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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’

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

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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

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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

 

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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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Native New Yorker: The Best Things to do in New York

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Here at Isango we love New York, a city that has so much going on it can feel dizzying at times trying to decide where to go and what to see. Lucky for us our new intern Christasia is from NYC and ready to share her insider tips with you!

 

Without further ado, here is the first post from our very own Native New Yorker.

 

 

“One day your life will flash right before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” This was one of the main reasons why I decided to leave the US and come to London. When in my life would I get the chance to just leave and go to another country for 15 weeks? Years from now I want to be able to look back at my undergraduate career and say: “Wow, I was brave enough to leave everyone and everything behind just to study abroad.” Fortunately, I’m sitting at this computer in London having the time of my life.

My name is Christasia Wilson and I’m a junior at Temple University. Currently I’m studying journalism, with the hopes to one day work for a fashion magazine. Coming to London wasn’t a hard transition because I went from one city to another. Originally I’m from New York but I attend school in Philadelphia.

Some of the main differences between New York and London is that pedestrians don’t have the right of way (something I learned the hard way), knowing that taking 100 pounds won’t be 100 American dollars, and I can go to clubs and pubs, which is a plus because in the United States I’m not old enough to do that.

From my time studying in London I’m hoping to come back to the States a changed person. I want to be able to step out of my box and do things I wouldn’t normally do. Actually, I’m already doing that by coming to London for 15 weeks. These next few weeks will contain life experiences that I will never forget, create friendships that will last a lifetime and most of all make me into a better person. It’s always insightful to see how other people from different cultures live – sometimes it makes you appreciate the culture you come from more, but also introduces new things from other cultures into your daily life.

Come along with me as I master the art of jaywalking, travel around the UK and Europe, but most of all as I try to track down the Royals. I’m just your average girl. A New Yorker by birth, Philadelphian because of school, and a Londoner by choice.

 

Native New Yorker:

The Best Things to do in New York

 

Whenever people tell me they’ve been to New York, most likely they’ve only been to Times Square, the Empire State Building and 34th Street. Not that these places aren’t wonderful in their own right, but there’s more to New York than the main tourist attractions. Take a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge or even a nice ferry ride to Governors Island. The best attitude to adopt when it comes to New York is accepting the fact that you’ll never see everything in New York. I have lived there all my life and it continues to amaze me. However, to make planning your trip to NYC a little bit easier, here are some of my favorite things to see and do in the City that Never Sleeps.

The High Line

NYhighline (400 x 265)

Originally a freight rail line, this park is built on the former New York railroad spur called the West Side Line. If you’re looking for a relaxing afternoon take a walk on the High Line. It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenue. No fear, if you get hungry that far up, there are multiple ways to ensure your lovely stroll won’t be cut short because of a grumbling stomach. From coffee to tacos and even peach gelato you can fill yourself up and then continue to walk. Keep your eyes open for graffiti on some of the nearby buildings.

Isango Highline Park Walking Tour

Central Park

If you’re short on time and looking to see only the most important sights of the city, be sure to visit every New Yorkers backyard: Central Park. This happens to be one of my frequent places to go when I want to get away from everyone and everything. Endless opportunities of fun can be found here. Whether you’re looking for a place for a romantic date or an energetic family outing, Central Park never goes out of style. During the warm season have a picnic or play frisbee on the Great Lawn. In the winter treat yourself to a ride through the park on a horse & carriage or ice skating at Wollman Rink.

Tour Central Park with Isango

Top of the Rock: Rockefeller Building

Forget the lines at the Empire State Building and go to the Top of the Rock instead. Day or night the view of New York City is absolutely breath-taking. Enjoy the food, gift shops and the floor to ceiling windows, without all the hassle of long queues and large crowds. From experience the best time to go is early in the morning or at night when everyone from the afternoon rush has gone back to Times Square.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Building

For over 80 years the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony has been one of the most celebrated events in New York. This is the kickstart to the Christmas holiday. No matter how many people are there, you’ll still get a nice photo with the 69 to 100 foot Norway spruce tree in the background. While basking in the joy of the holiday season, take a stroll down 5th Avenue; at night all the holiday lights are lit and there are countless stores to visit for every type of shopper. It does get very crowded so prepare to maneuver your way through throngs of people.

Sullivan Bistro

This cozy bistro is tucked away in the Sullivan MacDougal Historic District. Every foodies safe haven, Sullivan offers some of the best brunch options around and it will have your mouth watering for more. I’ve been going to Sullivan Bistro for 2 years now, after stumbling upon it walking around Houston Street. My personal favorites for brunch are the Classic Pancake Breakfast and Goat’s Cheese on Toasted Brioche. Whether you’re a veggie lover or meat crazy, Sullivan Bistro caters to every taste palate.

The Village

washingtonsqpark (400 x 266)

One one of the most interesting neighborhoods in lower Manhattan, you will never get bored down in the Village. There’s Washington Square Park, boutiques, thrift & vintage stores, the Meatpacking District, and one of the best Italian pastry shops in town Veniero’s. These are just a few of the things to see in and around the Village.

Explore Greenwich Village with Isango

Harlem

Home of the Harlem Renaissance movement, there’s more than enough to explore in Harlem. Go enjoy a show at the Apollo Theater, a place where stars such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin have performed. Explore the cultural legacy at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Do major shopping on 125th street and then finish the day off with a walk in Marcus Garvey Park or some food from one of the many restaurants in Harlem. If you want something quick and good find a Jimbo’s; breakfast is served all day and if you’re into burgers, you’ve come to the right place.  

Experience traditional gospel in Harlem

DUMBO

No, not the elephant, but the neighborhood in Brooklyn. DUMBO stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” This neighborhood is one of New York’s hidden gems. With a combination of art galleries, shops and restaurants it’s one place you’ll definitely fall in love with in Brooklyn. When in DUMBO you must go to one of the best coal brick oven pizzerias called Grimaldi’s. Stop by St. Ann’s Warehouse for a show or rent a bike to ride around Brooklyn.

Park Slope

brooklynb (400 x 268)

Still loving Brooklyn, we’ll continue on to Park Slope. From here you can see a basketball game or one of your favorite artists at Barclays Center. Go up Flatbush Avenue to one of my personal favorite sushi spots, Geido. If your appetite for Brooklyn is still not satisfied, head over to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) for films, theater, dance, music and much more. When the shopping bug hits you, check out some of the stores off of Atlantic Avenue. Two of my favorite stores are called Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange. After all this you’ll be dying to visit Brooklyn again.

Museums

When you want some peace and quiet or are just in the mood for history check out one of the dozen museums in New York. Here are some of my favorites just to name a few.

MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)

Museum of Natural History

Science Museum

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of Sex

El Museo del Barrio (NYC’s only Latin museum dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art)

Last but not least the Guggenheim Museum

These are not the only museums to check out in New York. For some reason the museums listed happen to be museums that I’ve been going to all my life and each holds a special memory. On a good day there aren’t too many people around and I never get tired of the old exhibits.

Of course there is so much more to do in New York and the examples above are just a few of my favorite things. Next time you visit the Big Apple go off the beaten path and explore everything the city has to offer.

 

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