Off the beaten path in Barcelona: La Merce 2016

This an annual festival, local to Catalonia, that celebrates Virgin Mary, the merciful, for which people from all over Catalonia and rest of Spain visit Barcelona. You can imagine the crowd if you add the regular number of tourists that visit from around the world!

We were lucky to be in Barcelona during the time, since it exposed us to a side of the city we may not have ever seen. Besides the tourists, who throng to Barcelona, the streets was full of locals and others from the surrounding areas, all out on a holiday, which led to an amplified atmosphere of festivity and fun- extremely helpful when on holiday yourself, and highly contagious!

Due to the festival, there were events going on at every big square. There were music concerts, folk music and dancing, parades and sporting contests. 

There was a parade of the Giants where famous local characters were paraded around the square with music. The size and scale was impressive.

One peculiar contest was making of the Castell by castellers. It is a human pyramid or ‘castle’ and the skill lies in how high you can go or how complex your castle is. It was amazing to see the kids were participating in this and our local guide told us that every village had a team and representatives and they took great pride in participating and winning this contest. You can see them prepping by adding belts for waist and back protection. The bystanders also participate by supporting the lowest ring of the castle.

One of the main stages had folk dancing, which looked nothing like the graceful Flamenco that one would normally associate with Spain, but a lot like line dancing!

In the night, there were fireworks by the beach, which were attended by more people than we thought possible! The trains was filled to busting and local police directed the human traffic at the metro stations, to make sure people weren’t knocked off the platforms in their rush to get to the scene of the action.

They also had late night free music concerts which we missed unfortunately, being too jet lagged to keep our eyes open.

All together the festival gave us more insight into the local culture and rituals. An interesting experience and highly recommended!

Chasing waterfalls and more: 2 days in Baños, Ecuador

Baños de Agua Santa or Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador. Located in the eastern Tungurahua Province, in central Ecuador, it is known as the Gateway to the Amazon. Baños de Agua Santa, Spanish for Baths of Holy Water, is named after the hot springs located around the city which have a reputation of having healing properties due to their content of various minerals.

After the first 2 days in Quito we headed to Baños to get our fill of outdoor adventure sports. And boy, we did!

The bus ride from Quito, while long and uphill, was quite scenic and we arrived in a much cooler, rainy small town, compared to the metropolis we had left behind. We stayed at the Erupcion hostel, which is on the main street, right in the centre of most of the action.


Baños, is famous for the spectacular waterfalls and hot springs within and around the city and there are open top buses that take you around, to the various waterfalls. At almost each stop, there were activities that could be done- from the tame ride across in a basket/cable car that offered spectacular views of the waterfalls, to the extreme upside down zip-line across! What was amazing was how little everything cost: a single ride on the cable car cost about $1 while the zip-line cost just $15!


We spent a few enjoyable hours chasing waterfalls- the zip line rides were awesome, the kind that would inspire songs believing that you could fly and while the cable cars looked tame, they shuddered and jerked- making it a brilliant ride!

The pièce de résistance came when at one of the stops we were told you could bungee jump off the bridge for $20! Thats been on the to-do list, and we thought it could only happen in NZ, for >$100, so this was an opportunity not to be missed! Needless to say, it was thrilling and made the day!

We ended at Pailon del Diablo, a waterfall named after the devil’s cauldron, which was as dramatic as the name made it sound.

Back in the city, we treated ourselves to jugo de caña and watching taffy being made. True to tradition, we like to find and try local brews in the cities we visit, we ended the evening with delicious beer from a local microbrewery, Stray Dog Brewery. 

Day 2 brought adventure #2- white water rafting with Geotours. While we had signed up for the whole day of rafting, the river was too rough, so we were taken on the half day course, which promised class IV and IV+ rapids. The water was cooooolllldddd but after a few minutes of intense paddling we were warmed up and had a great time!

That evening, we felt we’d earned a real treat and Ponche Suizo had just the thing- their special Ponche Suizo hit the spot!

Baños is also well known for its thermal baths and massages, though we didn’t try either.

All in all, while the town/city of Baños is nothing special in itself and can seem extremely touristy with not much to do, given its proximity to the Amazon its a great spot to get your fill of outdoor stuff- biking, hiking, white water rafting; with the occasional affordable zip-line and bridge jump thrown in!

Two days in Quito- in and around the city

Our trip to Ecuador made me want to start this blog. It was planned fairly spontaneously and the plan was to improvise  as we travel through the country, so it gave rise to lots of opportunities worth blogging about!

Day 1 was a big shock to the system. As soon as we landed, we realized that English is not spoken very widely. We had to quickly start thinking and talking only in Spanish. Learn a little Spanish– this will be my advice for people planning to go to Ecuador. It will change your experience completely.

Flights into Ecuador from the US all land late, around midnight. The drive from the airport to the city is almost an hour. By the time we completed immigration and took a taxi to Quito it was almost 3 am. People fear being cheated by taxis, but all our rides were safe.

In the morning after breakfast we headed to the Equator! Mitad del Mundo is about an hour from Quito by local buses. It’s a bit touristy but definitely worth a visit. You get to see the north-south divide and experience strange phenomenon like balancing eggs on a pin and watching the flow of water reversing itself. Rest of the “amusement park” is just about OK. The museum in the tower is quite interesting and gives a nice overview of the different regions of Ecuador and it’s native folk.

That evening we decided to take the gondola (or Telefirico) to one of the attractions in Quito, their local mountain, Pichincha. The views from the top are spectacular but be prepared for rarefied air because you were at the height of 14,000 feet. It was also our chance to meet up with college friends Enrique and Cynthia who are Quito locals.The walk was refreshing even with the rarefied air and catching up with friends is always great fun.

Since it was around Christmas time, there was a Christmas fair/market at the top of El Panecillo. Convinced it would be a quintessential Quito experience, and since the traffic leading up to the top was horrible, we decided to walk all the way up. While it is quite a climb to the top, the market and the view were definitely worth it.6.jpg1.JPG

We tried interesting local treats, including banana stuffed with cheese and chocolate, and had our first taste of Canelazo, which immediately became our favorite drink in the country and we drank it at every opportunity we got, over the next few days!

Day 2 was about exploring Old Quito, again with Enique and Cynthia, who, once they decided we were alright to spend time with, volunteered to show us around. We’ve said it before and will do so again, seeing a new city with a local completely changes the experience and is absolutely recommended!

Enrique took us to his art studio/workshop/music venue: Casa del Art, before we started the tour around town. They have some very interesting art pieces! Unfortunately they didn’t have a concert planned, but there’s hopefully a next time..1.jpg

We began with Iglesia de San Francisco, a a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex in old Quito, which houses the city’s beloved Virgin of Quito. While imposing from the outside, it was gorgeous inside!4.jpg3.jpg

Lunch was Equadorian fare in the picturesque Vista Hermosa, overlooking the beautiful city.2.jpg

We ended our tour of the Old town in La Ronda neighborhood- it used to be infamous back in the day, though now it has been cleaned up and has lots of chique cafes and bars.3.JPG

Having spent all day in Old Quito made us curious to see what the new part of the city was like. So we ended the day in Plaza Foch, the center of La Mariscal, the subsection of New Town, with a dense concentration of clubs, bars, restaurants, Internet cafes, and backpacker hotels – the area is informally referred to as Gringolandia because of its popularity with tourists. Our local guides had left us by now- this was too touristy even for them!  2.JPG

As advertised, it was full of tourists and could very well be a main street in any American town, so after the mandatory photo, we headed back, to rest our tired feet and prepare for our next destination in Ecuador- Baños!

 

Captivating Copenhagen! 2 days in the snowy city.

Copenhagen in February isn’t necessarily the best idea- but when its an all-expenses paid work trip that last 3 days but involves 2 hours of real work, how can one refuse!

Checking into the hotel that had been booked by our collaborators was quite interesting. I was a poor graduate student, dressed for comfort (and the cold) in jeans and a T-shirt and there I was, at the reception desk of the Copenhagen Admiral hotel- needless to say, it felt pretty good!d13.jpg

The King’s gardens, botanical gardens and Newhavn (the IT street in Copenhagen) were all covered with snow so not very busy.d1.jpgd2.jpg

The observatory did provide beautiful panoramic views of a city shrouded in white and the stock exchange with its crocodile tails reaching up to the grey sky was pretty impressive.

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Got a special treat when we saw the royal entourage and the queen at the Parliament house! The palace itself wasn’t as impressive unfortunately.d5.jpgd7.jpgd6.jpg

Living with and being shown around by a local is a great way to really get to know the place. I was lucky to have the wonderful Karen to show me around her hometown- Copenhagen, including the cute apartment she bought and currently lives in and her parents’ house where we spent the weekend.d14.jpg

The new Opera house on the water had just opened and we watched a symphony there that night, though jet lag is cruel- and I had to struggle to stay awake towards the end despite the music being good.d8.jpg

Despite running the risk of coming off as too much of a tourist, we had to make the mandatory pitstop to see the little mermaid (and sing the songs from the Disney film whilst there :P).d11.jpg

The Frederiksborg palace was beautiful, outside and inside and we paid homage to Hans Christian Andersen and his genius!d10.jpgd12.jpg

While most of what I saw was covered in snow, and not to say that snow isn’t pretty; I have been given to understand that visiting Copenhagen in the summer is a completely different experience- I can’t wait to go back!

24 hours in Marrakesh 

Our whole trip was planned around visiting the African continent. Marrakesh was our gateway to Africa and in spite of its proximity to Europe, it is worlds apart.

The action in Marrakesh is all around the medina. We stayed in one of the riads in the medina (Riad Azalia) and we would strongly recommend it.

Djamaa el fna is bursting with energy throughout the day. It starts building up slowly during the day with a few street vendors selling snacks and juice. 

During the day we visited the Bahia palace and Madrasa. Both are spectacular in terms of brilliance of architecture.

We also walked around in the medina and souks, bargaining and haggling our way to some good shopping deals.

As the heat subsides the square transforms into a market, street theatre and food court all at once. Eat at the food stalls but be prepared to be assaulted by the vendors trying to get your attention and business. It’s almost too much and not everyone’s cup of tea, but worth experiencing. Just be sure that you keep track of what you eat- they might try to overcharge you at the end of the meal- don’t hesitate to argue!

With an idea of what we were in for, for the next few days in the new country, we headed out of Marrakesh the next morning, for our road trip in Morocco!

With just 24 hours in Marrakesh, here are some things are should definitely be on the itinerary:

1. Visit Djemma el Fna and walk through the medina and souk

Djemma el Fna is the main square in Marrakesh. It’s where the shops, food stalls are. While its fairly quiet during the day, it comes to life as the sun goes down! Food stalls, shops, dancers, henna artists, snake charmers- you name it and you’ll find it here!

2. Visit the Bahia palace

While extremely touristy, it is quite pretty inside and worth a visit. Most of the boards inside are in French, so if you don’t speak it, download Google translate offline- it makes the visit a little more meaningful.

3. Visit Madrasa Ben Youssef

It can be tricky to find, but it is worth the effort. Once the largest madrasa in Africa, it is still beautiful, though not in use any more.

‘You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded’ reads the inscription over the entryway.

4. Try tajine

It is ubiquitously available, and is delicious!

5. Drink (lots of) mint tea

It seems counter-intuitive to drink hot mint tea in the heat, but it is amazingly refreshing! Served sweetened or unsweetened (on request) it is wonderfully aromatic and works brilliantly as a pick-me-up! Plus, the tea pots are so pretty!

A night, and a day, in Fes

Fez (or as the locals call it: Fes) was the second city we decided to visit in Morocco. Read about our drive to Fes from Ouzoud Falls in our post here.

Although we spent barely 24 hours here, we learnt some valuable life lessons that we hope will help future travelers to Fes, freak out a little less!

1. The alleys of the old town are scary, dark and narrow, but people seem to be basically honest.

We got in to Fes fairly late so had to wander about after 10pm, looking for a place to eat. While the walk to the first open restaurant we found, was uneventful, we did get lost getting there so it felt like it took forever. When it was time to head back, we were all already on edge, and the dark made the unfamiliar streets look even more sinister. On the narrow unlit alley leading to the palace complex, we were followed by two young men, who looked like they were up to no good (in hindsight- they were probably regular looking guys, but at the time…). They barely spoke, but the fact that we were being followed into a dark, blind alley did nothing to ease our anxiety. While our friends battled with the door (we had 12 keys to try to find the one that fit, in the dark, with hands that shook), the two of us figured we’d find out what they wanted. After a few heart-pounding moments, in which we asked them what they wanted and one of them just smiled (i was convinced this was the end…) it turned out that all they wanted was a private spot, since they had a couple of girls in the car parked at the end of the lane. Perhaps in a different, more familiar place, we would’ve shrugged off the entire incident, our inherent dread heightened the drama of the whole situation to epic proportions! So the bottomline is – try not to be afraid and believe in the basic honesty of people, before assuming the worst. While I’m not saying don’t be careful- thats definitely top priority, perhaps don’t exaggerate the danger of the place, just because it is new.

2. When looking for a guide for the city, do NOT choose the first local who offers his services.

Most guide books recommended engaging a guide for a few hours, to walk around the medina, they can be a great source of local stories and valuable tips. We’d also seen this in Marrakesh, so figured we’d maximize our time in Fes with a local guide. Unfortunately all the contacts of our host were busy for the day, so we decided to walk out on our own. We were stopped a few feet from the Riad by a man offering his services as a guide- promising to show us the sites. While he was hard to understand, we thought we would manage and were lucky to find him. 15 minutes into our walk with him, it slowly dawned on us that we were being led around by a local, who probably knew nothing about the history of the place, but knew the streets and figured it was a good chance to make a quick buck. While he probably would’ve taken us to the market eventually, we didn’t wait to find out. Thanking him halfway we let him go and found our own way to the main street. There, we tagged along with a legitimate guide from the Dream Sahara Group , after we politely told him our sob story, and it was very gratifying! We learnt all about the market and city, and the kind tour group leader (Ismail Ingrioui) and guide didn’t accept a single dirham in the end. Moral of the story: find a real guide and make your visit to Fes really worth it!2.JPG

That being said, we had a great time and here are a few things we did, and one could do, with just one day in Fes.

1. Drive through Atlas mountains

While the drive from Ozoud Falls to Fez is long (~6 hours) it provides some spectacular views of the high Atlas mountains.1b.JPG1.JPG

2. Stay in a palace

Airbnb offers some very interesting options- including the opportunity to stay in a palace on its way to being completed restored and opened to the public. We stayed at the Mokri Palace, which is on its way to being completely restored by Yousef, the current heir. Definitely a highlight of our trip!2.JPG4.JPG3.JPG

3. Walk the medina and get lost

Walking in Fez medina is an experience, not to be missed, but not for the faint hearted. As with most medinas in Morocco, it is narrow and busy, but the wares on display are fascinating and it is a real effort to keep from buying anything. Food, clothes, brass wares, leather goods, they have it all! It begins at the Blue gate and keeps going..14.JPG7.JPG9.JPG8.JPG

4. Oldest library in world

While not yet open to the general public, it is quite awesome to be in the proximity of the oldest library in the world, carrying books from the early 9th century! Read more about it here. We were a few months too early so couldn’t go in, but even standing outside and peaking through the bars was very exciting!6.JPG5.JPG

5. Take a break at Cafe Clock

After a long and hot trek through the madina, Cafe Clock sits right by the old water clock and offers a haven in which one can sit, eat and look upon the skyline of the city (and they have free Wifi!). Their iced mint lemonade is perfect for parched throats and their food is delicious!10.JPG11.JPG12.jpg13.JPG

Fes is a fascinating city, make the most of it!

1.jpgHow often do you find a city with both, Berber and Arabic signs!

2 days in Lisboa: explore and eat!

Lisbon or as it is affectionately and officially called, Lisboa, has become one of our favorite cities in Europe. We talk a lot about ‘feeling the vibe’ or ‘not feeling the vibe’ of a city and for Lisboa we felt the vibe, oh yes!

We got to Lisboa early in the morning after our overnight bus right from Algeciras (Spanish port near Gibraltar) via Sevilla (Spain). We got dropped at the Oriente bus station and took an Uber to our hostel, Travellers House.2.JPGIf you like hostels and don’t mind sharing the room with random people, we recommend Travellers House. It has a very cool, chic feel and the people running it are passionate locals who organize daily activities for the inhabitants, and are willing, and more than happy, to help you plan your own trips. We got some great recommendations from them!

We spent 2 days in Lisbon (no surprises there) and can’t wait to go back! Here are the top 5 things to do in and around Lisbon.

1. Take a free walking tour

Its a great way to get a feel for the city and all its neighborhoods so that it doesn’t seem too unfamiliar when you go exploring on your own later. And if it involves drinking Ginjinha on the way, ever better!

2. Visit Belem

See the Palace, tower, explorers’ monument (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) and eat pastels!b1.JPGb2.JPGb3.JPGb4.jpg

3. Day trip to Sintra & the Westernmost point of Europe (Cabo de Roca)

A 45 minute train ride away, Sintra is a magical palace with fairytale castles and totally worth a visit. Cabo de Roca is windy and cold, but beautiful and its quite cool to be at the Westernmost point of Europe.s1.JPGs2.JPGs3.JPGs4.jpg

4. Eat a pastel de nata- for breakfast, lunch and dinner

They’re delicious and ubiquitous! With coffee, they are just perfect.

5. Watch/experience a Fado

While if it is performed in a large impersonal setting, a Fado might feel like any other musical performance, in a language you may not understand. But, in an intimate setting, where you can feel the vibrations from the guitars in the planks of the floor below your feet and almost can taste the singer’s tears, it is a completely different experience. The singers normally have powerful, beautiful voices and it is a pleasure to be part of the journey that they take their listeners on.

And while you do all of the above, eat some (or a lot of) seafood! (And drink the cheap, but delicious, local wines)c1.JPGc2.JPGc3.JPGc4.JPG

Barcelona, parte dos: 24 hours in the city!

Second visit to Barcelona- though this time only for 24 hours. Joined the wife who was already in town for the ESID conference, before we headed to Morocco and Portugal.
Getting from the airport to downtown was super easy. Take the aerobus from either Terminal to Placa Catalunya which is the last stop. There are buses every 5-10 mins all day long and costs 6€ so not very expensive. The train is another option and is slightly cheaper.

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In keeping with our custom of checking out microbreweries in every city we visit, we started the evening at a local microbrewery – Moritz. Decent beer and tapas.2.JPG

We got lucky because this was also the week of La Merce festival. It is an annual festival that celebrates one of the patron saints of Barcelona – virgin Mary the merciful. There were events planned throughout the city, ranging from parades with giants to music and folk dancing. Just made our walk around the neighborhood more interesting.3.jpgRead more about our experiences at La Merce festival in our blog post dedicated exclusively to it!

We decided to take a walking tour through the El Gothic neighborhood. Alex from Travel bound Barcelona free walking tours, was our guide and did a great job explaining the history of Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain.

We met at Travel Bar, neat little place to meet fellow tourists, talk travel and get coffee or beer.

We started along Las Ramblas which was once a river of refuse outside the city walls. It also has one of three Miro art pieces welcoming those who came by sea.

El Gothic was part of the original city called Barcino that was occupied by the Romans. Some of the roman ruins are still visible. Walking past Cathedrals we learnt about the Spanish Civil War and the impact it had on the world and Spain itself. You also see a snap shot of the political situation involving an independent Catalonia with flags flown to show their support.

We also learnt about an extremely unusual Christmas tradition, practiced only in Catalonia!

Next we decided to visit Park Guell. Take the metro to Licepps and then walk for about 15 min. There are clear signs and when in doubt follow the crowds. To not waste time at Park Guell buy your tickets online. We took the guided tour and would recommend doing it. Gaudi was a genius and there are many details that could be missed without the experts.

After the park we revisited the Sagrada Familia. There seemed to be progress after 3 years but you can see how its many many years to completion.7.JPG

No trip to Barcelona is complete without sangria and paella.5.JPG6.JPG

Us with the second Miro piece at the airport. Check it out at terminal 2.4.JPG

A taste of Morocco and Portugal, in 8 days

With about 10 days to travel, starting in Barcelona, we decided to attempt to see Morocco and Portugal, one for its exotic and unexplored nature and the other for the food, wine and castles! As far as our trips go, this was probably one of the most ambitious, therefore punishing, itineraries we have come up with.

While future blog posts will describe, in more details, the individual cites explored, this is a brief description of what we decided to put ourselves through, how we managed it and loved (almost) every moment! Below is what our final plans looked like.

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Here’s how we actually accomplished it:

Barcelona – Marrakesh: Flight, Ryanair, $41.50/head, 2 hours.

Rented a car in Morocco: $200 for 3 days, approx. $60 for gas.

Marrakesh – Fes, via Ouzoud falls: 9 hours. Great views of the High Atlas mountains, though try and get to Fes before full dark, the roads are not always well lighted.

Fes – Chefchaouen: 4 hours. This time we crossed the Rif mountains, which were different, but no less beautiful.

Chefchaouen – Tangier airport: 3.5 hours. Not so scenic, but it was a means to an end. One thing to be very careful of is the port in Tangier where the ferry is from. Tangier has 2 main ports, one in the city and the other, Tangier Med, an hour away!

Tangier airport – Tangier Med: Frantic taxi ride, $40, probably overpriced but we were fairly desperate!

Tangier Med – Algeciras: Ferry, FRS $30/head. Crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and set eyes upon the Rock!!

Algeciras port – Lisbon: Bus, Alsa $80/head. The bus station was right at the port and the bus arrived right on time. The first bus took us to Seville, where we had 1.5 hours to wander around and get something to eat (and drink). The next bus took us directly to Lisbon.

Uber has come to Portugal and for more than two people traveling together, it is often cheaper to get an Uber instead of taking public transport- something we learnt over the course of the 3 days there.

Lisbon – Sintra: Train, CP $2.10/head one way. In Sintra, we walked around and took Uber to the Pena Palace: $8-10 from the center, compared to $5/head, one way, in a tuk tuk or $5/head, return, for the bus.

Sintra – Cabo de Roca – Cascais beach: Instead of waiting for a bus to take us to the rock and another to take us to Cascais, we took Uber, and asked the driver to wait while we took photos at the Western-most point in Europe. The whole trip cost $35, which worked out only about $3 more than it would’ve if we had taken the buses, and saved us a lot of time, which we had precious little of to start with, anyway!

Lisbon – Porto: Train, $25/head return, Booking the tickets in advance helped with the lower price.

Finally, Lisbon city – airport: MyTaxi (another taxi app, which lets you reserve a cab in advance). My flight to Barcelona was at 6.30am so it was too early to take the Metro, which starts around 8am.

So, it is definitely doable, if 6 hours of sleep are about enough and the hunger to see and do more remains alive! At the end of a very long week, we had taken all possible modes of transport, seen and done things we hadn’t even imagined, and still didn’t think that we had had enough!

 

 

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