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.