Czech Republic beyond Prague: Plzeň & Český Krumlov

While Prague is undoubtedly an important city to visit in the Czech Republic, smaller cities/towns around are also charming, have interesting sites and great food and beer!

We spent a day in Plzeň and another in Český Krumlov, and would definitely recommend both for day trips out of Prague.

Pilsen (Plzeň) is about 1.5 hours outside Prague and is home to the famous Pilsner beer, brewed by Pilsner Urquell Brewery, specializing in bottom-fermented beer since 1842. Being beer aficionados, it was impossible not to visit the city!

With about half a day in Pilsen, a few must-dos include:

Pilsner Urquell Brewery: visit the brewery to soak in the atmosphere! We did not take the tour, but if this is the first brewery you have visited, the tour is supposed to be quite informative and fun. Definitely go to the beer hall and drink a beer (or two)! We tried the regular Pilsner and a dark, stronger beer called Master. They were both delicious!

The brewery is connected to the town by a footbridge and clearly marked walking path, making is very convenient. Park in the brewery, and after a few beers wander into the town!

Pilsen has a small but pretty city center. It is famous for the colorful and highly decorated facades of the houses that line the street.

The cathedral of St. Bartholomew is an imposing Gothic church right in the main square. Probably established in 1295 it is home to the statue of the  “Madonna of Pilsen” which is considered to be a European masterpiece and the town’s most treasured artifact. A replica of the statue can also be found outside the church.

Pilsen is also where the third largest synagogue in the world can be found, the first two being the ones in Jerusalem and Hungary.

Having built up an appetite, feast on local specialties, washed down with delicious beer! Read more about the great Czech food we tried here.

We couldn’t squeeze it in, but a walking tour of the city will be a great way to get to know the place better and learn more about all the interesting stories!

Český Krumlov: After spending a few days in Prague, we drove to Český Krumlov. Although it is about 4 hours away, the route is very scenic, making the drive fun. 

Move over Shah Rukh Khan, there’s a new hero in town!

The city (or town) is picturesque and small enough that nothing is more than a 15 mins walk away. The center is also clearly signposted (the red and blue strips below) so its difficult to get lost.

Spend the time walking around and marveling at the views, which get better at every bend in the road!

Although not as large or imposing as the castle in Prague, the castle in Český Krumlov is pretty and steeped in history, so it is definitely worth paying visit to it.

Also, they have a real live bear in the moat outside!

The walk to the top is hard work, but the views make it worth the effort. Also the gardens are quite pretty!

Having thus built up a thirst (and an appetite) walk over the the Eggenberg brewery. They have delicious, refreshing beers, and the food is pretty good too!

As night falls in the city, the lights add to the beauty of the place. Do continue to wander even after dark- the starry sky and soft music played in the main square, make it a very romantic setting!

The great little apartment we found on Airbnb and our wonderful hosts definitely enhanced the experience! Check out the place we lived in here.

While visiting the big, well known cities is definitely a great experience, exploring smaller towns that are off the beaten path, makes it a more ‘real’, less touristy experience, giving the visitor a real feel for the place and the wonderful people living there!

2 days on the Amalfi Coast

From Florence, we headed south to continue our Italian adventure. Being brave, we rented a car a drove from Florence, through Naples all the way to Sorrento.

A word of caution: for those used to driving in the US or in most of the other parts of Europe, the streets of southern Italy may not be for you. Traffic rules don’t always apply, people will cut in front of you, there is minimal lane discipline- though as long as you keep your cool and remain brave, you should be fine!

We broke journey in Pompeii to explore the city, read more about it in our post about one of Europe’s most compelling archaeological sites.

Pompeii to Sorrento was a very scenic drive, offering gorgeous views of the Italian coast. Be prepared for windy, single-lane roads, which provide the perfect excuse to drive slowly and soak up the views! Definitely recommend it- as long as you dont have a deadline to get anywhere.

With 2 days to spend along the Amalfi Coast here’s what we would recommend: (for what to eat while here, check out our post here)

Day 1: Day trip to Capri

Ferries ply to and from Capri fairly frequently from Sorrento harbor, as well as from Positano and Amalfi. Sorrento to Capri took 30 mins and offered gorgeous views of the majestic Mount Vesuvius.

Street art in Sorrento city center
Sorrento harbour
Capri!

 

On Capri, boat trips to the blue grotto are plentiful, and as touristy and unappealing as they might appear, they are worth the time, especially if the blue grotto is open to visitors. We werent as lucky, the tides werent in our favor, though the trip around the island was very scenic and fun in itself.

The green grotto
Beautiful corals
Impressive stalactites
The dramatic Faraglioni (the three towering rocks)

 

If the waters look tempting- go for a swim! How often do you get a private (almost) beach with a view like that 🙂

Besides the port of Capri, which is bustling and busy, the peak of Monte Solaro offers great views of the island. You can get to it by walking up, there are fairly clearly marked steps  that take you all the way up. It is a tiring climb in the sun, but the views make it worth the effort! You can also get to it by chairlift from Marina Grande. Piazza Umberto offers plenty of opportunities to slake the thirst developed on the climb up!

With the long summer days, there is enough time and daylight to walk around Sorrento city center even after the boat back from Capri. The city has two main streets, lined with restaurants, bars and lemon shops!


Day 2: Drive along the coast, Positano & Amalfi

If you have a car, the drive from Sorrento all along the coast, through the small coastal towns, including Positano and Amalfi should definitely be done. With no car, buses run between the towns and also use the coastal road, so offer the same views, without the anxiety!

Positano: The town has more stairs than streets, so be prepared! It is a quaint little town, so do spend the 1-2 hours wandering around. If its warm, perhaps even go for a short swim!

The Grotto delo Smeraldo (Emerald grotto) can be another pit stop. Between Positano and Amalfi, you could get to it either by road or by boat from Positano or Amalfi. Worth a quick stop, especially if you havent been inside the blue grotto, it is also cheaper than the blue grotto and access to it doesnt depend on the tides.

Amalfi: While only 20km away from Positano, driving to Amalfi takes about 45 mins. Amalfi was bigger than Positano, but no less quaint. Also since the sun had finally come up, it was the much awaited beach stop! The restaurants that line the beach look touristy and expensive, but are not! For 20EUR, we had a bottle of wine and a meal for two, and access to a private beach, and beach chairs! Worth it, we would say!

If you can manage it, take the boat back to Sorrento. Driving back will take you along the same roads with their ocean views, but the boat provides a whole new vantage point and the towns perched precariously on the hills, make for great sights.


While, as with most places, there is enough to do for a week along the Amalfi coast, two days were just about enough to give us a taste of what the place had to offer and leave us wanting more!

Picturesque Plitvice National Park 

From the title of this blog post, it is evident that this place is gorgeous!

Walk around the park, admire the breathtaking views and waterfalls- there really isn’t much else to do. So without wasting too much time on words, we will let the photos speak for themselves and describe the park as we saw it!

Duck face selfie with a real duck- check!

Tales of the traveling sandals!
Reflections, or is the world upside down?!

Needless to say- we were thrilled with what we saw! If you visit Croatia this is a must!

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!

 

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

Day trip from Cartagena: Volcan de Totumo 

Volcan de Totumo is a day trip from Cartagena. It is highly reviewed and recommended in TripAdvisor and other travel sites, so it first came across as a tourist trap. We resisted but in the end were very happy we tried it out. Let me start by saying it is touristy but well worth the experience.

Approximately a one hour drive from Cartagena, the “volcano” is a giant mound of mud. It is claimed that the mud has therapeutic qualities and hence is very popular. You have to climb up a few steps and then down into the mud using the ladder.  The locals help you into the “volcano” and offer massages. May sound creepy but it isn’t and they just help cover your body with mud. You can choose to decline and spend time on your own, like we chose to do. The feeling of weightlessness you experience is unique and for us the most exciting part of the day. The mud pit is quite deep and even though your feet never reach the bottom, you stay afloat and bob around. Great fun!

We were lucky it wasn’t very busy and so got a little more time in the mud. The locals limit the amount of time to keep crowds moving so recommend going early in the day. The locals also clean you up as you leave the mud pit in order to preserve the amount of mud. You can see clearly that the levels have reduced over the years.

IMG_9646

Once you leave the “volcano”, time for cleanup. Nothing can prepare you for the thorough cleanse the local ladies will give you to clean all the mud of you. They walk you down to the river and may even pull your swim gear off. Just soak in the experience 🙂

IMG_9652

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: