My Iceland Stopover IRL

My Iceland Stopover In Real Life

I had an image of the island in my mind. I’d heard about the remote natural wonders which friends explored via camper van. I pictured wilderness, expansive and pristine, dotted with waterfalls and framed by glacial peaks. As our plane began its descent through a thick blanket of clouds, sprawls of houses began to appear underneath. This I hadn’t pictured. Roads connect them, power plants stand out in the spaces in between. The spaces in between. 

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I knew a stopover would be limiting. This wasn’t the one-week #vanlife tour of my dreams. I’d treat it as a preview or a scouting trip for future roaming… I didn’t realize how much my time in the small cities would impact me. Iceland limited– by budget and by time- took a second to make sense to me.

First, my plan:

Stop one: 9am arrival at KEF airport, 2 hours to get through immigration and to hostel via bus (11am eta),  shop for groceries at BONUS supermarket and make lunch in an hour… bus into the city (30 mins) for 1pm walking tour followed by a couple of hours at a hot springs then food and live music at Hlemmur Square Hostel (music Wednesday nights) or KEX downtown, head back after dinner to get a good nights rest before the 5:30 AM Fly Bus ($33 book ahead) to the airport the following morning.

…my reality:

Bus 55 to Fjörður in Hafnarfjörður (one hour journey, this is the transfer point to get into Reykjavik) runs every hour except at the time you’ll get through security. 90-minute wait and an $8 USD coffee so strong you can hardly stomach it but don’t panic you can pay onboard with a credit card approx. cost $15 USD… missed the walking tour/starving… walked to the grocery store to buy lunch supplies: pasta with red sauce and tuna (cheap protein) –  took two hours to figure out the “Straeto” bus app ($4 rides, connect to the spotty WiFi onboard and stall the bus driver while you download a timed ticket complete with selfie).

 

 

Sight of the day: the famous Church.

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It’s cool but took literally five minutes. With time left and a craving for fresh air, I decide to walk to the Nauthólsvík geothermal beach. The last bus stop drops me next to another industrial-looking part of town where there’s a path along the water so I follow it for about one mile to find the “beach” which is an old military compound turned kiddie pool with what does look like an interesting hot tub ring in the center but I lose my desire for swimming (mostly due to the overflow of children). After a lot of walking it feels like time to head back to Vibrant hostel by following the highway until I find bus 1.

[Back through Iceland] / Round two:

Plan

Stop two: Late night arrival. Sleep! Wake up early and get on a bus to the base of volcano “mount Esja” hike for a couple of hours then bus to Reykjavik, eat fish and chips for lunch, pick up left bags at the hostel and public bus back to the airport.

Reality:

The Flybus and midnight walk to Vibrant Hostel weren’t bad. It actually was dark but I stayed at the same place last time which made it easy to find my way. Sharing breakfast with strangers after oversleeping was comforting. Too late to hike (the bus there takes two hours and only leaves occasionally) …quick new local plan:

Hellisgerði elf park then a second breaky at a cool café before the local art museum opens at 11. Shorter walk than expected, no elf spottings or clear trail markings/not recommended.

Brikk cafe is lovely- I had a cinnamon roll and the lunch options look good (bread with deli spreads, soups, pastries, and coffee all for under $15. Stopped by the Hafnarfjördur History Museum en route which was semi-interesting (all about fishing) but the Hafnarborg Museum changes things.

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Local photographers lend a different perspective. Suddenly I see the beauty which has been confusing yet surrounding. An artist is able to capture the reflection of an industrial factory in a mud puddle with such vivid detail that it becomes aesthetically pleasing. I’ve been looking at the place all wrong. I leave a changed traveler, suddenly appreciating all of the random bits of beauty persisting amongst humanity. The boulders sitting between houses and random piles of gravel fascinate me.

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Statement Street Art in Hafnarborg ❤

Walking through the outskirts of town amongst metal-clad houses and black basalt boulders, warehouses full of broken things and sparse bus stops here and there confuses me.

The landscape is cratered, carved and covered. Moss so fresh, so lush, that it appears blurry contrasts telltale signs of humanity: roads lined with lampposts, scrap metal, storage facilities… the culture is decidedly Scandinavian. People from an ocean away planted themselves here somewhat recently. Once unsettled, humans + technology have defied the weather and the dark and the isolation to benefit from a lucrative fishery and now tourists flock in to discover the rugged natural beauty. I couldn’t help but feel jerked emotionally by the stark impact that humanity makes against this remarkable landscape. It’s a landscape that fights back aggressively. Boulders surround family homes and most structures show immense signs of weathering. The technologies we develop are impressive and provide a quality of life which has come to feel secure to me, but the collision of man into raw Earth is so explicit on this island and I got to thinking…

Growing up in America then moving to Spain has been revealing things to me. When Traveling to ancient cities like Ronda in Andalucia and viewing a bridge built to appear as if it extends from the cliffside or up high in Pyrenees villages walking stone paths which have been followed by monks and holiday-makers for centuries… there’s a way of building in the thousands of small communities which dot the Iberian countryside using materials and shapes which reflect those specific landscapes. The assimilation, whether intentional or practical, of the people to the land on which they construct, is not lost on me. Then I walk up a hill just outside of my home city and see rows of concrete lining the valley below. This harsh contrast is suddenly jarring; the realization that I’m part of a nation which came into a landscape and forced itself on the beautiful and perfect land/air/water/beings…disheartening 

Conclusions

I’d return to Iceland again. But I’d spend more time (four full days minimum) and rent a car, travel with a buddy, steer clear of the city. 

If you do elect an Iceland stopover either treat it as a rest stop en route and lower scenic expectations/lean into hostel life OR stay a while and get out of the city. See what lies just beyond society. 

These experiences still need to sink in as I learn to understand and navigate my changing perspectives. 

Missoula, Montana, USA (my hometown)

Getting Around Town

Public transportation is FREE in Missoula. The Mountain Line (public bus) has a great app which will let you know how and when to get where you need to go. Udash is associated with the University and offers late night service from downtown to the corner of Arthur and Sussex Ave. Uber is also available in Missoula (a great way to get to and from MSO airport). 

Grace’s favorites in and around town

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Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner

Grab a burrito from El Diablo (add blue cheese for a unique twist) or Taco Sano (I love their vegetarian tacos or breakfast burritos).

Tagliare Deli is located between El Diablo and Grizzly Grocery. Grab a sandwich from the deli and any small grocery needs from “Griz Grosh.”

Market on Front downtown by the river (and a parking garage- first hour free!) has great breakfast burritos, an upscale assortment of groceries, a salad/sandwich bar (try the hot hippie sandwich or a salad bar sampler) and full selection of espresso drinks, local beers by the bottle and a great selection of wines too. 

Five on Black and Masala offer Brazilian and Indian inspired build-your-own bowls. I love to take these to The Dram Shop where you can BYO food and choose from around 50 micro brews, wines by the glass or kombucha. 

The Good Food Store is like Missoula’s version of Whole Foods. They have organic and bulk foods, a salad bar, deli, pizza oven, wok bowls, smoothies/juice bar, coffee shop, kitchen store…everything! This is one of my favorite places to discover local products.

The Big Dipper has gained national fame and if you haven’t tried it before, a huckleberry cone or shake is a MUST. Sweet Peaks (semi-local from Whitefish, MT) is also delicious. 

Plonk Wine Bar has a gorgeous upstairs patio in the warmer months but I love going to this cozy spot for a cocktail (Love the GFC) or a glass of wine all year round. They have great dinner options which are seasonal and locally inspired. Their Thursday night jazz concerts add extra charm.

Finn & Porter has what I consider Missoula’s best happy hour. I highly recommend going for a drink on the deck (4-6 daily)! You can’t beat a $3 Blackfoot IPA while gazing at fly fishermen on the Clark Fork river. A truly fantastic Missoula experience. They have great dinner too!

Biga Pizza has a seasonal butternut squash pizza which is THE BEST IN THE WORLD. Beats NYC, Sicily, Florence, everything in my opinion! The also have a great portobello burger and basil lemonade in the summer months. I adore the homey vibes and authentic tastes offered here. To me it’s a must. One of my favorite restaurants in Missoula. The Bridge is a good option if you prefer to order in. 

Bakeries are plentiful in Missoula. 

Bernice’s is my personal favorite. Not a birthday goes by without without a Bernice’s cake in our family. Hint: you can also try by the slice during happy hour 4-6 get a free espresso drink with each piece. Le Petite (best baguettes and scones) and The Break (try the pie) are also good.

Brunch

Scotty’s Table (Weekends), Caffe Dolce (Sundays) and The Catalyst (every day) are my go to spots for brunch. Scotty’s and Dolce also offer delicious dinner. Really you can’t go wrong with any of these in my opinion. At Scotty’s I can’t skip the shakshuka. Dolce has very good toast with salmon, minestrone soup, homemade pasta… elegant Italian-inspired comfort. The Catalyst’s huevos rancheros have mole sauce and I can’t help but ordering a personal side of (cheddar) cheesy potato casserole each and every time. The Trough is also very good.

To Drink

Coffee & Tea

If you’d like to sit and sip a tea in house head to Lake Missoula Tea Co. They have a tea bar with an extensive menu and knowledgeable baristas to help you find something unique then you can take it home (loose leaf) to enjoy again and again. 

Please try “Evening in Missoula” by Montana Tea and Spice Trading. Grab a bag from Butterfly Herbs downtown (or Rockin Rudy’s/ The Good Food Store). 

Drum coffee has two locations- one on South Ave (close to the apartment) and another off of Broadway (en route to the Blackfoot river). Artisan coffee- the best baristas in town in my opinion. 

Black Coffee is a great place for drip. They sell beans by the bag and don’t shy away from creative roasts. Try a fancy toast with local honey or avocado and coconut oil… jam and brie.. Always a treat.

Other honorable mentions to Hunter Bay Coffee Roasters, Zootown Brew, Florence Coffee Company and Liquid Planet

Adult Beverages

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Kettlehouse “South” has an old-school Missoula vibe. It’s located on Myrtle Street. Their “North” location is built in a very cool building near the train tracks and offers shuffleboard and a constant rotation of new and exciting craft beers. Kettlehouse Amphitheater is located in Bonner (about 10 mins outside of town) along the Blackfoot river. If you can score tickets to a show you won’t be disappointed by the views or the brews! Coldsmoke is a must try beer. 

Draught Works is a popular spot – always filled with a good crowd and thanks to a spacious deck outdoor seating is somewhat easy to come by.

Imagine Nation, in my opinion, makes the best beer in town. They have a riverside deck out back and you can order delicious Mexican food from Tia’s across the street (free delivery). 

Big Sky Brewery hosts outdoor concerts in the summer. Arrive early to have a food truck picnic before the show. 

Western Cider is for cider likers (I’m not incredibly into it). I like the riverside location and hipster vibes here… 

Ten Spoon Winery is located in the rattlesnake valley. It’s casual and they often have live music. I enjoy renting the lawn for private events. There are also numerous hiking trails in the area so a hike (Try Sawmill Gulch for an easy stroll) then wine makes for an ideal afternoon. 

Montgomery Distillery is a cool local cocktail spot and you can buy a bottle of local liquor to take a bit of Missoula home. 

The Top Hat hosts live music almost every weekend. It’s my #1 nightlife spot. 

The Rhino has 50 beers on tap. Great Caesar/Bloody Mary. Pool tables here.

Charlie B’s is full of characters and has The Dinosaur Cafe – a cajun spot with a cult following- in the back.

Note: children are allowed in Montana breweries under adult supervision until 9pm. Dogs, unfortunately, are not allowed inside or on patios. 

Hiking

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The “M” is the most obvious choice for a hike with a city view. I usually take visitors up at least once. You get a great view of the University and the city. This is best at sunrise or sunset in fair weather. 

Waterworks hill (aka The Northside Hill) offers comparable Missoula views and is dog friendly. The main trailhead is located just off of Rattlesnake Drive (near Black Coffee and Rattlesnake Creek park – a nice place for a light walk/bike ride) another trail sits right off the Orange Street exit on I-90. 

Blue Mountain has many easy to intermediate trail options and a “folf” (frisbee golf) course. Lots of dogs on the main loop. I’m a regular. 

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Sawmill Gulch is a great hike on a hot day (lots of shade) very level and lined with scenic creekside stop-offs.

Snowshoe or Cross-Country Ski in Pattee Canyon or The Rattlesnake in the winter. (see UM Rec Center or The Trailhead or Gull Ski for rentals)

The wildlife in Montana are, well, WILD. Please be respectful and give them their space. Don’t feed the deer. Bear spray is recommended in Glacier National Park. I often throw a bottle in my day pack just in case. If you see a bear, stop, don’t run, but walk slowly away keeping an eye on the animal as you go. If you encounter a Mountain lion make yourself bigger, louder, scare it off. Moose can also be quite aggressive. Making a little noise will usually keep the wildlife away. Be aware and enjoy sharing beautiful Montana forests with these amazing animals. 

Biking

Rentals available at Missoula Bicycle Works. There is a new bike path from Missoula into Lolo and the Bitterroot valley. Start on Russell and Mount then head South. Lolo Peak Brewing is a fun destination on the path. There are also paths along either side of the Clark Fork River downtown. Mountain biking trails can be found at Blue Mountain and in The Rattlesnake. I love to bike from the apartment through the University campus and across the walking bridge into Rattlesnake Park along the creek, perhaps stopping to dip my feet in the (ice) cool water. 

River Sports/Activities 

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Fishing access is plentiful around Missoula. Rafts and waders can be found on the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and even right downtown in the Clark Fork Rivers. Rock Creek is a destination for fly fishing.

Check out Grizzly Hackle or Blackfoot River Outfitters for guides and gear. 

A fishing license can be picked up at most outdoor stores and even gas stations. Adults need a license for all types of fishing on state waters. 

Info: fwp.mt.gov/fish/license

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Rafting options range from a leisurely float down the Blackfoot river to whitewater at Alberton Gorge. Guided trips available through Pangea and Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures

Swimming in rivers can be dangerous/deadly. Please be cautious of strong currents and take the necessary precautions and preparations. Children always need a life vest.

Other Sports

Public tennis courts are plentiful in Missoula. We recommend Bonner Park, Playfair Park, The University of Montana and Kiwanis Park.

Folf (disc/frisbee golf) at Blue Mountain or Snowbowl (in the warmer months).

Shuffleboard at The Rhino and Kettlehouse Northside (is this a sport?)

There are many yoga studios around town, Inner Harmony and Hot House are good options for drop-in classes.

Bowling at Westside Lanes

Shopping (local)

Rockin Rudy’s is the first place I send people for keepsakes/gifts. The vibes is very quirky and originally Missoulian. I can’t even tell you what you will find here… EVERYTHING! It is a fun but time-consuming shopping experience. Make this stop, you won’t regret it. 

The Green Light is eco-focused and carries Missoula/Montana themed products to take home and remember us by. 

The Trailhead is Missoula’s local version of REI. Grab all of your outdoor essentials and ask for local tips regarding whatever outdoor activities you’re looking to do. Super friendly people and excellent quality of merchandise here. 

The People’s Market happens alongside the Farmer’s Market downtown on Pine street every Saturday late Spring through early fall. Local products/crafts galore! 

Posh Chocolate, The Montana Scene and The Artist’s Shop for gifts.

Art Galleries

On the First Friday of every month galleries and cafes downtown (along Higgins Ave.) host free shows open to the public (often providing wine and appetizers) art and music abide and the streets are full even in the darkest days of winter. Events usually run 5-8pm or so. 

Radius Gallery and Dana Gallery are downtown. The Missoula Art Museum/MAM has free admission. The University of Montana has two small galleries: the MMAC/Montana Museum of Art and Culture and Gallery of Visual Arts on the first floor of the Social Sciences building. All of these are free and open to the public.  

For the kids

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The Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium showcases bugs in a friendly and enthusiastic environment. Kids can hold and learn about all kinds of cool insects. It’s memorable for all. 

A Carousel for Missoula & Dragon’s Hallow are located next to the Clark Fork river and Caras Park downtown. They are always crowded and (for the kids) it’s worth the hype. Walk by the viewpoint above Brennan’s Wave to see river boarding/surfing/kayaking while you’re in the area. During the summer check out food and music at Caras Park Out to Lunch on Wednesday afternoons and Out to Dinner on Thursday evenings. 

SpectrUM is a science museum featuring interactive and interesting experiments and facts for kids and curious adults. It is run by the University of Montana. 

Kids fishing at Silver’s Lagoon next to MOBASH skatepark and Currents indoor wave pool are fun. 

The Missoula Children’s Theater/MCT has a great reputation for shows- check one out if they’re on while you’re in town!

Sporting Events

U of M Griz Football, Basketball, Hockey etc. draw crowds. 

For tickets: griz tix

MOBASH skate park is located near The Missoula Osprey Stadium. This minor league baseball stadium is located along the banks of the Clark Fork River and osprey nests can be seen from the stands. 

The U of M golf course and Dornblaser field are located steps from our house. See the new women’s softball field or track and field, soccer and more here. Also a great place to go sledding and to cross-country ski during the winter months! (Pick up rentals from Campus Rec at U of M or Gull Ski or The Trailhead).

Go to a Movie

The Roxy is a retro indie option. Here you can sip microbrew beers while enjoying the film. Another fun theater option is the AMC dinner theater (new to Missoula) located in Southgate Mall. Blockbusters can be screened at AMC on Reserve Street. There are also movie screenings at the UC theater (also see Movies on the Oval free movies at U of M)

How to find upcoming Festivals/Concerts 

Top Venues: The Wilma, Kettlehouse Amphitheater, The Top Hat, The Adams Center and Big Sky Brewery

Find a full local events calendar at http://www.missoulaevents.net

 

On Solo Travel (for silly.little.kiwi blog)

The following are my responses to questions from Tara at silly.little.kiwi.com
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Athens, Greece
          I’m Grace, I’m 28 years old and I’ve been to around 40 countries in the last ten years and often journey alone. At 18 I traveled to Colombia with a small group of friends and a year later my second international trip—or my first solo trip— happened by accident. I was planning to tour Eastern Europe with a friend and when she canceled last minute I decided to go on my own. I was nervous and after a few glasses of wine on the flights over, I found myself in Budapest sometime around midnight. It was dark and I realized that I was a tiny bit tipsy.  I managed to figure out the train to the city center then wandered around seeking my hostel for a while. The snow blew in circles, melting on my face, mixing with tears of frustration as I struggled to find where I needed to go. Finally, I walked into a 20+ bed hostel dorm which was completely empty (I should note that it was January/not exactly high tourist season). I ate a chocolate bar then slept with my passport and money inside my sports bra. I questioned whether this trip would be worth it but managed to sleep.
          In the morning everything changed. As I was heading out to get something to eat, I heard someone speaking English down the hall! Desperate for a companion, I rushed to introduce myself and made a new friend that day who even took the train to Prague with me (we’re still friends today). My favorite thing about traveling solo is the incentive to meet new people. All travelers get lost, have to squeeze into a tiny bathroom which won’t fit their bags or have stories to tell another person. We need other people and when you don’t have an immediate companion to turn to you are forced to introduce yourself to strangers. If you’re like me then this is going to be intimidating at first. But finding people at hostels or in train stations who come from worlds vastly different than yours yet are sharing unique and memorable moments with you is worth the struggle. The people I’ve met traveling have become my lifelong friends. These friendships continue to enrich my life.
          Through traveling alone I’ve learned how strong I am (both physically and mentally). I’ve had to punch a robber, push a molester and carry luggage that weighs more than half as much as me! I’ve sat through 12-hour flights that bring one to the edge of sanity and survived some disgusting stomach rebellions. I’ve witnessed riots and bathed in the Mediterranean/Caribbean/Arabian Seas. I’m still learning how to accept and embrace being different (both on the road and back “home”) and (this is a big one for me) how to ask for and accept help from others. Solo travel has made me who I am today and gifted me with many friends and memories. Solo travel is a luxury. Be brave, take the journey alone!
          – One product you recommend for traveling
Dry skin solution: I coat my face with a generous layer of Weleda Skin Food before long flights. Putting a touch of this ointment in each nostril helps protect against circulating co-passenger germs as well. VIM&VIGR compression socks are also a must.
          – An app you recommend downloading
I don’t use many apps apart from Google Maps, Spotify…
You can follow/contact me on Instagram: @graceintheworld

Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

{Basque name: Donostia -Castilian Spanish name San Sebastián}

This city has been on my radar for quite a few years and many friends have called it their favorite. Known for its award-winning food and beach vibes, I was actually taken aback by how small the city is (compared to what I had in mind). I walked everywhere- granted that meant an average of 7.5mi per day- and enjoyed my long weekend despite heavy rain every. single. day.

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Northern Spain is known for rain and Basque Country is no exception! Most people wore cool matte, thigh-length rain jackets (added to my shopping list, these people know what they’re doing) and museums/attractions provided umbrella holders with a lock and key. I visited in late May. I heard it rains 350 days per year…

I traveled to D-SS with my grandparents. We arrived by train on Friday afternoon and after we dropped off our luggage it was lunchtime. Note: the train station and bus station are located right on top of each other and are walking distance (about 15 mins) to the city center which is convenient!

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Cafe Botanika had a great menu del dia: three courses including a bowl of pumpkin soup, vegetarian tagine then carrot cake for 12euros. This veg spot has a cool garden + vibe and drew us back for coffees and sweets on day two as well. After lunch head across the bridge to check out the Tabakalera Culture Center for a trendy (free!) take on city culture and excellent 5th-floor views.

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The beach had to be next…despite the wind and the rain. Walking along La Concha without a crowd save a few brave women swimming felt strange since I’ve seen only seen photos of crowds on sunny days.

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I learned that the Zurriola surf (and city) beach might be more my style. The neighborhood near it also boasts regentrified hipster finds such as Sakona Coffee Roasters (combine the avocado + salmon toast and follow with a cortado). Mapa Verde vegetarian also came highly recommended but I didn’t have a chance to go this time.

So, FOOD. A city known for its culinary mastery, seafood takes the cake and sits well with slightly sparkling Txakolí or Verdejo (my pick) wine. Try squid, crab and hake anywhere on Calle 31 Agosto. Order from the blackboard, not from the counter.

The place the blew me away was actually further from the famed spots in the center. Chutney Gastrobar makes my top 10 global list. I will be back to D-SS because I must eat there again! These guys know what they are doing! They are friendly and adjust for vegetarians. The food is eclectic, intelligent and fairly priced. I felt both at home and in awe of every. single. dish.

Apart from a walking tour and tapas tour

(arranged through the tourist office), it was an extremely rainy morning walk up Mount Urgull that really sold D-SS to me.

The paths were essentially little creeks, stairs waterfalls, and walking through soggy caves and crevices was creepy and exciting. No one could be found even at the top and the views of the ocean, beaches and city were really cool. It was super windy! You can explore the ruins of a fortress and walk amongst castles and graveyards until you eventually find yourself standing at the base of a giant statue of Jesus watching over the city. Don’t miss it. Might be different with crowds…

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Morocco

Our five night trip through Morocco was packed. In hindsight, seven days would have been much more manageable (having a buffer day between long journeys) but here’s what we did, learned and have to share from our experience:

Rabat

The best flight options were into the capital, Rabat. After long days of travel, we took a taxi straight from the airport to the guesthouse (riad) where we were staying. Negotiating prices is a major thing, Google maps will get you very lost in the older parts of the cities (Medinas) which are full of tiny winding streets and dead ends. After some comical wrong door opening, we got help from a father and his daughter and arrived at the place we’d booked in advance (we decided to book the first two nights’ accommodation + one activity on Airbnb ahead of time and stay open for the rest).

Riad Marlinea (actually located in Rabat’s sister city of Salé) blew us away! The place was gorgeous, decadent.. the best place we stayed on our trip. Quite a good first impression.

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Riads are sort of like bed and breakfasts, we were fed a variety of bread and juice and coffee in the morning then took off for our pre-booked cooking class (our first Airbnb Experience) after postponing a bit due to morning rain.

Cooking class

We met our cooking class ‘host’ near a tram stop (Rabat & Sale have a very nice tram) and stopped by small shops and a market to buy everything we needed to cook an extra large lunch. We stepped into a pastry shop which was swarming with bees, bought fresh cheese and spicy olives as well as produce from a small street market and went to our host’s house to cook.

 

I wrote down a few notes about the dishes we made (most of which are pictured above–though I forgot to photograph the Tagine):

 

Vegetarian Tagine: Onions, carrots, potato, bell peppers, zucchini + cilantro & parsley, mix turmeric + ginger + pepper w water, cover w oil, lid (This is cooked in a special clay pot though I think you could use a dutch oven)

Dish similar to a Spanish Pisto: Blacken peppers, smoke inside closed container…skin, fry w EVOO + garlic, diced tomatoes add turmeric, pepper, paprika, parsley + cilantro

BEST DISH EVER: Carrots OR Lima beans (take a bit of peel off so that they don’t explode) + fresh cilantro & (less) fresh parsley + fresh tomato sauce, pickled lemon* (keep a bit of lemon peel) + mucho EVOO & some water (soupy)…cook down and allow to cool

Everything was made stovetop except for the cheese pastries (the little triangles which we wrapped and are pictured above) these are similar to samosas and can be sweet or savory- filled with anything you like and baked until crispy!

*Pickled lemon: slice, add a lot of salt + lemon juice, seal jar leave for one month. This is the most interesting flavor! Can use for veggies and fish–my number one takeaway from the class!

We went straight from the class to take the train to Fes. Many people had advised us to take first class (and we would have, it’s not much more than second) but it was sold out so we settled for second class which was fine for the short three-hour trip.

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Fes

Fes reminded me of Chiang Mai, Thailand for some reason… TOURIST SATURATION

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We stayed in the Medina near the blue gate. This is a tourist hub and gave us proximity to taxis which was ideal given our short turnover.

Arriving at our hostel in Fes, we were given our first fresh mint tea and at 10pm we began planning our trip South to the Sahara Desert (the city of Merzouga) the next morning! Having booked this hostel based on reviewers noting the host’s helpful nature paid off and we were able to secure a ride the next morning at 8am.

Merzouga 

 

We paid 150 Euros for transport (6-8 hours taxi each way) + all-inclusive camping (glamping) for one night. This price was a bit higher than when some others had told us but given the time crunch, we took it and didn’t regret it at all! Amazing experience!

 

The first 8 hr drive was the worst part. The driver made tourist stops (to feed monkeys on the side of the road, at “his family’s” terrible restaurant)… and when we were suddenly told to get out on the side of the road at the outskirts of the desert we weren’t sure what to think! Another car dropped off two French ladies then the four of us went in a third car literally into the sand until we arrived at a hotel in the desert. We handed off our backpacks and climbed upon camels (I went first!) then began to walk towards the dunes.

 

Camels are funny, stubborn animals! We traveled in a long line and the young men who led us seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. I was reminded of my summer spent working at a tourist ranch/resort in Montana (specifically of the wranglers and guides there). When we go to the base of the highest dune around we got back on our own two feet and made the climb to the top before sunset (hiking up a mountain of sand is hard work!).

pro tip: sit on the sunny side of the dune (the shady side is VERY windy; we took too long to learn this)

 

The landscape of the desert is really unique and beautiful to me. On our way down we saw a beetle! Finding a little life on a huge pile of sand was pretty cool!

After sunset, we took the camels to our campsite where more tourists (maybe 20) were waiting. We had dinner (lentil soup, Tagine, and round bread) then gathered around a fire, played drums & danced. This was really nice.

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Our “room” was a wooden structure covered in many layers of blankets. We had a lifted bed frame and again SO many blankets to sleep on/with which is nice (kept us warm) but in the middle of the night the winds picked up and sand was blowing everywhere! Our “door” was just a  single blanket draped over the opening to our room so we placed our bags on it to keep everything more airtight and were able to sleep through the night. Waking up early to see the sunrise almost happened but we just missed it (and that turned out to be OK since it was a cloudy day- actually there was a bit of rain! In the desert!)

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The drive back was a bit faster (our young driver was daring!) The one fun moment was an unexpected parking lot dance party when a bus full of students carrying a large speaker parked behind us and pulled us into the party. We needed to get to Chefchaouen, a city a few hours North of Fes, the next morning and when we realized that the buses were sold out we asked our taxi driver for a contact. Negotiating the car to Chaouen was chaotic. Finally, after multiple calls back-and-forth, we found ourselves running through the pouring rain to a meet someone sent by the taxi company to give a cash deposit. After all of this we opted for a nice dinner at Café Clock (our favorite item was the Fes Platter) then went to have a shower and rest before the next day’s early morning adventure.

Chefchaouen

 

In the morning the rain followed us to Chefchaouen. We went to the bus station first thing to get tickets for the next morning (7am on the CTM tourist bus because the local bus option took twice the time). I’d booked a room through Airbnb but we went to have a big lunch first which was really lovely- we sat on a balcony with an open window and a fire near us in the rain.

 

As the rain cleared that afternoon, we really just wanted to wander around the beautiful blue city. We walked halfway up to a mountainside lookout and walked in circles around the medina stopping for street-side sweets and taking pictures. It was lovely.

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The only bus back to Rabat was in the morning so we planned to take advantage of our last day starting with a glam Hammam experience then a nice big lunch… but things didn’t go as planned. The first THREE Hammams we tried were are all broken/closed. We found ourselves in taxis all over the city and finally gave up. We went to a lunch spot: Pause; near the main train station and gave up completely on the Hammam dream… until in literally the final hour we walked by a massage place which happened to offer hammam and happened to be below our budget and happened to have availability right away which was all too lucky.

What is a hammam?

Essentially, it’s a way of bathing. I understand that there are two types of hammams: group or private. The group hammams are walk-in, self-serve steam rooms where you bring your own towels, soap, etc. and the private are in more of a spa setting, can be individual or in some cases couples-friendly. We took this second option and I wore a bikini (though I’m sure it isn’t mandatory). Two women washed and seriously scrubbed my body, scalp and hair. I left feeling incredibly clean which was especially dramatic after all of the camping, taxis and rainstorms we’d experienced throughout the trip. We went onto the airport feeling like new people. Great ending to the trip!

 

Below are some general notes I’d give to any future traveler who’s planning to visit Morocco:

  • biodegradable wipes SAVE YOU
  • hand sanitizer IS IMPORTANT
  • Closed-toe shoes ARE IDEAL
  • Scarf (for the dessert) — I didn’t have this and had V sandy ears..
  • Cropped pants/skirts/dresses — long things that touch the ground would be gross
  • LADIES Cover elbows & knees (note that this trip left me with some ruined clothing, I’d advise against bringing anything too nice) 
  • No CCs are accepted save for some tourist restaurants; Cafe Clock for example (small change needed HOLD IT DEAR), euros accepted
  • bartering- my strategy (cut in half, meet halfway AND/OR your reasonable price) I’M NO EXPERT
  • Airbnb BEST WAY TO BOOK THINGS IN ADVANCE
  • No alcohol ENJOY LIFE WITHOUT IT
  • Early mornings EXPERIENCE NOW, SLEEP LATER IS THE MOTTO

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I’m concerned that tourism has taken its toll on Morocco. I think there’s a lot of hype built up around traveling here and it was hard to feel at ease or to ask for help from people because they’ve already helped 1,000 people before you. I’m sure that there’s a lot to be found hidden amongst the chaos here but I felt drained and without much replenishment after our six days in the country. I’ll cherish the memories and the companionship built but I’m not sure when I’ll return to Morocco. For those of you who do visit, please treat it well and give yourself time to rest in between/after the chaos. I suppose there are two ways of traveling: as a tourist or as a visitor. Being honest about which you are and why you are there is important. We were tourists in Morocco. We didn’t know anybody and needed to navigate the array of traps and guardrails which had understandably been placed in our way. All in all, these first steps in Africa were pretty inspiring. There were some high highs and low lows. My travel partner was the best. All in all, good memories. 

Zaragoza, Spain

I’ve been living in Zaragoza, Spain for six months and after hosting a few visitors and doing ample exploring it seems a good time to share some of my favorites in the city. Zaragoza is located between Madrid and Barcelona. It is easy to reach by train or bus and also has a small airport with connections to London, Brussels, Paris, Milan and more. Zaragoza is far less touristy than its neighbors but I believe it offers easy access to Spanish culture and acts as a gateway to the beautiful Spanish Pyrenees (just a short two hour drive North). 

WHERE TO STAY

Check out Airbnb & aim for anything in the “Casco Antiguo” area. I live in El Gancho, another older part of town just next to the center which is an up-and-coming neighborhood rich in diversity and home to some of the best tapas in town on Calle San Pablo (check out Taberna El Broquel, Los Faroles Taberna, Lo llevas crudo, Bar Gilda and Bar Pollería San Pablo). Excellent wine selection at Casa Perdiguer if you’d like something to take home afterwards. The Parish Church of San Pablo gives the area its name (meaning “the hook”) and The Espacio Las Armas cultural center offers many events with music, local craft shopping on the weekends (see Zaragena for event info). Lastly, for gluten-free goodies La Mar de Cookies bakery and in case you need to make a run to the pharmacy, Farmacia San Pablo (Moral Gomaz/Jorge Moral) has a beautiful vintage interior.

THINGS TO DO | PLACES TO SEE, BE

  1. Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar “The Pilar” – the GIANT cathedral, you won’t miss it and go inside- it’s free! Look for the two holes in the ceiling from bombings (three bombs were dropped none exploded the third spot is marked by an X on the ground and is located in front of the cathedral in the Plaza of Pilar) and art by Francisco Goya on the ceiling (the work is unfinished in the rear of the building). Finally, go up the Tower “Torre de Pilar” for views of the multicolored roof of Pilar + the city. The viewpoint from Puente de Piedra is great for a photo. IMG_7723
  2. The Aljafería Palace (free on Sundays) takes my breath away. I love the inner garden and the park surrounding, the tour is in Spanish but you can ask for an English audio guide.IMG_8605
  3. “La Seo” (Iglesia Parroquial del Salvador la Seo) doesn’t look as impressive as Pilar for the outside but inside you’ll find a wonder for the eyes. IMG_5460 4
  4. Parque Grande is a beautiful getaway from the busy center and easy to access by Tram (go to the the Emperador Carlos V stop – the tram going towards Mago de Oz if you’re coming from the center of the city)* IMG_4565
  5. Zaragoza’s museums are decent and without the lines of those in Madrid or Barcelona, the structures are most impressive to me at CaixaForum (check out the rooftop) and IAACC Pablo Serrano (free!). When visiting the Museo Pablo Gargallo start on the top floor and work your way down. 

  6. The aquarium genuinely impressed me (its a river aquarium- unique since most I’ve visited are marine) and is in a very unique part of the city with neat buildings, an area to see. Perhaps some fine dining to follow at Celebris?
  7. Check out the outdoor viewpoint at Museo del Teatro de Caesaragusta to see roman roots in the center of the city or IMG_7691

*note that you can but a tram card at any Prensa kiosk for 10 euros which is fine to share amongst a group and brings tram/bus tickets down to 70 centers per ride. Scan your card upon entering and note this doesn’t work for the bus to/from the airport but will for all others within the city. 

The most exciting time to visit the city is in the fall for the Fiestas del Pilar. During the biggest celebration of the year in the city you’ll find music and events happening all over the city all week. The famous Cierzo wind is a force to be reckoned with but weather is generally mild in fall (September through early November) and spring (March through May).

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Pilares Plaid

SHOPPING

All of the major Spanish brands (El Corte Ingles, Zara, Mango/Mango Outlet, Pull and Bear, Stradivarius, Oysho, Decathlon, Bimba y Lola, Ulanka…) can be found along Paseo de Las Damas. Grab some food afterwards at Ric 27. Tequila Sunset is my favorite boutique.

EAT

My two favorite picks for sit-down style dining are Nolasco and Baobab.

Start every morning with a Spanish BREAKFAST! Here in ZGZ I find more people eating croissants with their coffee (last year in Murcia it was always toast with tomato). Since the Spanish breakfast of bread (churros/croissant/toast w jam or crushed tomato) + coffee with milk “cafe con leche” + fresh orange juice is pretty solid everywhere I go for a nice ambiance to start the day. Check out Doña Hipólita (great for brunch/has a good selection of cakes too!), Gran Café or Café Botánico. For BRUNCH La Clandestina Cafe. A few other great cafes are Marianela, La Bendita and Koalalumpur. El Criollo is also a local favorite coffee spot. Masa Madre has great baked goods.

LUNCH is the biggest meal of the day. Get a menú del día (three course meal) some good vegetarian spots for this are Baobab and La Retama.

TAPAS

you have so many great spots to choose from! Some favorites: El Champi (yummy mushrooms and beer), best croquettes in town = Taberna Doña Casta, gorgeous interior Meli del Tubo, local feel El Angel Del Pincho, CHEESE Bar Estudios, Vegetarian + craft brews Birosta.

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Bar Estudios

On Thursdays check out Juepinchos a tapas event from 8-10PM where around 50 different cafes offer a drink (wine/beer/water) + tapa for just 2 euros! Top picks include Alma Criolla Empanada Bar, Barrio Sur and Bar Gallo.

Fine dining in the center– Casa Lac.

DRINK

Go for cocktails at Umalas, Chilimango or Moonlight Experimental Bar, shots at Espit Chupitos or craft beers at Hoppy, Beer Corner or Taberna Craft Beer Ordio Minero.

Sip wine at La Bodeguita Real on a cool day or at Terrace Rincón de Goya in Parque Grande any sunny day.

My neighborhood natural grocery store is Biokenzo, pick up some food at Pasta Fresca de Zecchi and go for the rest of your groceries at any Mercadona (my favorite supermarket chain). 

NIGHTLIFE

I have yet to check it out but I heard good things about El Plata Cabaret (and their patio is a great spot to sip some drinks on warm evenings)

Salsoteca El Sol – free Salsa dancing classes Wednesday through Saturday

I <3 Amsterdam.

Holland/The Netherlands was immediately lovable to me. I got a sense of kindness and curiosity from the locals I met in a gas station, on the bus, walking on the street… friends told me good things about Amsterdam and it sure didn’t disappoint!

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Tip number one: grab a giant bar of Tony’s chocolate. This company has humanity on the mind (plus it tastes like heaven). Albert Heijn supermarket is a good spot to pick up these sweets and other groceries but note they are cash (Euros) or EU debit card only.

My visit being in January meant that riding bikes didn’t happen (though plenty of braver, tougher people than us were rolling around despite the frigid temperatures). I also didn’t book anything in advance (the Van Gough museum and Anne Frank House notably) so those are still on the to do list.

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The Anne Frank House can be found near “the nine streets” it is really something to just take in the area today and imagine the atmosphere when she was writing. I hear 80% of tickets are reserved 2 months in advance and 20% are made available same day (a local advised us to visit around 6:30pm for shorter lines).

My time in Amsterdam was successful thanks to some amazing tips from friends (thanks Vernon + Atreya) and residents (thanks girl seated beside me in BlaBlaCar from Cologne, Germany who knew the hip spots!). I did a free walking tour (I love these on day one!) the “alternative” option meant we learned about drug decriminalization, squatting and daily life in the Jordaan neighborhood (an area I quite admire). Next time I visit I’ll ride a bike through these streets. Grab some apple cake/pie from Winkel 43.

If you’re looking to get off the beaten path check out the Noord part of the city. You can take a free ferry over from Centraal Station. I loved Pllek. Plenty of cool street art and container houses to be found here. For city views you can visit AMSTERDAM Tower.  (For free city views head back across the water to the rooftop of the NEMO Science Museum).

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Find food from around the globe at Foodhallen. It’s busy and loud but the atmosphere is cool. If you happen to be visiting on a Sunday head to Volkshotel for a rooftop hot tub experience.

I’d like to live in Amsterdam…