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Our first 24 hours in Marrakech consisted of: a no show airport shuttle driver which then led to being ripped off by our taxi driver and subsequently the boy who carried our bags while leading us to our riad. Walking through a maze of overcrowded alleys with motor bikes weaving in between pedestrians, with fly-ridden stacks of stinking old sardines for sale on the side of the road. Having our reservation lost by our riad, and then being given a room that had a log of feces floating in the toilet. And last but not least, having our hands hennaed by force in the main square by gypsies. Welcome to Morocco.

In all seriousness, after the culture shock of the first 24 hours wore off, Marrakech became one of our favorite destinations on our trip thus far.

Despite the unappetizing way that meat, fish and produce are sold by street vendors (not refrigerated with dirt being kicked up onto it from the street), Moroccan food is incredibly delicious. Couscous, tagines, lamb, Moroccan soup, root vegetables, figs, honey, and crepes, just to name a few. We quickly became unabashed at being “those” tourist who take pictures of their food. Documenting our meals with photos somehow makes the taste linger longer.

Tagine with lamb, artichoke hearts, olives and preserved lemon rinds

Meat skewers ready to grill at a food stand in Djemaa el Fna Square

And the mint tea. Oh. My. God. We must have averaged three or four pots per day. As a Muslim country, alcohol is taboo and not widely available (with the exceptions of being available to non-Muslim tourists in select hotels and restaurants). We found that mint tea is consumed in its place, and as ubiquitously as Coors Original at a Rockies game.

Mint tea glasses lined up at Djemaa el Fna Square

Anyone writing about Marrakech will tell you that you must visit the “souk” which is a vast network of shops and walkways. Within this labyrinth of merchants, you can find nearly anything from Nike running shoes to a live goat. Should you chose to venture to Marrakech one day, we suggest you remember these tips to help you survive the onslaught of vendors who, despite their friendly smiles, show very little mercy to unsuspecting tourists.

Tip #1: For your first visit to the souk, don’t bring your money. This will allow you to browse for items you might like to purchase, but prevent you from being persuaded to buy something you have no use or desire for. You can’t buy if you don’t have money.

Tip #2: Learn these phrases “non, merci” and “la la, shakrun.” They mean “no, thank you” in French and Arabic, respectively. They won’t be enough to stop the vendors in their tracks, but just smile and keep walking.

Tip #3: Before returning to the souk for some haggling, ask a local Moroccan working at your hotel or riad how much they would pay for each of the items you want to purchase. Keep those numbers in mind, and don’t pay more.

Tip #4: You can always walk away. Vendors in the souk are good at what they do and have a whole arsenal of methods for convincing you to pay more for a product than you should. They will likely act offended, angry, or outraged at the prices you propose. If you are feeling too much pressure or are unhappy with the negotiation, smile, say thank you, and walk away. They may try to stop you, or they may let you go. Either way, no harm, no foul. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Tip #5: Whenever possible, do your haggling in a language other than English. French is good because it is an official language of Morocco. Spanish is even better because most of the vendors understand and speak a few words, but are less comfortable with the language (anything you can do to gain an edge and make the vendor feel less confident is a plus). Americans pay double prices or worse, so if you must speak English be from “Vancouver” for a day.

Winding alleys through the souk

Colorful shoes for sale in the souk

Tea sets for sale in the souk. Mike successfully haggled for one of our own!

Adjacent to the souk is Djemaa el Fna Square. This is where much of the action in the city takes place.  It is visited each day by thousands of tourists and locals alike. The square takes on two different personalities, which are literally day and night. During the sunlight hours, Djemaa el Fna is lined by countless fresh juice and dried fruit vendors. The juice is a real steal at four Dirhams (about 50 cents) per glass!

Piles of dried fruit and nuts for sale at Djemaa el Fna Square

Amy with a juice vendor at Djemaa el Fna Square. A daily trip for us while in Marrakech.

Each afternoon the square begins to transform into its nighttime form. More than 100 food tents are set up each evening for outdoor dining and groups of musicians and snake charmers create a very mystical environment. We made a video of the square coming alive one afternoon before dusk, which you may watch here. If you visit, be sure to watch out for the women offering henna tattoos; day or night, they will grab your hands and start tattooing before you get a grip of what’s happening.

Click on this picture to watch a video of Djemaa el Fna Square coming alive just before dusk

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house designed with a courtyard and fountain in the middle. Although there are hundreds of riads in Marrakech alone, you may be hard-pressed to find one as their doors are plain and unsuspecting, but always open up into a beautiful and peaceful building. After a few hours of haggling at the souk and an evening in Djemaa el Fna Square, escaping back to the tranquility of a riad is the perfect end to a day in Marrakech.

The entrance to our riad – you would never suspect the tranquil place that lies behind this door

View from our room of the fountain in the riad’s open air courtyard

Intricately painted ceilings and carved metal light fixture in our room

Courtyard and fountain in the riad

Despite the initial issues we had at our riad, everything was smoothed over and it turned out to be a fantastic place to stay. Breakfast each morning consisted of homemade crepes and harcha with a variety of preserves, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee.

Traditional Moroccan breakfast, served each morning at the riad

Sitting in the courtyard or on the rooftop terrace always lowered our blood pressure after being out on the town. It was here that we first experienced the “adhān” which is the Islamic call to prayer. While we were familiar with this religious custom, Morocco was the first Islamic country that either of us had visited. Hearing the adhān five times each day was a part of the trip that we will certainly never forget. We made a video of the call, which you can watch here. It often begins as nothing more than a low distant hum, but soon becomes a 360 degree barrage of sound. For the most part, business continues as usual in the city, and everyone does not drop what they are doing and run to the mosque, but the call to prayer definitely creates a special feeling in the air.

Click on this picture to watch a video of and listen to the Adhān (call to prayer) in Marrakech

Marrakech was a crazy place, no doubt about it. It caught us off guard and left us feeling a little rattled. It was the first time we felt truly out of our comfort zone and in an entirely different world. But that is what traveling is all about.

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From Valencia, we caught the midnight train to Granada, a first for both of us. Despite opting out of a sleeping car, we were still able to get a solid night’s sleep. When the train pulled into the station in Granada, we were shocked at the sight of snow-capped mountains. Our amazement was not because of their beauty, but due to our breath being taken away by the sting of cold air. Our general assumption had been that moving further south would mean slightly warmer temperatures. Wrong. Apparently Granada is situated at just over 2,000 feet and in a valley between Spain’s two tallest mountains.

View of the Sierra Nevada from Granada

After putting on all of our clothes (yes, that meant multiple pairs of pants, socks, shirts, jackets, hats and gloves), we managed to get warm enough for the walk to our hostel. The weather was the first of many situations to come where we had to just go with the flow. Here are some other examples of our forced flexibility while in Granada.

Example #2: We arrived at our guest house and were told that we had been upgraded to a better room! We not only got a private room and bathroom, but the room also had a balcony with a view of Plaza Nueva. Score.

View from our guest house of Plaza Nueva

After basking in the glory of these awesome accommodations, we went to plug in our computer only to find that there were no power outlets. Have you ever stayed in a hotel with no plugs in your room? This could have been expected in SE Asia, but Spain? Last time we checked, Spain was a well developed country. But, we just went with the flow, and used the outlet in the public area.

Example #3: Our main motivation for visiting Granada was to explore the famous ancient city and palaces of the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of the Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicolás

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife gardens

In a perfect world, we would have explored the Alhambra all day, but when we arrived to purchase tickets, we were only able to gain access for four hours. There is a rigid structure of viewing sessions in place to limit the number of visitors so as to preserve this historical site. To visit the main attraction, the Nazarene Palaces, each visitor is provided with a 30 minute time slot. We weren’t given a choice, it was simply assigned. So again, we just went with the flow. If you visit the Alhambra during peak season, we recommend purchasing tickets in advance and visiting during the early morning session.

Patio of the Lions in the Nazarene Palaces

Intricately carved stone and inlaid wood door at the Nazarene Palaces

Daraxa’s Garden at the Nazarene Palaces

Arch decorated in traditional Moorish style

The Alhambra sits on top of a large hill overlooking the heart of Granada. It was constructed in the late 1300s, which makes it even more awe inspiring. The name Alhambra comes from its Moorish roots, literally meaning “the red one” in Arabic, due to the massive red stone walls that surround the city. Aside from the ornately decorated palaces, we were continually impressed by the extensively planned and still functioning irrigation system, which carries water from the mountains down through the city, to fill fountains, provide plumbing and nourish gardens.

Aqueduct at the Alhambra, gated to divert water towards specific plant beds

The Water Stairway at the Alhambra

Example #4: One fun surprise we encountered in Granada was “tapas gratis.” In most of Spain, you pay for tapas, but in Granada tapas are provided free of charge with the order of a drink! This led us to the invention of a fun dinner activity which we call “Tapa-Hopping.” This is a twist on conventional bar hopping, where you go from place to place, having a drink (and in Granada, a tapa too) at each stop. The only tricky part about Tapa-Hopping is that you have to go with the flow, because the bar chooses your tapas for you.

We enjoyed our time in Granada, despite the cold, and the Alhambra was all we had hoped for and more (unlike our failed quest for paella in Valencia).

Enjoying the views at the Alhambra

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The past nine days of our RTW trip were spent cruising on the Norwegian Jade. We know that cruising isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of budget backpacking, but while researching destinations in Spain during the planning phase of our adventure, we came across an incredible deal on this cruise.

Our ship, the Norwegian Jade

The Canary Islands were of particular interest, not only for their relative obscurity and year round temperate weather, but also because much of Mike’s family lineage prior to arrival in the Americas comes from this small group of islands.

We set sail from Barcelona just after sunset on Sunday, January 22 and headed out to sea for two days before making our first port.  It was a real treat to sail through the Straight of Gibraltar and catch our first glimpse of Africa, lit up on the midnight horizon.

Funchal, Madeira – Madeira Islands (Portugal)

Our first stop was in Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira Islands.  Despite being located in the North Atlantic, the island felt very tropical with an amazing variety of flowers and birds.  We caught city bus #21 first thing in the morning which took us up a narrow and curvy (to say the least) road leading to the mountain top village of Monte.  From here, the famous Funchal toboggan drivers set up shop.  The toboggan rides, which originated as a way to rapidly transport ice to the shore from the mountain top ice houses, have turned into a major tourist skeptical. While we did not indulge in a ride, we had a blast watching shrieking passengers skid down the mountainside.

Toboggan Ride

While most tourists take the toboggans down, we took the scenic walking route, which allowed for some incredible views of the Atlantic with Funchal in the foreground. If you’re interested in the particular route that we took, Google search “walking monte to funchal” and you’ll find step by step directions.

View of Funchal

The steep scenic route did a number on our legs but also allowed us to check out the local architecture.  We were inspired by the walled courtyards with beautiful tile work, all perfectly framed by pink and orange tropical flowers.

Tiled courtyard with colorful flowers

By the time we reached the city center, we were ready to relax. The islands of Madeira are known for producing their own variety of Port wine, so naturally, we had to try some. We picked up a bottle and headed for a nearby park to enjoy our last few hours in this island paradise.

Blandy’s Madeira Wine

Santa Cruz, Tenerife – Canary Islands (Spain)

On our second day at port we were blessed with particularly great weather, so headed for one of Tenerife’s few sandy beaches, La Playa de Las Teresitas. We heard that the beach was only a 20 minute bus ride from town and ambitiously attempted to walk instead. While walking, we discovered the Canary’s ubiquitous outdoor public gyms, but after over an hour, the sidewalk became an onramp to the interstate, and we were forced to take the bus.

Outdoor gym in the Canary Islands

When we finally made it to la playa, we were stoked to say the least! We think the picture says it all.

La Playa de Las Teresitas

After Amy’s pale skin couldn’t handle the sun any longer, we hoped the bus back to the city center to check out the city’s music hall, El Auditorio de Tenerife.

The beautifully tiled Auditorio de Tenerife

Arrecife, Lanzarote – Canary Islands (Spain)

The island of Lanzarote is best known for its picturesque and rugged volcanic landscapes, but we were drained of energy from our previous day in the sun and chose to stay in the small town of Arrecife.  While this city is noticeably smaller and less energetic than our first two ports of call, we did enjoy its captivating blue waters and small fishing town feel.

Fishing harbor in Arrecife

Málaga, Spain

Our final stop on the way back to Barcelona was the port city of Málaga, situated on Spain’s southern coast near Granada. Prior to our arrival, we knew very little about Málaga, but were pleasantly surprised. The city is very modern and well kept, but is still host to some amazing ancient structures.  To get a better view, we headed to an old roman theater known as el Alcazaba and hiked up a fantastic nearby trail. From the top we were able to view many of the city’s main attractions including the Plaza de Toros and Catedral del Obispo.

View of Málaga

On the Ship

Most of our days at sea were spent relaxing by the pool, reading, playing cards, and enjoying the Jade’s fantastic live music and entertainment. Because of Mike’s background in the hospitality industry, we were both interested in the operational aspects of running a floating hotel. After speaking with the Hotel Director, we had the opportunity to take a behind the scenes tour of the ship, including the kitchen, galley and provisions areas, bridge control room, laundry facilities, waste disposal center, and theater. We were amazed at what goes into making a cruise happen smoothly and seamlessly.

Tour of the Jade’s laundry facilities

Tour of the Jade’s massive walk-in produce cooler

The Jade’s Staff Captain explains the radar system during the tour of the Bridge

We had a fantastic time at sea and it was a great opportunity to rest up, eat three (or more) good meals per day, and prepare ourselves for the upcoming month of hostel living and a relatively unknown itinerary. We are now in Valencia and looking forward to exploring the home of paella!

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