10 FREE things to do in Brussels

Brussels, as with most European capital cities, can sometimes be expensive. But, there are still plenty of things that will help you learn about the history and culture, and practise the language, which are absolutely free.

1. Explore the Old Town

Brussels’ pretty old town is a maze of narrow medieval streets, lined with crooked old buildings and quaint shops and cafes. The old quarter centres around the cobbled Grand Place square, which in itself, is well worth a look. Built as a merchants’ market in the 13th century, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful enclosed squares in Europe, with its ornate guild halls and decorative façades. If you’re lucky, you may catch the daily flower market held on the square, or one of the many free concerts that take place throughout the year.

2. Admire St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral

Located at Treurenberg hill, the gothic architecture of the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral is impressive to say the least. The cathedral dates back to the 11th century, and over the years has been used as the venue for a variety of state events. Whether you want to look at the architecture from afar or have a look within the cathedral, you’ll be able to for free.

3. Enjoy some window shopping in Galeries St-Hubert

Brussels’ famous Galeries St-Hubert is a stunning glass-roofed arcade housing a range of up-market shops and boutiques. Divided into three parts – the “Galeries de la Reine” (the Queen’s Gallery), the “Galerie du Roi” (the King’s Gallery) and the “Galerie des Princes” (the Princes’ Gallery) – the arcade was built in 1847 as the world’s first covered shopping gallery, and remains one of Europe’s most sophisticated.

4. Take a tour of the European Parliament

The European Parliament buildings in Brussels have formed the backdrop to many momentous events and decisions since the parliament’s formation. It’s the epicentre of the EU and the place where new laws are passed, and constantly welcomes European and world leaders. From Monday to Friday, you can take the audio guide tour around the parliament and, during part-sessions, you can even attend a parliamentary sitting. You can find more details on the European Parliament website.

5. See the Manneken Pis

One of Brussels’ most visited sites is the Manneken Pis, a diminutive bronze fountain on the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne, not far from the Grand-Place. The little urinating boy, sculpted in the early 17th century, is said to represent the child of a visiting nobleman who lost his son in the city, and then found him again, urinating happily at this spot.

6. Take a stroll around Le Botanique

What was once the city’s botanical garden is today a cultural centre, housed in a distinctive neoclassical glass and wrought-iron building. The 19-century greenhouse now hosts Francophone theatre, dance and performance art, although the attractive gardens surrounding it do still remain.

7. Get a great view of the city from Place Poelaert

From the Square Brueghel L’Ancien in the Marolles area, you can take the outdoor glass lift up to Place Poelaert (home of the Palais de Justice) for free. Once at the top, you will get a fantastic view of Brussels with three major landmarks in the distance – the Basilica, the Hotel de Ville and the Atomium.

8. Test your willpower in the chocolate shops

Belgium is renowned the world over for its chocolate, and as you’d expect, Brussels is full of fantastic looking chocolateries that house some truly mouth-watering creations. Whilst some visitors may choose to stay outside and drool at the delectable offerings from a safe distance, many of the shops will allow people to sample one or two! Of course, it may be hard to resist the urge to buy, but if you have to spend a euro or two, there can be few better ways to treat yourself!

9. Enjoy the city’s museums for free on the first Wednesday of the month

While some Brussels museums are always free, others offer free entrance on a monthly basis – on the first Wednesday of the month. Among the participating museums are the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Find out more on the Brussels Museums website for more information.

10. Walk the Comic Strip Route

With more than 700 comic strip authors, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometre than any other country in the world! Belgium has a prestigious history when it comes to illustrations too, and in fact, was home to the creators of both Tintin and the Smurfs, some of the world’s best loved comic strip figures. Designed by the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art and by the « Wall Art » association, the Comic Strip Route is a trail incorporates 24 original frescoes and statues from the world of the comic strip.

Cactus offers General French courses in Brussels at a variety of levels. For full details, or to book, please visit the Cactus Language website.

Carnivals in February and March: the best places to party

One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture of a place – and, by default, the language too – is to visit during carnival time. There is no better time to see the locals let their hair down, the mood lift and the streets fill with merriment, laughter and fun. People will chat to you freely, you’ll usually experience the best culinary delights of the region and in many cases you will gain a glimpse into history as many festivals take root in centuries-old traditions.

February and March are great months for carnivals across the world, and if you can catch just one then it will be a trip to remember. It’s worth noting that accommodation during festival time can be scarce or expensive, but if you book a language course with accommodation you will avoid this problem; moreover, those staying with local families will really see the culture from the inside!

So if you want to join in the fun, here are some of the best festivals over the coming months…

Latin America & Worldwide:

Top 5 Latin America carnival destinations: Throughout February and Marchimage

Quebec Winter Festival, Canada:  27th January – 12th February

Chinese New Year: January 23rd


Carnevale di Venezia, Venice: February 11th – 21st

Carnevale di Viareggio: February 5th – March 3rd

Karneval in Dusseldorf & Cologne, Germany: Throughout February

Berlin International Film Festival, Germany: February 9th – 19th

Las Fallas, Valencia: March 15th – 19th

St Patrick’s Day, Ireland: March 17th

NB. It’s worth bearing in mind that some language schools will close on any public holidays that fall during festival time. However the opportunity to witness local festivities and practise the language outside the classroom usually more than makes up for any missed classes!

Top 10 things to see and do in and around Turin

Turin is really close to the ski slopes of the Italian Alps, and in fact hosted the Winter Olympic Games of 2006. In preparation for the games, the city was restructured and rejuvenated, making it easy to get around, and even more attractive than before.

It’s a city that is less visited than the likes of Rome, Florence and Milan, but one which has plenty for visitors to discover, from its beautiful architecture and grand boulevards to its fine foods and stunning scenery.

There are a range of Italian courses available in Turin, and anyone taking a course will have plenty to do in their free time that will teach them about the culture and history of the area, and of course, practise their Italian. Here are our top ten recommendations.

1. Visit the Mole Antonelliana and the National Museum of Cinema

The Mole Antonelliana was originally built as a synagogue, but was never used as such after the spiralling costs saw the city’s Jewish community pull out during the construction phase. The building now houses Italy’s National Museum of Cinema – and is thought to be the tallest museum in the world. Within it, you can see film screenings, film posters from decades gone by, along with props and memorabilia including Marilyn Monroe’s black lace bustier, Peter O’Toole’s robe from Lawrence of Arabia and the coffin used by Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.

2. Take in the bustle of Piazza Castello

Castle Square has been the beating heart of Turin for centuries. With the Palazzo Madama (a fusion of a Roman gate, medieval castle and baroque façade) as the central piece, it is surrounded by arcades on three sides, every one built in a different period. It’s from the square that the four big streets of Turin converge: Via Roma, Via Pietro Micca, Via Po and Via Garibaldi, which is known as one of the longest of Europe. The square is also home to the Royal Theatre, the Palace of Giunta Regionale, the Government Palace, the Armoury and the Royal Library.

3. Take a trip into the Italian Alps

Just a short drive or train ride from Turin, and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Italian Alps. The views are obviously spectacular, and the many resorts perfect for skiing in the winter or walking and biking during the rest of the year.

There are also plenty of mountainside spa retreats for anyone who feels like a little pampering!

4. Visit Turin’s Cathedral and the Chapel of the Holy Shroud

The cathedral, consecrated to San Giovanni Battista, the patron saint of Turin, is the only example of Renaissance architecture of the city. Whilst the building itself it well worth a look, there is one thing in particular within the cathedral that draws thousands of visitors and that’s the Shroud of Turin – said, often controversially, to be the linen cloth that covered the body of Christ after the crucifixion. Although the Shroud is kept within the chapel in Turin, it is only displayed to the public every ten years or so.

5. Enjoy some local food

Piedmont is an area that is rich in gastronomy, and in fact is famous for something called the Slow Food movement. Founded in the mid-eighties by local Carlo Petrini, it was developed to “defend gastronomic pleasure and seek a slower, more aware pace of life.”

Local specialities to Turin include the white truffle, found in nearby Alba, and the area also produces some of the best wines in Italy, especially red wines such Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera.

You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants in Turin, and many of the Alpine towns have some fantastic, traditional eateries to try too. Another option for food in a more informal setting is the fantastic Eataly, known as the Slow Food Movement’s ‘supermarket’. A huge converted factory, it houses an amazing array of Slow Food–affiliated food and drink, with a separate area for each, including cheeses, breads, meats, fish, pasta and chocolate. 

6. Walk around the Castle and the Valentino Park

The Castle and the Valentino Park are situated in the centre of the city near the Po riverside. The park is a public space and very popular with locals. The castle, whose origins date back to the early 26th Century, was acquired by Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy in 1564. Later Carlo Emanuele I bequeathed it to Marie Christine of France who used it as her favourite residence and lived there at length with her court.

Battles were fought around the castle, agreements made and alliances signed. Its vaults record much of Piedmont’s history, and today it is the seat of Turin Polytechnic’s Faculty of Architecture.

7. Explore the Egyptian Museum

The Museo delle Antichità Egizie, as it’s known in Italian, is the only museum aside from the Cairo Museum to be dedicated solely to Egyptian art and culture. The collections that make up today’s museum, were enlarged by the excavations conducted in Egypt by the Museum’s archaeological mission between 1900 and 1935.

The museum is housed in a building specially constructed to house it in Via Accademia delle Scienze, and appears in the original 1969 version of The Italian Job when the robbers transfer the gold bullion to the three Mini Coopers.

8. Head out to the Lingotto complex

The former Fiat factory, transformed by Renzo Piano, is a ten-minute bus ride south of the city centre. It houses the Agnelli family’s impressive modern art collection, a vast conference, exhibition and shopping centre, cinemas and an auditorium, plus two luxury hotels, and is a great place to spend an afternoon.

9. Indulge in a bit of shopping

Turin is often considered one of the best places in Italy for quality shopping. The city’s ‘classic’ shopping street is Via Roma, where, under its porticoes, shoppers can peruse the alluringly displayed windows of the city’s most exclusive shops and boutiques whilst stopping off for a coffee or two at one of the many cafes. Via Garibaldi, the longest pedestrian street in the city, stretching from Piazza Castello to Piazza Statuto, is another popular area, and has a wider range of shops that cater for all budgets.

In the historical city centre, there’s also an array narrow streets such as Via Barbaroux, Via an Tommaso and Via Monte di Pietà, which house small, traditional shops selling locally made goods such as wine, food and jewellery.

10. Visit the Basilica di Superga

The impressive Basilica di Superga is the final resting place of the Savoys, whose lavish tombs make for interesting viewing. Located 10km northeast of Turin, on top of a hill, the terrace in from of the church offers great views of both the Alps and Turin itself.

More about Italian courses in Turin

Top 10 food & wine destinations in Latin America

In a recent survey by the world’s largest travel review site, TripAdvisor, Cactus is delighted to see that it offers language vacations in ALL of the top 10 food and wine locations in Latin America. From succulent steaks to sumptuous seafood and delectable chocolate, it seems the continent has it all – so book your trip, y ¡buen provecho!

1. Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s probably not ideal to visit Argentina’s vibrant capital if you’re vegetarian – that said, the city’s Italian roots ensure an ample supply of Italian restaurants offering meat-free pizza and pasta. But it’s with all things beef that the city really comes into its element. If you’re after a melt-in-the-mouth steak washed down by a world-class Malbec at a giveaway price, then Buenos Aires is the place for you. You are literally spoilt for choice with ‘parrillas’ offering an array of grilled cuts of meat – plus intestines, if that’s your thing. All cooked very simply as that’s all it needs; the hardest decision will be choosing which delicious local wine to accompany your platter.

Spanish courses in Buenos Aires

2. Cuyo, Argentina

The Cuyo region of Argentina is located on the eastern slopes of the Andes and comprises the province of Mendoza, an area boasting spectacular mountains alongside fertile wine-growing land – this region on its own producing nearly two thirds of the country’s wine. The provincial capital of Mendoza is easily one of Argentina’s most livable cities, attracting people from afar with its active cultural scene, thriving nightlife and accessibility to mountain-based adventure sports such as white water rafting and skiing. Be reassured there is ample opportunity to replenish your energy at the end of the day, huge slabs of steak in wait and yes, you’ve guessed it, a mouth-watering selection of wine from the nearby vineyards.

Spanish courses in Mendoza

3. Lima, Peruimage

Traditionally best known for being home to the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, Peru is now gaining something of a reputation for its cuisine, and nowhere more so than in its capital, Lima. The food here is a reflection of the city’s rich cultural history, a mix of Spanish, African and Asian influences that manifests itself in spicy creole dishes and Chinese-inspired ‘chifa’ cuisine. With its coastline generously supplying the fishing industry, the country’s signature dish is ‘ceviche’, a tangy plate of raw fish and shellfish marinated in lime juice and hot peppers; head to a cevichería to sample ceviche like the locals, and finish up with a swift pisco sour, the national cocktail of local grape brandy and egg white. Other typical foods worth trying include anticuchos (marinated beef hearts), cau cau (tripe stew), papas a la huancaina (a potato and cheese dish) and, to round it all off, alfajores (a sweet filled pastry).

Spanish courses in Lima

4. San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

Argentina does it again with an impressive third appearance in the top four. And although you can of course get your fill of steaks and wine here, Bariloche has another string to its bow: chocolate. Not what you would expect, perhaps, from this beautiful Patagonian city in the foothills of the Andes, a major centre for skiing, trekking and mountaineering – yet the perfect treat to re-fuel after a day’s outdoor activities. Stemming back to the arrival of European settlers – notably Swiss and Italian – in the late 1800s, Bariloche’s chocolate industry has flourished ever since, and there are dozens of chocolate shops all over the city tempting you with their creations. It would be rude not to indulge, after all, in the chocolate capital of South America!

Spanish courses in Bariloche

5. Santiago de Chile, Chile

Chilean food tends to be quite meat- and seafood-based, the latter thanks to its long coastline which provides plentiful fresh ingredients for dishes such as pastel de jaiba (crab tart), mariscal (seafood stew) and ceviche (marinated raw fish and seafood). More hearty fare includes parrillada (barbecued meat), arrollado huaso (pork steak rolled with red chilli), empanadas (pastries filled with a mix of onion, beef and boiled egg) and pastel de choclo (a tart made from ground corn and filled with a mix of onion and beef or chicken). Being the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world, it goes without saying that wine is the main drink in Chile and you will be presented with a fine choice to accompany any meal that you sit down to.

Spanish courses in Santiago de Chile

6. Cusco, Peru

When it comes to eating, the ancient city of Cusco does not disappoint. With strong indigenous roots, year of colonial life and a regular influx of international tourists, the cuisine of this city high in the Andes is both exciting and delicious. Typical dishes include pepian de conejo or cuy (rabbit or guinea pig cooked with onion, garlic and peppers – guinea pig is a very traditional food item in Cusco), adobe and chicharrones (fried pork rind), humitas (sweet corn muffins filled with cinnamon and raisins, steamed in corn leaves), tamales (similar to humitas, but filled with meat) and stuffed chilli pieppers. And to wash it all down? The local Cusqueña beer is a great choice, or a pisco sour for something a bit stronger, and chicha if you want to do as the locals do; this fermented corn beverage comes in various strengths and is best sampled in one of Cusco’s many thriving chicherías.

Spanish courses in Cusco

7. Cartagena, Colombia

Coming in at number seven is Colombia’s beautiful Caribbean port town of Cartagena. With its coastal location it comes as no surprise that seafood tops the list of must-try dishes, ceviche (marinated raw fish and seafood) and caldero (a fish and rice dish) being popular choices. Meat also features in plenty of dishes (try ‘viuda’, a mixture of beef, pork or chicken with steamed vegetables) and soups such as sancocho and mote de queso are well worth trying. Again, Cartagena has a lot to thank its location for, as tropical fruit juices are extremely easy and cheap to make, providing a delicious and healthy refreshment under the hot Caribbean sun. Melon, mango, tamarind and papaya are just some of the flavours to choose between – try something different every day of your stay! 

Spanish courses in Cartagena

8. Bogota, Colombia

Colombia’s capital city is the country’s second entry in the top 10, this time for a particular beverage rather than its food though. And that beverage is nothing other than hot chocolate, or ‘chocolate santafereño’ as it’s known in Bogota. Now I am something of a hot chocolate addict but I’ve never tasted hot chocolate like I have in Bogota; here, the hot chocolate is whipped up rich and creamy, and then cubes of queso blanco, a salty cheese, are dropped in and allowed to melt. The overall result is a delectable creamy drink that’s both salty and sweet, perfect for those cold Andean mornings or as an after-dinner treat.

Spanish courses in Bogota

9. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio earns its place in the top 10 foodie destinations of Latin America for the sheer range of food on offer here, thanks to influences from all over the world plus a number of excellent local dishes that never go out of fashion. Feijoada is the hearty national dish and is both filling and economic, consisting of staples such as rice, beans and sausage. Meat-eaters should head for a churrascaria, where you can eat your fill of meat and seafood, while on the move you might like to grab a lighter snack such as a salgadinho, a small savoury filled pastry. And you don’t have to have been to Brazil to have tried its national drink, the caipirinha, a popular cocktail in bars worldwide; made with cachaça, sugar, lime and water, it is delicious and refreshing, and a must in any Rio bar.

Portuguese courses in Rio

10. Panama City, Panama

Bordered by sea on both sides, Panama is spoilt for choice when it comes to fish and seafood. You will find corvina (sea bass) on the menu everywhere, used in many recipes and also served simply raw and marinated as ceviche. Other staples to look out for include sancocho (a delicious chicken and vegetable broth), filled or topped tortillas (which are thicker than you may have tasted in other countries), arroz con guandu (a popular side dish of rice cooked with beans and spices) and tropical Central American fruits. ¡Delicioso!

Spanish courses in Panama City

10 FREE things to do in Rome

Although the city has a reputation for being expensive in comparison to other Italian cities, there are plenty of activities that will give you an insight into the history and culture of Italy’s capital totally free of charge.

1. Visit the Pantheon

One of Rome’s most historic and iconic buildings, the pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. Since the Renaissance the Pantheon has been used as a tomb, and serves as a final resting place for the likes of painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci, the composer Arcangelo Corelli, and former kings of Italy Vittorio Emmanuele II and Umberto I. The Pantheon is still used as a church and masses are celebrated there, in particular on important Catholic days of obligation and weddings. Contrary to what you may expect, entrance is free of charge. It’s worth bearing in mind also that Angel Tours offer a free 30 minute tour of the pantheon every night at 7pm.

2. Watch the world go by on the Spanish Steps

Another of Rome’s most famous features, the Spanish Steps are located in an up-market area of Rome, and were built to join the Piazza di Spagna with the church of Trinita dei Monti. During the 18th century, the Spanish Steps became a popular meeting place for artists and models but these days it’s generally only tourists that you’ll find! Whether you want to walk up to the top, or just sit on one of the steps, they offer a great place to take in the sights and sounds of the surroundings and rest your legs.

3. Go and see the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi fountain is renowned the world over and seeing the 25 metre structure and all its intricate carvings in person will not disappoint. Of course, looking at the fountain is free, but if you want to uphold the tradition and throw a coin over your shoulder to ensure that you’ll return your Rome, you might have to part with a cent or two!

4. Have a walk around the Villa Borghese Gardens image

Just to the north of the centre of Rome is the large and well-kept park known as the Villa Borghese. The heart-shaped park is named after the building to which these were originally the private grounds – that building, on the eastern side of the park, now houses the impressive Galleria Borghese. On sunny days the park is full of people reading, relaxing and picnicking although there are several things to see within the park including a full-scale reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and a large zoo.  Entry to the park is free of charge although a visit to either the Galleria Borghese or the zoo will cost you an entrance fee.

5. Explore the Trastevere quarter

Trastevere is a picturesque, medieval area located on the west bank of the Tiber. You can wander the labyrinthine cobbled streets and imagine what the Rome of centuries gone by might have looked like. Often described as ‘Bohemian’, Travestere isn’t as polished as other parts of Rome, but this is where its charm lies – walking around this part of the city you will feel more like you’re exploring a typical Italian town than the country’s sprawling capital.

6. Get a great view of Rome from the Gianicolo Hill

From the Trastevere area, you can head up to Gianicolo Hill (Janiculum in English) for a fantastic view of the city. Obviously, this involves an ascent, but there is a bus that you can take if you don’t feel up for the climb!

7. Soak up the vibrant atmosphere in the Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiore is a typical Roman Piazza, located between the Tiber River and Piazza Navona. The words “Campo Dei Fiori” translates as “field of flowers,” and the piazza area was so named because the Campo Dei Fiori lies on what was once a meadow. These days the square is best known for the market that it hosts everyday, with a huge and colourful range of fresh vegetables, flowers and other produce from the Rome area. The market opens early in the morning and closes during lunchtime.

8. Test your truthfulness at the ‘Bocca della Verità’ image

Anyone who has seen the film Roman Holiday will be familiar with this famous aspect of Roman folklore! Set into the wall of the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the ‘mouth of truth’ is thought to be an ancient drain cover, and according to medieval folklore if you stick your fingers in the mouth and tell a lie, the Bocca della Veritá will bite your fingers off…

9. Take a stroll through Piazza Navona

Another of Rome’s most famous squares, Piazza Navona is bustling all day long. The cafes and bars can be outrageously expensive, but you can soak up the lively atmosphere for free and watch the various musical performers that converge there throughout the main tourist season.

10. Visit the crypt of Cappuchin friars

Located in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, on Via Veneto, this crypt is unique in that since the 17th century the walls and ceilings have been decorated with the bones of 4,000 monks. It might not be to all tastes, but despite its macabre image, is well worth a look.

Cactus offers a variety of Italian language courses in Rome at a range of levels. For full listings and to book please visit the Cactus Language website.

10 foreign language films to look out for on DVD in 2012

Not only are they good to watch, they’ll also help your language skills…and if your local DVD shop doesn’t stock them, they are all available to buy or pre-order on Amazon.

1. Salt of Life (Italy)

Despite being written by Gianni Di Gregorio, who co-wrote the acclaimed yet very violent ‘Gomorrah’, this Italian comedy (Gianni e le donne in Italian) is sweet, gentle and very easy to watch. It proved an international hit when launched, and follows the story of Gianni (played by Di Gregorio), a sixty year old man who although retired, dutifully cares for a demanding assortment of female relatives. When his friend brags about having a young lover, Gianni begins a doomed attempt to find an affair of his own…

The film is a follow-up to Mid-August Lunch (2009).

2. The Skin I Live In (Spain)

You don’t need a profound knowledge of Almódovar’s films to know that his work is extreme, fantastical and controversial, and – a tale of surgical obsession- ‘The Skin I live In’ is no exception. There is no denying, however, that it is sleek, stylized and unmistakably his. Starring Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya, the film received critical acclaim but is certainly not light-hearted viewing!

3. Tomboy (France)

Tomboy is a coming-of- age story of a young girl called Laure who moves to a new area with her parents and little sister, and struggles to make friends – that is, until local girl Lisa mistakes Laure to be a boy. A happy summer is spent in the company of her new acquaintances, but complications soon arise…

4. In a Better World (Denmark)

In a Better World is a Danish drama film directed by Susanne Bier and written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen. Its original Danish title is Hævnen, which means “The Revenge”, and in 2011 it was awarded the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. The story plays out in African refugee camps, where the main character Anton spends time as a doctor, and back in his idyllic Danish hometown where his son is suffering under the tyranny of a vicious school bully. It’s a film that explores both the complexity of human emotions and the issue of male responsibility, and what it means to stand up for yourself and others.

5. Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) (Algeria)

“Outside the Law” is Rachid Bouchareb’s story of three brothers who lose their family farm in French-occupied Algeria and end up at the helm of the underground Algerian independence movement in Paris. The film takes place principally in the shanty towns and red light district of 1950s Paris and during the two hours the viewer discovers each of the three brothers’ reasons for taking on the cause. Hors la Loi is both a gripping, fast-paced thriller and a fascinating film that also offers a great insight into the history of the Algerian independence movement.

6. Sarah’s Key (France)

In 2009, an American journalist named Julia (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) is commissioned to write a story on the notorious Vel d’Hiv round up, which took place in Paris in 1942 and saw thousands of Jews deported.  During her investigations Julia learns that the apartment she and her husband Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants, a family with a four year old son and a ten year old daughter named Sarah. 

7. Miss Bala (Mexico)

Miss Bala is a 2011 Mexican drama film written and directed by Gerardo Naranjo. The film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and has been selected as the Mexican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2012.

It follows the story of 23-year-old Laura, played by model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman, who dreams of becoming a beauty queen and escaping her humble life in the Mexican border city of Baja. When Laura inadvertently becomes a witness to a crime, she becomes caught up in the terrifying world of Mexican gang violence.

8. If Not Us, Who (Wer wenn nicht wir) (Germany)

‘Wer wenn nicht wir’ is a German film directed by Andres Veiel and starring August Diehl. The film premiered at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Bear.

Set mainly in the early 60s, the film is based on the true story of university students Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin, who are embroiled in a passionate but tempestuous relationship.  Their discontent with the conformist world that they live in inspires them to join forces with leftist writers and political activists in Berlin, and they soon become part of the spreading global uprising, which has far-reaching results for both…

9. A Separation (Iran)

Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, A Separation is a powerful drama that explores the tensions at the heart of modern Iranian society.

It begins with a married middle-class couple, Simin and Nader, who are at odds over their future – she wants to leave the country with their daughter Termeh and he wants to stay so that he can care for his father who has Alzheimer’s. Eventually, they decide to separate and Simin moves out of the apartment that they share. Nader hires Razieh to look after his father, but her life is not without complication either – to start with, she is pregnant, and on top of that, she has a hot-headed husband who has not granted her permission to work. 

One fateful day, something happens to rock both of their worlds, and soon, Nader finds himself entangled in a web of lies.

10. Romantics Anonymous (France)

With his beloved chocolate business struggling, timid owner Jean-René decides to enlist some help in the form of talented chocolatiere Angélique. She is equally as timid as him, but as the two get to know each other and share their love of chocolate, romances ensues. The film is a gentle comedy that stars Benoît Poelvoorde (Coco Before Chanel) as Jean-René and Isabelle Carré as Angelique.

Best European festivals this winter

Taking a language course during a festival will not only give you an insight into the culture of the country you’re visiting, it’ll also give you great opportunities to practise the language, and will assure you accommodation that may otherwise be hard (and expensive) to find. Of course, it’ll also mean that you have some great nights out…

Here are our pick of the best winter festivals for the start of 2012.

1. Karneval, Cologne and Düsseldorf

Every February Germany sheds its straight-laced image and parties hard with endless events and parades. The cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf are especially well-known for the scale of their festivities…

Karneval is the name given to this period of celebration in the area around Cologne and Düsseldorf (in the north west of Germany), although it’s known by other names in different parts of the country. Although the festivities officially commence in November, Carnival’s three-day climax is the best time to see the cities let their hair down.

It’s a time of parades, masks, parties and Carnival kings and queens – in fact, for fun in general. The exact time of celebration and the traditions vary from region to region but it generally takes place in early spring, six weeks or so before Easter.

More about German courses in Cologne and Düsseldorf

2. Carnevale, Venice and Viareggio

Just as in Germany, there are lots of festivities in Italy that mark the beginning of Lent. Venice is doubtlessly home to the most famous carnival in the country, with its characteristic carnival masks and the party atmosphere that goes alongside it, but the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio also celebrates in style. Whilst the carnival in Venice is hugely well-known and certainly something to behold, the small streets and alleyways make it very crowded, and prices during this time can be fearsomely expensive. Whilst Viareggio still attracts thousands of visitors, it can be a little less chaotic and less expensive option for enjoying the festivities.

The Venice canival will be take place from 11th-21st February in 2012, and the Viareggio carnival from 5th-26th February.

More about Italian courses in Venice and Viareggio

3. Carnaval, Nice

Granted, people need little persuasion to visit this classy city on the French Riviera, but the carnival presents a great reason to go. It may not be as warm as in the balmy summer months, but there’ll still be plenty of sunshine to enjoy.

The Nice carnival (17th February – 4th March 2012) is actually one of the biggest in the world, and offers an array of entertainment options, lots of carnival processions and the pretty “flower battles” between floats. The theme for 2012 is ‘King of Sport’ a reference to the 2012 London Olympics and the sporting dynamism of Nice.

More about French courses in Nice

4. Las Fallas, Valencia

Taking place every March (17th-20th March in 2012), Las Fallas is a spectacular pyrotechnic festival – it is one of Spain’s most famous and certainly one of the world’s most unique. Taking place in the coastal city of Valencia each March, this is a fiesta for those who like noise and little sleep!

It’s a fantastic display to see, and the events surrounding the pyrotechnics will give you a great insight into the lively side of Spanish culture, and of course, give you ample opportunity to taste the local gastronomic delights…

More about Spanish courses in Valencia

5. St Patricks Day, Dublin and Cork

St Patrick’s Day (17th March) is a national holiday in Ireland and celebrations are held throughout the country, although wherever there are Irish people, or people of Irish origin, there is also likely to be a party! St Patrick’s feast day was originally a religious festival, but over the centuries has become far more associated with parades and parties. Holding St Patrick’s Day parades is a custom which began in 1737 in Boston, America when people of Irish origin held a modest celebration but since then the custom has spread to places all over the world.

Dublin holds a St Patrick’s festival over a few days around the 17th March, which includes a funfair, a circus, concerts, a treasure hunt, street performances, dances, art exhibitions, firework displays, a big parade and a variety of other activities and shows. Each year over a million spectators and some four thousand performers take part in these events.

There is also a three-day St Patrick’s festival in Cork involving a big parade, marching bands, dancing, street theatre, concerts and much more.

More about English courses in Dublin and Cork

Learning Turkish in London - why I decided to take a course

Although Hilary began her first Turkish course with us in April 2010, she has long had an interest in Turkey and the Turkish culture and had been searching for an intermediate-level Turkish course in London for some time, to no avail. It was whilst Hilary was taking a French course at our Piccadilly school in London that she discovered that we offer exactly the Turkish course that she was looking for! Since then she has continued to learn with us and has just begun a level 6 Turkish course.

Hilary’s interest in Turkey first began in the 1980s, when London saw a large influx of Turkish people. Her work for a local authority meant that she began working with some of the Turkish people who were new to London, and she started to develop a real interest in the Turkish language and the culture. Her fascination inspired her both to study for a GCSE in the language, and to begin making regular trips to Turkey. Such was her love of the country and the people, that for a period of eight years she spent half of the year in Turkey and half in Britain!

The many years that she spent going back and forth from Turkey have given her a really good grasp of the language, but now that she is back in the UK full time and working with many Turkish families in her role as an educational psychologist, she feels that she needs to continue to improve her proficiency. Currently, there are very few Turkish speaking psychologists in private practice, and with such a large number of Turkish families in London, she is likely to be in huge demand. For her, it’s essential that she has an in-depth understanding of the Turkish culture, particularly in relation to family life, and she thinks that it would be hugely beneficial to be able to work without the requirement of an interpreter, which, conversely, can sometimes impede communication.

Hilary is really enjoying her learning, and hopes to take the level 7 course with Cactus next year if possible. Turkish is a fascinating language, which although very different to European languages like French and Spanish, is not necessarily more difficult, she feels. For a start, she says that it’s quite easy to read Turkish once you have learnt the few letters that are different to the British alphabet, and the pronunciation can also be less tricky.

That said, Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means that you quite often have words that are six, even seven syllables long. These can be a little bit tricky to get used to, so you shouldn’t be surprised if your Turkish friends end up finishing your words off for you! As Hilary will confirm though, Turkish people are hugely friendly and welcoming and will delight in teaching you about their language and culture, which, relatively speaking, is still learned by so few internationally.

Life after the CELTA - an update from our 2010 Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship winner

It’s been a hectic summer, after finishing work in Italy in July, I travelled to Girona, Catalonia with the intention of helping a friend out with a summer course – however things didn’t go as planned, so I was in Girona with some time to kill, ten days to be exact, and time to consider my options for the Autumn.

After contacting a few school’s in Catalonia and northern Spain I decided to try my luck elsewhere, eventually finding work in Lisbon. I’ve been here for just over two months now, and with the sun glaring through the window behind me and bouncing off my screen, in what is the end of November, I can’t help but think there are certainly less attractive locations to be earning a living.

The city itself is a charming one, not huge in terms of capital cities which helps it maintain a good level intimacy and provinciality while still being a functioning capital. Presently, I’m living in Santa Apolonia, part of the Moorish old quarter directly overlooking the Rio Tejo. First impressions and generalisations are facile as we all know and they are the only things I have to offer thus far; so I won’t bore you with insights that are probably redundant or will be by the time this blog is posted. However, as obvious as it may sound this is not Spain and natives share less in common with their Iberian neighbours than you might think, or at least than I thought.

The people and especially students are a lot more reserved and reticent than their Spanish or Italian counterparts – which admittedly, has taken some adjusting to. It’s cheap here though, for Europe especially. My stay in Lisbon isn’t for a full nine-month term, and will be over by Christmas. But in the meantime I’m living like a king, well, a grammatical, one wide-eyed, slightly Italian-missing, grass is always greener, earning an English wage in a european economic quagmire, Giginha sipping, king.

Cactus offers CELTA courses in destinations all around the world.For more information please visit https://www.cactustefl.com

10 little-known facts about Guadeloupe

It’s a great place to practise French, particularly during the cold winter months, and although relatively undiscovered by mainstream tourists, has plenty to offer any visitor.

Here are ten facts about Guadeloupe that you may not already know.

1. Guadeloupe is an archipelago of nine inhabited islands, including the butterfly shaped islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre, Marie-Galante, La Desirade, Iles des Saintes (2), Saint-Barthelemy, Iles de la Petite Terre, and Saint-Martin (the French part of the island of Saint Martin).

2. The Amerindian inhabitants called Guadeloupe “Karukera” which means “Island of Beautiful Waters”.  It is widely regarded as having some of the best dive sites in the world.

3. A narrow channel, the Riviere Salee, divides Guadeloupe proper into two islands: the larger, western Basse-Terre and the smaller, eastern Grande-Terre.

4. Christopher Columbus came across the islands in 1493, and named them after a Spanish monastery, but the Carib indians who lived there resisted Spanish attempts to settle the islands. French colonists arrived in the 17th century though, and it became a French colony in 1635.

5. There were several British occupations of Guadeloupe in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and a short period of Swedish rule, before it was restored to France. It became an official French department in 1946, and since the 1980s is a region of France.

6. The islands have lovely white sand beaches, a rainforest that is brimming with wildlife, and, if that weren’t enough, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean!

7. Basse-Terre has a rough volcanic terrain, whilst Grande-Terre has rolling hills and flat plains. Basse-Terre tends to be cooler and wetter than Grande-Terre, especially on La Soufrière, its highest point.

8. The famous dance of the island is called the biguine, which is still performed in colourful Creole dress.

9. There are regular flights to Guadeloupe from other Caribbean islands, and also from Miami, Montreal and Paris. There are also ferry services from nearby islands such as Martinique and St Lucia.

10.The best time to visit Guadeloupe is from December to May when the weather is warm and dry. The rest of the year is usually hot, humid and wet, especially between July and November.

Find out more about French courses with Cactus.