the production of excellent Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines.

 Our tour is a special, guided one with an expert accompanying you to three top wineries – Yering Station, Yering Farm and Balgownie Estate.  You will learn how to swirl, sniff, slurp and then taste a wine.  You will also find out how they put the ‘bubbly’ into sparkling wines along with being able to sample them.

 In the Yarra Valley many of the wineries have world-class restaurants attached and Balgownie Estate is no different.  At the tasting you can make your wine selection and have it with an à la carte lunch at the restaurant.

 Your tour ends on a brilliant note with a visit to Domaine Chandon, who are the Australian producers for Moet & Chandon, the French Champagne company.  They also produce fine quality sparkling and cool-climate wines.

YarraValleyLandScape

Margaret Valley

It has been only 45 years since viticulture began in the Margaret Valley.  Yet its superb weather and other growing conditions have seen it become one of the great wine regions of the world.  The wines from here sit right next to the finest in the world.

Margaret Valley is conducive to producing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cabernet blends from here are valued because of their fruity and multi-layered flavours.  Many other varieties including Shiraz, Semillon blancs, Sangioves, Merlot, Verdelho and Viogniers are produced too.

Our Margaret Valley Wine Tours leave from Perth and visit four of the world’s best wineries.  Also part of this pleasurable experience is a two-course gourmet lunch at the Voyager Estate plus a barrel room wine-tasting session at Moss wood.

The superb wine tasting tour ends with a thoroughly sinful flourish. You stop off at the Margaret River Chocolate Factory where you can indulge yourself in rich chocolate.  This tour is a wonderful experience for the connoisseur and the novice.

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Five Fantastic Food Destinations

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At isango! we believe there are two essential yardsticks to measure your experiences when travelling.  One is seeing the sights and the other is sampling the food.  Here we give you a taste of what foods to look out for at five popular destinations.

Flavours of New York City
New York City has been and continues to be the gateway for people coming to the United States.  So you will find every ethnic and world cuisine available.  New York also prides itself on inventing many dishes and foods.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Manhattan clam chowder

Taking a foodie tour of NYC is a delight for the taste buds.  Hot dogs and New York style pizzas in the East Village; a Manhattan clam chowder; Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches; savoury French quiche, and Mexican yucca are just some delights in store for you.  You could also try out a knish appetiser or some Greek spinach pie to go with a succulent lamb souvlaki.   Then there is a sinful choice of chocolates to top off your meal.

Lyon, Gastronomy and Beaujolais
Lyon’s ancient fame lay in its silk weaving industry.  That has however changed.  Over the centuries it has become known as the capital of French gastronomy and its renowned cuisine.  The city and municipality has a deliciously bewildering array of traditional Lyonnais restaurants, called bouchons, serving local dishes such as salade Lyonnais; marrons glacés; coussin de Lyon, sausages, duck pâte and roast pork, and local wines.

Marrons Glacés

Marrons Glaces

The Lyon bakeries, fromageries patisseries and chocolatiers continue to make their wines, breads, cheeses and chocolates the way have for centuries.  In addition to its gastronomic delights, the Lyon area is at the heart of Beaujolais wine region.

Tapas In Barcelona
Barcelona offers a variety of pleasures but none as staggering as tapas!  Choosing or even listing them is a near impossible task.  Salmon sashimi with cream cheese; honey and soy, or cod; passata and black olive pâté; fried fish and seafood, patatas bravas; Galician octopus and ensaladilla rusa; croquetas made with ham, fish, chicken or spinach are just some choices.

Tapas

Tapas Barcelona

Whether you are strolling down La Rambla or feasting your eyes on the fruit, vegetables, fish, cheese or meats of La Boqueria (Barcelona’s food market), you will never be far from a tapas bar.  So feel free to wade into one of them and pick out your choice.  Don’t forget to wash it down with some cava, wine or draught beer.

Bangkok & Food
The two are synonymous and no one needs coaxing to dig in to a plate of Pad Thai (or phat Thai).  Take a walk down any street in Bangkok and you will be constantly reminded of food.  The innumerable fragrances waft out at you from myriad street stalls and restaurants.

Yong Tau Foo

yong tau foo

Thai street food is the safest and tastiest in the world and probably the most reasonably priced too.  Whether it be juicy pieces of grilled pork on a stick or a fiery bowl of ‘Tom Yum’ soup or Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup) or good yong tau foo and pork stew with green chilli dip, you will find it really difficult to pass it up or stop eating.  Thai food is among the most appetising and popular cuisines in the world and it is an exciting experience to take a cooking class and learn how to make some!

When In Rome – Eat
That’s right!  Food in Rome is just as fascinating as the Colosseum, the churches and the Vatican museums.  Roman cuisine is some of the most delicious in Italy.  It is based on seasonal ingredients, plenty of fresh vegetables, meat and cheeses.  All put together in a simple way.  Lamb roasted with herbs and spices is a very important part of the cuisine so is pizza, of course.  In Rome they have three different ways of making pizza but a Roman characteristic is that it is thin with no lip to the crust.

Pizza

rome pizza

The Testaccio is the best place to find the original and traditional Roman food.  Another great place is the Rione Monti area, a stone’s throw away from the Colosseum, where you will find a range of authentic Italian delicacies in local family run shops and pizzerias.

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5 Popular Backpacking Destinations For 2014

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With summer 2014 arriving to most of the globe it is time to pull out the knapsack, check the atlas and plan where in the world you will be spending your vacation.

We present to you, our picks for the top 5 destinations for backpacking around the world-

India
India is a really huge country.  With the world’s largest rail system and a vast road network (sometimes bumpy), getting around is not too difficult.  Accommodation, food and transportation are inexpensive.  Choosing where to go is a challenge.  You have the spectacular sandy beaches of Goa and Kerala; the sky scraping, snow-capped Himalayas; the thick forests of Central India and the Ghats; the deserts of Rajasthan and Ladakh.  The ancient cities of Delhi, Varanasi and Puri along with the forts and palaces of Rajasthan will vie for your attention.

Backpacking in India

India has a history and tradition of backpacking going back to the flower power era of the 1960s.

Thailand
Thailand is an exotic and exciting place to explore, especially for the novice backpacker.  On offer are hundreds of miles of pristine sand beaches, lush jungles populated with dazzling creatures, amazingly friendly and helpful locals and fantastic food.  The country’s culture has survived the onslaught of tourism and modernity.  There are still many quiet places where you can chill.  The place is crammed with amazing temples and exciting markets.  Transportation is cheap and the street food very safe.

The country is a well-trodden backpacker destination.  Backpacking Thailand is relatively easy, still inexpensive with amazing deals on offer – just bargain.  It also has a legendary nightlife.

Australia
Australia offers fantastic beauty and adventure.  It’s a very large (we’re talking continent-sized here) country and travel can be a challenge but worth the effort.  The geography ranges from the vast trackless outback, to the incredible Great Barrier Reef.  You can snowboard and ski within a few hours of a sun-kissed sandy beach.  There are strangely named picturesque small towns and very modern and fascinating cities.  You can trek through ancient rainforests or camel-trek the arid and startling Northern Territory.

Australia has a very competitive and inexpensive budget accommodation market where you can get good deals.  The rail network is not extensive and generally hugs the coast.  The best way to get around the country is by road but be prepared for long rides because most journeys take 10 to 20 hours.  You can save a lot of money by buying bus passes.

Indonesia
Indonesia is comprised of thousands of islands, most of which are uninhabited.  It is a really huge country and you will have to pick what all you wish to see. Most of the population is concentrated on Java and around the capital, Jakarta.   Once you get away from Jakarta you will find yourself in vast jungles, with ancient temples, mysterious lakes and hot springs.  There are lively and fiery volcanoes, stunning beaches and some of the best surfing.  The cities of Bogor, Bandung and Yogyakarta have to be visited to be believed.  Then of course, there is Bali and its gorgeous Hindu culture.

Backpacking

Travel is relatively inexpensive but can be a challenge.  The warm, friendly and hospitable people, the food and fantastic countryside will more than compensate for any difficulties you may have.

Brazil
This huge country is a wonder world filled with amazing sights.  It is blessed with naturally varied and rich landscape with thousands of miles of beaches and humungous tracts of rainforests fed by great rivers including the mighty Amazon.  This vast land has incredibly diverse climatic and cultural conditions.  The vibrant hedonistic cities of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Salvador are legendary for their party atmosphere and nightlife.

The main mode of getting around Brazil is by bus.  The buses are generally excellent and services frequent and good.

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In Salvador Dalí’s Footsteps

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Salvador Dalí was the master and greatest creative practitioner of surrealism.  During his life, Dalí lived and worked in many places in Spain. However, he spent most of his life in his home province of Girona in Catalunya. The region inspired much of his work and also houses the largest collection of his works in the world.
 
Whether you are out to explore the Costa Brava or to discover Dali’s works for yourself, travelling through the northern part of Catalunya will be one of your most rewarding journeys.

For instance, his birthplace Figueres (meaning ‘fig trees,’ which used to grow around it) is a picturesque town with winding streets, cosy cafés and a small yet picturesque ‘Old Town’ section and Square.  It is archetypical of a sleepy Spanish village.

Dali Museum-Its fame is forever entwined with that of its son Dalí and the Theatre Museum Dalí. This museum was built on the remains of a 19th century theatre and incorporates a tower from those ruins. The museum is Dali’s own creation and is reckoned to be the world’s largest surrealistic work.

Another attraction of the town is the well-preserved pentagonal Sant Ferran Castle.  It was built as a military fortress in the eighteenth century and completed in 1753.  It spreads over 5 kilometres making it the largest monument in Catalunya.

Not far from Figueres is the fishing village of Cadaques, another Catalunya gem, which has Dalí connections.  Its white-washed Mediterranean houses, quiet streets, beautiful beaches and the perfect blue waters of its cove simply grab your heart and make you want to stay back – many do and many did.  Some of its most famous visitors were Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Walt Disney, Richard Hamilton and Melina Mercouri.

Cadaques has an official population of around 3,000 people but at the peak of summer, many times that number visit and stay here. There are also some rather remarkable houses like the Casa Blava (Blue House) that are scattered around the town.

Dali statueCadaques has honoured Dalí by putting up a statue of him on the beach.  The statue captures his eccentric style, his manic yet haughty expression, his famous upturned moustache and trade mark walking stick.  It was in Cadaqués that Dalí first met his wife Gala in 1929.

Just a little way along the coast is Port Lligat, where Dali lived with Gala for over 40 years.  It is now a house-museum that is just as magical and stunning as the surrounding area. It comprises of several fishermen’s huts that Dalí and Gala joined together.

The house features a labyrinth of passageways and rooms, including his workshop, library, garden and a very lovely pool.  The tiny rooms are crammed with many of Dali’s creations including his last painting which he did not finish and paint brushes.

The highlight of the building though is the whispering room. The acoustics are so brilliant that you can hear a whisper from across the room – over 30 feet away.  The building and its gardens are ‘Cultural Assets of National Interest.’

Dali himself once described the area thus, "… as always, in the perfect and dreamy town of Cadaqués. There, alongside the Latin sea, I have been quenched by light and colour."  And so will you be when you are there.

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Holidaying in Turkey – Antalya

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Duden waterfall in Antalya

Antalya, the city and the surrounding area, is one of those places that seem tailor-made for sightseers and holiday makers. It has to have everything. The area is backed by the Beydaglari? and Taurus Mountains that come right down to the sea creating numerous idyllic and picturesque coves and bays. Oh yes, there are plenty of lovely sandy beaches.  The best known are Konyaalt? and Lara Beaches.

The picture is further coloured by the fact that Antalya is located on the Eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. That means it has a lovely warm climate all year round. The city mirrors its mixed and rich history. There are plenty of reminders of that past including Lycian, Pamphylian, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman architecture and cultures.

The modern too is well represented in Antalya. It has a modern and busy airport, reportedly handling more than 10 million visitors a year. The port and marinas are always filled with yachts, boats of all descriptions and cruise liners. There are plenty of luxury hotels – several belonging to international chains – hotels, bars, clubs, chic restaurants and shopping avenues. No wonder the area is referred to as the Turkish Riviera.

For those looking to get a glimpse of Antalya’s history there is plenty on offer. Antalya has been restored to retain much of its historical character. The work won it the Golden Apple Tourism Prize.

These following are some of the prominent sights and monuments of Antalya:

  • The Atatürk Monument at Cumhuriyet Meydan? (Republic Square).
  • Kaleiçi: The old centre of the city with its narrow cobbled streets of historic Ottoman era houses.
  • Hadrian’s Gate (also known as Triple Gate) was built by the Romans in the 2nd century.
  • The City Walls and Hidirlik Tower also date back to ancient times.
  • Iskele Mosque: A 19th-century Mosque near the Marina.
  • Karatay Medrese: A Medrese (Islamic theological seminary) built in 1250 by Emir Celaleddin Karatay.
  • Kesik Minare (Broken Minaret) Mosque: Once a Roman temple which was   converted into a Byzantine Panaglia church and then the present mosque.  
  • Tekeli Mehmet Pasa Mosque: An 18th-century mosque built in honour of Tekeli Mehmet Pasa.
  • Yat Limani: The harbour goes back to Roman times.
  • Yivli Minare (Fluted Minaret) Mosque: Built by the Seljuks and decorated with dark blue and turquoise tiles, this minaret eventually became the symbol of the city.

Antalya is not all history, architecture, beaches and beauty spots. It has a vibrant cultural life. The main square, Cumhuriyet, is often used to host open air exhibitions and artistic and cultural performances.

To name a few of the events:

  • Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival: Turkey's largest national film festival, last week of September.
  • International Eurasia Film Festival: International film festival held annually
  • Mediterranean International Music Festival: October, 6 days
  • Antalya International Folk Music and Dance Festival Competition: Last week of August
  • Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival: June and July
  • Flower Festival May

The mixture of modern and ancient and the sheer variety create a tapestry and character that endures itself to all who come to this wonderful part of Turkey.

 

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Sightseeing In Old Jerusalem

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One of the great things about sightseeing in Old Jerusalem is that nearly all the sights and shrines are close to each other.  Cheek by jowl you could say.  The other thing is that despite the millions of people who visit every year, you don’t get that squashed, crowded, hemmed in feeling.  Oh yes.  The streets are narrow too.

King David laid the foundation stones of Jerusalem City in 1004 BCE (Before Common Era) making it one of the world’s oldest cities. It has been built and rebuilt since.  The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and a whole host of others came and went destroying and building in turn.  Jerusalem has been destroyed twice and captured and recaptured 44 times.

JerusalemThe Old City is demarcated by the walls that Suleiman the Magnificent built in 1538.  They make it convenient for the visitor when navigating through the maze of streets.  Since 1981 the Old City is a World Heritage Site and is also on the World Heritage in Danger list.

Old Jerusalem is literally divided into four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.  The Old City of Jerusalem is only 0.9 square kilometres in size!  What is amazing though is that so much of the world’s human history, culture, religion and conflicts have their roots in this tiny area.

The Jewish Quarter includes the Wailing Wall (or The Western Wall and the Kotel), which was a part of the Temple of Solomon.  Also here you will find the Burnt House.  This residential remnant from 2000 years ago was destroyed by the Romans.

Then there is a remarkable street – The Cardo – built by the Romans in the 6th century. Several columns, arches, shops and sections of floor still remain.  This area was the Roman Aelia Capitolina and the business district then.  You can almost expect to see people from that age going about their business with mule-drawn carts and legionnaires passing by.

The Christian Quarter has numerous churches, chapels and road side memorials dedicated to or recalling the deeds and life of Christ.  You can attend a service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried after being crucified.  You can retrace his final journey along the Via Dolorosa and recall the Stations of the Cross.  The route starts at what was the courthouse but is now Lions’ Gate – or St. Stephen’s Gate – and winds through the Arab souk and Moslem Quarter before ending at the hill of Calvary or Golgotha.

A non-religious attraction of the Christian section is the thriving and very colourful Bazaar.  It is a great place to pick up souvenirs and religious and ornamental items.  Bargaining is an accepted and expected part of shopping here.  Another lovely feature is the numerous little food stalls – the appetising aromas will ensure you taste something before moving on.

The largest and most populous is the Moslem Quarter.  Take the Cardo through the Arab souk and into the Moslem Quarter.  There are several churches and mosques here.  More importantly it is the location of two of Islam’s holiest sites.  One is the Dome of the Rock.  Another is Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.  Both sit on the Temple Mount.

The last and tiniest is the Armenian Quarter.  Most of the Armenians live around the St. James Cathedral.  Through two thousand years of Jerusalem’s turbulent history they have retained their ethnic, cultural and religious identity.

Taken in totality the Temple Mount has huge meaning and importance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam making it the most contentious and disputed piece of land.

A tour of the Old City of Jerusalem should take you a little over half a day.  Incredible, how so much history can be packed into a matter of hours!  You will go away very touched and thoughtful.

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The Fairy Tale Land of Mont Saint-Michel

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One kilometre off the northwest Normandy coast of France sits the unique little island of Mont Saint-Michel. It is cut off from the mainland at high tide while vast sandbanks are exposed at low tide, which can be just as deterring as the powerful water flows. Today there is a motorable causeway connecting it to the mainland and unaffected by high tides.

All of 247 acres in area and 300 feet at its highest, this strategically situated rocky island embodies the expression that ‘life is stranger than fiction.’ The ancient monastery, massive stone fortifications, winding climbing streets, houses with sloping roofs and tiny quaint shops give Mont Saint-Michel an ambience that could very easily be the setting for a fantasy tale with dragons, elves and wizards in it.

Mont Saint MichelFor most of its history, Mont Saint-Michel has been a redoubtable fortress. It was a Roman outpost till the 460 AD, followed by Gallic occupation till the Franks came along and pushed them out. Sometime in the 8th century the island’s role changed when the first religious buildings were constructed.  However, its strategic importance remained and is even featured in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It was the Normans however who were the architects of the grand and imposing abbey that gives the town and the island so much of its character.

In the 11th century William de Volpiano, an Italian architect was charged with building the Abbey. He designed the Romanesque church seen today. In the early 12th century Philip Augustus paid for the construction of new Gothic-style sections, which included a refectory and cloister. Thereafter Charles VI added more fortifications, built the towers and added courtyards. Today many of them are filled with flowers that make the place very pretty.

For many centuries Mont Saint-Michel was an important pilgrimage centre but that function slowly declined and by the time of the French Revolution the abbey was almost abandoned. The Republicans converted into a prison.  In the nineteenth century such luminaries as Victor Hugo petitioned to restore the buildings, resulting in it being declared a historic monument in 1874.

In 1979 Mont Saint-Michel and its Bay were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The isle attracts more than 3 million visitors every year. Compare that with the permanent residents who number only 44, at last count.

That is Mont Saint-Michel for you – tiny in size but large in history and heart.

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Montserrat – A Rocky Ensemble

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Montserrat monastery

There are many reasons to visit Montserrat. It could be religious, musical, architectural, historical, ‘must see; must do,’ discovery, hiking, rock climbing, or just good old fashioned sightseeing. Whatever your compulsion you will be gratified and probably get more than you expected.

Montserrat in Catalan literally means "saw (serrated as the teeth of a handsaw) mountain."  They are the handy work of nature’s sculptural efforts over millions of years. The multiple peaks rearing up to its highest 1,236 metres (4,055 feet) at Sant Jeroni are simply spectacular.

This rocky ensemble is just 50 kilometres (31 miles) northwest of Barcelona. The trip takes about an hour by train or ninety minutes by road. The route takes you through some truly beautiful Catalan landscape and along the Llobregat River.

Once you get to Montserrat itself there are a number of ways you can get up to the various delights that the place has to offer. You could drive up; take the cable car or the rack railway.

The Aeri de Montserrat cable car is a dizzying 5 minute ride. Since these are always full you could wind up squashed in the middle and miss out on the stunning views as the car crawls up to the halfway stage. The Montserrat Rack Railway is a 15 minute joyride taking you back to child-like thrills. Or you could take the road – bus or car.
 
The first phase of your rise up to the Montserrat experience ends at the roughly halfway mark. This is where the 1,000 something year old Montserrat Monastery (Benedictine Abbey) and the Montserrat Basilica home of “La Morenta,” the black-faced Madonna have been built.

Viewing the Madonna can be a bit of a chore. It has been placed in a tiny alcove reached by a narrow corridor and up a staircase on the right side of the Monastery. You may have to inch your way forwards for more than an hour. More than two million people visit the shrine every year and you only get a few seconds in front of it before you are forced to move by the visitors behind. If you can get there by 9am then there are not many people around.

The Basilica is where the Montserrat Boy’s Choir (l’Escolania) sing every day at 1pm.  Their musical performance is enough to fill your soul to overflowing. Across the Basilica and underground is an extraordinary museum with a superb collection of paintings by the likes of El Greco, Caravaggio, Sisley, Picasso and Dalí. It also houses valuable artefacts and items from ancient Egypt.

From the plaza in front of the Monastery you can go to the top of the mountain via the Funicular de Sant Joan. This is a veritable archaeologist’s delight. The mountain face is pockmarked with the caves of hermit monks who once populated the place. There are also several chapels, stairs and pathways.

The Funicular de Santa Cova is another rack railway that takes you down to the cave, which is the original location of “La Morenta. This grotto is where visitations by the Virgin Mary were first reported back in 880 AD.

If hiking is your thing, then the slopes of the Montserrat hills will be a joy for you. There are six recognised hikes with the longest one to Sant Jeroni. The walk starting from either the mountain base of the top of the Sant Joan Funicular will reveal breathtaking views of the surrounding plains and the Pyrenees.

There are interesting features for nature lovers because of the geology and plants along the way. All of the trails offer amazing views and the locals boast that on a really clear day you can see Mallorca.

Just so you are prepared keep in mind that the funicular railways don’t run in March and carrying a coat is advisable. Montserrat often has strong and chilly winds.

For me the trip to Montserrat was the highlight of my visit.

 

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