Where We Stayed During Our Travels

One question we get a lot from people planning their own trips to Europe, is “Where did you stay?”

Travelers on a budget will frequently use youth hostels, or couchsurf.  While you can find awesome deals at these places, they do come with many pitfalls, and we’ve decided that paying a little extra for some peace, quiet, and comfort was more to our liking. (Most likely, we’ve grown out of our “party” phase.)

One website we utilized HEAVILY was AirBnb. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a website that allows you to book vacation rentals that can provide you with unique insight into the lives of locals. So instead of staying at an expensive hotel or noisy hostel near the outskirts of town, you could potentially stay in someone’s clean, unoccupied apartment near the city center. Or stay with a host family and learn about their country’s culture, share a meal, and listen to their stories. Prices may vary at different times of the year, but we’ve met some truly awesome people through AirBnb, and felt that our hosts greatly enhanced our experiences. We only had one negative experience with AirBnb (not listed below), and it was primarily because the host was new, and was not prepared to have guests (we were his first customers, so he was learning the ropes). We learned from that experience, and prefer to stay with hosts that have several positive reviews.

Another homestay alternative to AirBnb is to house-sit for someone while traveling.

For hostels and hotels, we used Booking.com a lot.

Anyway, here is a list of all the places we’ve stayed in during our travels. With the exception of Morocco, all these places have been handpicked and researched by us, and were generally booked at least 2 weeks before arrival (or in the case of Paris, 3 hours ahead of arrival!). We favored housing that was close to public transportation (within a 10 min walk) or near the city center. Our budget was $75/night for 2 people, and I think we did a pretty good job of sticking to it. We really enjoyed staying at these places, and recommend you check them out as well.

 

ICELAND

SCOTLAND

ENGLAND

  • London – AirBnb (Philippa & Bill) – HIGHLY recommended, they are a great couple to be around, and we’d love to stay with them again.

FRANCE

MOROCCO
(All housing—except Casablanca—pre-arranged via Naturally Morocco)

MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE
(Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul, Dubrovnik)

ITALY

AUSTRIA

CZECH REPUBLIC

GERMANY

  • Rothenburg ob de Tauber – Jugendherberge Youth Hostel Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber – Private bedroom, ensuite bathroom.
  • MunichEuro Youth Hotel – Shared bedroom, ensuite bathroom. (Get a private room if possible, we shared a room with 2 other girls, and one of them had a very loud one-night-stand with a random stranger while we were all trying to sleep.)
  • BerlinAirBnb (Simone & Uwe) – Also HIGHLY recommended, we felt like a part of their family and loved spending time with them.

 

Feel free to leave recommendations for places to stay in the comments!

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Transportation in Morocco

by Karen

We used a wide variety of transportation in Morocco, from buses, planes, trams, vans, trains, and even camels. 😉

It is actually fairly easy to get around in Morocco between cities. The major cities are linked by train and bus (coach) routes, both of which are cheap and very comfortable. Getting to the desert cities, you may need to either rent a car (cheap, and negotiable if you rent locally, I met a Bulgarian couple who rented a car for 25€/day), or hire a driver. Gas is also relatively cheap in Morocco, much of the it comes from Saudi Arabia, and the countries’ monarchies have close ties.
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Trains
ONCF (www.oncf.com) is the primary railway system in Morocco, similar to Amtrak in the US. The trains are very comfortable, clean, and fast. Tickets are easily purchased at kiosks in train stations, and you can purchase them on the day of your travel. You can purchase either First Class tickets or Second Class (Economy). The tickets are relatively cheap, we rode in First Class for all our journeys, and it never cost more than $30/person per ticket.
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For longer journeys, like Fes-Meknes-Rabat-Marrakech, First Class seats are divided into compartments of six with a sliding glass door.
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For shorter journeys, like Rabat-Casablanca, the seats are reminiscent of airplane cabins, but with much more ample legroom.
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The one downside is that there’s a chance the stations may not be announced, so always ask an enployee if you’re not sure or check the platform signs. Our journey times were:
45 mins – Fez-Meknes
2 hrs – Meknes-Rabat
1.5 hrs – Rabat-Casablanca

Buses (Coaches)
We took the bus once, from Marrakech to Essaouira, and it ended up costing about the same as a train ticket. The bus we took belonged to the Supr@tours company, and was about a 4 hr ride. You will need to purchase a separate ticket for each piece of luggage going into the hold, which is just 5Dh. It was a nice clean bus, nothing special, similar to a Greyhound or Megabus.

Personal Drivers
For 5 days, we hired a personal driver to take us out into the desert (it was actually a part of our itinerary). While we’re not entirely sure how much it cost (I’m guessing it was expensive), part of our trip costs went directly into his stipend for food, gas, and lodgings, and did not include tip. The van we rode in was comfortable, although sometimes the driver liked to roll down the windows, letting dust & pollution flow into the van.

This might be a good option if travelling to remote & unfamiliar areas. You can also hire a taxi to drive you out, but again, you’ll need to negotiate on price, and consider that taxis are making 2 trips–one to drive you out, and another to drive themselves back home (so figure your tip accordingly). It generally would take us anywhere between 4-6 hours to get between the desert towns.
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Trams
Of the cities we’ve visited during our Morocco trip, only Rabat & Casablanca had trams running through the cities. Rabat’s looks much newer, and covers all major attractions and landmarks, and also has tram stops in front of their two major railroad depots. Casablanca, to be fair, is a much larger city, and is still in the process of building new stations and lines. One way tickets are less than $1.
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Airlines & Airports
We flew in via Marrakech on easyJet, and flew out from Casablanca on Air Arabia Maroc. Both airlines were comfy, and check-ins were very easy. Booking online with Air Arabia was a bit of a hassle, since the price kept fluctuating with every refresh, and my credit card kept being rejected. Eventually, I was forced to use a 3rd party travel site notorious for cheating its customers in order to book the tickets. But fortunately, everything went smoothly at the airport, even though we had to check-in via ticket counter.

One thing we noticed: both easyJet (at CDG) and Air Arabia (at CMN) did not weigh our bags. For all the hype they drummed up about baggage weight & size restrictions, it seemed like nobody cared. For reference, we are using the 55-liter Osprey Farpoint backpacks.

We’ve learned (from reading various guidebooks) that for the cheapest airfares to Morocco, always fly out of Paris, or anywhere in France. Contrary to popular belief (and to our surprise), Spain or Portugal are not the best places to fly into Morocco, due to lack of cheap flights and choices. Morocco is a major vacation destination for many French tourists (think Florida or Bahamas for the US), and there are always cheap deals from Paris airports. easyJet and Ryanair usually have flight deals to Morocco.

The major (cheapest) airports in Morocco are Casablanca, Fez, and Marrakech. Some (pricier) flights may also go to Agadir, Rabat, and Tangier. Marrakech’s airport is somewhat small and can be chaotic as everyone is funneled into the same arrival room. Casablanca’s airport is pretty westernized. Both airports are quite far from their town centers, it took us almost an hour for either direction.
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Scooters/Mopeds
Just sharing an anecdote: a Maltese couple told me how they were able to rent a scooter in Marrakech for 20€ for the entire day, no license or verification needed, and despite the fact that the driver had a visibly broken ankle (limping & bandages). You can drive in the streets & alleyways, just try not to hit pedestrians or donkeys. 😉
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Cats of Morocco

by Karen

There are a lot of stray cats in Morocco. A LOT. Imagine going to New York City and replacing all mice and rats on the streets with cats.

Why so many cats? One of our guides said that stray cats were considered “community cats,” and that some were well-fed and “watched over” by people in the neighborhood (not directly taken care of). The cats mainly hunt rats and mice for sport, but prefer eating leftover scraps from litter. Apparently the cats are less prone to rabies than dogs, which is why you very rarely see stray dogs (or dogs in general) in Morocco, since many are killed off. The cats peacefully coexist with people, never shy away, and somehow know their boundaries.

There were many cats of all shapes and sizes, some bony and mangy, others quite fat. A rescue shelter would have a field day. It’s only a matter of time before the cats band together and form an army and take over the country from its human overlords (like pigeons in America).

Look, but don’t touch!

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The souks of Marrakech

by Karen

Souks are giant open-air marketplaces (i.e., a bazaar) where locals and tourists alike go to purchase goods and souvenirs. Haggling is common and very much expected. Souks are very common in cities across Morocco.

The souk in Marrakech, Jemaa-el-Fna, is one of the largest and most famous. Even with a map, it is VERY easy to get lost inside.

So many colors, sounds, smells, and things to see. It was insane, it felt so intense, like a culture shock-and-awe. Vendors selling orange juice, skewers of meat, herbalists selling snake oils, musicians and storytellers performing dances, beggars, children, shopkeepers; the city was ALIVE.

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On a side note, all the locals (in both Marrakech and Essaouira) assume we are Japanese, and start shouting random phrases at us, mainly “HELLO JAPAN! KONNICHIWA!” or “ARIGATOU!” as we walk by. I’m not sure if Japanese people frequently visit Morocco (I saw only one group), or if alllooksame, but I thought it rather interesting. If we don’t stop, they start listing all the countries they think we belong to.
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Another note, we probably circled around many of the stalls twice. Being the only Asians around, we really stood out. During our last circuit, I decided to take my scarf and wrap it around my head like a hijab, since I noticed the only tourists getting harrassed were us and Europeans. There were plenty of Middle Eastern & Arabic tourists as well, but they weren’t being chased around. Once I wore the headscarf, nobody called out to us, even when we walked along the same stores. Mark wore the exact same thing, and I even had the same jacket and pants. The only difference was that I was wearing a headscarf. According to the internet, it’s perfectly fine for non-Muslim women to wear the hijab (which is what I was worried about), but it might bring about a whole other range of social etiquette I am not aware of.
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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.
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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.

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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).

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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”)

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Salam, Morocco!

by Karen

Wow.

We were still on the plane when we’d already gotten an invitation to eat dinner with our seat neighbor’s family home.
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Only an hour after stepping off the plane, and already we’re enchanted. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a sensory overload.
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Our chauffer picked us up in the airport. We were very lucky to find him at the last moment, because he was not given any information about our flight, only Mark’s name. He assumed “Florentino” was from Italy (which is a reasonable assumption), and the only planes arriving from Italy were later at night. He was about to turn around and head home when we found him waving our sign. Huzzah!
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Our van was surrounded by crowds of people at the airport waiting for their loved ones to return from the Hajj. It was a beautiful kaleidescope of chaos. People joyously reuniting with families, roses, balloons everywhere. Our driver was none too understanding though, but he handled the crowd like a pro.
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We drove along the main roads for a bit, they looked like western-style paved roads. Mopeds, cars, horse-drawn carriages everywhere. Then, our adventure started. Everything you’ve seen in movies, games, and TV shows showing crowded streets, faded window shutters, shopkeepers hawking their wares, people cooking food on the street…it’s all real. We even had a kid hop on the back of our van and hitch a ride for a bit. Cars driving recklessly with moped bumper-to-bumper, bicycles narrowly hitting people, pedestrians walking slowly in front of oncoming traffic–it was madness.
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Our driver dropped us off in the middle of an alley, and another man met up with us and took our bags. We followed him through dark alleyways and arched passageways, winding streets with no name. You could very easily get lost here, and the best way to know where to go is to memorize it by heart. We shared the road with motorcycles (I almost got hit by an oncoming one coming out of the shadows!) but on the whole, the streets felt pretty safe. It was invigorating to see the streets so crowded with people going about their nightly lives.

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We arrived at our lodgings (Riad Edward), and I immediately felt transported back to the medieval Ottoman empire. We were speechless, the place looks run down from the outside, but inside is like a magical fairytale palace, with lots of charm reminiscent of a life long ago. Our room had arched wooden doorways we had to duck down to enter, the entire suite was spacious, and rose petals were placed everywhere.
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In the middle of the riad was an atrium with a pool of water in the middle, surrounded by trees and plants. We had Moroccan mint tea (need to add plenty of sugar!), and a satisfyingly good dinner:

– salad course (eggplant dish, tomato dish, and green bean dish),
– main course (beef, tomato & egg dish, and noodles sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar),
– dessert (very dense chocolate cake with some kind of goat yogurt?)

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First few days in Morocco

via our Facebook page:

We are alive! We’ve gotten lost in the streets, led astray by locals, almost run over by motorcycles, met very friendly people, and our stomachs are still ok!

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