Raging motorbikes, breathtaking natural wonders, a thriving art and culture community, the northern region of Vietnam is truly as stunning as it sounds. Covering the larger area of land and has all the world heritage sites, northern Vietnam is something not to be missed in your lifetime. Below are the top 8 reasons why you should see it for yourself.

1.The Capital City – Where all the magic happens

Hoan Kiem District in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem District in Hanoi

Everything about Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city can be summarized into two words; organized chaos. Countless motorbikes of all shapes and sizes, bicycles old and new, a diverse mix of pedestrians from street vendors to your retired tourists from Europe or the Americas, kids crossing the buzzing streets without any care in the world, and the ever-growing number of cars, both luxurious and mid-range, are just a few of the things you could expect roaming the streets of the old quarter. Crazy and ludicrous at it seems the city is ironically thriving and is showing nothing but continuous growth over the years; which obviously is more than enough reasons for you to make a stopover.

And since you’re already here, make sure you do some essential sightseeing such as going around the 36 old streets of Hanoi or take a stroll around HoanKiem Lake, where everyone hangs out, especially during the weekends.

2. Coffee Culture – You’ve never tasted realcoffee till you’ve tried Vietnamese coffee

Probably the most popular business idea in the country, and most probably one of the most profitable as well, the coffee culture in Vietnam is not just a morning or afternoon drink. Coffee has been super essential in the people’s lives that it is now a lifestyle. And if you don’t drink coffee at all, your friend will think you’re too uncool to hang out with.

Giang Coffe in Hanoi with their famous signature drink, the Egg Coffee
Giang Coffe in Hanoi with their famous signature drink, the Egg Coffee

Because it's superbly popular amongst the youngsters and even their older counterparts, cafés are found in every corner of each street in the country. You’ll be surprised if you end up in an alley with zero cafés on sight. Aside from the countless number of cafés popping up every day all over the region, there is also an increasing number of creative mixes of coffees and such in the region; which somehow turned into tourism products like the Egg Coffee. Check out Giang Coffee House here.

3. Thousand Years of History – Chinese, French, Japanese, American, wait, what?

Bai Dinh Buddhist temples in Ninh Bình province, Vietnam
Bai Dinh Buddhist temples in Ninh Bình province

For thousands of years, Vietnam had to struggle and survive under the rule of different colonizers, from the early Chinese empires to the end of the American War in mid-1970s. Although they are all long gone for some decades now, there’s no doubt that all of them have left marks everywhere, especially in the northern region, where a lot of these iconic events happened.

As a first-time visitor of Vietnam, it’s no doubt that visiting the north is a good introduction to the country. There are many things to learn about and a lot of stories to tell, specifically in the northern region as it’s been around longer than the southern counterpart. With the mix of cultures, languages, traditions, and even ways of living, there will always be something to learn every day when traveling across the cities.

4. The European Touch – Experience the Southeast Asian gem through the eyes of the west

Hanoi Opera House built by French in 1911
Hanoi Opera House, built by French in 1911

The French has left so much influence in the northern part of Vietnam. From its architecture, urban planning, bridges, gastronomy, fashion, and even the lifestyle, there is no way a European would not be so surprised with the similarities between the two nations.

Northerners are typically viewed as the more sophisticated and more eloquent Vietnamese because of their daily habits, the way they live, and the things they spend on, especially when it comes to fashion trends and dining activities. But I guess you’d have come over yourself for you to experience it. There’s definitely nothing else like it in Southeast Asia.

5. Classical Art Scene – Fancy an opera on a Wednesday evening, a musical on a Friday afternoon, and a ballet on Sunday after brunch?

Water painting museum in Vietnam
Water-Painting Museum

One of the main reasons why we love the northern region is because of this, the classical art scene. Sometimes loud, but most of the time it’s underground. Growing up in a socialist regime surrounded by the brightest and the most cultured individuals in the country, northern Vietnam is the place to visit for classical arts and culture. And if you’re the type of person who likes the finest things in life, someone who appreciates arts, paintings, musicals, operas, ballets, and Sunday brunches, then you’re making the right decision to come over here.

Thanks again to the European influence and its preservation throughout generation after generation, these things have been kept alive long enough for everybody to enjoy, both for locals and foreigners.

6. Imperial Vietnam – Where did all the Nguyen’s go?

Imperial Citadel in Hanoi, Vietnam
Imperial Citadel in Hanoi

You might have noticed, or probably you’ll notice once you get to Vietnam that the word "Nguyen" is displayed everywhere in the country. Even more so when you visit the northern area most probably because it originated in the imperial capital of Hue. As many might wonder, the word Nguyen is the most popular family name in the country and the last empire to rule Imperial Vietnam.

Whether you’re a history buff or not, knowing just a bit of information about how the Vietnamese emperors ruled the country, even when it was divided into two, can be an insightful lesson when visiting the northern region. The best places to visit to find more information about the imperial period can be found in two cities, Hanoi capital and Hue.

7. Unlimited Food Adventures – Where rice and noodles are man’s best friends

Pho is a noodle dish and the most famous (and most delicious) of all Vietnamese food
Pho, the most famous Vietnamese noodle dish

Being one of the top exporters of rice all over the globe, the whole of Vietnam obviously survives on rice and noodles all-year-long. From the simplest Com Binh Dan to an upscale Vietnamese gourmet restaurant, you will never go hungry in this part of the world. And with the northern region having the most diverse options for gastronomy and dining, the opportunities for you to be able to taste the most genuine Vietnamese dishes are endless.

Whether you fancy the not-so-adventurous dishes such as Pho or Bun Cha to the extremes like deep-fried snake meat or barbecued dog meat, the possibilities and options are insanely vast. Expect moments where you’ll start questioning your own taste buds and probably even your mom’s cooking. All in all, Vietnam is bursting with the best culinary to offer not only in Asia, but also on a global scale.

8. Unworldly Landscapes – Discover the world of Hollywood Films

Halong Bay in Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site   (photo gallery)

Possibly the best reason why you need to spend most of your travel time in the northern region of Vietnam, to discover the unworldly landscapes and sceneries as seen in some notable Hollywood films such as the recent Kong: Skull Island. Witness the towering limestone karst rocks of Halong Bay on a luxury cruise, do a short boat trip while immersing yourself in the serene landscapes of Ninh Binh province, and walk through staggering terrains of Phong Nha-Ke Bang cave systems, there is never a shortage of adventures to enlist yourself into.

Accesses to these world wonders have never been easier. Thus, there’s no reason for you not to be able to do it at least once in your lifetime.

Published in Vietnam

Exploring the fjords and glaciers. Embracing the midnight sun. Breathtaking scenery and one of the homes of the Northern Lights. A vibrant sauna culture. Yes, Norway is known for a lot of things. However the country is not known for its one-of-a-kind museums, eccentric artists and lust for liquor. But maybe it should be. The next time you find yourself in Oslo, make sure to check out at least one of the unique and offbeat destinations:

  But first a gift for all you Pinterest addicts...

All the quirky, unique and offbeat things to do in Oslo, Norway

The Mini Bottle Gallery

When you think of a glass bottle collection, do you think or of ships and other miniatures inside of bottles? Regardless of which answer you picked, this is the place for you! Welcome to The Mini Bottle Gallery, the only museum of its kind in the world. It is home to over 50,000 bottles of all shapes, sizes and designs.

The unique and offbeat Mini Bottle Gallery in Oslo, Norway, is home to a collection of over 50,000 bottles, the world's largest

The owner is a fourth generation descendent of the Ringnes brewery founders and one of Norway's most affluent businessmen. His love of bottles started as a kid upon receiving a half bottle of gin as a gift and has grown over the years into a massive collection.

In spring of 2000, Ringnes purchased a building in the heart of Oslo, and three years later the museum opened. Most bottles are full of alcohol but others have fruits, berries, even animals. Public hours are limited to between noon and 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays only, however private visits for large groups can be scheduled in advance for alternative days.

  Official Web Site

Light fixture made out of old glass bottles at the unique and one-of-a-kind Mini Bottle Gallery in Oslo, Norway
Looking up at a light fixture on the ceiling made from colored glass bottles


All those beer and liquor bottles have you craving a drink? Head on over to Torggata, specifically the blocks in between Youngs Gate and Hausmanns Gate. 6-7 years ago this was a seedy street full of trash, graffiti and drug dealers. Now it is full of trendy new restaurants and bars, and street art has replaced graffiti. Yes, Torggata has quickly become one of the hippest parts of Oslo.

The shit shop on Torggata in Oslo, Norway
Restaurants, bars and stores that sell shit. Welcome to Torggata.

Cobblestone streets. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Outdoor diners enjoying the day. And a strong emerging nightlife. This is Torggata, where McDonald's struggles and exotic foreign cuisine florishes. Jaime Pesaque, the renowned Peruvian chef with restaurants in Lima, Dubai and Milano (just to name a few), now has one in Torggata as well: Piscoteket

The entire area is full of restaurants serving different cuisines from around the world, and most of these also serve alcohol as well. However there are plenty of dedicated bars to. Just go for a stroll and stop in whatever place catches your eye. Guarantee you'll have fun!

Norwegian Museum of Magic

Traditional museums have a tendancy to be boring, it's okay, we can all agree here. That's why it is our duty as travelers to support all those strange, quirky and one-of-a-kind museums scattered around the world. My rule is this: if the museum name makes you think "WTF" then you're obligated to go inside.

Over the last two decades more and more professional magicians are worrying that their trade is dying. Some magicians are revealing the secrets behind popular tricks, to inspire a new younger generation to follow in their footsteps. Others are devising newer and more elaborate stunts with the help of modern technology. Meanwhile in Norway a group of magicians began collecting magician memorabilia to tell their story.

Free entrance to the Museum of Magic in Oslo, Norway when you attend one of the Sunday magic shows

By 2001 this collection of posters, props, photographs and gear had grown so large it needed to be moved to its own apartment (exterior pictured above). Thus Norsk Tryllemuseum, the Norway Museum of Magic, was officially born.

Note: The museum is only open on Sundays from 1pm-4pm with a magic show at 2pm. Ideally, you are supposed to go for the show and enjoy the museum as a "free bonus".

  Official Web Site

  More Unique & Offbeat Museums Around The World

Vigeland Installation at Frogner Park

Gustav Vigeland was one of Norway's most esteemed sculptors and nowadays is known throughout the world. His easily recognizeable work are thos iconic statues of human beings doing, well, human things. Vigeland was also the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal.

In a deal with the Oslo government, Vigeland agreed to donate all his future works to the city. By the time he passed away in 1943 this was over 200 sculptures. Together they cover a sprawling 80 acres and comprise the largest sculpture park in the world created by a single artist. The pinnacle of all this artwork is a 14-metre tall monstrosity known as The Monolith. Carved entirely out of granite, 121 writhing bodies for a human totem pole obelisk.

The Gustav Vigeland Installation at Frogner Park -- 212 statues that make up the largest sculpture park in the world created by a single artist. And one of the cool, quirky and unique sights to see in Oslo, Norway

The park is open 24 hours a day and entrance is free, however it is quite popular with both locals and tourists, so try to avoid visiting at peak hours.

  Official Web Site

Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum

That's right, Gustav Vigeland had several brothers, one of which became a famous artist: Emanuel Vigeland. Although he never attained the same level of fame as his older brother, he was nonetheless an accomplished sculptor, painter and stained glass artist.

The mausoleum itself is an intriguing homage to life, death and sex, all rolled into one. It was originally intended to be a museum but halfway through Emanuel changed his mind and decided to combine mausoleum and museum into one. Shaped like a small church with bricked up windows, the acoustics of the building are so powerful that speaking loudly is simply not possible.

The Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum is one of the cool, quirky and unique sights to see in Oslo, Norway

When Emanuel passed away 1948 he was creamted and ashes placed within a low-hanging niche above the entry. The end result is that every guest of the mausoleum has to bow down to Emanuel on their way out.

  Official Web Site

Of course this is only the tip of the glacier of things to do in Oslo. For more advice and information for what to do and where, check out this Norway travel guide....and have fun!

What other unique or quirky Oslo sights are there?

  More Offbeat Travel Guides     More On Norway

  flickr   //   iammadforit   glimeend   vidariv   aaslex   BONO

Published in Norway

Japanese airline All Nippon Airways (ANA) recently rolled out a Boeing 787 airplane painted from tip to tail with the likeness of Star Wars’ R2-D2. The airplane will carry its first lucky passengers beginning Oct. 18 with a flight between Tokyo and Vancouver, Canada. The project is part of a five-year promotional deal between ANA and the Walt Disney Company.

This is hardly the first time an airline has made headlines for dolling up its planes. These designs are typically part of publicity partnerships or are created to promote special events or anniversaries. Check out some of the wackiest paint jobs in airline history, below.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.58.54 PM
Photo: Flickr user Mark Harkin

Hobbit Plane, Air New Zealand

First on the list is the world’s largest plane decal, which reportedly took more than 400 hours to complete before it was released into the air in 2012. The Lord of the Rings-themed plane didn’t stop at the paint job. Inside, a hobbit-themed safety video featured characters from Middle Earth, while the cabin crew adorned themselves with pointy ears for the plane’s first flight.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.59.00 PM
Photo: Flickr user Aero Icarus

San Francisco Plane, Swiss International Airlines

In 2010, Swiss International instated daily flights between Zurich and San Francisco. To celebrate the new route, the airline decorated a plane with just about every San Francisco stereotype around, from peace signs to flower power.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.59.25 PM
Photo: Wikimedia Commons via Flickr user Cubbie_n_vegas

Salmon, Alaska Airlines

Get it? A Boeing 737 becomes a Boeing salmon-thirty-salmon in this 2005 fish-themed paint job. The inspiration for the artwork is a bit unclear: Some sources claim it was designed to celebrate Alaska’s seafood industry, while others believe it stemmed from a 1987 incident in which an Alaska Airlines plane was hit by a fish while taking off in Juneau (The fish was purportedly dropped by an eagle).

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.59.31 PM

Aboriginal Design, Qantas

A collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, the design for this Boeing 737-800 was inspired by Uluru, aka Ayers Rock. The Australian World Heritage site is famous for its rich colors, which appear to change as the sun’s angle shifts throughout the day.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.59.37 PM
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Wizarding World Plane, Virgin Atlantic Airways

What a magical idea. In partnership with Virgin Holidays, Virgin Atlantic branded one of its 747 jets with the logo for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The paint job functioned as publicity for the Universal Orlando resort.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.58.39 PM
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Panda Jet, All Nippon Airways

To celebrate 20 years of flying between Japan and China, ANA unveiled its panda-themed jet in 2007. It reportedly took 350 people a total of 80 hours to plaster the image of the world’s cutest bear onto the jet.

Whether you’re flying to Tokyo, Vancouver, or anywhere in between, may the force (and sweet paint jobs) always be with you.

  This article was published on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on January 18th.

Published in Travel Inspiration

El Salvador. Despite being just a hop, skip and a jump from Honduras, the differences immediately bombard you once crossing the imaginary line which divides the two Latin American countries. Although in the same blood line, I guess you could say El Salvador is the better looking sister. But don’t get your feelings hurt Honduras, you’ve got a great personality.

On the surface, it is evident. The majority of the roads are paved, the cities cleaner, and the people differ a bit in appearance. But these are just the obvious ones. After meeting the many gregarious El Salvadorans along your journey, one can’t help but notice the inherent and genuine desire they possess to help guide the weary traveler. A few times I found myself lost, and before I could find someone to ask for help, someone had already found me. Most likely, this eagerness to help is also due to their curious disposition. Everyone I met was eager to know my story, and with their eyes wide open and smiles perma-glued to their faces, they nodded their heads eagerly while trying to understand my broken Spanish.

Street art in San Salvador, El Salvador
Street art in San Salvador

As for the ones that speak some English, they are extremely proud to start a conversation with you, and love the opportunity to practice. I actually met quite a few who could speak English due to spending time in the States working odd jobs. One guy even hawked fake (excuse me, real) Casio watches along the streets of L.A., and consequently, had brought the trade back with him to San Salvador.

After crossing the border, I boarded an old school bus, turned electric blue party bus. The driver was blasting Reggeaton music, and surprisingly, the sound system was pretty decent. I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance to the party buses back home that we pay hundreds of dollars to rent for the night. However, this journey only cost me $1.30, stunning view included. While we made our way through the countryside, bus rocking from the beats, and plantain chips in hand, bright and fanciful murals commenced to pop up everywhere. There were depictions of families, farmers, abstract shapes and electric colors. I even saw a mural that said “Somos Parte de la Solucion” (We are part of the solution), with scenes depicting Mother Earth. This was particularly refreshing, as in other Central American countries, recycling and conservation is not a topic widely discussed around the trashfire.

Street art in La Palma, El Salvador
One of the many street art murals in La Palma

In La Palma, no wall space is left unmarked, transforming the streets into a playground for the eyes. As soon as I stepped off the bus into La Palma, I felt as if I had been teleported into a Pixar film. Thanks to the efforts of Fernando Llort, a Honduran artist who moved to La Palma from the capital of San Salvador, the town is covered in art from head to toe. After moving to La Palma, Llort founded the Center for Integral Development, a school for anyone wanting to learn art. With this new trade, the majority of the people in La Palma make a decent living selling their arts and crafts.

Street art in La Palma, El Salvador

Another gem I happened to visit was the town of Juayua. (Pronounced Why-You-Ah) I highly recommend this town to anyone traveling in El Salvador. It truly is one of the most unique towns I have come across. Juayua is located along the Ruta de Los Flores, nestled in between hills of coffee plantations as far as the eye can see. The people are charming, the markets bustling, and the food phenomenal. Every weekend the town hosts a Feria Gastronomica (food festival) where people from all over El Salvador bring traditional dishes to sell, resulting in an eclectic menu to delight the taste buds. It is here you can find anything from grilled iguana, rabbit tacos, stewed frogs, to coffee flavored snow cones.

So, if you are looking for a relaxing and cultural place to visit, make a stop in Juayua, where the term “picturesque” must have been coined. In this living canvas, the people are charming, the town tranquillo, and the cobblestone streets are virtually motor free.

Lady peering out her window in Juayua, El Salvador
Lady peering out her window in Juayua

As for the rest of El Salvador, I am not delusional in thinking that every square inch is all peaches and cream. I am aware of the fact that there exists an immense deal of poverty and violence. This was quite evident while passing though the capital of San Salvador. Sadly, I witnessed the technicolored murals evolve into graffiti, accompanied by gang signs plastered over the numerous Coca-Cola and Pepsi advertisements. But a big city in Latin America is just that. A big city.

As for Honduras, I still love the place, and am content to be living here for now. But Honduras needs to step up its game, and what better way then to spread some paintbrush lovin all over the country?

Street art in Juayua, El Salvador
Street art in Juayua

Places To Visit / Foods To Try

  • La Palma   2 hours north of San Salvador. Don't forget to conquer the 7 Waterfall Hike and then eat your heart out at the Feria Gastronomica.
  • Juayua   2 hours west of San Salvador. Don't forget to try taking an art class. There are plenty of people eager to teach you their trade in exchange for a little dinero.
  • Pupusas   The typical food of El Salvador. Consists of a thick, hand made corn tortilla filled with either beans, cheese, or chicken.
  • Zapote Licuado   Zapote is a type of fruit that must be derived from the nectar of the Gods. Blended with ice and milk it tastes like a pumpkin spice milkshake.

Ever been to El Salvador?

  San Salvador street art photo via flickr // joebackward

Published in El Salvador

Street art (sometimes called graffiti art) is a very unique and interesting form of modern artistic expression. The vivid colors and neverending creativity of their artists have a tendency to impress both locals and tourists alike.

Like most major metropolises Toronto boasts its own collection of street art, including the aptly named "Graffiti Alley," which runs parallel to Queen street on the southern side.

  To check out the wall art for yourself, start at Queen and Spadina and head west, walking down every alley you pass. There is also a healthy amount of street art scattered a few blocks north of there, throughout the Kensington Market.

Which one is your favorite? Share your comments below!

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti artist hard at work in Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada
Graffiti artist hard at work in Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Wow. That was definitely the most photos I have ever posted in one article. Hope y'all enjoyed them!

What is your favorite street art city?

Published in Canada

Most of the residents of New Zealand live in Auckland and not without reason. Auckland is amazing! You never get bored. Not even when you're on a budget and staying in Auckland. So here the five things you should do for free in Auckland:

The Gallery of Modern Art / Auckland Museum

For culture you have to be in Auckland. Enough museums to visit and the Auckland Museum and The Gallery of Modern Art are even for free. The Auckland Musuem teaches you about the Maoris and the history of New Zealand, plus even has a section about the amazing flora and fauna and information about volcanoes with a real simulation room; how would it feel to experience a real earthquake. Pretty cool!

Auckland Museum

The Gallery of Modern Art is the opposite of the Auckland Museum and focuses more on experimental art. So if you like art with a sharp edge? Than you should certaintly go to the Gallery of Modern Art.

Visit one of the many volcanoes that Auckland has to offer

Yes, Auckland has enough volcanoes to satisfy everyone -- approximately 50! So search for a volcano near you and enjoy the view. Some top volcanoes in Auckland are Mount Eden and One Tree Hill (U2 even wrote a song about this one). You have a beautiful view over the city and even at night it's a nice sight to see with all the lights. And who doesn't like lights, right!

Dive in the nature

Also the big city Auckland has a lot to offer when it comes to nature. Nature here in New Zealand is never far away. Go to Mission Bay to enjoy the sun and the ocean off to Waikere Ranges where you can enjoy a nice walk or a nice "barbie" (barbecue) with your friends. Lot of hiking trails to keep you busy all year long

Discover the harbour

The harbor has a lot to offer and there's a lot to see. Enjoy the beautful blue waters or visit the information center of head for the Wynyard Quarter where you can see amazing, big, luxurious yachts.

Auckland Harbor

There is always something going on over there, or just enjoy the New Zealand cafe culture. Or just relax in the grass. Everything is possible in the harbor.

Visit one of the different markets that Auckland has to offer

The French Market, the Fish Market, Victoria Market... Auckland has a lot of markets and all are within easy reach. What better way to spend a saturday? Especially the French Market in Parnell is worth to pay a visit. Try all the different free french foods. What more do you want?

Have any additional suggestions?

Which is your favorite?

Published in New Zealand

Some people think death is the end.

But it needn't be.

As the good people at the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic have proven, it seems we can all still be of some use after we leave this earth... as ornate interior decorations.

This chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary contains at least one of every bone in the human body

Be honest...who wouldn't one one of these in at least one room of their house

In what can only be described as Changing Rooms / 60 Minute Makeover / Backyard Blitz gone mad, Sedlec Ossuary put all those pesky bones that were literally lying around their cemetery and basement into the shape of vases, coats of arms, chandeliers and furniture.

Family crest made from bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Schwarzenberg family crest

Family crest made from bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Close-up of the crest

So why does a small Roman Catholic Chapel on the outskirts of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic decide to forgo the painted feature wall, strand of fairy lights or other more conventional interior design trends in favour of lovely bones?

Well, it seems it was a victim of its own success.

This chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary contains at least one of every bone in the human body

This chandelier is equal parts beautiful and creepy

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, where every piece of art is made from human bones

Get me this for Christmas and I will love you forever

Way back in the thirteen century, the monastery's abbot went to the Holy Land and brought back some dirt from the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified outside Jerusalem.

Obviously customs was pretty slack at this time and/or the abbot failed to declare this to them upon his return. Needless to say, it's not recommended anyone attempt this today as the Australian entry customs form clearly asks whether you carrying any dirt, seeds, plants or plant products.

Pile of skulls and femurs at Sedlec Ossuary

The scattered skull and femur look: very in, very now

Anyway, the abbot sprinkled this dirt around the cemetery prompting something of a property boom for the dead. Suddenly everyone in Central Europe wanted to be buried there. Subsequent plagues, wars and general passing of the years meant the cemetery became full to bursting.

Over time, a Gothic church built on the site started to be used as a storeroom for "old bones" to make way for "new bones" in the cemetery. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of up to 70,000 people. (Warning: "dad joke" ahead) Clearly people were just dying to be buried here.

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Garlands of skulls (I know what I'll be using instead of tinsel this Christmas!)

In 1870, the local aristocratic Schwarzenberg family, realising they were not going to get into the pages of Vogue Living with this unholy mess, decided to bring some order to the chaos.

Liking the work of Czech woodcarver Frantisek Rint, they gave him a free reign on the piles of bones, resulting in a unique decorating style which can only be described as "Macabre Chic."

If there was an award for recycling at the time, I think he would have won it.

It actually would have been amazing to watch Rint at work; seeing him choose some bones over others and trying different creations. It also would have been interesting to see the local reaction at the time to his creations: "Is that Aunty Beryl?"

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Close up of the garland of skulls

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

You just know when something is meant for your home

Stepping inside the ossuary, and once you've become accustomed to the gruesome factor, it's hard not to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship which has gone into the pieces.

In a weird way, it also gives you an appreciation of human anatomy that would make your school biology teacher proud. After all, it's not often you come face to face with human skulls and bones.

And the whole concept certainly validates the old adage used by countless home improvement shows: you really don't need to spend a lot of money to make a big impact.

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

One idea to spice up your '90s painted feature wall)

It's also a startling reminder that we really are all the same deep down. Literally. Once you strip away the skin, tissue and muscles, we all just look like that.

And really, how much more macabre is having your bones converted into a chandelier compared to just having your bones rotting away under a tombstone. If anything, it's nice you're still being of appreciated long after you've gone.

Knowing that design trends fall out of fashion only to later come back into vogue, you can't help but wonder if the "bone look" is the next one to be resurrected?

What do you think, Better Homes and Gardens?

Published in Czech Republic

Piazza Arringo, Ascoli Piceno

The Marche region of Italy has a lot to offer in terms of small towns with medieval architecture and perfectly proportioned piazzas. Ascoli Piceno is no exception.

We had taken the train from Grottammare to Ascoli Piceno on a Friday morning as students made their way back from the university at Macerata to home for the weekend; some with pets in travel cages, all with a week's worth of laundry in their bags. The train stations were small, many unmanned and usually covered in graffiti as we trundled along the coast before turning inland.

From the train station the modern town leads uninspiringly past the Porta Maggiore, the town's mascot - the woodpecker - and a statue of Cecco but once you squeeze along the narrow cobbled streets and into one of the old town's squares you are transported. There are signs of modern life - cars zip along streets not much wider than themselves and helpful brown tourist plaques are stuck on walls - but the feeling is definitely of past times. First for us, and for any who wish to get information on the town was the Piazza Arringo, so named as the square held public assemblies after the founding of the free city-state. The tourist information office is through a driveway, which in turn leads to a pretty courtyard up the stairs from which is the Pinacoteca Civica.

The Pinacoteca is home to a number of art works from thirteenth century triptychs to nineteenth century secular pieces as well as sculptures. My favourite saint, Sebastian (who I adopted during my journey from Venice to Rome), was much in evidence and it was interesting to see how his depiction - particularly his hairstyle - changed through the ages. The sculpture of the Sleeping Shepherd in the Shepherd's Room was incredible. Not since I'd first met Bernini in the Piazza Navona had I been so struck by the detailing created in marble. The shepherd boy's belt looked as if it had just been tightened, the loose ends curving over his waist. The lacings and soles of the footwear were realistically tied around socks that gaped baggily at the knee. The boy's slightly open mouth seemed more than capable of gentle snoring as he slept. The softness of the boy contrasted with the harder elements of his clothing reflecting the harsh reality of shepherding work for such a young child - no wonder he slept.

We had purchased a three part ticket which covered the Pinacoteca, the Museum of Ceramics and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Our route took us through the Piazza del Popolo, one of the best proportioned piazzas in the central part of Italy. The piazza took on its rectangular appearance during the 1500s when the porticos were added to keep the artisan shops out of sight. I have little doubt that the proportions are pleasing and that the colonnades, church, Palazzo dei Capitani and Caffe Meletti go to create a wonderful ambience but sadly these were lost to me amidst the construction of an ice-rink. This made photographing equally difficult despite the boyfriend climbing as high as he could. 

Piazza del Popolo with ice rink construction underway

At one time Ascoli had two hundred patrician towers in its environs. King Frederic II ordered the destruction of ninety of them in 1252. Around fifty remain though many have been absorbed into other buildings or turned into bell towers. The Torres Gemelle (twin towers) in the Plaza S. Agostino are a perfectly preserved example of how the many towers would have been. Twenty-five metres high and with a slight lean to them (must be an Italian trait) they are annexed to the house of the Merli family.

The Ceramics Museum is a place to be enjoyed by those with a specific interest in said art. There are few exhibits and I was disappointed with the selection, but then my interest does not lie there. The most interesting display I found was that which consisted of modern work designed to celebrate the 150 years of Italy's unification. One piece in particular I thought summed up how the rest of the world sees Italy...

Ceramic plate celebrating Italy's 150 years of unification

I was not, therefore, holding out much hope for the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea (Gallery of Contemporary Art) and to start with it felt as if my fears were going to be met. Then we turned a corner, literally, and met with Ernesto Ercolani. Humour abounds in his work and it made the visit to the gallery worthwhile. A native of Ascoli, Ercolani was also the curator of the Pinacoteca for twenty years but his work is quite removed from that you would find there. Ercolani's work is a humourous look at some of life's events and type of people. 'Poet with Blue Dog' was amusing but the large 'Welcome' had so much going on that we could have stood there for hours continually finding new nuances.

Weaving our way back through the town we returned to the Piazza Arringo and entered the Cathedral which dominates one end of the square. Saint Emidio, after whom the cathedral is named, was a native of Trier in Germany and the first bishop of Ascoli. Emidio was beheaded by the Romans, too effective in his preaching by all accounts, but the miracle attested to him is that he picked up his head and carried it off for proper burial. Whatever the circumstance, Emidio is the patron of the town and protector against earthquakes. In 1703 earthquakes destroyed many cities in central Italy but Ascoli Piceno remained untouched. There is further 'proof' of Emidio's protectorship in the story of the earthquake that caused fleeing Germans to leave the town before they had finished destroying all the bridges in the town, at the end of World War II. The highlights of the Cathedral that bears this saint's name are the the crypt and the baldacchio over the altar. I found the crypt too well-lit to provide any atmosphere, and the statue of Emidio and some other areas were undergoing restoration work but it was an interesting chapel with burial chambers leading off of it. The golden baldacchio was also well-lit and so shone brilliantly making it a focal point of the church. At times the lighting overpowered areas and it was only afterwards, when looking at pictures that I realised how well decorated the area above the altar was.

Altar of S Emidio Ascoli Piceno Church

I left Ascoli Piceno with a feeling of contentment. I had seen some wonderful art and a beautiful old town that had retained its Medieval and Renaissance architecture whilst not seeming like a living museum. As we neared the train station with the sun setting and the chill creeping upon us I had made my first successful and enjoyable foray into the Marche region of Italy.

Sunset behind the woodpecker symbol of Ascoli Piceno

Published in Italy

When Antoni Gaudí received his degree in architecture, the director of the college said: "Today, we have given a degree in architecture to a madman or a genius, only time will tell". That was in 1878 and the buildings of Gaudí are not only still standing, but have become a worldwide symbol for Barcelona.

There is a wide choice of places to stay in the city but I tend to choose somewhere around Passeig de Gracia, which is within walking distance of a lot of the places you may wish to visit. Look at the Renaissance Barcelona Hotel and Claris Hotel. Further away, the Hotel Princesa Sofia at the end of Diagonal and the design conscious -- and expensive -- Hotel Arts, just by the sea. There is also a new arrival in town which I have yet to try: the Mandarin Oriental. It looks fabulous and has a restaurant run by Carme Ruscalleda.

If you do happen to stay near the Passeig de Gracia, you are close to La Pedrera and Casa Milá, one of the main works of Antoni Gaudí and prime example of the local variant of art nouveau, known as modernismo (modernism). Just across La Pedrera there is another house built by Gaudí, Casa Batlló.

There are many wonderful modernist works around Barcelona but the largest and most famous is the cathedral of La Sagrada Familia, begun by Gaudí in 1882 and not yet finished, that is located at one end of Diagonal.

Coming back down Diagonal, take a left into Las Ramblas, full of cafes, stalls, and shops. Close to Las Ramblas, the market of La Boqueria is worth a visit.

The concert hall of El Palau is impressive and was designed by another modernist arquitect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Not far from here you arrive at the Picasso Museum which houses a large collection of the artist's work. And to end the tour you can continue walking until you come to the marina of Port Vell, full of cafes and restaurants. Talking of restaurants, here is a list of some of my favourites:

  • The romantic Neichel
  • A restaurant frequented by Salvador Dali, Via Veneto
  • The classic 7 Portes, opened in 1836

  • The place to go if you want seafood in abundance is Botafumeiro


Published in Spain

I am not proud to say that I used to assume that Saint Peter's Basilica was just the biggest church in Christendom, the pilgrimage and gathering place of all Catholics in the world. What I didn’t know is that not only it is actually one of the most incredible examples of Late Renaissance architecture and Baroque art anywhere, but it is also a place that holds an unexpected secret... Underneath it you can find the Vatican Necropolis, a first century necropolis (city of the dead) -- basically a roman cemetery where the actual Tomb of Saint Peter is believed to remain, still today.

Can you imagine stepping on actual Roman soil this is 2000 years old? Knowing that along these corridors (antique streets) the first Christians walked and worshiped in a complete act of faith on what would become one of the most important religions of the planet is an overwhelming feeling.

As Rick Steves recommends when visiting the Vatican: “Leave your —religion here— hat at the door and enter the magnificence of one of the most impressive and significant holy places in the world”. You don't need to be a catholic to appreciate this fabulous site.

How To Explore The Vatican Necropolis

When thinking about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter's Basilica it became clear that the topic was so amazingly interesting, it's going to need three posts to cover it. There are three key aspects which I will convey:

  1. The background history of Rome at the time of the death of Saint Peter
  2. The Necropolis itself as an archaeological site that reminds us of burials during the first century AD
  3. The great mystery of the Tomb of Saint Peter and whether or not it is the real one

In any case, after thorough research I can honestly tell you not to go anywhere else, these three posts are your best resource online to understand the site from a visitor point of view! Why do you need them? Because when I went and ended my visit to the Vatican Necropolis (also known as the "Scavi") and I left Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time, I was kind of confused about what I actually had been shown. My feeling is that some of you may have experienced the same. I hadn't done my homework. But fret no more, I'm here to do your homework for you and make it all clear! Let's start with...

A Bit Of Roman History

During the year 64 AD when crazy maniac Nero was emperor of Rome a great fire occurred that destroyed a large area of the city. Many blamed the fire on Nero himself (who later built his Golden House over the destroyed area, hmmm, kind of suspicious, right?) who in turn blamed it on the Christians. According to ancient historians, Nero started persecuting Christians to diffuse attention off him. The Apostles Peter and Paul who were in Rome at the time, were executed in the circus building (a very long race track with bleachers that could accommodate thousands of spectators, originally built by Calligula and used for horse races and shows) on the Vatican Hill. The obelisk brought from Egypt that we see today in the middle of Piazza San Pietro used to be at the center of the circus. It was moved to its current location in 1586 and remains here as a "witness" to Peter's martyrdom.

Peter famously requested to be crucified upside down, since he thought he didn't deserve dying in the same manner as Jesus. Traditionally, it is believed that his body was buried just outside the circus, where a Roman cemetery stood. His grave is said to have been marked by a red stone, symbolic only to Christians. After Peter's death, Christians began to gather at this place to venerate the Apostle. Some years later, a temple-entrance-shaped shrine (known as the “trophy”) was built

A letter sent in 120 AD by a priest by the name of Gaius is the first written record that states that Peter’s remains were indeed in the Necropolis next to the circus. In 319 AD, after converting to Christianism, emperor Constantine I erected the first Saint Peter's Basilica, on top of Saint Peter's original burial site, considering the holiness of this place.

In the 16th century Old Saint Peter's Basilica was dismantled to make way for the construction of the current church. In 1939 Pope Pius XI sponsored the archaeological excavations allegedly because he wanted to be buried as close as possible to Peter the Apostle. This is how the Vatican Necropolis was revealed.

Where is the Necropolis?

The Vatican Necropolis is very much like other necropolis in Rome such as the ones in Ostia Antica and >Isola Sacra, though smaller. In this diagram you can see the plan of the current Basilica, the plan of the old basilica, Nero's circus, and adjacent to it the Necropolis, right under the center of the current Basilica.

The circus ran next to a road called Via Cornelia. The Vatican Necropolis was on the other side of the road. When Constantine started to build Old Saint Peter's, he recognized the holy place of the Apostle’s tomb and decided to build the high altar on top of it, filling the rest of the Necropolis with dirt. Old Saint Peter's had a courtyard in front of it, and even though it was massive, as you can see in the diagram, it was smaller than Current Saint Peter's Basilica. Here's a more detailed plan of the Necropolis in relation to the basilicas, see the Vatican Necropolis plan in red, the current grottoes (tombs of Popes) in green, the plan of current Saint Peter's Basilica in purple and Old Saint Peter's in blue  

Here's a 25-second video showing the depiction of an artist of how this site might have looked during the first and second centuries AD. Though it's not very precise, it does provide an idea of how big these monuments were.

The tour starts...

You get assigned a guide that will give you a tour first of the Necropolis itself, going through all the Roman tombs and finishing with a kind of confusing look at the Tomb of Saint Peter. You cannot actually enter the mausoleums, you see each through thick glass at the door. The tour goes through nearly fifteen mausoleums making its way up the hill before finally reaching the site of Saint Peter's burial. The Vatican Necropolis (remember that it's also called the "Scavi") is completely underground, the space is small and confined, dimly lit and a bit humid so one needs to remember that the ceiling of the Necropolis would actually have been open to the sky. Also, I wouldn't recommend this tour for people who suffer from claustrophobia, though I can assure you, the place has proper ventilation. You need to play close attention to what the guide is telling you, since this is a sacred place, they won't raise their voice too much and you are expected to maintain the appropriate reverence as well. The guide will generally advise you to hold questions until the end of the tour, which is a pain because as I've said, if you haven't researched beforehand you are going to miss out on a lot of this great experience. Here's a fantastic 10-minute video that explains further the generalities of the Basilicas and the Necropolis.

What’s next?

In the next post I'm going to let you know about each of the mausoleums, how they're laid out and what you'll see, the touching decorations and the very interesting early Christian mausoleum, halfway between a pagan burial and a fully Christian tomb. I will also share the practicalities for your visit. In the final post, we'll uncover the confusing passageways surrounding the Tomb of Saint Peter and I'll show you exactly where and what to look for in order to recognize just where Peter is buried. Look forward to those during the week! Have you visited the Vatican Necropolis? What was your experience? What did you feel? Could you relate to these people from ancient time and their remembrance of their dead?

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Published in Vatican City

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