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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!

Montserrat – A Rocky Ensemble

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Montserrat monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tomorrowland Music Festival 2013, Belgium

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Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland is a massive electronic music festival that occurs in the town of Boom, Belgium, since 2005. Organised by ID&T, Entertainment and Media Enterprise, this 3-day music festival – described ‘A trippy technicolour fantasy’ – is amongst the biggest electronic and dance festivals in Europe. You’ll have the world’s biggest DJs playing to the world’s best crowd in this fest.

Decoration and Stages
Each year, the organisers invest a lot of money and manpower decorating the festival area that contributes to the total Tomorrowland experience. The artistry of the decor is as much of an event in itself.

Tomorrowland has close to 20 stages – each designed to suit the personality of the artists. It also has lots of lakes and trees, with a ride on the paddle boats a popular choice.

Tomorrowland 2013
This year’s festival will take place from 26–29 July, 2013 at De Schorre National Park in Boom, Belgium.

Fifteen stages cover all genres of dance music, in an astonishing main-stage set-up.

Line-ups for this year include: Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, Carl Cox, Sebastian Ingrosso, Fedde le Grand, Avicii, Steve Aoki, Hardwell, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Nervo Twins, Headhunterz, Arty, Markus Schulz.

Official Anthem

Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike have officially released the anthem for this year's festival, "Chattahoochee," named after the TomorrowWorld site in Chattahoochee Hills, GA.

Tickets

Tickets for the 3-day full madness cost €198.50 this year. Each ticket comes with a special bracelet that’ll allow you into the festival. Make sure you get the correct one.

To purchase the ticket, you’ll need your passport details; which, security verifies at the gate that they match with those given when purchasing the tickets.

There is VIP Comfort Pass that allows access to the raised viewing platforms. Also remember, this is an 18+ event.

Opening Hours

• Friday 26 July 2013: 12:00 till 01:00
• Saturday 27 July 2013: 12:00 till 01:00
• Sunday 28 July 2013: 12:00 till 01:00

Little Trivia about the Festival

• Ticket Sell Out Times: (2013: 1 Second; 2012: within the hour).

• The festival was intended to be Europe’s answer to the amusement park setting of America’s popular Electric Daisy Carnival when it started in 2005.

• Tomorrowland is run by the Dutch event and entertainment company ID&T — the largest dance music company in the Netherlands.

• The festival has won many awards including “Best European Festival” and “Best Belgian Summer Festival” as well as being nominated for “Best Global Festival”. At the 2012 European Festival Awards the event won ‘Best Major Festival’.

• The 2012 festival welcomed 180,000 revellers who all safely returned to 75 different countries, with the live stream clocking up 7,933,661 views.

Believe us; you don’t want to miss this festival for the world! Let the MADNESS begin!

 

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Boryeong Mud Festival 2013, Seoul

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Boryeong Mud FestivalThe Boryeong Mud Festival is an annual festival that takes place at Daecheon Beach in Boryeing for over a period of two weeks in the month of July. Boryeing is a town that’s located around 200 km south of Seoul, South Korea.

Every year, more than 3 million visitors – in and out of Korea – descend to the beach to partake in this mud fest. This year will mark the 16th Mud Festival; and will be held from 19 to 28 July, 2013.

How did it all begin?

Back in the ‘90s, the people of Boryeong discovered that the sediment in the mudflats is wonderful for the skin. The mud is considered to be rich in minerals. So, they developed a range of cosmetic products out of it. To promote the products, they held an event – an event to convince the public that it was indeed OK to rub the mud on the face and body.

It was soon discovered that the mud is more lucrative as a tourist attraction than using it (the muddy fields) for agriculture. The Festival has grown incredibly popular ever since – attracting lots of international visitors.

What exactly is the event all about?

For the event, the mud near Boryeong is dug up, trucked to the Daecheon Beach area, and dumped at a ‘Mud Experience Land’.

The fun then begins with the introduction of pools of mud, slides, mud paints, wrestling pits, inflatable bounce obstacles courses, as well as other contests and games. Then there’s the mud prison for those who want to serve (mock) jail time!

At sunset, the beach comes alive under the stars with the festival-goers cooling off from the daytime’s exciting events. Music, singing, dancing, street parades, cultural performances, concerts and fireworks display on the beach follow all through the night.

There’s no restriction for the fest; everyone can participate in the mud marathons. From sliding down a hundred foot super mud slide to wrestling competitions to mud body-painting contest and mud sculpture contest, there’s just so many things you can partake in. Talk about having a good, clean erm… dirty fun!

Highlights for 2013

For this year's event, a huge mud tub, various mud slides, coloured mud zone, mud attack, mud fountain and a lot more mud activities await you.

Are ya ready to get dirty? It’s going to be MUDTASTIC!

 

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Pflasterspektakel Festival 2013, Austria

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Pflasterspektakel Festival

The Pflasterspektakel (pavement spectacle in German) is a very popular street art festival celebrated annually in Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. It is truly a world-leading art festival with participants coming from more than 30 countries.

The festival is a 3-days event that takes place every second half of July – with artists performing at around 40 locations throughout the city of Linz – around the mains square and the Landstraße. Only in case of rain does the event move to the old city hall and other indoor locations.

In its very first year in 1987, about 150 musicians took part. Today, there are more than 400 different acts, coming from all over the world.

Features of the street festival

The event starts with an opening ceremony on a Thursday at 4 p.m.; and at 2 p.m. on the following Friday and Saturday until midnight. Partying and other informal activities carry on into the morning hours.

The main features of this festival include musical acts, juggling, acrobatics, pantomime, magic shows, improvisational theatre, clownery, fire dancing, painting, puppet shows, samba parades, theatre in caravans, wooden marionettes etc.

It also has various small parades and a variety of events and programmes for children.

Sponsorship and Donations

The event is funded by the municipality along with Radio Oberösterreich, local newspapers, and a bank.

The artists derive their main income from the visitors’ donations; except for their travel costs, accommodation, breakfast, and 25 Euros of cash for their expenses per day. So make sure you donate generously so that we can keep this unique event alive for the future generations to enjoy.

This year’s event will make its 27th festival edition; and will take place from the 18th to 20th July 2013.

 

Image credit: Gnal

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Saint Simeon Monastery Tour

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St Simeon Monastery

The Saint Simeon Monastery is now an abandoned site that is located on the west bank of the Aswan. It is a remarkable collection of ancient buildings that sit in the middle of nowhere. The stone and mud-brick of the surviving walls and buildings blend in with the surrounding dramatic landscape.

The Saint Simeon Monastery is known locally as Anba Hatre and the Arabic name for the saint is Deir Anba Sim’an. The best way (and the generally accepted mode) to get there is on the back of a camel, which takes about 25 minutes. Slogging it out on foot is unadvisable because of the heat and the effort of trudging through the sand.

The monastery is named after a fourth century ascetic who, the legend goes, on the day of his wedding witnessed a passing funeral procession. Inspired by this chance encounter, he decided not to lose his virginity. He thereupon undertook a frugal and abstinent lifestyle and removed himself to Anba Hatre. He was just eighteen and I wonder what his ditched bride thought of those decisions.  

Whether the monastery dates from his time is still unclear but by the sixth and seventh centuries there was an established settlement as evidenced by some remarkably well-preserved wall paintings on the rock caves from that time. More additions and building took place in the first part of the eleventh century.

It became one of the largest Coptic Monasteries in Egypt housing over a thousand inhabitants. However, by the end of the thirteenth century it was abandoned and the reasons have never been properly determined. Despite some depredations and raids by various marauders much of the structures still remain remarkably intact.

The archetypal domed Christian church and tower is the best architectural example of its type. There are a large number of tombstones and rock cells with stone beds for the monks.  There are numerous living and working quarters and walled lookout towers. The lower levels are marked by covered arched walkways acting as ventilation systems making for a cool environment.

In addition there are pottery and brick making kilns providing insights into Aswan techniques. A small number of wall paintings survive from the eleventh and twelfth centuries with evidence of even older paintings that behind them.

Your tour of the Saint Simeon Monastery (Anba Hatre) usually lasts for about two hours. It is time well spent yet too short to fully appreciate the long, colourful and still barely understood history of the place. The peace, quiet and lovely views of the river do give you some inkling why the monastery was a great place to meditate, study the scriptures and look for the meaning to life…
 

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10 Facts about Bastille Day and its Celebration

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Bastille Day

Bastille Day —celebrated on 14 July—is a special day for France as it symbolises the beginning of democracy and freedom of the people. It is the French National day and is called La Fete Nationale in French.

The Bastille is a medieval fortress and prison in Paris. On July 14, 1789, an outraged group of Parisians stormed the Bastille. This was a pivotal event of the French Revolution—marking the beginning of the end of the French Royalty and the beginning of the modern republic.

Events and Tradition
The day is celebrated with military parades, fireworks, festivals, communal meals, parties and dances.  It also includes large picnics and musical performances.

Although every city, town and village throughout the country celebrates the day, the largest celebration is in Paris, where a parade marches past the famous Champs Elysées, in front of the President of the Republic, French officials and foreign guests. At the end of the parade the French President and many foreign ambassadors wait and greet the military.

The day then ends in style with an awe-inspiring fireworks display at the country’s most iconic landmark – the Eiffel Tower.

10 Facts about Bastille Day
1. Bastille comes from the French word bastide, which means stronghold. It was formally known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine.

2. As the opening victory in the revolution, the storming of the Bastille is today celebrated as a national holiday.

3. The French National Anthem called la Marseillaise is a revolutionary song.

4. France's tricolour flag (blue, red and white) was introduced during the Revolution. The three colours represent the ideals of the French people – Liberte Egalite Fraternite (liberty, equality and fraternity) for all citizens.

5. There were only 7 prisoners at the Bastille when the people of Paris stormed on July 14th, 1789.

6. The Man in the Iron Mask was a Bastille prisoner from 1698 to 1703.

7. The famous philosopher and writer, Voltaire, and The Marquis de Sade were also prisoners of the Bastille.

8.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin has a large Bastille Day celebration downtown that lasts four days. They even have a 43 foot tall replica of the Eiffel Tower! Other US cities famous for their celebrations of this day include New Orleans, New York, and Chicago.

9. The famous bicycle race —the Tour de France—takes place during Bastille Day.

10. The Key to the Bastille was presented to George Washington in 1790. It was built by Charles V between 1370 and 1383.


Happy Bastille Day!
 

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Algarve Safari Tour

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Algarve Safari Tour

Taking a jeep or 4×4 buggy safari through the Algarve feels like you are bumping along some remote dusty North African desert region. That sensation is in the name too. Algarve is a translation from the Arabic meaning “the West.” The Algarve is at the southern tip of Portugal and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were not in Europe.

That exotic feeling is further accentuated by a sense of adventure as you jolt and jounce in your jeep across pebbly streams, through sandy, dusty and scrub dotted tracks. It doesn’t matter from where you start your Algarve Safari you have about 2,090 square miles of potential fun and excitement. It is also the best way to see this region and get you away from the beaches and the crowds.

There is one thing you learn very quickly as your open vehicle roars through the fabulous scenery – you shouldn’t have worn white! The dust thrown up your jeep and the others in the convoy will soon change it.

Going on an Algarve safari is an opportunity to see spectacular parts of the country you would not otherwise have seen or imagined. Adventure and thrills aside the safari will take you into the interior with its winding un-metalled roads; tiny white-washed villages that pop up out of nowhere; past orange and lemon orchards interspersed with stands of eucalyptus.

Another one of the attractive aspects of getting on an Algarve tour is the chance to have lunch in a traditional village or a local restaurant – a meal that includes the famous chicken piri-piri. If you are up to it you could try out a glass of medronho – the potent local “firewater.” You will see how the rural people of Portugal get along and glimpse their way of life.

There are several versions of an Algarve safari. Some will combine a boat trip along with the jeep ride. Others include a day surfing and swimming in the itinerary. There is a half day tour that starts in the evening. This one is best enjoyed if there it is a moonlit night.

There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way as the jeep drivers make regular stops when you can sip some refreshment and (possibly) give one’s bottom a break from all the bouncing. It is also a great time to bond with your fellow safari travellers.

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San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain

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San Fermin

The fiesta of San Fermin is a deeply-rooted celebration —held from 6 to 14 July every year—in the city of Pamplona, Spain. It is celebrated in honour of Saint Fermine, patron of Navarra, and is locally known as Sanfermines.

The festival is a celebration of many traditional and folkloric events including the most popular encierro, or 'the running of the bulls'. Its events and worldwide fame, along with its attraction of a vast number of visitors from around the world are closely related to the description in Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Sun Also Rises.

The rave-up basically is about the consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages (sangria), music, bullfighting and partying.

The ceremonial process

The San fermin Festival starts at noon on 6 July each year and is marked by setting off the pyrotechnic chupinazo – a ceremonial rocket or the explosion of rocket from the balcony of the city hall at midday.

From the 7th to the 14th, the encierro – letting loose the bulls through some of the streets of the old part of the city take place when the clock on the church of San Cernin strikes 8 o'clock in the morning. From then on risk and excitement go hand in hand with high spirits and non-stop fun.

Running with the bulls is free but extreme caution must be exercised as it is an extremely risky sport, even considered male-only tradition. It has had 15 deaths since 1925 and most insurance don’t cover it – so you may only participate at your own risk.

The fiesta carries on with clear broth chocolate (caldico), long doughnuts (churros), the ceremonial giants (Gigantes), the aperitif and the fireworks at night; which then give way to all-night partying.

The dress code for the festival is red and white. And so for the next nine days, the streets turn into a celebration — of friendship, music, non-stop partying and open-air dances to the rhythm of the charangas and the peñas.

Tickets for the bullfight can cost anything from 25 to 70 Euros.

Closing

On the final day, i.e 14 July, thousands of people once again gather in the Town Hall Square with lighted candles and singing "Pobre de mí" (Poor me), to send off the Sanfermines until the next year.

Although most tourists know the festival as ‘The Running of the Bulls’, it is actually the party atmosphere, the celebration of life and the overall experience of the full-on Spanish fiesta that makes visiting Pamplona during San Fermin such an exciting and memorable one.

Have you booked your tickets yet?

Image credit: Rufino Lasaosa

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British Summer Time Hyde Park

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Barclaycard British Summer Time Hyde Park

We aren’t even done nursing the hang-over from the Glastonbury festival yet, but there’s gonna be another exciting mini-festival at London’s Hyde Park already! How about 10 awesome days of music and entertainment?! Yep, that’s right; be prepared – for there will be entertainment galore over back to back weekends!

Barclaycard presents the first-ever British Summer Time Hyde Park – a fabulous summer concert series – from Friday 5th July to Sunday 14th July 2013; with Bon Jovi headlining followed by The Rolling Stones.

In addition to these headliners, top-class support acts will be performed across 4 different stages by such artists as Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Kaiser Chiefs, The Vaccines, Palma Violets, Bush, Tribes, Jake Bugg, Tom Odell, Chic. Featuring Nile Rodgers, Eliza Doolittle, Beverley Knight, Charlie Simpson, The Temper Trap, Gary Clark Jnr, All The Young, Leogun, Rival Sons, Little Barrir, The Coronas, The Virginmarys and many more…

The event includes a village green with a pub and farmers’ market. There will be four themed zones across the park, each with its own installations and entertainment including restaurants, bespoke salons, pubs, cocktail bars, cafes, bistros and food stalls.

What’s unique about this BST Hyde Park event?
Each live music-packed weekend will be sandwiched by a midweek programme of various entertainments. From Monday to Thursday, visitors will get the chance to be involved with smaller events including film, music, sport, literature, specific family day etc. to expand the Barclaycard presents British Summer Time Hyde Park experience to genuinely appeal to the whole family.

There will be three zones during the week: The Village Green (that offers a rural retreat in the city), the Piazza (that captures the atmosphere of a buzzing European square) and the Carnival (appreciation of the spirit of Hispania, South America and the Caribbean), which will all be free to access from 8 to 11 July.

There will also be four nights of live comedy in The Barclaycard Unwind Theatre that will include such big name as Russell Kane.

For full line-ups for the concert, check out the official website.

When: 5th to 14th July 2013
Where: Hyde Park, Rangers Lodge, Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH
Nearest Tube: Knightsbridge Station

ARE YOU READY FOR MORE FUN, LONDON?!

 

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White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia

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White nights - View of Neva river and raised Palace Bridge

St. Petersburg – the city that never sets. At least not in the summer.

Being located in one of the world’s most northern cities, it means that the city never really gets dark during the months of June and July. You can walk about between 10pm to 5am without ever needing a street light! Talk about an ideal setting for romantic outings! No other European city can rival this experience of walking along the banks of the rivers and canals in broad daylight, no matter what time of the day it is!

White Nights Festival
During this season of the midnight sun, St. Petersburg annually hosts one of the greatest art festivals in the world to honour a rare event: the White Nights (or Belye nochi as the Russians call it). The festival – organised by the Saint Petersburg City Administration – starts at Mariinsky Theatre in May and ends in July (usually from the 2nd half of May till the 2nd half of July); although some performances connected to the festival take place before and after the official dates.

The White Nights Festival starts with the awesome production of “Stars of the White Nights” – a series of several classical ballet, opera and orchestral performances, and music events that include performances by Russian dancers, singers, musicians and actors. There are famous international guest stars too! By day, locals revel in the heat and the outdoors and by twilight or light-washed night, the concerts and partying come to life.

Features of the Festival
There are several features of the festival; with Scarlet Sails being the high point of the White Nights revelry. Scarlet Sails includes spectacular fireworks, concerts, and massive water show. This tradition eventually evolves to being the most popular public annual event that celebrates the end of school year or freedom from “schools and rules”.  

Another prominent feature of the White Nights Festivals is the carnivals that take place in the Peterhof suburb of St. Petersburg where actors dressed in period costumes – times from Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

Conclusion
So you can see there’s certainly no better time to visit St. Petersburg than during the festival. But be warned though; due to its popularity, tickets are always almost sold out in advance. If you are lucky enough to get tickets on the spot after your arrival, then be prepared to pay an exorbitant amount!

While staying for the whole Festival is a bit impractical, you won’t regret partaking in a few of the events that encapsulate the best of the best performances. Being part of Russia’s biggest celebration will definitely be one of your major highs – an experience to experience!
 

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