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!

Street art in Florence

Florence is a great city to walk around. Besides all the conventional art and architecture, which in itself is extremely abundant and awe-inspiring, there are hidden treasures which make exploration by foot even more interesting. One such under-appreciated, and largely unknown treasure is the creative street art by the local artists Clet and Blub.

Clet

Observe the stop and no entry signs and you will notice each one has some graffiti / modifications. Only after a few did we realise that it is a pattern and indeed art, by the local artist Clet Abraham. While some see his work as defacing public property, others view it as contemporary art, which reflects a modern Florence. Either way, it was fun tracking the signs through the city! We even came across Clet’s studio where you can buy some of the stickers and signs. You can follow Clet on Facebook or Instagram

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Blub

Blub’s art is called L’Arte sa Nuotare which means ‘Art knows how to swim’. His aim is to make art more accessible and he achieves this by taking famous pieces of art, literally, for a swim. That’s why famous statues from Boticelli or Michaelangelo can be seen in water tanks and scuba gear.  His pieces are all over the city as well, in some of the most unexpected places. You can follow Blub on Facebook and  Instagram

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Clet with his famous road signs

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Girl with pearl earring, out for a swim!
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Sandro Botticelli holding Cosimo the Elder
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Other, less known, street artists also can be found all over the city. Truly, Florence itself is an open air art museum!

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!

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!

Hidden labyrinths around San Francisco

Looking for something to do off the beaten path in the San Francisco Bay Area? If you don’t mind short hikes there are hidden labyrinths worth visiting in Oakland and San Francisco. Both are true labyrinths i.e. only one path to the center rather than a maze, which offers several choices. Read on!

Labyrinth at Lands End, San Francisco 

One of the best kept secrets in San Francisco is the Lands End hike. A mostly flat hike, you start from the Sutro Baths area in Golden Gate Park. It’s amazing that even though this place is so easily accessible from within city limits, not many people know about it.

Follow the coastal trail signs. Along this well marked, paved trail and you get great views of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.

After following the trail for about an hour, mostly along the ocean, you will see stairs that take you closer to the ocean. If you don’t see signs for the Labyrinth, follow the crowd.

The labyrinth itself is man-made and can be slightly underwhelming. It has been destroyed a few times but people have collected the stones and reassembled it. Just for kicks, try to get to the middle of it. We did 🙂 The view of the ocean and bridge, especially around sunset is stunning and well worth the walk.

Labyrinth at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland 

A short drive from downtown Oakland gives you access to many regional parks like Tilden (Berkeley) and the Sibley Volcanic Preserve. It is one of the East Bay Regional Park District’s oldest parks and is best known for the mysterious labyrinths that have appeared at the bottom of the quarry canyons.

Drive up to the parking lot and pick up a brochure/map. We took the Round Top Loop Trail which is a self guided trail with notes on the volcanic history of the reserve and of course, the labyrinth.

The trail isn’t very steep. After 2-3 miles you come to a view point where you can see the labyrinth below. You can take the detour along a narrow path to reach the labyrinths. It is called the Mazzariello labyrinth, named after the East Bay resident who created it in 1989.

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The labyrinth itself is easy, but there is a certain pleasure in discovering these hidden treasures!

Intrepid travelers: road tripping in Morocco!

Our first real adventure in the continent of Africa and we coundn’t be more excited for it!

After a hectic 24 hours in Barcelona, we flew to Marrakesh on Ryanair, at 7.30am to make the most of our first there in the new country. At $45/seat, it was a steal! A quick 2 hour flight later (Morocco is 1 hour behind Spain), we were in Africa! Disembarking from the plane, directly onto the runway (!) we could walk right up to the terminal building.1.JPG

The heat was almost tangible as it settled on us, giving us a taste of what the next few days would be like. The Riyad (hotel) had arranged for someone to pick up us- which is recommended, since with the number of people offering taxis right outside, you’re never sure where you will be taken and how much it’ll end up costing you once you get there!

We spent the day in Marrakesh, the experience was an assault to all senses- it was hot, loud, smelly, bright and colorful – and reminded us strongly of home! The people did not leave you alone for a moment- there was always someone to sell us something or direct us to the next tourist spot, or just to ask if we were from India and say Namaste! More about Marrakesh here.
The next morning, we were driven back to the airport where we picked up our car for the next 3 days. While extremely cheap (we paid no more than $200 for 3 days), the car came with no frills, at all. The doors and windows were manual and there was no air-conditioning or GPS. Google maps also doesn’t let you download Morocco road maps offline, so this was going to be an extremely interesting few days. Also as we discovered very soon, while in theory all the roads are named or numbered on the map, there are almost no numbers on the road itself! Most of them are labeled with the next big city, so thats something to watch for as well. Finally, while we were happily using T mobile all over Europe, it isn’t free in Morocco, so no turn-by-turn navigation. Undaunted, we decided to drive around the country for the next 3 days! On the bright side, the roads in Morocco are good and well maintained, so it wasn’t a bumpy ride.

First stop- Ozoud Falls. They are the most photographed falls in the country and make a nice day trip from Marrakesh. Getting out of the city proved to be quite a task, there was the manual car to get used to, rules of the roundabouts to learn and lots of motorcyclists to avoid. Our brave and fearless driver rose nobly to the challenge and we left the city and reached Ozoud with no unpleasant events.2.jpg

The falls themselves are quite pretty and fairly touristy. We chose to look at them from the top only, instead of hiking to the bottom and taking Morocco’s version of the “Maid of the Mist” tour, since, as always, we were pressed for time. Lunch was delicious, in a small local restaurant. Read more about our food and drink in Morocco in our blog here.

Our next aim was to get to Fez, in one piece, and hopefully before nightfall. Our fairly smooth journey was interrupted just once, when we were pulled over by the local traffic police, for crossing a solid white line to overtake the slow car holding up our progress. While blogs from other tourists had warned us that the police tended to focus more on tourists, actually being pulled over was a completely different experience. We spoke no Arabic and only enough French to ask if they spoke English, so communication was minimum. They asked for our passports and the papers of the car (which we understood) and we sat with bated breath, awaiting our fate. This is one of the few times when the Indian passport has worked in our advantage- since on realizing that we were “Hindi” (the Arabic word for Indian), they disdainfully let us go, warning us not to do it again. I’m not sure how different things would’ve been, if we had had American or European passports, but I’m very glad we didn’t have to find out! Of course, we have no photos from our brief brush with the law, but I’m sure if we did, our faces would be quite a sight to behold!

Getting to Fez took us across the High Atlas mountains with spectacular views of verdant valleys and sandy brown mountains.3.JPG

By nightfall we were close enough fortunately and had only a long stretch on the well lit A-road (motorway with toll) so reached Fez in good spirits, around 9pm. The airbnb we had for the night was supposed to be a palace that was being restored by the current owner and finding it was another interesting task! When we finally did, it was at the end of a single lane, extremely windy road that would’ve been impossible to navigate without our host. After all the effort, it was totally worth it- the place was indeed a palace and we had an entire wing (the red palace) to ourselves! That night and the next day were an adventure of their own- read about it here.4.JPG

Chefchaouen, which is Berber for “look at the horns” since the mountain tops around the city look like goats’ horns, was the next destination and was a 4 hour drive away, so we left around 3pm from Fez, again to attempt to make it there before it got dark. The road leading out from Fez was a 1.5-lane state road, which meant when a vehicle approached us, the smaller of the two would have to drive onto the verge to let the other pass. This made for 1-2 unnerving hours of driving for our brave and fearless driver, but he manfully drove on. This time we cross the Riff mountains and saw vast stretches of darker mountains with taller darker trees- quite beautiful to behold.5c.JPG

We also had some interference from the local wildlife, but nothing much to worry about!5.JPG

Our first sighting of Chefchaouen, disappointingly did not show an entirely blue city, but it was pretty nevertheless, nestled in the middle of towering mountains.6.JPG

In the evening, exploring the old city gave us our fill of blue-ness of Chefchaouen.7.JPG

Our final long drive was to Tangier airport, and was the least picturesque of the drives. A great breakfast of the local goat’s cheese and bread made up for it a little!

The roads, as we had seen so far, were quite good, with long stretches of highway that allowed us to reach our destination well on time. Tangier airport was a surprise- it was so windy that it was quite difficult to stand up straight, handling any luggage was another challenge altogether! Here, we returned the car, bid good bye to our faithful companion of the past 3 days and took a cab to the port to get on the ferry to Algeciras.8.JPG

This is where the next brief adventure began, since halfway to the port, we realized that the one we were headed to, wasn’t the one we needed. The boat to Algeciras was to depart from Tangier Med and that was 50km away from Tangier city, which was where we were! Our cab driver, fortunately (and after promising a payment of 40 Eur) agreed to take us there- thus our road trip continued!

The drive from Tangier to Tangier Med was along the coast and gorgeous!9.JPG

Relieved, and a little wrung out from all the adrenaline, we boarded the ferry to leave Africa and continue our explorations on the next continent!10.JPG

Morocco- you were beautiful, unexplored, unexpected, raw, exciting, exhausting, overwhelming and we loved every single minute!

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