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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 ‘Sightseeing & Culture’

Museums In Cardiff

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Cardiff has so much going for it, yet remains unpretentious. The city has a long history and a rich cultural heritage, which is amplified today as the city grows with an increasing number of prestigious national and international institutions. Cardiff has attracted people (many of them students) from all over Europe and the world. So bountiful is Cardiff’s diversity that about 94 languages are spoken in the city currently.

Cardiff’s attractiveness has seen it rise to become one of the top 10 destinations in the UK. Spread across the city, the museums and galleries showcase its historical, industrial and cultural past.

National Museum Cardiff
Cathays Park

National Museum Cardiff
 

The National Museum Cardiff contains exhibits of art, natural history, geology and archaeology.  There are some outstanding examples of paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics from all over the world.  There are thousands of other exhibits including insects, fossils and Bronze Age weapons.

The Museum houses a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings.  The Marine gallery section has the world’s largest Leatherback Turtle and a skeleton of a Humpback Whale.  The Evolution section has superb depictions of the evolution of early human beings, the Big Bang origins of the universe and the formation of the Earth.

There are a series of regular events, guided tours and exhibitions.

Entry to the museum is free.

St Fagans: National History Museum
4 miles west from Cardiff City Centre
Just off the A4232

st fagans national history museum

The National History Museum is located within the wonderful grounds of St Fagans Castle.  This spectacular 16th century building is the centre piece of an open-air museum. The beautiful 100-acre grounds enclose forty carefully re-created buildings from different periods.

These are living, working-place buildings that include houses, a farm, a school, a chapel and a Workmen’s Institute. You can see and experience what it was like to work and live in times gone by. The museum has galleries filled with costumes, farm implements and other Welsh cultural artifacts. Outdoors you can see various native farm animals and witness daily farming tasks, while indoors craftsmen demonstrate traditional Welsh skills.

The museum conducts traditional musical and dance festivals throughout the year.

Entry to the museum is free.

Big Pit National Coal Museum

Nothing epitomizes Wales like the mining industry and the Big Pit National Coal Museum is the best place to experience and understand that aspect of Welsh history. A trip 300 feet down the exciting yet scary mining pits will give you a close and up-front feel of what miners had to face every day.

The museum includes tours of the famous Pithead Baths, mining galleries and original colliery buildings. You can walk down the tunnels that once were the working places of miners. The Big Pit National Coal Museum is one of the UK’s best mining museums.

Entry to the museum is free.

The National Roman Legion Museum
High Street
Caerleon (30 minutes from Cardiff City Centre)

The Welsh region was once the westernmost outpost of the Roman Empire. The Romans built the Caerleon fortress in 75 AD to guard its boundaries and for more than 200 years it did so. The fortress is one of just three permanent fortresses built by the Romans in Britain. It has the best remaining amphitheatre in Britain and also the only remains of  legionary barracks in all of Europe.

The fortress was turned into a museum in 1850 so that people could see and learn what made the Romans rulers of the world. The museum has some half a million superb artifacts of that period. It also puts on exhibitions that show how Romans lived, fought, worshipped and died. The museum has an important collection that gives insights into the evolution of civilian settlements around these Imperial strongholds.

Entry to the fortress and museum is free.

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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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A Bibliophile’s Guide to Britain & Ireland

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1.    Oxfordshire, England

Oxford University

Explore the rich heritage of the city that has long been a haven for authors, poets as well as dozens of note-worthy journalists, writers, politicians, and artists. As is typical of a university town, Oxford is packed full of great pubs, however unlike most university towns, Oxford’s pubs are famous. The Bear is one of England’s oldest pubs, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis regularly drank at The Eagle and Child, and The Lamb and Flag was frequented by the likes of Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene. Go on a hop on hop off tour to get a genuine flavour of Oxford’s glorious literary past and vibrant present. Visit the hallowed portals of the University which inspired Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy among others. In the University the historic Bodlein Library is one of the oldest and largest libraries in England. 

2.    Bath, England  

Roman thermal spril at Bath

Bath’s most famous resident, Jane Austen set two of her books Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the city and lived there in the 1800s. Bath has year round events and activities for Austen fans to enjoy. Every summer people dress-up in Regency finery and attend the annual Netherfield Ball to dance like Darcy, Lizzy, Bingley and Jane. In the Fall, Bath holds a nine-day festival celebrating all things Austen. This includes a world famous Grand Regency Costume parade where 600 Austen fans from all over the world descend on Bath in Regency era costumes to open the festival. If you can’t make it for the festival, the Jane Austen Centre is open all year with exhibitions on Austen’s time in this city and a Regency themed Tea Room. While in Bath, be sure to take a dip in its ancient open-air thermal springs like they did in the 18th century. 

3.    Dublin, Ireland

Oscar Wilde statue in Dublin

Dubliners love words and Dublin has given the world such towering literary figures as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw and Wilde to name but a few. Designated UNESCO City of Literature in 2010, Dublin’s written tradition stretches back to 800 A.D. with the Book of Kells, one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts in the world on display at Trinity College Dublin. One Merrion Sqaure is the home of Oscar Wilde, a beautiful example of Georgian architecture restored to an approximate version of their appearance in Oscar’s day and can only be visited on a guided tour. Across the road, is a flamboyant statue of the man himself, reclining on a huge granite stone seemingly without a care in the world! Prose and pints go together in this city which has produced four Nobel Prize laureates in Literature. Participate in the popular Literary Pub Crawl on the cobbled streets of Dublin which promises to give you “the pleasant notion of simultaneously replacing brain cells as you drown them…” 

4.   London, England

London at dusk

London has cemented its reputation as the culture capital of the world and for good reason. A bibliophile or an aspiring writer can spend a lifetime in London and still not see everything! For Londoners and tourists there are all kinds of walks to trace the literary legacy of some of English language’s greatest writers from Chaucer to Dickens, Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling to Arthur Conan Doyle who have lived in London or been inspired by the city at some point in their life. Though an obvious choice to include, The British Library cannot be denied by bookworms. It houses one-of-a-kind manuscripts including hand-written excerpts from Beowulf, King Henry IV and many more. A highlight is Jane Austen’s personal notebook as well as her writing desk. The mix of the old and the new is what captivates thousands of visitors. No literary buff's educational adventure would be complete without taking a tour of the fashionable Bloomsbury area in the London Borough of Camden. It's a great way to learn the literary history of the neighbourhood. The Lamb bar and pub in the heart of Bloomsbury district has long been frequented by Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Another landmark is the Charles Dickens Museum, where the permanent exhibition is a representation of what the house looked like while Dickens resided there and is home to an extensive collection of surviving possessions. 

5.   Edinburgh, Scotland 

Edinburgh Old Town

Edinburgh has been the home of many well respected and popular writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Arthur Conan Doyle; along with contemporary authors J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. Edinburgh's streets are steeped in literary history and there is never a dearth of inspiration in this awe-inspiring Scottish capital. In the centre of Edinburgh is St Andrew Square, Edinburgh's Poetry Garden where you can float poetry written on paper lotus across the square's pond and make it part of the garden permanently. A must see for Pottermaniacs is The Elephant House, a gourmet tea and coffee shop, where J.K. Rowling wrote much of her early novels in the back room overlooking the Edinburgh Castle. Walk down the West Port street in Edinburgh’s Old Town which features taverns that have opened their doors to William Wordsworth, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. An essential part of Scottish culture are these pubs and taverns where famous literary figures would go and mix with the common people over Scottish ales and whiskies.

6.    Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

Anne Hathaway childhood home

This delightful little town is famous as the birthplace of England’s greatest poet and playwright, William Shakespeare. Home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, five historic houses linked to the Bard and a wealth of other tourist attractions, there is a lot to see in this Heritage city. Visit the house where the world’s most famous playwright was born and grew up. Tour Mary Arden's House, the childhood home of Shakespeare's mother and learn about Tudor life on Palmer’s Farm, an experience that transports visitor’s back to the 1570’s. Also visit the picturesque family home of Anne Hathaway where young Shakespeare courted his future bride Anne. Watch a play at the historic Royal Shakespeare Theatre situated on the western bank of river Avon. The best time to visit Stratford is between April and July when there are plenty of festivals, parades, concerts, and workshops for young and old to take part in.

7.    Wales, England

Medieval castle ruins in Wales countryside

2014 marks the centenary of the Welsh poet, author and legend Dylan Thomas. Explore the vast seascapes, village tracks, dusky moorlands, brimming meadows and lush parklands that have inspired his works. At the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, see the permanent exhibition, ‘Man and Myth’ which includes Dylan Thomas' worksheets, recordings, artwork and even the suit Dylan wore in New York in 1953, the year he died. They also conduct the annual Dylan Thomas Festival that takes place each year from 27th October to 9th of November. Social historian Raymond Williams often embedded his work in Wales and Welsh cultural themes. Malcome Pryces noir novels set in Aberystwyth, Eve Green by Susan Fletcher and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle have all used Wales as a setting. 

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London’s Hidden Gems

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Anyone who knows anything about London is well aware of the city’s top tourist attractions: the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London. London, it turns out, is a pretty touristy place. You can’t go anywhere without running into someone carrying a giant camera around their neck, holding up a crumpled city map, and standing on a street corner looking unbearably confused. I know you all know what I’m talking about. Because we’ve all been there. This is the tourist’s right of passage. You can’t visit London – or any major city – without experiencing this at least once. It will make for great stories one day. But, in the event that you want to escape the madness, avoid tourist traps, and explore some of London’s lesser-traveled roads, here are my picks for London’s hidden gems and some of my favorite places outside the city centre.

In no particular order:

1.  Primrose Hill

watermarkprimrose

If you’ve ever wondered what London looks like to a bird, Primrose Hill is probably the closest you will get. Primrose Hill is, as the name suggests, a big hill on the edge of Regent’s Park. Now, I know that most people these days are likely to avoid hills at all costs (is there an escalator anywhere?), but you absolutely must climb this one! The view is absolutely stunning and totally unparalleled. I promise you, the climb is completely worth it (like that Miley Cyrus song from way back when). Once you make it to the top, a view of the entire city down below awaits you. You can see everything from the London Eye to Big Ben to the Shard. It’s all there. Don’t forget your camera! It makes for excellent panoramic shots. If you want to make the trip extra special, go just before sunset and bring along a bottle of wine. Who says happiness doesn’t come cheap?

2.  Brick Lane

dankunzbrick

Brick Lane is most famous for its delectable Indian food (and with good reason), but don’t leave after you eat. The East London area is the cultural hub of the city. If artsy and alternative is your thing, East London is the place for you! After indulging on the delicious food, take a walk around the Brick Lane area (just don’t get up too quickly. You might split your pants). Here, you can find markets selling even more food and any other number of things from jewelry to paintings to clothing to trinkets. Brick Lane is also famous for the murals of graffiti and street art. This isn’t the kind of graffiti you see on under overpasses and in tunnels and at train stations. It’s art. And it’s really cool. Go!

3.  Hampstead Heath

watermarkhampstead

Hampstead Heath is undoubtedly one of my favorite spots in all of London. Just 25 minutes outside of the bustling city centre, Hampstead Heath is the perfect getaway for  nature lovers. You’ll know you’ve made it when all you can hear is silence, and the sound of birds chirping has replaced the sound of honking horns. You can practically feel all of the tension escape from your body and your muscles unknot as you breathe in the fresh clean smell of nature. Everyone needs a break every once and a while.

Hampstead Heath is really just a big park with sprawling green fields and ponds and forests of big tall trees and all of that naturey goodness you’ve been missing in the city. It is the perfect place for frolicking. If you go to Hampstead Heath you absolutely must frolic. It makes the experience 100 times better (that’s a proven fact). At this point in the blog, you’re probably looking at your computer screen like I’m crazy. I know what you’re thinking. Frolic, you say? Do I look like a pony? A deer? Well, I am almost 100 percent certain that you are neither. But frolic you must! When you visit Hampstead Heath, you will instantly understand this and thank me for giving you this wonderful suggestion. You are out in nature, so frolic it up! Hop, skip, jump, roll, tumble. Do whatever your heart desires. That’s what parks are for, after all! 

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The Old City of Palma

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The city of Palma on the island of Majorca is an ancient one.  It has always been important in the history and culture of the western Mediterranean Sea.  That has resulted in a rich, diverse and, at times very tumultuous past.  That past has left behind magnificent reminders that are still visible, intact and available for visitors to enjoy today.

The best place to get a glimpse into Palma’s past is the Old City (or Old Town).  It is a charming combination of an intricate web of shady, narrow, winding streets lined by pink Mediterranean style houses and lovely gothic buildings mixed in for good measure.  Many of the houses are adorned with window boxes and narrow wrought-iron balconies, detailed metal carvings and overhanging eaves that add to its lure.

While there is much that is attractive and worth seeing in the Old City, it is the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma that dominates and receives the most visitors.  It is a very, very large and magnificent Gothic, neo-gothic, restored building that took about 300 years (1299 to 1601) to complete.  It sits between the Royal Palace of La Almudaina and overlooks the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea.

There are still some aspects of the town that are reminders of Palma’s Arab/Moorish past and their influences can still be seen.  Nowhere more so than the locality called Bany Arabs or Arab Baths.  You take a quiet street called Ca’n Serra that is close to the Cathedral to reach this small two-roomed brick building.  It dates back to the 11th century and was once part of a larger residential complex.  The bath room itself has a cupola, and twelve columns that were removed from some Roman era building.  The baths are surrounded by beautiful gardens – Ca’n Fontirroig.

Then there is the ancient and still operational fishermen and sailors locality of El Jonquet. The most notable features of this area are the old mills that overlook it from above.

Bellver castleBellver Castle is a unique structure because of its cylindrical form.  While not technically a part of the old city, Bellver Castle is quite integral to the medieval history of the city and the island.   It was built in the 14th century upon the ruins of a Moorish site and set high on a hill giving it fabulous (no doubt strategic too) views of the whole island.  This distinctive fortress has three large towers and a central courtyard and houses an archaeological museum filled sculptures of times gone by.  It has served as a residence for the Majorcan kings, a fortress and a prison.

While you stroll through this beautiful and old part of Palma you are bound to see a rather more modern addition to the area.  They are the rubbish bins!  They are attractive, like so much else in the Old City, and made of bronze.  These rubbish bins are made up of two sections – an upper cylindrical part where you place your garbage.  You turn a handle on the side, which then drops the refuse into the lower, rectangular storage portion.

When you are done seeing the area you could relax in one of the quaint little restaurants along the sea front and admire the view.

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1st Day of the New Year in Stockholm’s Old Town

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As New Year's Eve rapidly approached and I was faced with spending it in my pesky home town in grey, boring Finland, a friend and I decided that we needed to get away. The trip to Stockholm from Finland is easy and traversed often by Finns via a cruise liner. This is one of the most convenient ways for Finns to take a small break: a cruise to Stockholm is easy and quick – enjoying the tax free shops on board comes as an added bonus. Our ship docked at 10.30am on the 1st of January and the vessel was eerily, yet understandably quiet. After a night of boogeing on the party boat we were starving and headed out early.

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Ranked #3 on TripAdvisor for things to do in Stockholm, we headed for Stockholm’s Gamla Stan i.e. Old Town. The walk to the area from the port takes about 15 minutes and although there was nothing much of interest to look at along the way, at least we found evidence of a night of heavy partying. 

Celebrations

Gamla Stan is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe, and here you can see the Royal Palace with its 600 rooms, Sweden’s national cathedral Stockholm Cathedral and the Nobel Museum. The Christmas wreaths and decorations were still in place and created a cosy atmosphere even post-Christmas.

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The area isn’t huge and perfect for a leisurely wander along the cobbled streets, peering into crowded passageways and gazing up on the medieval buildings, the surfaces of which look powdery and ancient. There are so many little details on the buildings you'll be snap happy throughout your stroll. Gamla Stan is unsurprisingly very touristy with the appropriate offering of souvenir shops, sweet shops and bric a brac – none of which tickled our fancy. However, we did stop over for a tasty lunch in one of the little cafes that dot the streets.

Gamla Stan is definitely worth checking out when in Stockholm, but head over early morning to avoid the crowds!
Keen on a bit of Stockholm sightseeing beyond the Old Town? Take a bus tour of the city and get your bearings from day one!

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Romantic Winter Getaways (Part 2)

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This is the second and final part of our feature on romantic experiences around the world. You can read part one of this feature here

1)    DINNER ON THE GRAND PEARL FLOATING RESTAURANT, BANGKOK

Wat Arun Temple at sunsetLeave Bangkok’s chaotic traffic behind and whisk your loved one for a delightful cruise along the Chao Phraya river in Thailand’s capital city. On board the luxurious Grand Pearl floating restaurant you will be able to marvel at famous Thai landmarks – Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace; shimmering in the night while you enjoy sumptuous Thai and international cuisine with your partner in a candle lit ambience.   

2)    PORTRAITS IN PARIS PHOTO SHOOT, PARIS, FRANCE

Portrait in ParisWrap yourself in the beauty and romance of the City of Love by booking a professional vacation photographer to capture your love story. Packed with charming vintage locations, Paris is a lover’s fantasy and a photographer’s delight. Get your photos taken in the most eclectic neighbourhood of Paris. Latin Quarter is situated on the left bank of the Seine, in the 5th and 6th arrondissement of Paris. There is no better setting to capture your engagement, honeymoon or anniversary photos.  

3)    MOUNT PILATUS EXCURSION FROM LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND

Cable car to the Swiss AlpsWith the snow-capped Mount Pilatus towering over the city, and the pristine Lake Lucerne in the heart of it, Switzerland is everything that a romantic getaway should be. After you and your partner are done gallivanting through picture perfect Swiss villages, medieval walled towns and enchanted castles, take a panoramic cable car ride (40 minutes) to Mount Pilatus, at an altitude of 2132 metres. Enjoy the vibrant skyline of the Swiss Alps and the snow decked slopes of Mount Pilatus while you savour traditional Swiss cuisine from the delectable restaurants or on the terrace where the views are to die for.

4)    METROPOLITAN OPERA & DINNER – WITH PRIVATE TRANSPORT, NEW YORK

When in New York City, a visit to The Metropolitan Opera is a must for Opera lovers. Make it extra special for our beloved by booking a luxurious package that includes a limousine pickup from your hotel, a meal at the popular Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse, drinks, and opera tickets for your favorite production. This is perfect for an elegant proposal or a Valentine’s Day treat!

5)    ROMANTIC PRIVATE HELICOPTER TOUR FROM QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND

Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New ZealandThe magnificent scenery and views around Queenstown can only truly be experienced from the air via a scenic helicopter flight which will fly you over the highpoints of Lake Wakatipu. Look down on snow-capped peaks, dense forests and gleaming blue waters. The highlight of the luxury helicopter tours has to be shutting down on a remote alpine peak to take some time out to enjoy a delicious gourmet picnic and sparkling wine while you take in the pristine beauty of the alpine landscape. Perfect for couples looking to celebrate a special occasion. 

6)    ALHAMBRA PALACE GUIDED TOUR AND HAMMAM EXPERIENCE, GRANADA, SPAIN

Hammam in Granada, SpainThe city of Granada has one of the most dramatic locations in Spain, poised right below the magnificent “snowy range” Sierra Nevada. It is the perfect setting for one of Europe's most stunning monuments – Alhambra Palace, a romantic palace-fortress of the Nasrid Sultans, rulers of the last Spanish Muslim Kingdom. This red castle in Granada contains some of the world's finest examples of Moorish architecture. Relive the charm, magic and opulence of Alhambra’s glorious past by dipping in Arab-style public steam baths or ‘hammam’ where you and your partner can unwind in warm thermal baths complete with an exotic oil massage. 

7)    NEW YEARS EVE IN GRINZING – TOUR FROM VIENNA, AUSTRIA

Celebrating in a traditional tavernCelebrate the end of the year in one of the most famous wine growing villages in Austria. Just minutes from Vienna lies the wine hamlet of Grinzig with its traditional taverns serving local wine and hearty food, often accompanied by live Viennese music. The district of Grinzing is full of such beautifully preserved establishments that lend the whole district a magical feel. Numerous vineyards are located nearby and make a great place for a tranquil, romantic walk. Welcome the New Year in a traditional tavern, with "dinner à la Grinzing", sparkling wine and classical Viennese music.

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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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Native New Yorker – When in Italy

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Native New Yorker – When in Italy

 

rome

Before my fall break started I had an elaborate plan to go to Italy alone, since none of my friends had planned to go. Then a thought passed through my head: “All my photos are going to be selfies!” Not that there is anything wrong with a good old selfie, but what is Rome without a classic (full-body) shot at Trevi Fountain. Luckily, my friend Jen decided that she would join me on my 4 city escapade. She was going to meet me at Roma Termini Monday morning. The only thing I had to do was to endure a 16-hour train ride.
 

When I was waiting for my train in Paris everything seemed great. Things quickly went downhill when I couldn’t find my compartment. After getting off the train, running back to where I began and almost missing the train I was able to find where I’d be spending the next 16 hours. I was in a 6-berth cabin but had no clue how all 6 of us were supposed to sleep that night.
 

Lesson 1:  When riding a train for more than 4 hours bring lots of entertainment. Even though I handled the train like a champ, at least every three hours I wished I would have done things the easy way and flown into Rome. You can read the same Cosmopolitan magazine only a number of times before going crazy. Every time I woke up I hoped it was the next day and I'd be in Rome but found that only about 45 minutes had passed since I’d dozed off. Bring a book or tablet/laptop full of films and music to pass the time.

Lesson 2: Don’t freak out when someone comes to collect your passport. One of the train operators came by to pick up everyone’s passport and at first I politely refused to let her take mine. At this moment everyone in my cabin knew I was American. There is something unsettling about not having my passport near me. After going back and forth for a few minutes, the operator convinced me that I would get it back before the train stopped in Rome.

Lesson 3: If you are on the top bunk that is where you’ll stay for the rest of the night. Since it was a 6 person cabin, the top beds were already pulled down and the middle ones had to be situated before everyone could sleep. Being clueless I let everyone else situate the beds and quietly climbed to the top. To my surprise when I wanted to get down someone had moved the ladder, so I had to jump off hoping I wouldn’t break any bones when landing.

Luckily I was able to get comfortable eventually and sleep until we stopped at Roma Termini. It was only a miracle that my friend Jen and I found each other in the crowd. Our Roman adventure was ready to begin.

What We Did In Rome

We had no clue what we wanted to do in Italy besides eat and then eat some more, see the Vatican, and then eat again. The first day we had our taste of real Italian pizza, which was everything I had dreamed of and more. After satisfying our stomachs we took a walk to Trevi Fountain; the site gets super crowded during the day and everyone wants to pose for a snap in front of it. Most people don’t stay for too long making room for other sightseers, so get your tourist photo taken and move on.

colosseum

Next stop on our Roman holiday was of course the Colosseum. If you want an amazing photo by the ancient structure, it’s best to climb up the hill behind it. This way solo travelers can take a proper selfie with the Colosseum and the Rome skyline behind. Unfortunately there was some construction work going on and we were not able to appreciate the architecture in all its glory, but what we did see blew us away. Even though I didn’t go into the Colosseum, watching the sunset over Rome in that very spot was more than enough.

Tour Colosseum and Ancient Rome with Isango! 

After taking in all that ancient beauty Jen and I were ready to eat again and I don’t believe I can eat pasta again without thinking about Italy. Traditional Italian pasta is so rich you can practically taste the love that has gone into making it. For dessert, even though we were full to the point of our pants nearly ripping, we had our first taste of gelato. I had double rich chocolate and before that day I don’t think what I’ve been eating in America is chocolate. I may have been full from dinner but I refused not to eat every bit of that gelato. It was a perfect way to end day one in Roma.

sistine

Day two and we were off to the Vatican. I had been advised beforehand to get there early because it would take at least an hour to get in. Surprisingly, it only took us 30 minutes. The best time to go is during the week in the afternoon. I was happy to find there was a student discount available, which made my visit all the more enjoyable. As you make your way through the museum which leads to the Sistine Chapel you can feel the anticipation of the masses, and it's contagious even if you haven't dreamt of seeing the site for years like I had. Once inside, I found myself in awe of the place: seeing the colorful, mesmerizing frescos covering the walls and the ceiling is a memory I will never forget.

Skip the Lines at the Vatican and see the Sistine Chapel 

St. Peter’s Basilica was on the agenda next. If you happen to visit on a Wednesday, you have the chance to attend the Wednesday General Audience held in St. Peter’s Square and see the pope. During winter the audience is held in the Paul VI Hall just left to the square.

With the sun still out we made our way to an area called Trastevere. At first it doesn’t seem like much is going on, but if you venture into the side streets you will find hidden gems. From shops, cafes and people selling handmade jewelry it is a beautiful area to get lost in. After a nice stroll we decided to return to Trevi Fountain to witness it in all its glory. It’s one thing to see Trevi Fountain during the day, but at night it is simply magical. The fountain is all lit up, the crowd is calm and dozens of people are making wishes and throwing coins into the fountain. This was the perfect moment to make a wish at the fountain. Legends say if you tell someone your wish it won’t come true, so I’ll keep mine a secret. 

See all that The Eternal City has to offer with Isango!

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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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