Prague Christmas Markets

Christmas time in Europe conjures up images of frosty air, snow, and best of all, the Christmas Markets which pop up in the centres of historic towns and cities. If Christmas is for children, then Christmas markets have to be for adults. The town squares are decorated with twinkly lights, trees are adorned with decorations, choirs sing, and orchestras play festive tunes; the atmosphere is magical. There are traditional toys and mouth-watering produce on sale, tempting hot chestnuts and mulled wine on offer, even if you are not a fan of Christmas this will undoubtedly bring on a festive spirit.

Prague is beautiful at any time of the year, but in winter, it’s even more so. The Old Town Square with its enormous Christmas tree, delivered from the Krkonose Mountains in the north of the republic, is a spectacular sight against the Gothic Týn Church. The 15th century Astronomical Clock which entertains visitors on the hour every hour, the beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, and the mural covered Storch building are surrounded by small wooden huts decorated with pine, fir and twinkly white lights. Stop off at a stall selling svarene vino, hot wine with liqueur for added warmth, and try a traditional slice of Stollen or a sausage, to soak up the alcohol. All around the marketplace are opportunities to buy beautiful Christmas decorations, baubles made from glass and decorated with intricate hand painted designs, wooden toys, and nativity figures made from corn. Along Charles Bridge, the gateway between the Lesser and the Old Town, there are stalls selling stocking fillers, scented candles, handmade jewellery and puppets, a traditional Czech toy.

The centre of Prague is small and easily explored on foot. It’s not just the Christmas markets that make for a festive atmosphere, the shops and restaurants are decorated with traditional decorations, and sights such as the castle come alive. Prague Castle, the biggest and most ancient castle in the world, looks down over the frost covered city and the Vltava River, and nearby St. Vitus Cathedral with its lookout tower is my favourite photo spot. On the way back down escape the cold, and stop off at one of the small restaurants that can be found in the narrow alleyways. Traditionally the main meal of the day in Prague is lunch, which typically consists of hearty pork or beef dishes with potatoes or dumplings, followed by traditional desserts such as ovocné knedlíky, fruit dumplings. These may seem rather heavy, but it beats off the cold and warms your heart from the inside out.

Finally, the highlight of my Christmas market experience in Prague is an evening concert. Nothing can beat a brisk walk through the freezing streets to a venue such as Prague Castle, St Salvator Church, or the Prague State Opera House for an evening of music by candlelight. It’s a totally unbelievable experience.

Written Christmas 2011 for Euroscape Travel, and included here because it’s that time of year again…

Ocean Beach – live life like a local

If you’re searching for a real, laid-back beach community, a place where the wave’s pound against the pier, where the shops are small and locally owned, and where your best friend is encouraged to dig all day long, then you should check out Ocean Beach, San Diego.

This is the last of California’s real surfing communities; a place where you can buy some fabulous surf gear, eat at tasty restaurants, soak up the sun on the beach, and listen to everything from jazz to rock whilst buying your veggies at the weekly open-air market.

Ocean Beach – Surf it

There are two really great surf spots, OB Pier and Sunset Cliffs.

OB Pier is suitable for everyone, from beginners to experts. The south side has a nice left where you can shoot the pier at high tide. The north side has nice rights and pretty decent lefts, depending on the direction of the swell. So, it’s a pretty good all round spot.

The optimum surfing conditions: Wave height between 3 & 6 feet. Swell direction, west/northwest.

Sunset Cliffs is probably best tackled only by those with experience. The location means that you need to climb in and out, not something you want to be doing on your second or third attempt. The cliffs have both very hard breaking waves and exceptional long, hollow waves. This surf spot provides great rights and lefts.

The optimum surfing conditions: Best conditions are 3-5ft up to 12 ft

If you’ve need to rent a board, want to take lessons, or you just need some wax, check out OB Surf & Skate, these guys offer everything.

4976 Newport Avenue San Diego, CA 92107
Ph: 619-225-0674
http://obsurfandskate.com/

Another great resource: http://www.surfline.com/surf-report/ocean-beach-southern-california_4253/ This give you the current wind speed, tide information, and a surf report.

Ocean Beach – Love it

Love it because your dog can come too. Dog Beach is where your four legged friend can run free off the leash, swim, dig, and romp with friends without you getting a hefty fine. There are a few rules; pets should be vaccinated, obedient, and not too loud. By law you’ll have to clean up after them, and unfortunately, no doggy treats are allowed.

Dog Beach is easy to spot, apart from the number of dogs going crazy, there’s also a commemorative tiled walkway and a welcome surfboard with the name written on it.

Where’s the beach? At the northern end of Ocean Beach, near the mouth of the San Diego River, at the end of Voltaire Street.

Ocean Beach – Eat it

After surfing, food has to be a number the one priority. These are some of OB’s very best establishments:

Newport Pizza – The best crusts in San Diego. This famous local spot has an impressive micro brew beer selection, a no ‘crap on tap’ policy, and you can bring your dog too. Open from 12 – 12 (2am at the weekends) enjoy a loud and lively atmosphere where tunes are courtesy of the duke box. Pick a slice and pay. Simple. Eat in or take out, try The Hulk or the David Hasselhof. Warning: Cash only, no cards.

5050 Newport Ave San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-224-4540
http://www.obpizzashop.com

If you love pizza but you’re in a group, there’s no way you’re all going to fit into the Newport. Try Pizza Port, a much larger place with great beer, pizza, and long picnic tables.

1956 Bacon St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619- 224-4700.
http://www.pizzaport.com/

O.B. Noodle House – Home to the best drink specials in OB. Everyone loves this place. It’s loud, but the food is delicious. Vegetarian spring rolls with peanut sauce, char grilled shrimp, and steaks, it’s got the lot. Open from 12- 11 (11-11 Friday to Sunday) this place gets packed after 4pm so put your name on the list, and give the hostess your cell number; they’ll call you when your table is ready. Try the Sake it’s wonderful.

2218 Cable St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-450-6868
http://www.obnoodlehouse.com

Hodad’s – If you’ve been surfing at Sunset Cliffs (or even if you haven’t) and you love burgers, onion rings and milkshakes, the only place in OB to come is Hodad’s. Open from 9 (10 at the weekend), the queues will be out the door, but stick with it. It’s loud, but the burgers are juicy, the rings are to die for, and the milkshakes well, see for yourself. Tip: If you don’t want to queue, call in, order take out, and eat on the beach.

5010 Newport Ave San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-224-4623
http://www.hodadies.com

Ocean Beach – Live it

When you’ve surfed out for the day, here are some places to drink, dance, and hang out.

Winston’s is a small, intimate venue with live music open until 2am. This is where you enjoy reggae with the hippy set one night, Karaoke, touring and local bands another. But whatever’s playing, the atmosphere is good, and the bar has a full choice of beers, wines, and spirits. Warning: Cover charge.

1921 Bacon St, San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-222-3802
http://www.winstonsob.com

Gallagher’s is an Irish pub where each night something different is going on -from live music and DJ’s to giant games. Check out the $3 beer of the month and $3 speciality shots from the land of the leprechaun. Open until 2am.

5046 Newport Ave Ocean Beach, CA 92107
PH: 619- 222-5300
http://www.gallagherspubob.com

Tiny’s Tavern is unique – why? Well, most bars are best at the weekends, but Tiny’s is best on Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Thursday’s; it’s also unique because it only serves beer. If you’re looking for a truly local bar with Hawaiian styling, plenty of TVs, and the friendliest staff, this has to one for you. Open until 2am.

4745 Voltaire St San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-523-1002
http://www.tinystavernsd.com/

Ocean Beach – Sleep it

If you don’t have the comfort of your own VW camper, you’ll need a place to crash, here are some of Ocean Beaches best accommodation options.

If you’re one of those ‘comfort’ people who enjoys a nice soft bed, pool and comfortable furniture visit http://www.seabreezevacationrentals.com/ the site to browse upscale houses and condos for rent.

At the other end of the scale, for a place to lay out head without spending big bucks, consider the OB International Hostel. Good points: Curtains on the beds, free internet, free linen, free breakfast, very close to the beach and nightlife. Not so good points: Staff get mixed reviews from REALLY friendly to rude, and it can be noisy; BUT it’s only $20 a night.

San Diego’s Ocean Beach International Hostel 4961 Newport Ave. San Diego, CA 92107 www.CaliforniaHostel.com

If neither a condo nor a hostel takes your fancy, why not try The Ocean Beach Hotel, located in the heart of OB. It has beach views and Mediterranean styling, every room has hardwood flooring, 32” flat screen TVs and air-conditioning units, microwave, and refrigerator.

Ocean Beach Hotel, 5080 Newport Ave. San Diego, CA 92107
PH: 619-223-7191
www.obhotel.com

Ocean Beach – Try it

Ocean Beach has some unique stores, not the large chain store types, but small independent places where you’re treated like a friend. But as well as all that there are lots of outdoor events, try these:

Wednesday Farmers Market, on Newport Avenue between Cable and Bacon Streets, is where you can buy locally grown produce, art, flowers, and lots more whilst listening to live bands.

OB Street Fair & Chilli Cook-Off Festival, held in June each year; OB Oktoberfest, the German beer festival; and the Annual Holiday Parade with surfing Santa’s, bands and individual floats.

Check out the calendar of events: http://www.oceanbeachsandiego.com/calendar

Ocean Beach – Know it

A few ‘good to know’ tips about Ocean Beach.

Fishing. The pier is one of the few places in San Diego where you can fish without a license. You need to understand the size and catch limits, just ask the locals if you don’t know.

Beach Life. Ocean Beach has supervised swimming and surfing areas, restrooms, showers and disabled assistance.

Parking. Public parking lots can be found at the end of Voltaire Street, adjacent to Dog Beach and at the end of Santa Monica Avenue adjacent to the main lifeguard station. There’s also a large lot in Newport Avenue, adjacent to the Ocean Beach Pier. Street parking is also available along Newport Avenue and the residential side streets.

That’s it, that’s Ocean Beach, now you know it, surf it, love it.

Russian style

St Petersburg in winter, with its snow covered palaces, has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. High art, excellent nightlife, rich culture, and extraordinary history, attracts visitors in search of something just a little bit different.

The image of Russia is often that of the Cold War, grey and unwelcoming, but St Petersburg is anything but. It has beautiful tree lined avenues and gracious bridges which cross the winding River Niva. It has magnificent palaces and great gardens, and although it was only founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the city is crammed with the history from the Romanovs, and mysterious cultural associations.

The highlights are numerous but perhaps the most well know has to be the Winter Palace which dominates the Palace Square and the south embankment. This was once the elaborate home of Catherine the Great, and today the palace exterior has remained almost unchanged from its appearance in 1762. The Winter Palace is connected to the Hermitage museum, and together they hold over 3 million items from impressionist masterpieces to oriental treasures, which were once all part of Catherine II’s collection.

Other extremely notable sights are:

St Isaac’s Cathedral – Built between 1818 and 1858, by the French architect Auguste Montferrand, St Isaac’s Cathedral was the largest cathedral in Russia until the rebuilding of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Its gilded dome dominates the skyline, and the inside is adorned with incredible mosaics, paintings and magnificent columns of lapis lazuli and malachite.

Peter and Paul Fortress – Almost every Tsar since Peter the Great lies buried here, and that includes Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. The Tsar, along with his family, servants and doctor, were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Their remains lay undiscovered on the outskirts of the Ural town of Yekaterinburg for many years, but in 1998 the imperial family were buried with a state funeral at the Cathedral, next to the graves of the other Romanovs. 

The Church of Our Savoir on the Spilled Blood – The Resurrection Church and The Church of the Resurrection of Christ are all names used for this church, and although there is some debate about the correct name, there is no doubt that the view from Nevsky Prospect is absolutely breathtaking. The Russian style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated when a group of revolutionaries threw a bomb into his carriage in1881. Both the interior and exterior of the church are decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics.

And as the curtain falls on a trip to St. Petersburg there is still one more thing you simply must do, and that’s to pay a visit the Mariinsky Theatre. This is the home of the Kirov Ballet and Opera, an evening here is an unforgettable experience. One top tip for a visit is to try and get a seat in the first row, as the second row is only fractionally higher, making the stage more difficult to see.

One hundred and one reasons to visit Rwanda – Part I

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In 1994, Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide, Hutu’s and Tutsi’s clashed, and almost one million people were slaughtered in just one hundred days. But despite the past, the people of Rwanda work together with hope and understanding, to make sure an event like this never takes place again.

This understanding and forgiveness is a credit to those who are left behind, and a fitting testament to their cause is the Kigali Memorial Centre, where the bodies of over 250,000 victims are now buried. But, this is not just a burial site, this is a place to learn from the past and bring hope to future generations.

Set on a hillside, surrounded by gardens full of beautiful roses, the Kigali Memorial Centre glistens. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful, a sense of well being and tranquillity fills the air, and even the chatter of visiting children seems appropriate. Inside, the feeling remains, but a sense of sadness and reality takes hold. The bright sunshine is replaced by three exhibition rooms where spotlights create an atmosphere. Detailed, touching but truthful information highlights key stages in the genocide; the road leading up to the events, the 100 days of the genocide, and the aftermath. This is the first floor, which also houses a photo memorial, a picture gallery filled with photos of the victims from happy times. Times of special family occasions – weddings, birthdays, family get togethers, and proud portraits in best clothes. These pictures, and a collection of clothing, brings home that these people were real people, human beings just like everybody else.

The second floor is also a place for reflection; it is the children’s memorial. Here, along with images of children, their school rooms and pictures of their family lives, fourteen windows each tell the story of one child – their favourite sport, food, drink, best friend, and finally, their cause of death…following this part of the exhibit a balcony overlooks the gardens to allow for a moment of reflection.

Francine Murengezi Ingabire
Age: 12 years
Favourite sport: Swimming
Favourite food: Eggs and chips
Favourite drink: Milk and Fanta tropical
Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette
Cause of death: Hacked by machete

In April 2012, Francine would have celebrated her 30th Birthday, maybe she would have been a doctor or a mother. But today, in her own way, she is a teacher, teaching others that ethnic cleansing is not acceptable.

There is much much more to this memorial and its gardens, and this is not the only one of its kind in Rwanda, there are others. They all tell a story which will hopefully help to demonstrate some unforgettable lessons to the world. To some, this may seem like a reason not to visit Rwanda, but this centre helps local people and visitors to understand what makes the Rwandan people what they are – strong, forgiving and caring. This is an exceptionally compelling reason to visit their beautiful country.

http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html