Loire Valley by Public Transport

Cycling in the Loire Valley was one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do and on this year’s bank holiday weekend, we nearly did it. If it wasn’t for the 33°C heatwave.

Tours

Tours was an excellent base as the train station is well served by trains to many cities in the Loire Valley. It was also one of the busier towns with more things happening. We stumbled upon a few delicious places including QG Restaurant Artisanal (this was our favourite), Dagobert (for alfresco dining side by side Parisian style), Bar Les Trois Ecritories (for its salmon tartare and escargots), and Smaak (for an excellent salad after you get tired of eating all the meat).

The Les Halles market at Place Gaston-Pailhou is a feast for the eyes. Great place to purchase fresh seafood, meat, cheese, bread and fruits if you are in a Airbnb accommodation. We bought some delicious cheese and saucisson there to bring back home.

Not too many of those hip cafes you would normally find in London except Le Petit Atelier – we really missed our daily coffee whilst in France! However, there were loads of bakeries around (Honoré Le Boulanger on Rue Nationale did not disappoint!) and we had our fair share of pain au chocolat every day.

Honore Le Boulanger

Visiting Amboise and Chenonceau

Picnic by the Loire

Visit Amboise on Sunday because it hosts the regional market where you will find everything from cheese, bread, meat, fruits to clothing and shoes. We bought some fresh tomatoes, bread, goat cheese and took a picnic by the Loire. Ah, bliss. We then walked around Amboise’s centre which is made of two main streets.

Normally you could get a bus from Amboise to Chenonceau during the summer months but the bus does not run on Sundays. We went to the Amboise tourist office and asked them to order a taxi for us – thankfully most staff in tourist office and attraction sites spoke English. The taxi ride cost us £37 and about 20 mins to get to Château de Chenonceau. It was worth the ride; otherwise, we would’ve had to train back to Tours and take another train back to Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau is indeed as beautiful as the postcards. It has some interesting history having once served as safe passage for refugees and a hospital during WW1. The exhibition also shows the influences we may not have recognised from the various wives, mistresses and aristocrats had on its architectural transformation to date.

Visiting Blois and Chambord

Exploring Chateau de Chambord

The other chateau on our list was Château de Chambord. Our original plan was to train from Tours to Blois, then rent a bike and cycle to Chambord. As we were on the verge of a heatstroke, we took the Navette 41 shuttle bus for 6 euros return. Note the bus schedule is infrequent with only two bus on the day that we were there. Check this website for the bus schedule. Technically we could’ve taken the same bus to visit Cheverny that same afternoon but we headed back to Blois instead. Other than the Royal Château de Blois, the town was unfortunately rather underwhelming. The main street was full of old and dusty shops which were mostly closed or shut down. One even appeared to have a signed that said it was closed as of 2004.

If we had more time, we would have…

  • Spent longer in the Loire Valley – we didn’t realise the grounds of the castles were so large that you could spend half a day visiting just one castle.
  • Tried some kayaking along the Loire river starting from Amboise with the option of camping among one of the many secret islands. Check Loire Aventure for details.
  • Took the Eurostar instead of a flight because it would mean we could’ve carried a few bottles of nice Vouvray wine!
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Charles, Charles, Charles in Prague

Charles Bridge, Charles Square, Charles University – who would have thought so much of Prague could be influenced by one person. The monuments of Charles, however, were a great addition to the grandness and historic feel of the place and we thought Prague was a romantic setting for a short getaway at a pretty reasonable cost.

Walking around Prague was like being transported to a different era. Imagine cobblestone lanes, centuries old churches and grand halls with chandeliers and gold painted walls. It was well worth a visit to Prague castle and Golden Lane – a toy-town like street with short doors, thatched roofs and colourful painted fronts. Try to go early as it got exceedingly crowded at times!

There was a serious selection of craft coffee outlets for the coffee lovers out there. We really enjoyed EMA Espresso Bar (and what a great start to the day it was). Coffee plus yummy croissant all for 25 czk.

We didn’t realise how many concerts took place in the city. We were lured by a poster for one at the Rudolfinum where musicians played in an impressive private hall. We felt slightly under dressed in our walking shoes as many had dressed up in suit and dress for the occasion. Nonetheless it was a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing experience.

We paid approximately €30 per person for an enjoyable evening of classical music. We were sitting in the last row but we could still see the musicians’ faces.

We found walking through Mala Strana less busy and a pleasure. It was interesting to see emblems (violins, swords, animals) on each building  that historically were used to locate buildings like house numbers and street names today.

Walking past Mala Strana, away from the bridge was Strahov Monastery where you can find an ancient library elaborately decorated in every inch of space. To take a photo of the libraries, you either had to do it sneakily or pay 50 czk.

There were pretty of interesting artwork outside of museums, including the famous Dancing House by Frank Gehry.

Our favourite restaurant was La Veranda , which had a bookshelf wall and looked like some-one’s old living room. Really homey and warming atmosphere and fairly priced. Other places we also enjoyed: Vegan’s restaurant (Vegan) which served Traditional Czech dumplings, Estrella (Vegetarian) and Restaurant Mlynec. Given that historically Prague cuisine was heavily meat based, we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of vegetarian options.

P.S. Don’t buy bananas from a marijuana shop. We paid 40 czk for two bananas which was a total rip!

3 days 2 nights tour to Sahara desert

Stargazing in the desert was one of those things on our travel bucket list. So we signed up for a 3 day 2 nights trip to the Sahara desert.

What we didn’t realise was how far away from Marrakech we were going.

Our mini van navigated the narrow and windy roads which at times make you feel like you will veer off the edge of the cliff. In fact, many barriers which were crushed and travellers before us probably disappeared into the deep ravines below. Only later did we learn that the Tizi n’Tichka pass has one of the highest death rates in the world.

We stopped by Ait Benhaddou, a kasbah which is a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture. It was also used as a site for many films including Gladiator. Our guide told us that filming was very welcomed there, as it brought economic benefits to the local villages. In fact, our guide has been an extra in the films twice and was paid around 3000 dirhams each time.

At Ait Benhaddou village, you will find all sorts of handmade arts and crafts sold. In our opinion, the prices seemed more expensive than other ones we’ve seen in Essaouira. However, we do believe the money from the products sold goes direct to the villagers.

On day 2, we rode 1.5 hours on the camels to reach the camp. En route, we enjoyed the magnificent sand dunes (Erg Chebbi) bathed in golden light and then watched the sunset. Our asses were sore when we reached the camp.


We laid on our backs in the sand to stare at the sky. Sounds quite romantic if you ignore the fact that sand was literally inside my trousers and everywhere where sand shouldn’t be.

Jason: “Is that a faint glow right there or am I making it up?”

Sharon: “Oh yes, there’s a faint glow, that must be the Milky Way!”

So we thought we saw the Milky Way. After all, how else is it supposed to look like to the naked eye if not but a faint glow? If you’re very serious about stargazing, you certainly would not make the mistake we did as we realised when the full moon appeared!

We spent the night around the campfire while the berbers drummed and sang songs with funny lyrics like “Obama is African”. We had a tent to ourselves but don’t expect it to be warm. The desert was freezing at night – beanie and down jacket recommended.

On day 3, we rode the camels back out and enjoyed the sunrise. The rest of the day was spent in the car as we raced back the 200+km to Marrakech.

We would recommend going on a desert trip if your itinerary permits. However, we both agreed that once was enough!

Price paid per person for group tour with Discover Morocco: €120 including transport, accommodation and tagine dinners.

Our only criticism was that one cafe where we were brought to for lunch was far from fantastic because 1) we felt cheated by the cafe owner when he made us pay for a pizza based on ‘per person’ price and 2) I made the mistake of ordering pasta with cheese, which turned out to be Laughing Cow cream cheese rather than Parmesan cheese.

Essaouira – an unwinding stay in a charming and fresh moroccan port city

I have to admit – when we first planned a trip to Morocco, I had never heard of Essaouira. Situated on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast, it was lined with white and blue painted walls and riads with old wooden front doors. It was full of fresh produce, friendliness, music and gentle sunshine. The list goes on – and we really enjoyed Essaouira for its dazzlingly colourful medina, laid back atmosphere and fresh air.

   

   

Getting to Essaouira was fairly straightforward. There was a coach service run by Supratours which took 2hrs and cost 75Dh. It also had a nearby airport where flights to London Luton were £20 one way.

The town had a chilled vibe and  walking the Medina was a hassle-free joy. Towards the port side there were bounties of freshly caught fish, buskers perched by the sea walls and fishermen tending to their wooden blue boats. The smell of charcoaled fish led us to the numerous stalls offering to grill the fishermen’s catch as a fresh, tasty lunch. We enjoyed this so much we went there twice!

   

Towards the bottom half of the medina were rows of colourful bowls and tagine pots seen on display. Various shops offered all sorts of leather bags and shoes – and in others “Grandma hand-woven carpets” – many of which had a story to tell. Whether or not it was their Grandma’s I don’t know, but some sure looked impressive!

   

Towards the top half of the medina was filled with mountains of olives, fresh herbs, fruit and veg. We were told that many locals did not own a fridge and went to the markets daily and who needs to when it was all freshly picked! (The oranges were exceptionally sweet and juicy).

Olives!

A cooking school, L’Atelier Madada, offered half day classes in a small group. Here we could choose which dishes we’d like to learn and managed to turn our amateur skills into something worthy in a restaurant (the taste was definitely better than places we had been to).

   

   

The course also included a spice tour of an extremely knowledge-able herbalist’s stall, which gave a fascinating insight into the origins and correct uses of spices and natural sources in Moroccan life. It helped us know which spices were poor quality or counterfeit and made us realise how much of what we use today now comes from unnatural sources! e.g:

  • Lipstick was, and still is here, made from poppy flower seeds
  • Purple dye from snail gland mucus (which would help explain why historically it was worn only by the wealthy!)

Some other interesting points included:

  • Cassia cinnamon, which is cheaper and far more common than the Ceylon variety is actually toxic in high doses.

Cumin was used to help digest food that may be off and hence its presence on certain dinner tables!

   
(
Some of the spices use in cooking and visit to the spice shop)

   (Seasoning for the seafood pastilla – kind of like a fish pie and … the final product)

Zaalouk – spiced aubergine and tomato

In the evening, we treated ourselves to a massage at Azur Art and Spa. Combined with a mint tea at the end, we found this a very relaxing break. Massages were from 350Dh for 1h.

To top off a day, we enjoyed watching the sun set by the beach with a view of the medina and by Taros cafe as the sun set beyond the Atlantic ocean. We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Essaouira and we left with very fond memories.

Hustle and bustle of Marrakech

Bustling. Chaotic. Sensory overload. This is how I would describe Marrakech.

Sights

We had roughly 1.5 days in Marrakech so out of the all the famous sights, we only visited Palais BahiaBen Youssef Madrasa, and Jardin Majorelle – all of which were worthwhile purely from an aesthetics point of view.  Palais Bahia has very intricate wooden ceilings and Ben Youssef Madrasa has beautiful coloured tiles all around the courtyard.

Top left and right: It’s a rare moment to capture Ben Youssef Madrasa without many tourists.
Bottom left and right: If you saw an amateur photographer spending forever pointing her camera at the floor or ceiling of Palais Bahia, that was probably me.

We especially loved the Jardin Majorelle – its eye popping colours like cobalt blue and sunshine yellow, and the unique flowers and cacti, make postcard worthy photos.

Jardin Majorelle is also known as the YSL gardens because:

“In 1980, Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent acquired the Jardin Majorelle, saving it from real estate developers. Since then, the garden has been restored, and many new plants have been added… After the death of Yves Saint Laurent in 2008, Pierre Bergé donated the Jardin Majorelle to the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent… A memorial to the French fashion designer was built in the garden.”

We spent the rest of the time simply walking around the souks and absorbing the atmosphere. From the various blogs we read and friends we spoke with, we expected to be hassled quite a lot but it was less than I expected. It reminded me slightly of cities in Southeast Asia where market places and city centres also have a flurry of unrelated activities all vying for the attention and money of tourists. One thing which struck me was the variety of activities going on in Jemaa el Fna – among the snake charmers, monkey trainers and food stalls, we came upon a woman who was offering henna tattoo services while her baby slept in the pram next to her stool in the middle of arguably one of the noisiest squares in the world.

Shopping

Haggling in Marrakech is an unavoidable experience. We generally start at 50% of the price they offered and slowly settled on a price somewhere in the middle. We are probably not the best at bargaining but to give you an idea of how much we paid:

  • Scarf: 80 dirham
  • Leather belt: 90 dirham
  • Taxi ride from Jardin Majorelle to Palais Bahia: 45 dirham
  • Taxi ride from Jemma el Fna to Supratours bus station: 25  dirham

The key is not to feel like you’re offending the seller by starting at what seems like a ridiculously low price. Be prepared to walk away.

For a more pleasant shopping experience, we recommend Ensemble Artisanal where things are sold at fixed prices (supposedly). We still unintentionally managed to buy a wooden bowl at 100 dirham instead of 300 dirham – it helps that the person covering the shop owner didn’t seem to know the products very well.

We also enjoyed walking along Rue Riad Zitoun Jdid which connects with Jemaa el Fna. This street is not as busy compared to the souks and you will find some shops selling things more unique, e.g. tailor made tops and dresses which were very tempting.

Food and drinks

There were a lot of mint tea, tagine and couscous, and more tagine. Because we frequently eat vegetarian, we were tagine-d out pretty quickly as it was mostly the same vegetables.

We ate at a few restaurants which were priced above average for Marrakech (100+ dirham for mains). Dinner on the terrace at Nomad gave us a view over one of the squares. Dinner at Pepe Nero was quite romantic as the tables were set in the most beautiful courtyard.

You have to walk down dark alleyways for several minutes to reach Pepe Nero. Don’t feel deterred! Our verdict: romantic restaurant with decent food but not as authentic as the ones you would find in Italy.

There are loads of stalls in Jemma el-Fnaa selling fresh juice – you could get a glass of orange juice for 4 dirham (£0.32) and a mixed juice for 10 dirham (£0.80).

One thing that I did miss was good quality dark chocolate which was virtually non-existent.

Accommodation

We enjoyed staying at some beautiful, cosy and colour coordinated riads in Marrakech. As you walk into the rooms, you will see floors covered with Moroccan style carpets and walls decorated with things like carved wooden doors and mirrors made of camel bone and silver. All riads included massive and delicious breakfasts with items such as Moroccan pancakes which we thoroughly enjoyed on the terrace each sunny morning.

Top left: Riad Helen
Top right: Riad el Marah
Bottom: One of our many delicious breakfasts which were included within the room booking fee.

Money

Moroccan dirham is not a currency that is legally available outside the country so it’s useful to have some cash in Euro. We also recommend the Monzo card which doesn’t charge extra for taking dirham out of the ATM. It takes the time and stress out of budgeting, having too much cash, and exchanging any leftover cash.