Sunday, March 27, 2011

History time!

Overall a very fulfilling, history-rich day. We visited three different places today, two of which are UNESCO's world heritage sites! It's quite amazing to immerse yourself in history and different cultures just by driving 45 min from one place to another. From a 12th century Cisterian monastery, with original Order of the Temple marks all over the church walls, to a 2nd century Roman amphitheater, surprisingly well preserved considering its close proximity to the sea. I guess the Romans really knew what they were doing?
I love driving on the small, countryside roads, watching the rolling hills, scenery and the occasional church poking out from another small town as we drive by. The gentle sun, the warm air, the smells....Spain is so beautiful, so relaxing, so unpretentiously awesome. I am blessed to be here with my favourite person of all time!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Because it's...still my Birthday!

Still pretending as if it's my birthday-why not? One day is simply not enough. 
This morning I woke up in Valencia and here I am now, in a small suburbs of Tarragona, in a beautiful resort, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. After much driving, walking and becoming familiar with surroundings, finally I had a chance to just sit by the sea, listening to its roar, walking on the wet sand, looking at the lights of the water glistening in front of me. Spain is very sunny and getting warmer by the day.

Today went much more smoothly, to say the least: all you have to do is wake up, pack your things into the car that is already there and drive, on sunny, countryside Spanish roads... and here I am now, in the little suburb of an industrial port town of Tarragona, which is known for its rich Roman history of settlements and archeologic remains. I am quite excited to visit those tomorrow, as well as hopefully find one of the outdoor markets I have been longing for (as if Jemma al Fina in Marrakech wasn't enough, but they are always so different everywhere, you just have to experience them all!) Plus I only packed 2 pairs of shoes, hoping to buy wonderful new Spanish made leather somethings, and here I am.... still, almost shoe-less (in female terms!). So tomorrow, high hopes for sunny day, markets and lots of history and beautiful sites.
As far as today went, we drove into our magnificent resort (once again, I feel grateful for being a timeshare owner!), worthy of being compared to a 5 star Mexican one. We checked ourselves into this spacious 1 bedroom apartment, overlooking the sea, complete with a brand new kitchen, the kind I will never have in my apartment in Germany. The only downside? This town is swarmed with Russians! I mean, every third person is Russian. Not only is it a bit annoying, but also it makes this place lose some of its authenticity. I am still trying to understand why on Earth they chose this city as their “mecca”, but one thing for sure-wherever Russians are, they drive the prices of everything up!

That is why even to go out for dinner, we drove to the nearest town on Selou, only 10 min away, which had much nicer restaurants and more reasonable prices. We ended up deciding on this little Italian place which had, honestly, the best salad I had ever tasted in my life. I savoured my food while pouring away the strong half litre Sangria (a must with every mealin Spain), watching the pizza cook tossing the dough and working this huge oven. The night culminated with an evening walk at the sea shore and much giggling, to our neighbors' frustration! Ahh, life is good. Too bad one day here is gone already. I don't even want to think what I will do when this is over. But for now, life is blissful, careless and sweet.  

Well, I am off to bed in my new home for the next 7 days. And what a nice home it is! I love being a vacation owner :) Also, am getting quite efficient at this unpacking and packing procedure.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's my Birthday!

What a difference a year makes! Last year I was in familiar territory, surrounded by friends, overjoyed by the many wonderful, lavish gifts that had been bestowed on me.
And this year? No parties, no birthday cards, no boxes to open (well, I had been given my presents earlier, before we left for this trip!) and yet, I am in a place I love the most with my best friend in the world-mom. And I couldn't be happier, despite the little "bumps" on the road.

Ever since having booked the suspiciously cheap car online, I had been wary of the day we'd have to go and pick it up... And, having landed in Valencia past midnight last night, we had to reschedule the pick up for this morning, which meant early wake up and no shower, make up, or breakfast time. Of course, things didn't go all too smoothly with either picking up a rental car at the airport, or me trying to save money on taxis and taking the subway, which ended up costing at least half the fare. So, after a near mental breakdown as I was being convinced that Spain simply does not have automatic transmission cars, a miracle happened! Turns out my beloved agency SIXT recently opened a new outlet near, but not inside the airport terminal, thus not many people even heard of it. And what do you know, they had the best little automatic Hyundai I10 for us, for a very decent price. With that , following the well-known "to the beach!" motto, we drove straight on until the sea was within reach. At this point I was emotionally exhausted,  unshowered and hungry. It only took a short stroll by the beachside restaurants for us to, unanimously, pick the best one, with the whole 3-course meal and wine! There, I had finally begun relaxing and believing that indeed, this is my birthday and I am in the best place in the world for that. Later, we managed to effortlessly navigate ourselves to the little wonder I'd been dreaming about seeing: "the City of Arts and Sciences"- I mean, could it be any more perfect for me, considering my interests? Rhetorical question.

I cannot express the stunning beauty of the park's architecture and just how thoughtful every detail is. The pictures don't even do it justice. Unfortunately, we came too late to see anything inside, but I was quite content just to walk around and  take all of that in. Here's a glimpse of it:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sahara the beautiful

Sahara, the magical. This was truly an experince of a lifetime, as I am not sure whether and when I would return to the African continent. We had booked an overnight tour to the entrance into the Sahara desert. Even tnhough it was just the beginning of the desert trail, it still took over 8 hours of driving on mountain roads to get there. And believe me, it was well worth it. At first I was disappointed about arriving so late that we didnt get to watch the sunset in the desert camp, as we were on the camels, walking away from it, into the dark. Only then did I realize that its even more magical: absolute silence of the desert, monotone rocking of the camel and the dark blue sky above, shining with big, bright stars...

And now, having been to the desert, having bartered like “true berber women” at the Jemma Al Fina central marketplace in Marrakech, it is time to depart into a much more civilized and easy going Espana (I am talking aboiut the dress code, of course). I have had enough markets, enough busy, loud, honking streets, guys whistling and yelling everywhere you go and corners, smelling of urine. Its been nice, but 6 days is clearly enough for an introductions into Morroccan culture, considering we spent 3 of those in the mountains and desert.
High Atlas Mountains in the background

view of the camp in the morning
view on the drive into the desert

Friday, March 18, 2011


And so we are onto last day in Florence, having gotten so used to being next corner to the San Lorenzo market, 5 minute walking distance from the Duomo and all the main attraction sites, we were on our way to spend a day in Pisa before heading off to the magical, mysterious land of Morocco.
To be honest, there is so much going on every day, from visiting museums, to walking by the river at the timeless Pointe Vecchio, towards Michelangelo Piazza, then dinner with the Florentine steak (first time I had decent meat since Germany! ) and grilled vegetables...and before you know, you hit the bed, as your feet are killing you from the cobble streets, and you're off to the dream realm as the nighttime Italian street sounds are serenading you to sleep.
But there are a few things I have to mention:

1) It's really worth it to stay right downtown, the closer to the train station, the better. I lucked out and, after reading all the affordable hotel reviews, we booked this great one, called "Hotel Globus"- it was beyond the best! Like I mentioned, it took us less than 10 minutes to walk there from the train, so considering the cobble street damage to your suitcase wheels, I'd say every minute counts. Not only was it close and affordable, although the rooms were on the small side, (but we never came home before bed time anyways, why stay inside when you're in Florence?) but they also took our bags up the stairs for us and had one of the best free  breakfasts I ever had, where, when you ask for coffee, you don't get a cup of "drippy", you get a fresh-brewed half litre pot to yourself! with warm milk! They even printed our itineraries for us. I mean, beat that!

2) I was quite worried about the not getting into the museums without a reservation, but it turned out much easier than I'd thought and read online prior to. Most of the museums let us in right on the spot and the Ufizzi Gallery has a separate window for buying the reserved tickets for a specific time. We showed up around 11 and the next available tickets were at 1, so we had a few hours to walk by the river and see the smaller museum nearby. So unless you really know your schedule by the hour, I wouldn't bother buying tickets online prior to your trip.

3) Train transportation is the cheapest and easiest way to get from one tourist site to another, but don't bother with the rail passes, they usually don't pay off, unless you are travelling very long distances. I booked my tickets a few months in advance and there were a few discount offers going on at the time, so it's worth checking them out or even signing up for newsletters to track the ticket sales.

And, with that, here are some pictures:
Pointe Vecchio

A courtyard next to the San Lorenzo church

View from Piazza Michelangelo

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Florence, Day 2

You know you're in Italy when the bakery windows look like this...
...And people dress like this!
Laying in my bed, listening to the sounds of the street: merchants packing for the night and heading home, excited tourists sharing their stories of the day, crazy, loud, beautful Italians, whose language still sounds like a song to me. Every time I think that I will be leaving this wonderful place in 2 days, it makes me very sad that I will no longer hear the language of these happy, passionate people. I love it here.
in front of the Duomo

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bologna: Romeo and Juliet

Ever since stepping foot in this city, I promised to absolutely write about my experience here.
My guidebook mentioned Bologna as a "city with medieval charm and a gastronomical capital of Italy", but did not seem too keen on spending more than a day here. So, we'd booked a one night here, as it's on the way between Milan and Florence anyways. And what a plesant surprise it was! Bologna is truly a hidden gem. From the moment we checked into our historic hotel (Il Guercino, which I highly recommend), I felt like we traveled back a few hundred years to the times when Shakespeare was writing his great works. We found cute courtyards, amazing little stores and pleasant personal encounters;  you feel welcome and relaxed everywhere you go. I regretted spending 2 nights in Milan prior to that and not taking the train to Bologna that same night. What a difference a smaller city makes!

As soon as we stepped into the "inner city", armed with delicious fried sweet pastries drenched in honey, I literally felt the history in everything: buildings, walls, churches, main piazza. Despite being there for less than a day, we managed to walk most of the old town part of the city, climb the observatory tower (3 euros only, don't pass it up!), but... we did not find a suitable restaurant! Despite being labelled a gastronomical capital, an inviting, cozy restaurant with a good menu is difficult to find. I usually try to avoid obviously "tourist traps" and between that and endless pizzerias, there was really nothing else. It's a good thing we experimented and went into a deli, picked out some cheese (mostly talking in hand gestures) and porchetta (this roasted pork thing with herbs-it's to die for!). So, at the end of the night, as we finally found our way back to the hotel, picking up a few pastries, fresh bread and this delicious sparkling red wine (which I haven't been able to find since!) on the way, we've decided to settle for a dinner in the room quite, which mind you, turned out to be quite an array of delicacies!

Everything about Bologna impressed me: the old way of life, the attention to detail, evident in most things, the Italian authenticity...I highly recommend it a stop over with many things for any tourist to explore, whether you're staying for a day or getting lost in the culture for a few...

A random colorful street
The Royal Feast!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Milan, day 1

Let me start off with this: I am in my hotel room, with a balcony overlooking the secondary streets if Milan and straight into the windows if the unsuspecting residents across from me :)
I got here after 4 hrs of sleep, a short flight and many, many hours of sightseeing.

Impressions from today? Huge city, confusing bus/tram system, the only understandable way is to travel by the metro. Unfortunately, I had not checked how close our hotel is to a metro station and it turned out that... yes, there are none nearby! So the only way to get to the area, despite being just outside the inner city ring, it by taking  a wooden tram that looks like it had not had any renovations since 1920's.

Honestly, we went to Milan why most tourists go to Milan: to see the Duomo and the Galleria. And you know what, the Duomo exceeded my expectations by a 1000 and it is truly something that you just have to see in person. The extent of it, as you enter inside, will blow you away. Endless stained glass windows, sculptures and amazing marble columns everywhere, not to mention thew fact that it is a functioning church, so when we were there, I got to witness the people lining up to the confessions booth, some as young g as 20, which I've only ever seen in the movies before, like the Boondock saints!

Also, it turns out we got here just in time: Italy is celebrating its 150's birthday and we got to witness a very dysfunctional parade, as well as many fun costumes and hats, and people all in good spirits all around... One little downer? Eating out can get expensive and you really don't know how much everything costs exactly until they tell you and it often it feels like they just make the price in their heads!

And then... I had a chocolateria "incident", but I'll tell you about it later :)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Epic Europe trip!

The idea of an extensive trip through Europe didn't come all at once. Truthfully, I don't even remember how it happened anymore. All I know is, it somehow all fell into place, perfectly: my mom and I and at least 3 new countries! It started out with us booking the resort in Spain for a week since we own timeshares around the world. We knew that Italy had to be included, and seeing at least most of the northern-central part was a must. From there on, suddenly it was a choice between Egypt and South Africa, and I said: "If we're going to Africa, we're going to Morocco!". I had been fascinated with Arabic culture, from costumes, to traditions, to music, for a very long time now and the opportunity to experience it personally would just be over the top amazing! And, many weekends spent on trip planning and research later, which successfully kept the stress of homework and exam preparation away, here we were: embarking on our 3-week, 3-country majestic trip, knowing that only the best lies ahead.

Here's the itinerary:

Stuttgart-Milan (2 days) flight-->Bologna (train) 1 day--->Florence 3 days (train)-->Pisa 1day (train)--->

Marrakech, 6 days--->Valencia (2 nights)--->Tarragona (7 days)-->home (but I'm not thinking about that part yet!)