Florence Photo Dump

via our Facebook page:

Florence Photo Dump

Lots of great art, and some of the best food in Italy

@ http://www.facebook.com/pages/p/190184244496819


Camels! In the Sahara!

by Karen

We were dropped off at our hotel in Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara Desert. Then we proceeded to ride our camels out for an hour, watched the sun set, and rode a bit further to camp, where we ate dinner. We were joined by couples from Bulgaria, Malta, and France, and I was able to chat with them throughout the night, getting their perspectives in traveling around Morocco. Unfortunately, Mark wasn’t feeling too good, and ended up throwing up his dinner. 😦

On the flip side, we both were able to take a peek at the night sky and see a ton of stars. I climbed a sand dune next to our camp (it’s a lot harder than it looks), and just perched myself on the top. The view was breathtaking.

Anyway, camels. Sahara. Wow.




























Thanks, buddy, go get some rest!

Ourika Valley, High Atlas Mountains

by Karen
Ourika Valley is nestled within the heart of the High Atlas Mountains, about 45 mins east-ish of Marrakech. Most people usually visit as a day trip, then return to the city. It’s mostly hiking trails, beautiful (lush!) scenery, picturesque villages, and waterfalls that draw tourists to the area.
We pretty much spent our 1.5 days hiking up mountains and enjoying the scenery. The afternoon we arrived at our hotel, we decided to check out the waterfall. It was a bit underwhelming (and overcrowded), having already seen magnificent waterfalls in Iceland.
The hiking was strenuous, but good, it was about a 3hr hike roundtrip. Our guide from the hotel, Ahmed, didn’t speak any English at all, but we managed to be able to understand each other.
To get to the trail, we had to catch a local “bus”, which was essentially a van with as many people squeezed in as possible. It was a fun adventurous ride, albeit watching your driver take sharp turns along cliffsides and driving onto oncoming traffic can cause quite an adrenaline rush.
At the bottom of these cliffs was a large riverbed, which at the moment is quite dry. The river usually fills up during the winter rains. But for now, the dry river provides for nice cafe seating.
Our second day was the big hike. The hotel owner recommended us to take this trail, which would give us excellent views of the valley, and allow us to visit a Berber village. He was right; despite the altitude sickness and heat, the valley was gorgeous, and not something we’d expected to see in Morocco, land of deserts and dried-up rivers.

It took us approximately 4 hours to reach the village. We took many breaks along the way, and I was quite embarrassed about how out of shape I was (our guide was 60, and he was running up the mountain!)
The owner of the hotel had even arranged a cooking lesson for me from one of his chefs, since I mentioned that I loved to cook. I was able to eat the result, a tasty tagine of kefta meatballs.
In all, we enjoyed our stay in Ourika Valley. It was a nice mixture of relaxation and hiking, and wish we could’ve stayed an extra day.

Getting lost in the streets of Marrakech

by Karen

Our first full day of Marrakech, we had a simple breakfast of cereal, yogurt, and breads. One of the breads was a flat bread that reminded me of the roti that I’d used to eat as a kid in Malaysia.
Our guide picked us up at 10 and we proceeded to head out on our half-day tour of Marrakech. The guide was assigned to us by a local company that caters to one-on-one tours of interesting sights of their choosing. Our guide spoke pretty good English, though I had trouble hearing over street noise. We had a choice of going to the north side of the city closest to our riad, which was the markets, or the south side, featuring palaces and a cemetary. We chose the south.



Our guide hooked us up with a taxi and we were on our way. During the ride he pointed out various buildings of importance, and explained a bit about Islamic culture. Our first stop was in a cemetary for kings. He explained that kings were buried in the capital city during the time of their death, so a few kings were buried in Marrakech (Rabat is currently the capital of Morocco).



Some quick facts:
– Islamic art features lots of geometric shapes instead of people, so as not to worship idols or images other than god
– Green is a religious color, symbolizing Paradise (which is filled with green grass)
– The dead are buried sideways for efficiency, so bodies don’t have to be measured as much and can be buried ASAP without spectacle.
– Graves are unlabeled except for stones denoting the gender of the deceased. As our guide put it, the dead are dead, there should be no difference in how they are treated from other dead beings
– Cremation is thought to be painful for the soul, at least our guide thought being burned was more painful than being eaten by maggots (the dead can “feel”)

After the cemetary we walked through more winding roads and came upon a “palace”. It was actually an old French military building (Morocco used to be a French “protectorate”). The architecture was simply beautiful. Many of the doors and rooves were made of cedarwood, with intricate carvings on them. Tiles were arranged in symmetrical geometric patterns.





The walls are generally made of plaster since they are easier to maintain, and the floors made of tile because they are easier to clean. Many walls had engravings of the Koran etched on a downward angle, so it wouldn’t get so dusty and hard to clean.

Doors are built outside of frames and are secured by outside hinges because it is more difficult to build them in arched doorways, and it takes up more space.



After touring the building, our guide took us through more winding streets until we came to a large square–the heart of Marrakech, Jemaa-el-Fna. It was a giant marketplace, a complete sensory overload. And our tour guide pretty much dumped us there, without much direction on how to get back, other than a bus number, and the name of the stop. Without a way to call our riad, and with no wi-fi to figure out where we were, we were somewhat stranded. We did manage to find our bus and get off on the correct stop. But then we were really screwed.
We thought getting lost in Paris was bad–getting lost in the middle of Marrakech with no street signs or familiar landmarks or any semblance of main roads was worse! We were in the middle of a small square that split off into 4 different directions, none of them looking very familiar.
We were approached by a young man offering to show us the way, so we told him the name of the riad and followed him down a road–our first mistake! It didn’t look familiar at all, and he wanted some change for it. We told him we needed to get change, so he said “follow me” and started walking ahead. We quickly turned around and ran back towards the direction we had come.

After walking down a slightly more familiar path (“hey, that door looks familiar”), we managed to find our way back. Great, we thought, now that we know how to get home, let’s go back and take some pictures of important landmarks in case we get lost again.
Another young man noticed we were taking pictures and said he could help us find a way. We already knew our way home, so we said “No”. There was an old guy sitting at a shop nearby laughing, and I said “Salam”, and he was happy I said something in Arabic, so he told me that today my name was “Fatima” and Mark’s name was “Sayeed”. The young man wanted to show us a mosque where we could take photos, and the old man gave his blessing, so we said why not. We followed him, found the mosque, and took photos.
“Now you pay me 100 dirhams.”

Ah. We fell for it hook line and sinker. To be honest, we didn’t have any bills smaller than 500DH, and we didn’t want to give him anything bigger, so we told him we had no cash. He argued with us the whole way home, calling us crazy, shouting at us, and insisting that we give him money. We offered him all our coins, but he wanted bills. We got back to the shop with the old man, who smiled and shook his head with a look of “just ignore him.” As we walked back to our riad, he cursed us and turned around and left. It was actually a bit stressful, but our riad hostess assured it was a common occurrence, that it was best to not give them money to discourage their behavior.
After a bit of rest, we chatted with our hostess and she gave us a map (yay!) and directions on where to go and eat. As we walked down the street towards the square, we noticed some new graffiti near our riad that said “CRAZY CHINEES”. We eventually did bump into our “friend” again, and this time we gave him 20DH (the equivalent of $2.45) to leave us alone. He happily accepted it and went on his merry way. Lesson learned–don’t follow strangers, and don’t look so lost!

Now that we had a map, we were very careful about where we’d bring it out. Whenever we’d get lost, we’d find a bank or post office, go inside, and ask a security guard for directions. Bringing out a map or looking lost on the street causes young men everywhere to descend upon us like vultures, offering to show us where to go (of course, they all assume to know where we are going). We think it’s a ploy to get us even more lost, so we have to pay them to take us back out.

The rest of the day went by pretty smoothly, now that we had better directions and followed straight paths. After a few winding roads and ignoring cries of “this way, follow me!” and “where are you going?”, by sunset we found our way back to the giant square again.
We ate at a restaurant facing the square called Chegourani, recommended by our hostess. The prices were reasonable, and the food was amazing. We had chicken, raisin, and almond tajine, along with Moroccan soup and some veggie couscous. I noticed how in all the cities we’ve been to so far, our favorite foods involved Middle Eastern or Arabic cuisines (our favorite meal in London was Lebanese; in Paris it was Turkish). We washed it down with some strong Moroccan mint tea (needed a lot of sugar), and watched the crowds pop up as the sun went down.

After dinner, we decided to get lost in the souks. There was just so much color everywhere. We must’ve wandered around for hours, the stalls went on for miles in every direction. Eventually we decided to go back to our riad (but not without getting slightly lost). Thankfully, the photos we took of important landmarks during the day came very much in handy, as they helped us find our way home.

Our itinerary in Morocco

For the curious (and to let our family & friends know of our whereabouts just in case!), here are the cities/towns we are visiting in Morocco during our stay:

10/28 – Marrakech
10/31 – Essaouira
11/2 – Ourika Valley
11/4 – Ouarzazate
11/5 – Todra Gorge
11/6 – Merzouga
11/7 – Midelt
11/8 – Fez
11/10 – Meknes, Volubilis, Moulay Idriss
11/11 – Rabat
11/13 – Casablanca
11/14 – Back to Europe

Our first week in Paris

by Karen

We’ve been in Paris for a week already, one would assume we’ve gone crazy all around town, seeing sights, and living the Parisian dream, with baguettes, turtlenecks, and berets, right?

Most of this week was spent:
– getting & recovering from our colds
– moving through three different types of housing (yeesh)
– being “lazy” tourists (running day-to-day errands instead of sightseeing)
– lots of planning (holy crap, Paris is overwhelming)
– enacting emergency plans for the middle part of our Europe trip (more on that later)


The “marriage” district


night facade


Paris Metro




Solitaire machines at the park


Some people fly all the way to Paris in order to ____.


But, we did manage to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing:
– Arc de Triomphe
Eiffel Tower
РChamps Elys̩es
Notre-Dame Cathedral
РMus̩e de Carnavalet
РMus̩e de Arts et M̩tiers
– Another Sandeman’s free walking tour


Charles de Gaulle statue


Book vendors along the Seine River


Eros, I think


Obligatory Disney store visit


Republique square

Free Walking Tours of London

by Karen

For the past few days, we’ve been spending 90% of our time exploring London on our own, without the help of a tour. While this is a great way to see the city, sometimes we want a bit more background info on various sites, just for a deeper appreciation of what we’re seeing.

Tours are really expensive (we learned that in Iceland) and you get herded around like sheep, but they can often offer more info and a tried & true itinerary you can follow to get the most out of your visit.

Thus, we started looking up self-guided tours or free walking tours of London. They are “free” in the sense that you don’t have to pay someone to show you around, but you’ll need to pay for the cost of public transportation to get to the start of these places.

Anyways, here are some free tours that we liked:

Sandeman’s Free Tour of Royal London

This tour was a good 2.5 hours, and took us through the royal streets of the City of Westminster (“London” is really made up of different cities). The tour starts in Hyde Park and goes towards Buckingham Palace, Westminster, and Parliament Square. It also took us through smaller palaces, parks, the Horse Guard building, Downing Street, and Trafalgar Square. Our tour guide gave us lots of pub trivia and gave helpful tips on when to see different attractions. For example, the best place to see the changing of the guard is NOT at Buckingham Palace at 11:30am (where the procession ends), but at a smaller palace down the street (I forget the name) at 11am, where the parade starts and there’s less tourists.
We were also a bit lucky on the tour today. When the Union Flag is not flying atop Buckingham Palace and instead you see a yellow-ish flag with lots of emblems (like we saw today), it means the Queen is inside Buckingham Palace, which is quite rare. As a result, the Royal Guards are out in full force. Our guide took us through a secluded alleyway and we found 2 Royal Guards stationed in front of a door…all alone. Photo op!
Anyway, I’d highly recommend going on this tour. It’s free, you get good exercise, and you don’t have to book anything ahead of time, just show up.

Rick Steves London Audio Tours
Rick Steves is famous for being a really good tour guide. Anyone thinking of traveling to Europe should at least read one of his books, watch his videos, or listen to his podcasts. Thankfully, he puts out many self-guided audio tours that you can download for free. They are all walking tours, and he provides a lot of insight and history on things you see.

We listened to his London “City Walk” tour, which starts from a church near the Temple station, and ends on the London Bridge. He takes you through many different alleys, visited many churches, and points out buildings with a special history. The entire tour essentially took us through the City of London, the part that got destroyed in the big fire of 1666, and again during WW2 in 1941. The podcast itself was about an hour long, but with all the walks and pauses, it took us nearly three hours to complete it.

Here are some of the highlights: 20131012-010235.jpg20131012-010327.jpg20131012-010349.jpg20131012-010410.jpg20131012-010432.jpg20131012-010449.jpg20131012-010515.jpg20131012-010607.jpg20131012-010626.jpg

London for Free

Been using this a LOT. This is an amazing site with a list of free walks, museums, and markets you can go to for free. If you follow a self-guided tour from their articles, you’ll get plenty of good tidbits of history.