Wednesday, November 28, 2012

First night in the desert

Click here to see our entire First night in the desert album (67 pictures)

Our first night in the Sahara was spent at a nomad camp located about 15 minutes out of M'Hamid.  It was much more luxurious than I was expecting, considering that it's in the middle of the desert - it was quite large and composed of colorful tents made out of Moroccan carpets.  There was a large tent for eating (and later on for music) as well as toilets and showers (although we did run out of water).  I guess it gets a lot busier during the other times of the year, but while we were there, there were only about 10 guests (but the camp could probably easily accommodate 50).

When we arrived, the sand was really blowing - the scarves we wore were really necessary to keep the sand out of our faces (although it didn't help our eyes too much). We managed to explore some of the dunes around the camp before  it started to rain - with lots of thunder and lightning!  I really loved exploring the dunes and I thought the sandstorm added to the experience.

We had dinner and, later on, our guides performed traditional Tuareg music (on the electric guitar and drums).  We were looking forward to seeing the stars from the desert - but because of the rain we didn't get to see anything.

The route we took on the camel

The next day we departed from the nomad camp and traveled back towards M'Hamid on camel.  Laura MyTracks'd the whole trip - you can see the map here.  If you zoom in at the start, you can even see our camp! It was pretty neat (and a bit scary) how camels rise from the sitting position - you definitely feel like you're going to fall off.  Laura also took a few video from her camel.  If you receive our blog by email, I'm not sure how the videos work - you may have to visit the website to view the videos.

Laura's perspective of the camel ride

Entering the oasis - one of our guides is singing!

In M'Hamid we were cooked a meal by one of the locals - chicken skewers, bread and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and olives -- and of course tea!  Down in the south, there's no mint in the tea (mint isn't exactly abundant in the desert), but it I think it's even sweeter - it's sweetened with pieces of sugar that are broken off from a conical sugarloaf.

From the M'Hamid we took our 4x4 deeper into the Sahara to Erg Chigaga. Erg Chigaga has some of the largest sand dunes in Morocco.  We took some great pictures - but you'll have to wait for our next post!

Click here to see our entire First night in the desert album (67 pictures)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Road to M'Hamid

Click here to see our entire Road to M'Hamid album (58 pictures)

One of the things that I really wanted to do in Morocco was spend a night in the desert.  Lucky for us, one of Sabine's friend, Mohamed, owns M'Hamid travel, a travel agency that specializes in desert excursions.  She arranged a trip for us that included two nights in the desert and a camel ride!

We were lucky enough to bump into Mohamed while we were in Marrakech, and he offered to drive us to Ouarzazate (through the High Atlas mountain range).  The scenery during the drive was really nice and we were travelling late in the day so we go to see sunset over the mountain range.

In Ouarzazate we stayed at Mohamed's riad Hotel Riad Ouarzazate.  It was beautifully decorated, definitely one of the nicest places we stayed on our entire trip.  On arrival, they had soup and a chicken, lemon and olive tagine ready for us - it was very tasty (perhaps when we get back to food blogging we'll have to give it a try).

The next day, Mohamed arranged for one of his drivers (also named Mohamed) to take us to all the way down to the southeastern corner of Morocco (and the end of the highway), M'Hamid. On the way to M'Hamid we visited the ancient kasbah in Tamnougalt (it's unclear how old it is, it may date back to the 14th or 15th century). I found it pretty interesting to find out that the kasbah had a jewish quarter.  Morocco had 250,000 to 350,000 before the founding of Israel, but fewer than 7000 now remain!

We drove through the Drâa valley. The Drâa is Morocco's longest river and the valley is filled with palm trees and is very lush, in sharp contrast to the extremely arid areas just beyond the valley.  We did a bit of offroading along a dirt road and Laura and I hiked to an old watch tower in the valley. We thought it was pretty interesting  but unfortunately we don't know anything about it.

As we arrived in M'Hamid, the desert dust started blowing (so much so that it visibility was limited) and it started to rain!  Locals told us that this was the first time it had rained in 6 years!

The next post is going to include pictures from our first night in the desert, as well as pictures from our camel excursion!

Click here to see our entire Road to M'Hamid album (58 pictures)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

We're Home! (and Marrakech)

We're Home!

We arrived home safe and sound two weeks ago. We both went straight back to work - it's a bit of an adjustment from our trip, but we're both happy to be back!

Now that we have a real computers and access to all of our pictures (all 13751 of them!), posting to the blog should be a lot easier.  We're going to continue on posting from where we left off and we'll probably post additional pictures for some of the previous blog posts.

One thing we're going to be doing differently from now on:  we'll include just one picture in each post along with a link to our album on Google+. Google+ makes looking through the pictures a lot nicer, and allows us to upload more pictures.  If you have trouble seeing the albums, please let us know.


After an early morning departure from Bologna, we arrived in Casablanca and headed directly to Marrakech by train.  In Marrakech we met up with my cousin Sabine (featured in our Lausanne post). Sabine's fiancé, Redouan, is Moroccan and she's visited a few times before. Sabine did all of the planning for the Morocco section of our trip and they both helped us learn about local food and culture.  We were really happy to have them with us.

We spent most of our time in Marrakesh in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of the Medina (old city) and in the Souk (market).  The Souk is unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It's a huge (the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco), but there's no obvious order to how things are laid out.  It's full of twisting alleyways and dead ends. It didn't take very long to get lost (although after enough wandering around we were able to find our way out).  The merchants in the souk were selling all sorts of stuff:  herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables, leather bags and babouches (a moroccan style slipper), scarves, carpets, ironware and lanterns, clothes.  Along with the merchants, we also saw many leatherworkers making bags and pouffes, wood workers, and the wool dyers (which you'll see in the pictures).  We ended up buying a pretty cool looking wooden chess set.  It's made in a neat way so that twisting the top of the board reveals the pieces stored beneath it.

One of the lowlights of Morocco was that Laura and I got gypped at the leather tanneries.  We were exploring the souk and a one of the merchants suggested that we check out the berber leather tanneries.  He pointed out someone that "works" there and told us to follow him.  We were under the impression that the tanneries would be fairly close by, but they ended up being fairly far away.  This is the first tannery I'd ever seen, so it was pretty interesting (although smelly and pretty gross). They put the raw animal pelts in several foul smelling pits in order to remove the hair and other residue and to soften leather.  The first pit is filled with lime, the second with pigeon excrement (used for the ammonia), other pits are later used to clean and dye the leather. They gave us "berber gasmasks" (a bunch of mint) to help fend off the smell. As expected, at the end of the tour we were brought to a store.  Although they tried pretty hard, we made it out of the store without buying anything.  At this point a couple of the guys that took us around the tannery, as well as the guide that brought us there and asked to be paid. They asked that we pay them 200 dirhams (approximately $23 USD).  They said this money would be split by the tannery workers.  While this seemed like a lot by Moroccan standards, I figured this amount was ok, given how bad their work.  At this point they insisted that that we need to double the amount - they claimed that the 200 dirhams was for the berber workers and we need to add another 200 for the arab workers.  In the end, I ended up relenting and giving them 100 more.  At this point, the guide that brought us to the tanneries demanded that we pay him as well - we assumed that he was part tannery workers and therefore would have been paid from the 300, but he insisted that he wasn't and that he'd done more work than the tannery guys, so should be paid more.  In the end we paid him 200 as well - which is way more more than he should have gotten.  When we later looked up the tanneries in tripadvisor, it seems like a lot of other people had similar experiences.  Next time we'll have to be a lot more careful to make sure we don't get into these kind of situations.  Oh well, you leave and you learn...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Warsaw, Val D'Orcia and Bologna

We've been having problems with our camera again. Luckily we were still able to transfer pictures off of Laura's camera. One downside is that we've been using my camera as the primary camera, especially for food pics - so you won't get to see all the amazing food we ate in Italy until after we get back. Apologies again for the out of order pictures.

We're about a month behind on blog updates - we're currently in Spain!

We had and great little break in Poland visiting our good friend Ela (and her 1-year-old son Sebastian). We did a bit of sightseeing, but we mostly just took it easy, hung out, went on walks, wrote the last batch of of posts and did our laundry. Sebastian's grown a lot since we last saw him - he's getting quite good at walking!

The culinary highlight of Poland for us were the pierogi.  Ela took us to a restaurant around the corner from her and we tried a whole bunch of different types of pierogi. My favorites were the ones stuffed with potato and cheese and the ones with sauerkraut.

From Poland we flew to Rome on discount airline WizzAir.  The flight was super-cheap (under $100 per person).  We visited Rome 3 years ago so we only stayed in one night on our way to Val D'Orcia. 

Val D'Orcia is a picturesque area in southern Tuscany (and a UNESCO world heritage site).  The most famous town in the area is probably Montepulciano.  We stayed in a smaller town, Pienza, in an amazing airbnb (  From our kitchen window we had a hillside view of the entire countryside.  We bought some wine, sausage, pecorino (which Pienza is famous for) and ate by our window several times during our stay.  We also did a lot of walking (to burn off some of those calories).  We were able to track our walk from Pienza to neighbouring San Quirico:  We happened to visit right after all the fields had been tilled, so there wasn't much more than dirt, but the views were still awesome.  I can only imagine what it'd be like in the Spring when everything is green.

There was one restaurant in the town that we had read about before visiting "Latte di Luna".  We ate there twice and the food was awesome.  We particularly liked loved their homemade pasta, especially the pici (  I'll post pictures when we get back.

We took the bus and train from Pienza to Bologna with a stopover in Siena.  Bologna is much less touristy than most of the other parts of Italy we've visited, but it's still beautiful.  Bologna is a university town (founded in 1088 and still going - it's the oldest university!).

We stayed in another airbnb.  This time we were in a room in Eli's house.  He had a couple other airbnb / couchsurfers at his place while we were there (a Russian girl, a guy from Australia, and a Canadian couple that took our room once we left).  It was a fun experience - Eli was a great host.  On the first night we arrived he was giving pasta making lessons to the other travellers and we joined in and sampled some of their squash ravioli (which was super-tasty). 

We left Bologna on a brutal 4:50 am flight to Casablanca (it was so early that we stayed at the airport that night.

Sebastian and Jerome

Freshly tilled fields of Val D'Orcia.

Trevi fountains in Rome.

View of Bologna from the Asinelli tower

Siena's Piazza del Campo

Hillside view of Siena

Walking in the fields of Val D'Orcia

Jerome, Ela and Sebastian

The Garisenda tower has a lean of 3.2 m.  We climbed the taller (and less meant tower next to it)

Jerome and Ela eating Polish pastries

Friday, September 28, 2012


We had a really amazing time in Prague. We arrived very early in the morning by the night train, and walked all through the city enjoying the morning light. We walked across Charles bridge and up the hill to the castle. We climbed the tower of St Vitus - all 500 steps - and had a wonderful view of the city. 

We were in Prague from September 17th to the 20th which luckily coincided with a big international music festival in the city. We went to see Dvoraks Sabat Matar in St Vitus played by the Prague philharmonic orchestra and choir. It was very beautiful, the acoustics were amazing and we arrived early and so got great second row seats beside a 3 star general and we're pretty sure an arch bishop. The next day we got tickets to a concert at Dvorak Hall by the Prague Radio Orchestra with violin solos by Vilde Frang who is a 23 year old virtuoso. It was also really awesome! 

We also went to an organ concert at a small church another night which was quite interesting as well. 

Another highlight was the Lobkowicz palace which was a lovely little museum with a great audio guide. It's at the palace of the family, who were very famous in history. We got to see original Beethoven manuscripts of his 5th and Eroica symphonies which were both dedicated to prince Lobkowicz. They were quite amazing, and seeing Beethoven's own signature was quite something. 

We visited Wencelas square and the old town square where there is a neat astrological clock. And just enjoyed wandering around the city. 

On our last night before the night train to Warsaw, we had a very nice dinner which ended with the chef coming out and painting a dessert for us on a piece of glass. 

The night train to Warsaw was quite nice and we awoke early to some very nice sunrise landscapes. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


We arrived in Budapest on an extremely rainy day around 11am, and found out we couldn't get into the apartment we were staying in until 8pm. So we parked our bags at the station and walked all around the city. We didn't take any pictures that day as it was quite miserable, but we discovered that there was a wine festival going on all week on Castle hill, we found out the Faust wine cellars we had been excited to visit happened to be closed for holidays the whole time we were in town, had a nice traditional Hungarian lunch complete with Goulash, and paprika chicken crepes, and figured out the less than intuitive subway system. 
We also happened to find the Ruszwurm Cafe which was an epic little tea room and confectionary - possibly the oldest in Europe. We popped in at about 5pm as we were pretty wet and cold, and found the most amazing atmosphere and tea and cakes! The cakes are all tiny layered and made there, and in many different and tasty flavours. If you ever happen to be in Budapest, you really need to try a piece! 

The next day proved to be much nicer, so we headed to the wine festival where we spent the whole afternoon tasting local and specialty wines and munching on traditional snacks. The two most notable wines were Egri Bikaver or Bulls blood which is a famous red wine, and Tokaji which is a sweet dessert wine. 

Another day we spent going to the Central marketplace which was pretty interesting, the Cave Church, climbing the citadel hill, walking across the city and up Castle hill. We then rewarded ourselves with another tea and piece of cake from Ruszwurm cafe. We also explored the castle area and ended with a dinner by the side of the Danube. 

One of the neat things we tried were a street food called Transylvanian chimney cakes. The stall we got them at made them by hand and cooked them over a wood stove. They were very tasty and warm and delicious. We actually saw them in Prague also, but they looked no where near as good. We found a neat tea shop where we played backgammon on a real board! We'd been playing quite a bit on Jerome's phone, so it was fun to roll some real dice. 

Finally, on the last day we went to a place which Jerome had seen signs for all week, but I'd been chickening out about. It was a spa type place where you put your feet in water with these tiny little fish, who nibble on your feet to make them nice and smooth. Well that's what it feels like at least, and is extremely ticklish! Really they don't have teeth. It turned out to be quite fun as we laughed for pretty much the entire time, and was very memorable! 

We ended the trip by taking the night trip to Prague. It was a bit hard to sleep, but was a really fun experience, as I'd never been on a night train before, or slept in a top bunk - but I managed to not fall off even when the train kept stopping and starting in the night.

Enjoying the wine festival

Jerome reveling in his double 6 win over tea

Outside the Central Market

Inside the Central Market

Cherry cake from Ruszwurm

View from Castle hill

View from Castle hill

Castle hill

Transylvanian Chimney Cake

Fish nibbling our feet

Excited for the night train!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Austria (Salzburg, Hallstatt and Vienna)

We left Munich and headed to Austria where we spent a week visiting Salzburg, Hallstatt and Vienna. 

We were only in Salzburg for one night, but got to see quite a bit of it. We did a lot of walking all around the old town seeing lots of neat squares, the river, some really cool gardens including a dwarf garden and the house where Mozart lived. We also tried some Mozartkugels which are a chocolate candy balls inspired by Mozart. We happened to find a really cool monastic brewery called Augustiner that had an awesome beer garden. There you picked your own cup, small or large, rinsed it out in a neat fountain, and then passed it to a guy who filled it up from the keg. 

We left Salzburg for Hallstatt, which is a very small village nestled on the side of a mountain beside a lake. It was historically very important as it is where the first salt mine was started over 3000 years ago, and therefore allowed the preserving of food. We rented an electric motor boat one day to go all around the lake, and a paddle boat the next day so that Jerome could go swim in the middle of the lake. It was really beautiful. We went to a concert in the square of the local marching band. If you gave them a donation, you got a shot of schnapps from a tiny little keg! We also went down in the old salt mine, which was neat and fun, as they had several large wooden slides to help you get around the mine faster. 

After Salzburg we headed to Vienna, where we stayed with a very nice couple in their apartment. The very first night we stumbled upon a big harvest festival in a big square. It had little stalls for all the local area farms who were selling food and drinks and things. There was a big band, and floats with wheat crowns and lots of people dressed in traditional clothes. It was a lot of fun! We did a lot of just walking around the city as it is very pretty, and the old buildings are beautiful. One of the days we rented segways for a few hours and rode them out to the island on the Danube, which was pretty much deserted of people as I guess the swimming season was over. We also attended a concert in the famous Musikverein music hall where we heard classical music and even the Danube Waltz. 

The square in Salzburg with a great view of the castle.

View of the castle from the Salzach river

Part of the Zwergerlgarten (dwarf garden)

Mirabell gardens 

Outdoor section of the Augustiner beer hall (note the traditional chestnut trees)
Our beer being filled up by the kegmaster


The cemetary in Hallstatt is tiny, so after 10 years they
remove the bones, paint them and put them
in the Beinhaus (bone house) 

Boating on the lake

Hallstatt from the lake

The Hallstatt Band

Getting our schnapps from the tiny keg

Sharing a Nockerl for dessert

In the worlds oldest mine

Looking down on Hallstat from the mountain

Jerome swimming and splashing in the lake

Jerome destroying me at giant chess

The Gasthoff Simony where we stayed in Hallstatt

Vienna's Parliament buildings

The Harvest Festival

The band at the harvest festival

Potato and meat dish

The statue of the Archduke Charles of Austria in the Heldenplatz
The Rathaus (Townhall)

Cake for breakfast on my birthday =)

Hummingbird Moth

From the top of St Stephen's Cathedral

St Stephen's has a really cool roof

A modern art sculpture

St Charles church

Mozart is kind of a big deal in Vienna

A really cute elephant statue that you can't climb

The concert at the Musikverein

Segway-ing around the city

Traditional Sacher cake