My first experience with a Marrakesh hammam treatment was both terrifying and enlightening…

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I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a good massage from time to time. Usually, when I get one, I go for a deep tissue and or Swedish massage and usually done by a massage therapist that speaks my language.

Recently, I was in Marrakesh and while shopping, I kept seeing buckets of something that resembled  very thick caramel and the colors though dark, varied from different hues of green to blue to brown, depending on the vendor),  it turns out it was black soap.

The soap, although called black soap, has a gooey like consistency and is made of olives. The saponification process (the making of something into a soap) is done by adding potassium hydroxide. This soap is used in world famous hammam spa treatments in Marrakesh.

The hammam ritual is a Moroccan tradition, which has endured for centuries into the present day. In the hammam, your body is cleansed from head to toe. The ritual takes place in a humid steam room, where a hammam attendant, will douse you with water before applying the black soap to your skin and exfoliating it with a kessa glove (Kessa Gloves are used with black soap to deep cleanse the skin by removing dead skin cells, toxins and impurities. Blood circulation is stimulated, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the skin).

The hammam treatment can be enjoyed is a group or be enjoyed in private setting. After the ritual, you usually are served a glass of traditional Moroccan mint tea to help restore the balance of fluids.

Sounds amazing, does it not? Think again…

I was staying at the Hotel 2 Ciels in Marrakesh, this hotel had a spa that was offering a deal on a hammam treatment followed by a massage, a combination I could not pass up, so I signed up.

I was looking forward to my 1 ½ hour treatment + massage. The time for my appointment finally arrived and I was changed and waiting for my masseuse, out comes a short heavy set woman 10 minutes after the appointment is set to start, she spoke only French and Arabic while I only spoke English, Spanish and preschool French (this should have been my first sign and frankly, my opportunity to run out and request a masseuse that spoke my language)

Since we could not communicate thru our combined 4 languages, she proceeded to communicate with the universal language of signs and I understood I needed to follow her. We walked into a steam room where she basically ripped the robe off my body and suddenly I found myself naked with a paper panty and very aware of my nakedness, as if I had just had a bite of the forbidden fruit.

The masseuse signals to me to sit on the ledge and proceeds to douse me with warm water from head to toe in a manner that was almost as if she was trying to bath an unruly 5 year old kid, she did not care how she dosed me with Water, I mean, even when I wash my dog, I make sure I am careful that I’m not running water thru her eyes, her ears; this women ( I think! ) found pleasure in throwing water at me. She then asked me in French if I was ok.  Already in a state of shock, all I can respond was: “oui, oui”.

At that moment I could not stop thinking of Queen Latifah on the last Holiday when she was in the spa having a treatment and her masseuse starts hitting her with a bunch of leaves, in the movie, Queen Latifah gets up her massage table, grabs the bunch off the masseuse s hand and starts hitting her instead, very funny in the movie, terrifying in real life!

Next she signals me to lay down, so I do, stomach down, she then proceeds to cover me in black soap with a speed that felt more rushed and punishing than relaxing and enjoyable, after she was done with my back, she signals me to turn, I do and trying to keep my dignity I cover my breasts with my hands. Well, this lady was not having it, she almost wrestles me to uncover my lady bits and frankly got way to close for comfort to the bits below my stomach, I was mortified and already unable to enjoy the treatment, I decided to just let her finish the  job and hopefully enjoy the massage that followed.

After her the marathon effort to smother me in black soap, she proceeds to scrub me with the kessa glove at the same speed of “this is not relaxing and can this be over please?  After the scrubbing,  she leaves me in the room for a few minutes while the steam filled the room  and became a warm and welcomed companion, soon after, she enters and doses me with water again and finally hands me my robe and asks me to follow her.

A massage was supposed to follow immediately, instead, she leaves me in a sitting room, gives me some tea and then disappears for about 10 minutes before she reapers to take me into the massage room.

At this point I was stressed, disappointed and wanting the experience to be over. No surprise that the massage was as short and as disappointing as the hammam itself. Although, less traumatic.

Once the treatment was over, I changed, paid and left as quickly as I could to get ready for a group dinner. During dinner, I was sharing my hammam experience with the group a few them and they just burst into laughter, telling me how they just had the most marvelous same but different experience at the Mamounia hotel.  As they recount their experience there, I immediately regret my decision to not go with them that day. They had invited me, but I decided to stay behind and go to the Medina early in the day and have the treatment in the hotel that afternoon instead, but in true travel reasoning, I can always use this experience as an excuse to return to Marrakesh and have a proper and relaxing hammam treatment @ The Mamounia

 

Resources:

https://www.mamounia.com/en/

http://www.2ciels.com/

 

 

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Morocco, land of enchantment and beauty

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join AFAR and Nikon for a photography expedition thru Morocco, we spent 9 magical, mystical and overloaded days thru the many faces and personalities of Morocco.

Morocco is many things, its sensory overload, its crazy, in some parts it feels like you stepped into another century, it can be an overwhelming place and yet peaceful and mundane other times.

I was on a connecting flight from Dubai to Morocco and as we were approaching Casablanca from the air, I could see how green and beautiful  northern Morocco was. I was expecting desert all over and over the course of the  next couple of days, I would find out how wrong I was and how beautiful and contrasting Morocco really is.

We arrived in Casablanca and did not expect what followed. I deplaned the Emirates Airlines fight and got on a bus that took us to the terminal where we had to walk thru a door that was not visible due to the amount of people that were trying go get thru the terminal door.

When I finally was able to get thru the door to proceed to customs, all hell broke loose. There are hardly any signs to direct the passengers to were we needed to go, as I followed other passengers, finally we arrive in a big room with 2 lines already full of people, however no line had any distinctive signs to  make sure we were standing in the right one.

Passengers on both lines were determined to be the first on the line, so if there were 75 people on the line, instead of lining up in the order they arrived,  they all proceeded to get in front of the line at any cost. Almost 1 hour and 15 minutes later, I finally got to the front of the line.

When it was finally my turn to see a customs agent, I walk to the window at the same time the bread seller was getting there to offer his goods to the agents, I stand there witnessing  as all agents stop what they are doing, gather around this man selling bread, and they ALL STOP what they are doing and get their bread loot. About 5 minutes later, Customs agents finally resume their duties again.

I had a driver picking me up once I exited the airport, however, thru all this waiting, I was already 2 hours late from my picking up time and I was convinced he would not be there waiting for me anymore. I had already been trying to connect to either wi-fi and or my international roaming plan (I have T Mobile and it did NOT WORK one day in Morocco, even though on their website they say there is coverage there), making it impossible to communicate with my driver, fortunately for me he was there waiting for me, what a relief it was to get in that car and go to the hotel where I met the rest of the group.

We spent less than 24 hours in Casablanca before departing to Chefchaouen or “the Blue City”, that evening, after meeting the group I would spend 9 days with, we had dinner close by and had some traditional Moroccan food and tea, the next day, we visited the Mosque of Hassan II, It is the largest mosque in Morocco, the second largest in Africa, and the 13th largest in the world. It is a photographer’s dream, so make sure you bring your camera with you.

After, we got on the road to Chefchaouen, also known as “The Blue City”,  We stayed at the Hotel Tarek, about 20-minute walk from down town and where the blue buildings are, which let’s be clear, Chefchaouen is many shades of blue, in some places, NOT ALL places ).

To get to the “Blue” part of the city you need to walk into the “Wall City” and as you walk thru the city walls, its if you entered a magical place, almost like shifting into another time, immediately streets narrow and you finally start to get a glimpse of the magical “Blue city”  , here, you will find that most of the city walls, buildings, doors , steps are painted in shades of blue  (One popular theory of why the city is painted blue is that the blue keeps mosquitoes away, another is that Jews introduced the blue when they took refuge from Hitler in the 1930s, also, the blue is said to symbolize the sky and heaven, and serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life), along with store fronts that offer its visitors endless souvenirs, you will encounter many, many cats, most of them homeless but they are well taken care of the people of the city, they are “mostly” very friendly.

We spent the day walking around the Blue City, taking pictures and wondering around. Myself, mostly trying to find cats to pet, we had dinner in town and after a few hours of mindful discovery and picture techniques, we returned to our hotel to rest.

We depart the next morning to Fes where we would spend the next 2 nights. Once there we spent the day exploring the old city and visited Al-Attarine Madrasa, Chouara tannery (it is the largest tannery in the city. The tannery is packed with the round stone vessels filled with dye or white liquids for softening the hides. The leather goods produced in the tanneries are exported around the world), Funduk Nejjarine (Museum of wooden arts and crafts). This city is full of architecture shots, a dream for any photographer, skilled or beginner. The old city is vibrant and full of movement and life and very easy to get lost in its enchanting streets, so if you get lost, just linger and wonder, you never know what treasure awaits you just around the corner.

After our visit in Fes we departed on route for Merzouga in the High Atlas Mountains, we arrived at the Auberge to start our camel trek to the overnight camp in the desert. We took some time admiring the scenery and friending the camels that would patiently takes us to our overnight camp during an hour. During this hour we had the chance to enjoy the views, landscapes, marvel at the miracle of life in the desert in the way of palm trees that beautifully exist silently and lonely in the desert, all while enjoying a spectacular sunset and admiring the changing landscape of the ever-changing sand dunes.

We finally arrived to our camp and it was a site out of a story books, tents furnished with beds, covers and a full functioning shower, toilet and sink, oil lamps and Moroccan rugs thru out, completed the mood for the night, we proceeded to eat a traditional Bedouin dinner and then enjoyed the rest of the night enjoying the sound of drums, a bonfire and a magnificent starry night.

The next day we woke up early to catch the sunset and take some spectacular pictures before heading to the Todra Gorge , (The Todgha Gorges  are a series of limestone river canyons, in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco) but before, we visited with a nomad family, were the matriarch shared with us stories about their way of life and on the way we  had a chance to marvel at the scenery and take some spectacular pictures on the way to these natural wonder canyons.

After spending the night at a local hotel in the area and sharing dinner with the local and playful cats, we head to Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Ouarzazate province, which is a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco.

Aït Benhaddou is an ighrem (fortified village in English) (ksar in Arabic), along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present day Morocco. (The ksar, is a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat. The houses crowd together within the defensive walls, which are reinforced by corner towers)

We walked and climbed to the top of this Ksar and once on the top we were able to enjoy the beautiful views when we were able to fight the strong and cold winds from knocking us down.

Once we were down again we stopped a local rug factory to see how authentic Moroccan rugs are made

It was the middle of January in the Africa, in the High Atlas Mountains, the next day we woke up to find a light dusting of snow that was as magical as it was whimsy.

After breakfast we began our the day long journey by bus to incredible Marrakesh and it was wonderful to travel by bus and not by air to experience and marvel at all the natural and exuberant beauty that Morocco offers to everyone.

Every wounding road offered unparalleled beauty, vistas, landscapes, and picture-perfect moments. We made a rest stop to see the how argon oil is made and support the women’s collective that painstakingly make this precious beauty oil by hand before continuing our journey.

Once you get into the city of Marrakesh, everything changes, the vibe, the scenery, the traffic, the madness becomes alive. We checked into our hotel and then walked about 15 minutes to Jemaa el-Fnaa, a square and market place in Marrakesh‘s medina quarter (old city). It remains the main square of Marrakesh, used by locals and tourists.

Here we had street food and took in the hassle and bustle of the place where locals meet each other, where you go on a shopping spree thru the labyrinth streets of the city and buy leather goods, iconic Moroccan lamps, sweets, spices, souvenirs and many more things, after all the shopping, go back to the square where you can enjoy cobras being enchanted by man playing flutes.

Take it all in and enjoy the colors, the pottery, if you are there at the right time, enjoy the sunset or a call to prayer and the scenes, remember to be careful and mindful of your surroundings and keep your belongings close and safe there are a lot of pickpocketers waiting for an opportunity to strike a trusting tourist.

If you like spa treatments, then Marrakesh many treatments including the hammam, a couple of people traveling with me, went to Hotel Mamounia for their treatments, they had a great time there and said it was worth every penny and the hotel was spectacular on its self.

If you like art and fashion, you are in luck, you should visit the Yves Saint Laurent museum, it’s a must.

Morocco is as enchanting as it is overwhelming, an experience worth living to the fullest. I hope you visit, because it is a country that should be experienced even if only once in your life time.

Informational resources:

Ait-Ben-Haddou: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/444

Chefchaouen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chefchaouen

AFAR Magazine:  www.afar.com

Nikon: http://www.nikon.com

http://www.intrepidtravel.com

 

Accommodations:

Merzouga: www.hotelyasminamerzouga.com

Ait-Ben-Haddou: https://riadmaktoub.com

Marrakech: http://2ciels.com/

https://www.mamounia.com/en/

 

Things to do:

https://www.museeyslmarrakech.com/en/

 

 

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Zagreb, Croatia, proceed with caution…

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When I thought of Croatia, I thought of Dubrovnik (subject of a future blog) which is a beautiful city and a backdrop to Game of Thrones, or Split, Croatia’s coastal heaven. Until just a few months ago I did not know about Zagreb, which is the Capital and lesser known city of Croatia and I had the opportunity to visit and spend a couple of weeks there.

The truth is, I did NOT love Zagreb and I probably will never visit again, here is why…

The opinions I am about to share are based solely on my experience but positive or not, I felt it was important to share these opinions as I have done with other cities I have visited. Please read and use this information only as a guide, I do not intend to discourage anyone to visit Zagreb solely based on my accounts, just make sure you do your own research before you go to avoid disappointments, I’m sure your experience will be much different than mine.

Zagreb is divided into three parts: the thousand-year old Gornji grad (Upper Town) which houses the Presidential Palace, the picturesque St Mark’s Church, the Croatian parliament , museums and galleries, and the 19th century Donji grad (Lower Town) with shops, restaurants, cafes, theatres and parks; (in my opinion, the only area worth visiting in all of Zagreb)and the modern post-World War II area of Novi Zagreb or New Zagreb which is full of high-rise buildings and basically has little to offer visitors.

Historically, Croatia is a young country that has been thru a lot, a recent violent past which its grimness is still very much palpable everywhere you go.

One day, I was strolling thru the city and as I walked in no direction wondering thru the streets, and streets of what looked and felt like Socialist architecture , plain, gray, some looked like they had war scars , most with no architectural design what so ever, instead, they made me feel like I walked into the past , a very close and violent past and it did not feel good, in fact, I wanted to turn around and go back to my apartment.

I visited the war museum in Zagreb and although very informative, I could not help but feeling depressed and almost wanting to run out of there as fast as I could because it reminded me to much of my own countries (Colombia) recent violent past. Walking thru the galleries and for example seeing bloody pictures of war victims and war memorabilia like bomb shrapnel, hit a nerve.

I am from Colombia and I lived in Medellin during the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, during that time, Colombia was going thru one of the worst times of its history, yes, I literally was living in a daily episode of Netflix’s Narcos, and it was NOT fun. While Pablo Escobar was on a rampage against the police and the politicians, normal folk like me, were just collateral damage to the biggest assassin and terrorist our country has ever known, so Croatia’s war history and vibe, especially Zagreb’s, hit to close to home, it made me feel very uncomfortable and out of place.

But it’s not all bad news, here is what I liked and what I recommend:

Zagreb is also called a city of museums as there are more of them per square foot than any other city in the world. Some notable ones you should consider visiting is the Museum of Broken relationships (bring tissues and prepare your self to do a lot of reading, other wise it wont make sense), close to St Marks Square, Museum of illusions and the Museum of Contemporary Art, to name a few.

One of the many pleasures that the locals enjoy is sitting in one of the numerous cafes watching the world go by, by the way, In Croatia, Cafes usually only serve coffee and or drinks, no food, so if you want to nibble, make sure you ask if they serve food before you sit down and avoid disappointment.

Something you need to be aware of in Croatia is that the service industry, especially restaurants, are a new concept, yes, that restaurants have only opened in the last 5- 10 years, so they are just getting the hang of both food and service.

Don’t expect a lot of “wow” food here, most, if not all of it, will be forgettable. I had several bad experiences with food and service. In addition, make sure you look at your bill before paying to avoid surprises, some restaurants will charge you a service fee for cloth and utensils, literary.

Zagreb locals love their carbs, as you stroll around the city, you will find bakeries almost in every block, the baked goods are fresh and warm, one bakery you will easily find is Dubravic, so make sure you go and try some local favorites.

A fun fact: Chestnut trees are all over Zagreb, make sure you try some roasted chestnuts if in season or chestnut paste with cream, it’s a Croatian staple and it is a treat.

If you are a foodie, you may enjoy visiting the daily Dolac market, where customers will find seasonal fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish, food, and crafts. A close walk away, you will be in the Ban Jelačić square, Zagreb’s meeting place, where you can either shop, eat, bank, and absolutely the best place in Zagreb for people watching.

Want to get a glimpse of Zagreb from above? Visit the 360 tower, just a block from the square, go up and enjoy uninterrupted views of the city while you sip a cocktail or beer and admire (or not) the quirky décor.

If you look at all the top sites to visit in Zagreb, first, they are not very long and second, you will find an odd listing: Mirogoj Cemetery. A tram ride and 15-minute walk away from the Square, you will get to this cemetery, if you are interested in history, architecture or nice scenery, Mirogoj is a good place to go. I prefer/recommend visiting during sunlight hours 😊.

As you can see, Zagreb does have things to offer, (I hear it has a fantastic and popular Christmas market) but for me it was an acquired taste that I kept wanting to like, but just could not swallow.

I may never make it back to Zagreb, but I will probably be back to Croatia, it is a beautiful Country that has a lot to offer to all kinds of tourists and travelers, so if you find your self in Zagreb or if you have been, I would love to know your side of the story…

Keep curious, keep traveling, the world is to beautiful not to explore…

#Zagreb #museumbrokenrelationships #zagreb360 #thiscolombianeatsandtravels #keepcalmandtravel #travelmakesmehappiest #cntraveler #natgeotravel #travel #bbc_travel

A couple of resources:

https://brokenships.com/

https://www.zagreb360.hr/en/

http://www.trznice-zg.hr

 

 

 

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In a sea of airlines, next time you fly to or from Europe, consider flying Iberia

it comes to flying, we have many choices today, from budget to high end carriers (what is considered a high end carrier now a days? We will discuss that on another post). If you are like me, you probably book flights and other services like hotels, rental cars, etc., based on different criteria like price, layovers, duration of flight, service and loyalty, we all want to rack up those precious miles if all possible. I know this is important for me, I usually try to stay loyal to as few airlines as possible, for example Delta, since it has its HUB in Atlanta, where I used to live.

However, when it comes to cashing my miles, I usually find that redeeming miles with Delta means using an exorbitant number of miles compared to other carriers, for example if researching a flight from Atlanta to Madrid using miles, Delta will charge a minimum of 35,000 miles plus taxes each way, compared to 22.500 on American airlines on the same dates.

Because of this, sometimes I rather just buy a ticket on the airline that has the best deal on the route I am looking for. Recently I needed a flight back from Europe and after a lot of research, I decided to book a flight on Iberia.

Iberia has not always had the best reputation, although they have a long history, they have had their ups and downs. Non-the less, this time it seamed like a good idea to fly with them. I was flying out of Madrid Barajas airport and had a chance to visit the Iberia Lounge. I have been to many lounges and Iberia’s Madrid Barajas in Terminal 4 S is now one of my favorites.

The lounge was large and distributed in a way that made a lot of sense, food and drink in one side, plenty of seating, tables and outlets throughout, plenty of magazines and newspapers for anyone interested, no need to hog any publication here.

The food was plentiful, varied and fresh, I was there during breakfast hours and there were plenty of Spanish staples, mini sandwiches, cold cuts, fruit and snacks, constantly being replenish, to sustain anyone before and thru a long flight. In addition, there were plenty of restrooms and showers for those travelers needing to freshen up before their next leg or before heading to their next destination.

The bar area, which is right around the food section, was well stocked with different wines, liquors and cava, as well as plenty of choices for soft drinks. Overall, my experience at Iberia’s Madrid Barajas lounge was a good one, I definitively recommend it and would visit again if I ever find myself at this airport.

Now let’s talk about the on board service; the flight was on time, Iberia claims to be “the Worlds # 1 on time airline” . I was relieved to see that the aircraft was an updated one and it had an entertainment system that offered somewhat of a decent selection of movies and shows, (even though some shows like “the Handmaid tale”, only offered 1 episode from an entire season), none the less, there was enough to keep me entertained in the 10 + hour flight to Miami.

During our flight we had 2 services, a lunch that was average and your basic airline food, nothing to rave about and about 1hour ½ before landing we were offered a box with a yogurt, a candy bar and a pastry, also very average. I wish there had been service in between, but other than a flight attendant walking thru the aisle offering water once and coffee another time, that was the extent of service, I believe that for a long-haul flight, this is less than adequate, there should be at least  1 0r 2 drink and snack services in between meal services, especially for a transatlantic flight.

Over all, I found Iberia to be an average airline that offers a service that like many other airlines has lost its touch with its consumer. In an era where consumers demand more, I am surprised how airlines have managed to take away more and more and still make unbelievable profits all while having the worst consumer satisfaction.

Also, why is it that with economy passengers being the bulk of the airlines business, get the worst service of all? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect white glove service in economy, but after all, we are paying passengers and I do expect to be treated with respect and dignity and good service,  we don’t need to be treated like the cattle of the transportation industry.

If airlines improved their service, even just a little, it would create positive ripples around the world, maybe passengers would enjoy flying again and instead of being angry, frustrated and on edge, causing many of todays issues, like in flight fights and or problems causing delays, plane turn arounds, people being kicked off flights, maybe we would all enjoy flying again ….

Iberia, overall, if I had to fly again to or from Europe, I would consider flying with you again , so please , I hope you use my words and those of many others, to improve and strive to be better and different than other average airlines out there, if you are already “the Worlds # 1 on time airline”, this means you are already doing something right, so while you are at it, try working on being the best airline you can be, passengers will notice and they will come…

https://www.iberia.com

#airlinespleasemakeflyinggoodagain

 

 

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First experience flying with Emirates Airlines, a let down…

For the longest time, I had wanted to fly Emirates, I was curious by its ads claiming to be the best economy class in the world. In fact, about 2 years ago, I had the chance to travel to Dubai and visit Emirates training center, where we toured the facilities and had first hand account of how employees were trained, it all looked very impressive and glamorously chic, I could not wait to experience all the glamour they so advertised.

The opportunity finally came where I had a chance to book a flight on emirates, I was so looking forward to it, the anticipation, after all, I was about to fly on the  airline that claimed to have the “best economy class in the world”.

I would have loved to fly Emirates business and first-class, but their rates are ridiculously overpriced compared to other airlines, does Emirates realize that most of us do not work in the oil trade and do not have unlimited resources to pay upwards of $8,000 one way for business class and over $20,000 for first class? No sarcasm here 😉

I was flying to Casablanca, Morroco from Fort Lauderdale via Dubai on Emirates. First, I get to FLL airport which is one of the worst airports I have ever traveled out of, no airline lounges, hardly no shops or restaurants pre-check in. I had flown in to MIA and took a commuter train to FLL, I had 6 hours to spare in FLL, which I thought I would spend in a nice restaurant or lounge, that did not happen. I will avoid traveling out of FLL in the future. No doubt

I get to the counter to check in and I was expecting luxury, over the counter flowers, beautiful people in Emirates fashion, just like advertised, reality was far off, clerks at counter were just plain janes, no problem at all, just felt cheated.

Finally, boarding time came, and I was so anxious to get on board, I could not stand myself. As I get thru the plane’s door, I suddenly realize, is this a joke? Did I step into the wrong plane? Where is all the bedazzle, all the luxury, all the hype Emirates told me I should expect? As I walk thru first class, business class and finally economy, I am hit with the realization of stepping into an old aircraft, that is outdated and challenged in sophistication, style and leg room.

This was scheduled to be a 14 + hour flight from Fort Lauderdale to Dubai, can’t Emirates use the most comfortable, newest aircrafts for these long-haul flights instead of using aircrafts that should only be used for local or short flights? Emirates certainly does not think so.

Delta, United or American Airlines would have offered the same experience, the difference is that we already expect bad service, bad food and bad seats from these and other airlines,  so what makes Emirates the best economy class in the world? My guess is the great advertising?…Maybe it was Jennifer Aniston willing to give up her first class suite for a seat in the “Best Economy Class in the world” .

Employee’s presentation, was another let down, no gorgeous counter or on-board flight attendants, just plain janes which left a lot to be desired , no burets, not all smiles here , they were rude, far from the gorgeous look I was expecting, cabin service was a letdown as well, for a 14-hour flight, I would have expected more than just dinner (when dinner was served, I had the Szechuan chicken are you kidding me? It was tasteless and baby food would have looked and tasted better than this offering) and breakfast, a wine selection other than 1 red or 1 white and at least a couple of snack offerings throughout the 14-hour flight, we had to get up and ask for water several times.

Over all my first experience flying with Emirates was nothing as expected, it was just as underwhelming as flying with any other average airline in the market, I will say that Emirates has a brilliant marketing strategy, unfortunately, it took one time flying with them to debunk all the hype and to make me want to fly Delta or American internationally, again.

#emiratesairlines

#emiratesairlinesnotallthat

https://www.emirates.com/us/english/

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Porto, your gateway to Portugal’s wine country

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I was in Lisbon recently for a couple of weeks and decided to visit Porto for 2 days, I took a train from Saint Apolonia Station in Lisbon and 3 and ¼ hours later, I was there.
Keep in mind when visiting any city in Portugal, there are many tourist’s year around due to its great location that make a visit in any season a very pleasant one. This is important when deciding where to stay and considering when to make reservations, so plan ahead, especially if you want to score that great location.

My trip was spear of the moment, so when I tried to make a reservation using points thru one of my loyalty memberships like Hilton, Marriott and IHG, there were not many choices and I ended up having to book a hotel that was about an hour walk (and 15 minutes away from the nearest metro station) from all the places I wanted to visit. The hotel I stayed at was The Crown Plaza , even though nice and comfortable, it was more suited for the business traveler than the leisure travel, especially for its location.

Porto has a “je ne sais quoi “that is difficult to explain and that can only be described by being there and experiencing it yourself. Like Lisbon, there are some places that cannot be missed.

If you like wine and food, Porto is the city for you. Portugal is famous for its Port wine and Porto is where you want to go to experience Port wine first hand. Portugal also has a booming wine region and if you have not heard of Portuguese wines, you need to start looking for them at your favorite local retailer and if they don’t carry it, ask them to get in your local store.

Porto is not only a beautiful city, it’s an easy gateway to the Douro valley, where you can find many wineries where you must try Portugal’s Port wine and Vihno Verde (Green Wine) and enjoy a local favorite cocktail, the Port and Tonic while you are there.

When in Porto, you need to make your way to the River Douro and experience both banks, marvel at its bridges, monuments, tile work, and picturesque balconies while taking as many pictures as you can and enjoying some fantastic shopping will be a breeze.

The historic center of Porto and the River Douro on the Gaia side, where the Port Wine lodges are located, are classified as World Heritage so you are assured to make fantastic memories and magnificent photo opportunities await you in this unique city.

Here is a couple of places worth a visit while in Porto: S. Bento Station, see its atrium, which is lined with amazing tile work. Close is the Cathedral, where you can view the river, the houses on the hill and the opposite bank. From there you can descend the steps and streets to Ribeira, with its picture ready café terraces and views of the river and opposite side.

Sit in a café and enjoy some Portuguese cuisine, a café and or a cocktail like a port, vino Verde or a port tonic, while you take in the view of the river, the opposite bank and the D. Luís Bridge, which you can cross on foot after you finish taking it all in, then, once you get to the opposite side, repeat. When you catch your breath, consider taking the chairlift, which follows this side of the river.

Visit Cordoaria, a beautiful garden full of sculptures and surrounded by churches and monuments. For another great view of Porto, climb the Clérigos Tower. If you like books, or if you are a Harry Potter fan, nearby is the Lello bookshop, which it’s said to have inspired J. K Rowling to write some of the Harry Potter stories.

After, walk towards Aliados, do some shopping along the way and admire the and art nouveau buildings and end up along the pedestrians-only Rua de Santa Catarina for more shopping.

For those who like the arts, consider visiting the Casa da Música, which always has a plethora of cultural events, its located-on Rotunda da Boavista, an area that is opposite of the river bank, but easily accessible by public transportation and there is some good shopping in the area as well.

If you visit any location in Portugal, you are sure to have a good time, good food and good wine, so I suggest you start researching and planning your next trip there as soon as possible and see what all others have already discovered and why they keep going there time after time.

#cntraveler #natgeotravel #travel #bbc_travel

Resources:

https://www.visitportugal.com/
https://www.livrarialello.pt/en/

https://www.ihg.com

 

 

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Pack your bags and get to Lisbon, Portugal as soon as possible

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First the bad news, Portugal, in this case its capital Lisbon, is not a secret anymore, “Lonely Planet Guides”, named Lisbon as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit. Surprisingly enough, even though it still is one of the least visited capital cities in Europe, I recently spent 6 weeks and I was surprised to see how many tourists were there, I mean, everywhere, in ALL the tourist spots, like Praça do Comércio, Rossio Square, Pink Street, etc.

Unfortunately, it seemed like most tourists were carrying the awful tacky selfie stick, really people? What happened to old good photography or asking a stranger to take your picture? In Lisbon, there are picture perfect opportunities at every turn, whether it’s a historic building, a fresco, a cobblestone pattern on the street, one of the many tile designs or monuments or enjoying from one of the many miradors the wonderful sunsets the city has to offer. So, tourists, please don’t ruin Lisbon with your selfie sticks and love locks.

If you want to stay close to all the action Lisbon has to offer, you probably want to stay in or close to the historic Centre of Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto (which is one of the main nightlife districts and where you must experience Fado at least once) or close to the Avenida da Liberdade. These areas are in the heart of Lisbon and all the main tourist attractions are within walking distance or a short bus or metro ride.

When visiting Lisbon, make sure you bring comfortable shoes, as Lisbon is also known as the city of the 7 hills, you will find your self’s walking uphill a lot, so pack up your comfortable shoes, patience and a camera to take many, many pictures along the way.
If you visit Lisbon during the summer, make sure you make some time to visit the stunning coast line with beautiful beaches, all are a short bus or train ride away.

Take the train from Cais de Sodre station and enjoy the beach in no time. One of the most enchanting coastal towns is Cascais, a Portuguese fishing town and one of Lisbon’s most popular holiday destinations, combining decorative 19th-century architecture with traditional Portuguese charm and fantastic tourist facilities, creating a wonderful destination for tourists and locals alike.

For a day trip in any season, make sure you venture out to Sintra, catch a train from Rossio Square and be there in 45 minutes, you can also get there by car or bus. From the train station, you can walk to down town Sintra and then decide which way you want to go and with castle or site you want to visit first. If you do not want to walk, you can get on a hop on hope off bus that loops around the most important sites in town.

I recommend you visit Quinta da Regaleira and make sure you get to the well and Pena Palace, these are iconic to Sintra and do merit a visit, but there are other places to see, so make sure to plan accordingly.

Lisbon also has a magnificent and buzz worthy food scene. I grew up in New Jersey and Newark was and still is, at least for me, Little Portugal and the place Jersey folks go to eat outstanding Portuguese seafood. I had big expectations for the food in Lisbon and it did not disappoint.

When it comes to food, there are several places you should consider when visiting Lisbon One of them is Time out Market; a fancy food court of sorts where under one roof you will find fine dining made casual and street food that have a Michelin star. At Time Out Market, not only can you have some of the best food in town, you can also enjoy dessert, a cocktail or one of the many cooking classes offered in the open kitchen, after, walk to the other side of the market to find fresh produce, seafood and flowers.

For fresh seafood, you must visit Cervejaria Ramiro in the Intendente neighborhood, go hungry and ready to stand on line as it’s a very popular spot and worth the wait,  you will enjoy fresh seafood prepared in a very simple way that showcases the seafood’s flavor, if you feel adventurous, try the barnacles and or some fresh sardines, you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of sardines, they are a staple of Portuguese food and you should try some fresh ones while you visit, if you think of canned sardines when I say sardines, think again, once you try a fresh one, you will never look at sardines the same way. There are of course canned sardines readily available in Lisbon, in fact, there stores solely dedicated to selling can sardines, almost like a candy store, so go ahead and try some different varieties.

A short bus ride away is the Belem district, where you must visit the Belem Tower, the Monasterio Dos Jeronimos, Monument to the Discoveries, and try some Pasteis de nata at Pasteis de Belém, but be ready to wait, there is ALWAYS a line.

If you prefer someone to take you around, I recommend my friends at Portugal 360 tours, they will take you where you want to go on one or there many customized tours or customize your own. My friend Valeria who is also a fashion designer from Venezuela and currently lives in Miami, needed to go to Alcobaca, near Lisbon, to buy some handmade handbags for her business. We had the amazing opportunity to witness how “Junco” or rush hand bags are made. After that,  Jasper from Portugal 360 tours, took us to Fatima, which is a pilgrimage place for Catholics, as a catholic myself, being there was an experience I will never forget and having Jasper take us that day was not only easy, he was courteous and knowledgeable about the area, which made our day much more enjoyable.

As you can see, Lisbon is full of things to do, places to visit and magnificent food awaits. I Hope I have peaked your curiosity about Lisbon, it is a fascinating city full of history and I hope you consider it for a visit, just be ready for the crowds, however, once you brave them, you will be glad you made it.

#cntraveler #natgeotravel #travel #bbc_travel

References:
https://www.timeout.com/market
https://www.regaleira.pt/
https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/parques-jardins-e-monumentos/parque-e-palacio-nacional-da-pena/
https://www.cervejariaramiro.pt/
https://www.cestasdaldeia.pt
https://www.portugal360tours.com

https://city-sightseeing.com/en/81/sintra

 

 

 

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Budapest, the Paris of the East

Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and for an old city, it has a unique, youthful atmosphere, a world-class classical music scene, fantastic night life, amazing architecture and a plethora of natural thermal baths, just to name a few.

Budapest is one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable cities. Due to its scenic setting and its architecture it is nicknamed “Paris of the East”. In 1987 Budapest was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for the cultural and architectural significance of the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue. https://wikitravel.org/en/Budapest

I recently visited Budapest for the first time while I was spending a few weeks in Zagreb, Croatia, and planned to be there for 3 days since it’s an easy 5-hour getaway by bus but just as easy to get there by train, plane or river cruise.

I started my journey from Zagreb’s bus station and had purchased a round trip ticket on  flixbus, the 5 hour trip brought us to Budapest’s , Nepliget bus station, from there, it was easy to get on the metro and get to where I needed to be.

I learned thru my research, that Budapest has 3 sides, Buda (the hilly side), O’buda and Pest (the flat side). The city is  divided by the Danube River and communicated by several bridges, consider this when planning  your stay and things to do in the City.

I decided to book hotels in both the Buda side and the Pest side, not because they were far away or difficult to get too from each other, but because I wanted to experience the “vibe” of both sides.

I chose the Hilton Budapest because it is in a prime location, in the Buda side, on top of a hill, next to St Mathias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion, this location does not get any better, walking distance from the Buda Castle, Royal Palace and other landmarks, you cannot go wrong with this hotel. The building it self is historic and the rooms flawlessly combine old charm with the new.

Unfortunately for me, I only booked this hotel for one night, and I regret this decision, I should have stayed there my entire stay in Budapest and when I go back, I will ONLY stay there, not only for the location, but for the flawless and personalized service I received by all the Hilton Staff.

I cannot emphasize enough, how spectacular the Buda side of Budapest is, it has not only a lot of history, it has some of the most exquisite architecture, cobble stone streets and ambience that I have ever experienced in any city or country I have ever visited. Of course, your experience will be different than mine, but I sure hope you get to visit this fine city and discover why Budapest is indeed a magical, singular and spectacular city that can easily be discovered on foot, subway, tram or bus.

The Pest and O’buda side of Budapest are also enchanting and oh so different from each other, each side offers different vibes, different scenes, different architecture, so worth a visit, get there when you can, you will be happy you did. Visit the parliament, cross by foot one of the many bridges that connect the city, like the chain bridge, which offers many picture perfect opportunities,  visit the many sites, including Heroes square, Dohány Street Synagogue, one of the many thermal baths, have some old-world comfort food, visit the Central Market, one of the ruin bars, or the Saint Stephen Basilica.

I came to Budapest with no expectations, but knowing that like many European cities, it would be full of history and architecturally rich, however, I found it to be much more, it was a feast for the senses and picture perfect surprises at every turn. I left Budapest with a sense of excitement, wonder and a feeling of déjà vu, so much so,  that I am certain I will visit again, no doubt.

Get inspired and start your own journey…

#cntraveler #natgeotravel #travel #bbc_travel #fodorstravel

References/resources:

https://www.hilton.com

https://www.budapest.com

http://www.akz.hr

https://www.flixbus.com

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5 reasons to travel (cruise) solo:

 

I started traveling solo many years ago mainly because I wanted to visit new places but could not get friends or family to come with me mostly because of scheduling conflicts or budget, so instead, I started traveling by myself.

Traveling with family, friends or groups can be a lot of fun plus the fact that it also usually means cost savings and depending of the destination, sometimes traveling in group is the right thing to do for safety reasons. None the less, there can be times when traveling solo can be a fun and very rewarding thing to do.

One of those times that I decided to travel solo, I choose a Windstar transatlantic cruise from Lisbon to Barbados and it turned out to be one of the best vacations I have ever had.

After recently having spent three months in Europe with a group of digital nomads (remote working group), It was time to come back to America. It turns out that during this time of the year, end of October, beginning of November, cruise lines reposition their ships from Europe to the Caribbean, so I finally had the chance to take that transatlantic cruise I had been wanting to take but never had the chance to.

Here are 5 reasons why taking a solo cruise and or travel solo, can be the best thing you ever do for your self:

1. Safety, it’s safe to cruise solo: you may be traveling alone, but you are in the company of fellow travelers and crew, this means there is someone always around if you need help and or company. I believe that a solo cruise is a perfect vacation for those weary travelers that are unsure if they could

2. Time for yourself: when you are traveling solo, its finally “You” time, you and only you set your schedule, so go crazy sleeping in, eating all the delicious food on board all Windstar Ships, then decide if you want to work it off or not, no one is judging. Take a wellness seminar or cooking class, get on a complementary paddle board while visiting a new port, go on a shore excursion or simply lay by the pool and reed that book you have been procrastinating to read, just because it all about “you”.

3. Rediscover yourself: if you are like most people, you probably work 40 + hours a week, have a family or pets to take care of and may or may not use all your vacation time every year. Traveling solo offers a unique opportunity, it’s all about “you” so take this time to remember what it is you like to do, what brings you joy, what invigorates you? And use this time to rediscover you.

4. You already have friends, but make new ones: whether you have a few friends or a lot, there is always time to meet new ones. On a Windstar Cruise you will have the luxury of traveling with no more than 212 guests and you will quickly find out that you can be alone when you want to and have company when you feel like it, however, you will discover rather quickly that you will find your self-meeting people every day and new making friends every step of the way.

5. You will learn what is truly meaningful to you: traveling alone has an intrinsic benefit and it is that it makes you really evaluate and appreciate what its important and meaningful to you. You will learn what you like/don’t like, discover places you will want to revisit, possibly alone or with loved ones and lastly, you most likely will return home with a more profound experience and eager to plan your next adventure.

There are many more reasons to travel solo, however, until you get out there and do it for yourself, you are missing out, so do yourself a favor and don’t wait any more, discover what all the fuss is about, and you will soon discover why traveling solo is so highly addictive.

http://www.windstarcruises.com

 

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Windstar Cruises featured a blog I wrote on Transatlantic Cruises and traveling solo and I’m so happy!

Here is the link to Windstar Cruises Blog:

http://blog.windstarcruises.com/2017/12/ocean-crossing-cruise/ng-cruise/

I hope you enjoy the article and most of all, I hope it inspires you to start your own journey

https://www.windstarcruises.com

 

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