City Hall

Brussels: Quick Jaunt

After a two night stay in Amsterdam, we had to catch an early morning train to Brussels. Luckily, we had enough time to have breakfast at our hotel at 6:30am (and even left with a to-go box of fresh croissants), walk across the street to Centraal Station, and get to our platform with 15 minutes to spare. Originally, I was looking for tickets from Amsterdam to Paris but the fare was so high that I ended up booking the trip in two parts, which not only lowered the cost of the train but also allowed us to fit in one more destination on our trip. We booked a 2-for-1 promotional rate, which got us to Brussels for €25 per person in Comfort 1 (First Class) on Thalys. Comfort 1 was very comfortable and included complimentary wifi (yay!) and meal service. We were already full from our hotel breakfast so we used the time for nap.

Street art

Street art

When we arrived at Brussels Midi Station at 9:10am, we were met by Roland, a volunteer with Brussels Greeters. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much I love “free” tour services. There are generally two types of free tour guides: 1) the type that do group tours and make decent money through tips, and 2) volunteers who are truly free. The former category is very easy to find and includes the Undiscovered London Tour and SANDEMANs New Amsterdam Tour we took on this trip. The latter category includes organizations such as The Global Greeters Network (which Brussels Greeters is a part of), Goodwill Guides in Japan and South Korea, Saigon Hotpot and HanoiKids in Vietnam.

Roland and us

Roland and us

The latter group generally consist of volunteers feel passionate about their homeland and want to share it with visitors. Roland definitely falls into that category. He knew that we were only in Brussels for four short hours and he tried to show us the main attractions in that time. Highlights included Manneken Pis, the beautiful buildings surrounding Grand Place, the pioneering Les Galeries Saint Hubert shopping center, various historical churches and interesting neighborhoods.

Manneken Pis - he's so small in person

Manneken Pis – he’s so small in person

Buildings surrounding Grand Place

Buildings surrounding Grand Place

Grand Place

Grand Place

Les Galeries Saint Hubert - an old shopping center

Les Galeries Saint Hubert – an old shopping center

Mont des Arts

Mont des Arts

Along the way we stopped for crisp Belgian waffles, wonderful fries (the fries-loving Henry has been talking about them ever since we left Brussels), and high quality chocolates. We never stopped walking on our tour and we got more out of our four hours than I had anticipated. By the time we got back to the train station and said goodbye to Roland, our legs were tired and we were so eager to sit down and relax.

One of the many canals

Amsterdam: City of Tolerance

We flew on Vueling (again) from Barcelona to Amsterdam on a very inexpensive paid ticket. Amsterdam is a compact city and I love that it only takes 15 minutes to get from Amsterdam’s airport to Centraal Station, the main train station, by direct train.

IMG_4007

Art'otel guest room

Art’otel guest room

We stayed at the modern and hip Art’otel, directly across from Centraal Station, using 50,000 Club Carlson points for two nights (last night free through the co-branded credit card; the redemption rate has subsequently increased to 70,000 points). As soon as I walked out of Centraal Station, I felt like we had been transported to another world. The city is so much more charming than its shady reputation leads you to believe. The Old Centre and Canal Ring areas where tourists tend to spend most of their time is full of quaint storefronts, stunning canals, and bicycle-riding locals.

Many bridges

Many bridges

When we arrived, it was already evening and time for dinner. We settled on the Indonesian popular restaurant called Kantjil & de Tijger. We don’t have very many Indonesian restaurants in California so we didn’t exactly know what to expect. We each ordered a mix plate of flavorful dishes whose names that I can’t pronounce. All I can say is that the food was very tasty and we really liked it.

The next morning, after gorging ourselves with a fantastic breakfast at our hotel, we headed out for some sightseeing.

We only allocated one full day in Amsterdam so we had to jam all our activities into that day. I wanted to take a canal tour because the view from the water lets you see the city from a different perspective.

Canal boats

Canal boats

Canal Tour

Canal Tour

Given our limited time in the city, we decided to join a walking tour. We chose SANDEMANs New Amsterdam Tour, a “free” tour company. Our guide was a hilarious and energetic German student who lives and studies in Amsterdam. In three hours, we covered many major sights, learned about Amsterdam’s golden period and subsequent downfall, and discussed the Dutch attitude of tolerance (as it relates to cannibis and prostitution). The tour group was very large (~40 people) but the tour guide was incredible and he was able to keep everyone engaged.

Our tour guide with the group at Dam Square

Our tour guide with the group at Dam Square

Begijnhof: The Secret Garden

Begijnhof: The Secret Garden

One of the people on the tour brought his young daughter who was about 8 years old. Although the tour occurred during the day, we did briefly walk through the Red Light District because of its importance to the City. We all felt uncomfortable that such a young child was seeing prostitution in action; we hoped that she was too young to understand what was going on. Later that evening we returned to the Red Light District to “sightsee” and to watch a stage show at Casa Rosso. I can only say it was amazing and shocking. It was basically like watching porn, except it was live right in front of you.

Red Light District: Casa Rosso is on the left

Red Light District: Casa Rosso is on the left

From Mirablau (we bought a coffee and enjoyed the view)

Barcelona: So happy to be in Europe

After a week in Morocco, I was pretty excited to get back to Europe. Marrakech has an international airport with a decent selection of flights to Europe, including a direct flight to Barcelona four days a week. We flew on Vueling, the Spanish low-cost airline.

Vueling

Vueling

We landed at Terminal 1 and we took the airport shuttle to Terminal 2 in order to stop at the RENFE station and purchase a pack of T-10 tickets. T-10 (10 trips, can be shared with multiple people) only costs €10.30, while a single ticket on the standard city trains and buses within the city zone costs €2.15 a piece. Even though we had to go out of our way to buy the T-10 tickets, it was well worth the savings.

We stayed at the newly converted Crowne Plaza Fira Center near Placa d’Espanya for two nights. We had the option of taking the Aerobus for €5.90 per person but we chose to take the 46 bus using our T-10 tickets at just over €1.00 per person. The best part was that the 46’s final stop was just a block away from our hotel. The hotel was modern and clean and was a reasonably priced redemption for 30,000 IHG points per night. I would’ve loved to shell out 5,000 points more per night to stay at the more centrally located Hotel Indigo but I wasn’t able to find availability when we needed it. From Placa d’Espanya, there are two metro lines and numerous buses that connected us to every we wanted to go.

Placa D'Espanya

Placa D’Espanya

On our first evening in Barcelona, we pulled up Yelp and found Bosque Palermo, a neighborhood restaurant known for its paella. I had hoped that we were going to encounter a hidden gem and was kind of disappointed when we realized a majority of the patrons there were tourists speaking English. We stayed anyway and ordered the famous paella and we were pleasantly surprised by it. It was really really good. We paired it with a huge bottle of house red wine for only €3.50. We were in food heaven!

The next morning, we woke up fairly early to take the metro to Sagrada Familia. We weren’t actually there to see the magnificent cathedral (I had visited it 12 years ago when I studied in Barcelona); we were headed to the Vesping shop just around the corner. We rented a 125cc Vespa for €65 for 6 hours and followed the preset GPS tours for a ride around Barcelona’s sights and neighborhoods.

Beautiful church we toured

Beautiful church we toured

Roman ruins in central Barcelona

Roman ruins in central Barcelona

At first, we were following each of the stops in the tours but as the day went on, we became hungry (what a shocker) and decided to tailor our itinerary to cover food stops.

La Boqueria market

La Boqueria market

Chili pepper galore

Chili pepper galore

Veggie vendor

Veggie vendor

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

We headed toward Barceloneta to eat at the famously crowded hole-in-the-wall, Can Paixano. The GPS indicated that we had arrived at the destination but it looked like a construction zone. We ended up circling the streets a couple of times before we finally decided to get off the Vespa and follow the GPS signal on foot. I was second-guessing myself and was thinking about giving up when we finally saw a door with people spilling out of it. Inside was the noisy cozy bar we had been looking for. Henry and I shared a bocadillo, a plate of sausages, and a bottle of refreshingly cheap cava.

Can Paixano menu

Can Paixano menu

We were on the clock with our Vespa rental so we didn’t linger around too long after we finished eating. We climbed back onto the Vespa and I was feeling particularly tipsy because I had consumed a majority of the bottle of cava (I didn’t want a drunk driver). We had so much fun on the Vespa that day and highly recommend it as a means of sightseeing.

Vesping

Vesping

Don't I look cool on the Vespa? Don't worry, it's in park.

Don’t I look cool on the Vespa? Don’t worry, it’s in park.

Our Vespa rental ended at 4:30pm and we had no time to spare because we had to meet our Taste Barcelona food and wine tour guide, Paul, at 5:00pm. There was only one other couple on the tour that evening and they also happened to be Chinese Americans. Paul took us to 4 different tapas restaurants and taught us interesting tidbits about the history and culture of Barcelona.

Tapas

Tapas

More tapas

More tapas

When I had initially signed up for the tour, I was somewhat hesitant due to the high price (€95 per person) and length (5:00pm-10:00pm). The time ended up passing by very quickly and enjoyably with good company and the price seems totally justified considering the small group size, the number of dishes we tried, and the fact that we opened a new bottle of wine at every stop. Barcelona is really a lively city that is beautiful during the day and at night.

Street life

Street life

La Rambla at night (Miro design in foreground)

La Rambla at night (Miro design in foreground)

The next morning, we packed for our departure to our next destination. With a little bit of time to spare, we explored Montjuic and Placa d’Espanya near our hotel. We had lunch (terrible food, by the way) at a mall at Placa d’Espanya that was converted from a bull-fighting ring. Bull-fighting has been outlawed in Catalonia since 2010 so the city explored adaptive reuse options and turned the space into a modern mall.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

Marrakech: Modern Morocco

After separating with Jalil, we still had two days in Morocco. Without a set itinerary for those two days, we slept in, relaxed, and took our time. There were only a couple of things we really wanted to do. One was to try a hammam, a communal Moroccan spa. I had read about the process online but the procedure still sounded intimidating and way more complex than the Korean spas I’ve visited in Koreatown, Los Angeles. We ended up going to a hammam for foreigners. The experience included sitting in the steam room, being scrubbed and washed by an attendant, and enjoying a nice naked massage. I’m not sure how much Henry enjoyed it on the men’s side; all I know is that I had a good time. The facilities could have been better but the experience was relaxing.

Beautiful Bahia Palace

Beautiful Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace Detail

Bahia Palace Detail

We only did a tiny bit of true sightseeing in Marrakech. I know tour books have a long list of must-sees but we had already seen so many similar attractions in other cities and we just wanted to wander the souks instead. The most interesting part of Marrakech for us was the Jemaa El-Fna Square. The square is bustling with people at all hours. During the day, there are snake-charmers, monkey tamers, henna tattoo ladies, and other sketchy characters.

Place Jemaa El Fna being transformed into a night food market

Place Jemaa El Fna being transformed into a night food market

In the evening, the square transforms into a huge food market popular with both locals and tourists. Many of the stalls sell similar types of food and I had a hard time picking which one to try. One of the stalls’ touts proclaimed “If you eat here, I guarantee you will not get diarrhea.” We walked by him a few times and he said the same line each time we passed him. On our last go-around, we told him we had already eaten, to which he responded with a curse that we would have diarrhea that evening. Luckily, I felt fine but Henry may have fallen under his spell.

Henry wanted to eat escargot

Henry wanted to eat escargot

Food Stall 32 - Hassan

Excellent Food Stall 32 – Hassan

Shopping in Morocco is a lot like shopping in China. There are no set prices and you have to bargain for everything. But as a tourist unsure of local prices, it’s a daunting task to tackle. I was looking for a teapot in the souks and when I approached one shop and asked the shopowner the price of his teapot, he responded “How much do you want to pay?” I really had no idea what to say.

Shops open at night. Bargain hard!

Shops open at night. Bargain hard!

Marrakech felt much more cosmopolitan and modern than the other Moroccan cities we had visited. It has a reputation of being the Las Vegas of Morocco and is full of clubs, bars and lounges. We’re lame and couldn’t stay up late enough to partake in the nightlife.

During our 8 day trip, we covered all of the major sights in Morocco that we had wanted to see. It was a great cultural experience to be in a Muslim country with no pork (our favorite type of meat), a lot of bread (if you’re on a low-carb diet, you will really struggle in Morocco), conservative clothing (everyone wore long sleeve shirts and long pants; I can only imagine how uncomfortable it can get in the summer), and interesting customs (bargaining, corruption, slower pace of life). I’m glad we ended up hiring a driver to make this trip happen. It would have been much more difficult to try to visit so many places in such a short period of time had we been relying on public transportation and Grand Taxis.

Our route in Morocco

Our route in Morocco

Inside Ait Ben Haddou

Ouarzazate: The Door of the Desert

It was so wonderful to see a nice big bed and a warm shower waiting for us when we returned from our camel ride in the morning. Our night in the desert tent had been a bit rough; the sandstorm and the hard bed made it difficult to fall asleep. We were sleep deprived and tired and although I really wanted to take another nap, we had a tight schedule to follow. Shortly after breakfast, we were off again. We were nearing the last leg of our Morocco journey as we headed West toward Marrakech.

Merzouga to Ouarzazate to Marrakech (over two days)

Merzouga to Ouarzazate to Marrakech (over two days)

When people think about the Sahara Desert, they often think of golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see. In actuality, sand dunes make up a small (<20%) of the desert; the rest of the desert is comprised of the type of scenery you’d see in Arizona or New Mexico.

Our driver, Jalil, overlooking the desert landscape

Our driver, Jalil, overlooking the desert landscape

We trusted Jalil to pick the most interesting route to our destination for that evening, near the desert city of Ouarzazate. On the way, we checked out a weekly countryside market that sold everything from olives to sheep to binoculars.

Countryside market transaction in action

Countryside market transaction in action

Locals shopping at the weekly market

Locals shopping at the weekly market

Along the road in this part of the country, we saw many entrepreneurial individuals selling minerals and fossils. Instead of buying them, Jalil took us to a spot where we could find our own fossils. I had a hard time finding any but Jalil was a pro.

Next, we visited Todra Gorge, a deep canyon that has been featured in many films that Henry and I have never heard of. It somehow reminded me of a kitschy tourist attraction in China.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

The buildings in the desert are primarily painted red like the earth while the buildings in Northern Morocco (along the sea) are generally white.

Desert civilization in Skoura oasis

Desert civilization in Skoura oasis

Sometimes I wondered how desperate the early people must have been to live in such a barren, harsh environment where summer heat of 120 degrees Fahrenheit is common. The desert villages tend to be far apart and sometimes you can go for miles without seeing a house. Inevitably, however, there would always be a few individuals hiking the distance between these villages. Every so often, they’d turn around and hold out their hand to hitchhike. We learned that Moroccan culture is very giving and hitchhiking is actually quite acceptable there. Also, there are countryside buses that pass along major roads at random, unscheduled times. If you happen to be walking along the road at that time, they will stop to pick you up. There’s also the concept of a Grand Taxi, which is an old Mercedes sedan that is essentially a long-distance minibus whose fare is sold by the seat. They will jam up to 7 people going the same general direction and prices are negotiated up front. This is contrasted with Petit Taxis, which are more similar to the taxis we’re familiar with in the west. Petit Taxis are usually private, smaller (only up to 4 people including the driver), have a meter which may or may not be used, and can only travel within the limits of the city in which it is licensed.

We spent that evening in the desert at a wonderful kasbah style hotel called Ait Ben Hada in Skoura, an oasis about 20 minutes east of Ouarzazate. We called last minute and got a fantastic deal; €45 including room and board. The hotel is set up to be able to accommodate tour groups but it was rather empty when we were there. As soon as we settled in, we were offered hot mint tea in the beautifully decorated dining room. After checking out the sunset from the rooftop, we returned to the dining room for a dinner of two huge tagines (the best we had in Morocco) and other delicacies. We were so full yet we stuffed ourselves because we didn’t want to waste the yummy food. We slept early that night and the bed was incredibly comfortable. The next morning, we were greeted by a huge breakfast of a variety of homemade Moroccan breads. I loved the hospitality at this little gem and I was sad to have to go.

Henry, Jalil, and me in front of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Henry, Jalil, and me in front of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Looking out to the dining room/kitchen building of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Looking out to the dining room/kitchen building of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

At this point, we were on our last day with Jalil (although we had two more days left in Marrakech without him). To be honest, I was getting tired of the desert. Our day was filled with visiting kasbahs and doing some last-minute shopping. I really had never heard of a kasbah before but apparently it’s famous because of a song called “Rock the Casbah.” The definition of a kasbah is a fortified home of a local warlord and back in the day there were many warlords. The kasbahs were historically built with mud and straw (kind of like an adobe) and had to be redone every few years due to the significant wear from the harsh environment.

First, we visited Kasbah Amridil, which is still operated by the descendants of the original warlord. Unfortunately, cousins from the same family are disputing claim to the kasbah and two cousins each operate a portion of the kasbah. The road leading up to the kasbah suddenly splits into two and each fork ends in the “Main Entrance.” We went to the more restored of the two parts and took an entertaining private guided tour of the kasbah.

The "Main Entrance" of Kasbah Amridil

The “Main Entrance” of Kasbah Amridil

The biggest of the kasbahs we visited is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Ben Haddou. It’s a huge maze-like complex and has been in movies such as Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. We hiked up to the top and took in the surrounding views.

Impressive UNESCO World Heritage site, Ait Ben Haddou

Impressive UNESCO World Heritage site, Ait Ben Haddou

Inside Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Inside Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

My favorite thing about this area is their unique art of saffron painting. The saffron “paint” is initially invisible to the naked eye when applied on paper. Once the painting is heated over an open flame, the paint gradually darkens and the picture appears. It reminded me of the fancy Crayola Changeables and Overwriters markers I collected in elementary school. It was very cool to see local artists make magic and we must have bought 10 of these special paintings.

That afternoon, I announced my desire to buy Moroccan pottery. We ended up stopping at a wholesaler along the road to pick out some very lovely handmade designs. It was far more affordable to buy pottery from the wholesaler than from shops in Marrakech.

About an hour before reaching Marrakech, we were pulled over along the road because Jalil was speeding. We had a decent understanding of Morrocan law enforcement by this point and it kind of entertaining to see bribery in action. Instead of getting an 800dh speeding ticket, good negotiation tactics allowed the violation to be settled for a mere 100dh ($12 USD), directly into the pocket of the officer.

Just before arriving in the city center of Marrakech, we also stopped by Carrefour, a French hypermarket, to purchase some argan oil as gifts. Although there are many argan oil cooperatives along our drive, it’s hard to guarantee the integrity of the product in small mom-and-pop shops. We were advised that Carrefour was the safest place to go and had the most competitive price.

Colorful spice aisle in a Moroccan supermarket (not Carrefour but Marjane)

Colorful spice aisle in a Moroccan supermarket (not Carrefour but Marjane)

By the time I was done shopping, it was late in the afternoon. Jalil dropped us off in the medina, as close to our riad in Marrakech as possible. I was kind of sad and a little scared to continue on without Jalil. Would we be able to get by without him considering our lack of French and Arabic skills?

Poopybutt and me taking our parting photo

Camel Trek in the Sahara

Early on in my trip planning process, I knew I wanted to ride a camel into the desert. The idea of riding camels and camping under the stars just sounded so romantic. I was really looking forward to this evening. Jalil had arranged our camel trek through Hotel Nomad Palace for €35 per person. We arrived at the hotel around 4:30pm, checked in and dropped off our luggage in our room (that we would not sleep in), changed, and went to the camel “parking” area behind the hotel. There was a large group of Brazilian travelers also riding camels that evening but they had gotten a head start over us.

The Brazilians on camels ahead of us

The Brazilians on camels ahead of us

Many camels in the camp that evening

Many camels in the camp that evening

Even though there were 40+ camels at the camp where we spent the night, the trek was private: just our camel guide, Henry, me, and our two camels. I’m sure our camels had names already but we decided to give them nicknames anyway. Mine was Poopybutt because he was great at multitasking and had many bowel movements during our one hour trek. Henry got to watch all of it come out as his camel was tied behind mine. Since Henry’s camel always tried to cut in front, we named him Speedy. Speedy and Poopybutt were very sweet camels (as far as my animal loving self can tell).

Me riding Poopybutt and Henry with Speedy

Me riding Poopybutt and Henry with Speedy

I do have to say that the whole idea of riding a camel was more exciting than actually riding one. African camels have one hump while Asian camels have two so we were essentially sitting very high, on top of the hump (there were homemade saddles). When camels walk, they shift their weight greatly from left to right so with each step, my body also shifted back and forth.

Camel riding fun

Camel riding fun

Algeria is in the background

Algeria is in the background

We had hoped to see the sunset but the sun was hiding behind many clouds that day. When we arrived at the camp, we were shown to our accommodations. Surprisingly, we had our own private tent with a bed and use of communal toilets (actual toilets, not port-a-potties).

Our tent was on the right

Our tent was on the right

Although the group that evening was mainly comprised of Brazilians, we did meet two other American couples. Since Americans tend to eat earlier than many other cultures, all the American couples were the first ones to arrive in the dining hall. We chatted about each of our travels in Morocco. One of the couples was completing a North-to-South itinerary similar to ours while the other couple’s trip was in the opposite direction. That couple had hired a private driver as well but their driver was constantly taking them to shops where he could earn commission and he kept pressuring this poor newlywed couple, on their honeymoon, to buy buy buy. We felt very lucky that we could trust our driver and he did not try to sell us overpriced trinkets.

Dinner was served buffet style and it featured several tagines and couscous. After a filling dinner, the staff of the camp played drums while the Brazilians danced late into the night. By midnight, I was sleepy and we headed back to our tent. There was a sandstorm that evening and even though Henry tried his best to seal the edges our tent’s door, some sand did get in. There’s nothing better than waking up with some sand in your mouth.

Party time (after dinner)

Party time (after dinner)

I don’t even know what time we were awakened but we brushed our teeth and got on Poopybutt and Speedy to head back to the hotel. The moon was still out and the sun had just come up. The soft morning breeze coupled with the warm sunlight felt amazing.

Our camel guide leading us

Our camel guide leading us

 

Morning shadows

Morning shadows

I’m really glad we did this camel trek and it was also very nice to have a hotel room to relax in when we got back. We showered, got ready and ate breakfast at the hotel before heading out for another full day. I wondered if Poopybutt and Speedy would get the next day off or if they had to carry other tourists back into the desert that evening.

Henry bonding with Speedy

Henry bonding with Speedy

From Fes to Merzouga: A Day of Changing Scenary

On Day 4 in Morocco, we awoke early to leave our great riad in Fes. It was time to head to Merzouga dunes. I was dreading this day because I knew we were going to be stuck in the car for many hours. We began the day in lush green Northern Morocco, drove through the Middle Atlas Mountains where snow is common, and ended in the hot and dry Sahara desert. It was certainly a day of a lot of contrast.

Fes to Merzouga

Fes to Merzouga

Snow in the back, dry desert in the foreground

Snow in the back, dry desert in the foreground

An oasis in the desert with palm trees along a river

An oasis in the desert with palm trees along a river

Random desert gas station

Random desert gas station

The highlight of the drive was the monkeys of the Middle Atlas mountains. These monkeys come from the same ancestors as the monkeys in Gibraltar but the Moroccan variety is wild. They do know that they are popular with people so they wait by the road for people to stop and give them food. They’re top notch beggars.

Monkeys hanging out by the side of the road

Monkeys hanging out by the side of the road

Hungry monkey eating Moroccan bread

Hungry monkey eating Moroccan bread

Monkey closeup

Monkey closeup

As awesome as the monkeys were, we had to keep moving so we could get to the sand dunes in time to ride camels into the sunset.