Christmas Magic in Paris

Christmas is coming, and where better to spend this merry time of year than in one of the most magical cities in the world? Paris certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to winter festivities; you’ll find the city streets lavishly decorated with Christmas lights and street vendors selling hot chestnuts and winter warming crêpes on every street corner. The whole city comes to life with a Christmas buzz as the 25th of December fast approaches… Be sure to not miss out on any of the Parisian winter magic this year!

Shop till you drop.
I’m sure you’re aware that Paris is a prime shopping destination throughout the year, however to experience ‘la crème de la crème’ of Parisian shopping, the weeks building up to Christmas are without a doubt the most special shopping weeks of all. Everything from high street shops to department stores to small and exclusive boutiques make an exceptional effort and although the sales officially start in January, they will often offer their customers fantastic winter deals – perfect if you’re looking to get good value for your money on Christmas gifts! The fabulous 10 story shopping centre - Galleries Lafayette is particularly impressive at this time of year. You’ll find an enormous Christmas tree in the middle of the building and each of the 63 stores are immaculately decorated.

There are also many Christmas markets where you’ll find handmade arts and crafts, typical French sweet treats such as nougat and Yule log, and much more! They’re the perfect place to pick up a unique French present or two. The biggest market stretches all the way along the Champs-Elysées to Place de la Concorde. There are also two markets which feature a ‘Santa’s Village’ where you have the chance to meet the big guy himself! They’re both located in the 6th arrondissement; Sant-Supice and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Get your skates on!
There is nothing more magical than wrapping up in your favourite coat, hat, gloves and scarf and going ice-skating in an open-air ice rink. Parisians are no exception – the city offers several ice-skating options. For an unforgettable experience it is actually possible to ice-skate on the Eiffel Tower! If you fancy gliding through the air; this 57 foot high ice-rink holds up to 80 daring ice-skaters at once. For something more down to earth (and a much shorter queue!) the much larger ice-rink outside Hotel de Ville is an equally festive and enjoyable experience.

Time to meet Mickey Mouse…
If you’re in Paris with children or you just want to let your inner-child loose, than a visit to Disneyland Paris is a must! The theme park goes out of its way to fully embrace the Christmas sprit. With special shows and parades, characters and staff in Christmas themed costumes and even a Disney themed Christmas market, there’s no better time to experience the magic of Disney.

Don’t forget to relax
After a hectic day of running around Paris admiring the sights, lights and shops you’ll certainly appreciate a warm and welcoming place to go back to. The best option for those after a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is to rent a Paris apartment. There are plenty of Paris apartments for rent in the city centre and renting an apartment is an easy way to bring convenience, luxury and space during your stay in Paris.

Photo credits -

Thinking about living in London? Here's my experience

Big Ben, one of the most popular landmarks of the English capital
I've lived in London for two years, and one of my favourite aspects of the city was that it has direct flights to all major destinations in Europe and all over the world. And if this isn't enough, from London I've always found the best deals, both with British Airlines and with other companies.

From London I traveled to wonderful Istanbul, to Abu Dhabi, and finally to Shanghai, where I stayed for a year. I've always used the metro to get to the airport, but who owns a car and plans a short vacation can consider some of the convenient options at Heathrow Airport Parking, so that you can leave it either inside or outside the airport without spending a fortune.

A similar opportunity is also at Manchester Airport Parking, and from Manchester too you can find great flights to the major European destinations.

I have lived in many places, but I've always found London the most convenient stopover, to the extent that now, even if I'm currently based in Italy, when I have to fly outside Europe, I would always consider London before Rome.

Actually, I've lived in Rome much longer than London, and I even know Rome much better than I know London, but for some odd reason that I can't even pin down, I feel more familiar in the airports of the English capital.

I have a controversial relationship with London. In the two years I've lived there I've had great experiences, met interesting people, participated to many demonstrations, felt its underground society, and also worked like crazy.

I took a Master in London, but was my second, so I wasn't exactly the carefree young student like many of my colleagues. I worked and studied at the same time, and at the end of my degree I launched with my freelance activity, meaning that I had to have also a part time job in order to pay bills and rent.

Needless to say, the beginning of my freelance career has been very hard (not that now it's a walk in the park), and being London so expensive didn't make things easier.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the city, walking along the South Bank, where there is always something to see/do/buy/photograph, going to the Globe Theatre to see Romeo and Juliet, visiting picturesque Covent Garden and ethnic Brick Lane, and also clubbing a bit.

London is indeed expensive, but it's also possible to find very good deals quite often. For food I don't remember spending a fortune, neither for my daily grocery nor for eating out. What can affect your budget is certainly the rent, the bills and the transport, especially if you take the train, but other than that you can pretty much afford an enjoyable life.

I spent in London two years and then went back a couple of times, if there is something you feel I omitted and you would like to know, I'll be glad to help!



The UK and my missed chances

I've lived in London for two years, I can say I know the city quite well, went out day and night, explored it, enjoyed events, museums, demonstrations, conferences, seminars and anything the English capital can offer.

So what's bothering me?

I didn't travel throughout the UK as I would have liked. In London I was working, the city was expensive so the little I managed to save was spent in trips outside the country, whenever I could take some time off

First of all, I would have loved to visit Scotland, Edinburgh is possibly my biggest regret. Actually I had already started making some plans of going there, and since I doubt I would have gone around by car, first of all because I'm a big fan of public transport, and also because I'm not really a great driver, I would have organized in a way to leave the car at the Edinburgh airport parking and hang around by bus.

I would love dawdling around the city's castles, exploring its fascinating history, experiencing its lively society, discovering little by little the UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on the very heart of the city such as the medieval Old Town, the Georgian New Town and the famous modern architecture.

I have by all means enjoyed my stay in London, but other than that, I didn't visit much. I went to Swansea and Cardiff, Wales, for a weekend, unfortunately only once and needless to say, it was pouring. Ok, I also went to Oxford, but for a conference, so I didn't get to see the city much, only a small walk at night just to have the time to see it's a lovely town.

Admittedly, in the public mind the UK is not a dream tourist destination, and weather-wise it's kind of understandable, but nevertheless, Scotland has always captivated me. Apart from Edinburgh, another city I would like to visit is Glasgow. Of course here too I would travel by bus so I would leave my car at the Glasgow airport parking.

Although the Scottish capital is Edinburgh, Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and one of the most cosmopolitan in the country. Situated on the River Clyde, it developed from the medieval Bishopric of Glasgow, becoming a major center of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Even if little of the old medieval Glasgow is still available to visitors, there are many places I would love to see (and take photo of), such as the fascinating Provand's Lordship, commissioned in 1471 by Andrew Muirhead, Bishop of Glasgow, as part of St Nicholas' Hospital, today's oldest remaining house in Glasgow, while the nearby Cathedral is the oldest building.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are some of my biggest regrets of my two years in the UK, but now that I'm back to Europe after a year in China I'm planning some trips around the Old Continent and certainly Scotland will be included.

Photo credits kevgibbo.

Interested in Travel Photography? Read this.

I've been cyber-stalking Bethany Salvon of Beers and Beans for a while now, barraging her with questions about photography, exposure, shutter speed, ISO and all the nice words you need to know (and understand) when you really want to capture that moment.

She has always been very patient, answering my questions and probably wondering why I wouldn't read some photography books. Well, the truth is, I did try to read digital photography books, but I somehow stopped half way.

I'm not saying they were not helpful, far from that, all the books I have are very detailed and explain well techniques and stuff, but I couldn't manage to understand and memorize them. Sometimes too technical, sometimes they just took for granted too many terms, I've always abandoned reading them and just kept on with my slow self-learning methods.

So now that Bethany has released her book on travel photography, aptly named Getting Out Of Auto, I couldn't miss it, could I? I've read it in one go, and I can officially state that I've fully understood the difference between exposure and shutter speed, to the extent that I can explain it with my own words and I know what I'm doing when I shoot night time or from a bridge.

This might seem very elementary, and for professionals it certainly is, but I've always been a little confused regarding the two definitions, since both of them are related to the amount of light that enters the camera.

I've often felt I've been taking photos in a sort of "unconscious" way, after reading this book I feel I know what I'm doing.

Bethany doesn't take anything for granted, she explains the basics in a way anybody can understand and gives simple and helpful examples for every situation. After making sure everybody is confident with concepts such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, the book dives headfirst into composition and artistic techniques and, most importantly, teaches how to break the rules, because, as Bethany says, "Rules are made to be broken. BUT... You can't successfully break the rules, until you know what it is you are breaking."

All rules, tips and techniques described are matched with photos in order to help readers understand what's the topic of discussion.

This book has been a revelation for me, I got explained what I was doing wrong and how I can get the effects I never managed to obtain (or if I did, it happened accidentally!). My next step will be getting out and putting Bethany's advices into practice as soon as possible so that I'll be well prepared when she will release (because I'm sure she will) her second book about travel photography for more advanced levels. 

To buy the book, click here.

Choosing the Right Cruise for You

This is a guest post by Holly Miller from Coupon Croc, where you can save on all your travel plans with a Travelodge discount code.

Cruises are easily the most popular vacation option for holiday-goers from around the world, and with itineraries that span the globe, your opportunities are limitless. Choosing the right cruise for your needs is important, as you will want to be sure your choice can deliver the holiday experience you’ve been looking for. We all look to get something different out of our holiday, whether it’s an opportunity to relax, be pampered, or be adventurous, cruises can offer a little something for everyone. Here are just a few tips that can help serve as a guideline when you’re looking to choose your cruise vacation.

- Off board activities: although many of us focus on the facilities available on board, we often forget that there are also on shore opportunities to experience as well. Many ships offer multiple opportunities to disembark and discover more attractions, whether it be the local coastal towns, or snorkeling in the ocean. If you are interested in getting off ship during your journey, make sure you look into what options they provide. Some cruises organize water sports, excursions into nearby towns, and other activities. Find a ship that offers the most opportunities you’d be interested in.

- Price options: every traveler will have a different budget to work with, and cruises are known for catering to all finances. You have plenty of accommodation options, which means broad price ranges, and all-inclusive packages as well. You can choose to have all of your meals included, as well as facilities such as the spa, gym, and more. Depending on your cruise package, you can find additional savings by bundling up your expenses. Consider all your options, and what will be the best price for the trip as a whole, not just the upfront cost. There are plenty of ways to have a cruise vacation on a budget, such as by choosing a room in the center of the ship, or choosing a shorter itinerary.

- Family-friendly: if you’re traveling with your family, you’ll want to be sure there will be something for everyone. Young children, teens, and adults can equally enjoy a cruise, as long as you choose one with plenty of activities for everyone. Many ships have a children’s pool, shows and entertainment, and day care facilities to keep them busy. Adults can enjoy adult-only pools, spas, and restaurants. As for teens, there are lounges with arcade games and soda bars for them to socialize and have fun on their own. No matter who you’re traveling with, make sure everyone will have something of interest on board.

- Itinerary: the route your cruise will follow could play a big part in your vacation, depending on your plans. If you plan on staying on board, consecutive days at sea won’t be a problem. If you want to do some on shore discovering, you’ll want a cruise that will hit multiple ports, in diverse and intriguing cities. Mediterranean cruises, for example, offer both island and continental destinations. You can visit the coastal towns of Italy and Spain, the Greek islands, the Spanish islands, and more. Make sure you provide yourself with the opportunity to experience exciting off board activities as well.

The Ultimate Guide to Budget Airline Charges (... and how to beat them!)

This is a guest post from

Budget air travel has made the world a smaller place, bringing previously far-flung destinations within easy reach of Heathrow. The fares are cheaper, but the no-frills airlines are still determined to get their hands on every last penny they can squeeze from your wallet.
The team here at has identified the sneakiest tricks played by the main budget airlines. The flights might look cheap to start with, but here - in order of sneakiness - is how the price can double with the errant click of a mouse.

1. Card fees

EasyJet: charge around £5.25 | $7.10 | €6.20 per person, per flight when you use a debit or credit card to book (they also add a 2.5% credit card loading charge too). If you have a Visa Electron card, however, you won't have to pay this fee.

Ryanair: impose a £5 | $7.10 | €5.60 'administration fee', payable by anybody using a debit or credit card to book online. The charge applies both ways, so it'll add £10 | $16.45 | €11.20 per person to the cost of your flights. They don't charge if you are using a MasterCard pre-paid charge card.

Flybe: charge £4.50 | $7.40 | €5 to pay on plastic unless you're using a Visa Electron card, and it'll be £5 | €5.60 | $8.20per person, per flight if you're using a credit card.

Aer Lingus: charge £5 | $8.20 | €5.60 per person, per flight for using any credit or debit card except Visa Electron. tip: Get a prepaid card so that you can avoid costly transaction charges. These work like debit cards but aren't linked to your bank account; instead you top them up with the credit you need to make your purchase. Check which type of prepaid card the airline that you plan to travel with lets you use to book fee free & apply for your card online.
Make sure that you choose your prepaid card carefully as many apply costly transaction charges and top up fees. Doing so will mean you save a significant amount by avoiding airline booking fees.

2. Check-in fees

Jet2: will charge £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 for you just to check in at the airport, although this drops to £2 | $3.30 | €2.25 if you do it online.

Ryanair: offers free online check-in on some flights, and charge a small sum on others. If you check in online and forget to bring your printed boarding pass, expect to pay £40 | $65 | €45 per person per way. tip: Check-in online. Some budget airlines like bmi baby and the Eastern European Whizz Air don't charge at all for online check-in. Just remember to print out the proof!

3. Seat reservation Fees

Jet2: charge a seating fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person, and this doesn't even guarantee you seats in the same area as your travel companions.

Flybe: charge a seat reservation fee of £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 per flight or £15 | $24.70 | €16.90 for a more spacious emergency exit seat.

EasyJet: charge around £7.25 | $11.90 | €8.15 for various types of "Speedy Boarding" options to get you onto the plane quicker. We recommend deselecting these options when booking online in order to save money, since it rarely reduces waiting time by more than a few minutes and the plane won't leave any quicker regardless. tip: Don't bother with these; they're basically a waste of money. Most budget airlines fill their planes up like buses (on a first come, first serve basis for the best seats) so the reserved seats count for very little in reality.

4. Changing the name on your ticket

Easyjet: If the name on your ticket isn't identical to the one on your passport, EasyJet insist you change it for £30 | $49.35 | €33.70 online or £40 | $65 | €45 at the airport.

Jet2: will charge you £27.50 | $45.20 | €30.90 if you miss out your middle name but it appears on your passport.

Ryanair: charge around £125 | $205 | €140 to amend the name on your ticket, so remember to include your full name as it appears on official documents. tip: Check, check and check again. Just because your friends call you 'Hazza' doesn't mean the person at the check-in desk will.

5. Baggage limits and charges

Flybe: limit you to 10kg for hand luggage, and will charge you £11 | $18.10 | €12.40 for a mere 15kg of hold luggage.

Aer Lingus: you'll pay £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 per item of hold luggage for flights around Europe, this increases to £36 | $59.20 | €40.50 a piece on flights to the USA.

Easyjet: If you try to take more than your allotted amount of luggage (currently 20kg) onto an EasyJet flight, you have to pay £25 | $41.10 | €28.10 at check-in or £40 | $65 | €45 at the boarding gate for them to take it from you and put it in the hold. tip: For short breaks, consider taking hand luggage only but make sure this meets not only weight but also dimension guidelines (Ryanair are particularly restrictive on the size of hand luggage).

6. Telephone booking premium

Ryanair: charge £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for over-the-phone bookings.

EasyJet: lets you book by phone for "free", but the call will be charged at an extortionate rate. It is easy to rack up a hefty bill using this method. tip: Book online. Even if there isn't a specific fee for booking by phone, the cost of the call will be greater than the equivalent internet use.

7. Cost per kilo of overweight bags

Ryanair: will set you back £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for every kilo your luggage is overweight, and their rules state that 'no pooling of baggage allowance is permitted' so it's not possible to share your unused allowance with others in your party.

EasyJet: will charge you £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per 1kg your luggage is overweight.

Flybe: charge you £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 for every additional kilo over the meagre 15kg bag limit. tip: Weigh your bags carefully before you set off for the airport. Put as much in your hand luggage as possible, but remember that liquids over a small amount (usually 50ml) and certain sharp toiletries will need to go in the hold.

8. Sports equipment

Ryanair: will charge £40 | $65 | €45 online or £50 | $82.30 | €56.25 at the airport for any large sports equipment or musical instruments you want to take onto the plane.

EasyJet: will sell you extra weight at a discounted rate for sports equipment and musical instruments. This is £18.50 | $30.40 | €20.80 when you arrange it in advance, or around £30 | $49.34 | €33.70 at the airport itself. tip: Buy the extra weight online in advance if you absolutely need to take this kind of luggage. Otherwise, consider renting abroad or getting there by other means (train or coach).

9. Final tips and pointers

Jet2: By default Jet2 adds extra hold luggage, a 'sit together' fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person included on a booking, insurance for everybody and a premium meal for every leg of the journey. These expensive additions have to be manually deselected during the booking process. Also, be aware when checking out Jet2's prices that they add a 'variable fuel charge' of around £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per person, depending on the journey.

Ryanair: counts Reus and Girona as 'Barcelona', despite the fact they're both well over an hour away by road. Be sure to factor in airport transfer when calculating the best deals. tip: Read every part of the terms and conditions, and triple check every amount and detail before pressing the 'ok' button to confirm your booking on the website.

Twelve things to remember when booking cheap flights:
The advertised price will nearly always go up. There's always some sort of unavoidable levy or charge. Some of Ryanair's best prices are genuinely under £5 | $8.20 | €5.60, but most are closer to £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 when everything is taken into account.

Booking and checking-in online saves the airline money and it will also save you money as long as you remember your boarding pass.

If possible, stick to hand luggage. Apart from the savings you'll make, it'll allow you to escape the airport at the other end without delays at the baggage carousel. Remember you won't be able to take sharp items or aerosols - check your airline's website for hand luggage restrictions.

Double check all your details and dates. It is surprisingly easy to get dates muddled (especially if they're in the American mm/dd/yy format) and it'll result in a hefty, opportunist fee to change them. The same goes for names. Include all your middle names and they won't be able to fleece you.

Don't bother buying priority booking or reserving a seat if you're trying to save money. We've found that it doesn't always work and isn't worth the cash, especially if there's a bus transfer to the plane.

Always check the terms and conditions on the airline's website. Their website is the only up-to-date source of information, so don't trust third parties with something as important as your holiday.

Budget airlines normally offer a point-to-point service, which implies no commitment to get you to any onward flights on time. If you end up at a peculiar airport miles from town due to delays, you might be in for a long wait for your next available flight. Ryanair actually discourage people from using their services if they're trying to make a connection.

Remember that cheap flights often end up at remote airports. You might save £30 | $49.35 | €33.70 getting a flight to Reus, but getting over to Barcelona will easily absorb that amount.

Snack before you get on the plane, and drink plenty of water. The average price for a bottle of water on board seems to be around £1.70 | $2.80 | €1.90.

Fly in the early morning or late evening, on a weekday. Aim to travel in the low season and definitely avoid school holidays if you want to get the cheapest deals.

Budget airlines won't wait for late passengers. The gates shut promptly and if you're not on the plane, you may face a lengthy wait for your luggage and you certainly won't get a refund.

Don't ignore the traditional, non-budget carriers. These are less restrictive than the budget airlines, fly to major airports, generally have more comfortable aircraft and might even be as cheap if not cheaper than their budget equivalent.

Photo courtesy of MarinaAvila

In Jerzu, for the "Festival dei Tacchi"

This is a guest post from Damiano of Turismo Sardegna, travel agency from my hometown. I've rarely hosted guest posts on my blog, I do only when I feel the article is in line with the purpose of the blog itself. And of course, after all I've written about my hometown, anything from Sardinia is more than welcome here.

Sardinia is a land full of history, culture, food, nature and dialects different from the rest of Italy.

But for most people, Sardinia is just an island of beautiful beaches and colourful waters, with delicious culinary and wine traditions and where sometimes traditional fairs and religious celebrations, such as the Sagra of Saint Efisio in Cagliari, take place.

However, Sardinia is also a land of music and theatre festivals which, every year, bring international artists from all over the world to this idyllic sunny corner of paradise.

Our journey made of music and theatre starts in Ogliastra. On Sardinia's eastern coast, it is the territory of the Cannonau vineyards, a land that you can also enjoy exploring or undertake some hiking between the coast and the mountains.

At the beginning of August, Jerzu, Ulassai and the Tacchi mountains will hold an international theatre festival called Festival dei Tacchi.

During these days, Jerzu (the main village) also celebrates the Cannonau (together with Vermentino, Malvasia, Monica and the Carignano, one of the most famous grapes in the island), an excellent, full-bodied red wine.

For a smart traveller with a hearty appetite, this is a great opportunity to enjoy wines, local gastronomy, music and theatre in the unspoilt nature of the Ogliastra.

Ulassai's canyon is also regarded as one of Sardinia's best free climbing sites.

Finally Arbatax (35 km away from Jerzu) is worth a visit for the typical red rocks.

The festival is called “The Tacchi Festival”, because it takes place in the area of the "Tacchi", a limestone formation which looks like upturned shoe heels, namely “tacchi” in Italian.

I could enjoy this festival several times, and sometimes I was even involved in its organisation, which was a truly great experience. Going to Ogliastra during the “Tacchi Festival” means intense days of discovering the surroundings.

On the morning, explore the coastal area around Jerzu. After a quick shower, just go for a stroll around the city centre of Jerzu or Ulassai in the wait for the next shows to come...
Please, when wandering about theses cities, do not miss the opportunity to taste the typical street food of Ogliastra, such as Coccoi Prena and Coccoi 'e tamata; and if you can afford it, treat yourself to a typical succulent dinner at the “Da Concetta” restaurant.

Interestingly, during the past ten editions, almost all the best actors and theatre companies have been involved in this festival. The best thing about it? Almost all the people involved in the event live in the area so, if you are lucky enough, you will have the chance to have with the actors, musicians or journalists. If you are not that lucky, just attend seminars, workshops and theatre sessions where you will be in touch with them!

Every year, at the same time, the city of Jerzu also hosts a great wine festival. Jerzu is in fact the "capital" of the Cannonau red wine district, Sardinia's most popular wine. The Cannonau wine festival mainly features wine and traditional Ogliastra food tasting in about twenty small “garage” wineries, as well as seminars, concerts and arts and crafts.

During the event, a lot of wineries will be open till late, offering wine and a great variety of local recipes to visitors. This is the kind of street food festival where people, a glass of wine in one hand and a small plate full of food in the other, will be walking up and down the main streets... getting increasingly happy thanks to the wine!


Another great plus for travellers who decide to visit Ogliastra during the Tacchi Festival is that anyone can choose the accommodation they prefer.
Backpackers can camp for free in the beautiful San Antonio wood, at about 5 kilometres from Jerzu.
However, budget hotels are widely available in Jerzu or Ulassai and it is also possible to rent a small apartment for the festival.

Travel to Ogliastra

By Ferry. There are different routes available from Italy mainland to reach Sardinia and the closest to Jerzu and Ulassai is with Tirrenia Ferries that offer great deals and promotions on Arbatax.
By plane. Cagliari, Alghero and Olbia are regularly served by low cost airlines.


Ogliastra Province Touristic Office. Website in English:

News and projects, the more I travel the more confused I am

I thought traveling was going to make things clear for me. In what sense? Well, at least in the sense of where I want to settle, eventually.

It seems like it's not the case, the more I travel, the less I know where to stop. I came to China for six months, I'm in the middle of my second semester,and already thinking about renewing my visa for the second time.

Is it China? Yes, it's China. The Red Dragon, after making me almost run away, now doesn't want to let me go. Is it only China? No, it's not. It's East Asia.

So far I've only traveled around China and India, but I'm planning to visit more countries of this fascinating region of the planet.

What is East Asia doing to me? Hard to say, but here I feel inspired, tireless, creative. I know I have been pretty silent on this blog, but I'm regularly updating my new site Chasing The Unexpected with my new travels, while Travel Calling will still be the place for the quirky aspects of my life as an expat, and, I have to say, East Asia offers invaluable "quirky" angles.

I, of course, am trying to understand myself why I'm finding East Asia so intriguing, maybe the simple lifestyle, maybe just the challenge of living (and traveling) in such a different society from the one I was used to, and probably even studying Mandarin, incredibly hard and beautiful language, all things that are contributing in making this experience much more charming than I expected.

It's probably not a mystery by now, but I have no intention of going back to Europe (yes, of course I'm going to see my family and friends, I didn't become crazy with all this inspiration!). I still don't know how I'll sort out the legal stuff, but as I'm gradually sensing here, in China everything is possible.

Blogging for New Zealand

I haven't been to New Zealand, but I know it's one the most adored travel destinations. Beautiful landscapes, friendly people and the benefit of mild temperatures are the perfect ingredients for an ideal vacation, and New Zealand has them all.

The end of 2010 has seen many natural disasters, from Europe to the US to Australia, the weather seemed to have gone crazy. Unfortunately, 2011 is proving even worse.

Only a couple of days ago Japan has been struck by an earthquake of magnitudo 8.9, which caused huge damages even if the country is well-equipped to face such natural phenomena. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami and a leak in one of the country's nuclear power plants, sparking worries all over East Asia.

About three weeks ago an earthquake killed 65 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Craig Martin of Indie Travel Media is organising a web event to boost tourism to New Zealand. Even if I haven't been there yet, I'm sure one day I will.

This is what Indie Travel Media says:

"The world is in shock that one of the premium travel destinations in the world could suffer such a natural disaster as happened two weeks ago in Christchurch. And while all our thoughts go out to those people who have lost loved ones, lost homes and businesses, travel bloggers around the world are uniting to tell the world New Zealand is a great place to travel and there is no better time than now."

"March 21, 22, and 23 has been set aside by travel bloggers throughout the world as 72 hours of content generation about travelling to New Zealand. #Blog4NZ is the brain-child of New Zealand travel bloggers Jim McIntosh and John Reese. John himself living in Christchurch. “We want a total black-out of travel content across the world, we want Twitter dominated by Tweets about travelling to New Zealand, we hope that all travel bloggers rally behind this cause and publish as many articles as possible throughout this period about travelling to New Zealand” said event organiser Craig Martin of Indie Travel Media.

“New Zealand is one of the world’s greatest travel destinations and has been a great source for many travel bloggers and travel entrepreneurs. For many northern hemisphere countries it is the furthest most spot they can travel. It has been the place where so much innovation has come with regard to travel – the home of Bungy, the birth place of hop-on hop-off backpacker travel, NZ led the way in independent hostels throughout the eighties and nineties. It is also a country where tourism is the number one contributor to GDP, where the Minister of Tourism is the PM – that is how important tourism is. This is the travel community saying hey go to NZ – if there is one place that should be on your travel list this year it is NZ” said Dan Roberts of Travel Generation. “This is something that as the travel community we can do to support not only all the businesses in Christchurch but everyone in New Zealand.”

Over the next few days event organisers will be working with the whole New Zealand tourism industry to gather resources, images and content that travel bloggers from all over the world will be able to access to generate their stories during the 72 hours of blog4NZ. At the same time the call is going out to all travel bloggers, travel experts, photographers and social media users to show the power of the Internet to make a real long term difference to those travel businesses suffering in New Zealand not just now but over the next 12 months in New Zealand as a result of the earthquake.

For more information go to Blog4NZ website

Contact: Dan Roberts Travel Generation
Phone: +64 3 441 8494
Mobile: +64 21 360 486

Time to grow up (and go self-hosted)

I had been thinking for long time, now I've finally made the decision and gone self-hosted.

In the two years I've kept this blog (which will still be regularly updated), I've loved the interaction with readers and other bloggers, it felt like my travels were more meaningful if I could share my experiences and provoke other people's reaction or even make them plan a trip themselves.

I have also enjoyed the Blogger platform, and admittedly got quite spoiled by it, as it's extremely easy to use. But now I feel I'm ready to challenge myself with a self-hosted website. Not because I feel very HTML-savvy, (erm, quite unexperienced, actually), but because I wanted more space, more "independence", in a nutshell, I wanted to "grow up".

My new website's title is Chasing The Unexpected. Who reads this blog, also knows how much I like unearthing the most hidden and quirky aspects of the countries I visit, and the purpose of Chasing The Unexpected is exactly to highlight nuances of places and cultures that media and tourist organizations neglect.

The best way not to miss any of my future articles, of course is to subscribe to my feed reader, I hope to see you all there!

Would you RANT a motorbike?

Like in every country, also in India the colors are given by its inhabitants. Hanging around the picturesque and quirky towns in the Rajasthan state, my attention was inevitably captured by markets, animals and shop signs.

Many Indians speak a good English, although sometimes they write it how it sounds, making it look exquisitely local.

How can you not be enticed to try the Italiyan restaurant in Jaisalmer?

Would you prefer taking a local "taxi" or rant a motorbike?

Whether you are looking for memorable subjects for your pictures, unusual corners of civilization or colorful samples of humanity, India has it all. A real photographer's paradise, not only when it comes to landscapes.

Unearthing rural India with locals AKA Meet the team

With Chandu, the driver who never gets tired, holding me not to fall off the camel
I admit, I'm a fan of independent travel (read: travel on a shoestring) and a seeker of the unexpected, but when I decided to go to India, I felt right to book a guided tour.

The main reason was that I was staying for only ten days and I wanted to see as much as possible, without wasting time looking for transports, entrances and understanding how to get about.

Certainly, getting around has been much easier, so my first need, as I expected, was fully met, however, I grew increasingly happy to have a guide all throughout rural India.

Traveling in Rajasthan can be tricky, despite my guide's recommendations on basic safety rules, I got sick and spent a whole night throwing up everything I had eaten probably in the past six months, with the result that the morning after I looked like a zombie.
Chandu teaching me how to eat Indian food
Although I love street food, I haven't had any in India, I have always been very careful to drink only bottled water and avoided anything "risky". Probably what got me was some milk-based dish in which the milk could have been expired.

Apart from that, the trip went smoothly, and I have only nice memories. The travel guides I've had were great, and I'm happy we are still in touch (yes, thanks to the magic of the Internet..).

Who stayed with me from day one, worried about my being too skinny, encouraging me to eat more than I could manage and solving each every one of my problems in less than no time was not my mom as you might think, but Chandu, a great driver who never gets tired. Seriously, after ten hours drive I was more exhausted than he was.

Clearly an experienced travel guide, he provided me with colorful anecdotes everywhere we went, contributing in unveiling the idiosyncrasies of the Indian society I wouldn't have been able to capture on my own in such a short time.
Danish, proudly staring in front of his beloved Taj Mahal

From day three, travel agent Sushila joined us. The official reason was that "she had never visited the cities we were going next", but I believe the real aim was that she was worried about a little girl traveling all alone throughout rural India. Not sure why everybody thought I was 20, but I'm certainly not complaining about it.

In every city there was a local guide ready to take over the stint to show me around and all I had to do was follow, listen and, obviously, take thousands of pictures. Traveling has never been that easy.

In Agra, Danish showed me the Agra Fort and introduced me to the story of love and pain behind the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Taj Mahal with such passion that sometimes I thought he wished he had built the Taj himself.
Chhotaram smiling *after* the opium ritual

In Jaipur I was escorted by Bisaj, who explained me Indian complex astrology system, according to which they assess everybody's "luck" in order to arrange future marriages. When he learnt I was 32 and unmarried, he kindly offered to find out what's wrong with me and work out my luck. I'm still waiting full of hope.

Jodhpur was a blast. Literally. Escorted by Chhotaram Prajapat, Sushila, Chandu and myself ventured in beautiful Salawas village, in Jodhpur district. After enjoying an otherworldly immersion in nature, admiring shy deers, antelopes, black bucks and peacocks, we had a taste of what village life in rural India looks like.

The tour of the tiny hamlet started with the ceremony of the opium, central part of their social mores, carried out during special occasions and to make up in case of arguments. When everything was ready, I was inevitably asked if I wanted to try it out, and my thrilled "Yes" was met by Chhotaram's smirk and Chandu's eye-rolling, who I'm pretty sure was thinking "Oh my God, she's gonna get sick again."

Myself with Sushila and Chandu *after* the opium ritual

Leaving Jodhpur, we drove to Jaisalmer, where my tour of the city was colored by the tales of Papu, or Prem, not sure. Like Chandu, also Papu seemed very concerned about my eating habits, because "not only work is important, you need to take care of your body first." He still reminds me, so how can I forget.

Apart from my not-eating-enough sorrow, Papu was very busy all the time we spent in the desert trying to find a toilet for me. When I realized the best solution he had come up with was to go behind a tree, I decided to keep it, also because the desert is not exactly synonymous with lush vegetation.

Papu and Sushila floating in the air. Yes, guides can also do that
After the desert safari, we "casually" ended up at a 5-star hotel, so after avoiding the tree, I had the chance to try out a 5-star toilet. Still now Papu can't believe it: "I've never met anyone able to keep their wee for two hours."

The last city I've visited was Bikaner, too short time for a local guide, so I Sushila and Chandu brought me to a temple devoted to mice: thousands of mice darting in and out so fast that at every step I made I was afraid to crash some. Like in every other temple, shoes were not allowed, and since mice are not my favourite pets, I threw my socks out after the holy visit. But I still truly appreciate Indian love for animals.

With the benefit of the hindsight, I think I wouldn't have been able to enjoy India as much as I did without the aid of my local guides, who have definitely made my trip more colorful and authentic.

My tour was booked with Delhi-based travel agency, and I recommend it without hesitation:
Millennium Travels,
227 Defence Colony Flyover Market
New Delhi 110024
Tel +91 2431 0476/ 2432 6258
Mobile 9810 116632

**Despite my over-excited tone, this is NOT a sponsored post.

Me, my camels and the rest of the zoo in Rajasthan, India

My passion for camels is not a secret, it was love at first sight in Abu Dhabi desert, and I almost got traded with two camels in Istanbul. It must be a destiny, everywhere I go I see camels, or I unconsciously choose destinations were I'm bound to find them.

India is not just a photographer's paradise, but also a camel's paradise. Or any animal's for that matter, since, as my guide told me many times "In India you don't need to go to the zoo, you'll find it in the streets."

Cows, monkeys, elephants, pigs, any creature you can think of swans around the badly kept roads of rural (and urban) India.

Indians have a sort of obsession for animals, they don't kill them, in the Rajasthan region most people are completely vegeterian, instead of eating meat, they translate animals into gods and worship them. During all my travels I had never been to a place where people establish a so close contact with nature. Almost unbearably fascinating.

I'm not vegetarian, but I realize I'm gradually eating less and less meat. I really I love animals, and during my recent trip to India, along with visiting countless monuments and places of historical interest, and driving around the Rajasthan, I couldn't stop staring at the cows: they are their holy animal, they are everywhere, they live in the streets, they hang around local markets, living just fine among people.

Indians don't even mind until they stumble on them suddenly in the middle of the road while recklessly darting back and forth with their cars and motorbikes: it's unforgivable sin (and very likely also illegal) to hit a cow.

Not only happy cows swinging their head conscious of their importance, but also other animals live carefree in a country where they are loved, protected and worshipped.

As for me, having the possibility to see my camels so often, without rushing and being able to capture their funky smile with my camera was, well, priceless.

More pearls, as usual, on my Flickr set devoted to animals.

When I'm wrong, I admit it (sometimes)

I must confess, I hate being proved wrong. Probably this is quite common, but I have to admit, I really hate it. This being said, sometimes I agree to give up on the last word. This usually happens when insisting on my version would not only further show that I'm wrong, but also that I'm grumpy.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about my first six months in China, and I have to say, my initial experience in Far East Asia made me draw some hasty wrong conclusions, among which the wrongest one was that I didn't want to stay.

My initial settling in Shanghai hasn't been easy, actually it was a proper shock mainly due to the language barrier. I'm comfortable in five languages, one being widespread English, so I thought I wouldn't have encountered so many difficulties, at least for the most basic things.

I quickly revisited my opinion when I realised I could literally count on one hand the people I met with who spoke a little English. Even at the hotel in Beijing city centre, none of the receptionists spoke English. I'm not a fan of "imposing" my language anywhere, this is why I like studying many different idioms, but admittedly, in China I was truly taken aback.

You don't realise the importance of the language until you absolutely need to make yourself understood by the person you are talking to and you are unavoidably met with a puzzled look of despair. This was my daily routine when I arrived in July until, well, not long ago.

Still now, the most common sentence in my personal vocabulary is "Ting bu dong": it looks like this 听不懂, and it means "I can hear you but I can't understand you". Mandarin Chinese is definitely a difficult language, and by difficult, I mean difficult. It's not words that you can just "pick up", if you don't know it, you are in the dark. It's like learning two languages, for between the spoken and the written there is no relation whatsoever: the written has 5000 characters, and as many years, under its collective belt; the spoken is a tangled web of tones that, although to a clumsy Western pair of ears sound perfectly the same, to Chinese people are totally different.

So, misunderstandings and the awareness of living in a nearly complete darkness, led me to regret my choice of spending six months in China and, as I started to think I will never be fluent, I didn't even want to learn such a difficult language.

All these seemingly impossible-to-overcome difficulties have been haunting me since the beginning but, oddly enough, little by little they are becoming the funny side of my stay in Shanghai. Now, I'm the first one to laugh when I don't understand or I can't express myself, and this is gradually revealing very helpful, firstly because I don't panic anymore and I just throw in all words I can muster, and secondly because people are more willing to give me the time to do such.

Apart from language-related adventures, recently I've been realising I'm slowly falling in love with China, its culture, its philosophy of life, its people.

This is a bit of a problem, and not just because here I can't get married (I know, it's sad, but not much I can do about it), but especially because I had different plans, which involved staying in China for a period between six months to a year and then moving to the Middle East for another six months to a year period.
However, at the moment, I can't see myself leaving China. Six months have already gone, the next half year will fly as fast as the previous one and I'm already thinking about extending my visa (again).

I'm not sure what has cast such a spell on me, probably the very easygoing aspect of pretty much everything in the Chinese lifestyle, or maybe the fact that you can do whatever you want and it will always be ok, or my gradual acknowledging that overcoming the challenge of integrating in such a different society is more rewarding than I thought it would be.

If at the beginning Shanghai was unsettling in a sort of "unwelcoming" terms, now it's the other way around. Feeling more "at home" than in any other destinations I've moved to is a bit scary, but certainly enjoyable.

Hopping on and off the little islands of the One Thousand Island Lake

It was early November, and in Hangzhou I had the first signs of what it would have been the Chinese winter. It's here that I experienced the first cold and had an idea of what to expect.

Although Shanghai's temperatures winter time are usually between 10° and 3°C, this year the city has been hit by an unusual wave of cold, joining the rose of countries slammed by anomalous weather conditions all over the globe, from Australia to the US to Brazil, to Europe. Unlike the past years, however, it's not raining much in Shanghai, nor I'm finding it very humid.

When I went to Hangzhou, it wasn't as cold as it is now, but as we were used to last summer's blazing heat, the sudden dropping of the temperature probably felt colder than it actually was. Additionally, spending most of the time in the upper deck of the boat defying wind and most annoying fine rain in order to catch the best views for photos (I know, very heroic of me), made it even more biting.

Every island has its own peculiarity, be it the recurrence of Chinese zodiac symbols, a ridiculously high concentration of snakes, or picturesque temples. In one of the islands I got on the cableway to further admire the view. Thick clouds, unfortunately, didn't allow a clear view of the landscape which, revealed pretty overwhelming nonetheless.

I'll take this as an excuse to go back during springtime, to devote a sunny weekend uniquely to those little islands, to fully enjoy what the One Thousand Island Lake has to offer and take the shots I missed last time.

More photos of the lake on my Flickr set.

In China, where I won't get married

Recently I have read a post by Kate of Adventurous Kate, about being too late to have a baby, and I was reminded of a funny event that had just happened to me.

Again, I have to thank my laoshi for her enlightening tips on Chinese society. This time, however, I would have probably preferred to stay in the dark.

Whenever she perceives a lack of attention in the class, our teacher throws in some funny bits of oriental etiquette, and this is how I suddenly realised I'm getting too old for having an "ordinary" life.

To be honest, I had already noticed how Chinese people react when I tell them I'm 32, not married and have no children: their head slowly starts leaning on a side, and the movement is usually associated with a compassionate "Aww...". Only when they see my puzzled look, they rush adding: "Oh, but you look 25!"

Probably because I've always lived in Europe, and only traveled out of Europe without really settling, this has come as a surprise. So far, I had never been considered "too old" and most of my friends are neither married or have children. Actually, marry too early is an aspect of Italian life a couple of generations ago.

My grandmother, for example, got married at 19, and at 26 had already to six children. Wisely, she has always advised her daughters not to do so, and instead pursue their personal life goals first. But obviously things had changed since the '40s and '50s, so my mom and aunts had the opportunity to make their own choices independently.

Fortunately, my mother has never put any wedding pressure on me, and has actually always advised to live the life I want, setting my own priorities.

Now, however, I'm gradually accepting the new reality: I won't get hitched in China.

Our laoshi's revealing anecdote was also very funny, telling about a quirky tradition in which desperate parents get to Shanghai city centre to stick their daughters' "CV" on trees or wherever they can in the hope that a Chinese version of Prince Charming can pick his future wife. However, what most has remained impressed in my mind is the very first statement: "Are you over-30? Forget it, you are too ripe to find a husband."

Apart from having already reached the fatal expiration date, I've never felt the need, nor the desire for that matter, to get married.

It's not that I'm totally excluding the possibility, but admittedly, my nomadic lifestyle of changing country (or Continent!) every two years, doesn't help.

Call it "commitment issues", "restless soul", "running away from something", anything might fit the description, but at 32 years of age I haven't thought about marriage yet. Should I?

In China, a photographer's paradise

Along with studying Mandarin, I'm also enjoying the wonders of the Chinese mainland. Around every corner, there is a breathtaking view, unusual landscapes, quirky buildings, in a nutshell, a photographer's paradise.
View in ZhouZhuang water town, one of the most popular around Shanghai

China is huge, coming from Europe probably I didn't really have the sense of space, or at least not enough for when it comes to such big nations. Here everything is far from everything, to go to "close" cities, most of the time you'll need the plane.

For the period I will spend in Far East Asia, I want to visit as many countries as possible, but also explore China as much as I can.

Bridge in ZhouZhuang
Being studying in Shanghai, I naturally have more opportunities to visit the surroundings of the country's financial capital, and along with great subjects for my pictures, I'm absorbing the ancient culture that has contributed in making China the giant it is today.

One of the aspects I most like in Chinese culture is their close contact with nature. This has made me appreciate the small water towns around Shanghai, their typical gardening style that gives much importance to stones, exhibited in their original shape, with no further carving.

I went to Suzhou, considered the main water town, and visited two of the most important gardens. Everything there is built with the aim of enjoying natural phenomena with all senses.

ZhouZhuang-style "gondolas"
So there is the space for contemplating natural sceneries, the room specifically created to better appreciate the sound of the rain and winding waterways and calm lakes occasionally interrupted by the beloved stones, a gift to men from Nature.

These are some of the shots I took in ZhouZhuang water town, I've uploaded more on a Flickr set I've devoted to Shanghai's neighborhood, with other pictures from ZhouZhuang, Suzhou and ZhuJiaJiao.
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