Epic Walk Around Rome, Part 2!

After making our way to the famous Coliseum we continued on past the Forum ruins, marveling at the blend of ancient and more recent architecture, plus a million statues of Caesar all mixed up together.

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We also stopped to see the “Cake Topper Building” as Amanda called it.  It’s actually the Monument to Victor Emanuel II, Italy’s first king.  Construction began after WWI and dragged on for a long time.  Most Romans unequivocally hate this gaudy, tacky building.  It doesn’t really fit in well with the ancient ruins surrounding.

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From the cake topper we could see the main square Piazza del Popolo where Mussolini delivered his speeches during his dictatorship…

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and a great view of the Coliseum and Forum.

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At this point, it was finally time for lunch.  That being said, I think a whole separate post will have to be used to describe all the amazing food eaten in Rome!  So stay tuned for that…

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The Trevi Fountain was under construction which made it a little harder to see.  Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain it means you’ll come back to Rome.  We didn’t get to throw any in since there was a fence up around it, but I hope I still get to come back!

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Gotta love hilariously translated signs!  We did our best to shout, squall, and sing our way up the Spanish Steps after reading this.

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Another beautiful fountain…

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Some more stopping in piazzas for intricate fountains and crowded people-watching.

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Another cool thing about the piazza fountains is that they all have pillars with Egyptian hieroglyphics sticking out the top.  These date back to the times when Cleopatra came to rome to marry Marc Antony.

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Next up!  The Pantheon!  It was founded between 25 and 27 BC and is the oldest surviving intact pagan temple.  It was dedicated to all twelve of the Roman gods and later converted into a Catholic church once Christianity took over.  To say it is impressive is an understatement.

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The afternoon ended up with more strolling through piazzas, some mucn needed gelato, and then dinner and wine with friends until late into the night.  The excitement got us through all of our jet lag and we had such a fun time exploring as a reunited group!

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Carrie’s Friend-ey Trip to Italia!

[Disclaimer: I apologize for having some trouble with photo uploading in this post.  Please CLICK on photos to make them bigger!]

Buongiorno!  Guess what?  I’ve been traveling across the pond again!  I never expected I would get back over to Europe so soon after our fall backpacking trip, but a combination of a friend studying in Rome plus a super-cheap-flight was too good to resist! Sadly, Zach couldn’t get out of work to join me for this one.  Instead my travel companions were Kelsey and Colton (a long-time friend and her awesome boyfriend).  Together we teamed up to find our mutual friend Amanda in Roma!  Having a friend already know the city and speak Italian made our trip so much easier!  We didn’t plan a lot ahead of time and relied on Amanda to show us the sights.  She was the best tour guide ever!  On our first day in the city, after sleeping off enough of our jet lag to be functional, she gave us a whirlwind, 22-mile walking tour of so many famous spots!

First we stopped at La Bocca della Verità (“the mouth of truth”), located outside the church Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  This ancient sculpture of the god Oceanus has been used as a “lie detector” since the Middle Ages.  Apparently if you tell a lie with your had in the mouth, the god will bite your hand off!  I don’t know, but I didn’t try it…

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This small church had some throw-backs to the pagan practice of skull-worshipping.  The supposed skull of Saint Valentine is even enshrined there!

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Next we climbed the Aventine Hill to Rome’s famous Orange Garden.  We found a great view of the city and the Tiber River (“Tevere” in Italian) up here!

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On top of the hill is Basilica di Santa Sabina, another small, old church with a beautiful pastel-colored ceiling.

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Also up there is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a UN-recognized sovereign state and the world’s oldest existing chivalrous order.  Woah!  I had never even heard of these guys, so learning the history was mind-boggling!  Rome has so many ancient secrets!  The Knights of Malta don’t allow visitors, so all you can do is peek through a tiny keyhole into the garden of their church headquarters, Basilica di Santa Maria del Priorato.  When you do, you get a very awesome and surprising view!

St. Peter’s Basilica seen through the Aventine Keyhole (Source: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite things about Rome was the super-old but still-maintained free water fountains all over the city.  Clean, fresh, cold aquifer water!  Amazing!

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Ice cream and snack trucks for tourists were also abundant.  (Sorry for the stupid spot on my lens in this photo!)

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Down the hill we went to the famous Circus Maximus chariot racetrack.  It’s basically just a field now.  We still had some fun reenacting the races.

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What would a trip to Rome be without the epic Colisseum?  It was thronged with tourists, of course, and we opted not to go inside.  The beast of a structure is definitely impressive enough from the outside!

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And with that, I’m only about halfway through our marathon Rome day, so check back tomorrow for the rest of day one!

Barcelona and Catalonian Independence

“Barthelona!!” we kept whispering excitedly with a lisp, the normal way of speaking in this part of Spain.  But this was not Spain, this was Catalonia.

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Fresh in the middle of a new independence battle, the people of Barcelona were proudly sporting their flag-striped shirts and we saw several rallies in the streets.  Apparently the public was very divided on the issue, polls showing an almost perfect 50/50 split.  There’s the obvious question of weather 51% is enough support to divide a nation, and opinions were free flowing, as was the wine.  The reasons why Catalans want to be there own country vary, but we gathered it has a lot to do with Catalonia bringing in a large percentage of Spain’s entire GDP.  There’s definitely a lot of regional pride.

We spent four days in Barcelona, walking everywhere and seeing very little of the huge city.  The food was amazing as was the wine, and we did a good job exploring the eating options.  The first day we had a fancy lunch at Michelin-starred Alkimia.  (Make reservations in advance.)  The “reinventing classic”-style food was amazing and gave Zach great inspiration to get back to work in San Diego.

After 9pm we would cruise the Gothic Quarter, scoping out new bars and tapas joints.  The city was bursting with nightlife, everyone out and about.

Jamon Experience

Jamon Experience. Slightly creepy but extremely Spanish.

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This is El Kiosco Bar, selling drinks and tapas into the friendly alleyway.

The Sagrada Familia, Casa Battló, and other works by Antoni Gaudi are scattered about the city.  Sagrada Familia, has been under construction since the 1880s.  We couldn’t afford to go inside, so maybe we will come back when it’s finished (if ever!)

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Sagrada Familia details

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The back of the massive church

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Casa Battló

At the top of a steep hill, the Parque Guell (also designed by Gaudi) features many great viewpoints over looking the entire city.  It’s also a great park to walk around and enjoy many talented buskers.

Parque Guell entrance

Parque Guell entrance

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A string performance in the park

A string performance in the park

View of Sagrada Familia from the hilltop

Since Barcelona was the end of our trip, we tried to soak up the relaxed Spanish culture as much as possible.  Wine was drunk, tapas were eaten, and many more beautiful streets were explored.  Returning home was bittersweet, but we know we found something special in Spain, and we’ll be back.

Granada, in the mountains of Spain

Granada is a magical place.  The castles, cobblestone streets, and snow-covered mountains enchant.  Not to mention the best thing ever, free tapas in all the bars!  Every time you order a glass of wine or beer, a new plate of food shows up.  We ate a lot of tapas – potato salad, “bacalao,” “jamon,” many varieties of charcuterie on bread, little fish… it was endless.  There are restaurants on every corner, and all are full late into the night.

The Spanish love going out; staying up late is part of the culture.  What happens is every day people wake up, and go to work at a normal time in the morning, then in the afternoon go home and take a “siesta.”  After some sleep, everyone goes out for tapas after 9pm and stays out until midnight (or later).  You finish the night with churros and hot chocolate, then wake up and do it all again.

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The food is good, the wine is good, the people are friendly.  Granada is a great place.

The main attraction in Granada is Alhambra, a super impressive fortress overlooking the city.  Originally built by the Moors, the complex was a palace for many sultans and kings of various empires.  All the walls are intricately carved in Islamic-style geometric patters which took centuries to complete.  It took many hours for us to explore the several different buildings, castles, sanctuaries, and colorful gardens.

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Another awesome place in Granada is the area Sacremonte.  Situated in the hills at the edge of the city, the neighborhood is a collection of houses built inside of caves.

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Occupied by a lot of gypsies and hippies, the houses are also home to many famous flamenco clubs. Flamenco in the streets

Flamenco in the streets

It’s also amazing how quickly you can leave Granada and be in the wilderness.  We walked from our hostel in the center to the caves in only 30 minutes, seeing nothing behind them but forest and the mountains in the distance.  Hiking, skiing, and many other outdoors adventures are in close proximity!  What’s not to love about it?

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                                                         Anti-bullfighting street art

Essaouira – Morocco’s Surfer’s Paradise

Essaouira, on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, is a popular destination for surfers, backpackers, and other laid back travelers.  The long, sprawling beach has good waves and surfboard rentals for cheap.  The Medina is much more manageable than in Marrakech but still has great souvenir shopping and some good local food.  The best food option is the coastal seafood stands where you literally take your pick from freshly-caught fish, shellfish, sea urchins, lobsters, you name it.  Zach loved it!

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Into Erg Chebbi

We took the early bus from Marrakech, the only one going all the way to the end of the road.  It started off easy, and soon we were making our way up the western side of the Atlas Mountains.  The mountains are impressive, with small villages terraced into the hillsides and many people selling fossils and cool rocks along the road.  The road was in great shape but it was kind of a scary ride with the clouds beneath us.  The bus driver had a few pretty sketchy passes on the switch backs; he wasn’t stopping for anyone.  Some of the highest peaks even had some early snow cover.

On the back side of the mountains we passed through a lot of small villages with square houses made of mud and straw.  They blended right into the natural landscape, which by now was straight desert.  We had made it to the Sahara!!!  Soon we were passing through Ourzazate, famous for the filming of many desert movies including Lawrence of Arabia.  By now there were a lot of the Berber people around, dressed in their standard long robes.  They all had pointed hoods to block the sun that made them look a little like wizards.  Historically nomadic, the Berbers used to roam back and forth through the Sahara from Morocco to Yemen, but now modern borders restrict their movements.

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The landscape became more and more barren with oases popping up along the way, always with an accompanying village.  We saw signs warning about camels crossing the road, but besides that there were very few signs of life.  We reached Merzouga after dark; the desert was flat around us but we could make out shadows of the huge dunes in the distance because of the amazingly-bright full moon.

Upon exiting the bus, a bunch of people came at us.  “Do you have reservation for tours?” they kept asking.  We said “Yes, we already have one!” but they would not leave us alone.  They gave us a lot of bad info, saying there would be no taxis and such, trying to lead us astray and into their hotel or whatever.  Typical hassler shenanigans.  After only 10 minutes a taxi showed up and he took us the five kilometers to Hassi Labied, the village near the Erg Chebbi dunes where we would be spending the night before our journey into the nothing.

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Mohammed was a Berber and owned a shop and house right up against the dunes.  He was also in the process of building a hostel which he currently lets Couchsurfers stay in for free.  He also had a cousin that did tours into the dunes, so he hooked us up with a good price for a two night adventure.  The hostel was dusty but comfortable, so we got a great night sleep – it was almost too quiet.

The next morning we were shown around town, purchased some turbans and got some last minute emails written.  We would leave at 5pm and spend two nights at Berber camps in the dunes, then return before sunrise the following day.  With us would be an older French couple, and a couple our age from Moscow.  We learned that we were not going to ride camels (two humps), but dromedaries (one hump).  A technicality we never knew about until now!

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Riding the dromedaries took a while to get used to, stretching weird muscles us in all the wrong directions.   Sand, as far as the eye can see.

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When we reached the tops of the dunes, we could see a large mesa in the distance, the border of Algeria.  Along we went, on top of our beasts, adoring the simple beauty of the erg, like giant waves, no two the same.  We made it to our Berber camp just after dark.  It was a collection of square tents made of carpet with a center table for diner.  It was peaceful and the moon bright, and we wandered off into the sand while dinner was being made.

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Happy with life and loving the adventure.  Food came late, tajine of course.  We went to bed tired as usual but slept extremely well again.

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In the morning we hiked up the large dune overlooking our camp.  The sunrise was grand, casting amazing shadows over the sandy hills.  We screwed around with the GoPro and rolled around in the sand.  After breakfast we got the dromedaries lined up and started off deeper into the nothing.  We really got to know the term “lurching” as we slowly made our way through the desert.  Three hours quickly passed and, just as we were becoming super sore, we made our way into a small camp.  By this time we were dehydrated, tired, and hurting in all new places from the ride, ready for lunch and a small break from the midday heat.  Other travelers greeted us at a camp, including a rather talkative Turk, very reminiscent of the character Dennis Hopper plays in “Apocalypse Now”.  Where are we?!!?

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Lunchtime Berber drumming

After lunch the wind was really starting to pick up.  It started as kinda cool, and turned into “I can’t see, breath, or talk,” without sand getting into everything.  The sun was becoming eerily fogged over with the ever-growing sand being thrown hundreds or thousands of feet into the atmosphere.  Every bit of exposed skin stung like small needle pricks during the big gusts.  We hid our cameras, except for the GoPro, and covered our eyes as well as we could.  If we didn’t have a guide it would have been scary.  Getting lost out there is no joke.

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Luckily we were close to our final camp and the wind started to die down as soon as we got there.  Our eyes were a mess from the sand and it took a few days for them to feel normal again.  But we had felt the thrill of adventure, getting “out there” where humans are not supposed to be, the real desert, hot, windy, and unforgiving.  We longed for a shower but settled for a dusty bed beneath the stars.  Our Berber guides played some traditional songs on their drums and we relaxed under the bright moon, feeling privileged and carefree.  What a life, what a life.

Equity Point Hostel – Marrakech, Morocco

Equity Point Hostel - Marrakech

Equity Point Hostel is located in the heart of the medina in Marrakech, Morocco.  The entrance is slightly hidden down a small alley, but once you are inside the hostel opens up into a huge complex.  There are different rooms for every traveler’s needs and budgets, along with a bunch of different common rooms to hang out and escape the madness of the Medina.

The best part about this hostel is the central swimming pool.  The cleanest pool we saw in Morocco, it offered a great escape from the intense heat of the city.  Besides the pool, dorms and rooms are also equipped with air conditioning which really makes sleeping easier.

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The top floor has the restaurant and bar, with a very cool view over the medina.  A great spot to sip on a drink, they also offer the cheapest beer that we were able to find in the city.  We really liked this hostel, from the cleanliness to the amenities.  Swimming pools aren’t unheard of in the city, but the price to swim is usually more than the total cost of Equity-Point.

Services:

Wifi

Internet Cafe

Free simple Moroccan breakfast

Restaurant

Bar

24 Hour reception

Swimming pool

Luggage storage

Air-conditioning in rooms

Tourist information

Address:

80, Derb El Hammam Mouassine Marrakech Medina
Tel: (00212) 524440793

Phone:

+34 93.231.20.45

Email:

infomarrakech@equity-point.com

Website:

http://www.equity-point.com/our-hostels/equity-point-marrakech-hostel/general-information.html

Prices:

8 bed dorm – 8.00€

6 bed dorm – 10.00€

4 bed dorm – 12.00€

3 bed private room – 59.70€

Twin bed private room – 51.00€

Double bed private room – 61.00€

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