A Travellerspoint blog

Florence, Italy

Having arrived first thing on a Sunday morning, most of the stores were still closed. Having arrived early and without accommodations, our first task was to find a hostel. Luckily, Florence provides actual free internet that does not require logon or a credit card and we found a hostel within blocks of the train station.

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After securing our packs we went out to look at the sights and grab some food. The two most iconic are the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, both of which are on main plazas lines with overpriced restaurants.

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Our breakfast was a simple croissant with prosciutto, mozzerela and tomato. The meat was thinly sliced and salty, complementing the cheese and tomato slices rather well. It is a simple set up but most Italian food is simplistic but using great local ingredients. Ben remarked that he has never had tomato's with such flavor before and that the ones in the US are watery with little flavor.

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Since the hot weather has followed us since Morocco, we needed something to cool us down. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio and decided on one of the numerous gelatarias.

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Gelato is similar to ice cream but it is not brought to as low of tempature. This gives a creamier consistency and a more robust flavor. The flavours are both similar and different to what we have in the States. You will find the basic flavors of chocolate, vanilla and some berries such as blueberry, strawberry or blackberry. The flavours I don't see in the US are a wide range of citrus (pineapple, passion fruit, lemon, etc), nuts (pistachio, hazelnut) and other fruit (banana, melon). When you order you decide how many scoops of different flavors to get although you can opt for more of the same. My favorite is the chocolate, banana and pistachio. Otherwise melon and pineapple if I want something refreshing.

For lunch we tracked down the most popular sandwich shop in Florence. The line was out the door when we arrived but this gave us time to look at the offerings and talk with patrons. The setup is like Subway, choose a meat, sauce, cheese and vegetables. Only one choice of bread though. If you don't know what to do they will make one for you.

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We were talking with one of the servers, and after having a discussion of whether or not to put sweet balsamic onions on sandwiches, he told us the classic Italian sandwich. Fennel sausage, artichoke sauce, garlic eggplant and arugala. The whole sandwich works well together, both the salami and eggplant give it meatiness while the artichoke spread and arugala give it a fresh and light taste. The bread is nice and chewy although depending on which piece you get the edges can be hard. Other standouts are the lard and truffle sauce. The lard is actually light and melts in your mouth while the truffles have that earthiness to them. And despite what the guy says, those onions are amazing on a sandwich. Given Ben's fondness of the place and the cost (only €5) we have eaten here about a half dozen times.

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Needing to eat other things than sandwiches, I insisted on trying some pizza. We had been holding out for this dish despite seeing it everywhere we went. The dough was a sourdough. Thin and crispy but still with some chewyness. Ben had one with potatoes on top while I had a four cheese with Pecorino, Mozzerala, Gorgonzola and Parmesan. The four flavours melded together with the saltiness of the Pecorino and Parmesan and the pungent note of the Gorgonzola.

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Since we are staying near Florence for 20 days, we were able to see some local sporting events. Unfortunately, we were unable to head to the larger medieval fares in Arezzo or San Gimignano due to work but Florence provided some entertainment. Both events were proceeded by drummers and flag bearers. Each contest had a representative from each of the four sections of the city.

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First there was a local joust which had lancers aiming for rings and stabbing a spear into a target followed by armored knights clashing with lances.

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The second event was calcio storico. This medieval football game consists of 27 players on the field with the only rules being no kicking the head and no multiple attackers on one person. The object is get the ball to the goal line. Before the referee even through the ball out there were people being tossed to the ground and pinned. This match was a charity event so the players didn't go all out but the finale was cancelled due to extreme violence by the fans during the prior games.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 06:43 Comments (0)

Alps, Germany/Austria/Italy

We decided to try and stay another day in Munich since we were enjoying it so much. The original plan of Salzburg (Austria) was abandoned due to it being Sunday and a holiday, meaning everything would be closed. Unfortunately, every hostel in Munich was either booked or to expensive so we started looking further afield.

We went to the main station and discussed our options over two fast food staples. After eating a doner kebab and a sausage roll we devided we were done with Germany. So we jumped on the train and headed south through the Alps.

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Innsbruck (Austria) is located in the Alps, on the train line down to Florence (Italy) anyway so we decided to try there. While we could find hostels with openings here, they were all out of town by several km. Not ideal for a one night stay.

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In the end, we ended up riding the rails all night making several connections throughout the night. We didn't notice the German/Austria border but the Austria/Italy border had quite a contrast. The trains became 30 years older, farmland became nothing but vineyards and all the buildings turned dilapidated and covered in graffitti. Similar to Spain, you could see castles, churches and beautiful houses doting the hills throughout the countryside.

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With all of the connections, the train ride was cheaper than buying the direct sleeper train from Munich to Florence but we ended up sleeping at the train station in Verona for 5 hours, then getting onto a full train car. Oncr the train arrived at 3am, the only space available was in the bike/ski storage area.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 05:54 Comments (0)

Munich, Germany

After two weeks we leave Africa behind and continue our journey, returning to Europe. Air travel outside the US is in stark contrast to what we get back in the states. In the US, we have to rush to the airport to wait in security. Then we have to rush onto the plane to make sure we can fit our backpacks in the overhead to avoid charges. In Morocco security just waved us through, although if you have a European passport but are not ethnically European they will give you a hard time. This is to stop people using stolen passports to get to Europe. Almost none of the overhead storage was used, we were really the only ones with luggage. Breakfast was yogurt, bread, croissant and tea. All around a much calmer flight in comparison to the two in the US. Ben was quite ecstatic when the officer stamped his passport within the lines as opposed to haphazardly across the page.

We arrived around 1pm and had free time til 6pm. Our first objective was to get to Munich, as the airport is about 30 minutes outside of town. As we puzzled over the automated machine, a German learned over and asked us if we needed help. Being in Morocco for the last week my initial response was that this guy wants money. I then realized that he was just being nice. He introduced himself as Stefan and purchased a group ticket that was cheaper for all three of us. On the ride to the city center we discussed traveling and Munich. It was really refreshing to have genuine hospitality. He then suggested a place to eat down the street and we parted ways.

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We also had our first experience with a pay toilet. It is €1 to use but you got a coupon for half off a future visit. Two guys ended up in the women's restroom since they had already payed by the time they noticed their mistake.

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On Stefan's suggestion we went to Augustine-Keller. A highly rated beer garden within walking distance of the main station. After puzzling our way through the service, we ordered quite a bit of meat, mostly pork, and a beer. We opted for half a liter, and since it was before 5pm, we could still get one. I had a pork snitzel while Ben ordered a wurst sampler platter. Unfortunately, Ben couldn't finish the beer and I needed to step in and finish it, despite my intense dislike of beer. For a beer it was good, probably the best I have had but still a beer in the end.

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After walking this heavy meal off, we returned to the station to meet our host, Petra, for the next two nights. This was the fruit of my labours through the bewelcome site and it paid off big time. She had maps of the subway ready for us and provided us a excellent dinner the first night of pasta and mushrooms. It is the little stuff, like having mushrooms again, that makes you realize how you miss your life back home. We opted for a early night to make sure we had plenty of time the next day.

Getting to the Marienplatz around 8am, we were within walking distance of all the major sights that were on our itenary. Here was a large display that, at certain hours, play out jousting display with large figures. The entire process takes about 3 minutes.

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The first attraction was the local, spendy, market. The first thing I noticed was the diversity of fruit and vegetables, some I haven't found in the US. The first food we had was a pretzel with cream cheese and chives followed by a nice thick pickle, that was unfortunately a butter pickle but was refreshing nonetheless.

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We then went to the Munich Residence. This was the home of the ruling family of Bavaria for centuries. Every new century brought a new addition which allows visitors to see the progression of architecture styles through several centuries. You can also view the vault filled with various treasures.

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Despite the reputation for being a tourist trap, we opted for the Hofbrauhaus. This famous beer hall is quite popular with English speaking tourists and despite being early, was already filling up. We had a light lunch of a liver dumpling in beef broth and cheesy spatzl. Ben also opted for another beer called Radler. This is actually a mix of a light beer and lemonade. Coming in at a full liter he once again needed help finishing it.

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For desert we looked for a new ice cream shop, near the English Gardens, known for weird flavours such as beer. It was packed and most flavours were already gone. I opted for a scoop of raspberry and lemon swirl and a banana and strawberry swirl with a taste of the beer.

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We took a nice stroll though the park and took a nap to refresh ourselves. Being a nice day it was quite packed. People were bicycling, walking their dogs, drinking, sunbathing, swimming, etc. We didn't come across the nude section but nonetheless found a old guy wearing nothing but a g-string.

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To show our appreciation to Petra, our host, we took her out for dinner at a restaurant near her house. Ben chose to order a kangaroo steak (not really German) that was rather good and I went with a summer snitzel. This was a chicken, pounded flat, with sunflower seeds mixed into the breading.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 05:53 Comments (0)

Marrakech, Morocco

Arriving in Marrakech after a 12 hr bus ride, we were exchausted. It was also late at night, near dark and we did not see the guy that we arranged to stay with for our first stop in Marrakech. In order to keep the trip more affordable we opted to try couch surfing, or the act of asking strangers on an internet database if we can use their spare rooms or couches. We are trying the site bewelcome, and so far have not had much luck, and at 9pm in a new city it looked like that would continue. With darkness rapidly approaching, we decided to hail a cab and head to the main square, Jemaa el Fna, where then majority of hostels are located. Unfortunately, it is in the old city where cars are not allowed and we had to walk in. Immediately we were surrounded by some youths that tried to show us the way down some dimmly lit side streets. Not believing them we asked for directions from a local shopkeep which confirmed the location. The first hostel was booked but their sister hostel down the street had openings. We could see on their security cameras that the two youths were still waiting outside for money. Pushing past them, their statements of "my friend" quickly turned into profanity. Nevertheless they continued to follow. Turning down winding dark alleys, while following graffitied signs of the hostel's name, we ended up paying a third guy that showed us the unmarked door that we had missed. Getting in we settled down and conversed with some Australians with tips about the city, before getting some much needed sleep.

In the morning we met another traveler, who had just arrived from studying law in Spain. Really, this is the best part of hostels, meeting people who you would not usually ever come across. Feeling rejuvenated, we went back into the chaos that is Morocco.

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The streets of Marrakech are wider than those of Fez, and the crowds not as dense. While there are a few donkeys, carriages and mopeds, you are not in as much danger of being ran over if you fail to watch your surroundings. The merchants are not as forceful but that doesn't mean they won't block your path or pull on your arm to keep you in the store. Haggling is required and you need to bargain hard. My one souvenir is the traditional djeballa, an outer covering used to keep the dust off your clothes. It also has a large pointy hat that makes it look like a wizards robe. The original price was marked 1600dh and after a lot of remarks about the colors, quality, other stores and such we finally agreed on 190dh. And I probably still paid to much.

Leather goods, tea sets, silver, linens, fruit, spices, beauty products and carpets are once again the main wares sold with a dozen shops on each street dedicated to the same thing. You need to research what will let you know the difference between a fake and the genuine article before you go. Ben looked up information about leather and found that if not properly cured, it will have a bad smell and get worse. Our new friend wanted to buy some leather pencil cases for his nieces. The shopkeepers will take a lighter and shown you that it is leather and not plastic. Ben then smelled them and said they were not good, which pissed off the shopkeeper, who then chased him down the street hitting him in the face with the pencil cases.

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We went to see the sights but, as was the case in the rest of Morroco, most of these were off limits to non-muslims. The exteriors may have some decoration but the interior shows the tile work, carvings, gardens, etc. As well as having drab exteriors, Moroccans usually do not let you take pictures of them or their stuff even if you pay for something. A few tourists have been chased by people demanding money for pictures, including us.

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Having a new person with us we opted to go to the tanneries and where they make Berber carpets. The guide showed us around and gave us a speel about the production of leather which was followed up with a sales pitch for rugs. After we left they chased us down to demand money for the tour.

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In the main square there are animal handlers, dancers, musicians and more to entertain and try and get your money. Both Ben and I had animals thrown onto us and the handlers refusing to take them off until we took a picture. They would then demand money and whatever you gave them wasn't enough. Simply walking away solved these issues.

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The heat gets to you around mid-day and shops close down until around 6pm. Everyone tends to sleep through this period of the day.

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Then then square fills up with fresh squeezed juice stalls and pop up restaurants that vie for your business. They really all have the same dishes so just find the ones where the waiters hassle you the least. We chose the first one based on the waiter not grabbing us and saying, "I know that Americans do not like to be touched." A few stands have different items for purchase like sheep's brain tagine or snails.

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Being a poor country, services are very cheap. I had a shave for just $2.50 as well as fixing and shining my boots for the same amount.

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We also went to a hammam, or bathhouse. Not knowing what to expect we opted for a more tourist oriented one. First we stripped down and had a loincloth firmly tied to us. We were then lightly oiled and led to a steam room where we sat and drank some water while sweating profusely. After 15 minutes we then showered off and had every inch of us scrubbed down by a man with a course mitten. This was followed by another shower and a massage with argan oil and some "light" stretching. It ended with several cups of tea in a small dimly lit room with rose petals scattered around. This really refreshed us and we were ready to be hassled again by the locals.

There are two meals of note in Marrakech. The first is chicken schwarma which Ben hungered for several weeks before we found it. At only $2.50 for fries and the sandwich it was quite a bargain.

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The second was mechoui, a whole lamb covered in oil and spices and slowly roasted in a giant pit in the ground. They then shred it and give you bread and a cumin and salt mixture to eat it with.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 14:16 Comments (0)

Essaouira, Morroco

Having a few days left in Morocco, we decided to do a day trip over to the coastal city of Essaouira. Built by the Portuguese, the city is unusual in having a grid plan and looked like the cities of the Iberian peninsula. On the way to the city we stopped by an argon tree that had an unusual forager in its boughs.

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Being a coastal city, the main form of income is either tourism or fishing. Most of the signs are in French and if you are thinking of coming to Morocco don't worry about learning Arabic as most speak the French language from the countries colonial past.

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Having been inland for the majority of the trip we opted for some typical Moroccan dishes with seafood. The first dish is a tomato tagine with shrimp and limes and the second dish a halibut kebab.

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Even here we had beggers demanding stuff.

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Contrary to the bigger cities the market areas were calm and laid back. The back streets were only populated by felines and a few dogs. It was a nice break from hot and dusty Marrakech.

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The coastal fortifications are still intact and have the original guns still in place, making for some nice views over the Atlantic ocean.

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The beach is known for its wind and is popular with wind surfers and kite enthusiasts. Having a nice stroll down the promenade we chatted with this guy who then tried to sell us various baked goods including moon cookies with marijuana. Declining those, I had the banana muffins with honeyed sesame seeds on top and a cinnamon cookie. Most deserts here are covered in bees so we have opted not to eat those and have had no luck in getting a picture.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 10:22 Comments (0)

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