“Off the Beaten Track” — Homeswaps In Our Dreams

Whether you’re couchsurfing, swapping homes or renting an AirBNB, the globe has never been smaller. We all love to travel and, in the world we live in today, it’s simple just to book a tick  And let’s face it, how many of us haven’t dreamed occasionally of packing a bag, saying a few farewells then cutting loose for the break of a lifetime?

But what about the places that aren’t so easy to name or point to on a map?  Everyone knows where London, Paris and New York are but what about Cartagena, Maputo and Tonga?

The fact is that the world is full of vacation spots that aren’t overrun with tourists as yet and have so much to offer a curious traveller.  So the question is which destination would you pick, if you could journey anywhere?   Here are five of our top choices:

1. Raratonga, the Cook Islands

With a population of only 10,000, Raratonga is pretty small – indeed it’s population is only around 10,000 – although it’s still the biggest of the Cook Islands.  Known for its flame coloured coral-reef and blue lagoons, it never fails to overwhelm visitors…its natural beauty is quite astonishing!

If you don’t want to lie on ab each, simply look for active pursuits – there are so many.  Climb up a volcano and gaze down at the jungle below.   Pick up a mask and fins and snorkel with brightly coloured fish.  After the sun goes down, walk in the night market and try some of the local street food.  Whether you want to relax or explore, Raratonga won’t disappoint.

2. Kandy, Sri Lanka

This charming and beautiful town was the last capital of the ancient Kings and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Nestled in the hills of Sri Lanka, and surrounded by tea plantations (which CasaVersa highly recommends you visit), walk around the crystal clear lake and soak up the views.  Kandy is also home to the sacred ‘Temple of the Tooth’ shrine as well as Dambulla Caves.

And if you want to venture a little further afield, hop on the train with a destination named Nuurawa Elya – jokingly called “Little England.”  The rubber plantation and rice paddies you’ll see along the way will remain etched in your mind for a long long time…

3. Luang Prabang, Laos

Surrounded by mountains, Luang Prabang may well be the most beautiful place in Laos.   With its French colonial architecture and golden temples. Visit the Royal Palace (famous for its logo, a three-headed elephant under a parasol) and Wat Chom Si Temple.

Luang Prabang is also home to a large Buddhist community – rise early and watch them walking the streets collecting alms (given to them by local people to sustain them for the day).  And if you’re looking for more adventure, the Mekong Delta isn’t too far to visit.  Laos is still not overrun with tourists so don’t delay…

4. Patagonia. Chile

Located at the bottom  South America, incorporating the lower parts of both Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is a veritable paradise for hikers, animal lovers and adventurous travellers.  Whether you’re walking in desolate landscapes, admiring natural beauty, watching birds or hiking mountains, this part of the world is so unspoilt you’ll never want to leave.

Spend a day at the ‘Perito Moreno’ glacier — a truly spectacular site, not just because of its size and colour but because it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing. Visit Bariloche, the ‘Switzerland’ of Argentina,Or travel to Torres Del Paine, the most well-known national park in South America, its landscapes dominated by soaring granite pillars.  Another hot spot is Bariloche – known as the Switzerland of Argentina, it is famed for creamy chocolate!

Yes — Patagonia really has it all.

5. Vladivostock, Russia

For anyone who has spent 6 long days crossing empty landscapes on the Trans-Siberian railway journey, this is your final destination.  An enormous Russian port, Vladivostock is a city undergoing huge expansion and renovation, and is a good starting point for anyone who wants to explore the surrounding lakes or even venture into Asia (think Korea and Japan).

Historically a city of fortresses, start your Vladivostock wanderings at number 7, which is quite unusual, as it boasts over 1.5 kilometres of tunnels underneath.

Stroll over to the cities famous landmark – the Monument to the Fighters for Soviet Power -a city landmark  Admire the view from Zolotoy Bridge (a cable-stayed bridge) – you can take a funicular rude if you’re feeling lazy!  And what trip to Russia would be complete without a visit to a tearoom.  The city is full of them so sit down, relax and  наслаждаться! (Or ‘Enjoy’ as we say in English!)

The Fantastic Advantages of Homeswapping…

Homeswapping isn’t a new idea — it’s been around quite a while and those who’ve tried it tend to fall in love with it. In the last few years, however, it’s becoming an even more tempting prospect — after all, with flights as cheap as they’ve ever been, taking a weekend mini break or a relaxing family vacation has never been more easy. And with it, the idea of swapping homes has become increasingly popular.

Here at Casaversa, we’re advocates of travelling in a completely different way. We think that when you and someone else hand over the respective keys to your homes, you’re not just engaging in a huge act of trust, you’re doing something else that’s quite radical — you’re becoming a part of a whole new way of seeing the world — sharing resources and not breaking the bank in the process.

Here are the five biggest advantages we see in swapping your home…

  1. Saving money — An average family vacation will cost you around $4,000 in accommodation. Yes, paying for a place to lay your weary head at night can be eye-wateringly expensive. When you swap your home with someone else, you’re immediately cutting down on the biggest expense of your vacation.

Not only this, you can also save money on food (by preparing meals at home or packing them for days out) and laundry (think how much a hotel will charge you for washing a few dirty clothes) and the cost of wi-fi. It’s a no brainer — with the money you save, you can see more, enjoy more and even travel more.

2. Living like a local — When you swap homes, you see a whole new side of the city/village you’re in. You can wander in your local neighborhood, find small stores to drink your coffee and eat lunch, and get a much better idea of how people are living on a daily basis.

When you stay in a hotel, you’re often way too removed from local culture, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to an authentic experience. Some houseswappers will even make sure you get introduced to their neighbours and friends — who aren’t just there for emergencies but also for showing you around, and even inviting you for dinner.

3. Keeping your home safe — it’s a fact universally acknowledged that you’re much less likely to be broken into if your home isn’t empty. If you’re away for two weeks, but someone is in your home, you’ll get real peace of mind (and who can put a price on that?)

Watering plants, collecting mail, dealing with unexpected parcels being delivered — all that gets taken care of when you homeswap.

4. Protecting the planet — when you homeswap, you’re automatically using fewer resources than if you stay in a hotel or guest accommodation. We’re all too aware of the carbon footprints we’re constantly leaving behind, but when you’re using a space that would otherwise have gone empty, you’re doing your bit for the planet. And every drop of water counts…

 

5. Staying in a unique lodging — when people hear the word ‘homeswap’ what usually comes to mind is a house or apartment. But what about all the unique lodgings out there that you’d never normally have a chance to stay in, if you didn’t take the plunge? Yurts, riverboats, treehouses…yes, these are all fantastic accommodations, offering you a one-off experience.

After a vacation in one of these, you’ll return home and be the envy of your friends and neighbours.

We could go on endlessly about the benefits of swapping your home, but hopefully these five reasons alone will give you reason to sign up with us at www.casaversa.com. Soon, we promise you, you’ll be travelling in a whole new way — and once you’ve tried it, we’re pretty sure you’ll like it as much as we do.

A Roof with a View — Berlin’s Bundestag and its Wonderful Glass Dome

Spending time in Berlin, how could I not grab the opportunity of visiting the Bundestag — a city landmark and a great Norman Foster triumph. Now, having visited and walked around it myself, I can safely say that no photographs do it justice. Save for the fact that it’s a national landmark, infused with social, cultural and historical meaning, it’s also an extraordinary accomplishment of modern architecture. (Disclosure, I am a tremendous fan of Norman Foster). This is a building that has to be seen in person.

Historical Background

Built at the end of the 19th century, to mark the unification of Germany under Bismark, and a Parliamentary Democracy under the Weimar Republic, the building (then known as the Reichstag) was mysteriously set alight in 1933. Claiming it to be a plot, the Nazis famously used this incident to suspend the constitution and grab power. There then followed a terribly dark period in German history.

 

Before I talk about the design itself, let me point out that if you wish to worship at the alter of Norman Foster, a little advance planning is required! This means booking a slot on the Bundestag’s website, preferably a few days beforehand (it is a very popular attraction). You are given a choice of three different time slots (you can rank them and, with luck, will be allocated your first) and then sent sent a confirmation email, which you should print out and take with you on the day, along with your passport. Without these, you won’t be allowed in (I’m serious; I saw a couple being turned away).

This aside, I found the entire process simple and, even better, free of charge. Exploring the Dome, use of an audio guide and even touring the Parliament will cost you nothing. Just make sure you arrive 15 minutes before your slot so you can pass through security. Then, precisely on time (in true German style!) your group will be led inside.

The building (which had been badly destroyed in World War II) was reconstructed in the 60’s but was not used (since West Germany’s capital was then Bonn). After reunification, and many discussions, a new design project was agreed upon and the Bundestag officially reopened in 1999.

Design

Wow! The first word that springs to mind as I walk in is “futuristic.” Entirely made of glass, the spiral ramps resembles a double helix and lead you up, up, and up to an observation platform. Along the way, and at the top, you are afforded truly magnificent 360 views views of the city.

 

Furthermore, this building is a model of eco-friendly practises. It burns renewable bio-fuel which creates electricity…it’s much cleaner than using fossil fuel and leads to huge reduction in CO2 emissions. Surplus heat is stored elsewhere and used to heat the building in colder times. I’m reasonably sure that this makes the Bundestag the most ‘green’ Parliament on the planet.

I visited in the morning, but at night I’m sure it’s just as spectacular! At its core of the cupola is a fantastic object, shaped like a cone and glittering with tiny mirrors. Foster calls this a ‘light sculptor“. It has been designed to “reflect horizon light down into the debating chamber, while a sun-shield tracks the path of the sun to block solar gain and glare. As night falls, this process is reversed — the cupola becomes a beacon on the skyline, signalling the vigour of the German democratic process.”

 

And something else — the top is entirely open (beware — if you go in winter, as I did, this means it’s going to be chilly at the top so dress warmly). From here you have a bird’s eye view of Berlin — and on the clear, crisp, sunny day I visited, endless landmarks were visible. Walking back to the bottom, at the base of the glittery Dome, there’s also a photographic exhibition detailing the history of the building.

Conclusion?

So what do I think of the design? I have to say, even by my critical standards, this is a seriously impressive piece of architecture. The skylight plus the inverted cone of mirrors and the opening above (with the reflected light that illuminates the debating chamber below) has simply bowled me over. I’m already contemplating my next visit, hopefully at dusk (the time photographers call “the golden hour” before day turns to night and there’s sufficient light to give you the shots you yearn for). I’ve also been lucky today — the sky is an azure blue. A freezing cold and very bright winter’s day — perfect for my purposes.

 

My advice — this comes under the ‘must see’ heading when visiting the German capital. But it’s a major attraction, so I’d advise booking at least two weeks in advance (especially in school holidays or over the summer). For more information check out to the following website at:

http://www.bundestag.de

 

Norman Foster — I salute you!

Originally published at www.wanderingsarah.com.

“How I Became an Avid Home Swapper” — Joy from New Zealand talks to CasaVersa

Here at CasaVersa, we thought it would be interesting to chat with a few people who became home swappers, and what they get out of it.  Today we’re talking to Joy, who spent her early years in Nigeria, moved to the UK in her 20’s and a year or so ago relocated to New Zealand. She’s a lecturer in health care, married to Andrew and with three kids under the age of 4 (including twins!) she’s really got her hands full!  That means we’re particularly grateful she found the time to chat to us…

Joy has swapped houses quite a few times in the last 3 years and, by her own admission, has become a real addict.  Here, she talks about how she became a fan of swapping homes…

CasaVersa: Joy, how did you initially find out about home exchange?

Joy: Actually, it’s an interesting story. After my first child was born (I now have three!) I joined an online parenting group.  All of the mums there chatted about everything under the sun.  Actually it wasn’t just about raising kids, it was about everything to do with daily life!

Anyway, someone in this forum mentioned ‘World Schoolers’ — people who take their kids all over the globe, on extended vacations, using the trips as a kind of education. And I thought: “How can they afford to travel for this long?”

Obviously I wasn’t the only one asking this question because, not long after, a separate group was created called “World School House Rent and Sit” and I joined. Andrew and I were then living in the UK and we wanted to spend a weekend in Birmingham (a couple of hours drive away) because his sister lives there.  But because his sister and her husband only had a small place, and we now had a baby, I needed to come up with an accommodation plan!

CasaVersa: Yes, in big cities people often live in small places!

Joy: Right. Then I saw an ad for a swap in Birmingham. I decided to take a chance and wrote to the couple who’d advertised.  They were thrilled and said they’d love to spend a weekend out of Birmingham. So after chatting on the phone we just agreed to do it!

CasaVersa: Were you nervous?  You hadn’t talked much to this couple?

Joy: A little, yes! I had a chat with my neighbours though and told them I had guests coming — I didn’t tell them they were strangers! But actually it was great – it worked out well, there were not problems at all and it gave me the courage to do it again…this time outside of England.

CasaVersa: Aaah, an international house exchange?

Joy: Yes – to sun and sand in Spain!  My husband was very worried.  He thought I was mad and kept telling me “It’s going to be awful — we’ll end up spending a fortune in a hotel.”  Of course, he was proved completely wrong.

The woman whose house we were staying made arrangements for us to be picked up at the airport. When we arrived, there was food there that she’d cooked herself and everything was in order.  She was extremely helpful.  She’d also arranged for a cleaner to come in every few days…no doubt this was her way of being able to keep an eye on things but we weren’t complaining!

CasaVersa: How was the house?

Joy:   Fine.  Obviously not like a five start hotel but quite acceptable — something that I would have even been prepared to pay for.  Of course, a reasonable amount of money…not a fortune.  However, as it stood, we didn’t pay a penny.

CasaVersa: It sounds like things worked out well?

Joy:   Oh yes. A few months later, I then found another house, back in Spain, but this time we went for 10 nights. We swapped this time with another family who also had kids.   It was then that, as a mother with young kids, it’s really great to be able to swap with other young families.

CasaVersa: Because you have the same backgrounds and ideas about what you’re looking for?

Joy: Yes, and similar reasonable expectations.  No-one with young kids will ever expect to come back to a completely spotless house! I mean, we always leave things clean and tidy but young children always create mess, as everyone knows.  People who don’t have kids are often houseproud and have more objects of value lying around!  , and people who don’t have kids can sometimes be very house proud.

CasaVersa: Yes, of course. And when you swap with other young families, there’s other stuff that goes with it?

Joy:  Absolutely – the list is endless.  Plastic cups, small plates and bowls, high chairs, pushchairs, toys…

CasaVersa: And if you swap cars, car seats!

Joy: Ah, the fabulous car seats.  When we went to Prague, we both left our respective cars at the airports.  This was a great idea because after we’d landed, we could both drive to our swaps with each other’s cars.  And the car seats were already in the back.  Actually, our flights crossed so we never even met!

CasaVersa: After all these swaps, how does Andrew feel? Has he changed his mind?

Joy? He’s so enthusiastic now. And what’s also interesting is that as we’ve continued to swap, the quality of the houses we’re staying in has improved too. And of course, he realises how much money we’re saving.  We’re not paying for accommodation, but we also get a kitchen and washing machine to use…

CasaVersa: How many swaps have you done in the last three years?

Joy: I think eight as things stands. One, recently, was in the New Zealand countryside. It was only two hours drive from Auckland, but had a completely rural feel to it. Everyone was incredibly friendly…the neighboursknocked on the door and said “We know you’re swapping houses with our friends, come over if you need anything.” And another neighbour kept chickens and bees and invited the kids over to see them. The kids were thrilled, of course!

CasaVersa: That’s an experience you can’t buy!

Joy:  Yes. We just keep travelling now.  I’ve arranged a swap next month in the north of the country…we all want to see more of New Zealand. I’m also making plans for my  40th birthday, which is coming up quite soon.

CasaVersa: What kind of destination do you have in mind?

Joy:  Japan is a country that really appeals to me. And then, hopefully, when the kids are a bit older, we’re going to try and move to Singapore.  Once we’re living there, we can begin swapping in South East Asia.

CasaVersa: Indonesia?  Malaysia?  Vietnam?

Joy:   All of those countries and a few more too! I want my kids to see the world and we can really make it happen if we swap our home with someone else.

CasaVersa: Joy, thank you so much for talking to us.

Tapas – a Spanish Tradition that Everyone Loves!

In the way that the Brits love their afternoon tea, the French love their crepes and the Italians love their gelato, tapas are a time-honoured tradition in Spain, and no visit to this country can be complete without sampling a few.  But what are they exactly?

Tapas are small dishes of nibbles, put out by bartenders all over the country, next to your drink, and more often than not they’re actually free.

Both cold and hot, these savoury appetisers are are guaranteed to tempt your tastebuds.  In fact, they’re so delicious that most people end up ordering another drink, in order to try more! Here’s CasaVersa’s recommendations for five ‘must-try’ tapas when in Spain.

  1. Gambas al Ajillo

These tiny sweet shrimp are cooked in garlicky olive oil and mopped up with bread, make an ideal tapa. Sometimes they’re also served with chilli peppers. A very simple appetiser, they’re tasty and quick to prepare. And you can also dip your bread in the delicious pan juices, once you’ve devoured the shrimp.

 

2. Patatas Bravas

These spicy, hot-fried potatoes are served with a Brava sauce which varies from region to region . In areas such as Valencia and Catalonia, it is made of olive oil, paprika and chilli.   In other regions, it’s made with vinegar and red peppers.  An absolute classic!

 

3. Tortilla Espanola

Spain’s most commonly-served dish and something every chef knows how to make at am moment’s notice, it is It is made of of three simple ingredients: eggs, potatoes and onions. The key, apparently, is to slightly undercook the eggs, making sure the texture is custardy (not bouncy).   Beloved by every Spaniard!

 

4. Calamares a la Romana

Here. the squid is fried ‘Roman style’ (hence the name) — the batter varies from place to place. Seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, and served with garlic and lemon, it is delicious. Fried squid rings, served with all kinds of garnishes and sauces, are immensely popular in Spain (whatever region you find yourself in).  For even more pleasure, drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the squid.

 

5. Jamon Serrano

This ham hails from Serrano and is often served in tapas, although it can be used in all kinds of complicated recipes.  First salted and dry-cured (for anywhere between 1–5 years), no wonder it has a heavenly flavour — rich, deep and firm. Serrano ham isn’t something you gulp down — it’s something to be savoured, slowly.  Indeed,  it’s costly and therefore a delicacy, but still eaten by millions of Spaniards on a regular basis.

Art Deco – A Style that Never Goes out of Style

For anyone with a love of Art Deco (both architecturally and visually), Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach is the ideal place to spend a day. Sleek, symmetrical and streamlined, its gorgeous hotels, built in the glamorous 1930’s and 40s, with their  “eyebrow” windows, bevelled-edge facades, neon lights — cannot fail to catch the eye.

Just as lovely are their pastel hues (think sea green foam baby pink, and lemon yellow). It’s such a wonderful sight that, honestly, It’s hard not to want to get our your credit card and check in straight away. Unfortunately, Art Deco beauty comes at a cost…and naturally, as a home swapping site, we’re advocates of exchanging your place and saving cash!  But no-one should be denied the opportunity to gaze at such beautiful architecture, and there’s no law against ordering a drink in one of the hotel bars and soaking up the atmosphere….

Here are 5 South beach hotels, all in the magnificent Art Deco style, that we know will take your breath away…

1. The Carlyle

Designed by the German architect Richard Kiehnel, and used in the movies “Scarface’ and ‘Birdcage’, the building obeys the Art Deco ‘rule of thirds — three dividing sections, topped with curved edges. With its elegant proportions, it is a true landmark of a bygone era  – although it was built in 1939, its facade remains virtually unchanged.

2. The Raleigh

The Raleigh, arguably, is the most well-preserved example of ‘Streamline Moderne’ architecture in South Beach and, at the weekends, there’s still no better place than on a lounger by their pool bar! A perfect blend of style and comfort, this chic ‘Grande Dame’ hotel has of has a glamour all of its own.  Indeed, In 1947, LIFE magazine named its iconic and glamorous curvy pool “the most beautiful in America.”

3. The Betsy

Brimming with ‘colonial chic’ the Betsy has signature shuttered windows and a four-column portico, and its facelift in 2009 means its Art Deco features now look more wonderful than ever. .This elegant, boutique hotel was built in 1942 by L. Murray Dixon, and today is the last surviving example of Florida Georgian architecture on Ocean Drive.  Vintage glamour indeed

 

4. The National

This Art Deco treasure evokes charm, particularly inside with its original furnishings (chrome light fixtures, ‘barrel’ chairs and the terrazzo flooring in the ‘Martini Room’ cigar bar.

Gaze at the original chandelier (lovingly restored) in the hotel ballroom and sigh at the atrium ceiling and specially designed railings along the mezzanine. And if you’re a guest, take a dip in their palm-lined infinity pool.

The National isn’t just a landmark — it’s a classic icon of South Beach style.

Why Home Exchange will Revolutionize the Way You Travel

Long before the internet arrived, travelling was fun but, without a doubt, far more of a hassle. You couldn’t go online and hunt down cheap last=minute flights then simply google “Restaurants in Madrid.” You had to go in person to a travel agency, take a number, wait, then sit with the agent and tell them what you were looking for.  They’d get out their enormous Airline books, and give you an idea of the dates available, then – a few days later – you’d return and pay for your flight, and receive a paper ticket in return.  Yes, it really was that way!

Those days are gone. Now,  e-tickets are the most common way of checking in — either after we’ve printed them out in our home or showing them to the check-in desk on our phones.  We don’t visit travel agents, we use our laptops and phones to search cheap flight sites.  And we’re also taking more vacations because the prices of flights have never been cheaper.

So if all that’s changed then why are we not changing the way we think about the accommodation we’ll use when we travel?  After all, finding a place to lay your head is a significant part of any trip.  In the last few years, AirBNB have transformed the industry by letting locals rent out their spare rooms, giving visitors the opportunity to experience a more ‘local’ kind of trip – seeing a neighbourhood rather than the tourist sites, using a kitchen instead of eating in restaurants each night and actually talk to people who live in these cities.   It’s definitely a whole new way of travelling.  

But home swapping takes all this even one step further —completely transforming the travel experience. Because instead of renting someone’s home, you’re swapping it for your own. You’re not just taking a leap of faith (which is good to take in life, once in a while) but you’re part of a whole new movement — the sharing economy.

When you exchange places, you’re doing much more than saving money (which, of course, is a great thing). You’re also cutting down on what you consume – water, electricity, etc.  You’re also using a space that otherwise would be sitting empty.  And you’re keeping it safe too (there’s nothing burglars like more than an empty house in the summer, at Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays…)

And you’re also joining the sharing economy — you can swap cars, membership cards (for stately homes, zoos, museums, art galleries) and information about your respective neighbourhoods.  Some swappers even introduce their guests to friends of theirs, who take them out for coffee or even invite them for dinner one night.

And, as has been said before, when you swap homes, chances are you won’t be in a tourist area in the centre of town, you’ll be in a neighbourhood.  You’ll see how people live on a day-to-day basis, you can shop at the local market, eat in small restaurants (where quality matters) and get a ‘feel’ for the country you’re in.  You can still see the tourist spots if you like – it’s just up to you now!   

That’s the great thing about homeswapping — beyond the obvious financial savings,  there are so many advantages to it.  You get to see the world and live like a local at the same time. And with the money you save on accommodation, you can travel more frequently. Instead of having to choose between a week of shopping and museums in London or a week on the beach in Italy, have them both! An average family of four, travelling to Paris in the summer, will spend $4,000 on their accommodation. That’s an enormous sum, no?   So why do it?

Here at Casaversa, we’re sure that our home-swapping platform is going to completely change the way people think about travel. In our experience, once people have tried home-swapping, and seen how great it is, they quickly become addicts.  So why not try it for yourself?  Simply sign up with us for free, upload a few photographs of your place, write a blurb for others about who you are and why you like your space and begin browsing.  It’s that simple.  What are you waiting for?

Beautiful, Charming, Odd and Quirky – the Hidden Side of Paris

Aaaah, Paris — home of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and endless other attractions. But where do you go once you’ve seen the big tourist sites…walked the streets of Montmartre, sailed down the Seine and shopped at the Lafeyette Gallery?

Here at Casaversa, we know that Paris is more than just the crowd-drawing sites and that whilst it’s full of style and glamour, it’s also brimming over with tiny streets, obscure museums and astonishing buildings that most tourists never get to see… Below, here are 5 spots in this beautiful city that many Parisians have never visited or even heard of!

1. The ‘Museum of Vampires’

Nestled at the end of a dark passageway close to Porte Lilas (a long way from the bustling centre of Paris)  here’s the place to go if you want to learn about Parisian cemeteries, ‘cannibal sorcery’ and rituals concerning vampires.

Established by Jacques Sirgent, a man fascinated with the macabre,The museum is packed with all kinds of odd objects — Dracula toys, antique books, a mummified cat and even a ‘vampire killing kit’ from the 19th century. Perfect for those who want to indulge their dark sides.

14 Rue Jules David, Les Lilas, Paris 93260

2. Le Louxour – Paris’ oldest cinema

With its Pharoah’s heads and Papyrus decor, Le Louxor Palais du Cinema was once the jewel in the crown of Egyptian Art Deco . Opened in 1921, it seated over 1,000 and a live orchestra played whilst the silent movies rolled. After World War II, the place was abandoned.  Years later, it was turned into a disco and gay bar before being renovated in 2013.

Pic. courtesy of en.parisinfo.com

Today, with its gold-tinted walls and art deco skylight, it’s a must see. After the movie, grab a drink from one of its bars and gaze at the fantastic view of the Sacre Couer and the Barbes neighbourhood whilst sitting on its lovely terrace.

Pics. courtesy of hipparis.com

3. The Rat Shop

One of the  most bizaare things you’ll see whilst in Paris has got to be a store named ‘Julien Aurouze & Co.’ founded way back in 1872.  Close to located Hotel de Ville, they specialize in pest control and advertise their expertise in their window. The store display is not for the faint-hearted as it is full of dead rats (stuffed luckily!) hanging from traps and staring at you.

Pic. courtesy of janetbeckman.com

Inside, they sell all kinds of poisonous products, all designed to kill off rodents. The shop itself became famous when a shot of its window was used in the Disney hit film ‘Ratatouille.’ A one-of-a-kind experience and a taxidermist’s heaven!

8 Rue des Halles, Hotel de Ville, Paris, 75001

4. The Passage Dauphine

Nestled in the Latin Quarter, this tiny passageway can be found in the Latin Quarter, and lies between Rue Mazarine and Rue Christine. With no cars allowed in, it’s a lovely place to stroll and enjoy the charm and peace and quiet.  Whilst soaking up the atmosphere, bear in mind that you’re only a few metres from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Pic. courtesy of worldofwanderlust.com

It’s also home to some beautiful cafes…so spend an hour or two in one, kicking back.  We recommend ‘L’Heure Gormande’ – particularly their savoury quiche and delicious hot chocolate. Decadent and divine!

L’Heure Gormande, 22 Passage Dauphine, 75006 Paris

5. Belleville

The part of Paris Edith Piaf sang her heart out, this this working-class neighbourhood of Belleville, once home to Edith Piaf, is light years away from the bourgeois streets of the Marais and Isle de Paris.

Pic. courtesy of thehostelgirl.comIn this ethnically diverse and lively area , Jewish-Tunisian restaurants sit next to Chinese supermarkets, and ‘Bohos’ (Bourgeois Bohemians) live in buildings alongside African immigrants.

Pic. courtesy of web62.com

Belleville is crammed with artists, galleries and studios; whether you’re looking for ceramics, paintings or sculptures, you can find them here. Then head to the park, enjoy the panoramic views and, finally, pick up a cup of java at Belleville Brûlerie, a coffee roasting cafe that’s a Paris legend.

Belleville metro (Line 11) between Cimetière du Père Lachaise and Ménilmontant (south) and Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (north)

 

The Sharing Economy – What’s It All About?

Embraced by millennials, pronounced by many economists as the ‘new way’ of sharing resources, and seen by political scientists and radicals as a true ‘disrupter’ in the market, in 2015 it finally received its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.  What is it?  Why, the sharing economy of course.

But what does this this term actually mean?

What is the Sharing Economy?

Put in its most simple terms, it’s about using under-utilised resources usefully and efficiently, sometimes for free and other times for a fee paid directly by the individual. It’s also about using technology to swap/barter/lend services in a whole new way — a way that simply didn’t exist before the era of the internet arrived.

Many people, of course, don’t think much further than an example such as   “Uber” Amazon or AirBNB.  But the sharing economy  is about far more than being able to order a cheap cab, have your parcels shipped ‘same day’ by Amazon or rent a room on AirBNB.”  And whilst it can’t be explained in a few short phrases, here are some of the main ideas behind it, all of which come together to support a very important idea…

1.“We” and not “Me”

A central tenant of the sharing economy is the way it promotes a “we” rather than ‘me’ culture. Borrowing, bartering and giving things away are all ways of encouraging us to look beyond our own needs and towards those of the wider community.   We want to feel we can trust others and that altruism has a place in our daily lives.  We want to find that sense of community again that somehow got lost…and sharing is a fine way to do it.  A a time where wealth disparities are only increasing, shouldn’t it be time for us to realise the value of social responsibility?

It also goes without saying that internet access and social media have made it easier than ever to connect people with similar needs. People used to work 9–5, from behind an office desk. The daily commute was a harsh fact of life! Communication used to involve writing letters, mailing them and waiting sometimes weeks for responses.  Millions of people now work  ‘remotely’ from coffee shops, bespoke mini-offices for freelancers or even from their own sofas.  And deadlines are much less stressful to meet when you don’t get stuck in rush-hour traffic every morning!

2. Sharing

In it’s most simple form, this refers to socio-economic systems built around the idea of sharing resources (human or physical). Whether its individuals, organisations or communities, they all benefit and contribute from this system — peer-to-peer (P2P) they can create, collaborate, produce and distribute among themselves.

3. Collaboration

This involves eliminating the ‘middleman’ — that is directly matching those who need something with those who have it. You have a toolkit and I want to do some DIY? I can borrow yours.  You have a car and I don’t? I can lend you mine.  Put in its most simple form, it’s about ‘unlocking’ underused or undervalued assets and putting them to good use. Not to mention that when good are produced and shared locally, this shortens supply chains and increases efficiency and access.

4. Consumption

Collaborative consumption is a fantastic to save money, and it’s also good ethical behaviour.  In the last 50 years, in western societies, there’s been a huge and terrifying rise in conspicuous consumption . No wonder more people are recycling, sharing, making their homes more ‘minimalist’ and generally thinking more about what they need to buy. After all, how many of us have homes full of things we rarely even use? And reigning in our consumption isn’t just central to the sharing economy — it’s helping the planet too.

In summary then, most teenagers and 20-somethings are growing up in an age with no idea that there once was a society where people didn’t own smartphones or laptops!   The idea that you’d have to hunt down a plumber in the Yellow Pages, walk to a phone booth and put a quarter in to make a call, or put an advert in a newspaper to rent your house is something they can’t comprehend! Sharing information via technology is completely natural for them — indeed, it’s all they know. They don’t have to be convinced to share things — without even realising it, they are!

‘Live like a Local?’ – What Does it Really Mean?

The statement “when I take a vacation I want to live like a local” has been quite the rage for a while now, almost to the point of it becoming a cliche. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean it’s a statement without value. After all, how many millions of people take a trip to New York, Paris or London each year, visit the Empire State Building/Eiffel Tower/Westminster Abbey, take the predictable photos, pick up a few t-shirts and hats, eat dinner in chain restaurants nearby then return to their hotels, safe in the knowledge that they’ve ticked off all the boxes?

The interesting question is “Does this leave them satisfied?” That is, having seen the sights, taken their selfies and bought the t-shirts, do they return home feeling that they got ‘enough’ from their vacation — that is was everything they hoped it would be? Or is it more likely the case that they’re sitting at the airport wondering what it all amounted to…and how ‘authentic’ their experience really was?

 

What is it that sets apart the traveller from the tourist?  Good question.  Well, there’s the obvious – booking a small apartment, rather than staying in a chain hotel, swapping the Eiffel Tower for a quiet Paris neighbourhood, shopping at a local food market rather than eating in an overpriced tourist trap in the city centre.  But this all involves a willingness to explore and be a little more curious than you usually would be.  Of course, whether you’re on holiday for a few days, two weeks or you’re indulging in a ‘year out’ curiousity costs nothing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a little effort and some forethought. taking a more ‘local’ approach isn’t that difficult either. It’s not much more than you being ready you are to step outside your comfort zone and, once you’re out there, how much effort you want to make.

The obvious way to begin is by finding a place to stay outside the tourist areas – renting an apartment or even or swapping your home, in a local neigbourhood. Swapping homes, in many ways, is the better idea since your swapping partner will, in all probability, leave you with a list of recommended local stores, restaurants, attractions. Moreover, if you’re lucky, they’ll hook you up with some of their neighbours and friends –  an invaluable resource if there’s a crisis, and someone to have coffee or dinner with perhaps?

Even without local introductions though, don’t fear because a little initiative goes a long way. First things first — rent a bike or start walking.

Take public transport — it’s cheap and fast and the best way to get a feel for a city. Stroll in the neighbourhood — find the nearest coffee shop and pop in daily…by day three, the waiter will most likely recognise you!  And in the evening, find a bar… order a drink or dinner and use it as an opportunity to start a conversation with the barman, a local or another out-of-towner. If they’re hosting a Quiz Night, a Karaoke evening or a dance competition, even better — that’s a ready-made activity.

In the day, visit a local food market, pick up a few items you’ve never seen before then take a picnic to the park. Sitting on the grass and watching life happy around you is something you just can’t buy!   Dressing in local attire is also a decent gesture — whether it’s an African tunic, an Indian Shalwar Kameez, or a Mexican poncho, people will appreciate the attempts to fit in (and, with luck, you’ll also fall in love with your new item of clothing).

In terms of activities, hunt out a free lunchtime concert, a local theatre production (even if you can’t follow everything that’s said!), or take a language class (in Stockholm, for instance, there are meetings in coffee shops all over the city where you can go for free to improve your Swedish with local residents…the concept of ‘Fika’ there is well-worth getting to know!)

If you’re hanging around for more than a week or two, you can even volunteer — in a gardening centre, at a kids group or even a homeless shelter. What better way to get to know the locals than by contributing your time to a good cause? And when you go home at night, read up on the place you’re living in…its history, its traditions, what its famous for and why the locals love it.

In short, do everything you can to get a feel for the place. Because whilst there’s nothing wrong with seeing Big Ben, the Spanish Steps or Checkpoint Charlie, there’s always going to be something just as interesting to discover, in a back street, a quiet park or a few subway rides away.  Take your time and open your mind — because a little initial discomfort may be a small price to pay for what you’ll probably eventually gain.