Beautiful Chaos!

We arrived in Marrakech in the late evening. Luckily the riad that we had booked had arranged for someone to pick us up from the airport, otherwise we probably would have never found our hotel in the winding roads of the medina at night. A friendly gentleman was waiting for us with our name on a sign as we got off the plane. He escorted us to a silver van, and headed toward the bustling square. He weaved us in and out of the busy lanes of traffic, mostly motorbikes, some carrying families of four! It was a sight to see.

 

He dropped us off right at the main square. From that point on no cars were allowed, only pedestrians and motorbikes. A small, older man scooped up our heavy packs, tossed them into a wooden push cart, and without any words started walking quickly through the chaotic square. We followed him as quickly as possible, trying not to get lost in the crowd of beeping scooters and people. It was an immediate culture shock! The square was smoky from all of the food vendor stands, music playing from the snake charmers, and vendors shouting “Welcome to Morocco! Come look! I give you good price!”.

 

As we passed the square and approached the narrow streets, the man parked his cart, hurled both of our packs onto his back, and kept walking further into the medina. Just a couple minutes past the main square, we turned down a dark quiet alley way. At one point, we were both looking at each other knowing we were thinking the same thing, “Is this safe? Should we keep following him?”. We did. After a couple more maze-like turns, he stopped at a door where we were kindly greeted. We had made it to the riad, Riad Les Nuits De Marrakech.

Stepping into the riad was like stepping into a hidden oasis. It was so beautifully decorated, and we so warmly welcomed by the two owners Guido and Michael and the hotel attendant Isham. They immediately invited us to take a tour of the Riad, introduced us to some of the other guests, and showed us up to the terrace where Isham brought us mint tea. Michael gave us a map of the city and spent time talking with us and showing us where to shop, eat, and the areas to avoid. We were so glad to have chosen to stay at this specific Riad. It was perfect! We finally went down to our room, the “Sabrina” room, plopped ourselves down, and settled in for the night.

The next morning we were woken up by the loud prayers that occur across the city at 4:30 in the morning, followed by the loud singing of the birds. At about 8:30 we were served breakfast on the terrace, and after not having dinner the night before, we were famished. Not to worry though, the breakfast was delicious and plentiful. We were served a basket of fresh pastries accompanied by different types of jams served in tiny tagines, Moroccan pancakes with honey, fresh fruit and yogurt, homemade omelets, fresh squeezed orange juice, and of course…more mint tea.

We spent the rest of the morning relaxing and coming up with our plan of attack for navigating the souks for when we were brave enough to go shopping.

We finally stepped out of our oasis and headed into the narrow souks. After wandering a while, we realized there is no way to devise a plan of attack, you can't avoid getting lost. We decided to just allow ourselves to get lost in the streets passing all of the colorful shops filled with vibrant fabrics, hand crafted pottery, jewelry, and some not so appetizing meat counters. We had a couple near death experiences with rogue motorbikes, but somehow survived. Overall, we had some success at bargaining for the items we bought and every shop we passed Scott was referred to as “Alibaba!” We have no idea why, but we'll just assume it meant something good.

We arranged to have dinner on the terrace of the riad because we weren't quite brave enough to try the street food yet. At sunset we were joined by a few of the other guests on the terrace for a beautifully prepared Moroccan dinner. The girls at the riad were amazing cooks. We started with a fresh salad that came with a little dish on the side of a chilled concoction containing eggplant, which was delicious spread on the bread we were served. Then a large tagine was brought out that had lemon chicken with potatoes. We finished our meal with a bowl of fresh cherries and a decadent desert.

We spent the rest of our time in Marrakech either relaxing in one of the lounge areas at the riad, taking a cool plunge in the pool, our braving the heat of the souks.

On our last full day in Marrakech, Isham offered to walk us through the souks to his favorite place to buy Babouche (shoes). We had lunch at a delicious little restaurant that the owners of the riad had recommended .

Our last night we walked down to the square before dinner to watch the snake charmers and monkeys and to try and get some good photos, which is not an easy task. The smoky atmosphere made it difficult to get lots of pictures, and lots of people either expect to be paid if you want to take pictures of their shops or get offended by you taking pictures.

We had dinner at a restaurant called La Salama, where we had little fried appetizers, chicken couscous, and some mystery desert (we still don't know what it was). The food was good, however, we thought the home cooked dinner at the riad was much better.

The last morning, I wasn't feeling well (it's probably not the full Marrakech experience without some sort of tummy troubles) so Scott quickly ate his breakfast and we headed to the airport. Overall, Marrakech was definitely an exotic, yet beautiful experience. What really made it special to us were all of the kind people that we met along the way.

The friendly staff at the Riad

 

Madrid, You Were Good To Us

We arrived in Madrid in the late afternoon on a Friday. We took the train from the airport to the Sol station, which would put us at about a five minute walk from our hotel, hotel Miau. The walk should have been an easy walk, however in good Achen fashion, we followed our Google map about a mile in the completely wrong direction…uphill…in the sweltering heat…carrying all of our gear. Let's just say, some not so friendly words were said between each other. But don't fret! We quickly made up like we always do, the minute we got to our hotel and had a chance to cool off…literally with giant bottles of ice water.

After a short siesta, we spent the rest of our evening strolling the streets surrounding La Plaza De Santa Ana and meandered our way to a small tapas restaurant called Maceiras. The restaurant was small but crowded, with friendly but assertive wait staff. The menus were hand written in Spanish on round wooden boards (they also handed us an English menu, probably because Scott does not look like he speaks Spanish…which he doesn't). We ordered several delicious tapas, stuffed ourselves, headed back to our hotel, where we could hear crowds mingling and music playing from the plaza directly below our balcony. The Spanish have it figured out! This is the way to live life. Take your time. Take siestas. Share varieties of delicious food with each other. Drink sangria!

We spent the next couple days doing lots and lots of walking from plaza to plaza, stopping at tapas bars along the way. We also had the strangest experience on one of our walks, which could be one of the funniest. While walking past the Palace and Gardens, we were past by a large group of bicyclists that were all COMPLETELY naked, shouting things, with only words painted on their bodies! We were so caught of guard. It was both disgusting and hysterical. It is an image that We're sure will be forever engraved in our brains!

Laundry day

 

We took in a flamenco show at a place called Las Tablas, which was wonderful. It was Scott's first time seeing flamenco and we were thoroughly impressed.

 

We also opted to go to the bull fights. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The tradition involved and the decadence of the costumes and movement of the matadors is truly a beautiful art form, but not for the weak stomach. It was a ONCE in a lifetime experience…and we did feel a little bad for the animals, but appreciated the cultural aspect of it.

 

We left Madrid relaxed and definitely fuller figured than we arrived, but enjoyed every minute!

 

 

Mas Tapas! Por Favor!

Madrid is such a wonderful city that holds a very special place in our stomachs. We are so fortunate to have our great friends Amber and Fernando who live in Madrid that were able to give us excellent advise on all of their favorite places to get good grub.

The first evening we arrived in Madrid we followed Amber and Fernando's advise and walked down Calle Huertas, which was only about a five minute walk from our hotel, and had tapas for dinner at a small restaurant called Maceiras. This restaurant lived up to it's hype, and we even came back on our last night in Madrid for another sampling of the delectable offerings.

The first night we ate at Maceiras, we ended up ordering way too much food, which was all delicious and worth every Euro. We ordered the patatas bravas, the champinones (mushrooms sauteed with pork shoulder), chorizo, croquettas (cheese croquettes), and empanadas de pescado (fish empanadas). We paired our meal with an Estrella beer and sangria.

Patatas Bravas
Croquettas de Queso
Empanadas de Pescado
Chorizo
Champinones

 

Our second time at Maceiras, we ordered the patatas bravas again because we couldn't get enough the first time around. We also ordered pimientos (peppers), and Merluza rellena de gambas (fish stuffed with shrimp, covered in a tomato based sauce). Once again, we were not disappointed with any of our choices.

Pimientos
Merluza Rellena de Gambas
 

The second day in Madrid we opted to have lunch at a restaurant in La Latina area called Casa Lucas. We started with a refreshing tomato salad with goat cheese and fresh basil. We also ordered some croquettas de jamon, and one of the dishes that Amber had recommended, Alella (chicken with sauteed onions served on toast with a corn mousse on top). Once again, the tapas did not let us down.

We also walked down to the Mercado De San Miguel that has a huge selection of fresh produce and stands of different prepared food.

That night after watching a flamenco show, we opted to have dinner at another restaurant in La Latina area again, Juana La Loca. We ordered their famous tortilla dish, which is completely different than the type of tortilla that we are used to. It's an egg and potato type dish with a crust…delicious! We also ordered the lomo (a meat dish), and an artichoke dish. We only ordered three tappas to save room for churros y chocolate later that night.

Tortilla
Artichokes, Garlic, and Parmesan
Lomo
 

We opted to have churros at Chocolateria San Gines. It is a famous churro y chocolate shop that has been featured on several shows that we had seen, so we figured why not give it a shot! The verdict….delicious!!!

At this point, our waistlines were starting to show the results of our tapas gorging. So on day three we shared a small piece of tomato and mozzarella flat bread we picked up at a little place called Pappizza which can be found all over the city. We spent the rest of the morning walking around the city, hopefully burning off some of what we had eaten the past two days. We walked all the way to a little restaurant to meet up with Amber and Fernando and their new little addition Quique.

We all shared a delicious chilled tomato soup, a fresh salad with crisp apples and cheese, pulpo (an octopus dish), foie gras, and a beef dish. It was all very delicious, however we were so caught up chatting and catching up, that we didn't take any pictures of the food, only the adorable baby.

Our last morning in Madrid we opted for one more go at churros for breakfast. We went to a local chain called Valor. They not only serve churros y chocolate, but they also looked like they had lots of other sweet options. Our verdict was that both Chocolateria San Gines and Valor had delicious churros, they were different but equally good.

 

Paris on Strike, DLP, Rain, Rain, and More Rain!

The night before Scott's parents were scheduled to leave Paris to head back to the states, they went to check in to their flight online and realized that their return flight had been completely changed. Their flight that was originally scheduled to leave on a Thursday morning returning to Baltimore had now been changed to Friday landing in Washington DC. After receiving assistance from the concierge at the Renaissance, we were able to get ahold of the airline, only to find out that over a thousand flights had been canceled due to air traffic controllers going on strike. We finally were able to get them on a flight through London Heathrow for the next day.

The next morning Scott and I had planned on sharing a cab with his parents to the airport and then hopping on a train from there to Disneyland Paris (DLP). So, come to find out, all of the French trains were on strike as well. Due to all of the cancelled flights and trains, it took about thirty minutes to be able to catch a cab. So we ended up taking the cab all the way to DLP, which was not a cheap ride, but since there was no other options and we had already paid for one night in a hotel near the park and already bought our tickets, we ended up having to eat the cost. This was definitely another lesson we have learned on this trip, always prepare to spend more than what you had budgeted for because uncontrollable circumstances do arise.

We finally made it to DLP by about noon. It turns out “when it rains, it pours”…literally. As we walked into the park the rain started coming down. We tried to make the best of the situation. Lines were short, the park was less crowded, and at least it wasn't hot.

We really didn't plan on going to Disney in Paris to ride every single ride anyway. We are huge Disney nerds in the States, and just wanted to see how different it would be in another country.

Some of the attractions were in English, some were in French. The parks were much smaller than in California and the food was not nearly as good. Lots of the little carts that you would expect to be selling goodies all around the park were closed except for a couple popcorn stands (which actually sold kettle corn instead of regular popcorn). No churros, no corn dogs, and to our dismay, the ice cream shop on Main Street closed at 7:00pm.

Our overall assessment of DLP, was that the park is probably really nice when it's not raining, it's rather small compared to the parks in the U.S., the food could be better, and gosh darn-it why would you ever close the only ice cream parlor at 7:00pm! Either way, we still had a great time, because even if it's raining, it's always a good day for Disney…and like we've said before “you've got to just roll with the punches.”

 

 

Paris In a Flash

We arrived in Paris the Sunday night after the wedding at the Grim's Dyke via Eurostar. We checked into the Renaissance Arc De Triomphe, which was one of the hotels we booked using our Marriott points. The hotel was sleek and ultra modern with a little Indonesian influence. The free breakfast buffet was wonderful in the mornings featuring pastries and jams, cooked to order omelettes, fresh fruits, sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes, an assortment of fromage, and fresh squeezed fruit juices. To say the least, it was definitely one of the better hotel breakfasts we've had, and we have stayed at many hotels.

We spent our first full day in France doing a tour of Normandy and the D-Day beaches. Check out our post on Normandy for details.

Since Scott's parents joined us for the week in Paris following the wedding in London, our week was packed with full days of a crash course of Paris. We had both been to Paris before during prior European vacations, however since it was Scott's dad's first time, we had to make sure we hit the major points in just a couple of days.

We hit up the main city attractions including the Le Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame Cathedral, an hour long cruise down the Seine, a stroll down the Champs Elysees, and the Catacombs.

We will be going back to Paris in July for Bastille weekend, so we plan to give lots more details about our Parisian experience then, so here are a few pictures to hold you over 'til then.

 
 
 
 

 

Normandy: Honoring Those Who Fought For Freedom

The day after we arrived in Paris, we hopped on a train first thing in the morning and headed to Normandy for a pre-arranged tour that Scott had booked online. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about both the American and British WWII military history.

Spending a day in Normandy was something that was close to our hearts. My grandpa Arturo M. Garcia a.k.a. “Pie” (to close friends and family), served our great nation in the U.S. Army, Second Infantry Division, during the war. He survived the gruesome battles at Omaha Beach in 1944, continued on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, fought his way through the rest of the war, and still lives today to share his stories.

We started our tour in the town of St. Mere Eglise where we learned about the American Airborne Landings, capture and defense. Our guide Eric gave us a very detailed explanation of the American plans and German defenses. We also made a quick stop in the Airborne Museum.

From there we drove to Utah Beach. During the ride to Utah beach Eric explained the importance that the hedgerows surrounding all of the farm fields had on the battle of Normandy. We made a brief stop at Utah Beach and the memorial that stands there.

Hedgerows surrounding the farm land

We then headed to Point Du Hoc where we were able to walk through some of the old German bunkers that are still standing and also see all of the craters that remain from bombings. We then headed to Omaha Beach.

Omaha Beach held the most significance to us. Standing on the same beach where Pie and so many others risked or gave their lives for the freedom of others was a very powerful and emotional moment. Pie had always talked about wanting to go back and see all of the places he had fought in the war during peacetime. He never was able to go back, and at his age now is no longer able to. He was with us in spirit and we tried our best to capture as much as we could in pictures for him to be able to see how beautiful it is when at peace.

Us holding an old Army picture of Pie taken before the war.

Our tour ended at the American WWII Cemetery where many brave heroes were laid to rest. At a quarter after five in the evening, they lowered the flags at the cemetery to the sound of taps. It was so overwhelming to see, but really puts things in perspective. It reminded us to be grateful for what those heroes fought for and continue to fight for, so we can lead the lives we live today and every day.

 

 

 

 

Not So Grim at the Grim’s Dyke

After spending several days in the city of London, we headed out to the outskirts of the city for a more relaxing weekend with lots of family, new friends, and the nuptials of Scott's cousin Brad and his beautiful English bride, Amy.

We spent the weekend at the manor where the wedding festivities were going to be…and it was beautiful. The Grim's Dyke is an old English manor with lots of history and exceptionally manicured grounds, surrounded by lots of little “bunny paths” (what our three year old nephew called them) for hiking.

 

The first night we checked in, we had a drink at the hotel's Library Bar, got settled into our room, and met up with lots of family to walk down to a pub for the rehearsal dinner. It was about a ten minute stroll from the manor to The Hare pub where we had drinks and a delicious dinner with both the bride and groom's family and friends.

Ryan and Carrie at the pub

At the end of the pub night we decided to walk back to the manor with Scott's sister Carrie and her husband Ryan, as well as Scott's parents. Once again, there is no such thing as a trip without some sort of adventure. So, the walk back to the manor was only supposed to be about a ten minute walk, however due to it being completely dark outside in a heavily wooded area, in combination with one too many drinks, we ended up walking completely in the wrong direction. With no cell signal for Google maps and after having walked over a mile, we decided to head back to the pub. As we approached the pub sure enough, there was a LARGE sign with an arrow pointing us directly to the trail that lead back to the manor. The funny part of this whole debacle, is that as we initially left the pub, Scott said “I think we are supposed to go that way” (pointing at the sign with the arrow). However, we all ignored his advice and insisted on going the other way. Turns out for once…Scotty was right. Anyhow, after an extremely long walk in the pitch black woods, we made it safely to our rooms…after about an hour.

The following day was the wedding, and in English style they had arranged for a red, vintage double decker bus to pick up all of the guests to drive us to the chapel. After the ceremony, we all piled back on the bus where we toasted with champagne all the way back to the manor for the cocktail hour. After cocktail hour, we headed up to the gorgeous ballroom for dinner and dancing. We made lots of new friends with the people that sat at the same table as us. The food was delicious and then we danced the night away.

The next morning we woke up, had a full English breakfast at Gilbert's the manor's restaurant and with Scotty's parents in tow, we grabbed a cab to the train station where we headed to our next destination via the chunnel…Paris!

On the Eurostar to Paris