Ooooh Morocco

Ooooh Morocco

March 24, 2018 – April 2, 2018

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In the Netherlands, not only do you get off work for Good Friday, but you also get a holiday for Easter Monday, resulting in a 4 day weekend. We took advantage of this by stretching out our vacation to the week before and going on a proper holiday, visiting a whole new continent! We spent 2 nights in Morocco (I was so excited to go to Morocco where I could sing my favorite Moon Taxi song the WHOLE time. OOH Morocco tell me where you’ve been won’t you tell me what you know) and then headed down the coast of Portugal for a week.

Upon arrival, my first impression of Marrakech was utter chaos. Our riad (traditional Moroccan hotel with interior courtyard) sent a driver to pick us up from the airport. We walked outside into the sunshine, and there were at least 50 different drivers holding makeshift signs. After a few rounds of looking we spotted our guy and headed to the Riad Malika. In the center of the city where most of the riads are, the roads are pedestrian (and scooter) only. So our driver dropped us off and some seemingly random guy grabbed our bags and led us down some narrow corridors to the riad.

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The riad had this beautiful courtyard with lemon trees, an abundance of flowers, and three turtles. We sipped some Moroccan mint tea and watched the turtles race while waiting for the check-in process to begin.

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Things are not very organized in Marrakech, but eventually we learned we couldn’t check in for a few more hours so we stored our luggage and hit the streets.

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We headed straight for the Medina, the center of the city where there are several markets and in general, mayhem.  It was seriously crazy how packed the streets were and how the scooters maneuvered through them somewhat expertly.

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We wandered around for a while and then stumbled into a peaceful garden. The place was filled with exotic plants from all around the world, like this guy.

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In order to water the plants, they had a series of waterways throughout the garden. You had to be careful or you might step in one of them while walking around. Which I did. With my whole foot.

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It was such a contrast to have a tranquil place of beauty in the middle of the busy marketplace. We spent most of the day walking through the narrow streets and looking at what all of the shops had to offer. Unfortunately, for most of the day we couldn’t buy anything because we didn’t have any money. We tried at least a dozen ATMs to no avail and absolutely nowhere would take a card. We ran into a group of Dutch girls who was also having issues and they told us to make sure we had the world setting on our PIN card. Feeling good about the money situation, we went to check into our riad.

We checked into our room and were amazed by the views. We had a room on the top floor with rooftop sunbeds overlooking the city.

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Because of the lack of money, we also had a lack of food thus far in the day. Needless to say I was getting hangry. Even with the updated world setting, we still had to try 3 more ATMs before we finally found one that would give us money! Unfortunately, you could only get out a limited amount at a time, so we hit it up several times throughout the day. For lunch, we decided to eat at a place overlooking the main square. It was probably a tourist trap, but it had an amazing balcony to view the strange happenings.

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We saw snake charmers, monkey charmers, someone selling teeth, someone selling goat heads, donkeys, roosters and much more. The guy with the monkey even chased Tyler and lured him right next to a guy holding a snake. I was watching from afar with a pit in my stomach.

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After we had our bellies full, we kept walking around checking out the shops. There really was so much to see, but you couldn’t linger too long in one area or the shopkeeper would forcefully try to sell you something. It was chaotic and exhausting, but an incredible experience. There were so many different types of shops: shoes, rugs, clay pots, trinkets, metal, spices, leather, dresses, food.

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It was like a maze trying to get through all of the back alleyways, but you had to act like you knew where you were going because if you looked lost, someone might try to help you and then demand payment for unsolicited directions.

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Something I have to mention about Marrakech is the abundance of cats. I may have mentioned this in a previous blog, but Tyler and I have this game we play called the cat game. Basically whenever we see a cat we softly yell “KITTY!” and then you get a point. Whoever gets the most points in a day wins. Well, in Marrakech, the score ended up being Tyler: 29ish, Kaitlyn: 23… we saw OVER 50 kitties in one day. And, unlike in Greece, they didn’t all look scary and malnourished. So yea, I loved it there.

One of my favorite areas we stopped in was a square where the big rug factory was. Although we didn’t get a rug, it was amazing to admire the intricate designs and pops of color up close. We saw a rooftop restaurant above this square and decided to sit in the sun and watch the hustle and bustle below, while sipping on some Moroccan mint tea and iced coffee. In case you were unaware, it is pretty impossible to get an alcoholic beverage in Marrakech, so this was a nice break from our usual Saturdays on holiday.

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During the day, we also visited the Koutoubia Mosque, which is right in the middle of the city and is a good landmark for when you are lost. It has a huge clock tower and if you happen to be near it when prayers are happening, there’s a loudspeaker reciting the prayers and bells that chime, which is very intriguing to see and hear.

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In every city that we visit, we try to get a little trinket as a souvenir to remember our travels. In Marrakech there was no shortage of things to choose from. Every shop had a myriad of odds and ends just begging for a spot on our shelf. We went into a store where the shopkeeper wasn’t immediately haggling us and browsed what he had to offer. We settled on a small camel and a bracelet. Tyler put his haggling skills to use insisting we couldn’t go over 200 MAD and then settling for 350 ;).

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Eventually, we had had enough of the craziness and decided to head back to our Riad to relax and have a glass of wine on the rooftop. We made it back just in time to hear the prayers again, which I really enjoyed.

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For dinner, we went to Comptoir Darna, a really fun place with delicious food and bellydancing shows. The ladies danced around with these big trays full of candles on their heads and then would stop and put the candle hats on the guest. They singled me out one time and I got to wear the hat! It was heavy. I always enjoy dinner and a show.

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Although I had originally been concerned about Marrakech being “sketchy”, I did not feel afraid when walking back to our riad in the dark.

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City walls with the holes for aeration

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After a sensory overloaded day spent in the Medina, I was glad to head out to the desert the next day for total relaxation. The day however, did start off a little stressful when the driver who was supposed to pick us up to take us to the desert was over an hour late and we had a hard time getting in touch with him. But eventually, we were on our way to Scarabeo Desert Camp. The drive to the camp was interesting as we passed through heavy poverty areas. We saw several shepherds guiding their sheep and stray dogs.

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We turned off the main road onto this dirt road to get to the camp and I was singing that song “Sure would hate to break down here, nothing up ahead or in the rear view mirror…” because we were literally in the middle of nowhere. All around us was desert. The desert didn’t look how I had originally imagined, because there were small patches of green, and the land was more dirt than sand. Still beautiful though.

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Upon our arrival at the camp, we were severed more delicious Moroccan mint tea, and were told to pick a spot to relax at until lunch. The camp was made up of about 10 tents for guests to sleep in, the kitchen tent, the front guest tent, and other various tents like a spa tent. There was literally nothing else around besides these white tents and places to sit and chill. The camp was really nice though, and allegedly Chrissy Teigen and John Legend have even stayed there.

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The temperature in the desert was so odd. It was scorching hot in the sun and a bit chilly in the shade, so very hard to dress for. I spent the time before lunch alternating with taking my jacket off to sit in the sun and getting bundled up to move to the shade. Unfortunately, the day before, our faces had gotten pretty sunburned in Marrakesh because someone told me not to pack the sunscreen.

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Our sleeping accommodation for the night was a tent with no electricity. The toilet had to be pumped by hand to flush, and you should absolutely not drink the water. At night, the staff lit a fire in the fireplace and some candles around the room. Other than that it was pitch black when we got back to the room at night.

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After being so stimulated in Marrakesh, I found it a little hard to decompress and relax at first, so we played a game of cards, of course. There was also a boccie ball court that had our attention for a game or two. It was also amazing just to take in the views and think about how we were in the middle of nowhere. We were finally served lunch and it consisted of a bunch of different kinds of vegetables and then a skewer of chicken. It was pretty good, but the view from lunch was the real winner.

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Right after lunch, we had scheduled Desert Rain massages with a scrub of desert sand, cinnamon and ginger. Unbeknownst to us, there was only one massage lady on duty, so we each had an hour massage separately. It made for an awkward encounter when Tyler had to sit in the tent while my massage started, but he quickly left and enjoyed the outdoors. The massage was very relaxing and afterwards I was excited for the main event of the day, the camel ride.

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I had been eyeing the camels all day anxiously awaiting our turn, watching a few groups go before us. At 5 o’clock sharp, we had to wake up the camels from their nap and I don’t think they were very happy about it, but I hopped on to Fatima and she did her little dance to stand up. Which is so weird. I didn’t get a video, but you should definitely YouTube camels standing up if you don’t know what I’m talking about. My camel’s mouth was attached to Tyler’s camels butt and away we went with our guide. The first part of the ride was the most intense. We were led down this steep hill with just a metal handlebar to hold onto. I never before realized just how tall camels were.

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After the hill though, it was smooth sailing and I really started to enjoy myself. I absolutely loved taking in the desert views from atop Fatima.

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With no plans until dinner was ready, we decided to hike to the top of a nearby hill to see if we could catch a beautiful sunset. Earlier in the day, we saw a woman running down the hill screaming / laughing because she couldn’t stop because it was so steep, so we kind of knew what we were getting ourselves into. It was not a very big hill, but it was difficult to climb up.

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Out of breath by the time we got to the top, we sat down on some rocks that look like maybe they used to be some sort of shack and waited.

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Very peaceful. Some clouds rolled in which obstructed our view of the sunset, but it was still breathtaking. Immediately after the sun went below the horizon, I made Tyler trek back down the hill with me because I knew if we tried it in the dark one of us might break a leg. It turned out to be easier than expected to get down the hill.

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Dinner at the Scarabeo camp was very tasty. We were served garlic chicken tagine and veggies, which were cooked in a little clay like teepees.

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Our night was completed by doing some star gazing, out in the middle of nowhere with only candlelight around. It was simply magical. We called it a night early because we had to get up in the morning to head to the airport for Portugal and retired to our tent. It had gotten pretty cold and the fire was out in our tent and we didn’t know we had to secure the tent flaps and there was a pack of wild dogs howling through the night. Needless to say, we did not get much sleep.

Although Morocco was probably the most unique place I have traveled thus far, I really enjoyed it. Because I had so much to say about this one, Part 2 with Portugal will have to wait.

 

 

 

Beautiful Budapest

April 20, 2018 – April 22, 2018

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Because of my tardiness in writing my blog post about our trip to Marrakech/Portugal (still in progress…), I’ve decided to try something new and start writing the Budapest post while on the plane back to Amsterdam. We’ll see how this goes.

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Normally, I prefer Western European countries over the eastern ones. I can attribute it mainly to the fact that the Eastern European countries tend to have diets heavy in meat, which I generally try to avoid. Maybe also because they tend to drink a lot of beer and not the craft variety. And lastly because the ones we have been to are not on the Euro and it’s too hard to do the math to see how much a beer is going to cost (but also oppositely super cool to carry around 10,0000 bills).

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Budapest changed my opinion of what Eastern Europe has to offer, and I can say I truly enjoyed the city. Also, the weather was incredible which always helps.

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Unfortunately, it was a short trip to Budapest since I cannot take any vacation days during the quarter close (accounting problems), and we flew out late Friday night and returned Sunday afternoon. We made the most of the short trip, however, by immediately meeting our friends out at the bar upon our arrival on Friday night.

I have a coworker who is from Budapest, and she gave me a few recommendations of the hip spots to see, so upon her recommendation we checked out a ruin bar called Szimpla Kert. Ruin bars are built in the ruins of abandoned buildings, and apparently this one was the original and all others have copied it. The building was literally falling down around the big courtyard in the center.

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When it opened, the owners invited all of the neighbors to bring whatever they wanted to get rid of to decorate the bar. There’s everything from old chairs and couches, to gnomes, bikes, an old communist car, a bathtub, and a huge dinosaur statue. It could seem, tacky especially with all of the random lights, but I thought it kind of worked. They also have Hookah to smoke if that’s your thing. We enjoyed a few beers with our friends, but didn’t make it too late since Saturday was really our only day to explore the city.

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Saturday started off with the usual 10 am (or 10:30am in this case) walking tour, which has become somewhat of a joke in our friend group since it’s our go to activity. Budapest has two sides, Buda and Pest which are split in the middle by the Danube river. We stayed on the Pest (pronounced more like pesh than Pest) side which has more of the nightlife and hotels. The Buda side is on a hill and has the castle, several baths, and even the Hungarian “Statue of Liberty”.

The tour started off in Pest and we learned about the local cuisine (various types of meat) and drinks (palinka), while walking towards the river. The views to Buda were really beautiful since that area has more greenery and hills as well as the palace.

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There are several bridges that connect the two areas, but the most beautiful one is the chain link bridge, inspired by the Tower Bridge in London. While we were still in Pest, we walked around in a few circles and saw the St. Stephen’s Basilica. St. Stephen was the first ruler of Hungary 1000 years ago and the people really like him. The basilica was built only 100 years ago, but is made to look older. We learned that pretty much all the buildings were built in the last 100 years and before that it used to be an agricultural area.

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We also walked around in a few parks and saw a few fountains. There was one area where there was a big pool in the middle of a grassy area and apparently the pool is on top of an underground bar. So when you’re at the bar you can look up and feel like you’re underwater.

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The tour was kind of a snooze fest, but we stuck with it as we crossed the chain link bridge into Buda and then peaced out to do our own sight seeing.

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From Buda, you can see the beautiful parliament building on the rivers edge. We sat in the shade admiring it for a while before heading back to Pest for some lunch.

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Right by our hotel in Erzsebet Square, there was a market (kind of reminded me of Christmas market) with lots of open air food options and small shops. We sampled some local favorites like chicken goulash in a pita and this fluffy doughy pancake looking thing called Langos that had cottage cheese and regular cheese on it. Both were delicious.

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I would highly recommend our next decision, which was to head to the river to have cocktails on a boat. The particular one we went to was called Spoon the Boat, and we got to sit at the helm of the boat in these cool captains chairs. The Aperol spritz were phenomenal and they also brought out a bar cart of different palinka flavors to try.

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I’ve been there done that in Romania and didn’t enjoy it, so I passed, but the group had the peach/apricot flavor which everyone seemed to enjoy. The weather was so great and the views of both sides of the river only added to the positive experience.

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Because we enjoyed the ruin bar so much the night before, we went back once more to see what it looked like during the day. I think I preferred it during the day because you could really appreciate all of the random things gracing the walls. We grabbed some food at food trucks nearby and all headed home to get ready for the S’party.

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On our way back to the hotel, Tyler and I ended up marching in a parade in protest of the current president. We didn’t really know what was going on and it was the only way back to our hotel, but I guess we still marched!

The most important event of the trip was the bath party, or S’party. On Saturday nights during the summer, the spa has a DJ and you can basically go clubbing in a huge hot tub with 100’s of other people. After I got over the fact that I had to walk around barefoot and could possibly contract a foot fungus, I really enjoyed it. We got the VIP package that included drinks and a locker storage which was vital since we were in our bathing suits.

My first impression of the party was that it was kind of a sausage fest, tons of dudes, and a few bachelorette parties. There were also people who did acro yoga while twirling fire batons, which was actually pretty entertaining. The pools were maybe a little too hot and I spent the evening alternating between getting in the pool, getting too hot, getting out of the pool, getting a beer, getting too cold, getting back in the pool, all night. At the end I realized I could sit on one of the steps and be half in and half out of the water with just the right temperature. The S’party was pretty fun, but maybe not totally my scene. I would have enjoyed going to the baths during the day for a more relaxing experience.

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On Sunday we slept in and headed to the airport after waking up, wishing  we had another full day to explore everything the city has to offer. Maybe we’ll be back.

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Ran into a shirt that TayTay actually wore while we were in the airport!

Recommendations:

Hotels

Kempinski hotel – a nice 5 start hotel where Michael Jackson once stayed. It was reasonably priced when we booked it.

Otherwise, I’d also recommend staying in the Jewish quarter near the synagogue because there are a lot of restaurants and bars over there and it feels a bit more authentic and less touristy.

Bars

Szimpla Kert – the coolest ruin bar, please go here

Warm Up Cocktail Bar – had really good cocktails, but only go here if you’re in no hurry whatsoever and don’t mind waiting an hour for a round of drinks for 8 people. Actually, I’m not really sure I could in good faith recommend this place.

Spoon the Boat – bar on a boat with really good cocktails and views of both sides of the river

Activities

Szechenyi Thermal Bath – for a night DJ party or also during the day for a more relaxing experience

River cruise – either a night cruise or one with wine tasting. We did not have time to do this, but our friends who arrived the day before us did and enjoyed it so much they said they would do it again when we were there.

Hop on hop off tour – our friends did the hop off bus and it allows you to see more of the city in a shorter period of time than just walking around. If we would have done this we could have gone up to the top of the hill on the Buda side.

Dublin – St. Party’s Day

March 16, 2018 – March 17, 2018

Warning: this post pretty much just talks about how drunk I got on St. Patrick’s Day. 

Although we had already embarked on one weekend getaway to Dublin, when our friends said they were going for St. Patrick’s Day, we knew we had to join them on this bucket list adventure. Because accommodations were so ridiculously overpriced for the occasion, we chose to stay in a private room of a pretty shitty hostel, but figured we wouldn’t be in our room very much. We arrived to our hostel pretty late on Friday night only to learn that we actually didn’t have a room booked due to a miscommunication with our friends. Luckily, the hostel had one room available (and I mean really luckily because the hostel worker guy even said so himself that he had no clue how there was a room available)! And even more luckily, we were able to book the same room we originally had for EUR 200 less than what we were supposed to pay. Thanks St. Patrick for your luck!

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Tyler even shaved his 4th annual mustache for the occasion

In an effort to not exhaust ourselves on the first night, Tyler and I decided to have just one pint of Guinness at a bar in the Temple Bar district, it was named The Quays Bar. I’d have to say we were probably two of the least rowdy people at the bar, and on the street, and at the other bars nearby. It was crazy how crazy everyone was already getting. But I guess it is one of the biggest party days of the year.

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We kicked off Saturday by having brunch and being told that alcohol could not be sold or purchased anywhere until after noon. Probably for the best. So before the parade started, we dipped into a Carroll’s souvenir store to add some flair to our green ensembles. I picked a green Ireland hat and Tyler picked a green Ireland scarf. Did I mention that it was about 30 F as a high for the day? When will spring come!

We staked out a spot on the curb for the parade that ended up being pretty clutch. It was right in front of a bar so we could go in to use the toilet or get to-go beers. The beer drinking was necessary to warm our bones while we waited for the parade to get to our spot, which took like 45 minutes. The people watching of parade viewers might have been more fun than actually viewing the parade.

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That’s to say that the parade itself was pretty underwhelming. I had pictured tons of little leprechauns throwing chocolate gold coins and green confetti into the crowd. However, most of the floats didn’t even have green! Like this one…

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They were also all pretty small. This group of French guys had the right idea and brought a ladder so they could see over everyone

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There were also several marching bands in the parade from colleges in the US, like Purdue, some Texas school and some Florida school. I didn’t really get why they were here, but how awesome would it be to be in a school band and travel to Dublin for the St. Patrick’s parade??

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Once the parade was finished we met up with our friends and braved the crowds to head to the Temple Bar area. Everyone was so jolly and dressed in the craziest green outfits, it was a sight to see.

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The rest of the day pretty much consisted of bar hopping and lots of Guinness. We also watched the Ireland vs England rugby match that Ireland won! So of course everyone went totally nuts at the bar we were at.

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Picture of rugby match (kind of), but more importantly the soup of the day

Another cool thing about all the bars is that there was live music pretty much everywhere. The bands alternated between Irish drinking songs that really got the crowd going and some more mainstream stuff.

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I think we sat in this one bar for a few hours just listening to music and drinking our Guinness. I even joined a conga line through the dance floor! The other thing that really sticks out to me about the day is how many people I saw vomit in the street. Luckily no one from our crew was in that bad of shape, but I would hate to be the street cleaner on the day after St. Party’s Day, there’s no telling what you might see!

After a long day of Guinness, we reserved Sunday for waking up and making it to the airport for our flight. We woke up to a blizzard and I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it out of Dublin at all! We headed to the airport anyways to see what the deal was and were stranded with hundreds of hungover foreigners. Some flights were cancelled, but we were fortunate enough to only be delayed for 3 hours.

Although it was a quick trip, I sincerely recommend going to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day if you are ever in the area and don’t mind paying a ridiculous amount of money to stay in a substandard accommodation.

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Maybe we will even go next year.

 

Madrid, there’s always mañana

March 2, 2018 – March 4, 2018

It’s been a cold, rainy winter in Amsterdam as evidenced by the canals freezing, an event that hasn’t happened in over 6 years. I’m sure it was a sight to see when people were skating down the Princengracht and Keizersgracht, but luckily we avoided the chilly freeze and made our way down to sunny Madrid for the weekend.

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After arriving late on Friday night we were eager to kick off the weekend with a Saturday morning free walking tour, per usual. With the help of a funny little Irishman, we explored the sprawling city on foot.

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We covered some of the basic sites, like the world’s oldest restaurant, Plaza Mayor, Cathedral  de Almudena, Plaza de Puerta Cerrada, and the Royal Palace. To be honest, it didn’t seem like there were that many big sites to see in Madrid, it was more about learning the history through stories.

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A recurring theme throughout the tour was that the Spanish take a long time to do things and build things. It was always eh, we’ll do it mañana, a philosophy which would drive me nuts. We also learned the city’s motto, “fui sobre agua edificada, mis muros de fuego son,” meaning On water I was built, my walls are made of fire. Badass.

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One of my favorite stories was about the origin of tapas. Apparently, there was a bar that back in the day workers would go to for their lunch break. They could only afford to buy food or alcohol, so alcohol always won that battle. They would end up coming back to work drunk and being hungover the next day. So someone in charge decided that with every alcoholic drink sold, food also had to be provided. This tradition has stuck around today with many places offering snacks with drinks.

Our tour guide also told us about gave us the run down of the most notable kings of Spain using walking tour participants as examples. Tyler got to be King Philip II who brought Spain to its height of power in the 16th century and who the Philippines is still named after today. Glad he wasn’t Charles II who was known as the Bewitched because he was a product of many generations of incest.

The main attractions that we saw were the palace and cathedral.

Here it is from the back

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and the side

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and the front

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While we were walking through the city, I noticed that several balconies had the Spanish flag hanging proudly from the railings. Like literally everywhere you looked. I thought it was so cool that they had so much pride, and then I realized it must be a soccer team thing. But still cool.

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After the walking tour, we took a quick stroll inside of the cathedral, which was beautiful. I really liked the different colored mosaics on the ceiling and the picture of this nun who looks like a badass.

 

Madrid is known for being a bit of a foodie place so the rest of our trip was basically spent eating and drinking. We stopped by the Mercado de San Miguel for some tapas. As the name suggests, its a indoor market (mercado) where there are several different stalls where you can get anything from croquetas to wine to a whole pig leg. We sampled a few different croquetas which I liked better than the Dutch croquettes.

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Our next stop on the food and drinking self tour was a Vermouth bar called Taberna Angel Sierra where the Vermouth flowed from a tap. I don’t think I’ve had straight Vermouth before, and it kind of reminded me of Coca Cola. The bar had a fun atmosphere, but was very crowded.

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Keeping with the spirit of trying new things, we headed to La Venencia where I had my first ever glass of Sherry. I think it will also be my last glass of Sherry.

One of the items on my Madrid bucket list was of course churros and chocolate. Madrid is known for this combination and there were several places boasting the best churros and chocolate in town. We went to the one that was highly recommended and conveniently located next to our hotel: Chocolateria San Gines. It did not disappoint. I ate so many.

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Note: pictured is actually Chueeria Chocolateria which was equally as fab.

Because Madrid has such a great food scene, we decided to do a fancy dinner on Saturday night and went to Terraza del Casino, a 2 Michelin star restaurant. It completely exceeded my high expectations.

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One of the first things we had the pleasure of trying was olive oil that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen resulting in a kind of buttery, clumpy consistency. I took the whole bite into my mouth and then smoke started coming out of my nose because it was so cold. It was definitely something I will remember.

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The rest of the courses were equally as entertaining and unique. One of the appetizers even came out in a hot air balloon! We had such a wonderful evening, which finished off with them bringing us a huge cart with so many dessert options.

 

Overwhelmed with the options I tried as many as they would let me.

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As a typical Spanish dinner usually goes, this one was done well after midnight and we were too full to check out the Madrid night life. Maybe next time.

We had a late flight on Sunday which was perfect because the weather was beautiful and the sun was out. We wandered through part of the town we hadn’t seen yet and stopped at a tortilla place to try one of locals favorite foods. Tortillas in Madrid are more like quiche, usually made with eggs, onions and potatoes, and they are quite delish.

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My favorite part of the day was the time we spent in Buen Retiro Park, which is on the east side of town. There’s a big pond in the middle of the park and we grabbed a table in the sun to people watch. Everything was perfect until I got pooped on my a bird. again. why me!?

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After the incident I didn’t want to sit under the trees anymore, so we explored the park. In the middle of the park, the Palacio de Cristal was having an art exhibit inside of the glass structure, so we popped in. It was a really weird thing going on where there was water on the ground in the shape of letters spelling out words. The water would appear and disappear magically to reveal another name. I’m not really sure what the point of it was.

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One other cool thing we saw while wandering the park was two guys playing frisbee on roller blades. It looked really fun but also tough and they were doing tricks while they caught the frisbee. I think I have the rollerblading part down, but would need to work on my frisbee skills to join in on their game.

Although I think there was more to do in Barcelona and it is still my favorite Spanish city, I did enjoy soaking up the sun in Madrid. That was the whole point of our getaway in the first place, to finally feel the warmth after a long cold winter in Amsterdam.

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Coming up in a few weeks we’re heading to Morocco and Portugal where hopefully the sun will be abundant as well!

Venice

February 9, 2018 – February 11, 2018

Because we’ve never been to the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans, once again we decided to do the European version and partake in Carnival (last year was Nice). Luckily Tyler’s first weekend not working in 2018 (ugh, busy season) happened to coincide with the Venice carnival. We couldn’t take off work on Friday though, so we had to catch the late flight from Schiphol. Our dear friend EasyJet delayed us, per usual, and we didn’t get to Venice until around 1am, which is exactly when the water taxis quit running. It was an adventure to get to our hotel, but we did it.

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Because of our late arrival, Saturday morning did not start off nearly as swiftly as planned, but we did manage to catch the 11am free walking tour to try to check off all the big sights. Although the tour skipped the main attractions (i.e. San Marco Square, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Rialto Bridge, etc), it did cover a lot of the neighborhoods outside of the center that also had beautiful churches, canals, and houses. As a bonus, she led us through the less touristy and crowded parts and I fell in love with Venice.

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During the walking tour, we encountered our first glimpses of the ornately dressed patrons partaking in the Carnival celebrations.

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We also saw some churches.

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And some more canals.

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We learned some interesting facts about Venice. The list below shows the code words (aka Italian) for different streets:

Ramo – dead end
Corte – courtyard
Calle – street
Campo – square
Sotoportego – street through a building
Ghetto – originally a Venetian word meaning foundry. Venice had the first ghetto in the world for the Jewish population

We saw where the executioner used to live. His house was marked by a big head. His unlucky clients had to walk from San Marco Square to Rialto Bridge while naked and being whipped in the back. Shame.

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Also back in the day they used to bury bodies on the island of Venice, but since it’s all really underwater and consists of hundreds of islands, the bodies would float back up. So they decided to build a giant cemetery across the water. Here is it.

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That’s about all I learned on the tour. Pretty exciting stuff.

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My first priority after we finished the walking tour was to buy a mask so I could fit in. Apparently, the masks allow the wearer to participate in any scandalous activities they deem worthy and a lot of affairs used to happen while masked.

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Post masks, we visited the places that the tour hadn’t covered. The really freaking crowded places. We had to push through mobs of people just to get this picture.

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and this one.

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We then headed to San Marco Square where there was a huge stage and a costume competition going on!

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The people we saw before were no match for the great costumes we encountered in the square. One of my favorite groups was about 8 gentlemen dressed up as the queen in different colored skirt suits with female Buckingham Palace guards. Hilarious.

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The sun was shining in the square and we were soaking it all up and decided to sit down at one of the cafes and proceeded to order EUR 15 Aperol Sprits… twice.

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But the people watching was great.

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Tyler even got a picture with his maidens!

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And we saw the cutest fluffiest puppies.

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Then I got pooped on by a bird. And it kind of ruined my mood. Thank goodness for the kind soul beside me who travels with baby wipes and immediately came to my rescue.

We walked back to the hotel so I could change out of my poop shirt and went in search of a gondola to ride. We didn’t have to search very hard because they congregated right outside of our hotel. So we hopped into the boat and ventured into the grand canal.

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Our guide told us the tales of how he’s had Tom Cruise in his boat and showed us where George Clooney had his wedding. He also told us that he liked us because we actually talked to him and didn’t just sit on our phones the whole time.

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That thrilled me and I proceeded to ask him as many questions as possible. Although it is pretty pricy (set by the city at EUR 80 / 30 minutes) this was something I didn’t do the first time I visited the city 8 years ago while studying abroad. Because poor college student. Definitely a once in a lifetime kinda thing.

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Gondola was followed by dinner. I read a lot of travel blogs to make sure we got a good dinner somewhere not touristy, and while the restaurant was off the beaten path, it really wasn’t that great.

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We finished the night by stumbling upon a street party in the middle of a square with a band and many bars surrounding the square. We also followed this guy who had a loud speaker in a shopping cart blaring music to the Rialto Bridge. We weren’t the only one in his procession and he gathered quite a significant following by the time everyone disbanded.

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Because we had seen a majority of the things in Venice on our must see list, on Sunday since we had a late flight, we hopped on a boat to the islands of Burano and Murano.

Burano is known for its lace making.

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But more importantly for the super cute brightly colored houses donning its streets. Purple. Magenta. Pink. Yellow. Coral. Another Pink. Blue. Etc.

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There were also some cool canals here as well.

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We had lunch at a pretty shitty tourist trap. Seriously, don’t go to Venice for the food. But we sat in the sun so I was content.

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After a little more exploring, we decided to hitch a ride to Murano.

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Murano is known for its glass blowing. I still remembered the demonstration I saw 8 years ago the last time I was on the island and I wanted Tyler to have the same fond memory, so we looked up the “Best Glass Blowers in Murano” and went with Veteria Artistica Colleoni.

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We saw the blower blow a glass vase and a glass horse. The glass is so hot afterwards that when the blower put a piece of paper in the vase it immediately went up in flames. I enjoyed the demonstration and as a bonus, we could use the EUR 10 each we paid for the blowing experience towards a glass souvenir of our choice in the store. Tyler chose a shot glass. I went for a cat. Typical.

We walked around Murano for a little bit to see all of the cool glass creations before heading to the airport and back to Amsterdam.

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It was a great weekend in Venice and it really changed my opinion of the place. Before I was hesitant to recommend the city to travelers, but now I say it’s a must! Just maybe don’t go during the summer months because then it’s kinda hot and crowded.

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Life in the Dam

I’ve written a lot about all of the places that we went in 2017 (see earlier post for comprehensive list), but I haven’t really done a post about our Amsterdam visitors, or the activities we like to do in Amsterdam. So here is that post.

We were very fortunate to have so many friends and family members that wanted to visit us last year. The grand total was 22!
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Denice & Milton – March 2017
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Lauren & Vik – April 2017
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Hope & Raney – May 2017
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Mallory – May 2017
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Michelle & Dan – June 2017
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Jim & Sue – July 2017
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Brittany & Chris & Chelsea & Derrick – August 2017
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Austin & Catherine – September 2017
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Ed & Liz – September 2017
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Meghan & Josh – September 2017
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Jeff – November 2017
After so many visitors, we’ve perfected the top things to do in Amsterdam. Here’s my guide to seeing the city in a weekend.

Boating through the canals

By far, the favorite method of transportation around Amsterdam of our guests was boat. It’s a fun and easy way to explore the city, and we take our own snacks and drinks which makes it cheap too! Tyler has become quite the boat captain, expertly maneuvering down the narrow canals while simultaneously avoiding the large and annoying cruise boats. We usually take a route that includes seeing the beautiful houses on the Princengracht, hoping to catch a glimpse of the giraffes and elephants at the zoo, and stopping for a bathroom break at the windmill brewery, Browerij ‘t IJ.

Exploring Amsterdam by foot

If it’s a little too cold for boating, it’s also just nice to walk around the city. Amsterdam is a really walkable city that also has great public transportation options. We’ll often start by taking a walk around our neighborhood, De Pijp, before venturing to Museumplein to take in the beauty of the Rijks Museum and take photographs with the touristic IAMSTERDAM sign. Also located nearby is the Van Gogh museum. Although I have never been to the Rijks or Van Gogh (with the exception of MuseumNacht which is where there’s a DJ and booze at the museum and you don’t see any art), a few of our guests have enjoyed both places.
If our guests have some free time while we are at work, a free walking tour of Amsterdam is always a crowd pleaser since the guides know way more about Amsterdam than we do. There’s also a pretty good self guided tour in the Rick Steve’s book if you happen to have a copy.

Other musts

If you are brave, by bike is really the best way to experience Amsterdam like a local. I love taking a Sunday afternoon ride through Vondelpark when the weather is nice. It can be a little overwhelming and you will definitely have angry Dutch people ring their bells at you, but it is an experience.

Probably the most well known attraction in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. It’s so popular that you have to get tickets 3 months in advance or else stand in line for a few hours. They release a limited amount of tickets every day for the 3pm slot and that’s how Tyler and I ended up scoring a pair. It’s really fascinating to see the house and hear the history, even more so if you’re a fan of her diary. It is also very crowded and you’re basically just standing in a line the whole time to see the house, so I guess it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

There are several outdoor markets in Amsterdam that are fun to take a stroll around. The most conveniently located one to us is the Albert Cuyp market which has everything from fresh flowers, fish and produce to phone chargers and Elvis coasters. It also has some delicious homemade stroopwaffels, a local cookie. To do my ‘farmers market’ shopping, however, I like to visit the ZuiderMRKT which is only open on Saturdays. They have plenty of local organic fruits and veggies as well as fresh bread, meats from the butcher and cheeses. Another popular market is the bloemenmarkt which is a street filled with flower shops, mostly tulips. Here you can buy tulips to take home to the US with you.

Drink like a local

Here’s a list of some of our favorite bars:

Gollem – typical Amsterdam brown bar with a gezellig atmosphere. Bonus is that they also have a bar kitty.
Helst – formerly known as the Watering Hole, we love this bar with 32 rotating taps where you can always find something new
Arendsnest – this was actually the first bar we went to in Amsterdam on the day we arrived and we still love it! It has a big selection of local Dutch beers.
Cafe Brecht – jokingly referred to as the living room, this eclectic bar with mismatched couches as seating arrangements has some of the best gin and tonics in the city
Tales & Spirits – if you want a fancy cocktail, T&S is a must. Their drink presentation is funky and a favorite drink is the General Jackson that comes out in a car that plays the theme song from Dukes of Hazzard
Browerij ‘t IJ – the windmill brewery located on the IJ waterfront. They brew some of our favorite beers in town and if it’s a nice day outside the patio is the place to be

If you’re looking for more of a drinking experience than bar, the Heineken Experience is a cool place to go. It’s basically a brewery tour with interactive games. You can ride bikes while singing karaoke, make patterns on the floor when you dance, and learn how to correctly drink a beer.

Eat like a local

The food scene in Amsterdam is on point. There are so many places to try that we haven’t even touched the surface. While Dutch food isn’t exactly my favorite thing (i.e. hutspot and erten soup – aka meat and potatoes and pea soup), there are many other cuisines to try.

Blauw – a hip and delicious Indonesian restaurant. Indonesian food is huge in Amsterdam and this place is one of the best. We usually opt for the rijsttafels where you get several different dishes to share amongst the table.
Foodhallen – a food court type of place that has several different options so it’s a win-win for everyone. My favorite is the taco place.
Pancake Bakery – while in Amsterdam, you must try a Dutch pannenkoek. They are more like crepes and can be sweet or savory, but are always super lekker.
Little Collins – a cute place to go for brunch or dinner that has healthyish food
Orestis – a Greek tapas place that’s always a crowd pleaser. You can pick lots of different items for the table to share or pick the surprise menu where the chef picks for you.
Vinkeles – if you’re looking for upscale dining, Vinkeles at the Dylan Hotel is simply delicious. Their tasting menu is pricy, but probably one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.

Tulips

If you happen to be lucky enough to visit while the tulips are in bloom in April-ish, going to the Keukenhof is a must. It’s a park that has over 7 million tulip bulbs arranged in amazing displays. I didn’t know there were so many varieties of tulips! It’s also nice to just drive through the countryside on the way to the Keukenhof because there are fields of flowers everywhere.

Coffee Shop

We would be pretty bad hosts if we didn’t show our guests to one of Amsterdam’s top tourist attractions, the coffee shop. No, this is not a place where you get coffee, those are cafes. A coffee shop is home to Amsterdam’s favorite legal activity, marijuana smoking. Although there are many scattered around the city, we enjoy one in our neighborhood called Katsu. We’ve also taken a few visitors to the Bulldog, which was one of the original coffee shops.

Red Light District

While we’re on the subject of illicit activities, walking through the red light district is also a must. We typically just do a quick walk by with our guests as this area can get pretty crowded and a little gross.

Neighborhoods to visit

De Pijp – Our neighborhood which is about a 12 minute bike ride from the city center. It’s a neighborhood full of restaurants, bars, and a cool park.

Jordaan – Area near the Anne Frank House which has a lot of beautiful houses on the canals

Centrum – the city center where all the action is. Dam square is located here where there’s always street performers doing something, whether it be naked lady painting or dancing.

The nine streets – great shopping district

Amsterdam is such a fun city to live in and visit. If you’re planning a trip and want more information, feel free to reach out!

 

Christmas in Norway – Part 2

Originally I thought I could condense this into one blog post, but I wanted to really do the trip justice so here you go, part 2!

Alta

On December 26th, we headed to Alta, a 30 minute flight inland (east). Our tiny propellor plane had about 8 passengers on board and I thought I was going to be terrified.

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Actually, it wasn’t that bad and because we didn’t go up that high we could see the beautiful scenery the whole flight. We landed at the Alta airport that only had one baggage claim and took a cab to our next destination: Trasti & Trine’s Lodge. Upon arrival, we couldn’t figure out where to go. The place was like a mini resort / B&B set in the woods with several buildings and a huge dog yard.

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Finally we found Johnny the owner, and he took us to our lodge, right in the middle of the action. It had 5 bedrooms and slept a tiny army but it was also perfect for the two of us. And someone had built a cute lil snowman out front.

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Because we hadn’t eaten lunch yet and there wasn’t much around we asked Johnny if we could get lunch at the restaurant. There’s only one item on the menu, reindeer soup, but it was really good. After lunch, to get our bearings of the place, we did a little exploring and walked to the Alta river, which apparently is famous for its Salmon fishing in the summer.

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When we made it back to the Lodge, it was chaos.  A cruise ship tour of 42 people was coming to the lodge to do dog sledding and it was all hands on deck to prepare for them.

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It was so fun to watch the guides put the harnesses on the dogs and line them up for departure. The dogs were so excited to go for the runs. Tyler and I retired to our lodge once it got dark around 2pm and Tyler made a fire in the wood burning oven thingy.

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We played some card games and found their copy of Sequence. I got to show Tyler how to play a game that I had played several times growing up. He loved it and insisted we should buy it when we got back to Amsterdam.

For dinner, we walked back across the snow to the restaurant and we were the only people dining. We had halibut with potatoes and veggies with a really good dessert, and of course some wine.

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On the 100 meter walk back to our cabin after dinner, we looked up in the sky and saw the Northern Lights! Right there at the resort.

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We ran inside and put on warmer clothes and grabbed the camera and headed into the woods. It was just as intense as it had been in Tromso.

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This time we know how to work the camera better and caught some of the pink in photos.

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It was so cool to see them again especially when it was unexpected because it was only like 8:30.

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We stayed in the woods for a while admiring the lights and then went back to our cabin to play some more games. We kept glancing out the windows every so often, but the lights didn’t appear again.

The next day was probably the most fun day of our entire trip. For our dog sledding adventure, we were paired up with Jason, a native Englishman as our guide, and it was just the three of us in the -20* C weather. He gave us instructions and set us loose. The first step was assembling our team. Armed with a card with the names of my dogs, I set off to harness the first one. Stephy was a sweet black and brown littler husky and she let me put her harness on with no trouble. Koren and Maisje were equally as sweet and were no trouble. Then I tried to wrangle Roggo. He was the alpha male of the group and all white. He was more interested in jumping up to hug me and get in his harness. I finally got him though and led all my babes to the sled. Which Roggo promptly relieved himself on. They were SO excited. They kept jumping up and barking and wanted to run.

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We took off on a 25km loop around the forest. It was amazing to go through the trees and along the river and through the clearings. The dogs wanted to go so fast and it was a little scary when we would go down hills and you had to put the breaks on so they wouldn’t get out of control. My dogs also kept trying to pass our leader’s dogs because they let us use the racing dogs.

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On one particularly steep hill, I tried to turn too quickly and my sled rolled over. I was still holding on as my dogs started running off. They realized I had fallen over when Jason yelled at them to stop and they started rolling around in the snow.

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After we assembled again it was smooth sailing for a while until out of nowhere came a rock and I was on the ground again. I blame that fall on the fact that I couldn’t feel my hands. We stopped to take a few pictures and because I was afraid of frostbite, we headed back in to warm our bones and have some lunch.

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During lunch, Jason told us all about dog sled racing. He’s taking a team of the younger dogs on a 500 km race in January to train them for the big event, the 1200km race in 2019. They go for a whole week and the owners of the lodge participate every year and have won a few times. He told us that some of the dogs don’t like to race so you have to pick the ones that have the discipline.

After lunch, we suited back up in all of our layers of clothes and the warm suits and this time I put on some serious gloves that looked like oven mitts. By this time (2pm) it was dark outside and we had to wear headlamps. One of my dogs was being used on another tour so Trine told me to take Pudding, who was pissed that she had to go. She wouldn’t get in the harness and on the whole ride she was slacking. Tyler had the opposite problem and got a super rowdy group of dogs that pulled him super fast.

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I think I enjoyed the night ride maybe even more than the day. It was so peaceful out in the woods and the snow sparkled off the headlamps like diamonds. We were just doing loops near the place so we could go back if we wanted to and I started to get familiar with the course, knowing when to lean, when to duck under the branches, and when to put all of my weight on the breaks when we were going down a steep hill. Tyler didn’t get the memo though and went down a hill too fast and tipped his sled over. I didn’t realize he had fallen until his dogs passed me and I had to grab them. We all got a good laugh.

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On our night ride was saw a moose that was maybe 20 meters away. We saw it quickly, so we did another loop and got a better look at it. Later Jason told us he was afraid the moose was going to charge at us. Glad it didn’t.

I wish I had more pictures because it was truly an incredible experience to zip through the trees on the snow with the bright moon and stars overhead. Sometimes you even get lucky enough to see NL, but we didn’t on this trip. I was fine with that though because I enjoyed it immensely. Once we got back we took our dogs back to their houses and spent about an hour playing with the other dogs.

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I became best friends with Slippers who kept jumping up to give me hugs.

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We also met the latest group of puppies who were 6 months old: Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum, George Clooney, and… Bacon.

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Bacon was unplanned.

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Bacon was unplanned.

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We finished the night with a three course dinner of duck, reindeer and chocolate in the restaurant with a night cap of more card / Sequence playing.

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We woke up well rested and played with the dogs before going to the nearby ice hotel to do some reindeer sledding. Reindeer sledding is nothing like dog sledding. The reindeer are not well behaved and they do not want to be pulling sleds.

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The guy that was pulling ours we nicknamed Trouble.

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He kept trying to run ahead of the sled in front us us and tip us over. We knew from the start we were doomed when he refused to put his harness on. The guide later told us that Trouble was new at this.

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It was a short, but hilarious ride to the lavvu where we met a Sami. Sami are the indigenous locals of Norway and other areas of the north.

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He was dressed in a traditional outfit and we sat around the campfire inside the teepee asking him questions about his culture and job as a reindeer herder.

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I thought it was cool, Tyler thought it was weird.

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We weren’t there for too long before we had to get back into our reindeer sled to head back to the hotel. Trouble was a little better behaved on the ride back, but still reckless.

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After the reindeer sledding, we wandered around the ice hotel. It was one of the first hotels made entirely out of ice in the world and each year they redo it with a different theme.

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The theme this year was vikings and there were very intricate sculptures.

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Included in the hotel was a chapel where you could get married and of course and ice bar.

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I don’t think I would have wanted to stay in the hotel because it was cold AF, but some of the rooms were pretty incredible.

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For our last night in Alta, we enjoyed a dinner again at the restaurant and settled in to play more cards. Tyler checked the radar and saw that the skies were clear, so we went in search of one more night of lights. We walked along the road to an area of the woods that was dark. We saw the lights again.

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They were really intense and we saw them dance across the sky one last time.

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It is truly a magical experience that you should go see for yourself!

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We snapped a few more pictures before we got too cold and headed back to the lodge.

Oslo

Our last stop of the trip was Oslo. Unfortunately, we were only there for a short one night layover because of flight options, but we plan to go back to Oslo during the summer when the sun is up until midnight. It was nice to get back to civilization, and we checked out a few cocktail bars, one of which made the Top 100 Cocktail Bars in the World list, Himkok. It was a funky bar with serpent heads everywhere. And apparently it’s also a distillery and they make their own Vodka, Gin, Aquavit and mystery liquor.

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We had one last fancy dinner to cap off our trip at an old Monastery, called Klosteret.

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It was another preset tasting menu which several delicious courses. No reindeer this time.


I really liked what I saw of Oslo and it kind of reminded me of Copenhagen. I’m excited to explore it more on our next time around.

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I’m excited for all of the trips to come this year, but it’s going to be hard to top this one!

Recommendations:

Tromso:
Pukka travels – we booked all of our tours through Pukka. They were really helpful and provided a good mix of different options. When they had to cancel the snowmobile they let us book the snowshoe tour for no extra cost. They also were upfront and said that we wouldn’t be able to see whales on the tour and rebooked us with a larger boat. Definitely do a Northern Lights excursion while here, or rent a car and check it out on your own!
Huken – gezellig little pub

Alta:
Trasti & Trine Lodge – this was seriously one of the coolest places we have ever stayed. It was a family run B&B and they were very accommodating and the food was always delicious. If you want to stay closer into town, that’s also an option, but then you should really come to the lodge and do a dog sledding day, you won’t be disappointed!
Ice hotel – very cool (literally) to visit, but the food wasn’t great and from what we heard from some of the guests, I wouldn’t recommend staying there. We did the reindeer sledding through the ice hotel and it was an adventure!

Oslo:
Grand Hotel Oslo – beautiful hotel with amazing rooms and bar, it was a shame we were only there for a short time
Torggata Botaniske – cute cocktail bar with vines growing across the ceiling
Himkok – the serpant bar, listed in the top 100 cocktail bars in the world

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My mom always likes to see pictures of the different currencies, so I thought I’d pop this pic in here.