Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cardiff, Wales

Hello from Poland!  I'm still marching along on my Eurotrip journey, typing up posts whenever I get time!  Here's another blast from the past post about my quick weekend excursion to Cardiff the second weekend in March.

My weekend in Cardiff, Wales was another one of those trips that USC paid for.  The train ride from London was only about 2.5 hours so it wasn’t too hard to get there.  Now, in case you’re not familiar with Cardiff, it is the capital of Wales and a party city.  I had no idea that the Welsh people loved to party so much until our Resident Director sent us this ( link.  Please, check it out, see for yourself the carnage left behind from Welsh parties.  Fair warning though, it is rather inappropriate at times.  Needless to say, this was a perfect place to take a group of twenty college students. 

We didn’t arrive too early on our first day, so we didn’t have time to do anything other than dinner.  Dinner was delicious and included plenty of drinks and of course we hit the pub afterwards.  The next morning we went to the Museum of Cardiff for a guided tour which was actually really informative.  I didn’t know anything about Welsh history so I quite enjoyed that bit. 

For our second day, we had tickets to go to the Wales vs. Italy rugby game.  The whole city was going crazy with excitement for this game because if Wales won that would put them in the finals of the six nations tournament.  Before the game, we walked around the city center and saw some of the festivities like this guy playing a violin while tight rope walking. 

We didn’t want to be the only people in the stadium without some rugby merchandise, so we stopped by a street vendor to pick up some scarves and a dragon hat.  The dragon is the national symbol of Wales.

A few of us USC kids also got our faces painted.

Here we are going into the stadium.  The stadium was way larger than I expected and very modern.

Here’s the start of the game.

So, I don’t really understand the rules of rugby, and after watching a game, I can’t say that I understand any better.  All I know is that they don’t wear any padding and that people have died in rugby games from smashing their heads together.  I think this next picture is a scrum, basically the ball is somewhere in the middle and the men just push and shove each other until they start heading in one direction.  It’s kind of like tug of war but with your head. 

Wales ended up winning the game, so of course everyone was going out to celebrate that night.  In true Cardiff style, we had to experience the local night life.  I am proud to say that the scenes we witnessed we eerily similar to the photos on display in that link earlier in this post.  (If you didn’t click on it earlier, now is the time to scroll up and click on it.  It’s worth it, I promise.)

Here are a few people posing with a cop.  The cops were so friendly and good-natured!

Most of the nightlife pictures I tried to take ended up blurry, dark, or otherwise not good, so I’ll let the link speak for itself.  Here’s just one photo to give you a taste.

Going out in Cardiff ended up being one of the most fun nights of clubbing since I’ve been abroad.  Everyone was so friendly and quite a few people loved my American accent which is cool because most of the time I’m bending over backwards trying to hide the fact that I’m American.  We spent the night dancing, laughing, celebrating, and generally merry-making.  We walked back to the hostel in high spirits.  

The next morning I went to explore Cardiff Castle before heading back to London.  From the outside, the castle didn’t look that big but once I got inside the castle walls I was so impressed by the scale of it all.  I felt like I was actually walking into a page out of the book “A Game of Thrones,” the epic fantasy novel turned HBO series that I’ve been reading obsessively lately. 

From the outside:

The outer walls of the castle were completely rebuilt in the Roman defensive style so that you can actually walk in tunnels inside the walls and shoot arrows out the windows in addition to having people standing on top of the walls shooting down.  This particular aspect of the rebuild is controversial because only the largest, most important Roman forts would have tunnels inside the walls.  So, the likelihood of a small castle in Wales having this style of walls is pretty slim but apparently the person who rebuilt the castle walls didn’t know that.  Still, it was cool for me.

Inside the walls it was mostly just a large yard with an inner keep surrounded by a moat.

The walls were pretty massive with mounds of dirt built up on the inner side so that people could stand on the inside. 

Just the gates are at least 12 feet tall.

Check out the inner keep.

And for scale, look at how small I am compared to the keep.

The inner keep hasn’t been rebuilt like the walls, so you have to use a bit of imagination to think about what life would have been like in the Middle Ages.  You can walk inside, but none of the inner structure or the roof of the keep remain.  So now it’s basically just a thick, stone cylinder.  And I mean those walls are really thick.

It is believed that there used to be a chimney that formed a sort of half circle on the inside of the keep.  All that’s left is some crumbling stones sticking out from the wall.

Here you can see the remnants of the stairs that would let people reach the upper floors.

From the top of the keep, you can see all of Cardiff, which was pretty cool.

After exploring the keep, I swung by the quarters where the noble family who owned the castle used to live.  From the outside, it kind of looked like a church.

The inside was gorgeously decorated.  We weren’t allowed to enter all the rooms but from what we could see they definitely lived a lavish lifestyle. 

Overall, I was impressed with Cardiff.  It seems like a very fun city and the people are all very open and friendly!  Overall it was another successful weekend with USC!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Morocco Part 2

Next up, we reached the Volubilis site.  Oddly enough, this was the first time I had ever seen Roman ruins in person and I was in the middle of Morocco!  Who would have thought?  From afar, it didn’t seem that big, but walking through I realized that it was actually huge.  We spent an hour walking through the city and we didn’t even cover everything. 

I was amazed at how well preserved the site was.  Unlike Rome where a modern city has grown over the ancient ruins to replace them, the site of the Roman ruins in Morocco has been fairly untouched.  Walking through the city I really felt transported back in time.  Here is the main street. 

At the end there was a huge gate, what would have been one of the main entrances into the city.  It was absolutely massive and still essentially intact.  Now that’s what I call good engineering!  That has a lot to do with why I’m so obsessed with the ancient Romans.

It’s not too difficult to imagine what the street would have been like in its prime with arches all along it.

And like every Roman city, this one had a forum.

Here we are sitting on the steps.  One of the ancient Emperors could have once stood exactly where we were sitting!!!

Walking through the site, it’s easy to identify where the walls to buildings were.  Sometimes the walls were still high enough to feel like you’re walking into someone’s bedroom.  Here, for example, you can still see the mosaic floor tiles.

There were so many different mosaics throughout the city.  I didn’t think that the Romans really used mosaics that frequently but I suppose that they are simply evidence of adding a Moroccan flair to the Roman style.  The city also contained public baths.  Here we are lounging in them.

And here’s a trench bathroom.  Even with all their great engineering, the ancient Romans didn’t have flushing toilets.  But alas, you can still sit on them and feel like you’re taking part in the lifestyle of ancient Rome!

And for someone a bit more wealthy, a private bathtub, completely covered in mosaics.

And here I am just chillin’, like standing in the ruins of a city that’s part of my favorite ancient civilization is really no big deal (I was secretly…okay not so secretly…freaking out inside).

Our final site of the day was the royal city of Meknes.  Just outside the gates there was a huge lake.

The gate itself was actually really cool too.

Inside, we visited the ancient granaries and former stables.  These are apparently well known throughout Morocco but as I know very little about the history of Morocco, I wasn’t familiar with them.  They are apparently important.

We walked around Meknes a bit and had lunch there, but basically a medina is a medina.  There are so subtle differences, but for the most part they are pretty similar.  The architecture throughout seems pretty uniform to Western eyes.  For example, the Moroccan style of arches can be found everywhere as shown in this picture. 

On our drive back into Fez, we stopped by the royal palace at Fez.  Fez isn’t the capital, but as a royal city they house a royal palace where the royal family can sometimes go on vacation.

For our last day, we decided to try out the traditional Arabic bath called a “hammam.”  Hammams can be found throughout the Arab world and traditionally they are public baths, separated by gender, but in essence very similar to the ancient Roman public baths.  In the Arab world, however, they are still very popular.  Multiple generations will often go together to help scrub and clean each other before important events such as weddings.  The cool thing about Moroccan cities is that the idea of a “hammam” has been Westernized into a kind of Arabic spa in the Nouvelle Villes.  Two of our fellow female travelers at the riad recommended a place called Nausikaa Spa so we figured we would try it out. 

It turned out to be absolutely amazing.  We paid the equivalent of about $28 for a complete spa treatment.  We started out in the sauna relaxing and hanging out.  They give you a special oil soap to use to start out with.  Then we got a complete head to toe rose scented mud exfoliating scrub.  The dead skin was rolling off of me in these nasty brown beads.  I felt like I was being erased and all the eraser bits were rolling off my skin only the eraser bits were all my dead skin.  After she finished scrubbing me off and rinsing me I felt so relaxed and clean.  My skin was so soft and rejuvenated.  After rinsing off with the special soap, spending a little more time in the sauna and a quick dip in the cold water Jacuzzi, I was wishing that I had paid the extra $15 for a half-hour massage.  Honestly, I have no idea why I didn’t.  Next time I go to Morocco, I am definitely getting the massage.  I mean, it was so cheap compared to what you would pay for something equivalent in the U.S.!  On this trip we’re going to Budapest and one of the things Topdeck recommends to try out on the free day is to try out the traditional Arabic hammams.  I think that I’m definitely going to go again and to try to convince as many other people to go with me as possible! 

It would have been easy to spend all day there, but alas, we still had a few other things we wanted to try and see.  We looked for a museum that my guidebook recommended and ended up stopping in a hotel next door that had the same name.  Apparently the museum was closed, but the guy at the front desk invited us to look around the hotel.  It turned out to be gorgeous.

The central courtyard

A ceiling in one of the lounges

A traditional decorated wooden ceiling

Traditional plaster decorations on a wall

More mosaic work on a wall

Finally, the last thing on our list was to get henna!  We wondered around the medina till we found a place.  We didn’t have much time since we had to get to the airport, so unfortunately we had to rush the lady doing the designs but it still looked pretty cool!  We also didn’t get to leave the henna on our skin for as long as you’re supposed to since we had to pack up and get to the airport but it still lasted for a couple weeks! 

All in all, Morocco ended up being a great trip!  The only thing that I wish had been different is that I had been able to communicate with the locals more easily.  It was always obvious that I was a Westerner and I felt like I could never break past the barrier of tourist and host.  The next time I go to Morocco, I want to go to one of the beaches and possibly stay in the Nouvelle Ville rather than inside the medina.  Staying in the medina was great for my first time in Morocco, and it’s cheaper than staying in the Nouvelle Ville, but all the hustle and bustle is very exhausting, especially travelling as a pair of women.  Men would always be calling out to us and trying to sell us stuff, even if we ignored them.  I’m sure the beaches like Casablanca are beautiful.  Alas, I’ll have to go back someday. 

I hope you can understand why this post took me so long to write.  I had almost 200 photos to sort through and typed up in Microsoft Word these two posts together took up 8.5 pages!  I spend a lot of time selecting the best photos to upload and resizing them for webpages.  I’m so sorry for the delay but I hope it was satisfactory!  Let me know what you think in the comments :).

Anywho, that’s it for Morocco!  There’s plenty more to come!

Morocco Part 1

Hello from Vienna, Austria!  My post about Morocco ended up being super long and containing a bunch of pictures, so I divided it into two posts so that my blog will load faster.  Anywho, here it is, finally!

It seems like ages ago that I went to Fez, Morocco.  I flew there on the afternoon of February 23.  Morocco is part of the North Africa region that was conquered by the Arabs.  It forms the other half of the Strait of Gilbraltar with Spain and is how the Arab armies were able to reach the southern-most tip of Spain.  It is literally the most Western tip of the Arab world and figuratively the most Western in that it is far more open and friendly with the West than the rest of the Arab world.  Even though it is so close to Spain, getting off the plane you instantly feel the difference between the Western and Eastern influence. 

The first night we met the owner of the hotel at the gates of the medina so he could lead the way and went straight to the hotel.  Our hotel was inside the medina where you can’t drive cars, so we got dropped off at Bab Boulejold and followed from there.

Bab Boulejold, translated to Blue Gate:

Basically, the medina is the oldest part of a Moroccan city; in the case of Fez, one of the royal cities meaning that it houses a palace for the royal family, the medina dates back over a thousand years.  The cool thing about Fez is that it was recently named a UNESCO world heritage site and ever since then a lot of money has been put into restoring the ancient architecture of the city.  The medina was developed long before cars existed so the streets were never designed to be wide enough for cars.  The medina is like a maze through buildings, all about five or six stories high so you feel more like you’re in a tunnel.  Sometimes the buildings are actually built over the streets so you really are walking through a tunnel.  That first night it would have been impossible for us to find our way to the hotel without a guide because it would be impossible to truly map the medina since there are so many tiny alleys and dead ends, plus most of the streets don’t even have names.  Thankfully the people at the hotel were cooking that night because we would have never been able to find our way around!  So, we just hung out there, ate dinner, drank delicious Moroccan tea, and got to know a bunch of our fellow travelers!    

We booked our hotel online through, but it wouldn’t be really correct to call it by Western terms a “hostel” or a “hotel.”  Really, it was a “riad,” and old Arabic term that is generally translated to hotel.  It’s basically an architectural style where you have a central courtyard which is open up to the sky.  In our case, they had a gazebo tent over the opening on the terrace level to protect the ground floor from rain, but all four levels still opened up to fresh air.  Our hotel had recently been restored and all the mosaic work was gorgeous and very well done.  In fact, it was one of the nicest hotels that I’ve stayed at in all my travels, and it was also one of the cheapest. 

Check out this tile work:

And the fountain inside:

What’s interesting about the Moroccan style of architecture is that it feels somewhat “inside-out” from a Western perspective.  In the West, I’m used to the streets feeling open so that you can see the sky and feel like you have space then you go inside for shelter and a more cozy atmosphere.  In Morocco, it’s completely the opposite.  The streets are so narrow you can hardly ever see the sky and there are so many people pushing and shoving it’s crazy.  Even in the heart of downtown Chicago with some of the tallest sky scrapers you can always look up and see the sky and feel like you’re walking through open air.  In Morocco where the buildings are hardly ever more than six stories tall, you still feel like you’re walking through a caged maze.  Then, you walk inside the “riad” and suddenly everything is open and airy.  Sunshine is pouring into the courtyard and all the noise and bustle of the streets seems to fade away.  Going up to the top floor and sitting on the terrace was my favorite.  The weather was perfect, hot enough to feel comfortable in a t-shirt but not too hot to start sweating, and the sun was magnificent.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed the sun in dreary London until I got a taste of the great Moroccan sun. 

Another thing that makes the streets feel caged in is that sometimes they put wood “roofs” over them such as the one shown in the picture below.  Cats roam the medina freely and we often saw them making their way over these “roofs.”  One time we even heard a full on cat fight happening on top of one!

Our first night, we had a great time eating delicious Moroccan food and getting to know our fellow travelers, even without leaving our hotel.  The courtyard on the ground floor provided a great place to hang out, drink some of the addictive Moroccan tea, and relax.  We met some people who had been backpacking Europe for months and their Schengen visas (the agreement that allows you to travel to multiple European countries on one visa) were expiring so they had to leave the Schengen area for a while.  Pretty much everyone there seemed to be a wayward traveler exploring the world.  I was surprised at how many people had given up their jobs back home to spend a year or more traveling and living off their savings.  I’ve only been in Europe for four months and my savings have already taken a severe hit!  Many of them didn’t have plans for what they would do when they finished traveling but they all seemed to have adventurous spirits.  I guess it’s just the logical engineer in me that would never be able to simply give up everything for a year and simply travel without any plans or itinerary or anything but at the same time it seems like a very romanticized idea. 

For our first day, we organized an official guide through the tourism office to show us around the medina.  It was definitely a good decision since we would never have been able to find all the different places on our own!  Our first stop was at one of the leather tanneries, a type of craftsmanship for which Fez is famous.  The smells of the dyes that they use are absolutely awful so when you get up to the terrace overlooking the tanneries they give you a little mint leaf to hold in front of your nose.  It helps, but the stench is still pretty awful.  At one step of the process, they mix in pigeon droppings because it helps for some reason.  In this picture you can see all the different colors.  Some of the milky colored ones are baths to remove the fur from the hides. 

This shows a big stack of hides and a large wheel that they use to spin and wash the hides.

Here you can see the hides hanging to dry.  In the windows are the rooms where the women work on sewing the hides into sellable goods.

And here I am overlooking it all, temporarily not holding my mint leaf to my nose for the photo.

I spent WAY too much in the tannery but I got a great cross body satchel that I love and use all the time so I guess it was worth it!  I have a cross body travel purse which is great for traveling when I don’t want to carry too much, but sometimes I want to bring around my guidebook or my London A-Z or a water bottle and my travel purse just isn’t quite big enough.  I can also fit my laptop in my leather satchel so if I ever want to bring it around I can! 

Throughout the medina, there is such detailed mosaic work everywhere.  Everything is decorated in the most detailed patterns.  There are also fountains throughout the medina with water that comes directly from aqueducts outside the city.  For example, check this one out:

On our tour, we also went and saw a few mosques.  Mosques that are still in use are not open to non-Muslims, so unfortunately we never got to see the inside of most of them.  There are a few, however, that are no longer active mosques where we were allowed to walk inside and take pictures. 

Here I am inside a mosque with my brave travel companion, Olivia.

Another view of a mosque

Our guide explained that green is the holy color of Islam, so holy buildings such as mosques and religious universities always have green roofs.  Here is a famous university, the first university in Morocco.  As it is a religious building, it is topped by a green roof.

We were not allowed to enter the building, but we were able to look through the outer gate.  Our guide explained to us that the two sets of stairs lead up to the two different sections of the university.  The green stairs led up to the religious part while the blue (the color of Fez) stairs led up to the secular part.  Here are the green stairs.

We also stopped by a fabric making shop.  Like everything in the medina, it is all handmade according to ancient traditions.  Here is a man working on a loom.

As always on that tour, I ended up spending more than I meant to, but I got a great purple fabric.  My room in London was really lacking for purple since I got a pretty bland white and green duvet cover.  So, now I can put my purple fabric over my duvet and it keeps me a little bit warmer and brightens up the color quite a bit!  The fabric is silky so it’s smooth to the touch and it rolls up in a nice tight cylinder so it doesn’t take up too much room.  At another stop on the tour we visited a sort of perfume and spice shop.  We got to watch a couple of girls grinding argan nuts into argan oil.  The argan tree is a particular type of knotted bent-over looking tree which grows only in the Morocco region.  It’s very popular in cosmetics.  I wasn’t sure I believed that since I had never heard of the argan tree before until I was at a perfumery in France and they mentioned the argan oil that they use in their products.  So, I figure it’s legit!  I got a couple bars of soap, some perfume bars, some tea, and some smelling salt-type things which are supposed to help clear your nasal passages. 

Our guide also took us into an old courtyard to demonstrate the traditional Moroccan household style.  The home has now been turned into shops, but just like our “riad,” the central courtyard was open to the sky and the bedrooms all had windows looking into the courtyard. 

Along the way, we stopped at a carpet shop while our guide went to Friday prayer.  The owners of the shop offered us Moroccan mint tea to drink while we sat on the terrace to appreciate the great view of the whole medina. 

As you can see in this picture, all the buildings are built up on top of each other.  Looking down from above, it’s like looking at a bunch of squares and rectangles all fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Almost every building has a terrace and a courtyard.  Sometimes the only way to feel like you’re “outside” is by going inside and sitting on a terrace or at a courtyard since the streets are so crowded, narrow, and dimly lit.  Beyond the medina, you can see the hills in this photo.

For dinner that night, we wondered close to Bab Boulejould where there are many shops and restaurants that cater to the many westerners who enter the medina through this gate.  I ordered couscous since it is a Moroccan specialty even though I don’t normally like couscous.  To my great surprise, it was absolutely delicious!  Pretty much all the food that I had in Morocco was great even though I was hesitant since I don’t normally like Middle-Eastern food. 

In addition to the medinas, another aspect of a Moroccan city is the so-called “Nouvelle Ville.”  When Morocco was a French colony, the French came in and built roads, Churches, shops, and other Western amenities right outside of the old Medinas.  French is also taught in all the schools and more Moroccans speak French than English.  This gave me a chance to practice my French a bit!  I did find that the Moroccan accent was a bit difficult to understand sometimes, but most of the time I was able to get by.  Here you can see a bit of the western influence in this fountain in the Ville Nouvelle. 

For our second day, we heard that close to the city of Fez, we could also visit Moulay Idriss, an ancient holy city, Meknes, another royal city, and Volubilis, a site containing ruins from an ancient Roman city.  I knew that the ancient Romans had conquered the coast of North Africa, but I had no idea that they had settled and built cities as far inland as Fez!  If anything, that just goes to show how awesome ancient Rome was!  Anyway, we hired a driver for the day to take us to these near-by sites and be our quasi tour guide.  He didn’t speak English, so this was the true test of my French-speaking abilities.  Along the way, we stopped by this nice lake just outside Fez.  From what I could understand, I believe it provides some of the water for the city.

Our first stop was just outside of Moulay Idriss.  From my guidebook, this city is supposedly a pilgrimage site because it contains a particularly holy mosque.  We didn’t actually go into the medina, but we drove through the outskirts and got a good look.

And here we are.

At one point, our driver saw this bird and had to stop so we could take pictures.  I couldn’t really understand why this bird is important, but our driver seemed very interested in it.