Why Christmas Markets in Cologne, Germany are simply magical

This year I’ve visited quite a few different Christmas markets. Lovely Christmas markets – by all means – but maybe a bit too much in a short matter of time..so much that I was starting to feel like I’d overdosed on Christmas and worried about coming down with the worst hangover ever. I didn’t want to be the Grinch, but sometimes too much feels like too much. On top of everything, I had caught a cold which made the idea of traveling to visit yet another Christmas market seem rather exhausting.

That was until I went to Cologne in Germany this week.

Spellbound by the charm and the authenticity of the markets located in this wonderful city, I had regained my Christmas spirit and tossed away my inner Grinch.

Each of these six markets has its unique style. Although the one in front of Cathedral Kölner Dom is the most well known of the city’s Christmas markets, there is absolutely no reason for you not to check out the others as well. You’ll be missing out on a simply magical experience!

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The marine themed market by the harbor looks amazing as darkness falls and lights illuminate the bridge connecting the two parts of the market separated by the river Rhine.

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The market by the Cathedral has a layer of little Christmas lights installed above all the stalls – enchanting little lights that make you feel like you’re gazing at a beautiful starry night sky.

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The Old Town market (Heimat der Heinzel) has a spectacular ice rink and lovely decorations, just enough to get you into the Holiday spirit and head to the bar for a glühwein or an eierpunsch – last one being my favorite hot beverage in Germany (hot eggnog).

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Then there’s the market that – in my opinion – is the most romantic one. With illuminated hearts decorating the trees, a cute little Ferris wheel turning in a strangely high speed for an attraction like this and plenty of cute little shops, how can you not fall in love with the market – or AT the market (the atmosphere is there, so why not?).

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The other two markets were lovely as well. I ate well (perhaps a bit too much at times), I drank well, I was in good company with my partner and his family, we laughed, we bought cute little gifts, we sang, we smiled.

Thank you Cologne – Thank you Germany. Thank you for getting me into the Holiday Spirit. I’ll see you again, next year!

Until then, let these photos inspire you.

Photos from the market by the harbor

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Photos from Neumarkt (the market of the angels)

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Photos from the Old Town market (Heimat der Heinzel)

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…and the romantic one right next to that market

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Photos from the Nikolausdorf market

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And let’s not forget the market by the Kölner Dom

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Art is all around? Guided tour with Street Art Paris

tour was complimentary, but opinions are all my own

who: Street Art Paris

what: guided walking tour, discover street art in Paris

where: Belleville (meeting point 107 rue Oberkampf)

why: Discover Paris from a different angle and learn interesting facts about Parisian street art and artists (local ones and visitors)

Is all graffiti vandalism? Is all street art graffiti? What exactly is street art anyway – and is it really an important part of Parisian culture?

For centuries, the city of Paris has been an inspirational and educational source for creative souls and have attracted artists from all around the world. As a result, Paris has acquired a reputation as the “City of Art”. The city is known for the famous art displayed in the famous Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and the famous architectural style of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomph. Mainstream community have mixed feelings about the city’s street art – and some may even refer to it as vandalism. Thankfully, times are changing. History is changing. And recent events have made it more clear than ever that we need the freedom of opinion and expression. And what better way to express yourself than through art? Isn’t that what the famous paintings displayed in the Louvre were all about, as well? This is why it’s important that you take a minute to appreciate the underground creative community. This is the art of today.

107 Rue Oberkampf, the guided tour’s meeting point. This is no coincidental address. This is the location of Le MUR (the wall), which once was a billboard site – now a contemporary urban art spot which has since 2007 been an officially sanctioned street exhibition space. In France there are currently 14 walls like Le MUR. Twice per month an artist is commissioned to fill Le MUR with a new piece of art for the public to enjoy. We got there just in time for the transformation of an empty black wall to a fascinating piece by Toulouse-based artist Snake (visit the website of Le MUR or go to rue Oberkampf yourself to see the finished piece!)

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I’m sure you’ve heard of the clothing brand OBEY. Founded by American street artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey, who first became known for his “André the giant has a posse”(OBEY) sticker campaign and gained wide recognition for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster in 2008. Today, Fairey has an impressive resumé with work included in the collections at the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert museum in London – and many others. We found André the giant on two different locations.

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Chiotte is the vulgar slang word for toilet in French. Which is why the logo of local street artist Chiot is, well, toilets. You migh have to look up to see his art, as these colorful toilets are most often painted on chimneys. The artist works at night with absolutely no security and is a highly respected one in the community.

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Kashink is one of the few active female artists in the French street art scene. Her signature style is the huge four eyed characters with thick lines and bright colors. She only paints men – and she paints them fat, hairy and often gay. This piece was painted illegally – at daytime!

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Moving on to Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, popular site for street artists but most recently known as one of the sites for the attacks in November last year. Street artists made it their mission to recreate an atmosphere of peace and unity and draw positive attention to this street – which is very similar to what people did at Place de la Republique after the attacks, when they decorated the square with flowers, candles and letters to their loved ones. At the end of the day, we’re all the same, we all want peace and happiness. We just have different ideas of what our decoration should look like.

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I don’t know who did this one, so if you happen to know – please comment below so I can credit the artist.

If you live in Paris, you may have seen these bicycles – well, what’s left of them – before. He calls himself Ride in Peace, a French artist and bike courier who fixed a lot of old bikes to use them for art displays like these.

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This is the signature style of Manolo Mesa, a Spanish artist who paints with a stick and is famous for using the “ghost effect”.

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I absolutely love this mural. The theme is Nepal and the art is created by Doudou Style and Pearl (the girl and the panda). French artist Pearl specializes in realistic portraits and finds inspiration in African art. Doudou Style is a Parisian painter, graphic designer, illustrator and animator.

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Tucked in a side alley in Belleville,  you’ll find Rue Dénoyez – the most important street in Paris for the graffiti community. The entire street is one big canvas and it is perfectly legal to paint there. Some of the artwork found on this street is simply amazing, like this portrait by Manyoly, an artist from Marseille who finds inspiration in photos she’s taken of women she met on her travels.

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This one’s by Eddie Colla, an American artist known for his wheat paste and stencil art. He often paints humans with masks, like this one.

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Place Fréhel, which is often referred to as “the missing tooth”, is a square that didn’t exist before the collapse of buildings on Rue de Belleville in 1986 turned it into a no man’s land. For a long time it was just a place without a purpose, but it is now used as a public garden and a canvas for street artists. The most famous art found on this square has been there almost ever since the year Place Fréhel became what it is. This piece is by French artist Benjamin Vautier aka Ben and the phrase written is French for “beware of words”.

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This piece was painted by art teacher and painter Jean Le Gac and portrays a detective searching for x-street. I’m sure the joke must sound better in French.

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And here’s a more recent piece. Titled “we are late”, by Pox.

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Intra Larue is an interesting artist. This French woman gives a feminine touch to Paris and to all the places she visits – with her boob sculptures. These sculptures are always painted differently and placed high and low on random locations.

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The city of Paris is also decorated with something else I’m sure you’ve noticed on various locations. Meet Invader , the artist behind the mosaic “pixel art” and the mobile application game that lets you collect points as you discover these little guys. Kind of like Pokemon Go, isn’t it?

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Our guide, Virginie, took us to the Belleville park – a park you’d only really know about if you live in the nearby area. This piece is a commissioned artwork created by talented local artist Seth.

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More by Seth (the maison de l’air building)

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This powerful piece of art is by Wild Drawing, an Indonesian artist based in Greece. The piece was made to honor the victims of terrorism.

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The tour guide obviously saved us some of the best for last, when taking us to see the mural with current theme “The dream”. This gorgeous piece by Hopare was done completely free hand.

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Do you recognize this lady? It’s FKA Twigs. The piece was made by talented artist Alex .

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Credits to Street Art Paris – for sharing all knowledge about these artists and their work. If you happen to be in Paris and want something fun and educational to do on a weekend – why not book a street art tour like this one? And if you’re a creative type interested in learning the art of graffiti, check out their graffiti mural workshops!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Ancient Ruins of Athens, Greece

Ah, Greece. The fascinating country with an even more fascinating history – and mythology. Travel back in time and imagine the city as it was during the classical period of ancient Greece. Back when Athens was the center for the arts, learning and philosophy.

Visit the ruins  of what once was a spectacular library. Visit the ruins of the many temples built in honor of the Greek gods and goddesses. Visit the ancient cemetery. Ancient theaters. The stadium. For the love of Zeus – just put on some good shoes, bring your camera and visit absolutely everything!

I visited Athens with my significant other. What was supposed to be a relaxing beach vacation on the outskirts of Athens, turned out to be more of an educational city trip instead. After just a day of doing nothing, we both realized how difficult it is for two restless adventure-seekers to be able to enjoy a full week of laziness, so we decided to take the local bus (KTEL) to Cape Sounio (photos below) to see the beautiful ruins of the Temple of Poseidon. Two days later we took the bus the opposite direction, to the city of Athens where we spent a complete day exploring the city. Two days later, we went back to the city for another full day of exploring monuments, ruins and everything else that makes Athens as fascinating as it is. In Athens, you never really run out of things to do.

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As we got off the bus in Athens we were kind of clueless as to where to start – and we didn’t even know where we were, except that we were somewhat close to the Acropolis. Turned out we were right in front of the Parliament House – just in time to see the changing of the guard. A fun experience for tourists. And it’s totally free. Too bad I forgot to take pictures of the ceremony.

We continued to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where we were given the option to buy individual tickets to see the temple only – or a package which allows you to visit multiple sites on the same ticket. We already knew we wanted to visit the Acropolis anyway, so we went with the package deal. Considering we ended up visiting every single site listed on the ticket, we definitely made the right decision – which also saved us a lot of money!

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While on our way to the next site, we made a quick stop to photograph the Arch of Hadrian, a monumental gateway between the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the rock of the Acropolis. Speaking of Acropolis; did you know that the word acropolis comes from the Greek words “akron” (highest point) and “polis” (city)?

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Ancient citadel, historical Acropolis was as captivating as I expected it to be. But also as crowded – and under renovation. Even with cranes, workers and selfie-taking tourists blocking the full view, visiting these ruins is a magical experience unlike any other. I overheard tourists comparing it to Rome, but this is nothing like Rome. This is Athens. They are both beautiful cities and might have certain similarities, but you shouldn’t compare. The Greek gods would not approve of comments like that. I don’t know about you, but when in Greece, I think it’s a good idea not to mess with them!

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The Parthenon, a former temple on the Acropolis. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena.

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Built at the foot of the Acropolis, there’s the Theater of Dionysus. It was used as a theater since the sixth century Before Christ, and has recently been brought back to life as it has been renovated and will apparently be hosting more and more theater performances in the future.

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As fascinating as the ruins are, there’s also another reason to visit the Acropolis. Just check out this gorgeous view over the city!

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After visiting the Acropolis, we walked down the hill – only to walk up another one, to get a great view over the Acropolis from a distance. While on top of the Areopagus rock (Areopagus translates to “Ares’ Hill”) we enjoyed the view – together with a bunch of other tourists. A lot of tourists visit this rock because it was, supposedly, from this location Apostle Paul had delivered his famous speech, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands”.

We didn’t hang out there for too long as we were both starting to feel quite thirsty and slightly tired. We needed to sit down somewhere, preferably a nice little cafe or restaurant – with an ice-cold, refreshing beverage.

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We wanted to visit Hadrian’s Library the same day, but had to save it for later as it was closed by the time we got there. On our second day trip to Athens, we did indeed get to visit this library created by Roman Emperor Hadrian. Once the largest library in Athens, now only ruins are left.img_20161011_212110

We also visited the Temple of Hephaestus. I was surprised by how well-preserved this temple is!

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The last site we visited was Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery of Athens which is an archaeology site and museum….and for some reason it’s also the home of land turtles? At least we found five individual turtles wandering around the site, happy and healthy.

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Have a Magical Day in Disneyland Paris

Magical. Nostalgic.Disney will always hold a special place in my heart. Not just because I grew up watching Disney-movies and idolizing the beautiful Disney princesses and crushing on their handsome princes, but also because I spent one of the most amazing years of my life working at Disney World. So did it really come as a surprise that I would eventually visit Disneyland Paris? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s good for the soul to take a trip down memory lane and release ones inner child!

Entering Disneyland requires a lot of patience. Just like any other Disney park. The lines are always extremely long, even if you get there about an hour before the park opens. It’s a good warm up exercise, though – as you’ll be spending an awful lot of time standing in line for most of the attractions anyway. But it’s all worth it – it really is!

Time-travel to the 1920’s as you stroll along the Main Street USA and hang out in the Town Square. Buy some cute little souvenirs and a sweet treat and enjoy yourself.

Did you know that the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was inspired by the water-based Disney-attraction? This spectacular ride is waiting for you, right here in Disneyland Paris (as well as in Tokyo and Magic Kingdom). I’m usually not a big fan of drops – in fact I hate them – but the drops are such a small part of this visually amusing ride, that it’s all worth it. When you’re a scaredy-cat like me, it’s not really easy and  not always enjoyable to visit theme parks with a group of friends or family. At certain parks I’ve spent all day being the bag-holder while waiting for my friends to finish, so we could go home and get it over with. That’s not magical. That wouldn’t happen at Disneyland. In the Disney parks there’s something for everyone.Even for me.

For example, I absolutely love the delightful and slow “It’s a small world” ride. What a cute portrayal of world peace and unity. The Snow White attraction and the Pinocchio ride were both nice as well, although I think I would have enjoyed them more if I was twenty years younger. Alice’s Curious Labyrinth is kind of fun if you find your way out of the labyrinth without too much hassle. If not, well, you’ll find it rather annoying and frustrating.

Dining in Disneyland Paris is kind of a downer when you’re used to the variety found in Disney World. Apparently, the restaurants used to have different themes and serve different food – but now it’s all burgers, fries and same old dull food almost everywhere. I’d rather enjoy a large breakfast, skip lunch and dine in Disney Village instead. Or stuff my face with pastries – because, hey, it’s Disneyland and I’m here to release my inner child.

The Castle of the Sleeping Beauty is as enchanting as the Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom, and the fireworks are as amazing as any fireworks display by Disney.

Can you feel the magic?

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A weekend in Luxembourg

On a beautiful weekend in mid-May, my better half took me on a surprise trip to a destination unknown. It was my birthday that weekend, and he knew exactly what I wanted for my big day. The idea of packing my suitcase with absolutely no idea where I’m headed to, while someone else takes care of everything has actually been a fantasy of mine for a long time. Usually I find not knowing and not organizing things on my own, to be a somewhat stressful affair. And yet I love surprises. As much as I hate not knowing. What a paradox. I was told to get in the car with an open mind and a suitcase packed with whatever I would have worn had we stayed home in Paris that weekend. Traffic signs gave away a few hints along the road. We were not headed to the airport. We were not headed south, nor west. The large crossroads close to the border suggested Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg or Eastern France. I was clueless. They all seemed like good options to me!

And shortly after, there we were. Luxembourg City, the capital of the country by the same name. A small rural country, peaceful and green. The capital city is famed for its medieval old town, perched on sheer cliffs. A small country, but a country rich in history. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg contains around fifty historical castles – more than a hundred if you ask those who also consider the old manor houses as castles.

We spent the first day strolling around, exploring and photographing Luxembourg City. What really caught the eye was the Palais Grand-Ducal, a beautiful palace in the city center. We were obviously not the only ones who were fascinated by it, as it was surrounded by tourists taking pictures or smiling for the camera. There seemed to be some sort of an EU-festival happening in Luxembourg that day – as plenty of locals were waving European Union-flags, marching bands were parading the streets and women in traditional costumes were handing out flyers. Although we had no idea exactly what they were celebrating, it was fun to be there and take part of it.

We wanted to try local specialties while we were there, but we couldn’t find the very few things that were supposed to be traditional dishes from Luxembourg on any restaurant menu at all. So we went to a restaurant called Urban and had burgers instead. And we had burgers again the next day, from an equally great burger restaurant; Snooze. So, I did’t learn much about the local cuisine in Luxembourg, but they sure know how to make delicious, gourmet burgers!

The next day was spent visiting a few castles. The New Castle of Ansembourg and its spectacular garden was our first visit. It started to rain towards the end of the visit, but lucky as we were, we managed to visit the garden entirely before getting soaked. The next one on the list, was also the last one – due to the weather. The Vianden castle is set on a rocky promontory, overlooking the river Our and dominating the town of Vianden. We only saw it from afar – again, due to the weather -and went to grab a drink in a cafe downtown, while waiting for the rain to stop.

The weather didn’t clear up that day. The following day was, however, sunny and nice. What a lovely birthday present from the higher powers. What wasn’t as lovely, was the present from the police; a parking ticket due to illegal parking. Parking was free of charge during the weekend – but the weekend was over. It was Monday morning.

We left Luxembourg City to go somewhere else – for another surprise. A concert at edgy, new venue Rockhal in Esch sur Alzette (still Luxembourg). Hans Zimmer, the well-known German composer, whose works include The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, and more. The show was fantastic. At times I was misty-eyed and had goosebumps – that’s how amazing it was. Applause to you, Hans Zimmer. I haven’t felt this emotional since I saw another famous composer, John Williams (works include music from Spielberg’s movies) in concert.

From being a small country I knew little to nothing about, to a country where I have now spent my birthday and created wonderful memories together with my partner, I now smile when I think of Luxembourg.

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New Castle of Ansembourg

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Vianden (town and castle)

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A different side of Warsaw, Poland

When you think of Poland, do you think about Kraków? Do you think about vodka? Do you think about unpronounceable names with too many consonants and not enough vowels? Well, let me give you something new to think about.

Welcome to Warsaw, the capital city of my favorite Eastern European country (because I’m half Polish and obviously biased). Welcome to a diverse, cosmopolitan city and its young, vibrant environment. It’s not all young and urban here, though. There’s still the Old Town with its beautiful ancient architecture, and the historical royal palaces and their parks on the outskirts of the city. I’m gonna talk more about some of those.

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My favorite park is the Lazienki Park, which is the largest park in Warsaw. It was designed in the 17th century, and the palace on the water – Lazienki Palace – is a must see while visiting this picturesque park. What is the history of this marvelous palace and park complex, you may ask. It was built as a summer residence for King Stanislaw August, and was later used by the President of Poland. Today, its a museum and a venue for cultural, scientific and entertainment events. Speaking of which; from May to September – at noon and at 4 pm – free outdoor Chopin concerts take place there. Take the bus (116, 166, 180) from the central train/bus station to Lazienki Królewskie and check it out!

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Another park I’ve fallen in love with is the garden of the historic Wilanów palace – the “Polish Versailles”, and second home to various Polish kings. Just like the Lazienki Palace, the Wilanów Palace is also open for tourists to visit as a museum. Take the bus (519 or 700) from the central train/bus station to come here and enjoy this idyllic garden!

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After spending a full day in one of these parks, I’m sure your legs are gonna be exhausted from all the walking. And maybe you need a bit of caffeine and some sugar? And a what about a cuddle? You’re probably wondering what on earth I’m on about, and it’s not as weird as it sounds – although some people may still find it weird anyway. Follow me to Miau Cafe – the first cat cafe in Warsaw! I have never felt as calm and relaxed as I did in the lounge area of this establishment. It’s completely hygienic, as all food and drinks are prepared in a closed kitchen area – away from the furry kitties. And the cats are not crawling all over your stuff if you (or the hostess) tell them to back off.

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I’m sure some of you are interested in visiting Poland because you want to go shopping. I don’t blame you. My mother is crazy about it, so I’ve spent a whole lot of time with her inside of the malls of Warsaw searching for things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. At least it’s not that expensive to go shopping in Warsaw – although it’s way more expensive now than it used to be, before Poland became one of the fastest growing economies in the EU. Zlote Tarasy is kind of hard to miss if you come to Warsaw city center by train or bus, as it’s just across the street from the central train station. This mall has everything you need and more. All kinds of stores, a hypermarket, a food court and a movie theater.

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The other one worth checking out is the large shopping mall Arkadia , which is easy to reach by public transportation, as nine of the tram lines and six of the buses go there. Grab an ice-cold beer at the Bierhalle or one of the many ice cream desserts at Grycan. Enjoy!

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Let me ask you again; when you think of Poland, what do you think about? Did any of these things tempt you into visiting Warsaw during your next trip to Poland?

If yes, then here’s another idea for what you can do in Warsaw. Sit down in a Pierogi-restaurant, order those dumplings filled with deliciousness, raise your pint of Polish beer or your vodka-based cocktail and say “Na Zdrowie!”. You’re welcome.

 

Humane and enjoyable ZooParc de Beauval (Loire Valley, France)

I love animals. There’s no doubt about that. Zoo’s, however, is something I have mixed feelings about – depending on the zoo in question. There are those who force animals to live in small cages in terrible conditions and keep them on display from morning until late evening. With nowhere to hide. And who knows whatever happens when darkness falls? Only the staff knows.

BUT. There are humane zoo’s too. Zoo’s that truly care for animals and promote wildlife conservation and rehabilitation. Where the outdoor areas looks exactly like the animals’ natural habitat. Where they have plenty of space to run free and hide away from the public whenever they want to. ZooParc de Beauval in the Centre-Val de Loire region (France) is one of those zoo’s. It was a joy to visit this place after having watched their documentary on TV, and seeing how well they take care of their animals. They care a lot more about the well-being of the animals than profiting from the zoo. Which means I have no problem recommending it to you, your friends and anyone else who happens to be in the Loire Valley in France and is in need of something fun to do.

ZooParc de Beauval is more than just your average zoo. I had a fantastic time watching their bird show. In fact, it’s one of my top five highlights this year. I’m kind of obsessed with owls, and to have great grand dukes flying inches above my head, back and forth, was spectacular! The entire audience was amazed by the owls, the eagles and all the other majestic creatures that were flying right above us. It was an experience unlike any other.

The sea lion show was fun too, but it’s something I have seen before, elsewhere, so it didn’t blow me away as much as the bird show did. However, it was still fun to watch the sea lions doing tricks, getting fed and playing in the water with the trainers.

One of the most popular sights in ZooParc de Beauval was the new hippo pool. The water was crystal clear and you could see absolutely everything. We made it in time for feeding, and got a great view of the hippos enjoying their lunch in the water.

Did you know that in ZooParc de Beauval you can adopt an animal? Your donations will pay towards the care and treatment of your adopted animal.

One person can not save the world, but if you can help one animal, one organization or one person, then that’s a whole lot more than doing nothing at all!

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Powerful Flamenco in Barcelona

Flamenco. Sizzling hot moves, passionate and emotional music, cheerful clapping and gorgeous outfits. This Spanish art form is an experience unlike any other. 

Strong vocals. Male and female. Powerful facial expressions. I didn’t understand the Spanish lyrics but I felt the passion, the pain, the sensuality, all at once. The guitarist played mesmerizing melodies in harmony with the vocals. All the musicians had wonderful stage presence. It was a joy to watch!

The dancers were absolutely fabulous. Tapping. Clapping. Expressions. Gorgeous frilly dresses. They took us on an emotional journey and left us stunned after an intense performance. I wanted to see more. Hear more.

I gave them a big applause, complimented them on a fantastic performance and finished my sangria, before making my way out after a spectacular show.

The venue was small, which made the atmosphere seem more authentic and personal.

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If you’re planning to visit Barcelona, I highly recommend this Flamenco show at City Hall!

location: Barcelona, in a venue called City Hall (address: Rambla de Catalunya 2) 

when: Thursday to Sunday at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm – length of performance: 55 minutes

website: www.flamencobarcelona.com

(although tickets were complimentary, all opinions in this review remain my own)