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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Paris – Eternal Symmetry

by Mark

Taking the exact same photos like everyone else does not leave me very satisfied. So I started taking pictures of seemingly random things, but they have themes. At least that’s what I tell my self. 🙂

With this collection of Paris images I was assembling themes of infinite, eternal, and symmetry. I found plenty in the Notre Dame cathedral, various museums, and under the cloudy Parisian sidewalks.

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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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Paris – Signs and Symbols

by Mark

This post is mostly about street signs and advertisements in and around Paris. It’s a very much an international city using more iconography over text to communicate information.

I took a lot of pictures of random stuff in Paris that I’ll have to sort through, more to come.

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Paris Wrap-Up

by Karen

Paris was a city of ups and downs, an adventure of self-discovery, and building self-tolerance and a test of patience. In a period of 2 weeks I’ve gone from misplaced hatred to respectful admiration of the city.

Anyhoo, here are some things Mark & I liked and didn’t like about Paris:

Likes
– Parisians’ culture and appreciation for the arts
– so many wonderful museums
– people really are friendly (we’ve had a random stranger help us buy a train ticket with his own credit card). The notion of “mean Parisian people” is a myth. I like to draw parallels to Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino–Parisians may act cold and frown a lot, but they are really helpful and cheery deep down.
– croissants and baguettes are so fresh, we loved eating then everyday
– delicious, wonderful cheese (we’ve taken a liking to camembert!), so cheap and readily available
– macaroons & meringues the size of my fist!
– real bonafide hot chocolate (chocolat chaud)
– “Voila!”
– the Metro signs and station entrances are a work of art themselves
– café culture
– the Metro is always on time, and very extensive
– the waiters (there’s no pretense of customer service, but it’s still there. they felt like real people, not fake)
– pop-up flea markets & ultra-wide sidewalks
– absinthe made in France
– French words are easily decipherable into English, there are a lot of similar words
– having a discussion with my host about what the English word for “compote” was, finding out the word was the same as in French, and then both of us still not really knowing what “compote” exactly means in either language
– everyone eats dinner late (8-9pm), so restaurants are open later

Dislikes
– every single person smokes (which unfortunately ruins the café experience for me since I have trouble breathing), and air quality from pollution is quite bad
– the Metro map is quite messy and not as clearly designed as the London Underground maps
– pickpockets and scam artists that harrass you on the street
– not a fault of Paris, but more like other tourists being disrespectful and touching stuff in museums. DON’T TOUCH THE GODDAMN PAINTING! If there is a crack on a 5,000 year-old artifact, DON’T TRY AND SCRAPE THE CRACK!
– that one guy randomly stopping in front of me on the street and peeing, without hiding, in broad daylight.

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Paris Street Pixel Art

by Karen

I’ve been noticing these on various buildings and walls throughout Paris and have been collecting photos of them. To me, they are like Easter eggs you find as a reward for exploring the city.

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Movie Posters in the Paris Metro

by Karen

Having taken the Paris Metro for 2 weeks, I generally see 4 types of billboard ads:
– movie posters
– museum exhibition ads
– telecom ads
– travel ads

What fascinates me is ads for Hollywood movies in French.

Our tour guide last week (from our walking tour) explained that French people don’t view Hollywood movies as a part of American culture, they view it merely as a product they are consuming (i.e., The Avengers is neither an American or Hollywood movie; it is just an Avengers movie). I got into an interesting discussion with Mark about what constitutes as an “American”, “British”, or “French” movie. For example, would Batman Begins be considered British, since a majority of the actors (and the director) are from the UK? Or is the IP so great, that it transcends borders? Conversely, what makes Amélie specifically a French film? Anyway, that’s a topic of discussion for another post 🙂

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that many posters for local French movies though, perhaps I am traveling in the wrong Metro stations.

I am curious, do any of these movie posters look like the ones back in the US?

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