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Morocco: The perfect 7 day itinerary

And now for the perfect Morocco itinerary. Note that the itinerary assumes you have full 7 days.

(To prepare for your travel to Morocco, read this first)

Day 1: Fes

Fes is a sleepy city in the North of Morocco. It is the second largest in the country (pop: 1.5 mn), yet has a distinct small-town feel. It’s also largely Arab influenced (unlike Marrakesh, which is predominantly Berber). Fes was the capital city of Morocco until 1912. Fes is also believed to be one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones (car-free areas).

The Fes Medina

The Fes Medina is a madhouse and littered with many gems. It was the best (and most authentic) of the medinas we visited. Founded in the 9th century, the medina is home to the oldest operating university in the world (Al Quaraouiyine), the Bou Inania Madrasa, and people who’ve actually been living here for decades. The city has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa” and continues to be the spiritual capital of the country.

 

 

Stay: At Riad Le Calife, which was delightful with the most enthusiastic Frenchman (Alex) describing the many vagaries of the city along with his very beautiful and poised (Moroccan) wife Yasmin. The rooms were gorgeous too – especially the bathroom. The attendants were traditionally attired which added to the place’s charm. It’s well located, though not quite central. It has a cool rooftop bar with a great view of the Fes Medina. Per night at USD 100 for a double

The room
Bathroom
Courtyard

 

 

 

 

 

Or

Riad Alya. An equally beautiful Riad, with a lovely, restored two-century courtyard and live music every night. Each of their rooms was fitted-out as per Moroccan cities (a red room for Marrakesh, a yellow one for Tiznit, blue for Chefchaouen etc.) Per night at USD 100 for a double but plenty of discounts available on travel sites.

View from the room below to the courtyard
The yellow room

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eat at Café Clock, which also doubles as a cooking school. It is a beautiful multi-story café with much to be explored, but we were really exhausted and hungry when we visited and landed up eating a lot and resting our tired legs. The place is young, hip, and quirky with events happening every evening. As it says on its website, “Clock fuses and celebrates the rich traditions and playful manifestations of modern Moroccan culture.” Truly so. The 7alwa platter we had was amazing. Located both in Marrakesh and Fes. Do check this place out. Also, the menu.

Where we sat in Cafe Clock
View from top

 

 

 

 

 

Fes would be our base for the next two days.

A way to do day trips out of Fes is to contact local travel agents. We used Fes desert tours, who were good, but there’s really not much difference in the tour operators. We had much better luck taking local guides for walking tours. The multi-day tour operators coordinate with each other and are interchangeable. So take any – no difference. Remember to clarify all the nuances of the trip before though: is it a shared or private trip, what are the stops, what are the inclusions and exclusions. Insist on no shopping, or you’ll land up going to places (restaurants, stores) where the tour operators get commissions from.

The blue streets of Chefchaouen
Day 2: Chefchaouen

The blue city, the city you’ve probably seen in Moroccan postcards. What can I say? It looks as beautiful as it promises in those postcards.

There are several theories as to why the walls are painted blue. One popular theory is that the blue keeps mosquitos away, another is that Jews introduced the blue when they took refuge from Hitler in the 1930s. The blue is said to symbolize the sky and heaven and serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life (Wikipedia)

Narrow lanes, half blue, half white, derelict walls, yet oddly enchanting.  Steep cobbled roads laden with goodies for sale – baskets, kilims, leather, scarves, wool garments and woven blankets. Also lined with men approaching you with, “Indian brother, want some?”

Kif they mean. Hashish. After all, Chefchaouen is located in the Rif Mountains and the region is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco (and the world). Random men at cafes offered to share their hash with us.

And when we left, they asked us to “Love each other more and more.” Aww. Cannabis can make you so generous.

 

 

 

 

Day 3: Volubilis, Meknes, Moulay Idriss

Oh, how I love Roman ruins. Volubilis is a partly excavated Roman city situated near the city of Meknes. It used to be the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania. It covers about 42 hectares (100 acres) with a 2.6 km (1.6 mi) circuit of walls. Like all Roman ruins, the city has a basilica, temple, and triumphal arch. We saw plenty of baths (the Romans seemed to love them), mini arenas/ amphitheaters, olive oil presses and ornate tiled floors to occupy us for a few hours. Entry is 20 dirhams, a guide costs 200 dirhams, but the latter can be bargained down.

Volubilis ruins
Arch of Caracalla
Mosaics
The Basilica
Arch of Caracalla (close up)
More ruins

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meknes and Moulay Idriss were the most authentic small towns we visited. The market square at Meknes was only just warming up when we arrived; musicians were starting to set up, the tenor on the hawkers’ calls grew louder as dusk approached, odd games were being played, odder wares were being plied as possible (and suspect) food. It was all quite fascinating.

Kefta at Moulay Idriss
View of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
Bab Mansour Gate (Meknes)
Meknes main square
A grocer at Moulay Idriss
A sweet seller at Meknes market

At the Moulay Idriss market square,  we were possibly having the best meal until then in Morocco (pickled olives, tangy kefta…you see, we need spice!) but I was more occupied by the hotelkeeper on the other side of the road. He was waving for patrons to come in to eat something at his shop and he did this for the entire hour we were there, but no one went in. I watched as he finally gave up and sat down. The road had quite a few eateries, and most of them were empty. Moulay Idriss is a fairly small town and not top of a tourist’s itinerary, and I wondered how these guys made ends meet. Our restaurant was teeming with people. We saw people, decided it must be a good place to eat and went in. I guess that was true for the others there as well. Reviews beget reviews, after all.

The un-visited Tajine seller at Moulay Idriss
Our overworked restaurateurs

 

 

 

 

 

 

We used Authentic Sahara shared desert tour for the next three days.

The landscapes we crossed
Day 4: Fes, Ifran, Cedar Forest, Midelt, Ziz Valley, Merzouga
Day 5: Erfoud, Rissani, Todra Gorges, Dades Gorges
The Todra Gorge
Chez Talout
Breakfast at Chez Talout
Day 6: Ouarzazate, Ait Benhaddou Marrakech, via the High Atlas Mountains, night at Marrakesh

Ifrane was a really pretty town. The Todra gorge was breathtaking, although full of tourists. We stayed overnight in Hotel Chez Talout at the Dades Gorge, which was pretty cool too. But what stood out in our two nights, three days trek through the almost 1000 km drive from Fes to Marrakesh were:

The landscapes: We sat cooped up in a 4WD most of the day, and so, the small towns we passed, alternating with the High Atlas mountains with the occasional patches of green shrubbery and yellow mud-brick homes, were bound to be the highlights. Luckily, there was enough variation to keep us entertained and gasp out in awe, pointing our discoveries to each other.

Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou:

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate is a city in south-central Morocco, chiefly inhabited by Berber-speakers, who constructed many of the prominent kasbahs and buildings for which the area is known. The fortified village (ksar) of Ait Benhaddou west of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A Berber jewelry seller
Strumming the Oud
Aït Benhaddou

The Ouarzazate area is a noted film-making location. Some examples are below. Located here is also Atlas Studios, one of the largest movie studios in the world in terms of land area.

1961 – Sodom and Gomor

1962 – Lawrence of Arabia

1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ

1999 – The Mummy

2000 – Gladiator

2005 – Kingdom of Heaven

2006 – The Hills Have Eyes

2008 – Body of Lies

2013 – Game of Thrones

The ‘Mhysa’ episode of Game of Thrones (Season 3)

Others

And finally (drumrolls)

The Sahara desert

The Dunes of Merzouga

It was a dream come true. Trekking through the Sahara on camels, camping overnight, watching the sunset and sunrise while shivering in the frosty winter cold and soaking in the orange glow of the sun. I did feel bad for the camels once in a while: the poor, utterly domesticated creatures, tied to each other with ropes, ferrying fat-asses like us on and on and on. But they had been trained to be quiet, gentle, and subservient. I relied on the grip of their large feet on the downward slope of the soft, powdery desert sand, while fervently telling my quivering heart, “They’re trained. Worry not. You’ll come to no harm.” (But that’s not wholly true. A friend of mine, on a later trip, was severely injured when a camel threw her to the ground, and unfortunately for her, they were still on –err quite literally – rocky ground) Getting up and down the camels is the hardest. I was struggling a bit to hold on, but once your bodies attune to the rhythm of their movement, you’re golden.

As you leave this narrative, picture this, because I want you to see what I did. How ethereal this experience actually is.

Imagine…

…A vast expanse of orange-yellow powder, soft as

…On it, rows and rows of camels, undulating in uniform waves

…Bedouins in blue, leading them

…At one end, white and black tents, warm and cozy inside

…Bonfire at night. Berber drums. Hot mint tea.

…Sleeping under a million stars in the inky blue sky visible through the translucent tent’s roof

Day 7: Marrakesh

And now the most famous city of them all.

Marrakesh.

Also known as, Red City or Rose City or Mad House, or More Cash (coz, everyone is always asking for more money, you see). The walls of the city are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the ‘red city’.

Marrakesh is a lot of sights, sounds, smells, and colors. It’s a lot like India (minus the roadside garbage and beggars) and similarly overpowering. Though the people we met were relaxed and friendly. Chilled. My fondest memory is of drinking sweet cinnamon coffee sitting on a pavement while a dozen old men got up from a nearby bench to offer me their place. Another memory is of buying a bunch of postcards and sitting in the spacious Post Maroc office to send them to beloved friends. A third is of sitting on the terrace of Café de France and watching the market below come alive. Fruit sellers, snake charmers, sunglass peddlers, tajine sellers…a fable straight out of the Arabian Nights, unfolding right in front of our eyes.

The next day we went past the dusty orange-red clay walls over to Gueliz, the French part of town. It was fancier, cleaner, done up in pristine French yellow and white, a noteworthy contrast to the old city. Things to see here are: the Majorelle Gardens, The Berber museum, and the Yves St Laurent museum. The area is quite a good place to hang out and party at night. Top things to do in Gueliz.

Inside the Souks
The narrow red lanes
Aerial view – medina
Bahia Palace
Storks of the El Badi Palace
Squeezing in through the narrow streets

 

 

 

 

 

Traditional bread maker

 

 

 

 

 

A Candy Souk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay at: Riad Abaca Badra. Run by a charming old French couple – Gilles and Dominique – the riad is well located and cozy. It was the cheapest of the places we stayed in Morocco and comparable or better in quality to most. And Gilles does make some killer cocktails! Night stay for a double: USD 60

Take a walking tour: I can say with a fair degree of confidence that if not for Saeed, our walking tour guide in Marrakesh, we would’ve gone home mostly ignorant about the city (and the country). Guides in Morocco are more travel organizers; they ferry you from place to place but rarely tell you about what you’re seeing. Not so him. Saeed spoke excellent English, went to great lengths to take us through the history (both real and purported) of every place we were seeing and patiently answered our naïve questions. Most importantly, he gave us an orientation to the medina, which even though we are from India and used to chaos, was extremely helpful. Marrakesh by Locals

You may need to stay more than a night at Marrakesh. There is a lot to see and savor. Stay as long as you like. Then fly back to where you started. Weep a few tears as you leave.

Merhaba. You were good to us.

The Marrakesh central train station

Read what you need to know about Morocco before you go here.

Morocco: Know before you go

They say “You’re welcome,” even before you’ve said thank you.

Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Bhaiyya, Namaste, the clichés follow you.

But I hope it wouldn’t be too much of a cliché to say Morocco was unlike any other country I’ve visited before.

The mayhem of the medinas with its spice sellers, craftsmen, auctioneers, and (I kid you not) snake charmers, and the feeling of being transported to an ancient world within its fortified walls; the men in the long striped robes and peaked caps upfront about what they want to say to you (or ask of you); the women in hijab-hardly discernible; the gorgeous Islamic/ Moorish/ Berber designs ready as a backdrop to any photo; the arid landscapes with the sudden bursts of vegetation; the endless sun-washed Sahara desert; the looming, hard Atlas mountains you sigh at as you lean out of your 4WD’s window…

A sweet assault on the senses; that’s what it was.

A seller of spice at the Marrakesh Medina
A few things to know, before you go:

Medina: Every city in Morocco has a Medina (Think of them like old town areas in Europe). Typically these are within towering walls with multiple entry gates (bab), with narrow, maze-like streets, a bustling marketplace, and err…loads of people who’d want to ‘help’ you in exchange for money. The word Medina means city in Arabic. But often a medina is adjacent to a French-built new town (such as Gueliz in Marrakech), so in effect, there are two parts to a city – old and new.

In the narrow lanes of the Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat
The typical Moroccan single minaret mosque
A bab to enter the Medina
To knock on the dungeon-like doors
Aerial view: Central square of the Marrakesh Medina
The blue lanes of Chefchaouen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez,” Paul Bowles wrote in an essay on the medina and as quoted in this New York Times article. “The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through, and you have to back up or step quickly into a doorway while they pass, the drivers intoning, ‘Balak, balak, balak …’” (“Watch out, watch out watch out!”)

Well, after all, the Fes Medina has over 9400 lanes!

Ouarzazate Kasbah

Kasbah: (What we gathered was) these are living quarters within a Medina. In the earlier days, African migrant labourers set up camp here. The Arabic word translates to the central part of a town or citadel.

An interesting incident happened while at the Kasbah des Oudaias in Rabat. First day in Morocco, and we had been forewarned about unsolicited ‘guides’.  So ducking a few we managed to walk through unharmed through the Kasbah, taking in the patchy blue and white walls, the view over the Bou Regreg River, clicking pictures, revelling in the first-day travel happiness.

On our way back we turned to a corner and exchanged smiles with the lady of a house dusting outside. She spoke good English and we got talking. She told us about her family, her children, her husband, her neighbours. She invited us inside. She had a lovely house. It was located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River overlooking it. Beautiful, ornate upholstery, many pictures of her family, a small kitchen cooking couscous (it was a Friday, she explained, and she cooked couscous on holy days), the mandatory portrait of King Mohammed VI. I thought to myself then, how lovely are these people. How warm and friendly. She invited us to her house. She is now offering us tea…

But we had to leave. We didn’t have much time. So at the door, I took a picture with her. As a souvenir. All smiles.

Then just as we were turning to go…

Ah, well, she asked for money.

For her children, she said.

My heart broke into a million pieces.

The view from her house

Riads: Traditional homes and palaces in Morocco (and usually located inside a Medina) are called Riads. Typically, they have a courtyard in the centre, with windows from surrounding rooms opening out to it. Courtyards are often decorated with a fountain and orange or lemon trees. Depending on the family’s wealth, the Riad may also be decorated with zellige (Moroccan mosaic tilework made from individually chiselled geometric tiles set into a plaster base and stucco work).

Riad bathrooms, one more ornate than the next
A Riad Courtyard
Breakfast spread
A Riad courtyard at night

Book a room in a riad. It is a great experience. But be sure to get the directions right. Call the riad before to have someone guide you on the first day. Else, you’re sure to get lost. As we did. Every single time.

Souks: In Arabic, it translates to an open-air marketplace. In the Medina, a souk refers to a patch of the market specializing in a particular good. For example, there is a spice souk with shops that sell spices, or a leather souk, or a souk for household goods, or silver etc. Frequently, first and second-hand merchandises are auctioned in these souks and that is quite a sight to watch.

Tajine or tagine is a local cuisine (and pronounced to rhyme) which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. It is a slow-cooked dish with savoury stews, made with sliced meat, poultry or fish together with vegetables or fruit. All in one wholesome, though often too bland for the Indian palate. Kefta Tajine with Omelet Berber was our favourite. We also had a Tajine with slow cooked lamb with pomegranate seeds and almonds at Riad 72 (Marrakesh) which was delicious.

A meal for two (A Tajine or Couscous dish, Moroccan pastries or fruits as dessert, mint tea, complimentary bread, complimentary pickled olive starters) costs 100-120 Moroccan dirhams or 11-14 dollars. Cheap, eh?

Inside a Tajine – Health in a plate
A typical Tajine
More olives than I could eat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kefta Tajine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our most interesting eating experiences was in Chefchaouen, at a restaurant that cannot be named. The owner, who cannot be named either, wearing a T-shirt that screamed ‘Cannabis’ was serving us, and so the companion asked him for some. Which was eagerly provided. They smoked together some. The rest of the trip was less stressful after that.

A lot many people offered to sell us hash. Apparently, cannabis is smoked quite widely in Morocco, and all of the production can be found in the Rif Mountains, which stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the port city of Tangier. Morocco produces anywhere from one third to almost half of all hashish sold around the world. Chefchaouen’s proximity to the epicentre of hash production in Morocco makes the drug readily available and dealers abound. More here

Kif in the Rif

Berber or Amazighs are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa and have apparently been around since 10,000 BC. The community has its own language and culture which they continue to retain and propagate. They used to be pagans before the Muslims came in and then the French. Eventually, they adopted Islam as their religion (Sunni) and French as their second language.  The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa

Drinking: Very few restaurants offer alcoholic drinks. The numbers were a bit more at Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Wine and local beer are available in fine dining places and also on request at the riads. Else, if you’re travelling, best to carry your own poison. Or drink the mint tea, also known as Berber whiskey.

By the way, the pulp laden orange juice totally rocks, and I replaced both coffee and wine often with it, which if you know me, is quite uncharacteristic.

Cafe culture is quite strong. You’ll see rows and rows of cafes with Moroccan men (never women) sitting outside, together or alone, puffing on a cigarette (which you can smoke bloody anywhere) and sipping from a glass of coffee, watching the world go by. Very relaxing, even seeing that.

A cafe at Rabat

Language: Everyone speaks French, which is the language of official business. I jumped out of my skin when a garbage collector riding a donkey came galloping by my side and then acknowledging me said softly, “Pardon.” (Pronounced the French way)

The Berber flag
Berber alphabets

Taxis and getting around: Uber works in Casablanca and Rabat but is very patchy. In Rabat, there have been instances of Uber drivers getting beaten up by the local taxi guys, so their car numbers are masked. Local taxis rarely run by meter, so haggle hard or insist on the meter. The best way is to ask your riad to get you a taxi or know the actual rate before you head out. The rates are about 5 dirhams per km for the petit taxi. More for the big taxis.

When a taxi slows down, be sure there is a police checkpoint ahead, which are quite a lot. Wear your seatbelt at all times.

Currency: Most places accept Euro, so that is the best currency to take along on your visit. Exchange rates were the best in the hotels and riads we stayed. Remember to keep some euro/ Dirhams handy to pay the city tax every time you check out of a riad

Tour guides: There’s really not much difference in the tour operators in Morocco. We had much better luck taking local guides for walking tours. The multi-day tour operators coordinate with each other and are interchangeable. I’d say they are more like a taxi service – stopping at a few important landmarks along the way, and occasionally asking if you were enjoying yourself. Most don’t even speak good English. Remember to clarify all the nuances of the trip before you take one – is it a shared or private trip, what are the stops, what are the inclusions and exclusions. Insist on no shopping, else you’ll land up going to places (restaurants, stores) where the tour operators get commissions from.

Shopping: What is typically Moroccan and useful to take back as gifts? Traditional Berber jewellery and merchandise like bags, locally handcrafted Kilims, Argan oil, and leather goodies. we made the mistake of initially buying a lot of stuff from Fez and the occasional pit stops, but Marrakesh seemed to have a lot of options, inexpensive too, though the quality was often suspect. While the main shopping street in the Medina at Marrakesh was well stocked, the side lanes were cheaper (The main shopping street branches out like a fishbone; come back to the main lane to again branch out to another souk) Gueliz or the French part of Marrakesh had more fashionable options, albeit expensive.

Ouarzazate was another good shopping spot – a lot of good stuff in one place.

Cute stuff at Ouarzazate

Bargain hard. Start with half the price. Don’t feel bad about it. The locals enjoy (and expect) it.

I found Journey Beyond Travel to be a fantastic source for trip ideas and to learn more about the country.

Next – get the perfect Morocco itinerary.

A four day itinerary for Ubud, Bali

First the pre volcano jitters

For days we waited for Mount Agung to erupt (yes, we the terrible people) because, while Mount Agung is some distance away from the main tourist areas, the fly ash from the volcano could cause flights to disrupt. Which means we are stranded in Bali. Which I wouldn’t mind, but not so much my employer.

But weeks and weeks of steam belching and earth quivers led to nothing. So, after much debate, we went anyway. On Diwali weekend. Praying hard, every day.

Please Lord, no volcano.

Please.

Puhleaze.

And…there was nothing. Yay!

Four days at Bali: What did we do?

A couple of us girlfriends had gone to Bali for New Year’s in 2010. Oh, and what a time we had. We stayed at Kuta and partied every day at Sky Garden or Club 666. Wild, hedonistic, amazing. The nights came alive with DJs, dancers, fire eaters, students, all in drunken revelry, and even the staid me partied till the wee hours of the morning. Wondering where to go for New Years? Cheap, fun and happening, Bali it is.

But this time, we were second timers. We picked.

“Not by the sea,” was R’s requirement.

“More experiential, less tick marks” was mine.

So, what did we do?

We went to Ubud, the art, craft and cultural center of Bali.

Two nights at Ubud

We stayed at the lovely Tegal Sari. Bali is not short of amazing places to stay, even on paltry budgets, but Tegal Sari was resplendent without making you dollars poorer. It’s fantastically located, right next to the Monkey forest, yet in a quiet, tucked in, interior. The rooms are aesthetically done up and spotlessly clean. We stayed in the suite room (East side) which had a view to the paddy fields (not too lush in October though), later moving to the Nyalian room, smaller but still good.

Tegal Sari: The room
Tegal Sari: The balcony
Things to do in Ubud

Shopping: Jalan Raya Ubud Street, Jl Monkey Forest and Jl Hanoman are the major shopping areas. I found a lot of stores selling subpar yoga clothes (Yoga needs to be done in breathable, loose, light fabrics). There’s a good choice of organic coffee, handmade soaps, and incense which make good gifts. It’s worthwhile to visit the Ubud art market (Pasar Seni Ubud) to carry home some amazing furniture and crafts. One day I am going to do exactly that.

This is a great link on Ubud and shopping in Ubud, specifically.

Yoga at Yoga Barn or Radiantly Alive: Yoga has been bastardized and commercialized in Ubud and how! The original tenets are so muddled. But we reasoned, what the heck! If it works, it works. We enjoyed the Kundalini Yoga class with Greg at Yoga barn. It was a great experience and recommended. R bawled her heart out at some song that was played and we sung along in the end. Costs about USD 10 for a drop in, and cheaper for packages.

Yoga Barn

Cafes, of course. Atman, Anomali Coffee, Kafe, Tukies Café (the coconut ice-cream, so yum). Pura Taman Saraswati has a great view, though the food and drinks are passable. The breakfast at Cafe Wayan & Bakery was great. Specially the black rice pudding. But our top picks were Habitat Café at the entrance of the Monkey forest and Monsieur Spoon on Hanoman road. Both so good! Seniman Coffee Studio is also very popular. Here is a list of coffee shops in Ubud, all really good.

Nasi Campur
Nasi Campur at Gedong Sisi Warung
Wayan Cafe
Black rice pudding at Wayan Cafe
Dessert at Habitat
Melting chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream at Habitat
Melting Wok – A Wok for every palate

 

 

 

 

 

 

The delightful breakfast at Monsieur Spoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massages: We spoilt ourselves in a four hour massage at the Jelatik spa. Time flew and we came out spanking new. This was specially necessary given we had walked in to the spa fresh from Mount Batur with cakes of dust and grime on our body and hair. I did not really want to take the effort to clean up and was glad to have someone else do it, with a smile on her face. Cost me around USD 75

A few other things that are popular to do are: cooking classes, jewelry making, cycling tours, field walks and waterfall tours. Find an interesting list here.

And a few unusual things to do.

And then some coconut icecream

A night at Mount Batur

Sunset at Mount Batur

This was the unique experience I was seeking, and boy, oh boy, did it blow my mind. We used www.balivolcanotrekking.com, paid 130 dollars per head for a private overnight trek. You could also do a day trip to Mount Batur (start at 2 am return at 12 PM same day) but our experience of watching the sunset, eating freshly cooked fish and soup at 1717 meters, sleeping in the wildly flapping tent, and waking up at 5:30 AM with coffee in our hands, watching the sun rise along mount Rinjini and watch the sky change colors every few minutes while we wait with bated breath, was incredible. What I’d recommend is slowing the experience and actually feeling it rather than rushing because of lack of time.

The camp site with a killer view
Fresh mountain (!) fish
Cold Bintang was the reward I was climbing for

The climb up Mount Batur is easy enough, and takes around 2 hours. You might be the only ones on top and hopefully you will come across Comrade Tibor, the shaggy dog who wants to play along the steepest inclines, jumping up and down while we protect our dear lives. Mornings on the mountain are busy and crowded when the rest of the tourists come in.

We passed the Tegallalang Rice Terrace and a coffee plantation on the way. Both are lackluster and worth skipping, to my mind. I’m sure there are better coffee plantations to visit. Also, a civet cat in captivity, for display and near dead, did not get me very excited.

Did I tell you I got mauled by monkeys?

Monkey Forest

Yes, exactly that. Monkey forest is a delight although I wasn’t expecting it to be. But the monkeys can be rowdy! Two young ones grabbed my long dress during my visit to the forest. I escaped them (the trick is to keep walking and not carry or wear anything long and grabbable) But the next day, as I walked home from Jalan Raya, armed with goodies, two of them jumped on me and ran away with a few of my coffee packs. I just about managed to save the rest and narrowly avoided a heart attack.

Lastly,

How Ubud has changed! From lush fields, home stays and temples, to ostentatiously hippie (but trying not to be) cafes and wellness retreats, now the town exclusively caters to foreigners, for better or for worse. You’ll love it, if you’re not a puritan, or haven’t been to Ubud of the past. It takes some getting used to. But if you are not the reminiscing kind, or simply do not care, it’s an awesome place to be.

Everyday everywhere every time healthy

Visit Ubud Now and Then, for more on the thriving region.

Until next year’s celebrations

Dhunuchi nritya as part of the arati during Durga Puja

Overheard in the Puja Pandal

Mother: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a celebration every day?”

Little girl, with vehemence: “No!”

Mother, surprised: “Why?”

Little girl: “Everyday is boring.”

24 hours in Prague: By a frequent visitor, and hopeless romantic

Guest post by my rocking bro, Saurav, who travels more than I do these days (while I die DIE with jealousy)

Prague skyline at dusk
Why go?

Prague, the Baroque jewel in the heart of Europe, is one of the most romantic cities in the world. The city of a thousand spires—as it is so fondly called—has experienced contrasting historical periods, whose vestiges are visible even today. From centuries of Bohemian rulers to the Hussite wars and the invading Nazis and Soviets ruling the roost to finally the Velvet revolutionwhich imparted the sense of free spirit to the city that has survived till date—the city has in the recent times become a much sought after experience for tourists. The medieval cobbled streets; the hidden squares decorated with quaint cafés; arthouses and puppet shops; strolling down Karlův most (Charles Bridge) at dusk; holding a Trdelník laced with chocolate in one hand; whilst enjoying the beautiful skyline of the famous hill-top castle—umm…romantic much?

Top things to do

1. Walk down the Royal Way

Charles Bridge at night

The Royal way was the traditional route that the Czech rulers used during their coronation ceremonies. It starts off at the magnificent Municipal House at Republic Square that used to be the seat of the Czech kings. To the left of the Municipal House stands the Powder Tower, whose unusual name comes from the time it was used as a store house for gunpowder. Leading out from the Powder Tower is one of the oldest streets in Prague, Celetná, which is lined by beautiful gothic or Romanesque houses. This street then leads up to the Old Town Square, which features buildings of varying architectural styles depending on the period of history during which it was built. Notable mentions are the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Hussite church, St. Nicholas’s Church and the Old Town Hall that houses the oldest functioning Astronomical Clock. Right at the center of the square stands the statue of Jan Huss, the founder of Hussitism, an important figure in the Bohemian Reformation, which laid down the foundations of Protestantism (Czechs are primarily atheists or Protestants). Moving out from the Old Town Square, one has to enter the narrow medieval street named Karlova, which leads straight into the Charles Bridge or Karlův most. Charles Bridge, the 14th century stone Gothic bridge, crosses the lazy Vltava river and connects the old town square with one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Prague, Malá Strana or the Lesser Town.

Jan Huss at Old Town Square
Talented street artists at Charles Bridge

2. Visit the Prague Castle and Kafka’s house

The castle on a rainy night

The Royal Way further continues down and leads to the St. Nicholas Church of Lesser Town Square. Climbing up the hill leads to the charming Nerudova street that has a number of traditional Czech restaurants, cute shops selling beautiful wooden products, souvenirs and artworks, wooden puppets and the delectable Trdelníks. The street ends at the bottom of a flight of stairs that leads straight to the Castle entrance.

The Prague Castle, a UNESCO world heritage and the largest castle in the world, is an eclectic mixture of various architectural styles (Romanesque and Gothic influences) as it took several centuries to complete the castle as it stands today. The castle is home to one of the most beautiful and the most important churches in the Czech Republic, the St. Vitus Cathedral, the insides of which are decorated by beautiful stained glass windows dating back to the early 20th century and houses the tombs of Czech kings, queens and patron saints, most notably St. Vitus. Other places of interest inside the castle grounds are the Golden Lane and the Palace Gardens.

The Golden lane, which consists of diminutive brightly colored houses that once belonged to servants, goldsmiths and seamstresses, now act as museum shops and a museum of medieval armory. Most notably, the Czech writer Franz Kafka stayed in the house number 22 of Golden lane from 1916-1917, where he wrote many of his classics. The Palace Gardens are a manicured set of beautiful Renaissance gardens that overlook a wonderful panoramic view of the city.

Let me tell you, I am nobody’s puppet

3. More walking, but this time a somewhat devastating one: A walk in the Jewish Quarters

Etched out in golden blocks of stone in the different streets of Prague are names of persecuted Jews in front of the places where they worked before.

The Jewish Quarter or the Josefov is located in between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River. Although the Jewish Quarter today has become a fashionista’s paradise with high end brands, such as Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Cartier, it continues to hold the remains of centuries of Jewish persecution through the Prague Jewish Museum and the Old Jewish Cemetery, that now functions as a museum. Each misshapen tombstone in one of the oldest Jewish Cemeteries in Europe cries out different tales of fire, flood, disease and segregation. The Jews in Prague at the time were not allowed to bury their dead outside the ghetto and the Jewish faith prevented them to remove the already buried. This meant that the Cemetery is home to several thousand dead bodies that were buried in several layers one on top of each other, which explains the dense array of gravestones.

Moorish interiors of the Spanish synagogue

A moving experience is the visit to the Pinkas Synagogue, which was converted to a memorial for the deceased Jewish Holocaust victims after World War II. The synagogue also serves as museum for the drawings and paintings made by the Jewish children in the Terezín concentration camp. These children were given drawing lessons in secret by a women named Friedl, in order to give them an outlet to express themselves. What resulted were disturbing accounts of life in the ghettos from the childrens’ perspectives. All of these children were later sent to Auschwitz.

4. Markets and merry making

Easter merrymaking

The best time to visit Prague is spring, when the weather is inviting, the royal gardens are in full bloom and the Easter Markets are under way. The main markets are at Wenceslas Square and the Old Town Square (this being my favorite) and a smaller one in front of the St. George’s Basilica inside the Prague Castle.

Trdelníks

The markets consist of wooden huts that are colorfully decorated and that sell ceramics, wooden toys, scented candles, dolls, puppets, jewelry, embroidered laces and table clothes and the greatest symbol of Easter, the Easter eggs in different designs and colors. You may also get to see old Czech women dressed in traditional gowns hand painting the Easter eggs with a mixture of water colors, bee’s wax or stickers. Traditional foods, such as gigantic spit roasted hams, juicy barbecued sausages, cakes and the hot sugar coated pastries called Trdelníks, can also be seen on offer. Accompanying all these, are the famous Czech Beers, Pilsner or Urquell, which I believe are the best in Europe (Sorry, Germany!!).

An old Czech lady designing Easter eggs

However, if someone finds the air too chilly, a cup of hot mulled wine would do no harm.

During Easter, makeshift stages are set up in the Old Town Square where folk singers and dancers, who’ve traveled to Prague from all over the country, perform. Finally, the celebrations end on Easter Monday, when men come out with their Easter whips or Pomlázka—willow twigs that are braided together with colorful ribbons. They roam around the streets gently tapping women on the back, which is said to bring good luck and health to the women. In return, the men are gifted Easter

Easter Monday Traditions

eggs that the women have made beforehand and carry around with them. (Institutional flirting? Bride hunting expeditions? You don’t fool us)

5. Eat and Stay

Prague is a haven for food enthusiasts with restaurants that serve traditional bohemian dishes as well as modern cuisines located in an around the Old Town Square, the Wenceslas square and all the narrow streets that radiate out from these. But the best and the more pocket friendly options would be in Malá Strana – be it the  succulent beef cheeks and the beef goulash with bohemian dumplings at U Zlaté Podkovy or the roast duck and the roasted pork ribs in plum sauce at U Tří jelínků or the traditional Czech dish Svíčková, which is beef baked in cream sauce and served with bread

Beef Goulash in Bread

dumplings, wild cranberries and whipped cream, at Malostranský Hostinec. The chocolate and vanilla Trdelníks or the blueberry variants are also a must eat.

Beef Cheeks

The best location to stay in Prague would be on the Nerudova street which lies exactly half way between the castle grounds and the Charles bridge, with the Old Town Square being just a 20 min walk away. My personal recommendations would be Little Quarter Hostel and Hostel Santini.

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