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In search of Père Noël – Christmas in Paris

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parishero (500 x 324)

During the coldest, darkest winter months it’s often the wonderful thought and anticipation of Christmas that encourages most of us to bravely battle the nasty breeze, sleet and sub-zero temperatures. When Christmas lights and displays pop up across the cities of Europe, one can’t help but feel the build-up of festive cheer and excitement. And during this dark time of year the best place to be is of course the City of Light, where you can soak up the glow of seasonal activities. Paris is chock-full of yuletide activities and makes for a wonderful destination even if you're not too into busy Christmas markets and carol singers. Take a look below at the best things to do if you're spending Christmas in Paris.

Christmas Lights and Displays

NicholasJonesgalerie

Image by Nicholas Jones

A 2km stretch of the iconic Champs-Élysées is lit up with dozens of lights leading up to the Arc de Triomphe. The 200 trees that are drenched in light will stay lit until 2:00am each day, and all night on December 31st in celebration of the new year.

The many boutiques and shops that line Champs-Élysées are decorated with festive displays, lights and trees. Stop by at the traditional Christmas market for a cup of mulled wine and a bit of shopping. Don’t miss the stupendous Galeries Lafayette department store: from the outside you can marvel at the ever-changing light show the wonderfully magical window displays, dedicated this year to the theme of The Beauty and the Beast. Be sure to check out the Printemps store as well.

Other noteworthy spots with twinkling lights are Place Vendôme and Place de la Concorde, where you will also find the Paris Big Wheel.

Ice Skating

OlivierBruchezskate

Image by Olivier Bruchez

Donning a pair of skates and heading to the rink is a winter favourite, especially among kids.
Patinoire de L’Hôtel de Ville is situated right in front of the city hall and is the most popular (and busiest) rink in the city. If your skating skills are a bit rusty, fear not, the huge rink includes a smaller area for beginners and children – and there are even instructors at hand to help you perfect your technique.

Patinoire des Cinq Continents at Champs-Élysées, right in the middle of the liveliest Christmas shenanignas. This year the rink takes its inspiration from the five continents of the world by featuring over 300 animated pandas, deer, wolves, polar bears and other critters in its ice garden.

If you want to skate under the watchful eye of the Eiffel Tower, you can do so at the Trocadero Square rink where you will also find a Christmas village and a snow garden.

Cultural Events

There are many things to do in Paris besides the obvious Christmas activities, from shows to art exhibitions.

For scenes straight out of a storybook, catch the legendary Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au bois dormant) ballet at the Opéra Bastille, or the Beauty and the Beast musical at Théâtre Mogador.

For thrills and wondrous excitement, go to one of the latest circus shows: Cirque BouglioneCirque Pinder or Cirque National Alexis Gruss. For something out of this world, you can experience Kooza, the new show by Cirque du Soleil. Whatever your choice, prepare for an evening of fantastical characters, colours, sounds and mind-boggling feats and tricks.

Art lovers will appreciate the many exhibitions taking place, most of which run until the end of January. See the works of Frida Kahlo at the Musee de l’Orangerie, Goya at the Pinacotheque and Braque at the Grand Palais

Quirky

Christophe Alary Musee

Image by Christophe Alary

Enter the bizarre, mysterious world of carnivals of the bygone era at Musée des Arts Forains, also known as The Fun Fair Museum. The museum is located in Bercy, a disctrict once used by Parisian wine merchants, where you can see rows and rows of warehouses with rails running down the lanes for transportation of the barrels. The museum is usually only open with prior reservation, but opens to the general public during Christmas. The collection includes merry-go-rounds and carousels, Japanese billiards and much more dating all the way back to 1850.

Still unsure of what to do in Paris? Take a look at the tours we offer in this beautiful city!

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Kanchanaburi – Beyond The Bridge On The River Kwai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disneyland Paris – Frosty But Fabulous!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mount Titlis – Eternal Winter Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brussels Nightlife Guide

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Brussels Nightlife Guide

brussels

Having lived in Brussels for 9 months and frequenting pubs and bars nearly every weekend (sometimes two nights in a row) I like to think myself a connoisseur of Brussels after dark. Some of the best places for a drink can be found conveniently located around the city centre and for some you might have go the extra mile, but it will be worth it. Whether you’re in the hunt for the best margarita or just a place to dance until your legs feel like jello, Brussels will deliver.

Le Corbeau

Good for: Dancing on tables

If you go to one place in Brussels, go to Le Corbeau. Get there before 10pm and you will see people casually enjoying their dinner with a few drinks in a charming old-Brussels setting. Stick around and you will be surprised. At approximately 11pm the bartender goes around removing lamps from tables, the volume goes up and suddenly you will see someone scrambling onto the table they just had their dinner on – soon the whole place is up on tables, grooving to the music and you have no choice but to try it yourself. I’ve never had a bad night here even though the fight for the best table spot can sometimes get a bit heated. Wearing heels is not recommended, you will need all the balance you have!

http://www.lecorbeau.be/

Mappa Mundo

Good for: Pre-drinks

Mappa Mundo is one of the many gems of the Saint Gery area. In the summer the cobbled St. Gery streets are filled with the sound of chatter and clinking glass as tables are spread outside and the bars open their windows wide to let some of the cool air in. Mappa Mundo has a wonderfully cosy, warm atmosphere. The lights are dim, the seats and setting comfortable and the music varied. Here you can have a quiet drink and catch up with friends or gear up for a night out in the livelier bars of the area.

http://www.mappamundo.com/?lang=en

Havana

Good for: Cocktails

This Cuban place is superb for cocktails; here is where I fell in love with margaritas. They make them super tangy and sweet, and during happy hour you get 2 for 1! If you’re into Latin music you can easily spend the whole night dancing here, but you can also catch the last bus into central Brussels at around 11pm if you’re looking to explore the city more.

http://www.havana-brussels.com/home_r.html

Delirium

Good for: Beer

This place is incredible. Even if you're not into beer you have to appreciate the fact that when you ask for the drinks menu, you will receive a book as heavy as The Lord of the Rings. As you leaf through the pages you will realise that the best option is to just close your eyes and poke your finger at the menu at random to choose your beer. They come in all tastes here, in over 2400 varieties from smoky to deliciously fruity. If you're finding the surplus of choice overbearing just ask the bar staff to recommend you something: they will give you a taste first before filling up the glass.

http://deliriumcafe.be/

Bonnefooi

Good for: Late, late hours

After all other bars in central Brussels close, there is always Bonnefooi. A favourite among nighthawks, this is where the party's at – even at 7 in the morning. The place gets a bit grubby in the early hours of the morning, but if you're hell-bent on not retiring to bed, Bonnefooi is there for you. Seen as it will probably be about 5 or 6 in the morning once you get here, have your wits about you and keep an eye on your belongings. I once had my bag stolen here right under my nose within the space of 5 minutes even after having carefully hidden it under a pile of jackets and keeping vigil right next to it.

http://bonnefooi.be/index.php/

Celtica

Good for: Cheap drinks

If you’re out to find that laid-back Irish pub feel and your main goal of the evening is to get sufficiently intoxicated, Celtica is your place. The drinks are cheap and the dancefloor upstairs crowded and pumping out the latest tunes to grind to. The place will become packed so be prepared to stand around with your drink. Certain nights kick off with live music, and you will most definitely hear a drunken singalong rendition of Wonderwall. Celtica is nothing fancy but it does the trick with the added bonus that the doors stay open til very late.

http://www.celticpubs.com/celtica/celticabxl.html

Fuse

Good for: Clubbing

One of the (very) few clubs in Brussels, this is where you can come all dolled up to bust a move.

The set-up is spacious and the music loud, providing all the essentials of a club night. The place lacks the great atmosphere you will find in smaller Brussels bars, but if clubbing is your thing, this is where you need to be. Be sure to bring change: every time you want to use the loo, you will need to pay.

http://www.fuse.be/

 

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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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Native New Yorker – Paris Never Gets Old

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Native New Yorker - Paris Never Gets Old

paris

All around the continental Europe I go. For the last 10 days I’ve been living out of a duffle bag while exploring Europe on my fall break. Why did I choose to explore as many as four countries in ten days? Well, that is a question I still can’t answer, but what I can say is that it was definitely worth it, despite some long hours spent in trains. With my duffle bag in tow and good friends for company I went from Paris to Rome, Bologna, Warsaw, finally ending my European grand tour with a stop in Brussels. From the Eiffel Tower in Paris to pierogies in Warsaw those 10 days will never be forgotten. It would only be right to share my experiences in Europe, from the places I enjoyed the most all the way down to the restaurants with the best waffles.

Paris was the first stop on my 10-day journey. It was my second time in the beautiful city and it felt as if it was the first. Even after a 10-hour bus and ferry journey the Parisian in me came out the moment I took in French air. There are 3 things to keep in mind when traveling to France from the UK.

1.      Bring plenty of snacks

I’m fortunate enough to be able to fall asleep just about anywhere. Whether it’s a packed train or a hot room, I can close my eyes and take a nice nap. Before getting on the bus I figured that it wouldn’t be necessary to bring a lot of food with me because obviously I was going to sleep all the way to France. To my surprise I didn’t fall sleep at all and constantly smelled the mouthwatering aromas of food around me. Whenever someone opened up a bag of chips (or crisps as the Brits would say) I wanted to kindly ask them to share. I did bring two sandwiches with me but they were soon gone and all I was left with was a few cookies and some water.

Bring enough snacks and then some for long journeys, especially those of you who don’t intend to nap your way to France. You will regret not bringing enough, especially when you realize that a single hash brown on the ferry will cost you almost £3!

2.      Never go to Europe without cash

Of course being the person that I am, half of the time I don’t carry cash. Ever since I got a debit card on my freshman year, carrying cash has become a thing of the past. Instead of taking out pounds to convert to euro, I decided to wait until I arrived in Paris. Mistake! I forgot that I would need money to get to my hostel from the bus station. After wandering around Paris at 7am (the sun wasn’t even up) looking for an ATM, my friends and I decided to pay for each other to get on the Metro. Make sure to bring at least 20 euros with you in cash – trust me, you’ll need it.

3.      Overpacking is never fun

When it comes to helping people pack I’m basically the packing Fairy Godmother. I’ll tell you what you won’t wear and how to maximize small spaces. However, when it’s my turn to pack I am not as cut-throat. I have a tendency to overpack because I love options: after sitting on a long flight, train or bus ride I always want to change my clothes. So naturally I stuffed my bag full of clothes and for 10 days I felt like I was carrying around a dead body. Not fun at all. Of course what’s even worse than heavy luggage is the fact that it will get heavier as you travel: think about all the souvenirs you'll want to buy! When the souvenirs won’t fit in, you know you’ve overpacked.

eiffel

Despite these hardships I had amazing moments in Paris. There is nothing like seeing the Eiffel Tower at night, especially when the lights start to flicker. Even though this was my second time in Paris, it was different. I was there with people who had never been to France and I got to appreciate things I’d seen before in a whole new light. Their boisterous excitement upon seeing the Eiffel Tower brought back the memories of seeing its imposing frame for the first time.

lovelock

Another great moment was putting a lock on Love Lock Bridge, also known as Pont de l’Archevêché. It may have taken us an hour to walk from the Eiffel Tower all the way to the other side of Paris, but it was worth it. A group of us all wrote our initials on the lock and threw the key over the bridge.

The best part of my second and final night in the city was a visit to the very first crepe stand I went to in Paris with my mom. It was one of those happy moments that I couldn’t explain to anyone. Deep down I knew why I have always been in love with Paris. Though I can’t speak the language and I get lost, Paris reminds me of home.

Since I was breaking off from the group to go to Italy, I was in Paris just for two days. On my second day I said goodbye to my friends and decided to round off my stay in the City of Light with a trip to the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore before getting on the train to Italy. It was only right to go inside and buy classic Shakespeare books as proof that I was really there. After my purchase I found my way to a little café by the train station and bought some of the tastiest quiche I’ve ever had. Alone, with my duffle bag, baguettes and quiche I was off to Italy for the first time in my life.

Explore Paris 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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Halloween – A New Orleans Speciality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See all tours in New Orleans.

 

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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

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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

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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

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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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