Archive for European Travel

Things to Consider When Leaving the Country

When we travel overseas, as we’re getting ready to do, there are a few things we always try to do.

  • Make sure you have a valid passport with at least 6 months left on it. Many countries will not allow entry if your passport expires within 6 months of your visit.
  • Make copies or take a picture of all the credit cards and your passport you will be traveling with. If some or all of these documents are lost or stolen, you will be able to contact your credit card company and still have your passport information. Take a copy with you and leave a copy here with a family member.
  • Call the credit card company and the bank before leaving so that they are aware you will be using your card out of the country. Some banks and credit card companies must unlock your cards before they can be used. This is very important to avoid being locked out of your account. Also, be sure that you know your PIN numbers on your debit cards and know the maximum amount of money your bank allows you to take out per day.
  • Register your trip with the US State Department at https://travelregistration.state.gov/. This lets the State Department know where you will be and when. The State Department will also send you notifications if there is a travel warning in the area you are traveling.
  • Know where the US Embassy is located in the country in which you are traveling in case something happens and you need to get there.
  • Bring a charger adapter, if necessary. Some countries require different chargers.
  • Be sure to purchase travel insurance, as your medical insurance likely does not cover you while out of the country. Bring copies of your travel insurance cards.
  • If you plan to drive while there, be sure to obtain an international driver’s license. This can be done at AAA.
  • Check with your cell phone carrier to see if you will have service in the country you are visiting and inquire about any international charges for use of your phone in that country.

Traveling outside the United States can be exciting and a great experience; it may just take a little extra planning, but it is totally worth it!

Need Help Planning a Trip?

They say that January through March/April is the busy season for travel agents because the holidays have finally passed and everyone is looking forward to spring break and summer plans. Now is the time do think about what you want to do this spring/summer!

I actually (mistakenly) always thought that it was more expensive to book trips through a travel agent, but the truth is, you just might find a better deal. It’s true that for some of the trips we have planned in the past, we have been looking for a specific type of hotel and we couldn’t get what we wanted through an agent, but in a lot of situations, we actually got a better deal, so it is always a good idea to have them price something out for you. If it’s better, then it’s better, and if it’s the same price, then you’re getting out of having to do all the work and letting her/him do it for you. There is just no reason not to have your agent check pricing for you.

Here’s why.

We really want to go to Greece this summer. We’ve been thinking about it for years and I think we are really going to do it this year, but we were really discouraged by the fact that flights are almost $1500 apiece. That’s almost $6000 in just flights for the four of us and nothing else. When I looked in one of my supplier’s databases, I was able to find flights for the four of us and 3 nights in a hotel room in Athens for right around $3600. Yes, you read that right. $3600. Over $2300 cheaper than doing it outright and by just purchasing flights, we still wouldn’t have any hotels included in it. For $3600, we could get flights for all of us and 3 nights in Athens at a hotel. And this is before my agent discount. This is a deal I could get anyone. Is it the hotel we would have chosen on our own? No. It’s not. But that $2300 savings is the difference between us being able to actually go, even if we have to stay in a hotel that we wouldn’t normally have chosen, and not being able to afford to go at all. I will also add that there is nothing wrong with the hotel we would stay at. We just typically prefer smaller bed and breakfasts or apartments, and this hotel is a chain. But like I said, it is going to be totally worth it to spend 3 nights there if it gets us that kind of savings.

So, please always check with your travel agent to get pricing. You never know what you will find.

Other reasons to use a travel agent, besides the fact that they might get you a better deal:

1. They have access to all kinds of suppliers that are offering different deals that you would know nothing about. Sometimes suppliers offer deals that only agents have access to.

 

2. They can make sure you are booking a service with a reputable company. There are a lot of scams out there.

3. More than likely, they have a network of other agents to ask specific questions to if they don’t have the answers.

4. If something goes wrong with your trip, she/he might be able to help get things sorted out. The very first trip I booked had a glitch. I got a call early one morning from my client who was in London and had missed their flight to Vienna, which meant they were going to miss their train to Salzburg. I was able to call the supplier to have the hotel notified that they would be arriving late and I was able to get the name of the train station my client needed to go to and the times for train options that evening. I was also able to start their insurance claim.

6. Speaking of insurance, travel agents can get you a great plan…and on any big trip that has non-refundable parts to it (like flights) really should be insured in case you need to cancel for a covered reason. And anytime you leave the country (if you live in the US), you really need insurance because it’s very likely that your primary insurance does not cover you medically when you leave the country.

All this being said, please contact me if you need me to check any prices on anything. It is worth a try, and it costs you nothing to have me check something for you. You can contact me through email at RachelM@MyAmbassadorTravel.com. I will also be adding a travel contact page on my blog that will make it easier, but that is the way to contact me for now!

 

Around the World: Portugal, Part Two

In the same week that we had Piri Piri Chicken, we decided to have Bacalhau à las Brás. It is more of a brunch dish but looked really different, so we decided to give it a try. It includes eggs,potatoes, and cod and is supposed to have black olives in it, but we don’t like black olives so we omitted them. We managed to find salted cod at a local international grocery store. It takes a little bit of planning because you have to soak the cod in water for at least 24 hours to desalt it, and this also includes changing the water at least 4 times a day.

The meal actually turned out really well. Even Anya, my pickiest eater, said it was delicious! We served it with some good bread and butter. It reminded me a lot of having a breakfast bowl with potatoes, eggs, and sausage, except for it had cod instead of sausage.

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To read more about other international dishes we have made, check out these posts:

France: Part 1

France: Part 2 and 3

France: Part 4

Costa Rica: Part 1

Costa Rica: Part 2

Portugal: Part 1

Day 17: A Day in the Caves Before Our Journey Home

If you have read any of my posts about our trips, you know that I really hate the last day of a trip. I try my best to enjoy the time we have left but the fact that we have to leave the next day is always in the back of my mind. And when it involves an all-day plane ride with two little ones, I dread it even more!

We wanted to experience a breakfast out in Granada, so the morning of our last day we found a little bar that served breakfast and waited for a seat. It was really packed but people were in and out pretty quickly, so we didn’t have to wait too long. The big thing for breakfast in Spain is toast, so we ordered toast with butter and jelly, churros, and some coffee with milk. When you order coffee in Spain, it is much smaller than in the US, though you get more if you order milk. The only difference is that half of the drink is milk. I didn’t realize this until that morning when I watched the lady behind the counter pour our coffee. Oh, well. Even though the place was crowded, we enjoyed watching the people come in and out, and, of course, the kids made lots of Spanish-speaking friends.

We had decided to spend the morning in the Sacromonte area of Granada. This is the area where gypsies live in cave dwellings. Sound weird? It’s actually really interesting. It is on a big hill so we weren’t sure if we were really going to visit or not, but we ended up just taking the plunge. We hiked all the way to the top to the Cave Museum, which was really worth it. It is a museum that has caves set up to show how cave dwellers actually lived. It was really neat to see because it showed how they lived off of the land. Sacromonte also has its own form of flamenco called zambra but we did not get to see it while we were there. Maybe next time!

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Zambra happens here at night!

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The trek up the hill to the caves

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Awesome views of the Alhambra on the way up!

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After seeing the caves, we found a bus that took us back to the center of Granada and found a Moroccan restaurant to eat lunch. Since visiting Tangier, we had fallen in love with Moroccan cuisine, and Granada had many Moroccan restaurants due to its Arab influence. The restaurant had a really neat ambience and the kids liked jumping around on the couches, which was not fun for us. We had chicken tagine with onions in honey and a chicken pastry. We also ordered hummus and Moroccan bread for an appetizer. The food was awesome and of course, the kids loved the chicken pastry because it had sugar on the top of it.

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Chicken Tagine

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Chicken Pastry

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Hummus and Moroccan Bread

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Doesn’t this look like a fun place to eat?

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We loved the décor!

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Of course, our last day in Spain was not complete without ice cream, so we got some helado from Los Italianos, which was recommended in a guidebook. We ordered a cone and a cassata (basically ice cream cake in a cone), and the lady apparently thought Felix was super cute, so she added in a free ice cream cone for him!

Once the kids had completely devoured the ice cream and made themselves a sticky mess, we headed back to the apartment to get our things. We stopped for some sandwiches on our way so we had something to take with us for dinner on the train. The train had food for sale, but it was super expensive, so we were really glad we had brought our own. We hired a taxi to take us to the station and our journey home began.

The train to Madrid was about 5 hours and not fun with two little kids, but we made the most of it. Everyone on the train seemed to think the kids were cute, so we had plenty of people who tried to help us entertain them, which was nice. We got to Madrid around midnight and had to get tickets for a commuter train that would take us to the airport. It was probably an hour by the time we got tickets, waited for the next train, and got to the airport. From there, we had to find where the hotel shuttle stopped so we could get to our hotel, and the drive from the airport to the hotel took around 45 minutes. The sad part was that the hotel was really close to the airport, but the airport was so huge that probably 40 minutes of the drive was just getting around all the gates to get outside of the airport property. When we got to the hotel and checked in, we had to check in for our flights and it was probably 2 when we got to bed. The hotel (Hotel Tach Madrid) was super nice and it was a shame we were only there for a few hours, but I seriously didn’t think we’d be able to withstand an all-day flight without at least a few hours of sleep.

We slept 2 to 3 hours and got up again to grab a quick breakfast downstairs before taking the airport shuttle back to the airport. We didn’t necessarily need to be there that early but the shuttle only left at certain times and the size of the airport made me nervous, so we decided we’d rather be early than too late.

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I came out of the restroom at the airport to see my two silly kids trying to push the luggage cart…

The plane took off without a hitch and was the most bizarre flight I’ve ever been on. Most of our international flights are usually full or pretty close to it. This flight was half-empty/half-full. I had noticed that the night before we checked into our flight and I remember being a little nervous that it would be cancelled, but thankfully we boarded and arrived in Charlotte that afternoon. We had a couple of hours to get a snack and then flew from there to St. Louis. We meet up with friends for dinner (yes, we were hungry again!) and had every intention of driving the 2.5 hours home but jet lag set in and we just couldn’t make it. We ended up stopping and getting a hotel room. Both kids had passed out before we ever got them to the room. At one point, we had one kid on each of the beds because we had laid them down to get the beds ready. They were completely passed out and I so wish I had thought to take a picture!

The next morning, we woke up bright and early because it felt late to us after being 7 hours ahead of CST. We had a quick breakfast and got back home just in time for our daughter to play her blast ball game.

It was certainly nice to be back home but it pains me to look at our pictures. I know it sounds weird but I actually get “travelsick” looking at them!

Stay tuned for a summary of my thoughts on the trip!

 

Day 16: The Alhambra

Believe it or not, the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain, and you have to purchase tickets online several weeks, if not a month or two, ahead of time if you want to see it during the day. It is possible to get evening tickets but you are only allowed to visit certain parts of it in the evenings. Tickets also come with a time frame that you are allowed into the ticketed areas and a specific time to enter the Nasrid Palace, which is the main area of the Alhambra that everyone wants to see. Our tickets were for 2 to 8 in the afternoon, so we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace first. It was cold so we brought blankets up with us. When we had left the US, the weather in Spain was supposed to be really hot, so we were so not prepared for how chilly it was.

We had plenty of time to kill before 2, so we also visited the Cathedral and picked up a couple of baguettes for lunch at the Alhambra. Then, we headed up the hill to one of the coolest places I have ever been.

We perused the Charles V Palace first, which does not require a ticket for entry.

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Anya always insisted that we take a picture of her taking a picture of one of us, so we have lots of random pictures of Anya taking pictures. The key to getting a good picture of her was taking the picture she requested and then taking another immediately after, because she would almost always move the camera away from her face and smile.

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Then, we had lunch on the terrace there. The Alcazaba was the first ticketed area we visited and it offered some really great views of Granada. One of the really cool things about the Alhambra is that, because you aren’t allowed to bring strollers into some of the areas, they offered baby carriers free of charge, as well as storage for your stroller. How awesome is that!

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The Nasrid Palace, once it was time to enter, was also gorgeous. I absolutely loved the architecture and the reflecting pool. When we build our Andalucian home, we are so having one of those!

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The whole Alhambra complex is beautiful, but our absolute favorite was the Partal Gardens and Generalife (which is actually not pronounced like “general life”). The gardens were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen and the roses were perfect. We actually had to play hide and seek with Anya for a bit when we got to a certain section of the gardens. Sorry for so many pictures, but it was breath-taking! It was almost like something out of a fairy tale.

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Though we didn’t spend the full six hours allotted there, we felt we got to see everything we had planned to see, so we headed back down the hill to find some tapas.

The tapas were awesome in Granada. In many parts of Spain the tradition of getting a free tapa for every drink you order is becoming extinct, but not in Granada. They still practice this and some places give you way more than you think.

Our first stop was a bar we found in Rick Steves’ guidebook. Yes, you can take a baby to a bar in Spain! Anya was asleep but Felix woke up as soon as we got our tapa and drink so we put him on the counter and he began interacting with one of the workers there. The worker got him a glass of apple juice and gave him a piece of candy just for being cute, I guess. He was one happy little guy!

Then, we tried another restaurant. We ordered one beer and were promptly brought that beer plus a ham sandwich on a bagel that was coated with some kind of  yummy garlicky sauce and fries. It was almost enough for a meal. This was all for less than $3. Next, we headed to another place and ordered a beer. At this place, we got to choose our tapa, (In most places, you are given whatever tapa is being served that night) so we got a Spanish tortilla sandwich and fries, which was also a large portion. This, including the beer, was even less than the last place. We ended the evening at another restaurant closer to our apartment and it was absolutely awful. The service was terrible and they acted like they didn’t even want to serve us. We saw other patrons being treated the same way so I don’t think it had anything to do with us or the fact that we had kids. We ended up getting something from a nearby restaurant to feed Anya because we could never get anyone to take our order.

It was certainly an exhausting day, but the Alhambra simply must be visited if you are anywhere near Granada!

Day 15: A Full Day in Granada

The one thing that made this otherwise awesome apartment difficult to stay in in Granada was the stairs. Felix kept wanting to climb on them. Also, there was one bedroom on the first floor and one on the second floor, but we weren’t comfortable with the kids sleeping on a different level from us, so we all ended up sleeping in the same room. It was doable for a few days. It was a small price to pay for the awesome location in the Albaycin and the gorgeous rooftop terrace we had with the view of Generalife. wpid-img_20140528_091659.jpg

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You can also see the Sierra Nevada, a nearby mountain range, in the distance.

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Hanging out on the rooftop terrace.

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The morning after arriving in Granada, we got up and headed to Bib-Rambla Square to meet up with a tour through Cicerone Tours. We found some croissants and donuts in the square and ate them as we went. The tour was about 2.5 hours long and was really informative. The guide took us to several places we would not otherwise have gotten to visit and he gave some good restaurant recommendations as well.

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These archways were everywhere!

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Statue of Queen Isabel and Christopher Columbus

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After the tour, we opted to have lunch in the plaza. This was a super touristy area but we were hungry and didn’t want to have to spend too much time looking for a place to eat. We had sangria, gazpacho (which Felix still loved!), croquettes, bread, pork tenderloin, French fries, fried fish, potatoes, and salad. Once we had “fueled up,” we went shopping in the souk area. That morning, the tour guide said that many people from Morocco say it is just like the souk in the cities there, and after having been to Morocco, I have to agree. We bought a few souvenirs and found a pastry shop to buy some things for breakfast the next day. In Granada, things really do close up around 2, so we barely made it in and out before they closed for the afternoon.

Then, we headed to a different square to meet up with another tour. We don’t normally do this many tours, but the olive oil tour we took looked really interesting and it did not disappoint. They picked us up in the square and had two car seats for our little ones, which was really nice. Then, they drove us through the countryside to an olive grove where they told us about how olives are grown and picked from the trees. We got back in the car and were taken to a really cute little town to see an olive oil mill. They showed us how each family had an area where they kept their olives. The olives were weighed so that they knew how much of the batch was theirs when it was finally made. After seeing the process, I can totally understand why olive oil is so expensive. It’s actually a very intense process and takes longer than I would have imagined. Our last stop on the tour was the tasting room. They had coloring books for the kids and they actually had a place at the table set up for Anya. The lady giving the tour was so sweet to our kids and Felix actually let her hold him for a bit to give us a bit of a break. We got to try several different kinds of olive oil, which really made me realize how different each kind tastes. Some of them were infused with things like basil or even orange. The most interesting thing we tasted was a sweet treat. We got a piece of bread and were told to drizzle some of the orange olive oil on it and then put a little bit of sugar on it. It was actually really good, so we bought a bottle of orange olive oil to bring back to try at home. The lady showed us some other uses of olive oil as well, including some of the skin care products. We all even got a free soap made out of olive oil.

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Anya was super excited about the minibus picking us up and taking us to an olive tree, which is what she kept telling people.

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After the tasting, they took us back to Granada and we headed back to our apartment, but stopped at Mirador San Nicholas first. This is just a lookout spot where you can get a really great view of the Alhambra. We also found a painting of the scene by a local artist so we bought it.

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The famous Alhambra!

You would have thought we had had enough excitement for the day, but we decided to go out to see flamenco. We were really disappointed in the flamenco in Seville so we decided to try it again. This show was much better and the musicians and dancers seemed so much more into it. We also had a light dinner while we were there because we weren’t that hungry after all the olive oil we had tried earlier in the day.

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Felix and I enjoying some late night flamenco!

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Looking back at everything I had written down for this day, I can’t believe how much we crammed in. It was certainly an eventful day but a great one!

Missing Spain….

Looking at all my pictures to write the last few days of the trip report has been challenging because it makes me really miss our time in Spain and Portugal. I don’t know what other people do to appease themselves between trips but one of the things we like to do is eat food that we ate while in Europe (or Jamaica or Mexico or wherever we are missing at the moment). So one night last week, we had a “Spanish night” at our house. We made Spanish paella, salmorejo, and toast with goat cheese and honey.wpid-img_20140806_184255.jpgPaella is a rice dish that is made with shrimp, chicken, or sausage, or sometimes it has all three. I know the toast with goat cheese and honey sounds bizarre, but it was one of our favorite tapas while in Spain. I had never heard of salmorejo before going to Cordoba, where it is a popular dish. Most people have heard of gazpacho, which is a cold soup made of tomatoes and cucumber. Salmorejo is similar but instead of cucumbers, it is made with stale baguette and olive oil. This makes for a much creamier soup. Felix couldn’t get enough of it!

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Day 14: Ronda!

Ronda is one of the white hill towns in Andalucía and it was on our list of must-sees while we were visiting the region. They are called white hill towns because the towns are built on hills and the homes are white. Makes sense, right?

When planning the trip, we realized that Granada was a good 5 hours from Tarifa and that just sounded awful with two small children. So instead of taking a day trip to Ronda while staying in Tarifa, we decided to visit Ronda on the way from Tarifa to Granada. This meant storing our luggage again, which wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it to be able to do it the way we did.

There is no train station in Tarifa, so we had to catch the train at Algeciras. We had planned to take the bus from Tarifa to Algeciras but decided that the times were really inconvenient, especially when we had two little ones with us. We opted to take a cab, which was much shorter of a drive and we could leave whenever we wanted to. The roads were not busy at all so we felt better about Anya not being in a car seat.

The train ride wasn’t long (about an hour and a half), but when we arrived in Ronda, we were hungry. So we walked around for a bit and found a snack to eat in a nearby park. We enjoyed views of the city along the way. Ronda is known for the huge gorge it is built above, with the new town and old town being on either side of it. They also have one of the oldest bullrings in Spain.

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The gorge!

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We decided to visit a place called the House of the Moorish King. It included the gardens, another view of the gorge, and a secret mine. The only issue with the secret mine is that you have to go down 231 (many of them wet) steps to the bottom. Which we did. With two little kids. Anya walked part of the way and Eric carried her when her legs got tired. I wore Felix in the Ergo and let me tell you how much of a workout that was! Of course the 231 steps down were nowhere near as grueling as the 231 steps back up! But it was fun and we got another beautiful view of the city.

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We had also promised Anya a horse and carriage ride. We normally don’t spend the money on this kind of thing but we decided to splurge a little in Ronda. It was so worth it to see the kids’ faces. Both kids loved it and kept turning around to look at the horses. They also loved to wave at people walking by.

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After the ride, we found a place to eat. We tried a few things, including calamari, goat cheese with jam, croquettes, salad, chorizo (sausage), and quail eggs with bread and ham, which I know sounds kind of weird, but it tasted amazing and I still crave it even now. Of course, no meal is complete without ice cream, so we got some to eat in the park. Then, we grabbed some snacks for the train and headed back to the station to get our luggage and board.

I want to take this opportunity to say how helpful the people that work for Renfe are. Renfe is the Spanish rail system, and while the website is a pain to deal with, we found the staff to be very helpful. When our train arrived at the station in Ronda, a group of children returning from camp were getting off and we couldn’t get through the crowd of parents to actually get on the train. The staff noticed that we were having trouble, what with a baby in a carrier and a small child we were trying to keep track of, so they ushered us down to our car and made sure the train was going to wait for us to board. Anya was a little freaked out because we were frantically looking for a way on and holding her hand tightly to be sure she was with us, but she listened well and we finally all made it on the train in one piece.

While on the train, we were trying to keep Anya busy while Felix napped, so she was practicing making faces with different emotions. Can you guess which emotions she is showing in each of the pictures?

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The real trouble began when we arrived in Granada. We had the address to our apartment but the cab driver at the train station did not. We heard him ask someone else for directions, in Spanish of course, so we assumed he knew where we were going. Unfortunately, he dropped us off at a similarly-named street and insisted that it was the right one. We found a restaurant nearby and asked one of the wait staff how to get to the street and he looked it up on his phone so he could point us in the right direction. We reluctantly started walking up the big hill to the Albayzin, with luggage and two little kids.

A runner noticed that we were having trouble getting up the hill and immediately offered to help, so we took him up on it. He was also able to flag down another cab driver to take us to the top and closer to the correct street. With the help of another interpreter, we were able to confirm that the driver knew where he was going this time. The driver spoke no English but kept mumbling in Spanish, which was kind of frustrating to us. Anya decided that he was mumbling because he didn’t have a tongue, but I have no idea why she thought that.

Once we were dropped off for the second time, we came upon another person who was able to help us find the apartment. We had only been in Granada an hour or two, but already we noticed how helpful the people there were. We felt bad that we were so late meeting the owner, but we were glad to finally have arrived.

Apparently, the owner actually lived in the apartment on occasion but stayed somewhere else when people rented it from her. Many of her things were still in the apartment, including her book and music collections. She was also a pianist so it was interesting to see what she had in those collections.

Once we were settled in, we found a bar in the Albayzin and ate. We had eggs, ham, potatoes, bread, chicken croquettes, Spanish omelettes, and salmorejo, which Felix could not get enough of. We were starving and this hit the spot for sure!

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The meal was enough to satisfy us and help us get a good night’s sleep so we could tackle our first day in Granada the following morning.

 

Day 13: A Day of Rest

Back when I was planning this whole trip, I felt slightly guilty for planning a not-so-busy day in Tarifa, but when we got that point in our trip, I was so glad we did!

Tarifa is a little town (at least compared to the bigger cities we visited), and it reminds me of the kind of beach town that locals (or at least the Spanish) would visit for a relaxing vacation on the beach. It is super windy there, so it is actually a huge windsurfing destination. It is the point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic and one of them is colder than the other, so it’s not your typical beach but it’s still a really nice place to visit. Because it draws lots of windsurfing Europeans in the summer, there are tons of international restaurants in the old town, several of which we tried.

We gladly accepted a slower-paced day (once we were there) and enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and coffee on the patio. It was freezing that morning, though, so we had to eat breakfast underneath blankets.

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Then, we headed for the old town to visit St. Matthew’s Church. It was small but beautiful and we spent about 20 minutes just looking around before getting some churros with chocolate and coffee. Yes, more coffee. We shopped a little before moving on.

After our snack break, we walked to the Isla de las Palomas, which is an island on the southern-most tip of the Iberian peninsula. You can’t walk all the way to the end because there is a security gate closing it off. It is also the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet so it was kind of cool to see both sides of it.

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We walked down the beach and found a beach bar for lunch. Many of the beach bars we saw (though there weren’t a lot of them) had enclosed porches because of the wind. We sat inside but were able to see out. We just split a burger with fries and a salad. Oh, and we had gazpacho as well. Felix couldn’t get enough of that stuff! He also wanted the beer!

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We let the kids play on the beach for a bit afterwards but it was way to chilly to stay for too long.

We headed back to the apartment later that afternoon and the kids napped, so Eric and I actually got a couple of hours to enjoy some quiet time on the patio. It was one of the few times I actually got to read a book uninterrupted.

That evening, we went to Restaurant Souk, which was a local Moroccan restaurant. Since being in Tangier a couple of days beforehand, we were obsessed with finding Moroccan food. We shared samosas, chicken couscous, a Moroccan pastry with chicken (I forgot what it was called but it was so good!), and chocolate cake with strawberry sauce.

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We stopped by a little grocery store on the way back to the apartment so that we had something quick for breakfast the next morning. We tried to turn in a little early because we had a big day ahead of us: Granada via Ronda!

 

Day 12: The Day We Broke All Our Rules (Morocco)

This was the day our parents dreaded the most, and in all honesty, it was the day we were most nervous about. We were leaving the great continent of Europe and taking a ferry across the water to enter the northern tip of Africa. I know that people thought we were crazy to drag two little kids with us to Morocco, but I just could not stand knowing that we were going to be able to see Africa from our apartment in Tarifa, Spain and not at least look into going. After much research, we decided to do it. I should also point out that this was the day we broke all our own rules. Oh well.

So the morning of our trip to Morocco (Tangier, to be exact), we were planning to take the 10 am ferry that our tour guide had instructed us to take. We had hired Aziz Begdouri for a private half-day tour of the city. And on a side note, if you EVER decide to go to Tangier for the day, we 100% recommend Aziz. We woke up to an email from Aziz telling us it would be better to take the 9 am ferry. You can imagine our panic upon reading this because we were both wondering how we were going to get two kids ready and fed and all of us on the ferry an hour earlier than planned. We rushed around and got things together as fast as we could, and somehow, we were able to get there on time.

We had no idea what the ferry would be like, but it was super nice. No chickens or livestock or anything crazy like that. It was awesome to look out the window as we approached Morocco.

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Hot chocolate on the ferry

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Breakfast on the ferry!

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Arriving in Morocco

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When we got there, it was not anywhere near as intimidating as I thought it would be. From what we had read, we totally expected lots of people hassling us to take their tours and crowds of people selling things to wade through, but there were none of those things. You actually get your passport checked before getting on the ferry and it is stamped while you are riding the ferry so we didn’t have to do any of that once we arrived.

We had been told that Aziz would be waiting for us, but instead we found a different man holding a sign with my name and the number of people in our party. This made me a little nervous because I was expecting Aziz, but another person standing there assured me that this man worked for Aziz. He led us to a vehicle which really confused me. We had planned on doing the half-day tour which did not include riding in a vehicle. Also, there was another couple there that had also made arrangements with Aziz. This also confused us because we were expecting a private tour. Apparently the man who had escorted us to the vehicle could tell we were unsure and not sure we should trust him, so he had gotten ahold of Aziz on the phone and handed me the phone to speak to him. When I got on the phone, Aziz told me he was on his way and that he had a surprise for me. I’m not sure what happened (I’m assuming he had somehow double-booked himself), but he ended up giving us the grand tour (which was a full day tour) for the price of the half day tour. It was also apparently with another couple who were probably just as confused as we were. But what else were we to do but agree to it? This was the first rule we broke (we did not originally want to ride in a vehicle in Tangier with the kids.)  I’m happy to say that the first couple hours of that day were the most stressful and the rest of the day was magical.

I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing Tangier was. We never felt scared or nervous about being there. Because it is a Muslim country, a lot of people shy away from visiting, but there is really no reason to. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. Aziz showed us around the medina and the Grand Socco and the Petit Socco. We saw lots of people selling different kinds of foods. There was everything from cheese to fresh fruit and vegetables and spices. The spices smelled so amazing! We kept stopping to smell all of them.

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Marijuana is technically illegal in Morocco but we were told many locals smoke it anyway, though tourists would be in big trouble for doing it.

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Do you see all those spices in the big bowls?!

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After a while, we stopped at Aziz’s guesthouse for a bit, as a television crew was there to film it. While he was taking care of them, he showed us around his place and up to the rooftop terrace where we had an amazing view of the city and of Spain in the distance. Then, he had his staff serve us a breakfast, which was perfect, because we hadn’t had a chance to eat much on the boat. We got coffee, Moroccan tea (which is so amazing!), donuts, and local bread with what looked to be freshly-made jelly. It was a little like heaven getting to relax on the roof while taking in the city. The only thing I regret about our trip to Morocco is that we did not stay in Aziz’s guest house. We won’t make that mistake every again. It was luxurious and right in the middle of the old city.

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Aziz’s luxurious rooftop terrace!

 

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The view from the rooftop terrace

Later, Aziz had his driver take us around the “Hollywood” of Tangier and we got to see where all kinds of government officials and kings have their summer homes. For example, we passed by the gates to the king of Kuwait’s summer home. We stopped to see some camels along the way, and Anya got to ride one with Eric. We got to actually pet a baby camel, too.

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We also got to see various views of Tangier’s beaches, which are gorgeous. According to Aziz, Morocco does not yet have a real beach culture, though he said that the younger generation is starting to see the value of the beaches there. But for now, no one really wants the beachfront property, so he said now is the time to buy that property and in 10 years when people start to find out about the beaches and develop more of a beach culture, you would be making serious money. We have toyed with the idea of buying property in another country, so this is seriously tempting to us.

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At one point, we broke the second rule, which was that we were not planning to eat anything in Tangier, especially street food. We had heard stories about people getting sick becuase of the water, so we had decided not to eat anything there. We figured Aziz’s guest house was alright because he was used to having international visitors, but we had vowed to definitely not eat any of kind of street food. We came upon a man who was making a snack on the street. It was chickpeas, flour, and egg (or at least something like that…is it bad that I don’t even really know?) and he was frying it up in the street. Of course, we had to try it (Aziz purchased one for each of us), and we were so glad we did. It was surprisingly really good, and no one got sick!

A little later, Aziz took us to another market area where we saw lots of raw meat just hanging around. The weird thing was that none of it really smelled. Aziz explained that people went to the market every day so the meat was always fresh. We also got to see all the fresh seafood for sale. The kids slept through this, which was probably a good thing.

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Then, Aziz asked what our thoughts were for lunch and we decided on a small local place that I did not know the name of. Aziz told us what they had to eat there and we chose a couple of different things. We split hummus with the other couple, though it was not what we were used to. Their hummus was whole beans with olive oil, but it was really good. We also got bread, chicken kebabs, and tagine, which is basically lamb stew with veggies. It was all really good. Aziz promptly removed the pitcher of tap water on our table and brought us back a big bottle of water and some cups. Apparently the secret to not getting sick in Morocco is to just stay away from the tap water. Everything we ate there was cooked so anything that our stomachs might not have been used to was gone before it got to us. We absolutely loved the food and it was super cheap. I think the best part of our meal was the Moroccan tea we got after our meal. It’s boiled green tea (with lots of sugar) and mint. It was so good, and I think I will forever be searching for something that can compare for the rest of my life. It has been almost two months since we were in Tangier, and I still think about that tea.

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Moroccan tea

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Tagine (lamb stew)

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Chicken kebabs

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Hummus and Moroccan bread

In the afternoon, Aziz took us around more parts of the city. We saw the only US national landmark outside of the United States. Technically, it is considered American soil. Did you know that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as its own independent country after the American Revolution 1776? That building in Tangier was given to the United States to be used as an embassy. Yes, our first embassy is in Morocco. The embassy has since been moved to Rabat, but the building is now a museum.

While roaming the neighborhoods, we got to see the community ovens. Because the housing is kind of small, each neighborhood pitches in to hire someone to work in the community oven. Families bring their food to be cooked in the oven. It was really neat to see. Of course, Anya got a roasted nut of some kind from one of the oven workers, so we broke yet another rule! We are probably terrible parents for letting her eat it, but they seemed nice enough.

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We also saw lots of little children while walking around Tangier, and they all wanted to see the kids. Random little boys would come up to Anya and give her a kiss on the cheek and then run away, leaving her standing there wondering what just happened. At one point, I was wearing Felix, and a whole group of little girls surrounded us because they wanted to see and talk to Felix. They would take his hand and kiss it and kiss his cheeks. The first language in Morocco is Arabic, but the second language is French. (Spanish is third and English comes in fourth.) They spoke to us in French, probably because they knew we were not Moroccan, and French was the safest bet. Somehow we made a connection and figured out that they wanted to know Felix’s name. One of our favorite parts of our visit to Tangier was getting to interact with the people and the little kids. The couple we were with snapped a few pictures of Felix with his fan club! Felix with the Girls Felix and Girl in Morocco

Near the end of the tour, Aziz took us shopping, at our request. Many of the tours in Tangier are simply shopping tours and the guides make commission on how much you buy, but Aziz did not take us anywhere to shop until we asked him to. We bought several different items to bring home with us and then Aziz escorted us back to the ferry to make our way back to Spain. He actually took us through the diplomat area of passport control. He knew the girl at the counter (it seemed like he knew everyone in Tangier!) so apparently she didn’t mind.

I was really sad to leave Tangier. If you ever get the chance to visit, please don’t make the same mistake we did by just spending a day. You should definitely at least spend the night!

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All the excitement (and attention) in Morocco made for one exhausted little boy!

Once we got back to Spain, we made our way back to the apartment. Eric went out to pick up some takeout from a vegetarian restaurant. We had that and some leftover pizza from a previous night.

Despite all the fear people have of visiting a Muslim country, it was a wonderful experience. We got to hear (and see) the call of prayer, which was pretty neat. We got to try Moroccan food and see what we feel was the real part of the city and not just the commercialized area. This is definitely not a location to be missed if you anywhere near Tangier! And we would highly recommend hiring Aziz Begdouri as your tour guide. He is very passionate about sharing his culture with others, and we learned so much about Morocco, Africa, and the Muslim culture that we didn’t know before.

 

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