TRAVEL BLOG

The Great Blue Hole, Belize

A magnificent, deep blue eye formation located in the middle of the Lighthouse Reef – a small atoll in the Caribbean Sea – the Great Blue Hole is a true geological marvel. Located at 70kms off Belize City (Belize), this 318m diameter sinkhole is surrounded by a ring of corals. Formed during a series of glacial periods, the Blue Hole is composed of a 124m deep underwater cavern, with giant stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, which formed when the cavern was above sea-level. Made famous by the French explorer, conservationist and researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau, today, the Great Blue Hole is a prime destination for experimented scuba divers and adrenaline-seeking skydivers.

Scuba Diving

Scuba diving in the Great Blue Hole requires a certain level of experience and excellent weather and water conditions. To get to the hole, one must embark on a 3hr long boat ride from San Pedro, Belize. Diving trips can be booked with Amigos del Mar, for a comfortable boat ride and experienced dive masters. Guided by the latter, as you descend in the blue hole, colours will give place to a gloomy hue the deeper you go. You will then have, for only reference, a limestone wall to your left. As you explore the hole, you might even come across Caribbean reef sharks. At 40m deep, the maximum depth you could go, you will encounter the cavern, an underwater natural cathedral. There, you will find yourself exploring an eerie place, where you wander under silhouettes of sharks circling over you, and a dark abyss below you, before slowly ascending back to the surface after a 30min spectacular dive.

Skydiving

Although the Great Blue Hole is most commonly experienced through scuba diving, the best way to fully admire the beauty and grandeur of this natural monument is from up in the air with Astrum Helicopters. To add a boost of adrenaline to your view, opt for a skydiving journey over the Great Blue Hole. Since 2005, skydiving over the Blue Hole has become an adventure of a lifetime. Skydive Belize offers a series of thrilling tandem dives allowing you to jump from a Cessna 182 into the warm water of the Caribbean Sea surrounding the Great Blue Hole. You will have the chance to capture the most spectacular videos and photos, before joining a dive boat for a scuba dive. Skydiving expeditions are offered weekly from December to April in San Pedro, if the weather is favourable, as safety is Skydive Belize’s number one priority. Do not wait any longer and book a trip to Belize to meet the Great Blue Hole and enjoy the Caribbean Sea’s many natural wonders!

San Sebastián (Donostia)

Have you ever dreamt of a sophisticated getaway in a vibrant city, where effervescent culture meets exquisite cuisine? San Sebastián – officially named Donostia (in Basque) – is your dream come true. This coastal metropolis is situated in the Basque region (north-west of Spain), close to the French borders and the Pyrenees. Known for its cobblestoned old town (Parte Vieja), bay-front, cast-iron promenade (Paseo de la Concha), rich culture, Michelin-starred restaurants, and famous La Perla Spa, San Sebastián is your go-to chic getaway!

Cuisine

“Exceptional” is the most accurate word to describe San Sebastian’s epicurean scene. Home to more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Europe –  with two of its restaurants receiving the prestigious three Michelin stars (Akelarre and Arzak) –  San Sebastián’s cuisine is worth a special journey.  Composed of a vast array of fresh seafood, jamón Iberico (Spanish ham), cider, and pintxos (Basque cousins of tapas), San Sebastián’s food is accessible to all and encourages social gatherings. Varying between €1 to €3 per piece, pintxos (Spanish for spike/skewer) were invented in San Sebastián. Usually served in bars, they differ from tapas mainly because they are presented with a skewer or toothpick, often on a slice of bread. They are enjoyed amongst friends, with a small glass of local Basque cider or wine. This is a selection of the tastiest pintxos bars in San Sebastián: Gandarias, Zeruko, Bar Txepetxa, and La Cepa.

Culture

Spoken around the West Pyrenees, Basque is the oldest language in Europe and its origins remain unknown. It is spoken by 40% of San Sebastián’s population. And since culture is also shaped by language, San Sebastián lively culture reflects this fact. Designated European Capital of Culture for 2016, the city cultural scene is composed of, among other things, Belle-Époque architecture, Gothic and Baroque Churches, festivals, concerts, museums, and an aquarium. Paseo de La Concha (The Concha Promenade) is without any doubt the city’s most iconic feature, with its white cast-iron Belle-Époque fence. Running along the seaside bordering La Concha Bay on the Atlantic coast, the promenade could be enjoying by foot or on bicycle, passing by iconic buildings, such as Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, Palacio de Miramar (Queen Marie-Christine’s summer residence), and La Perla Spa. With its high and low ties, and spectacular sunset, La Concha beach is also a great place to hang out along the promenade. Public and free, one can walk, sit, and swim there, including in winter.

Spa

One of the most beautiful thalassotherapy spas in the world, La Perla was part of Queen Marie-Christine of Spain summer residence. Located on the Concha Bay and established in 1912, the Belle-Époque architecture spa is not only dreamy but also affordable and quite beautiful as it offers a panoramic view of the ocean. It includes a series of seawater pools that massage with powerful jets of water set at different heights to target key muscles. The spa also includes an underwater gym, a direct access to the beach, saunas and steam rooms, and various massage and wellness services. A spa day at La Perla is a great way to end your classy getaway in the city of pintxos and culture.

 

Patagonia

Get ready to be blown away by Patagonia’s dramatic mountaintop glaciers, and awe-inspiring landscape. Covering roughly one and a half times the size of the United Kingdom, Patagonia is a sparsely populated region located at the southern end of the Americas. Its west and east coasts face the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, respectively.  From Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park to Chiles’s Paine National Park and Tierra del Fuego, you will find yourself at the ends of the earth, in the middle of an immense site of pure wilderness, sculpted rock towers (Cordillera), pristine lakes, dense forests, and impressive silences.

As the Victorian traveller Lady Florence Dixie describes in Riding Across Patagonia :

“Nowhere is there an area of 100,000 square miles which you may gallop over, and where, whilst enjoying a healthy, bracing climate, you are safe from the persecutions of fevers, friends… obnoxious animals, telegrams [text messages], letters [emails] and every other nuisance you are elsewhere liable to be exposed to.”

Beautiful Patagonia can be explored through spectacular treks and horseback rides. The horse trails vary greatly from flat dirt to steep and rocky mountains. The trip itself can be challenging, but extremely worth it as it offers a unique encounter with many natural marvels. Varying between 2 hours and 10 days, riding tours in Patagonia will take you to the best lookouts while allowing you to experience the region in a rustic and eco-friendly way. Riding your horse by day and sleeping under a spectacular sky full of bright stars when you set camp at night, your ride across Patagonia will bring you closer to nature than ever. You can book your riding adventure with experienced Chilean and Argentinian companies, such as Wild Women Expeditions, Equitours, Pingo Salvaje, and Espiritu Patagon.

Istanbul, Turkey

Formerly known as Constantinople, the former Byzantine Empire’s capital, Istanbul is at the edges of the Asian and European continents. Its rich history, fast-paced rhythm, and delicious cuisine will transport you to another world. The best way to visit Istanbul – or any city, really – is by foot. Start your day with a simple, traditional breakfast composed of a sesame bagel-like bread – simit – with cheese and a pot of mint tea or Turkish coffee. These can be bought from street merchants, contributing to the authentic Turkish experience. After breakfast, take a walk on Istiklal street toward Galata Tower, one of the oldest towers in the world, for a panoramic view of the busy city, its many Mosques, the Aegean Sea, and Hagia Sofia, one of the most visited monuments in the world. The latter will be your next walking-tour stop.

        Hagia Sofia was a church originally dedicated to Holy Wisdom. As it stands today, the basilica was built under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (6th century). Following the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque from 1453 to 1931. Today, it is a museum displaying a palimpsest of history and rites. To get to the Hagia Sofia, one must cross the Galata bridge, the Egyptian market, and a few streets where are found stunning Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings in need of much renovations. The basilica itself is impressive and massive. It became the architectural model of all the prominent mosques of Istanbul.  Its marble walls, fake marble doors leading to royal sacred spaces, and highly decorative and intricate Christian mosaics make you step into history, following the footsteps of many before you. You will find yourself surrounded by gold, light, grandeur, and wonder.

        After Hagia Sofia, you can pursue your day-trip to Topkapi Palace museum and its Harem. There you will learn about the Ottoman dynasty and its sultans, through a visit of the palace’s kitchen, diwan – where high officials would meet sitting on a diwan (kind of sofa) – the Harem quarters, and the Sultan’s bedroom. The museum not only informs on the lifestyle and culture of the Ottomans, but its architecture is a fine example of Baroque and Islamic styles.

        At lunchtime, grab a meal at one of the many restaurants around the Palace before heading to the Basilica Cistern. Lentil soup with lemon, spicy kofta (ground beef skewers) and a glass of ayran, a drink made of yogurt, water and salt. Composed of Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric columns on water, the Basilica Cistern is a must-see. Built under Emperor Justinian’s reign (6th century), the Basilica is the largest cistern of Istanbul and offers a truly remarkable and dramatic spectacle of light, water reflection, architecture, and resonance. It was also featured in many movies, including Skyfall (2012) from the James Bond Series.

        When in Turkey, a trip to a historical hammam (bath) is an absolute must. To get a full-traditional Turkish hammam experience, Cemberlitas Hamami is your best choice. This more than 500-year old Turkish bath will be the highlight of your trip to Istanbul. Not only will you feel like travelling back in time, but you will lose a lot of dead skin while enjoying a remarkably relaxing experience. On your way back to your hotel, stop at the Grand Bazaar to get a few souvenirs and traditional Turkish goods (lukum/Turkish delights, ceramics, jewellery, hammam towels, icons, etc.), while practicing the art of bargaining. The Grand Bazaar is situated next to Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque), a mosque built in the early 17th century. You can access its beautiful interior, decorated with intricate geometrical and floral Islamic motifs, from either the female or male visitors’ door (unless you are Muslim and wish to pray, then you must take the faithful’s entrance). To be granted access to the mosque, you need to follow the dress code (humble attire, barefoot, women must cover their head with a scarf, etc.), and always remain respectful of the space of worship.

        Conclude your active, yet perfect day in Istanbul with a copious traditional Turkish meal at Konak Kebap, along the busy Istiklal street. Wander along the street after dinner to Taksim Square, to fully immerse yourself in the busyness of Istanbul’s night scene, while stopping by a little shop to treat yourself with the best Turkish delights you will ever eat.

Dante’s Florence

A poetic tour of the birthplace of Renaissance

The capital of Tuscany, Florence will take you back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance eras, with its maze of backstreets, churches, and truly remarkable art. Follow the footsteps of prolific medieval poet and father of Italian literature, Dante Alighieri to discover the quintessential emblems of this romantic city. Author of The Divine Comedy, Inferno, and La Vita Nuova, Dante presence in Florence is almost everywhere, from commemorative plaques to quotes from his most renowned oeuvres carved in stone along the city’s streets.

Sasso di Dante
Dante wrote many of his poems on his favourite stone, the Sasso di Dante, on the Piazza del Duomo. There, he also witnessed the construction of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, beside the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Like Dante many years ago, you can sit next to his favourite spot and gaze at the Duomo Cathedral and the medieval houses surrounding the piazza. Visit the baptistery to admire its lavish golden mosaics and climb up to the dome of the Cathedral to admire Florence from above.

Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi
Following via Santa Margherita behind the Duomo and its Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – which is also worth a visit to admire its marvellous sculptures by Michelangelo – head toward Santa Margherita de’Cerchi, an 11th-century church where a 9-year old Dante laid eyes on the love of his life, Beatrice Portinari, for the first time. Dante rarely spoke to her, but he loved her deeply all his life. Her death at the young age of 24 pushed the poet toward depression. Although he barely knew her, Beatrice remained Dante’s muse and inspired many of his love proses, such as the famous “Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona” (Love, which spares none of the loved from loving in return) from The Divine Comedy. Adjacent to Santa Margherita, you will find Dante’s House, a museum documenting the poet’s life and oeuvre.

Giardino di Boboli and Giardino delle rose
Immerse yourself in Dante’s poetry at the Giardino di Boboli, behind the Palazzo Pitti, the main residence of the powerful Florentine family, the Medici. Although not from Dante’s time, this Renaissance garden offers a perfect setting for a reflective and relaxing moment away from the busy Florentine streets. Sitting on a stone-bench under an alley, discover Dante’s proses and reflect upon them, surrounded by the garden’s lush and inspiring nature. Located uphill in the Oltrarno district, the Giardino delle rose is another serene location. Situated on the opposite side of the Arno River, you can access it by crossing the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence built in the Middle Ages. Once in the garden, you will admire the many roses flourishing in front of a spectacular view of the city and its prominent Duomo. You will conclude your day wandering around the Piazza della Republica, a gelato at hand, trying to imagine how the city looked in Dante’s time, excited to visit the Uffizi Galleries and a Santa Maria Novella the next day.

Top Travel Tips – Russia

If you are looking for a rich cultural vacation experience, then Russia would make a superb vacation destination. Russia is a massive country. It is actually twice the size of the USA. The culture in Russia is also very different to that of the United States, and as you may expect there is a lot to see and do, much more than you will ever be able to cover in a single holiday.

Russia has a rich history as a superpower, however they have gone through a lot of political changes and upheaval in the past few decades. All this makes Russia a fascinating country with a rich history and a unique culture, well worth visiting.

Travelers should be aware that there are a lot of problems with health and public infrastructure in certain parts of Russia, so it is best to assume, for example, that tap water is not safe to drink.

You don’t have to look very far to get satisfying answers about your travel questions for traveling to Russia. One excellent online resource is The U.S. State Department website. You will find great information and helpful tips for travel in Russia, such as the visa requirements for entering the country and more. Naturally, you cannot enter the country unless you have the proper documents such as a passport and visa. So be sure to comply with the visa requirements. It is an essential part of your Russia vacation planning. One important tip for travel in Russia is this. It could actually take at least two weeks to get your visa, so you need to plan properly. Failure to do so could mean that you may have to cancel your travel plans if your visa does not arrive on time. On the other hand, if you plan well and apply for your visa weeks in advance, you can get all the necessary travel documents in a timely fashion. Another important tip you need to know before going to Russia is that taxis in Russia very seldom use meters. You will need to negotiate with the taxi driver in advance. Failure to do this could result in a conflict or exorbitant fees, so bear this in mind.

Safety In Russia

While Russia is an interesting country with a lot of magnificent sights to see, there are some safety problems ‘ thieves are common, and there is a relatively high amount of violent crime. Some areas are safer than others, so it is a good idea to research the places you plan to visit before you leave, and take basic precautions such as keeping valuables out of sight and not carrying large amounts of cash.

Russia is a wonderful country with a rich heritage and some wonderful cultural institutions. The ballet companies are amazing, and there are some very good museums that everyone should try to visit while they are in the country.

Where to Eat in Rome During Holidays

There is a widely held misconception that during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Rome’s restaurants shut down and people who don’t have the luxury of eating at home are left to scavenge for food wherever they can get it. While one should expect some venues to be closed and many to embrace limited hours and prix fixe menus, visitors to Rome can eat very well during the holidays. It just requires a bit of planning.

To partake in the traditional Christmas Eve fish feast, head to Il Sanlorenzo, the best place in central Rome to find fresh, local and relatively sustainable fish. Il Sanlorenzo is open at lunch and dinner on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

A short stroll away on via dei Giubbonari, Roscioli will be open for lunch only on Christmas Eve and on New Year’s Eve.

For fine dining options, try Metamorfosi, which will be open at dinner on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day, Pipero al Rex, which will be open at lunch and dinner on December 24, 25, 31, and at lunch only on January 1, or All’Oro, which will be open throughout the holidays.

For Roman fare, Cesare al Casaletto will be open for lunch only on December 25th, 26th and January 1st. Near the Vatican, Romeo will be open for lunch only on December 24 and for lunch and dinner on December 31. Flavio al Velavevodetto will be open for lunch on December 24, 25 and 31. Also in Testaccio, La Torricella is open for lunch on December 24. It is open December 24 for lunch, December 25 at lunch and dinner, and for lunch and dinner on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

For international cusine, try Mesob, which will be open throughout the holidays

A special event will take place at Vino Roma on December 25th at 6:00pm; Hande Leimer is offering a Christmas edition of her new tasting type Wine & Cheese Dinner, with an even more interesting wine selection. For booking and details, visit the Vino Roma site.

For craft beer check out Birra + in Pigneto, which will always be open, but will close at 8:30pm on Christmas Eve and on New Year’s Eve, and Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’ in Trastevere, which will be open from the late afternoon every day this holiday season. These two watering holes are the only places on the list where reservations are not accepted and no food is served.

It is also worth noting that most Kosher restaurants in the Ghetto will be open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

You can get the portable version of this list by purchasing my app “Katie Parla’s Rome”, details here and be sure to call all venues in advance before turing up. While the aforementioned openings have been confirmed multiple times, non si sa mai (you never know what can happen!). Buone feste!