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North America’s Top Christmas Markets

The cozy smell of chestnuts roasting on open fire pits. A warm cup of mulled cider cradled in your mittened hands. Soft flecks of snow falling as you walk among shop stalls filled with glittering merchandise that just begs to be gifted.

Europe, and Germany especially, are famous for their traditional holiday markets, but the scene above can be relived right in your own backyard. Take a seasonal spin through this showcase of 10 amazing Christmas markets around North America to find one near you.

[st_related]Europe’s Best Christmas Markets[/st_related]

 

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Arts & Culture Beach Cities Food & Drink Historical Travel Weekend Getaways

9 Fun Things to Do in Halifax, Nova Scotia

With its compact downtown, breezy waterfront boardwalk, and relaxed pace of life, Nova Scotia’s small capital city is a laid-back spot to spend a few days. From strolling Victorian gardens to surveying the city from a hilltop fortress, you’ll find plenty of fun things to do in Halifax.

The Best Things to Do in Halifax

Allow a day or two to explore the top Halifax attractions—or longer if you want to take a coastal day trip like the one below.

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Walk the Waterfront

[st_content_ad]Wondering what to do in Halifax? Head for the water. The centerpiece of downtown Halifax is its Waterfront Boardwalk, lined with restaurants, shops, and museums. It’s a great place to sit back with a beer or an ice cream cone and watch the boats sail past. The scene is especially lively during the warm summer months. One of the most popular Halifax attractions for kids is the smiling Theodore Tugboat, a large-scale replica of Canadian children’s TV series character.

[st_related]Halifax Travel Guide[/st_related]

Learn About Maritime History

Located right on the waterfront is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which offers a look inside Halifax’s shipping and boating history. You’ll learn about the city’s link to the Titanic disaster and see artifacts such as mortuary bags and a two-year-old victim’s leather shoes. You can also see an exhibit on the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which killed 1,800 townspeople when a Norwegian ship collided with a French freighter loaded with ammunition.

Enjoy Food and Local Wares at the Farmers’ Market

A few minutes’ walk from the Maritime Museum is Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. Established in 1750, it’s North America’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market. Though it’s open daily during the warmer months, it can be a little sleepy on weekdays. Time your visit for Saturday morning, when the bulk of the vendors come into town to offer everything from local produce and cheeses to souvenirs and handmade crafts.

Visit the Hilltop Citadel

Since 1749, there’s been a fort atop the commanding hill overlooking the Halifax harbor. The current edifice, built in the shape of a star, was constructed between 1828 and 1860. Though it never saw battle, it served as a barracks for Canadian soldiers in both WWI and WWII. Today it’s a National Historic Site and one of the most popular things to do in Halifax. Summertime visitors to the Citadel can explore old stone walls, take an evening ghost tour, or witness the noontime firing of the gun.

[st_related]Canada 150: Welcoming Winter in Nova Scotia[/st_related]

Relax in the Public Gardens

Located near the Citadel, the Halifax Public Gardens are a scenic place to unwind and go for a walk. The Victorian-style gardens feature fountains, ponds, swans and geese, a 19th-century bandstand, and—of course—plenty of shady trees and colorful blooms. It’s the perfect spot to relax on a bench with a good book.

See Local Art

Discover the work of Nova Scotians and other Canadian artists at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, located downtown. The highlight of the collection is the restored home of folk artist Maud Lewis, who painted whimsical flowers and birds all over both the interior and exterior of the tiny one-room house she shared with her husband. The museum displays not only her home but also dozens of paintings by Lewis, who had no formal training and overcame poverty and painful rheumatoid arthritis to create her art.

Learn About Canada’s Immigrant History

Canada’s answer to America’s Ellis Island is Pier 21, which welcomed one in five Canadian immigrants between 1928 and 1971. You can learn about the people who came in search of a better life and how they’ve contributed to the country’s history and culture at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, located near the waterfront cruise terminal and farmers’ market.

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Pay Your Respects to Titanic Victims

After the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank early in the morning of April 15, 1912, cable ships from Halifax recovered the bodies of many victims. Some were buried at sea, and others were sent by train to their families, but many were laid to rest in one of three Halifax cemeteries. You’ll find more than 100 of these graves at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where the tombstones are arranged in the shape of a ship’s hull. Smaller numbers of victims are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery and Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.

Visit a Colorful Fishing Village

Two of the most charming towns in Nova Scotia are within easy driving distance of Halifax. Peggy’s Cove is best known for its iconic lighthouse, but this tiny village offers plenty of other fodder for your Instagram feed, like fishing boats docked at weathered wooden piers and coils of colorful rope.

Farther south is Lunenburg, a larger but equally picturesque town with well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century colonial buildings. You can rent a car and visit both Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg in a single day trip from Halifax, or take an organized tour to one or both towns.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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Active Travel Arts & Culture Beach Cities Entertainment Experiential Travel Family Travel Historical Travel Island Miscellany Outdoors

10 Must-See Seattle Attractions

In this eclectic city, every local might give you a different list of must-see places to visit in Seattle. To get you started, here are 10 terrific Seattle attractions you can’t find anywhere else.

Must-See Seattle Attractions

With just one exception (the Boeing Tour), the following sights are all easy to reach by public transit or share bike.

Pike Place Market

seattle attractions

[st_content_ad]Between downtown high-rises and the waters of Puget Sound, this rambling assortment of salmon-tossing fishmongers, produce vendors, flower stalls, and oyster bars isn’t only the oldest continuously operating public market in the nation—it’s Seattle’s maritime soul. Along with the original day stalls fronting Pike Place, the market also encompasses dozens of shops and restaurants on lower levels, across the street, and tucked away in Post Alley. Of all the places to visit in Seattle, Pike Place Market tops the list; start here and start early. Grab a coffee, rub the snout of Rachel the bronze market pig for luck, and dive into the happy melee.

 Space Needle

seattle attractions

The most enduring legacy of the 1962 World’s Fair, the retro-meets-futuristic Space Needle rises 605 feet from the grounds of the Seattle Center like a flying saucer on stilts. It defines the city skyline (picture the opening sequence of the TV sitcom Frasier) and is far and away one of the most popular Seattle attractions, visited by more than a million people each year. A 40-second elevator ride whisks you up for the stunning 360-degree view that includes the snowy peak of Mt. Rainier, Lake Washington, the Olympic Mountains, and the ragged Puget Sound shoreline. Recent renovations upgraded the indoor and outdoor observation decks and the groovy revolving restaurant, now with a glass floor.

Chihuly Garden and Glass 

seattle attractions

Prepare to be wowed by the artful and otherworldly creations of blown-glass virtuoso Dale Chihuly, a native of nearby Tacoma who singlehandedly created Seattle’s reputation as a center for glass art. The indoor gallery leads you through dimly lit rooms that bring even more drama to the striking illuminated works, like the 15-foot high Sealife Tower of octopus tentacles and anemones, and the Mille Fiori garden bursting with fragile blooms. Outside, Chihuly playfully intersperses more glass artistry with natural vegetation. The garden’s “Community Hot Shop” gives hourly glassblowing demonstrations, with a repurposed Airstream trailer for a furnace.

Pioneer Square

seattle attractions

South of present-day downtown, Pioneer Square represents Seattle’s first downtown. Its elegant red brick Romanesque buildings mostly date to the 1890s, when the fast-growing city rebuilt after a devastating fire. A self-guided “Trail to Treasure” walking tour leads past Seattle sightseeing highlights like the King Street train station (check out the ornate tile ceiling) and Smith Tower, where a 35th-floor observation deck and speakeasy bar celebrate what was the tallest building west of Chicago for nearly 50 years.

Olympic Sculpture Park

seattle attractions

Nature meets culture at this nine-acre waterfront park just north of downtown. More than 20 pieces of art are scattered along sloping gravel paths that zigzag over railroad tracks and down to the shores of Elliott Bay. Runners crunch past the meditative white head of Jaume Pensa’s Echo, four stories high, facing the water. You can’t miss The Eagle, the bright orange Alexander Calder piece that crowns the park, thoughtfully flanked by a line of matching orange chairs that are perfect for soaking up the Puget Sound views.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center

seattle attractions

Calling themselves “impatient optimists,” Bill and Melinda Gates parlayed considerable resources from their careers at Microsoft to begin tackling some of the world’s most intractable humanitarian problems. At the Foundation’s Visitor Center near the Space Needle, interactive displays showcase how it is investing in ideas to combat malnutrition, provide safe drinking water, fight infectious disease, and much more. The Foundation has issued more than $41 billion in grants since its inception in 2000.

Discovery Park

seattle attractions

Stretching across a 500-acre point that juts out into Puget Sound, Seattle’s largest city park is like a microcosm of the Pacific Northwest: Nearly 12 miles of trails wander through forests of western hemlock and shaggy red cedar, along meadows and wetlands, and out to the 1881 West Point Lighthouse. Go beachcombing and tidepooling along its driftwood-strewn beaches, and keep an eye out for harbor seals, sea lions, and even whales offshore. Because it was set aside as an army base in the 1890s, this landscape was never really developed, preserving it as one of the wildest places to visit in Seattle.

Lake Union

seattle attractions

A 580-acre freshwater lake within the city limits, Lake Union is uniquely Seattle, busy with buzzing seaplanes, rowing shells, and runners following the 6.2-mile Cheshiahud Loop around the lake. Live-aboard houseboat communities crowd the shores, along with plenty of marinas, seafood restaurants, and parks large and small. Linked to Puget Sound by a ship canal, the industrial shipyards on the east shore still reflect the lake’s hardworking past. Near the Museum of History and Industry on the south shore, the Center for Wooden Boats teaches traditional boat building and offers free sailboat rides on Sundays.

Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour

seattle attractions

As factory tours go, this one’s a whopper. North of Seattle in Everett, Boeing’s 90-minute tour takes you into the world’s most voluminous building, home to the production line of Boeing 747s, 777s, and 787 Dreamliners. It is the only public tour of a commercial jet assembly plant in North America. The tour begins in the Future of Flight Aviation Center, where interactive displays explore the mechanics of flight and let you try your hand at designing an airplane.

Tillicum Village, Blake Island

seattle attractions

This small island across Elliott Bay is believed to be the birthplace of Chief Seattle and the ancestral lands of his Suquamish tribe. The island’s Tillicum Village is part native cultural center, part theater performance, and has long been a popular Seattle attraction. Its replica cedar longhouse hosts Northwest Coastal Salish dances, sharing legends and serving king salmon grilled over an alder-wood fire. Argosy Cruises provides boat transportation to the island.

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—Original reporting by Tina Lassen

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10 Best Cheap Eats in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a city rich with multicultural diversity, which translates into the fact the that L.A. is also full of wonderful—and affordable—things to eat.

The Best Cheap Eats in Los Angeles

Here’s a guide to 10 of L.A.’s best cheap eats.

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Cielito Lindo

cheap eats los angeles

The best cheap eats in Los Angeles are on lively Olvera Street, a historic and colorful marketplace themed around Mexican culture. For just un poquito de dinero, you can buy hot churros, authentic burritos, or fresh guacamole.

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Your best bet, though, is to start off with taquitos from Cielito Lindo, a walk-up stand that has been serving the stuffed, fried tortilla rolls since 1934. They come topped with avocado sauce, and their faithful long line of customers swear that these are the best taquitos north of the border.

Langer’s Deli

cheap eats los angeles 

One of the most beloved places to get cheap eats in Los Angeles is Langer’s Deli, started in 1947 by Russian Jewish immigrants. The classic thing to order here is a hot pastrami sandwich, stuffed to the brim with hand-cut meat, Swiss cheese, and coleslaw on double-baked rye.

But if you feel like having a hearty chicken noodle soup, matzo brei, or a bagel and lox, you can do that too, without busting your food budget.

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles

 cheap eats los angeles

With seven locations throughout the city, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles is well-established as the king of cheap eats in L.A. The soul food chain was started in 1975 by Herb Hudson, a Harlem native with entertainment industry connections. Today, his quick-eat restaurants remain a celebrity favorite and pop up in pop culture often.

The menu is full of affordable options—order the $10 “Obama special” to get three fried chicken wings, a butter-topped waffle, and French fries or potato salad.

Diddy Riese

 cheap eats los angeles

As far as cheap eats in Los Angeles go, you won’t get any cheaper than Diddy Riese, in Westwood near UCLA. The long lines here attest not only to how delicious these scratch-baked treats are, but also to their insanely low prices: 50-cent cookies (choose from 10 flavors), 75-cent fudge brownies, $2 Hawaiian shave ice, and $2.50 ice cream sandwiches.

No wonder college students and tourists get their sweet fix at this family-owned establishment, named after a beloved grandmother.

Pink Taco

 cheap eats los angeles

In Los Angeles, places that are edgy and trendy are usually not cheap—except Pink Taco, which is all three, and also has yummy Mexican food. Offerings include cheap tacos and burritos, plus a full bar, a stellar location on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, and, of course, a food truck.

Pink’s Hot Dogs

 cheap eats los angeles

Not to be confused with Pink Taco (see above), Pink’s Hot Dogs is one of the most famous cheap-eat spots in L.A. This beloved hot dog stand opened in 1939 on La Brea Avenue in the Fairfax neighborhood, though it now has spots in Inglewood, Universal CityWalk, and elsewhere. It also makes appearances at county fairs in the region.

People flock here ‘til the wee hours for delicious and affordable sloppy hot dogs, burgers, and nacho cheese chili fries.

Dodger Stadium

 cheap eats los angeles

Dodger Stadium is full of many of the best cheap eats in Los Angeles, and is gracious about selling fun, delicious snacks for prices that aren’t overly inflated for its captive audience of MLB fans.

While you watch the Blue Crew play, you can munch on reasonably priced poke bowls, garlic tater tots, elote loco (roasted corn swathed in seasonings), meatball sandwiches—and, of course, the world-famous Dodger Dogs, with their outsized meat that ridiculously pokes out of the bun on either side.

In-N-Out Burger

 cheap eats los angeles

Many Californians claim that the burgers In-N-Out are literally addictive. And for many who move away from California, this is their very first stop when they get back to the Golden State.

To be sure, this is fast food at fast-food prices, which places In-N-Out Burgers firmly among the best cheap eats in Los Angeles. But unlike most other fast-food joints, the offerings that this family-owned chain has been selling since 1948 are consistently fresh and tasty, thanks to the fact that nothing here is frozen or microwaved, and everything is cooked fresh to order over an open flame.

Grand Central Market

cheap eats los angeles 

Those in search of the best cheap eats in L.A. would do well to explore Grand Market, a 100-year-old food hall in the heart of downtown, where vendors and stands serve up a multicultural melee of flavors, including Mexican fare, burgers, Japanese food, curry, boiled Chinese noodles, fresh-baked bread, and more. For a pittance, you can also buy spices, cheese, coffee—even jewelry.

Tsurumaru Udon Honpo

 cheap eats los angeles

L.A. is blessed to have a fantastic range of Japanese food, from places that many consider to be the city’s finest restaurants to holes-in-the-wall that are definitely among the most delicious cheap eats in Los Angeles.

Downtown’s Tsurumaru Udon Honpo falls into the latter category, peddling its excellent namesake udon, tasty tempura, flavorful curries, and hot seaweed soup from a no-frills, third-floor joint in the Little Tokyo Galleria shopping center.

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– Original reporting by Avital Andrews

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The Best Places in San Ignacio, Belize

Belize may be well-known for its sparkling barrier reefs that attract many travelers to the coast, but if you’re looking for serious adventure travel, you’ll need to take a deep dive into the jungles to the west. Driving two hours inland from the Belize City Airport, you’ll reach the small city of San Ignacio. With plenty of exciting excursions and day trips leaving from the city every day, San Ignacio is a fantastic home base. You’ll even be close enough to cross the border to Guatemala, just twenty minutes away by car, and visit Tikal, the world’s largest Mayan ruin, and be back in time for a late-night dinner and a drink in town.

Here’s the best of everything to do while traveling in San Ignacio, Belize.

[st_related]Belize Essentials[/st_related]

Where to Stay in San Ignacio, Belize: The San Ignacio Resort Hotel

san ignacio belize

The San Ignacio Resort Hotel has been a fixture of Belizean hospitality since it opened in 1976 and is the place to stay when visiting Belize’s wilder side. Like many resorts you’ll find in the Cayo District, this hotel is a great starting point for your jungle adventures, but unlike the other resorts, it also offers unbeatable proximity to the culture and cuisine of San Ignacio.

With rooms starting at $180 during the low season (May to November), this hotel is a luxurious retreat perched above a private jungle. It’s the perfect place to do a little birdwatching while eating breakfast at the terrace and if you plan on spending a lot of time by the pool, you can even spot a wild iguana sunning in the branches of the overhanging trees. Also, don’t forget to take advantage of the spa, tennis court, and private hiking trails!

And if you’re looking to book an extra special trip to Belize, check out one of the hotels three suites, the only guest rooms located on the second floor of the main building, and enjoy the buzz of the jungle while indulging in a hot salt soak in your personal outdoor hot tub.

Where to Eat in San Ignacio, Belize

san ignacio belize

  • Crave House of Flavors: Treat yourself to Belize’s creative side in this intimate San Ignacio restaurant. Chef Alejandro’s small restaurant packs in the flavor with next level dishes from short rib risotto to locally-sourced beef carpaccio.
  • Ko-ox Han Nah: If you’re looking for good food at a good price, check out this hard to pronounce, but delicious local favorite. Go for the quesadillas or the cayo bollos for a hearty meal in this laid-back San Ignacio staple.
  • Trey’s Barn & Grill: At Trey’s, you’ll find the freshest cuts of meat grilled to perfection. Slightly off the beaten path, you’ll want to make sure to pack your appetite for an incredible feast in the countryside just outside San Ignacio.

What to See in San Ignacio, Belize

  • Green Iguana Conservation Project: Located on-site at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, this project provides rehabilitation for injured and sick iguanas while allowing guests to interact closely with them. This is a great chance to learn more about (and even hold) these incredible reptiles while supporting a good cause.
  • Cahal Pech: On the top of the hill, this little-visited Maya site is a must-see in San Ignacio. Though not as large as some of the other well-known sites in Belize, you’ll feel like you’ll have the place all to yourself as you wander through the stairways and climb the mossy steps of temples. There is also a very thorough museum at the entrance and you’ll have the option to take a guided tour or explore on your own.
  • San Ignacio Market: If you’re in San Ignacio on a Saturday, don’t forget to stop by the market to peruse the local fruits and vegetables of the Cayo District. This is also a great opportunity to pick up some souvenirs.

What to Do in San Ignacio, Belize

  • Actun Tunichil Muknal: The world-famous ATM cave is what brings most travelers to Western Belize. This ancient Maya burial site still has ceramics, stoneware, and even skeletons left behind by the region’s ancient inhabitants. This is the perfect tour for anyone ready to embrace their inner Indiana Jones with plenty of hiking, caving, and even wading through underground rivers. However, due to conservation purposes, no cameras are allowed in the cave.
  • Black Hole Drop: If you’re looking for something to really get your heart racing, sign up for the Black Hole Drop; this short excursion involves a short hike through the wild jungle of the Maya Mountains and a 300-foot rope rappel into an ancient sinkhole.
  • Tikal Day Trip: With the Guatemalan border just twenty minutes away from San Ignacio, Belize you’ll be in the perfect spot to take a day-trip to one of Central America’s most magnificent sights—the Maya city of Tikal. This huge complex has hundreds of temples to climb and explore.

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Jamie Ditaranto traveled to Belize as a guest of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto and Instagram @jamieditaranto.

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10 Ways to Have an Authentic Trip to Mexico

There’s more to Mexico than spring break, tequila, and beaches. And while tourist areas like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas are popular for a reason, all-inclusive resorts and overcrowded beach areas don’t always make for an authentic experience. The good news is, you can still make your trip to Mexico a non-touristy one. From Maya museums to historic festivals, the country offers a lot more than just palm trees and swim-up pool bars.

Tips for an Authentic Trip to Mexico

Read on for 10 insider tips that will lead to a more authentic trip to Mexico, even if you’re headed to a busy city or resort area.

Go for a Festival

Whether it’s for Day of the Dead or Mexican Independence Day, you’ll have a more culturally rich trip to Mexico if you visit during a celebration or festival. These events are an outlet to learn more about the country’s history and traditions, and are packed with exciting experiences.

Here are some popular holidays to plan a trip to Mexico around:

  • Diez y Seis: Mexican Independence Day, September 16
  • Dia de la Raza: Day of the Race (date Christopher Columbus arrived in North America), October 12
  • Dia de Los Muertos: Day of the Dead, October 31 to November 2
  • Dia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico), December 12
  • Las Posadas: Christmas Season kickoff, December 16
  • Dia de Los Santos Reyes: Three Kings Day, January 6
  • Semana Santa: Holy Week, Lent and Easter
  • Carnaval: Mardi Gras, dates vary with the Easter calendar
  • Benito Juarez Day: Third Monday in March

[st_related]10 Incredible Places to Experience Day of the Dead[/st_related]

Be a Picky Eater

Don’t settle for the onsite restaurants at your resort. Instead head to a destination known for its food, like Oaxaca or Puebla, which are known for mole and chalupas.

If you’re in the Cancun area, book a dinner at La Joya at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun Resort. Unique to the restaurant, it offers a video-mapping culinary experience that is out of this world: The eight-course meal tells the history of Mexico through visual effects and food.

And no matter where you go, ask for the region or town’s local specialty—for Isla Mujeres its tik’n xic seasoned fish.

Visit a Museum  

No matter where your trip to Mexico takes you, there’s a variety of museums worth visiting. Mexico City is known as the art capital of the country, with dozens of museums like the Museum of Popular Culture Coyoacan/San Angel and the well-known Museo-Estudio Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera. Even Cancun has a newly opened (2012) Maya museum—Museo Maya de Cancun—complete with an archeological site and thousands of artifacts.

[st_related]World’s Best Free Museums[/st_related] 

Go to a Small Beach Village

There are plenty of quiet beach towns left in Mexico, and some aren’t far from popular tourist areas. Sayulita in Riviera Nayarit is just north of Puerto Vallarta and known for its laid back surfing vibe, even though it attracts tourists. Or head to car-free Yelapa, accessible by water taxi from Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re looking for a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, head to nearby Punta Allen, located in the Sian Ka’an Bioshperhe Reserve. Also in Quintana Roo, you’ll find Puerto Morelos in between Cancun and Playa del Carmen—it’s much quieter than its resort neighbors.

Shop at Markets 

While it might be hard to skip out on the touristy gimmicks, your best bet for authentic Mexican markets are in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

In Guadalajara, Mercado Libertad can’t be missed—literally: The massive market is home to more than 2,800 vendors. For something smaller, head just outside the city to Tlaquepaque or Tonala, which are known for handicrafts and authentic Mexican art.

In Mexico City, you’ll find spectacular food and clothing markets, like Bazaar Sabado, Mercado de la Merced, and Mercado Artesanal de Coyoacan (located in Frida Kahlo’s home town).

[st_related]Which Mexico Destination Is Right for You?[/st_related]

Take the Bus

If you’re an experienced traveler who speaks some Spanish, taking the bus in most of Mexico’s tourist-frequented areas is safe and affordable. In Cancun, many buses are brand new and will get you to popular spots, as well as sights outside the main strip. Head to the local bus station ahead of time and ask for information on your desired route. In Yucatan for example, there are local buses, long-distance buses, and a mini-bus line. Depending on your trip, you can chose from first-class, second-class, plus class, and luxury buses. Find more specific information on Mexico buses here. 

Volunteer

If you’re really looking for an authentic trip to Mexico, you can volunteer through a variety of programs. International Volunteer HQ has options ranging in length from one to 12 weeks. Participants are based in the popular city of Merida, and have the option of choosing from five projects, including animal care, childcare, and Maya agriculture.

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Swim in a Cenote

Cenote, or swimming caves, are well-known in the Yucatan Peninsula, so you can easily get scammed into a tourist-packed trip. Instead, head to the city of Valladolid and venture to the area’s cenotes on your own—Oxman, Xkekhen, Samula, Zaci, and X’Chanche are all within driving distance (you can even walk to Zaci) and are less crowded than the ones tour operators will try and sell you on.

Bonus: Valladoid also has Maya ruins, Ek Balam, home to a taller step pyramid than the crowded Chichen Itza’s.

Explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There are 34 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mexico, including 10 historical cities, making infinite options for an authentic trip to Mexico. From agave landscapes to the historic centers of Mexico City and Xochimilco, there’s plenty of ways to add culture into your trip to Mexico.

For a full list of historic sites, visit UNESCO’s website.

[st_related]10 Best Things to Do in Mexico[/st_related]

Speak the Language

While you can get by with English in most parts of Mexico, especially in resort areas, you should challenge yourself to speak Spanish. Ease your way into it by trying to order food in Spanish, and you’ll feel like a local before you know it.

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More Vacation Inspiration:

Ashley traveled to Cancun courtesy of Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun Follow all of her adventures (big and small) on Instagram and Twitter.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. State Department includes some of the mentioned states in its Mexico travel warning. You can read more about the travel warning to Mexico here.

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9 Ways to Find Cheap Eats Anywhere You Travel

After lodging and airfare—and sometimes even ahead of it—food is one of the biggest expenses for travelers. Eating out two or three times a day, every day, for an extended period can be cost-prohibitive for the average would-be traveler, especially when the budget has to stretch to feed multiple people. Fortunately, there are ways to find cheap eats no matter where you’re headed—even in some of the world’s biggest, most expensive cities.

[st_content_ad]And no, I’m not talking about cooking all or even some of your own meals, but rather budget-saving tips that will allow you to experience the local cuisine to the fullest. The nine tips below will help you discover cheap places to eat on your next vacation.

Use Discount Apps to Find Cheap Eats

A few weeks or even months before you embark on a trip, add your destination to all of your flash-sale and e-commerce apps, like Groupon and Living Social. Whenever you see a good dining deal, purchase it and save it to use during your trip. Many sites allow you to view these vouchers offline or even print them ahead of time, so even if you’re somewhere without Wi-Fi or a cell signal, you can still use them. These sites regularly offer deals that can save you anywhere from 10 to 50 percent or even more.

Choose the Right Hotel

I’m not suggesting you dine in your hotel’s in-house restaurant—those are usually expensive and subpar. What I do suggest is booking a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast and/or dining credits or coupons for local restaurants. Many hotels, hostels, and even vacation rentals include either a continental or hot breakfast in their nightly rates without charging more than other similar lodging options. And of course, bed and breakfasts, which are an affordable option in many places, always include breakfast.

Some hotels also partner with local restaurants to offer dining credits as part of package lodging deals. Don’t pass these up if they’re available.

Bonus tip: If the included breakfast is buffet-style, grab a few pieces of fruit or an extra yogurt for snacking on later in the day, and fill up your travel mug or water bottle before heading out.

[st_related]How to Save Money on Food When You Travel[/st_related]

Look for Local Bakeries

Once you arrive and get settled in, take a walk around the neighborhood and take note of any bakeries that look inviting. Local bakeries usually offer a variety of breads, pastries, sandwiches, wraps, tea, and coffee at affordable prices. A hot coffee and a croissant or small sandwich can go a long way in fueling you up for a day of exploring—whether for breakfast or lunch—and usually won’t cost you much. Plus, if you visit the same place a few days in a row throughout your visit, you’ll notice the same local regulars—and maybe even start to feel like one yourself.

Explore Residential Areas

For good, cheap eats, ditch the pricey downtown restaurants and head to the outskirts of your destination city. Here, in more residential neighborhoods, you’ll often find excellent restaurants and bars that charge a fraction of what you’ll pay near the big tourist attractions. This may require you to walk an extra mile or spend a few bucks on public transportation, but the savings are usually well worth it. Chances are, you’ll also enjoy a much better meal than what’s typically peddled to famished tourists in the more bustling areas.

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Ask the Locals

There’s no better way to find cheap eats in your destination than to ask someone who lives there. If you’re too shy to strike up a conversation with someone on the subway or at a bar, you can ask a tour guide or hotel worker. Just be sure to tell them that you don’t want to go where they usually send tourists, since they often give stock answers or suggest places their hotel or tour company is affiliated with. Instead, ask where they eat when they go out. Let them know you’re looking for cheap eats and you want to see where the locals like to dine.

Don’t Be Afraid of Street Food

Every traveler has heard horror stories about food poisoning and the dreaded traveler’s tummy, but the vast majority of street vendors feed hundreds of people every day without a problem. Street food is notoriously cheap and offers some of the most authentic food you’ll find in just about every locale.

To protect yourself, queue up at the busiest cart, since locals won’t wait in line for food that doesn’t have a great reputation and a busy vendor’s food isn’t likely to sit around long enough to go bad. Pack some tummy meds just in case—but chances are, you won’t need them at all, and you may even score an amazing meal for just a couple of bucks.

[st_related]Food Safety: How to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling[/st_related]

Visit Farmers’ Markets

In some destinations you’ll have to take to the streets to locate a good farmers’ market, while in others there are markets so famous you’ll come across them when you’re researching sights to visit on your trip. From breads and cheeses to locally grown produce and prepared foods, farmers’ markets offer any number of choices to fill your belly without breaking the bank. Grab your purchases and find a local park or town square to enjoy them in while you people watch.

Stop at a Grocery Store

You probably don’t like the idea of cooking on vacation, but grocery stores are an affordable place to pick up things like coffee, soups, sandwiches, pastries, and other grab-and-go options for a quick, cheap vacation meal. Of course, you’ll also get a peek at how the locals do their shopping, and you’ll likely find a few authentic treats and regional specialties to try out for yourself that you might not otherwise have stumbled across.

[st_related]12 International Foods to Try Before You Die[/st_related]

Try New Things

Lastly, always be willing to try something new. You don’t have to relegate yourself to eating at the local Mickey D’s outpost every day in order to save money. Armed with an open mind and an adventurous palate, you’ll be able to find plenty of cheap places to eat when you’re traveling, no matter your destination. Just be willing to eat like the locals wherever in the world you end up.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Shayne Rodriguez Thompson is the founder of FitMamiLife.com and a freelance writer with expertise in all things travel, food, and parenting.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Historical Travel Outdoors

Sacred Valley, Peru: How to Plan the Perfect Trip

Exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas feels like going back in time. Centuries-old Inca terraces spill down green, misty hillsides. Women in traditional Andean dress stroll along the cobblestone streets of colonial towns, long black braids trailing down their backs. Colorful village markets display soft alpaca sweaters, hats, and ponchos woven by hand.[st_content_ad]

The Sacred Valley is tucked between Cusco and Machu Picchu, running along the Urubamba River from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. Travelers with limited time often skip the Sacred Valley in their rush to see Machu Picchu, but the valley’s picturesque towns and well-preserved Inca ruins are worth a day or two in their own right.

The Sacred Valley has an additional benefit for travelers hoping to acclimate to the region’s altitude before visiting Machu Picchu: Most of the valley sits several hundred feet lower than Cusco.

[st_related]How to Keep Altitude Sickness from Ruining Your Trip[/st_related]

When to Visit the Sacred Valley

For the best chance of dry weather, visit the Sacred Valley during its high season between June and August. The rainiest part of the year is November through March. Come during the shoulder-season months—April, May, September, and October—for slightly smaller crowds and lower prices than you’d find in high season, without an excessive threat of rain.

Top Sights in the Sacred Valley

Pisac: Famous for its Sunday market, in which farmers come from all over the Sacred Valley with a colorful bounty of local fruit and vegetables, Pisac is also worth a visit for its large Inca ruins. Located above the town via a zigzagging road, the agricultural terraces and stone ruins offer sweeping views of the valley below.

Ollantaytambo: Aside from its cobblestone streets and friendly cafes, Ollantaytambo’s primary attraction is the Inca fortress located right at the edge of town. Though these ruins are more compact than those in Pisac, be prepared for some climbing; the terraces and temples were built into a steep hillside.

Chinchero: In this small town, you can take in a traditional weaving demonstration, visit a pretty colonial-era church, and explore Inca terraces. Chinchero also has a Sunday market.

Maras: This town is home to two of the Sacred Valley’s most distinctive attractions: a patchwork of hillside geometric salt pools that have been used to mine salt for centuries, and an Inca site called Moray, where the concentric terraces look like a giant green amphitheater.

[st_related]Machu Picchu Is Overrated, Go to Choquequirao Instead[/st_related]

Getting There and Around

The nearest major city to the Sacred Valley is Cusco; most international travelers arrive by air via Lima. Once in Cusco, there are a variety of ways to get to the Sacred Valley. While cheap public buses operate in the area, most tourists find it safer and more comfortable to take a taxi or arrange a private transfer through a hotel. Another option: Shared taxis, or colectivos, carry up to four passengers and connect major towns in the area.

You can rent a car at the Cusco airport, but the U.S. State Department cautions against driving yourself at night or in rural areas in Peru, thanks to poor signage and sometimes dangerous roads. Instead, many travelers join local tours (see below) or hire a driver to take them around the Sacred Valley. Your hotel can help you find a driver and English-speaking guide.

[st_related]Getting Around Peru: Transportation Tips[/st_related]

Sacred Valley Tours

For travelers with limited time, the easiest way to explore the Sacred Valley is to take a group tour from Cusco. Full-day tours—such as this tour from SmarterTravel’s sister site, Viator—typically stop in Pisac (including the market and ruins) as well as Ollantaytambo. Other tours include Chinchero and/or Moray and the Maras salt flats. For a more active day, you can even go biking or horseback riding in the valley.

There are also two-day tours that include one day in the Sacred Valley and one at Machu Picchu, such as this Viator offering.

Dozens of tour companies in Cusco run Sacred Valley tours. A couple of reputable options include Llama Path and Alpaca Expeditions.

When choosing a tour, take a look at the size of the group and the number of sites the itinerary includes. Some travelers want to squeeze as much sightseeing as they can into a single day, while others prefer a more leisurely schedule. Look for reviews of the tour by previous travelers to get an idea of what to expect.

[st_related]20 Questions to Ask Before Booking a Tour[/st_related]

Sacred Valley Hotels

Many travelers to the Sacred Valley use Cusco as a base, but if you have a little extra time—or if you’re worried about the altitude in Cusco—consider staying in the valley instead. Most Sacred Valley hotels are located near Urubamba or Ollantaytambo, with a smaller number clustered in the Pisac area.

One luxurious option is Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, which offers spacious hacienda rooms and freestanding casitas overlooking the valley. Elegant touches include stone and wood decor, heated towel racks, and hot-water bottles to keep your bedsheets nice and toasty. Guests can take part in a variety of on-site activities such as birdwatching walks and learning to make chicha de jora, a traditional Inca corn drink.

For a more affordable stay, head to Hostal Iskay in old-town Ollantaytambo, where the rooms are basic but comfortable and the garden offers views of the town’s Inca ruins. Or retreat to Villa Urubamba, where you can stroll through beautifully landscaped grounds and limber up in the on-site yoga room.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Sarah Schlichter recently spent the night in the Sacred Valley courtesy of Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor  for more travel tips and inspiration.

 

Categories
Adventure Travel

Trans Africa Overland

Author: Andrea P.
Date of Trip: December 2005

‘Did you hear that Andi?’ ‘What?’ ‘Shhh… that.’ ‘What?’ ‘The rustling.’ ‘Can you see anything?’ ‘Yeah… it’s big.’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, I see the tusks… they’re HUGE!’

ZZZZZZZIP (unzipping of tent, and someone running to the truck)

‘Dave… there’s an elephant in the camp!’ ‘No kidding, it’s been there all night, it’s just walked away.’

You’re a bit scared for the others and yourself, but you also feel great excitement. Then you realise people actually pay us to do this job. You say to yourself, life is great… and then you go back to sleep.

How do you end up in these circumstances? Well… it starts in the UK and finishes in Cape Town seven months later. It’s called a Trans Africa. I cannot really describe everything that one would feel and go through on a trip like this without having to produce an extremely long diary or a novel, which I can do if you wish, but I thought if I summed up my journey it may be a little easier to read.

Individual travellers book themselves on a 23 to 40 week adventure, travelling in an overland truck with 20 or so others, and venture across the continent of Africa.

We started our journey by flying everyone booked on the adventure to Gibraltar to meet the Overland truck that was soon to become our home for the next 40 weeks, and making our way across the waters into Africa. Our journey took us from the busy medinas and ancient fortress cities of Morocco up into the High Atlas Mountains, through the intense midday heat of the Sahara, Mauritania’s expansive freedom and night sky ablaze with shooting stars, the oldest cultures and sites of Mali and on to the palm-fringed beaches of West Africa. Next we headed south through Gabon, Congo and war torn Angola, where we get warm greetings from everyone me meet, and also asked why would tourists want to pass through here. Wildlife and national parks await, as we head through Namibia, South Africa and then make our journey North to Nairobi and our final destination Cairo with plenty to see along the way. The reason we choose to visit Africa is quite simple – Because you will discover an Africa that most travellers only dream of, and meet people you would never otherwise encounter, as well as having one of the most affordable adventure holidays around.

In Africa you will see, hear or feel something every day that will make you laugh, smile or cry. Here are a few examples… • The curiosity of an African child touching you because your skin is a different colour. • Travelling in the remote, expansive freedom of Mauritania and finding a car stuck in the sand, and the driver then setting up an amplifier and electric guitar strumming out tunes as we help him sand mat his car out… Wondering where he came from and what he intended to do…

• Visiting the markets and all the vibrant colours of the beautiful women with children on their backs and full loads on their heads. • Buying locally-produced products and finding out that Shito is a sauce, Toss and Bimbo are washing powders and the moisturiser you bought is actually hair conditioner. • Camping out under the stars on the roof of the truck, trying to count how many shooting stars you see. • Driving along a main road in Burkina Faso to find an obstacle in front, a herd of elephants. We were going to pull over and camp soon, but we’d better drive a bit farther. • Participating in football matches with the locals is always a laugh, and let me tell you, Africans will show us a thing or two. Seeing an 11-year-old boy running rings around us and scoring a goal… • Travelling through the desert with all its sparse nature, and trying to find an appropriate bush to go to the loo behind. • Reaching the coastlines of West Africa, and checking out their surf boards, literally a plank of wood. • Pulling over for the evening and finding a nice safe clearing tucked away in the bushes to camp the night, sitting down with everyone, talking about whatever, and having a nice cold drink while watching the sunset.

The Trans Africa trip is about memories and making friends for life. That is the real adventure, and Africa is the ideal destination.

Categories
Solo Travel

A Home Exchange in Finland

Author: LSKahn
Date of Trip: July 2009

If you don’t like unstructured travel, you would not like a trip with me. I do a lot of research in advance and have an idea of what I would like to see, but what I actually do once I arrive is largely dependent on how the spirit moves me. It helps that I generally travel solo, as there is no one to negotiate with about what I do and when.

This trip began in the fall of 2008 when I received an email through a home exchange site to which I belong inquiring whether I would be interested in Finland FOR CHRISTMAS! I emailed back that I did not want to go to the North Pole for Christmas. While the cold would not bother me (you could dress for that), the limited hours of daylight would. Also, in winter many of the tourist sites in Finland would be on limited hours and/or be closed. I counter offered saying I would be delighted to swap during the summer and the Finnish family accepted.

I left the United States on July 18th and arrived in Finland the following morning. My home exchangers met me at the airport and drove me to the house. They then left — as prearranged for their other house (the husband and wife had jobs in different cities and there was a house — which I used — as well as an apartment (I was left a key to that apartment as well, but never used it). One of my home exchangers has a job with Finnair and the family had to wait several days to get seats on an airplane before flying out (They just pay taxes).

The first couple of days were largely spent sleeping and just getting adjusted to my surroundings in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a town of about 100,000 located about an hour north of Helsinki. It is not a major tourist site, but is located on a lake. In fact, much of Finland is located on a lake, on the Baltic or on the Gulf of Finland. Boating is a great entertainment there. The family kindly left me a GPS for Scandanavia. It made life a lot easier. In Europe there are always signs to tourist sites, but there is never one that says “You live here.” The first few days of a home exchange you can get lost just finding where it is you “live”.

Home exchange is not for everyone. I have been doing it since 1990. I belong to both the Homelink and Intervac services. I suggest that anyone interested in this method of travel check out a number of sites on the internet before deciding which one to join. I rarely solicit home exchanges. Since I live just outside Washington, DC, I constantly get inquiries about exchanges. My policy is generally to take the first one that arrives that is serious. To be a successful exchanger, you must be open to going places you never thought you’d be interested in.

Basically, my home exchange home was used as a base for traveling and not as the destination itself. I would go out for a few nights and then do a lot of day trips where I could come “home” at night. It is always great to have a washer and a dryer and my Finnish home was the closest thing to an American home I have ever had in Europe — complete with a large size refrigerator and washer and dryer. Of course, I had a sauna (I never used it as I had no idea how it worked). There are 2 million saunas in Finland and 5.2 million people. The Finns love their saunas and jumping into the lake at their summer homes stark naked afterwards.

My first trip out was to Savonlinna — east of where I was staying. Every summer Savonlinna has an opera festival. I arranged for a ticket to “Madame Butterfly” in advance as well as housing some distance outside Savonlinna where the hotels were somewhat cheaper. I soon found out that outside the large cities in Finland, accommodations were usually rustic cabins and/or campgrounds. More on the campgrounds later. The “hotel” was rustic and not someplace I would return to but it served its purpose.

The opera was done inside the castle of Savonlinna (“linna” means “castle” in Finnish). That, for me, was the chief attraction of attending the opera there. Where else could you get the chance to do opera in a castle? My ticket — one of the cheapest in the house — cost 85 euros (1 euro is currently $1.40 so this was a big splurge). For that I got a really unsatisfactory seat. The good seats are well over the equivalent of $200 American. I probably wouldn’t do this again, but I am glad that I went. Since I was all the way over to the side, I could stand to see better when I wanted to without disturbing anyone. There were subtitles in English and Finnish. However, the subtitles were located in such a fashion that it was difficult to look at them and still keep your eye on what was going on on the stage. Having said all of that, it was an experience. As you walk over to the castle, there are lots of restaurants where you can eat before the opera — and I did.

The following day was spent driving to position myself for whitewater rafting. The main town near the rafting is Lieksa. It is in eastern Finland very close to the Russian border. When I arrived, I discovered the town was in the midst of something called “Brass Week”. The only accommodation was something described to me in English as a “hovel”. I blanched when the guy at tourist information said that and explained what that word meant in English. In fact, there really is no translation for it. Basically it was a little hut in a campground that had 4 beds (2 sets of bunks) in it and almost nothing else. I paid extra to rent sheets. Most of these places are located near lakes and Finnish people love to vacation this way. Some stay in the cabins and some in tents. It is the sort of vacation I would never call a “vacation”. Nevertheless, that was the only option and it turned out OK. Not all experiences on a holiday are 100% what you would like. The campground was, however, located in the best position for the rafting the next day. The rafting was the next day at Ruuannakoski (“koski” in Finnish means “rapids”). It was a lot of fun, but, compared to some trips I have been on in the US and elsewhere, very tame. They fed us a lovely lunch of local food. I had these Karelian pastries that are filled with rice and eaten with butter mixed with hardboiled eggs. We also roasted sausages over an open fire — something Finns do everywhere during the summer. It was great!

It was a long drive home and I ended up stopping at a bed and breakfast called Niemilomat that was signposted along the road. This place is located on Route 23 on the right side as you drive from Joensu to Varkaus. It is down a dirt road after you make the turn at the sign. This is a terrific place! I have to tell you that there are not a lot of bed and breakfast accommodations in Finland — unlike the Continent where they are all over. It is just not a Finnish thing (and not much an American thing either). Gorgeous place and about $65 American for the night. Bathrooms are shared between two rooms. The place is an old farm. The family cannot make money farming anymore, so they have turned to really classy accommodations. More information can be found at anneli.hamalainen@niemilomat.com. I was offered a sauna there — and I wish I had done it because it was the real thing next to the lake, but I was exhausted after the night in the campground and simply crashed. I thought I was sure to have another sauna opportunity later but I never did. Who knew?

Driving the rest of the way back the next day, I stopped in Varkaus to see the Musical Instrument Museum. This was basically a player piano museum — with a few other similar instruments. The sound of the player violin hurt my ears! The guy who owns it gave a tour simultaneously in Finnish, Swedish and English. He was hilarious! The last room included a lot of Obama merchandise. I had an Obama t-shirt with me and gave it to him (telling him he would have to wash it because I had worn it). He was thrilled and gave me a CD of all his “instruments” in return. I am not certain I will play that CD very often but it was a nice souvenir.

From Varkaus, I went to Mikkeli and saw a military museum and then the World War II communications headquarters for Finland. It was located in a cave! I then went “home” to Lahti to do laundry and spend a few days on day trips.

From Lahti I did a lake cruise to Heinola. You go through 2 locks. I liked the area around the Vaaksy lock so much I returned there to hang out later in my stay. I met an American woman of Finnish extraction on the boat (she was visiting family) and we commiserated about our credit cards not working at the discount gas credit card machines. We were both glad to know we were not alone in having that problem.

Also, from Lahti, I went into Helsinki and stashed the car in an expensive parking garage. I then took the ferry over to Savonlinna where I visited the fortress. The college student who gave the English language tour there was absolutely terrific! The tour takes about 11/2 hours and I would have had no idea what I was seeing without it. There is good commentary about how Finland has spent a large part of its history being fought over by Sweden and Russia. Finland, by the way, has only been independent since 1917. It gained its independence during the Russian Revolution (who knew?). Before that the Russian Tsar was the Grand Duke of Finland.

Speaking of Grand Dukes, I took a day trip to Kotka and saw Tsar Alexander III’s fishing lodge called Langinkoski. It is adjacent to some rapids (remember: koski=rapids) and the Tsar used to enjoy fishing for salmon there. Nicholas and Alexandra visited the lodge once as well. It actually is quite a simple place. Also in Kotka there is a terrific museum shaped like a giant wave. I saw an old ice breaker (very important to keep the shipping lanes open in winter!). Another part of the museum dealt with everyday life in Finland in the past. This was the best museum I saw anywhere in Finland. In the evening I went sailing in the Gulf of Finland. The sailing cruise was arranged through the aquarium (I did not visit the aquarium except to sign up for the sailing).

One other castle I saw was that of Hamenlinna — the closest one to Lahti and also the site of an excellent military museum. You can spend the day there.

After several days of day trips I began to agonize over whether to go to Lapland. Ultimately, I did not go there because I felt it would be a lot of driving to just get to where Lapland begins in Roviemmi. Going beyond that into the real Lapland would mean the dreaded campgrounds. Since I was traveling solo, I did have concerns about there being no one to commiserate with if I had a car breakdown, etc. So, no reindeer.

I went instead to Turku, where I stayed 2 nights at the Sokos Hotel. I stayed in the least expensive of the two buildings (across the street from each other). The low end building means the sauna is in the other building. The room was teeny but sufficient. I saw the linna in Turku the first day and ate at a Viking themed restaurant called Harald’s. The food was OK, but the restaurant was a hoot. On the next day, which was a Monday, my priority was seeing the handicraft museum — highly touted by The Lonely Planet (The Bible for travelers to Finland). What I saw was a bunch of disappointed tourists holding The Lonely Planet saying the museum was open on Mondays. Common with many museums in Finland, it was closed on Monday, so I never saw it. I went instead to a Maritime Museum (Forum Marinum). It was not as interesting as the one in Kotka, but it did have some old sailing ships that you could go on and examine. I always enjoy those. After visiting there, I went to a museum called Abo Vetus devoted to an archeological dig in Turku. Everything was well explained and even made interesting for children. I also visited the cathedral.

In a vacation of many highlights, what occurred the next day has to rank as the absolute best. For 33 euros, I took the Silja Line boat to Mariehamn in the Aland Islands and return for the day. The cruise takes all day. You switch boats in Mariehamn and return to Turku. The boats go back and forth between Turku and Stockholm stopping in Mariehamn. The whole idea was just to see all the islands. There must be at least hundreds — many uninhabited. I had spectacular weather for the cruise. I spent most of the time on top although the boat had many things to do on it (activities for kids, duty free shopping, restaurants, etc.). My 33 euro fare included a fantastic buffet lunch. I was really glad I did this and somewhat consoled for my decision not to go to Lapland.

Returning to Lahti, I did several more days of day excursions. I visited the National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo) in Helsinki on one of my few bad weather days. The museum has exhibits from prehistoric to modern times and is quite interesting if you are a history nut as I am. It was a good place to spend time on a day when the weather was “iffy” outside. The day ended in a colossal thunderstorm and I had a long slow slog back “home” in the torrential downpour.

I also visited Sibelius’ home Ainola and a couple of other interesting museums near it including one devoted to women in the military (Finland currently has a woman president, by the way).

My exchangers had arranged for me to meet a friend of theirs who lives near Jyvaskyla at the opposite end of Lake Paijanne from Lahti. I drove up there to meet her to do a hike and got majorly lost. We eventually hooked up and had a very nice day. I treated her to dinner afterwards in Jyvaskyla. Then she took me over to the town of Muurame where she lives and we went to the Sauna Museum — only in Finland. Basically they have collected a huge number of old sauna buildings from all over Finland and turned it into a museum. The museum was closed so we thought we’d have a look around. Our “look” was cut short when we realized a group of naked men were sitting outside one of the saunas. I took a photo of their rear ends (rather quickly and it is out of focus — drat). We left. I then drove back to Lahti.

On my last full day in Lahti, I went to Tampere, Finland’s second largest city. I went there to the Vaprikki Museum in old factory buildings that once housed a cotton mill. Believe it or not, I saw a huge exhibition on the Indian Sitting Bull. Yes, I went all the way to Tampere, Finland, to see an exhibit about American Indians. I didn’t go there for that exhibit (I went for an exhibit about Finland during the Russian Revolution when Finland had its own civil war between Reds and Whites), but I ended up spending a lot of time on the Indian exhibit. The exhibits were from European collections, so, even if I live outside Washington, DC, and have visited the Museum of the American Indian many times, I would not see those items there. I bought the poster from the exhibit as a conversation piece. Of course, the poster cost all of 2 euros. It will not cost 2 euros to frame. Isn’t that always the way it is?

I went in Lahti to a restaurant along the lake harbor called Casselli’s where I had the best meal of the trip. I ate reindeer in a blue cheese sauce. I am not a fan of blue cheese but I have to say that the reindeer was delicious.

Also in Lahti I had the worst pizza of my entire life. I was in a restaurant in the harbor area and everyone was ordering pizza. Wrong decision! I had eaten at that restaurant earlier in my stay and had these tiny herring that one eats whole with mounds of mashed potatoes (I did not finish the mashed potatoes). The herring were delicious. By the way on the menu they were called “vendace” — which was supposed to be the English name. Every here of “vendace”? I have heard of herring, but not “vendace”? I also ate excellent salmon several times on my trip. I never ordered pizza again in Finland!

I also spent a day tooling around the monthly market and just basically doing nothing. The market is held on the first Wednesday of every month and basically sells the usual European assortment of junky merchandise and food. The market on other days was mostly people drinking coffee and eating ice cream. The Finns love their coffee and I drank plenty of it. Ice cream is also plentiful and I developed a taste for the pear ice cream. While I was in Lahti, Lahti hosted the Master’s Championship in Athletics. Tons of elderly athletes from all over the world! They were all very fit and thin. When someone asked me if I was competing, I laughed and said my event was watching TV. Adjacent to the events where the competitions were held are 3 ski jumps (You can’t miss them because they dominate the Lahti skyline). I watched the ski jumpers on my first day in Lahti, but, alas, I got no photos. What I discovered was that my American camera had died. I had to buy a new one in Lahti!

Serious shopping in Lahti was done at the Sokos Department Store. I got two pieces of Kalevala jewelry. Basically it is jewelry inspired by Finland’s national epic, “The Kalevala”. On market day, they had free coffee and people playing traditional Finnish instruments dressed in folk costumes. Fun!

Finally, my home exchangers returned and I was dropped off at the train station for my train to Helsinki. I would spend five days in Helsinki at the end of my stay. That trip report — will be posted separately.

My home exchange in Finland was sadly at an end, but it had been terrific!

Categories
Cities

A “Revolutionary” Journey Part II (Washington D.C. & Philadelphia)

Author: Host Ciao
Date of Trip: December 2008

Previous: A “Revolutionary” Journey (Williamsburg & Washington D.C.)

Revolutionary Journey Part II
My Sunday in Washington was busy with lots I wanted to cover. I had made a 9 a.m. reservation and received my ticket by mail to go up to the top of the Washington Monument. This really saved time because people without tickets were coming to the Monument and then having to go back to a ticket office about 100 yards or so away and then back. A very personable National Park Policewoman lined us up and at 9 on the dot the 9 a.m. group was taken in to go through security and head to the elevator.

On the way up the guard gave us a lot of interesting information about the Monument. We could stay at the top as long as we wanted to. Windows offer views in four directions. On the way down in the elevator he pointed out stones from states, organizations, and other countries; these were sent to help with the building of this important structure. Some states seemed to be trying to outdo each other. The architect placed the stones on the inside so that the outside could be uniform. I would recommend this journey to the top, and if you want a specific time make the reservations on line. http://www.nps.gov/wamo/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm This doesn’t indicate that you can have tickets mailed, but I was able to last fall.

I headed down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial. My first stop was the World War II memorial. It took years to get this built with fund raising and much pushing by the likes of Tom Hanks, and it is marvelous. The walls have bas reliefs. There are two towers, one for the European Theater and one for the Pacific, and columns for each state and territory. This very impressive monument also has several water features, and the fountains were running despite the cold.

I then went on to re-visit the Korean and Vietnam War monuments. While I did like seeing them at night, I recommend that day light is much better for understanding and getting the feel of both of these very different monuments. I also had more time to wander. I also re-visited the Lincoln Memorial with more time to appreciate its different features. Hey–there is also a restroom here.

After trudging back up the Mall, I made a brief stop at the Washington Monument store for a book or two. Then I headed to the Holocaust Museum. It is hard to find an adjective to use for this museum, but I feel it is a must on a visit to Washington. It starts with the rise of Hitler then moves to the beginning of the persecutions which included along with the Jews, Romas, homosexuals, mentally retarded and disabled. The many, many exhibits and films discuss the ghettos, the transportation, the camps, gassing, burning bodies, mass killings in towns and the liberation. I spent three hours or more there and really hurried at times and did not head to one section. This is the type of museum that is best seen a bit at a time over a couple of days with other places in between. It deserves more time than I gave it. It was very, very affecting. http://www.ushmm.org/

I set off for the Natural History Museum, but decided to stop on the way at the Smithsonian Castle, an interesting building with several services: information, shop, and a café. I decided since it was mid afternoon that eating a bit might be a good idea. My bit consisted of a bottle of water, a small (35 cent size) bag of chips and a 3 to 4 inch cookie. My bill for this bit$9.05, and this is not a typo! The Smithsonian museums may be free but the food cost is high.

At the Natural History Museum I wanted mainly to see the elephant that seems to be in all the guide books so, of course, I did that. I also wandered through the mammal section. The museum was full of families; I imagine because this was a Sunday. There is an awful lot more to see there, but I was getting too tired to wander much and wanted to go back to the American History Museum.

My main purpose there was to pick up another brochure like the one I had lost to the wind on Friday. But, of course, I had to see more. I spent more time in the Presidents exhibit and a bit more careful look at the Entertainment section. The museum offers entertainment at times in, as described, the “shape” of music. While I was there I heard an acoustic trio of violin, guitar, and another instrument. I also found the transportation section, which I hadn’t known was there. This features trains, trucks (old & new) motorcycles, etc. After finding this “new” section, I forgot all about my plan to spend more time in sections devoted to the armed services.

As I left I had to chuckle at the man selling out in front. He was waving and yelling, “Obama stuff for sale; Barrack Obama stuff for sale!” His “stuff” was in an open suitcase on the sidewalk. I spent a bit of time at my favorite evening spot Barnes & Noble and eventually headed to the hotel after a full and pretty tiring day.

Monday was another Gray Line tour, this time to Alexandria and Mt. Vernon. We drove quite a bit through Alexandria. The driver explained the strict housing regulations so that houses on one side of a street were 200 years old and the ones opposite were only 25 years old. They looked the same age. We saw the church that both George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshipped at, the oldest Catholic church and cemetery in Virginia, and lots more.

Once at Mt. Vernon the driver picked up our tickets and turned us loose for four and a half hours. I watched the introduction to the site as well as a good movie about Washington called “We Fight for Freedom.” It also told the story of his meeting Martha. The guided tour of the house was very interesting. Most of it was decorated as Washington chose with heavy rich ornamentation and furniture. The exception was the bedroom which Martha decorated; it was lighter and brighter with a bed she had specially made because he was so tall.

I took a picture of the front of the manor from the front yard as well as the great view from there. I wandered down to the original tomb and then over to the final tomb. A docent there explained it and answered questions. The two marble sarcophagi toward the entrance are where Washington and his wife are buried while other family members are buried there in back.

Instead of going to his farm, though it would have been interesting, I headed back toward the house hoping to find the gardens. I also did see some of the livestock that are very similar to the ones Washington owned and some vegetable gardens. I did find the house gardens, and they are fairly formal. An archeological dig is going on in the upper garden where they are looking for the original layout of the kitchen garden. revolutionary war display

Near this garden is a small shop with many possible purchases and no crowds so I enjoyed a bit of shopping for souvenirs. I went on down to the museum and watched a film presentation on how they researched and reconstructed the young Washington for the displays there. And, of course, I saw the famous wooden false teeth. A sign asked for no pictures, and these would be sort of disillusioning anyway. I can’t imagine how he could wear these. Mt. Vernon Gingerbread house

Near the exit a group of people were decorating Christmas trees, and there was a big Mt. Vernon gingerbread house. I believe I read later that the chef there was the pastry chef from the White House. The area was being set up for a reception that evening. christmas tree

I walked through the very crowded shops and saw the food court teeming with kids. Luckily I saw the sign pointing to the restaurant. I think the name is the Mt. Vernon Inn, but I’m not sure. I had an excellent lunch there, about the best of the trip so far. I decided to try the same lunch that Pat Sayjack who narrated the introduction to the site had in that film–peanut and chestnut soup with bread pudding for dessert (served hot with whipped cream). I also had sparkling cider. And it all cost under $10, a real bargain in my mind and delicious!

We met the driver at 1:10 and got back to Union Station by 2. I wandered there briefly. It deserves more time because it is full of shops and restaurants. I saw a very large table with an electric train on it and the huge Christmas tree in the main lobby. Near the electric train was a souvenir shop full of patriotic items including lots about the President and Vice President elect. Newseum Display

I took a taxi to the Newseum. http://www.newseum.org/index.aspx What a great place! Yes, I’m a former journalism teacher, but there is so much there to interest almost anybody. Walking by the front of the museum, you can read the front pages of that day from many cities. Inside there was a big display of election front pages and in the big screened theater there was a movie of Obama’s speech in Chicago on election night and excerpts from inaugural speeches, I believe all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt. Newseum Display

Another part of the Newseum I enjoyed was the gallery of Pulitzer Prize photographs, many of which I can remember seeing. In this museum you can watch, read, work on–so many activities. There is an extensive collection of old front pages arranged by decades. You can pull out the drawer and see the glass covered front page. Brief films on several topics are offered. Two I can remember are on bias and the influence of TV news on the Civil Rights Movement. Lots of film clips are playing at all times including some from Saturday Night Live and John Stewart.

A film about 9/11 is presented all through the memories of reporters and photographers. This is very affecting. Outside the theater is a display of front pages on 9/11 and a display of the equipment of the only journalist killed there along with an interview with his wife. Another area of this exhibit is part of the antenna from the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings along with the names of the engineers working up there who were killed. barack obama

At the shop I was bemoaning the fact that I had not spent more time there, and the clerk told me to go to the ticket desk and explain that I just had not given myself enough time. They gave me a second chance ticket for the next day. I walked back to the hotel, thought it might be long, but it wasn’t bad. I packed up my purchases from the past week and headed across the street to Fed-Ex to ship them home. It can’t get more convenient than across the street.

I went to Barnes & Noble for a while and then decided to try the Mexican place on the hotel list since it was just around the corner–not a good move. Nothing like a cardboard tasting chicken quesadilla! I went back to the hotel and ate some cookies I had bought earlier. Oh well!

On my last day in Washington I planned to visit the Capital. I wanted to get in with the first group so I arrived at the ticket kiosk at 8:15. The line was very confusing; nobody was sure exactly where to start it. I hung around in the line by the kiosk and lucked out. That was where it started. Now if you want to visit the capital, there is a brand new visitors center which opened early in December, and I believe you can order tickets on line. http://www.aoc.gov/cc/visit/index.cfm I would suggest this unless you make other arrangements with your representative. I think this can be done and there were certainly small groups with badges that looked like this type of tour.

Each person wanting a ticket had to go to the ticket window and have the ticket placed in his or her own hand. Then we headed up toward the Capital where we had to wait outside for security to open. Luckily there was a bit of a plastic shelter to keep off the wind. The police were a half hour late opening security–who knows why? After clearing security our 9 am group went in after 9:30.

The tour was interesting. The guide had lots of information, but it is hard to remember much of it. He explained the height of the dome and the decorations of the Rotunda–statues, fresco of Apotheosis of Washington, other paintings of history. Then we went to the Hall of Statues, formerly the House of Representatives. He explained that each state could have two statues and could choose who was pictured. He also showed where one of the John Adams’s sat and supposedly could hear what others were saying. He demonstrated for us. He pointed out the spot where Lincoln sat when he was in the House. Then we were on our own.

You cannot visit the chamber of the House without a ticket from your representative so plan ahead if you are interested in that. I did see the office of the Speaker of the House–I should say entrance with the sign above it. After the guide left us we could go downstairs to see other statues and also the original Supreme Court room. Library of Congress

I walked outside and around the capital to the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. I think this is the main one. It is very beautiful inside. We could go up the stairs past a huge mosaic of Minerva, Goddess of Knowledge, and look down into the main reading room, also very beautiful. However, we could not take pictures of that. Darn! Bob Hope Exhibit

I went into two of the special sections, one of which was Jefferson’s Library. When the original Library of Congress burned, he offered his to Congress, convincing them about how important a library is. He said he would accept whatever they agreed to pay. Years later part of his library burned too, but because of the catalogue, these books have been replaced through donations and purchases. I also visited the Bob Hope section on humor. Hope left his files to the Library. This area also included film clips and mementos, a multi-media approach.

Back outside I decided to climb the many steps to the Supreme Court especially since I had never visited there. The Court meets directly down the long hall from the entrance. The Court was not in session either because it was noon or the wrong time of year. We did get to look into the courtroom from the door. I went to the shop downstairs and looked around. I asked for a book about the capital, but the only one was just like one I already had.

I walked back around the Capital to head down the Mall and could see the scaffolding going up for the inauguration ceremony. I didn’t see any places to eat so decided to go to main art museum. I considered going to the Pompeii exhibit there, but decided I had seen the real thing the year before so just went to the cafeteria. I stopped at what I later found out was the short order bar and had a not very good sandwich of roasted tomatoes, goat cheese, and onions–sort of a strange combination. With that I had a small orangina and a tasteless biscotti all for $13. Later, further into the big room, I saw other lines where you could buy salads and entrees. Check out the whole room first. Vote for First Dog

I went back to the Newseum and decided to see all the films including several I had seen the day before. Different ones I saw included TV and Vietnam, mistakes, and sources. I found another display about the President elect and one that I had not seen the day before–voting for the new First Dog.

The shelter dog was winning the one cent votes. Proceeds were going to the educational services of the museum. Saw the shot up car and also other articles obviously from dangerous assignments. I also visited the First Amendment exhibit. Also I looked up the name of the only reporter I could think of at the time–Ernie Pile from World War II. You can type the name into a search box and biography comes up. This was another great afternoon for me.

I walked back to the hotel and packed; then I went to Barnes & Noble for a bit. I decided to eat at the hotel. The minestrone soup was good. I had ordered chicken fingers and the waitress brought fries too, which I didn’t eat. Unfortunately the chicken was dry and not nearly as good as I had had for lunch one day. I think it depends on what cook is on duty. Anyway it was a bit of a disappointing last meal in Washington.

Wednesday after breakfast, I checked out and took a taxi to Union Station. I found out that I could board this train on the same level as the main waiting area. This was good because I do not like down escalators, especially with luggage. When the track was announced I got in line even though it was 40 minutes early. Almost right away the line got very long so I was glad I had not waited. I did not go far down the track, just past the first class car. I ended up in the “quiet car,” which means no talking above a whisper and no cell phones. This was fine with me.

Since I sat at the end of the car, it was a bit bumpy, but not bad. The Acela train is a business train with lots of seats facing each other with tables in between. It also had luggage bins above the seats like an airplane as well as racks at the end of the car. The seats are very comfortable.

I arrived in Philadelphia about 10:30 a.m. The trains are all down one level from the main station, which is full of places to eat. I took a taxi to the hotel, pretty much across town. I stayed at the Penn’s View Inn, which is right by the river and also only a few blocks walk to the main sights. The hotel is in two older buildings, but has great amenities including a workout room. My room, which wasn’t quite ready when I arrived, had a big double bed, desk, table and chair, TV, and a very nice bath. My cost was $150 a night, well worth it to me because of its location, more on the hotel later. The staff was very friendly, and I left my luggage with them and took off. http://www.pennsviewhotel.com/general_information/index.aspx

At the Visitors Center I checked to see what was open on Thanksgiving–only the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but I planned a fairly long walk for after those. I bought a trolley ride ticket for Friday. I figured this would be a good way to see more of the town in the short time I had. http://phillytour.com/

I watched a short movie at the Center and then went out exploring. Luckily I found a camera store right away because I had to have two of my memory sticks put onto CD’s. I went to Christ Church Burying Ground and paid the $3 entrance fee to go in and wander a bit. That way I could also see Ben Franklin’s tomb without having to work my way through the crowd outside the fence. Lots of coins are tossed onto the flat tomb, and a custodian was sweeping them up while I was there.

I went on down to the Betsy Ross House and paid the $3 to get in. This was fine and the displays, all behind glass, were interesting. However, no pictures were allowed. I asked the two people dressed in colonial garb why that was because any picture would have to be without flash because of the glass. Neither of the two answered me, but a man standing there talking to them told me it was because so many people were loading the pictures on line and identifying them wrong. After further conversation with him I began to doubt this as a real reason. I told him that pictures were allowed all through the buildings in Williamsburg. He proceeded to tell me none of those were original like the Betsy Ross things were. Since I know this is not true, I didn’t argue. He told me to buy postcards–which I would have done if there had been any in the shop. Oh well–he was a real expert!

At Christ Church a docent was giving a lecture to a school group, and I listened to part of it and then bought some postcards there. On the way back to pick up my CD’s I stopped at Bon Bon, a small shop on Market Street and had some really good gelato for lunch. My next stop was the National Constitution Center. The cost was $14 including a new exhibit called on “The Way to the White House.”

Lots and lots of school groups, mostly middle school, were there accompanied by chaperones who had to wear red tags. The introduction was a multi-media presentation called “We the People,” narrated by one live performer. Seats range upwards and pictures were flashed below in a sort of large pit and also along the walls above the seats. It was well done and interesting. This is the website of the Center: http://www.constitutioncenter.org/ncc_visit_Landing.aspx

There are so many exhibits–displays, film clips, computer use, lots of words written rather high on the walls which are not too easy to read. In one display you can see yourself taking the oath of office for President, and then, of course, buy the still picture later. In another spot you can vote for the best President. This is not a place for only a couple of hours if you want to sample a lot of it. I didn’t want to miss the special exhibit so I had to rush a bit because I didn’t get there until a bit after 2 p.m.

The special exhibit had speech clips of McCain, Clinton, and Obama. Also there was a display of old campaign souvenirs and ends with a cardboard cutout of Obama standing in front of a picture of the President’s desk in the Oval Office. It was an interesting exhibit, but I had to rush because the Center closes at 5.

Back at the hotel my room was ready so I unpacked some. I decided to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, called Ristorante Panorama, which has won awards. The hotel also hosts Il Bar, which has the world’s largest wine preservation setup and offers 120 different wines by taste, glass, or bottle. This is also an award winner. The restaurant is a bit fancy for me. There was only one antipasto I thought I would like–Antipasto Misto for $12.75. (I am not a fan of mushrooms so that cut out quite a few. This was good with a couple of slices each of two sausages, some prosciutto, bland marinated mozzarella, a couple of good olives, two small pieces of good cheese, some roasted peppers, and some marinated eggplant, which had a good taste but chewed like rubber bands.

Only two of the pasta courses sounded good to me so I had gnocchi with a tomato and smoked cheese sauce. I ordered the appetizer size for $12.75. Since I am no wine expert and no fussbudget about it either–just so it’s red and dryI ordered two of the cheaper glasses at about $7.50 each. One was a chianti and very good; the other was a multipulciano from Abruzzo, also go. My bill with tip was $55 much higher than I would normally spend, but the food was very good. Of course, there are also more courses depending on what you want to eat and pay.

What a great bed–on Thursday I actually slept until 7 a.m. almost unheard of for me. A “continental buffet” breakfast was included in the room rate. It is served in the restaurant dining room with white table clothes and cloth napkins! There were lots of food choices: cut up fresh fruit, whole fruits, scones, mini muffins, cereal, bagels or I could make waffles or boil eggs. My only quibble with this feast was the extra wide coffee cups that caused the coffee to cool fast.

I knew the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall would open at 11. http://www.nps.gov/inde I strolled down to there and found out where to go. At that time I read some info on posts under a shelter about an archeological dig last year that had been able to figure out the layout of President’s House, just to the north of the Liberty Pavilion. A metal outline can be seen. The Park Service is planning a structure there that will tell the story of the hour and also about Washington’s slaves and indentured servants.

It was nice and sunny and fairly warm so I read for a while on a bench in a garden area near there. When the line began to form I went over to the Liberty Pavilion and through security. This consisted of opening my coat and all bags. There are lots of interesting displays to be read there, and I skimmed many of them. With more time I would do a better job of reading. Most people just pass them up on the way to see the bell. By the time I got there, lots of people were standing around the bell and taking pictures of each other in front of it. I finally got my picture though there are legs showing under the bell–night pictures are much better since there are no people and the bell is well lighted and very visible through windows.

I had to go through the same type of security in a tent next to Independence Hall. After the tent we were actually at the front of the Hall with a large plaza there, Independence Square. It was a struggle but by getting down on a knee I managed to get the whole building in from that front part. In the Hall the ranger lecturing in the courtroom was very interesting. He pointed out the original seal of Pennsylvania over the judges’ bench which had replaced the seal of George III, a copy of which he showed us. The ranger in the room where Declaration and Constitution were signed did not speak as much. But pointed out that the desks with quills, ink pots, pipes were set up just at they were. Both rooms are furnished with antiques.

Once outside the building back on the more familiar side I found the plaques showing where Lincoln and John F. Kennedy had spoken. There is an excellent statue of Washington there too. My next spot was Washington Square where there is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolutionary War–both American and British. There are plaques to read in the park too, and it was also used to bury victims of a yellow fever epidemic in 1793.

From there I walked for quite a while through the area called Society Hill, where there are many old houses that have been restored and kept up well. I saw Old St. Mary’s Church, the city’s oldest Catholic Church still in use. This is where a ceremony marking the end of the Revolutionary War was held. I also walked through two gardens around the church and looked at the cemetery through its gate, which was locked.

I headed toward the river to see some of the monuments shown on the map and also more sculptures. I first found the Korean War Monument which was not shown on my map. And then I walked to the nearby Vietnam Monument, which is shown on the map. I had several maps of most of the places I visited and I found that some show some sights/sites, which others might not–makes for a bit of confusion. I could also see the Christopher Columbus Monument but did not walk over to it.

I was heading toward a few other sights I wanted to see and had about given up on finding any place to find food on Thanksgiving Day when in the midst of some tall Society Hill apartment buildings, I saw a small shopping center with one open store, a small grocery store called Food Garden. They had roasted a whole turkey so I bought a sandwich to take back to the hotel to eat and rest. I did manage to find Welcome Park with a stature of William Penn and then the Irish Memorial. This big sculpture shows starving people in Ireland during the potato famine, but as you walk around it, the scene changes with people first getting and then off the boat in the United States.

Back at the hotel I first enjoyed my very good turkey sandwich and rested a bit. Then the desk clerk checked the bus schedule for me, and I took the bus from almost next to the hotel down to City Hall to take some night pictures. I walked around that area and took pictures of that building, the Masonic Temple, “Your Move” sculptures (checkers, dominoes, chess pieces) in Thomas Paine Plaza and of the well-known Love sculpture in John F. Kennedy Plaza. A Christmas Fair was set in a large plaza area of City Hall, but it was not open that night. Near by there was an interesting sculpture of a big red clothespin and around another corner one of a boy with his dog and the boy holding a “Parking” sign complete with an arrow.

I took the bus back to the hotel and since I had eaten turkey already I passed up the bar offering turkey dinners and went instead to the Irish pub on Third Street and had Guinness Beef Stew for Thanksgiving dinner–of course accompanied by a glass of Guinness. A very enjoyable Thanksgiving!

On Friday morning I caught the first trolley at 9:30 and rode it to Reading Market, which is near City Hall. Wow! What a place! Either it is a good thing or too bad that I wasn’t hungry. I’m not sure how many blocks this covers, but it is huge. And it is full of marvelous looking food–fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses, baked goods. There are also stands selling other items too. http://www.readingterminalmarket.org/

I walked back over to City Hall and took some more pictures of the sculptures in the plazas while I waited for a shop in the Christmas Fair that I wanted to visit. The fair definitely had a German theme including the Kathe Wohlfahrt shop and lots of German food. I had visited the Wohlfahrt store in Rothenberg, Germany, mainly a Christmas store. The shop in this fair was strictly Christmas. I had to look a bit, but finally found a small affordable Nativity set made in Germany instead of China! I have been collecting Nativities for probably 20 years.

At the stop near City Hall I did not wait for the trolley but took a double decker bus to continue my tour. The trolley and bus are from the same company and offer an on/off drive around the main parts of Philadelphia. I had investigated it on line and decided to take it to see more of the city. I think I found it by playing around with this website, which has lots of city info. http://www.gophila.com/Go/AboutUs/ I think this is a very good way to tour. I chose not to get off at several of the places I had thought about, but decided to stay on the bus and listen to the excellent guide. It was not too bad on the upper deck except when we crossed the river where the wind really picked up.

I can’t resist repeating what I think was the guides most interesting story. For years no building should be built so that it was higher than the statue of William Penn on City Hall. However, then several were built taller so Penn put a curse on Philadelphia athletic teams and for years they never won. Then when the newest building went up a year or so ago one of the union workers put a small statue of Penn somewhere near the top of the building. Hurrah! The curse was lifted and Philadelphia won the World Series.

After the bus tour I went back to the Visitors Center shop and bought a couple of Christmas ornaments. Then I visited Franklin Court, where there is an outline of Ben’s home. He moved in in 1785 and his grandchildren tore it down in 1812. Since the Park Service had no plans of the structure, they had an architect design a steel “ghost” outline of the home and the grandson’s print shop. There are viewing areas to look down into remains of the underground kitchen and several others parts. The row of houses in front of the court hold a museum shop, a working Post Office, which uses Ben Franklin cancellation and a print shop where you can see a 18th Century press in operation. The underground museum has portraits, replicas of inventions, and displays about his different “careers.”

I ate lunch at one of the many restaurants that dot Market Street. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the name, but at some places menus are posted, and I think what I had is worth mentioning–grilled chicken and prosciutto sandwich with red peppers and red pepper mayo, a really big sandwich and something new to me fries with a balsamic reduction, excellent so I ate the fries and sandwich filling but not the bread. Interesting how I remember the food but not the restaurant. Sorry about that.

I then went to the Liberty Museum just in back of Franklin Court. This is a theme museum with several galleries, including heroes, tyrants, resolving conflicts, freedom. There is an art collection with several outstanding glass pieces, the most famous probably Dale Chichuly’s Flame of Liberty. This is another museum that has much of interest and is well worth a visit. http://www.libertymuseum.org/about/index.html

That evening I took a fun ghost walking tour. Though I found a link for it on the main Philadelphia tourism site, it has its own page. http://www.phillytours.us/tours/tourDetail.cfm?tour_id=9780 We visited several areas that I had already been to but at night and with stories from the guide to go with the places became more interesting. One of his stories told us that Ben Franklin, whose statue is high on the front of the first library, comes down when he is displeased. Another story was that Admiral Berry, the founder of the U.S. Navy is buried in Old St. Mary’s cemetery, which we viewed at night, and either he or his wife often walk there. We didn’t see anyone that night.

The guide had a rather gruesome story about City Tavern, a famous old restaurant. I knew about this restaurant since I had found information about its Thanksgiving Dinner on line. The dinner was $75 a person; needless to say I didn’t partake. Any way the story–a bride was in a room of the tavern preparing for her wedding when the place caught fire. She perished and now haunts the rebuilt restaurant. Supposedly she appears in pictures of new brides. However, the guide said, there are still many couples who celebrate there.

Back at the hotel I packed for my next train journey and whatever I had for supper must have been really boring because I didn’t write it down. I will be back before too long to tell you about my marvelous week in New York City but with one photograph mishap.

Categories
Solo Travel

Cairo is HOT in the wintertime!

Author: Silver2
Date of Trip: January 2009

I procrastinated hitting the enter key. Purchasing Delta E-tickets to Cairo, fortyish, long blonde, what had possessed me to travel so far, solo all the way. Enter. Easy now, over and out. Pack -n- go. Freedom rang in my ears so loudly that I became giddy. My flight was flawless, somehow every person was vibing me good wishes and happy tidings of joy. Airline food, always a joke there, became delicious as I was served finger burning hot croissant and French Roast Coffee over France. Fortunately for me, my son attends the American University Of Cairo. He lives independent of school in the center of Cairo. I came to know the baker, the cafe shoppe workers. The kids who ride their bikes along the congested streets. I listed for the five calls to prayer and observed those who choose to pray in the streets. Seemingly, all of the city held great structures, all of marble, limestone, granite. Each were covered in dusty grime though the beauty was obvious.

My eyes beheld hardship as I have never seen and yet a beauty almost uncomprehendable. My mind held images like a slideshow that would not stop. Closing my eyes at night was impossible, so much was yet to be seen. I fell in love with the people, and my son was amazed how receptive people were to me. Never was there a moment of disrespect or hostility toward me. Though, I must say, I did dress modestly and respectfully. I had a moment in Khan Al-Kahlili where two little girls ran their hands across the bottom of my hair. We stood together and laughed like sisters.

Please do see Khan Al-Kahlili, it is so beautiful. An ancient market, in Cairo, Naploeon’s diary speaks of this most fabulous place and the historical impact will floor you !! Be sure to take your camera. The market is within the original walls and gates to the city. Cairo Airport.

Pack lightly, I wore my English riding boots and that Gentryfied look took me everywhere. Oh, and don’t forget a beautiful scarf. We are talking Fashion Statement here ! You will never forget Cairo, neither will I!

Categories
Beach

Tulum, Mexico

Author: StanK
Date of Trip: March 2007

Tulum, Mexico –

Arrived about 3PM at Cancun Airport with mi Chica. Pick up the rental car, heeding the advice of rental car lady not to use ATM at airport because of bad rates and head south on 307. No pesos, almost no gas, but not to worry-will use credit card at gas station – Lesson #1,no way. Ok, rental car lady said to use the ATM at the 7-ll next to the gas station. Only there isn’t any. Stopping at various ATM looking locations along the way, I learn that my VW Pointer gets great gas mileage and finally find an ATM in Playa del Carmen and fill up. Now, to find bottled water and we will be set. A previous posting mentioned a Soriana shopping center just south of Playa. I learn about local lanes as I sail past the Soriana center. Not to worry, just down the road is a returno and I returno and then returno again to the local lane and pull up at Soriana. This is a great place! Load up with water in various sizes, mi Chica finds other items of importance and we notice multiple ATMs. Thought I would get some more pesos just because they were there, but fought off the temptation.

Back to the car. It is almost dark now and we still have a way to go. I am confident in the directions given on another travel talk site, so no doubt will find our hotel Los Lirios in the dark. Moving right along, we get to Tulum, and where we turn left at the Corba road, I notice the San Francisco supermarket on my right – good place to keep in mind. We follow our directions and arrive at Los Lirios – no problems.

Los Lirios seems to be one neat place, our room, an upper Ocean View (only it is too dark to view the Ocean. but we can hear it) is far bigger than expected, a nice balcony with hammock and two comfy chairs and all is right with the world. It’s getting kind of late, so we opt for the hotel restaurant. These guys really have a way of plating the dishes. Mi Chica opts for only soup and I have a grilled meat dish, very attractively served, but average in taste. We booked Los Lirios through an agency, Price-Travel, and paid about $100/night including breakfast. Tulum itself is off Mexico’s electric grid so every hotel must be self sufficient both for electricity and water. Los Lirios is one of the very few hotels there that has 24/7 electricity and air-conditioning. Beware though, if staying at Los Lirios, ask for a room away from and upwind of the water treatment plant.

We are up before the sun and find that our Ocean View room (room E3 -the upper rooms at Los Lirios are best) indeed has an Ocean View and a spectacular one at that. We watch the sunrise and are down the stairs, past our coconut palm, along a white powder sand path and out for our first of hour long sunrise walks on the beach. Now, I don’t like beaches – too gritty, but mi Chica does and she earned the trip caring for my 92 year old mom for several months. I have changed my mind. I don’t know what paradise is supposed to look like, but this will do. Maybe it is trite, but the Tulum beaches really do have powdery white sand that is not gritty at all.

Back to our room with 20 foot ceiling and thatched roof, into some day clothing and off to breakfast. On another web site there were some complaints about the breakfast. I don’t know why – just whiners I guess. There were omelets made to order, juices, granola, fresh fruits, various meats, yoghurt, etc. and a fine beach view, what more would one want? After breakfast, into town to check it out. Too much breakfast, so skipped lunch. Back onto the beach for an afternoon swim and another hour walk.

Hey, I say to my lady. Look down the beach where all of those guys are standing around, that girl is wearing silver high heeled shoes on the beach. Who ever heard of such a thing? Yes says mi Chica, and that girl is topless too. I hadn’t noticed! Now, when the man notices the shoes and the lady notices, the…well, there is some true role reversal. I am worried about me. It turns out they were doing an advertising shoot. Didn’t see the cameras with all of the guys standing around. As I soon found out, swimsuit tops are optional for all.

Back to room for some hammock time, shower and off to dinner at Zama’s. It is a very nice place on the beach. We both opted for the whole fish (about 180 pesos). After an hour or so it came and during that time we became closely acquainted with Sol cervesa. We were told the fish was “like a snapper.” It was sort of snapper shaped, but had big sharp teeth, and unlike a snapper in its natural state, was covered in a very nice vegetable sauce.

Day 2 First, let us dispense with the weather report for the entire trip. Month, March -Days, breezy in the upper 80s to 90. Just enough clouds to enhance sunrise and sunset. Evenings in the 70s. That’s it-every day.

Up for the now obligatory sunrise walk on the beach followed by breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast is as constant as the weather with just minor daily changes, but good variety. We drive down to the Tulum Mayan archeological site that was a new experience for us. This is the only Mayan site in Mexico with a beach as far as I know so one might want to bring a swim suit when visiting. A most interesting morning with much to see. We wandered around following our guidebook and I played with my new camera, trying different settings for each scene much to the joy of mi Chica. We spot an Iguana! A big one! Our first! He is posing just for me and I obligingly use my zoom throughout its considerable range on auto, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual, and most of its presets just to see the difference. The iguana doesn’t know it, but he is a star. Or maybe he does and obligingly puffs up and goes through his paces.

We noticed Don Cafeta’s Restaurant on the way to the ruins and after leaving the site, stopped for lunch. This is Don Cafeta’s on the beach, not the one in town. After having a great mole dish we are back to the hotel, quick shower and off to town. Now the Pueblo of Tulum is truly dedicated to tourists with shop after shop selling mostly the same stuff. After taking care of some small gifts for the kids we come upon Jesus Alcala Aguilar’s Plateria Tulum – a jewelry shop with craftsmanship several levels above the others. It is a family run place and they make most of the jewelry themselves including some really nice carvings in amber and jasper. Mi Chica has found her soul. I head off in search of an ATM because I know that I will need it. Actually we spotted an extra ordinary amber carving done by Jesus that just spoke to the both of us. Although Jesus does take credit cards, cash speaks much louder when negotiating a price. What is my daily withdrawal limit? I know that I am going to reach it. Leaving Jesus we are carrying the carving and a bunch of other stuff including a lovely silver necklace to give to lovely music major daughter for her upcoming senior recital – ever hear “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on a bassoon? It is worth a silver necklace. We head back to Los Lirios. We meet Maria on the beach, recruiting guests for Los Lirios’ free Yoga lessons. We agree to give it a try. Now, I am built similar to Peter Lorre, or maybe just a lorry, thus my limbs rebelled at the positions they were asked to assume. However, I excelled at he deep breathing and relaxation. Mi Chica on the other hand did quite well assuming positions I had no idea she was capable of. Afterwards we changed and regrouped for dinner that turned out to be back in the Pueblo at Charlie’s. They have a darned good Flamenco show – a swell surprise, followed by a belly dancer of considerable talent – a sweller surprise. All together, one heck of a fine day.

Day 3 Our last full day in Tulum began with the usual hour beach walk at sunrise, passing on the yoga lesson with Maria. After breakfast we are off to the biosphere. This is a place we have been wanting to see and even though there weren’t any monkeys, or even many birds to be seen, the small fraction of the reserve that we saw in a morning was awesome. If you are down in that area, be sure to put aside some time for a visit. Judging by the very few people we saw there, not too many do. We went up to the top of the observation tower for fabulous views of the jungle roof and lagoon and then hiked some trails. A short drive down the road took us to a fishing camp and a gorgeous stretch of beach. Bring insect repellant. Lots of it. The experience was well worth a few bites.

Driving back to Los Lirios, we passed a cenote and stopped by – a pleasant diversion. Lunch again was at Don Cafeto on the beach to try some other items on the menu and because of the great lunch experience the day before (mole pablamos). We see an item on the menu called “Pepitos.” Sounds interesting. Asked the waiter what it is and he answers “a meat torte.” Torte – that is kind of like a pie, right. Wrong. So what is or are Pepitos? Turns out to be something like a Mexican version of a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, sub roll and all. Not quite the same. The meat was shredded, the cheese certainly wasn’t melted cheez-whiz and the spices were different. Not what we expected, but pretty good.

One last swim and afternoon walk on the beach and we are off again to our silver mine in the Pueblo followed by dinner again at Charlie’s. When we like a place we tend to stick with it. No flamenco this time but a knockout filet of fish Veracruz.

Monday dawns. Our day to leave Tulum and it is hard. One last walk on the beach, extra long this time, breakfast, and we are off to 3 days in Cancun. We stop at the San Francisco super market. It is a pretty good size and is a good bet for stocking up. Next stop is Xel- Ha – not the tourist attraction, but the ruins across the road. This place is empty, there is only one other car in the parking area. No tour busses here! These ruins are older and very different from those of Tulum. They are in less of a state of preservation and occupy a much more compact site in a jungle setting. Also unlike Tulum’s ruins, these are very accessible and you can walk right up some very interesting frescos. The morning light was both wonderful and a challenge for picture taking. Found a large beautifully colored iguana here as well who kindly posed.

From Xel-Ha it is on to Cancun and the Ambiance Villas Ken Ha. Price, about $125/night – great for a nice hotel in Cancun. For some reason not revealed to us, we were upgraded to a suite that was about twice as big as our first apartment. The beach at Ambiance Villas is the nicest at the top part of the 7 shaped Cancun Island and it is an altogether pleasing property. Our beach and the flanking beaches connected with the Intercontinental El Presidente and Olas Residences and Spa seemed to be the only ones in that area that were wide and intact. Once you walked past Olas, the beach narrows down to next to nothing courtesy of Hurricane Wilma we are told. We are completely spoiled by Tulum when it comes to beaches. Welcome was a small nearby supermarket and launder mat. Other than that I don’t have much to say about the hotel zone of Cancun so I won’t. Market 28 downtown (not the hotel zone) however was fun and is worth a trip if even for the very colorful photo opportunities.

Categories
Arts & Culture

Magical Morocco

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: March 2007

My boyfriend and I decided to visit Morocco in a rather haphazard way — we were trolling for our next vacation destination by browsing online image galleries, hoping to be inspired. We were open to pretty much anything, but nothing was jumping out at us. Croatia? “Pretty…” Peru? “Intriguing…” The Faroe Islands? “The who? Hmm, kinda cool, but way too remote…”

And then we clicked on some images of Morocco, and we both had the same reaction — this was it. The exotic kasbahs, medinas and desert landscapes were unlike anything we’d seen in our previous travels, so we immediately started researching.

We decided on a springtime visit to avoid the heat and crowds of the summer, and we found pretty good airfares in March (prices made a definite jump in April). We wanted to visit at least one imperial city — we picked Fes — and spend some time in the desert in the southern part of the country as well. I also really wanted to visit Chefchaouen, a town up in the Rif Mountains known for its blue doors and alleyways. (Unfortunately, we ended up cutting this town out of our itinerary at the last minute due to time constraints and a bus strike across Morocco. We went to Meknes instead.) We flew into Casablanca, hoping to visit its famous Hassan II Mosque — one of the only mosques in the country that are open to non-Muslims.

We’d never been to Africa before, or to any Third World country, or to a country where the native language was in a whole different alphabet (Arabic looked like a series of squiggles and dots to our ignorant eyes!). So we knew we were in for an eye-opening experience…

Getting There
We traveled for 21 hours door to door to get from our Philadelphia apartment to the Hotel Guynemer in Casablanca. Our initial flight was delayed due to snow in Philly, and then we had a five-hour layover in Heathrow before our three-hour flight to Casablanca took off. It was pretty amazing to have the window seat on that flight — I saw the Pyrenees in Spain and then the Rif Mountains near Tangier as we made the turn toward Casablanca.

Once we landed we went through an incredibly sloooooow customs check and then took some Moroccan dirhams out of the airport ATM before meeting our driver from the hotel. He took us there for 230 dirhams (about $25) and taught us how to say “welcome” in Arabic … which I promptly forgot. Hey, I was jetlagged!

Casablanca
The Hotel Guynemer bills itself as a three-star property, which I’m not so sure about, but it was perfectly fine for our purposes. It cost about $64 a night (booked by emailing the hotel directly), including breakfast, hot water and free Internet access in the lobby. The room had matching duvets and curtains that looked rather historic (and not in the good way), and there was quite a bit of noise from the street below; the hotel is located right downtown in an area that supposedly isn’t the safest at night. (We stayed in, so it wasn’t an issue.)

We slept okay until I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sounds of a loud verbal altercation going on down below. I couldn’t understand a word, of course, but one man was growing increasingly belligerent, shouting back and forth with what sounded like several other men until he finally roared off on a motorbike. That nuisance aside, the hotel was fine, and the breakfast the next day (croissants, baguettes, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, tea and coffee) was okay too.

After breakfast we headed out to see a bit of Casablanca. In an incredibly boneheaded move, we had scheduled ourselves here on a Friday, which is the one day of the week that the Hassan II Mosque is closed. (We discovered this with great chagrin as we were studying the guidebook on the plane ride over.) This was a big deal because Casablanca is quite a large, modern city and doesn’t have very many “sights” — so we weren’t quite sure how we were going to fill our day.

On a tip from a fellow guest at breakfast, we started by walking toward the cathedral (that’s something we weren’t expecting to see in Morocco!), where we could apparently climb into the tower and get a nice view over the city. Before we got there, though, we ran into a nice little park near the post office and decided to just chill out and people-watch for a while. It was about 9 a.m. and the weather was perfect: upper 60’s, sunny and breezy. We noticed a lot of locals in jackets and sweaters, reminding us that this weather is still kind of wintry to them. In fact, there was quite a wide variety of clothing — there were women in traditional robes and head scarves, but also some with modern dresses/pants and uncovered hair. The men wore everything from jeans or business suits to traditional robes and fes hats. Clearly the European influence has been strong here, in Morocco’s largest and most modern city.

We left our comfy bench after a bit and snapped a few photos of the nearby Ancienne Prefecture and the Palais du Justice, two imposing buildings on Place Mohammed V. The former has some lovely mosaics on the facade while the other boasts a tall clock tower. We weren’t the only tourists there; my SO and I shared a laugh over a group of Japanese tourists who were getting their picture taken with several men in bizarre red outfits and pompom hats — water sellers, according to our guidebook. We passed on the photo, knowing we’d have to pay the water sellers for it.

We finally made our way to the cathedral, which was completely empty inside; we wondered whether it had ever been used. Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, leaving colorful, shimmering reflections on the bare floor. To get the promised panoramic view, we headed for the steps leading up to the bell tower. The staircase got increasingly narrow as we ascended, and we had to step around huge clumps of feathers and dung from the pigeons that live here.

Incredibly (at least to my American eyes), at one point you could actually walk out onto the cathedral’s roof and look out — with no railing! I could only imagine how lawyers in America would react to that. A little higher, we came to a landing in the staircase where there was an open hole right in the middle of the floor, leading down hundreds of feet to the very bottom of the staircase. There were a couple of beams of wood surrounding the hole, but they didn’t serve as any kind of barrier — seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen! But I guess that’s not how things work here…

At the very top of the tower we got a great panoramic view of the city. We could see the Hassan II Mosque in the distance, as well as wide boulevards lined with palm trees closer in. Nearly every building was white and modern and topped with a satellite dish.

We headed back down and set out for the Hassan II mosque, hoping to at least take pictures from the outside even if we couldn’t get in. On our way we stumbled upon a really neat street market, offering bananas, enormous oranges, tomatoes, apples, fresh meat, eggs, spices, live chickens, etc. Definitely fun to browse.

We did eventually find the mosque, which was breathtaking — huge and clean and brilliantly decorated with exquisite blue and green mosaics. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, it was built in 1993 at the behest of King Hassan II, paid for by an involuntary tax on every Moroccan citizen — even those who were too poor or who lived too far away to ever visit this enormous monument. Our guidebook told us that a crowded slum was razed to make space for the mosque and that the residents were turned out without compensation, a fact that tempered my admiration of the place just a bit.

Hunger was calling, so we went to a French seafood restaurant called Taverne du Dauphin, about a 15-minute walk away. The menu was in French, which we don’t speak, so we squeaked by. I got an omelet with ham and cheese, and a side of cauliflower; SO got some sort of fish in a cream sauce. Delicious! It cost about $30, including the tip, for our meals plus sorbet for dessert, a large bottle of water and a beer for SO.

After lunch we had somewhat grand plans to explore Casablanca’s medina and check out a few mosques there, but the streets we chose once we got into the medina actually led us right back out again about 15 minutes later. Hmmm. The medina honestly wasn’t all that exciting except in its very ordinariness — locals going about their day, a group of old men playing some sort of game I couldn’t see, women sharing a communal plate of fruit.

We didn’t have much time left in the afternoon, so we headed back to the park where we’d sat that morning to relax a bit and enjoy the nice weather. We were sitting comfortably for no more than five minutes before a local approached us and started asking us in English how we liked Morocco, where we were going next, where we were from, etc. He seemed friendly enough and didn’t immediately ask for anything, so I was almost starting to think he was just being hospitable to the nice foreigners when suddenly the sob stories came out. His daughter died in Spain, his wife died somewhere else, blah blah blah, and eventually he wanted us to give him the equivalent of $2 for … gas? I have no idea. We gave him about $1 just to make him go away and then walked off as quickly as we could. He was just the first of many Moroccans to approach us that way during our trip. We quickly got better about spotting them and not being taken advantage of as we were this time!

We went back to Hotel Guynemer to pick up our bags and catch a cab to the airport for our Royal Air Maroc flight to Errachidia, a town in the southeastern part of Morocco. This was my first prop plane experience — fun! There was a big, rowdy group of about 10 Spanish tourists on the plane with us, and they applauded when our captain successfully landed the aircraft.

Errachidia, Erg Chebbi and the Desert
We hadn’t booked a hotel ahead of time in Errachidia, but fortunately there was plenty of room at the Kenzi Rissani, just five minutes by cab from the airport. This was one of the nicest (read: most expensive) hotels in town, supposedly, though to be honest the rooms weren’t anything special and it took ages to get anything but tepid water in the shower. The rate was about $90 a night with breakfast, which is ridiculously pricey for this part of Morocco. In retrospect I wish we’d chosen somewhere else to save a few bucks, but this place was certainly clean and nice enough, and the English-speaking man at the front desk was incredibly helpful and patient with our many questions. It was through him that we arranged to hire a driver/guide and 4×4 vehicle to take us around for the next two days.

Our guide, Youssef (sp?), picked us up in a clean, well-maintained Toyota Prado — with seatbelts, no less! — and began driving west toward Todra Gorge. This was my first time in a desert, and I found it beautiful in a very barren sort of way. The ground was nothing but sagebrush and rocky reddish sand, with a backdrop of mountains in brown and rose and green. As we approached the various villages, the landscape got lusher, with palm trees and the occasional pockets of greenery, thanks to whatever wells or water systems the locals had in place.

As we drove, Youssef pointed out a number of Berber nomads tending their herds of sheep and goats, grazing on the sagebrush. It looked like an incredibly lonely life to me.

We broke up our long trip to the gorge with a stop at an amazing little museum of Berber culture (I’m not sure of the name). It included samples of Berber dress and jewelry, pottery and tools, weapons, calligraphy, etc. We also saw samples of the kinds of wells the locals use to get water in the desert. It was a really neat place, with the various indoor exhibits surrounding an open courtyard with several nomadic tents and a pen with sheep. The owner was friendly and enthusiastic, capably switching between French for the two other tourists visiting and English for me and SO. He was also a calligrapher, and we bought a small piece of his featuring the words of Kahlil Gibran (written in Arabic): “The earth is my country; humanity is my family.”

Back on the road to the Todra Gorge, we passed through increasingly dramatic scenery as we approached the town of Tinerhir, located in a huge valley blanketed with palm trees and flanked by high rocky cliffs. We wound up behind a tour bus right before we got to the gorge, which was a pretty good indicator of what we’d find there. Sure enough, Youssef dropped us off at the same time as a few big tour buses spewed out a flock of older European tourists sporting cameras and knee-high socks. Oy. The gorge itself was incredible, the cliffs stretching upward on both sides to an almost dizzying height, but the tourist hordes and the hotels right at the base took away from the experience a bit.

We’d hoped to do a 30-minute hike mentioned in our guidebook, but Youssef told us we didn’t have time with everything else we wanted to do that day, so it was back into the car for us. I was a little bummed — we basically drove a long way to stand at the bottom of a gorge for 10 minutes. It was a nice gorge, but … ah well.

It was a fairly sleepy drive back along the same roads to a little town called Tinejdad, where we stopped at a teeny roadside joint for lunch. SO and I shared a big bottle of water, lamb kebabs, a basket of bread, an enormous orange and a plate of fries for about $10. We ate out on the front porch, watching the very small town go by. Bicycle seemed to be the preferred mode of travel, although there were also cars, motorscooters and even donkeys. A bunch of kids played games on a dusty side street, while a tiny older lady hunched by under an enormous burden of some sort of grass/straw — it looked as big as she was. (Now she could’ve used a donkey!)

Back on the road, we made our way toward Erfoud, where we were going to visit a fossil “museum” (I figured “shop” was probably more accurate). SO is a geologist, and he was really excited to see the various fossils to be found in this part of the world. But first we were waylaid by a rather odd detour.

“Do you see the constructions?” Youssef asked us, pointing toward some mountains in the distance. We squinted obediently, not sure what we were looking for. “You see?”

I finally acknowledged that maybe I saw some brown, desert-y buildings way off in the distance. Youssef began talking about a place to “see stars” and a place shaped like a goniatite (one of the fossils found in abundance here). We were all, “okay, okay,” which we said a lot throughout our tour to indicate that we understood whatever he was telling us. Then he said we could go see the constructions, it would only be a half-hour detour, etc. We still didn’t get it, but figured he’d only take us there if it were worth it in some way.

So off we went — off-road, that is. I felt like I was in a truck commercial, where the vehicle is flexing its muscles on the kind of mountainous off-road course that most American vehicles never actually experience. We were bounced around like rag dolls and tilted at various scary angles as we careened up and down the dunes. I was gritting my teeth to prevent them from flying out of my head (and to ward off motion sickness) until we reached flatter, rockier ground and approached the buildings we were seeking.

The goniatite-shaped thing was a dark building that apparently “spiraled around and around until water,” according to Youssef. So … it was some sort of well? The other thing was a cluster of buildings that could have been … a planetarium? We never did figure it out. We did spot a big group of camels, including some babies, on the way back to the main road, but otherwise? Not the best use of 30 minutes. Oh well.

We pressed onward, taking note of quite a few dirt devils kicking up around the desert. (Youssef charmingly called them “tor-nye-does.”) As we approached Erfoud, we began to see a few women on the roads in full black veils, with only their eyes peeking out. I found it chilling — I hadn’t even realized that we hadn’t seen it yet, but everywhere else we’d been, the women had only had their hair covered (if anything). I’ve heard that many Muslim women feel safer behind the veil, but I still found it jarring to see. Youssef pointed out that this was part of Arabic culture and was not a custom among the local Berber women.

In Erfoud, we stopped at the fossil museum, which sure enough was actually a shop — Fossiles et Ceramiques du Sahara — but what a shop! Even I was impressed by the fossils there, which ranged from itty-bitty unpolished clymenids like the ones SO has at home to huge thick tabletops made of slabs of limestone teeming with fossils.

Then it was off to see the real thing in a nearby quarry. There were so many fossils there that even my untrained eyes could spot them. SO was the proverbial kid in the candy store, grabbing up a ton of rocks in the 10 – 15 minutes we had there. (No wonder our bags were so heavy on the way home!) I had a nice time too, just sitting there peacefully staring out at the desert. In the distance I could see the rosy dunes of Erg Chebbi, where we’d be spending the night, and the dark mountains beyond that marked the border with Algeria. I had the same feeling of quiet peace that I often do sitting on the beach in the evening looking out at the ocean — the desert has the same sort of power and beauty.

All too soon we were back on the road again, this time on a piste road to the town of Hassi Labied, where we found our hotel, the Kasbah Tombouctou. Along the way we had a constant view of the dunes, which were magnificently rose-red in the setting sun. We had enough daylight after check-in to walk up some of the lower dunes and catch the end of sunrise, which was amazing. We had to pass by the camels parked out back of the hotel first though — which meant that we picked up two camel wranglers who started following us up the dunes. SO was pretty good about giving them a consistent “No,” but they continued to follow us silently for a few minutes — to the point where I thought I’d be sharing a romantic sunset with both SO and the two camel wranglers. We finally lost them when we walked past two other poor tourists who were trying to enjoy their own little patch of dune; the camel guys stopped to harass them while we walked quickly to the top of another dune. We enjoyed about 20 minutes of peace and quiet as the sun slowly set.

We headed back to our room to chill a bit before dinner. Kasbah Tombouctou was essentially a desert resort — not the kind of place we’d necessarily have chosen for ourselves (about $105 a night with breakfast and dinner) but pretty cool nonetheless.

It was built in kasbah style right on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes, and our room was right out of Arabian Nights — with a sweeping blue canopy over the beds, faux-adobe walls, a tombstone-shaped window and brightly colored duvets. In a nod to our location, the sink basin was a limestone slab with fossils embedded in it. The rooms were arranged around an open courtyard that included a nice covered patio.

Dinner, which started around 7:30 or 8:00, was a lavish buffet affair. There was a whole table of hot dishes like tajine (a meat/vegetable stew that’s a staple of the Moroccan diet), chicken, beef, spicy meatballs and various root vegetables. The other table had fabulous-looking salads and raw vegetables, which we both really wanted but reluctantly decided to skip. (To avoid the infamous traveler’s tummy, we generally only ate cooked foods or fruits that we could peel — and though I hated feeling like every meal was a ticking time bomb, we actually went the whole week without getting sick at all!)

The next morning we got up bright and very early to catch sunrise over the dunes. We crept gingerly past the area where all the camels were tied, fully expecting to be accosted and roped into a camel tour. But no one was stirring, so we gratefully headed up to one of the lower dunes not far from the hotel. It was about then that the sun crested over the high dunes in front of us; several groups of tourists had clearly arisen earlier than we did and were standing atop the highest dunes, forming black silhouettes against the sunlight.

We didn’t have time to get all the way up there, but we did make it to the top of another, fairly tall dune and just hung out for a while, enjoying the breeze and the incredible view. The dunes were worn so smooth by the wind in many places that they reminded me of the curves of a woman’s body. In other places they were furrowed or folded, the low angle of light creating long shadows. The colors were amazing too, ranging from tawny to orange-rose. Breathtaking.

We had to meet Youssef at 9 a.m., so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast around 7:30 or so. It was another buffet, and on the menu this time were carbs, carbs and more carbs: various types of bread and sweets, oranges, bananas, etc. There were also some meat, cheese and hardboiled eggs.

We checked out and headed off with Youssef, who drove us through his hometown of Merzouga, a small, somewhat rundown-looking village that apparently was flooded (!) about a year or two ago — you could see water marks about 6 – 12 inches up the sides of the houses. There was a friendly feeling as we drove through the town, with Youssef greeting many locals through his rolled-down window and children waving to us from the side of the road. It’s obviously a pretty poor town, though, and much of its livelihood seems to revolve around the tourists that come here to see the dunes. A little outside of town we saw folks riding on donkeys with big jugs; they were going to fill up on water from the local wells.

The best part of the day (for me) was our first stop at the village of Khamlia, where we were welcomed into a small home and given a private musical performance by a group of six men from Mali. They were dressed all in white and played drums, castanets and a squarish guitar-looking instrument. Their singing was the kind of repetitive chanting that’s almost hypnotizing. We were front and center, sitting on mats on the floor and sipping the delicious, sweet mint tea that’s a staple in Morocco. The men did some formal choreographed dancing (moving up and back, turning, bending, all while clicking the castanets and singing) and then came forward during the final song and offered their hands to me and SO. We were both a little self-conscious, but it was a real thrill to get to dance with them a little. Afterward we bought a CD/DVD of their music, which pretty much covered the price of admission. It was definitely worth it — even though I know it’s show staged for tourists, I felt like I got at least a little insight to some local life; plus, we got a private concert!

After that we drove over to a mineral quarry where SO got to look for more rocks. The quarry had a huge fault line cutting through the hill that had been pretty much mined dry by the locals, and then left as a deep gash in the earth — another liability nightmare!

On our way out of the quarry, surprise! Youssef had a “friend” giving away minerals and serving mint tea (for a small tip, of course). We had absolutely no change in dirhams, so we ended up giving him a couple of American dollars. He seemed pleased to see us and eager to share a quick up of tea with us and our driver — and SO got a few good samples of lead/galena out of the deal.

The off-roading started up again on the other side of the dunes, and I got a little white-knuckled. The scenery was cool — reddish dunes on the left, distant purple mountains on the right, with camels and nomadic tents in between — so I tried to focus on that rather than the up/down/up/down. At one point I got a little relief when our Toyota stalled out at the top of a big dune. Oops! The right rear wheel was entirely off the ground, and the front wheels mired in the sand. It took some pushing on our part and some digging on Youssef’s before we got going again. We were delayed no longer than 10 minutes or so, but Youssef seemed quite apologetic, and ended up giving us a slightly longer tour that day to make up for it.

Our next stop was Lake Yasmina, a shallow basin of water right at the base of the dunes. Apparently this is a seasonal lake that only appears in the spring. The dunes were reflected in the water, and birds chirped and circled the area above our heads. Youssef wrote our names in Arabic on the sand and then drew an arrow under them to signify reproduction. Under the arrow was the number 8. When I expressed alarm at the very thought of having eight children, he added a 1 to make 18 — even worse!

Once we’d snapped a picture of this prolific horoscope, we drove onward to another fossil quarry, much to SO’s delight. We had about 45 minutes here, and SO was thrilled to be able to break out his rock hammer and pound away.

Ten tons of rock later, we were off to Erfoud, our last stop. We ate lunch at the Hotel Xaluca, another resort-y place that’s actually owned by the same folks as the Tombouctou one we’d stayed at the night before. We ate on the pool deck (!); I had an omelet with cheese (snooze), while SO had kalia, a local tajine with some sort of meat, onions, tomatoes, egg and various spices. I couldn’t resist trying his, and it was awesome! Those dishes plus a big bottle of water only came to about $11, which impressed me because this was clearly a pretty high-end resort for Morocco. (There’s something obscene about a swimming pool in the middle of the desert.)

We had wanted to take a bus from Erfoud back to Errachidia, but the buses were on strike so we ended up in a grand taxi instead. It was about $25 for an hour-long ride — kind of pricey for here, but there was high demand with the buses on strike so we didn’t have much choice. The ride back was pretty; we passed through the Ziz Valley, blanketed with palms, and could see mountains in the distance. As we drove we passed quite a few games of pickup soccer in makeshift fields along the road, as well as women washing clothes in rivers, and men tending their goats on the barren hillsides.

The taxi dropped us off back at the Kenzi Rissani, where we grabbed a quick dinner and then went to bed early in preparation for our flight back to Casablanca and our onward journey to Fes. But that’s another trip report…so stay tuned for part two!

After an uneventful flight from Errachidia to Casablanca with the same ebullient group of Spaniards we’d met on the flight down, we grabbed breakfast at the Casablanca airport and caught the train to the Casa Voyageurs station, where we would transfer to Fes. We found quite a crowd — apparently the buses up here were on strike too. An English-speaking tour guide came up to us and advised us that we’d be much likelier to get a seat if we upgraded our second-class tickets to first class. We were naturally a little skeptical — what does this guy get out of this? we had to wonder — but we figured we’d just see how much the upgrade would cost since there were an awful lot of people around. He and SO went into the station to see what could be done while I waited out on the platform with our bags.

I waited by myself for about 15 minutes, during which I progressed from sanguine (“what a pretty day!”) to suspicious (“this guy must be trying to rip us off!”) to paranoid (“where the heck is SO? What if they kidnap him?” — this last in a voice eerily reminiscent of SO’s mother). They did come back, of course, saying that we’d have to upgrade on the train. Long story short, we went straight to the first-class cabin and were able to buy the upgrade from the conductor — and the tour guide walked away before we’d even tipped him, so I guess he didn’t get anything out of it after all.

Fes
We arrived four and a half hours later in a busy Fes train station, where we were immediately greeted with numerous offers of taxis and tours. One guy found us a petit taxi and told us he’d walk us to our hotel, Dar Seffarine, which was just inside one of the gates of the medina. We knew how difficult it would be to navigate within the medina (the original walled city, consisting of several thousand twisting streets and alleys), so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to have someone help us find our way.

However, our would-be guide actually seemed to sprint more than walk — we could barely keep up, laden down as we were with our bags. We learned later that Fes has been cracking down on so-called “faux” guides, or non-licensed guides, over the past few years. If this guy were caught leading us around, he could go to jail for three months. So he was trying to stay far enough ahead of us that it wouldn’t look like he was actually leading us. We passed through only the briefest bit of the medina before the guide turned down a rather dark alley and left us at the nondescript door of the hotel.

Inside we discovered an exquisite little riad, or restored palace home, with a truly breathtaking central courtyard — every inch was tiled or carved or painted. All the rooms had doors or windows opening onto this courtyard and were furnished with handcrafted wooden beds/chairs/desks, heavy wood doors with traditional metal bolts, and intricately detailed metal lanterns. There are no locks on the doors, just the sliding bolts, and with everything opening onto the courtyard we really felt like we were in someone’s home (or palace, really) rather than a hotel.

We dropped off our stuff and took a cab to the Dar Batha Museum, which our guidebook indicated would be open. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case — so instead we decided to get an early dinner at Le Kasbah, right near the Bab El-Jeloud gate of the medina. Talk about a tourist trap — everyone in there had a medina map, the same Lonely Planet guidebook we had, or both — but the food was good and cheap. SO had a beef tajine, while I had couscous with chicken and vegetables. Delicious, and only about $13 for both of us including a shared bottle of water and the tip.

We wandered our way back toward our guesthouse through the narrow streets of the medina. It was an overwhelming feast for the senses; my eyes were actually tired at the end of the night from trying to take it all in. In the souqs were wares and handicrafts of all kinds — pottery, metalwork, leather handbags and belts, a dizzying array of shoes and slippers, cell phones, spices, pastries, candy, mirrors, ancient-looking televisions … you name it. Interesting smells wafted from the food stalls and side streets, and traffic streamed in both directions — women in headscarves, men in jeans, camera-toting tourists, stray cats, and sad-eyed donkeys laden down with soda cases. A couple of mosques had their doors cracked open, allowing us brief, tantalizing glimpses of the mosaics inside.

We had every intention of sticking to the main byways and going straight back to the guesthouse, but we inadvertently made a left instead of a right and ended up winding along an unexpected side street. I got a little concerned after a bit because night was falling fast, but we did eventually find the right path to the Seffarine square, just a minute’s walk from our guesthouse.

Back at Dar Seffarine, we headed up to the rooftop terrace to watch evening fall over the ancient roofs and minarets of the medina. While we were there, we heard the evening call to prayer echo over the rooftops from mosques around the city — one of the most eerily beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. Just then, sitting on top of the world in one of the earth’s oldest cities, I had one of those moments where you really realize why you go through all the hassles and expenses of travel. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of roosters crowing and cats squalling. We were early for communal breakfast, so we went back to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the morning sunshine and watch the city wake up. Then we had a nice breakfast with the riad’s other guests — who hailed from Britain, Australia, Libya and Sri Lanka. Made for some interesting discussion! The meal was good too — breads, fried eggs, orange slices with cinnamon, and a tomato/pepper dish.

After breakfast SO and I joined three other guests for a full-day tour of the medina with Hassan, a guide we hired through our guesthouse. Only a few minutes into the tour I lost track of where we were; we never would have found half the sights we did without Hassan, so I was glad we’d made the decision to do the tour. We started with a quick peek into the Kairaouine Mosque/University, which is one of the biggest universities in the Arab world (second only to one in Cairo, I believe). As non-Muslims we could only see the courtyard and a bit of the enormous library, but again there were lovely mosaics (in blue, the imperial color of Fes, and green, the color of Islam).

We also visited the Medersa Sahrij, which was once a theological school. The medersa was set up a bit like the inner courtyard of our guesthouse — and indeed, it seemed that this design was a staple of architecture within the medina. This courtyard had a rectangular pool in the center and a very small mosque toward the back (so that students could pray without having to leave the school). Throughout the courtyard were the magnificent mosaics and cedar woodwork that we’d see over and over again during our day in Fes. We were also able to climb to the second level and take a peek into the tiny rooms (cells, really) where the students once lived.

Several twisty, turny lanes later and we were at the Nejjarine Museum, which offered wooden handicrafts and tools, including some ornately decorated doors and chests. It also had a lovely central courtyard, which Hassan explained was a converted “funduq” — a place where caravans once stopped to rest for the night. The travelers would trade their goods on the lower level and then take a room on the second or third floor overlooking the courtyard. We realized then that this was what our riad was modeled after — cool! Besides the museum, we saw several other old funduqs around the medina, many of them looking rather dilapidated; clearly, there isn’t money available to restore them all.

Other stops along the tour included a quick peek inside Zawiya Moulay Idriss II, a mosque and mausoleum where Moulay Idriss II (a major figure in Moroccan history) is buried. As usual, we could glance inside the mausoleum but not enter; ditto for the mosque next door, where we saw one man repeatedly bathing his face and hands at a central fountain while other folks sat or prayed on mats around the tiled floor. It felt a bit invasive to peer into these sacred places, but our Libyan companion pointed out that there’s no place in the Koran that bans non-Muslims from mosques — and that in places like Tunisia, non-Muslims are permitted into the mosques. He also told us that he was actually kicked out of a Moroccan mosque himself even though he is Muslim, just because he was looking around rather than praying. (His argument that the mosques wouldn’t be so beautifully decorated if they weren’t meant to be looked at didn’t go over too well.)

We also stopped at a traditional riad, now (I believe) a school of handicrafts. This place was ridiculously ornate — you had to pass through about eight different gates/doors before you even got to the main room, which was carved and mosaic-ed from floor to ceiling. It overlooked a double-terraced garden with orange trees, a well and a courtyard with a fountain. We went down to the garden and were showered with a sudden fall of oranges from the trees, but when we tried one it proved dreadfully sour — our punishment for stealing fruit, I suppose!

One of our more intriguing stops of the day was the city’s famous tanneries, which were smelly but not as bad as I’d feared. (Pigeon droppings are one of the ingredients in the dyes.) It’s an area filled with large round pits, some containing variously colored dyes, others containing lye and bleach to strip the hair off the animal skins. I could only imagine what a miserable job this must be in the summertime — baking in the hot sun and literally going up to your bare knees in these smelly dyes.

We also checked out a few other craft-y places, including one place selling Berber carpets and another peddling woven fabrics. It was at this latter place that I did my first real haggling, over a vibrant red and orange bit of silk I wanted for my mother. The shopkeeper started us off: “Normally this would be 1,200 dirhams, but for you, 1,100.” That’s over $120 — I love you, Mom, but no way was I paying that! He started tossing around numbers like 700, 800, still way too much. My tour companions asked how much I was willing to pay, and I said 300 (about $33 or so) — at which point the shopkeeper put down my colorful fabric sample and held up a plain white piece, implying that that’s all I could get for that price. It took a group effort among all five of us on our tour (and a mass exodus from the shop at one point), but we did finally get the price down around 350 dirhams (about $40), which felt about right to me. (And Mom loved the fabric when I got it home, so it was all worth it!)

In between our various stops, Hassan gave us a thorough education on the medina. He pointed out little details like the wooden, barrel-shaped windows with little peepholes in the sides, through which women centuries ago could watch the goings-on on the streets below without compromising their modesty. He also told us that the medina used to be divided into dozens of little districts/neighborhoods, divided by gates (most of them now missing) and each possessing five key elements: a mosque, hammam (steam bath), Koranic school, fountain and wood-fired bread oven (where folks could bring their dough to be cooked).

The rest of the day was an overwhelming haze of sensory impressions. We wandered through all sorts of souqs, selling slippers, copperware, fruits, spices, vegetables, pottery and meat (including sheep and camel heads! Eek!). We also saw kids playing soccer in a dirty lot and a man panning for jewelry in the filthy, trash-strewn river that divides the two parts of the medina. We walked past dozens of alleys leading off to homes hidden deep in the heart of the medina, and peeked into mosques and hammams that only hinted at the secrets within.

We felt very much like outsiders here; though there’s a bustling public life in the souqs, much of the private life really goes on behind the walls of the medina — walls that have very few windows to the outside. I guess when these buildings were constructed privacy was a really high priority, so folks have a central courtyard inside rather than a facade on the front of their house — very different from the front lawns and bay windows in America. I got the impression that there’s a whole world in Fes that you can’t see, except through glimpses into tiled entryways and down shadowy alleyways.

That’s why it was a valuable experience to have our Libyan companion along for the tour; because he spoke Arabic, he was able to understand much more of what was going on than we could. For example, at one point we walked past an elderly woman crouching on the side of the street with her hand outstretched. I’m ashamed to say that I barely noticed her, but suddenly our companion was asking the guide to stop the tour so he could go back and give her some money. He told us that he’d overheard her praying to God in Arabic that these people (us) would give her some money so that she could eat that night. I hope that she did.

That was an eye-opening moment for me. The poverty here wasn’t as overt as I’d been expecting, but I think it might be more apt to say that I simply wasn’t paying as much attention to it as I should have been in the beginning of the trip. It was easy to get annoyed over the fact that we were constantly being approached for money, or that we were almost certainly paying inflated tourist prices for various things, but the truth is that most Moroccans make about $4 or $5 a day — so who were we to quibble over a few bucks for a taxi ride when those same few bucks could feed a family for a day?

Meknes

We left Fes the next morning and took a one-hour train ride to Meknes, another of Morocco’s four imperial cities (the other two are Marrakech and Rabat). Our home for the next two nights would be the Ibis Moussafir, located between the medina and the modern ville nouvelle (new town). Unlike the other places we stayed, this one seemed largely geared toward the business traveler crowd and made little effort to seem “Moroccan” other than the vaguely kasbah-esque exterior and a 1930’s vintage Meknes poster on the wall of our room. Otherwise it had the vaguely bland feeling of just about any Western chain, which was actually sort of relaxing after some of the overwhelming things we’d seen in Fes.

We decided to spend the afternoon with our Libyan friend at Volubilis, an ancient Roman city about a half-hour outside of Meknes. We teamed up with two German guys to share a grand taxi, which made for a bit of a squeeze with four of us in the back seat. It was a bit warm at first, so we asked if we could roll the windows down. There was no handle on either of the back doors, but the driver did have a spare handle that we passed among ourselves (and had a pretty good laugh over).

Volubilis is a large site with an impressive basilica andtriumphal arch. There were also many well-preserved mosaics. The rest, sadly, looked a bit like one pile of rock after another; I always have trouble visualizing what a city would have looked like based on just its foundations. The setting was lovely though, a green plain surrounded by olive trees and farmland. Several donkeys roamed freely among the stones, eating the orange and yellow flowers that grew there.

Near Volubilis is the little mountain town of Moulay Idriss, so we took a little time to explore that a bit. We mostly followed our taxi driver, who seemed to know everybody. The main attraction here was a mosque/mausoleum where Moulay Idriss I is buried. As usual, it was closed to non-Muslims. We were able to approach and see a bit of the mosaic tiling in the massive entrance hall, but otherwise not much until we climbed (and climbed and climbed) up to a nearby terrace to get a view over the city. From there we could see the green roof of the mosque and even get a peek at the prayer mats in the courtyard.

On our way back down all the stairs we’d climbed, a couple of young local women came out of a side street and made as though to pass us — though they seemed to be in no great hurry. They did eventually move on, but our cabbie said they were actually prostitutes who were interested in the German guys. Ha! I never would’ve realized that on my own — wonder how you can tell? Their appearance didn’t seem that different from that of any of the other local women.

We headed back to Meknes and split with the German guys, and then SO, our Libyan companion and I headed into the medina to explore a bit. The medina here definitely felt different than the one in Fes — it was much quieter, and the merchandise seemed quite a bit newer. (Picture stall after stall of sneakers and jeans — I felt like I was in a mall at one point.) There was a lot less hassle there too; shopkeepers happily gave us directions without angling for a purchase or a tip.

We spent a little time at Place el-Hedim, an enormous square surrounded by souvenir shops and tea salons. Street performers drew almost exclusively male audiences in the center of the square, while a number of women were sitting way out under an archway on the fringes. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of rules governed the places women are and aren’t allowed to go in Morocco…

We wanted to eat dinner at Restaurant Zitouna, a palace restaurant serving the usual Moroccan favorites (couscous, tajine), but it wasn’t open yet, so we settled down on a step in front of a nearby mosque to wait it out. It was peaceful enough until a group of local boys — maybe 10 years old or so — came up and started giggling and staring, obviously quite curious about us. One smaller boy, probably no older than 5, came right up and sat on the step next to me. There was some back and forth in Arabic between our companion and the older boys until a local woman walked by and shooed them away. The youngest boy, however, seemed quite reluctant to leave. He was adorable, and I was feeling rather charmed by his big, innocent smile — until he said something in Arabic that really upset our friend. Apparently the kid was trying to prostitute himself. I can only hope he didn’t actually understand what he was saying, that he was simply repeating something he’d heard elsewhere, but either way I found this to be one of the most shocking experiences of the trip.

The boy finally ducked off into a nearby doorway, and the door of the mosque behind us opened for evening prayers, so we headed over to the restaurant for dinner. We decided to share several plates: vegetarian couscous, chicken tajine and a dish of various local salads (the herbed carrot salad was my favorite). These were followed by coconut cookies and a truly enormous plate of fruit (bananas, oranges, strawberries, apples) — plus the requisite mint tea. We had a good laugh when our friend got his English and Arabic mixed up, telling us “You can just take those cookies home in your bag” in Arabic within earshot of the waiter. Oops! (We did sneak a banana, an orange and two cookies out, since they’d end up in the trash otherwise.)

The next day, SO and I explored Meknes a bit on our own. We found the medina to be less interesting than the one in Fes, since much of what was for sale there was modern and quite cheap-looking. There was a lot of European-looking clothing, gadgets (cell phones, TV’s), shoes (both traditional leather slippers and brilliant white Nikes), plastic junk, etc. Parts of it felt like a mall, while others felt more like a flea market. That stuff was in Fes too, but Fes had more traditional handicrafts as well. The funny thing is that the merchandise for sale in Meknes is probably much more useful to the locals, while I got the feeling that the folks in Fes would never buy a lot of the beautiful, traditional (read: expensive) goods for sale in parts of the Fes medina.

One good thing about Meknes was that because it was less touristy, the locals really seemed to just want to go about their business rather than hassle the visitors. We had several people greet us with “Bonjour” on the street as they passed, just to be friendly and not because they wanted anything from us. We were approached a few times by hustlers, but in general were left alone; it was pretty nice.

We started our day with a visit to the Dar Jemai Museum, just off Place el-Hedim. The building itself is beautiful, with the usual richly tiled inner courtyard and a peaceful garden populated by random swarms of mosquitoes and a very friendly cat. We’d actually seen dozens of cats by this point, and though I wanted to pet them all, I hadn’t — you never know whether they’ll be friendly or healthy. But this one wouldn’t take no for an answer — he leapt right up onto the bench where we were sitting and started nuzzling up to us, eventually climbing into my lap! Even SO gave in and scratched his head a little.

Other than the cat and the courtyards, the museum also had a number of traditional local artifacts (jewelry, weapons, clothing, cedar chests, etc.). But the piece de resistance was the second floor, where we found an exquisite stained glass window, some beautiful calligraphy (mostly Koranic verses, it appeared) and an amazing salon decked out in colorful pillows and Oriental rugs — it looked like a receiving room for a sultan! Every inch was decorated with mosaics and painted carvings.

After we got out of the museum we crossed over Place el-Hedim to visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, a 17th-century sultan who made Meknes his capital city. We were excited to learn that not only were we allowed in, but the visit was also free — although we couldn’t get all that close to his actual grave. There were several herds of tourists already there, and the area where we all had to take off our shoes before entering the area where M.I. was buried stank to high heaven with the odor of all those feet! It smelled worse than any locker room I’ve ever been in. No wonder the local attendant was burning incense. Odor aside, the mausoleum was gorgeous and well worth seeing despite the tourist crowds.

We had lunch at Restaurant Oumnia, which we’d never have even noticed, much less tried, had it not been mentioned in our guidebook. It was actually part of a family home — the whole gang was eating lunch together in another room when we left. We shared a plate of couscous and topped it off with bottled water, mint tea and cookies for about $7 total.

After lunch we walked to the granaries of Moulay Ismail, Heri es-Souani. These enormous stone vaults apparently stored grain and hay for the sultan’s 12,000 horses. Today they’re partially restored, so we were able to walk around the cavernous chambers and marvel at how cool they felt; the stone walls and tiny windows work to keep the heat out. Beyond the restored vaults were quite a few in ruins, which had their own sort of haunting beauty. Beside the granaries was a large lake (manmade, I believe), where both tourists and locals were hanging out.

We walked back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner at La Coupole, a pretty fancy French restaurant in the new area of the city (the waiters were in tuxes). We both got seafood and enjoyed the classy white tablecloths and candles (though we could’ve done without the music — sappy instrumental versions of pop songs and show tunes).

Back to Casablanca
On our last full day in Morocco, we took a 3.5-hour train ride back to Casablanca and checked back into the Hotel Guynemer. We ate lunch at Restaurant Al-Mounia — yet another palace restaurant. There was one local dish we hadn’t had a chance to try, so we ordered the chicken pastilla to see what it was like. It was tasty — a flaky pastry thing with ground-up chicken and almonds, and cinnamon on top. We decided we liked it but preferred the tajines and couscous.

Then we walked down to the Quartier Habbous, which was a “new” medina built by the French in the 1930’s. This was our last chance for souvenir-hunting, and it was actually quite a relaxed place to do it, with less hassle than we’d found in either of the other medinas. We took an interest in a display of colorful ceramic bowls in one shop, and were thrilled to hear an opening price of 30 dirhams (only about $3.50) for one — so we grabbed a few more bowls for our families plus a plate for ourselves. Then began a rather sad round of haggling, in which we started too high and gave in too easily. The shopkeeper was very friendly (his initial offer was $5 million) and his English was excellent, so even if we overpaid a bit I can’t begrudge him the profit — especially since the total price for all four pieces was only $12.

That night we ate in the hotel’s restaurant — one last tajine and couscous for good measure — and ended up meeting Chef Wan, a celebrity chef from Malaysia! (I admit that I had no idea who he was, but I googled him after we got home and sure enough, he was who he claimed to be.) After 10 minutes of rapid-fire conversation I could easily see how he could be a celebrity — he had charisma and enthusiasm to spare, and he looked much younger than his 50 years.

Final Thoughts
We came home from this trip with many souvenirs and the aforementioned ton of rocks, but more importantly with a sense of how fortunate we are to live in America, to have enough to eat, and to not have to worry about where our next dollar is coming from. To see the poverty in Morocco was a sobering experience, and inspired us to consider a volunteer vacation on our next trip — perhaps Central America?

I also left with a series of vivid sense memories — the haunting strains of the muezzins’ call to prayer, the delicious scents of the Fes medina, the palatial courtyards adorned with mosaics, the henna on the hand of a beggar woman, a 5-year-old prostitute’s smile, the windswept Erg Chebbi dunes at sunset, and the ancient rooftops of Fes in twilight. Inshallah, we will be back someday.

Categories
Romantic Travel

My trip to Northern Italy (plus Croatia, Greece, Turkey)

Author: Barry S
Date of Trip: June 2009

My wife and I took off for a varied European vacation. We flew from TEL AVIV to MILAN. Our initial destination was VENICE where we had booked a hotel on the Grand Canal. You can fly from Milan to Venice but we decided to take the train. That involved taking the bus shuttle from Malpensa Airport to Milan’s central station. It is possible to take a train from the airport to the Central Station but let me assure you it is quicker, cheaper, and more convenient to take the bus shuttle for anyone going out of Central Station to other locations.

The train journey from MILAN to VENICE is comfortable and delightful. The cost was 50.50 Euros. They serve cheap snacks and drinks on the slightly more than two hour journey to the SANTA LUCIA train station in VENICE.

What a romantic station! You feel as if you are in a movie when you step outside this grand station onto the banks of the GRAND CANAL. You are immediately transported to another world. It is an experience not to be missed.

Our major problem was getting four heavy suitcases and an assortment of bags across the canal. I bravely volunteered to schlepp this baggage in a relay over the Ponte de Scalzi bridge to the other side where our modest hotel was located. Why do the authorities in Venice refuse to ramp part of their thousands of bridges so that wheelchairs, suitcases, and tarde products can, more easily negotiate the numerous canals in the city? We were part of the perenial tourist struggle of transporting body, soul, and luggage to hotels where wheeled vehicles cannot reach, and where the water bus is not a solution.

My wife refused my offer and immediately accepted the first offer of a boat across the canal. I must not have been concentrating because I silently accepted their 25 Euro charge. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that our hotel was directly across from the train station. It must have taken no more than three minutes to cross the canal and deliver us to the door of our hotel.

The Canal Hotel is an old, modest hotel pretending to be a three star. We had asked for a Canal view way in advance of our arrival but were told that they were all taken. Instead we received a small clean room with no view worth mentioning. Breakfast is served in a simple garden under the shade of dusty trees. Breakfast was straight forward continental with limited selection. The location of the Canal Hotel was its saving grace being right on the banks of the Grand Canal.

We would advise anyone staying in Venice for more than two days to take the 72 hour pass for the water buses.

It is possible to write pages about the splendour and character of Venice. On a personal level, we found the San Polo/Dorso Doro side of the canal far more appealing than the heaving passageways between San Marco and the rialto Bridge. There is something about the area of ACCADEMIA that attracts a different type of Venetian. It is also relatively free of tourists which allows one to wander without being jostled. The shops tend to be galleries with less tourist tatt than the well-trodden lanes on the other bank of the Grand Canal. The charm of Venice can be enjoyed in peace and calm, a feature we only found when we escaped into the Jewish Ghetto when manouvering clear of the heaving mass by the Rio San Marcuola. We enjoyed one of our finest non-Italian meals in the kosher Garden Restaurant on the square in the Ghetto. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy good food here. Start with the goulash which is served as a meat and bean soup. Continue with the chicken, and finish off with the lochshen pudding – a type of bread pudding.

After several romantic days and nights in Venice we made our way to the cruise terminal as we had booked an Eastern Mediterranean sail aboard the Oosterdam, one of Holland America’s fine ships.

If you have not tried cruising try the Mediterranean itinerary. There is no finer way to deliver you and your luggage from country to country in style than experiencing one of the major cruiselines that know how to give service.

Try sailing out of Venice with a glass of champagne in your hand and your arm around the one you love on your balcony as you majestically cruise passed the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square as you set out on a journey to foreign ports.

In our case we woke up the next morning in SPLIT, Croatia. This town is impressive in its harmonious combination of ancient and modern. The charm of the historic old town was enhanced by groups of excellent singers giving their interpretations of Croatian folk songs. The port promenade is new, wide, and inviting with its pleasant cafes and shops.

PIRAEUS is a bustling port town that in not inviting except as the entrance port to ATHENS. Take the train to ATHENS. Fast, efficient, and cheap. Our first port of call was the Olympic Stadium built to stage the first of the Modern Olympic Games. This was a nostalgic visit for me as I had run the marathon that celebrated the Centenary of the first Olympic marathon that had been won by Spiridon Louis, a Greek runner. The course followed the ancient route from the village of Marathon over the hills to finish in the historic stadium. Many fond memories of an amazing experience and a successful race came flooding back to me as I gazed into the splendid arena.

Most people go to the Parliament building to view the traditional Changing of the Greek Guard. A little hint to future visitors. Go to the Presidents Palace instead. This is located just three hundred meters across from the old Olympic Stadium. My wife and I were treated to a personal performance of the Changing of the Guards. No other tourists. No tour buses. Just the two of us for this daily spectacle.

If you are a sports person, or interest in antiquities, you cannot leave Greece without a visit to OLYMPIA. Our cruise ship docked in KATAKOLON. If there was ever a one street town this is it. With nothing to see in any of the shop windows. When cruising we hardly ever take the organised tours. The cost of being bussed to ancient Olympia was $68 from the ship. We hired a car with another couple for $40 and were not dependant on fifty other people lining up for the toilets..

We had a couple of stops in TURKEY. If you are one for bazaars I suppose that ISTANBUL is right for you but we went in and out of the GRAND BAZAAR in about half an hour. THE SPICE MARKET took us twenty minutes. This is enough to soak in the flavour and to be propositioned by every stallholder. The BLUE MOSQUE and ST.SOPHIA are impressive structures but the TOPKAPI PALACE is an amazing display of the splendours of past Islamic conquests.

Perhaps the main destinations in the GREEK ISLANDS are MYKONOS and SANTORINI. MYKONOS is that gorgeously white and blue vision that romantically epitomises the calm Greek islands. SANTORINI is a strange place if you coming in by ship. You can only negotiate the high cliffs to reach the town perched on the top by cablecar, by mule, or by walking up what seems like a thousand steps in a winding and, in the heat of summer, a tortuous test of stamina. Needless to say this was the first time I succeeded in encouraging my nervous wife to travel in a cable car. If visiting SANTORINI you must take the bus, or hire a beach buggy, to the neighbouring town of OIA. OIA is far more appealing than SANTORINI. It if a picture postcard little town that must be enjoyed. It is truly a gorgeous destination.

Back in VENICE after our cruise we hired a car and set out for PADUA AND VERONA. wWe intended to spend time in the historic parts of these towns. Echoes of Shakespeare had rolled around in my head when planning this trip. I can report that, in both cities, the municipalities have succeeded in hiding their treasures. Perhaps they don’t want tourists to come to their towns. After driving around, then walking for miles, we were not impressed by the ancient walls and few ruins that we saw. We had intended on staying the night in VERONA. Instead we continued to drive towards LAKE GARDA. Good decision. We arrived in PESCHIERA DEL GARDA and were immediately charmed by this gateway to the lovely Italian lake. We asked for a room at the BELLE ARRIVE on the southern shore of Garda and were given excellent smiling service by Clara. Our room overlooked the lake and we lost no time exploring this delightful place.

People talk about Italian drivers. I can tell you that, around Lake Garda, nobody attempted to drive faster than fifty kilometers an hour. The spectacular views slowed every road user in appreciation of the glory of the location. Highly recommended to spend time exploring the Italian lakes.

After an enjoyable stay in this region we headed to MILAN. We stayed there for five days. This was probably two days longer than necessary. The attractions are by the DUOMO with the Victor Emmanual Esplanade leading to the LA SCALA. But how many times do you need to return there to eat and to spend time? Yes, we strolled the MONTENAPOLEONE, we visited other recommended areas, such as the BRERA, but were not attracted to spend more than a couple of hours there. We stayed in hotels on the CORSO BUENOS AIRES. This street has been called the Oxford Street of Milan. That’s like comparing Bury Football Club to Manchester United! It’s long. Here the comparison ends. Best Western have a couple of reasonable hotels on this street. We stayed in two of them. Try HOTEL GALLES. Among the advantages is they offer free internet to guests.