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5 Places You Can Practice Your French Abroad (other than France)    

Wish you spoke better French? The good news is you don’t have to travel to France for practice.

A number of other countries let you converse with locals in Francais, and in some places, you can even read and hear the language being used in everyday life. Most of these lands were or are still controlled by France, making French their official or second language.

The following are five popular French-speaking places that are definitely worth visiting.

Morocco 

It’s been more than 50 years since Morocco was a protectorate of France, yet French is still very much spoken around the country. Arabic may be the official language, but you can learn more about French by reading Morocco’s French-language newspapers or watching the French films playing in cinemas. You can also practice your French in business transactions.

French is widely used on shop windows and street signs across Morocco, too, and by most government officials.

Seychelles

The Seychelles offers plenty of opportunities for conversing in French. After all, about 60 percent of the people living there speak to some extent Creole or proper French.

How did a group of islands on the southeast coast of Africa become so familiar with French? Well, France appropriated and settled here during the late 18th century and controlled it for over 40 years.

Since its independence, the Seychelles became a melting pot of various races, including the descendants of early French settlers. Many of the tourists who head for this luxury destination are French, too.

St. Martin in the Caribbean 

Since the early 1800s, France has controlled two-thirds of the Island of St. Martin as an overseas department.(The rest is part of the Netherlands Antilles.) So if you’re seeking a Caribbean getaway where you can practice your French, do consider St. Martin.

At first glance, France’s influence is only apparent in the French flags flying in and about the country. But as you walk around the streets and drop by shops, you’ll discover just how common French—the native language—is spoken in the area.

On top of that, the island is subject to French law and has a very European feel, too, especially in the laid-back capital of Marigot.

Vietnam

A French-speaking nation in Asia? Yes, Vietnam is one. France colonized the country during the latter part of the 18th century, and for more than six decades, Vietnam was part of the French Indochina. A Western-style educational system was in place for a brief period then, opening the doors for French language learning.

Today, more than 5 percent of Vietnam’s population speaks French, mostly the elderly, returned refugees from Quebec and France and students who were educated in Francophone nations. But French is now increasingly being tapped as the primary language of instruction in secondary schools. In fact, a number of those visiting Vietnam come to actually study French.

Canada

Many are surprised to find out that Canada is a French-speaking country, but French is actually a major language there, along with English. For over 20 percent of Canada’s population, French is even their mother tongue. Most of them reside in the province of Québec, where French is the official language.

Although no longer under French control, both Québec City and Montreal still have a very European vibe. So don’t be surprised to overhear French conversations while you sip your latte and munch on baguettes.

There are a host of other French-speaking countries not on this list, so Francophile or not, you’re sure to find a place where you can gain more exposure and experience with the language of love.

Photo Credit: Kalense Kid via photopin cc

Cultural Highlights of Moscow and St. Petersburg

Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s two largest cities, have striking differences: Moscow is an ancient city that faced political struggles and military battles and is now a bustling metropolis lined with skyscrapers, while St. Petersburg was built a few hundred years ago as a window to the Western world and is best known for its imperial splendor.

Despite their differences, however, they have their share of similarities, including their prominence as Russia’s cultural hubs.

If you love arts and architecture, do pay a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg and soak up Russian culture in any of the following ways.

The Glory of Moscow

With its storied past, Moscow is full of architectural wonders and home to museums that will inspire your creativity and give you a glimpse of Russia’s fascinating history.

Within the triangular walls of Kremlin, for example, you can find ancient cathedrals, fine palaces, and imposing towers plus the world’s largest emperors’ bell and cannon. Hoping to see some imperial gems and regalia such as state carriages and Carl Fabergé eggs? Drop by the Kremlin Armoury Museum.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its colorful onion-domes, is one the most notable architectural edifices in the entire world, and one of the most recognizable landmarks. See it up close to appreciate just how brilliant it is and to get a feel of Old Russia.

For a glimpse into Russia’s design heritage, visit the Moscow Design Museum. Here you can discover the lost treasures of the Soviet art scene. You’ll also be treated to innovative works from the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Technical Aesthetics (VNIITE), credited for their cardboard furniture and taxis for the disabled designs.

Moscow’s religious and cultural center is Zagorsk (Sergeyev Posad). This old walled city showcases the best of Russia’s religious art and architecture, including the Orthodox monastery of Troitse-Sergiieyeva Lavra. If you want to get your hands on some Matryoshka dolls and other traditional Russian handicrafts and wooden toys, head for the local market.

Another of Moscow’s visually captivating attractions is actually deep underground—the Moscow metro. It’s the most extensive and stunning transport system in Europe, with each station designed in a different theme. Komsomolskaya highlights Stalinist architecture, Mayakovskaya focuses on mosaics, and Pyatnitskoe shosse is as modern as it gets.

St. Petersburg, Russia’s Cultural Capital

Once Russia’s cultural capital, St. Petersburg has baroque and neoclassical buildings, vast and extravagant palaces, a host of museums and theaters, plus hundreds of canals and bridges.

The Hermitage, one of the world’s biggest galleries, boasts a comprehensive collection of European masterpieces and avant-garde Russian paintings and sculptures. The pieces on display (a total of 3 million!) span from the Stone Age up to the 20th century and include the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Matisse, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reubens, Picasso, and Titan.

If you don’t have time to see all the museum’s buildings, start with the Winter Palace. This monumental former residence of Russia’s Tsars houses the most items.

Not far from the Hermitage are creative hubs like the Taiga art space, which hosts design studios, a sewing workshop, bookshops, and studio. You can also find inspiration in Loft Etagi, a bakery turned exhibition space and café with bar. Its hostel rooms feature modern Scandinavian-inspired interiors.

Just outside town are some must-see royal estates. The Palace of Pushkin (also called the Summer Palace or Tsarskoe Selo) was where the Romanovs used to spend their summer retreats.

Step inside the gold and crystal ballroom of the palace, peek into the luxurious Amber Room which has been restored to its original glory, and stroll around the splendid gardens and lakes. The Palace of Petrodvorets or Peterhof also has lavishly landscaped gardens with more than 300 fountains and a number of gilded statues. It overlooks the Gulf of Finland.

You can also tour the state rooms and beautiful theater of the Moika Palace, built as the primary residence of the House of Yusupov. Some tourists stop by as well to see the basement apartments where Rasputin was murdered in 1916.

A fan of ballet and the opera? Include the historic Mariinsky Theater in your itinerary. This music theater opened in 1860 and today stages classical and modern performances that will leave you in awe.

Moscow and St. Petersburg together will take you through the culture and history of Russia, while bringing you some of the best attractions of the country. Don’t miss out on these two cities when you have your Russian vacation!

Photo Credit: Wesbmsart Blogspot

What to See in the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums has one of the world’s most valuable and extensive art collections. Amassed or commissioned by popes over the years, the works here cover both the classics and the contemporary.

Don’t want to miss out on world-famous attractions and iconic pieces as you go through its many different sections? Here’s a brief rundown of what you can expect to see during your visit.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is the last room that you’ll get to in the museum, and it is definitely worth the wait. Getting to see the famous ceiling and altar frescoes painted by Michelangelo all on his own for four years is a priceless experience.

The nine-panel ceiling includes the iconic image of God touching the fingertip of Adam, while the fresco above the altar tells the story of The Last Judgment. Other Renaissance greats, like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Perugino, painted the North and South walls of the chapel with scenes depicting the lives of Christ and Moses.

Raphael Rooms

There are four Raphael Rooms that you can check out during the museum tour. Also called the Stanze, they were originally built as a suite of apartments for Pope Julius II, who commissioned Raphael to redecorate the room interiors with frescoes portraying highlights of Christian history.

The Room of the Signatura (Stanza della Segnatura) is the most popular of the four, as it houses the “The School of Athens” painting, which includes images of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and another of Raphael’s artistic contemporaries.

Borgia Apartments 

Here you’ll find the rich and colorful frescoes by Bernardino di Betto (Pinturicchio), whom Pope Alexander VI commissioned to decorate a suite of rooms known as the Borgia Apartments in the lavish Vatican Palace.

Pinturicchio and his studio painted images depicting the mysteries of the faith, saints, two liberal arts (trivium and quadrivium) and other scenes from Greek and Egyptian mythology. During your visit, see if you can find images of Native Americans in “The Resurrection,” which were discovered after a recent cleaning.

Gallery of Maps 

Have always been fascinated with maps? Then you’re in for a treat. The walls of this gallery are frescoed with 16th-century maps of Italy created by Ignazio Danti. The historic maps are incredibly detailed and surprisingly accurate. They show different Italian cities as well as the countryside.

You can also spot geographical features such as the Tyrrhenian Sea and Apennine Mountains on the maps. When you’re there, don’t forget to look up. The hall’s coffered ceiling is exquisitely decorated too!

Cappella Nicolina (Niccoline Chapel) 

In this chapel, the highlights are the vibrant 15th-century frescoes by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli. Painted on the walls are episodes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Laurence, both ordained deacons who helped the poor but were martyred after they courageously declared their faith.

The chapel is the most ancient part of the Apostolic Palace and was named for Pope Nicolas V who used this as his private place of worship.

Pinacoteca 

It may not draw in crowds, but the art gallery of Pinacoteca is a must-visit. Why? For one, it houses the last piece Raphael worked on, “Transfiguration,” in addition to “Madonna of Flagon” and “Oddi Altarpiece.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” is displayed here as well. Other featured artists include Bellini, Caravaggio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Giotto, Guido Reni, Pietro da Cortona, and Van Dyck.

Museo Gregoriano Egiziano (Egyptian Museum)

This fascinating museum is all about ancient objects that were taken from Egypt during the Roman times. The collection includes papyruses, sarcophagi that dates back to 1000 BC, animal mummies, reproductions of the “Book of the Dead,” and the Trono di Rameses II, one part of the seated king’s statue.

Touring the highlights of the Vatican Museums can take anywhere from two to four hours. Picking out the sections you’d like to see in advance can definitely help you make the most of your visit.

Photo Credit: Glam Bistro

Europe’s Best Beach Breaks

Planning an easy surf holiday? Go for Europe’s great beach breaks. You don’t have to paddle far just to get started. You can ride one wave after another without having to worry about landing on a reef or rock. You can enjoy picturesque coastlines and you might even get to watch some of the world’s best surfers face off.

Before you pick up your board, here’s a glimpse into some of the most famous surf spots in the region.

Hossegor, France

The long stretch of Hossegor in southwest France is not just Europe’s surf capital; with miles of golden sand and abundant waves, it is also home to some of the best beach breaks in the world.

Topping the list is the nudist-beach-turned-surf-spot Les Culs Nus, which gets particularly crowded during winter thanks to powerful and consistent waves rising up to five meters. La Graviere, on the other hand, hosts the Quiksilver Pro France ASP competition every September, drawing in thousands of spectators.

You can also expect great barrels from La Graviere, La Nord, Les Bourdaines, Les Estagnots, Le Penon, and Le Piste. Plus, you don’t have to worry about food and accommodations. Surf schools, camps, tours, and hostels as well as supermarkets can be found in the area.

Peniche, Portugal

Peniche is a popular year-round surf destination. Located near the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, this town has long summers with cool sea breezes and swells between four and six feet. Its winters are mild and result in swells of up to 15 feet.

Peniche’s best beach break is Supertubos, which has been one of the stops on the World Championship Tour of surfing. Its claim to fame: a fast and heavy tubular wave that breaks on a hollow sand bank. This can be very powerful with south swells and light northeast winds, challenging even the pros.

If you like getting barrelled, you’ll be glad to know that it holds long and stunning barrels. Supertubos is also a great training ground for surfers looking to gain more experience.

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

The name says it all. Fuerteventura, meaning strong winds, is an ideal spot for windsurfing and kite surfing. Its kilometer-long Playa de Castillo also has one of most friendly beach breaks, especially for beginners. There you can ride bashable waves that create fun (and sometimes powerful and fast) rights and lefts.

You might even come across long barrels, depending on the conditions. Waves reach three to five feet if there’s a nice swell running. Because Playa de Castillo faces west, it’s perfect for sunset surf sessions too. It rarely becomes crowded so you can enjoy its sand and waters even more.

Bundoran Area, Ireland

Ireland’s surfing capital, Bundoran Area, hosts a range of beach breaks. One of the best known is Rossnowlagh, where the gentle left- and right-hand waves suit beginners and improvers alike.

You can also count on this wide beach break for a good surf, whatever time of the year you go. Just as famous is The Peak, a fast breaking hollow wave that works on westerly swells. It’s best enjoyed during a low and rising tide.

North Cornwall, United Kingdom

North Cornwall has been attracting all kinds of surfers with its flat and long sandy beaches. Experienced surfers love the challenge of Duckpool’s beach break which picks up swells that hit the North Coast. Sandymouth is also great whenever there are light easterly winds. For beginners, Watergate Bay is worth a try, with consistent waves that can be enjoyed all year.

Whether you’re surfing for the first time, hoping to improve your technique, or searching for the perfect wave, beach breaks have you covered. Go and visit Europe’s top surf spots and have a fun and exciting ride!

Photo Credit: Low Pressure

Free Museums and Galleries in London

When you visit London, make sure to check out its museums and galleries. Unlike in other countries, you can visit most of the city’s major cultural treasure-troves without spending a single penny. Yes, even world-famous national museums in London are free of charge!

The variety of the collections and exhibits might surprise you too, as free admission is offered year-round at art galleries as well as science and history museums. Here are some of the recommended places to check out when you’re in London.

British Museum

The British Museum has been free of charge since it opened in 1973. Now it’s London’s top attraction, drawing in millions of visitors each year with its vast and splendid collection of antiquities—over 7 million objects in 94 galleries!

You may not be able to see everything in a day or two, but don’t miss out on the famous Parthenon marble sculptures which were brought from Greece to England in 1801. Ancient treasures from Egypt, Rome, and Western Asia are on view as well, along with pieces dating back to the Renaissance and Medieval periods. You can also access images and information about the exhibit using the computer terminals at the Great Court.

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is filled with fun and fascinating finds from the animal, plant, and mineral worlds. The star of the show is the Dinosaurs exhibit, where you get to come face-to-face with the complete skeletons of 14 dinosaurs along with two animatronic raptors and a “hungry” full-size robotic T. Rex.

Other big hits in the museum are the bug-centric Creepy Crawlies section, dazzling gems and crystals of the Mineral Gallery, the pavilion of meteorite fragments, and the preserved specimens housed in the Darwin Centre.

London’s Science Museum

Another popular kids’ attraction in South Kensington is the Science Museum, where the permanent displays can be viewed for free. Grab the opportunity to see an 1813 steam locomotive, the Apollo 10 space module, the first camera owned by Fox Talbot, and an original phonograph constructed by Edison himself.

There is also a special wing for contemporary science discoveries, plus plenty of interactive exhibits. For your little ones, the games and light-and-sound shows at the Garden Galleries are more than enough to keep them entertained for hours.

National Gallery 

Art buff or not, you’ll be impressed at the fine and extensive collection of 13th- to 20th-century Western European paintings at the National Gallery. Located on the north side of Trafalgar Square, this museum showcases the prized works of Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Botticelli; French Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists, including Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Manet and Seurat; and Britain’s own—Turner, Constable, and Reynolds.

The Rembrandts have their share of wall space too. To learn more about these pieces on display, borrow an audio-tour guide from the gallery.

Tate Modern

When it comes to modern and contemporary art (1900s onwards), Tate Modern in London’s South Bank is a must-see. It houses stunning works from the 20th century’s game-changers such as Frances Bacon, Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí.

More contemporary pieces from the 21st century grace the gallery as well. The collections, however, are not arranged by period but by theme, making Tate Modern all the more refreshing. The gallery changes its displays every one or two years, too.

Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) 

How have the times changed? Find out at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. Boasting 145 galleries, this art and design museum brings you fabulously decorated period rooms, Renaissance sculptures, a huge European fashion collection covering 400 years, Sistine Chapel tapestry designs by Raphael, and a host of vintage ceramics.

With many of the big names offering free admission, don’t miss out on the opportunity to explore and learn from London’s art galleries and museums. Such experiences are bound to be both valuable and memorable, and the fact that they don’t charge admission fee make the experience all the more special.

Photo Credit: Nozio

Amsterdam’s Best Museums and Galleries

When it comes to artwork, Amsterdam does not run short on masterpieces. As the Netherlands’ capital city, it has a wealth of museums and galleries featuring the works of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Mondrian, among many other famed and talented artists.

While it is a haven for art lovers, Amsterdam is also home to a number of historical, scientific, and lifestyle museums that draw in millions of tourists each year.

Which museums and galleries in Amsterdam top the list? Here’s a sneak peek at the most popular ones.

Rijks museum 

No other art museum features as many Dutch masters as the recently renovated Rijksmuseum. If you’re a big Rembrandt fan, this is where you can find his most renowned portraits, including “The Night Watch.”

Mesmerizing pieces from Frans Hals, Ferdinand Bol, Jan Steen, and Johannes Vermeer are on display as well. The Rijksmuseum has cultural and historical collections, from delftware (think a Flower Pyramid filled with tulips) to intricate dolls’ houses from the 17th century.

Van Gogh Museum

This museum takes you through the life and career of the great Vincent van Gogh. Here you get to see Van Gogh’s many featured paintings and drawings, including “The Potato Eaters,” “Sunflowers,” and “Wheatfield with Cows,” plus letters that help shed light on his story.

The museum has an added bonus for art lovers as well: prized pieces from Van Gogh’s contemporaries—fellow artists who inspired his work, such as Bernard, Gauguin, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec—grace the museum too.

Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum is as modern and stylish as its contemporary collection of paintings, graphics, photographs, sculptures, and video artifacts (about 90,000 in all!).

If you want a preview of emerging art movements, this is definitely the go-to place in Amsterdam. In fact, the museum was among the first to showcase pieces from De Stijl and CoBrA. It also hosts creations by Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian.

Anne Frank House

A tour of the Anne Frank House is an insightful and moving experience. It lets you step into the secret annex—attic rooms reached through a door disguised as a bookcase—where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years.

The annex is dark and bare, but still displayed on its walls are the magazine pictures that Anne put up. You’ll also see a reconstruction of Anne’s bedroom and her actual diary, displayed in a glass case. Nearly a million people visit this canal house-turned-museum every year.

Hermitage Amsterdam

Hermitage Amsterdam houses treasures and art from the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg in Russia. Its exhibition changes at least twice each year, so there’s always something new to see.

Best of all, whatever the collection, you can always expect exquisite and well-curated pieces such as works by Picasso and Matisse. Don’t neglect to check out the long refectory and the Governesses’ Room, too. You’ll be surprised at how large the pots in the 18th-century cellar kitchen are (hint: those who stirred them needed to climb steps).

Verzetsmuseum (Museum of the Resistance) 

What was life like in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation? What’s the story behind the underground resistance movement?

If you have questions like these, the Verzetsmuseum gives you a glimpse of life in that period. From old film footage to forged documents and homemade radios, the displays in this little museum are both fascinating and enlightening. Domestic interiors were also recreated in a smaller scale for your children to enjoy. Another plus: The labels are also in English.

Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum)

Board the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) for a journey through 500 years of Dutch maritime history. The museum is housed in a former Admiralty Arsenal that stocked and supplied vessels until the 1970s. A number of the pieces originally stored there are now on display.

Besides relics, the collections feature ship models and instruments, nautical paintings, and old maps and globes. There’s also a special exhibit on whales.

If you’re visiting with kids, don’t forget to catch the “Sal & Lori and Circus at Sea” performance. They would love it!

Science Center NEMO

What appears as a large green-copper ship hull from the outside is actually the Science Center NEMO, a five-floor children’s museum packed with interactive exhibits. Your little one can try out bizarre science experiments, draw using a laser and watch themselves in “antigravity” trick mirrors.

There’s a section dedicated to music and video production, too, and for stunning panoramic views, climb to the center’s roof terrace.

Indeed, with its exquisite collections and fun exhibits, it’s no wonder museums and galleries are one of the biggest crowd-drawers in Amsterdam. The city offers the best of cultural tours, and it is something that all visitors to Amsterdam should take advantage when they are there.

Photo Credit: Holland