Our Grand Tour of Europe

Our Grand Tour of Europe

Mac and CassIt’s official—we’re heading to Europe on April 21 and we’d love for you to be part of our journey. This page is our online homebase for the next 6 months, where you’ll be able to read all about our adventures (and misadventures!) in the 14ish countries we’re planning on visiting. We’ll start to post updates and pictures once we’ve touched down in France, our first stop. Don’t be a stranger—leave comments and let us know if you have recommendations for the places we’re visiting. We’d love to hear from you and stay in touch, even if we are half a world away. – Mac and Cassandra

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It’s Official: We’re Back!

Posted by on Jan 13, 2016 in Our Grand Tour of Europe, Uncategorized | 4 comments

On Saturday our trip finally came to an end as we flew into SeaTac Airport. It still feels surreal that our traveling is actually done (for now) but we’re keeping plenty busy with reestablishing our home lives.

We’re looking forward to posting our final thoughts on the trip. And to seeing all of you! So don’t be a stranger. Call us up, plan some time to hang out and let us know if you have any questions you want answered in our post-trip wrap-up. We hope to hear from you soon!

   

  

SE Asia: Thailand

Posted by on Jan 7, 2016 in Our Grand Tour of Europe, Uncategorized | 2 comments

The last stop of our epic journey was Thailand. We gave ourselves plenty of time—three weeks—to see both the north and the south of the country. Knowing our trip was winding down, I wanted us to experience everything we possibly could, from exotic temples to lush jungles to deserted beaches. Mac wanted plenty of time to relax in the warm sun. So we compromised and spent a week doing as much sighsteeing as possible and two weeks living the simple life.
It certainly didn’t take us long to find the exotic when we flew north to Chiang Mai. It seemed like everywhere we wandered, by foot or by car, there was a Buddhist temple nearby. I immediately fell in love with Buddhist art. To Mac, the temple displays were like a garage sale. There was so much to look at that his eyes couldn’t focus on anything. But to me, it was dazzling and perfect—I didn’t want to look away from the gold, the jewels or the statues. It was my kind of art.

   
   
We made sure we got up close and personal with the temples—and with the Thai custom of bowing to show respect. Another measure of respect: I had to cover my shoulders, lest my bare arms seduce a monk away from his meditations.

 
One of our favorite experiences in Chiang Mai was spending the day at an elephant sanctuary. We got to feed the elephants, give them mud baths and bathe with them in the river. It was one of the coolest days of the whole trip.

   
   

  

We got to experience the elephants’ natural habitat on our own by spending another day trekking in the jungle with a guide who explained everything from the local flora and fauna to how Thai people protect trees from logging by giving them sacred cloths and declaring them monks. Most of the people in northern Thailand are Buddhist and it’s very bad karma to kill a monk, so protecting trees this way actually works most of the time.

  

Our guide was super knowledgeable (he even made us cool leaf hats!) but our favorite thing about him was his mad slingshot skills. He tried to teach us some tricks but we weren’t very good. At least, I wasn’t. Mac used his slingshot to protect me from a would-be-lunch-thief monkey later in the trip, which was pretty awesome.

  
  
One of the most interesting sights we saw in Chiang Mai was the women of the Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe. They stretch their necks with very heavy brass rings. The women start when they’re young, so by the time they’re older their necks can be quite lengthy. The brass rings can only be taken off for short periods of time. If the rings are left off for too long (such as with punishment for adultery), the women can die because their necks are so weak that they’re unable to support the weight of their heads.

  
We really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai and I, especially, had a hard time leaving. But after months of sightseeing, and in preparation for heading home, we needed a vacation from our vacation. No sightseeing (except snorkeling) and no alarm clock. So we headed down to the south of Thailand, to the Phi Phi Islands and Tarutao National Park, for some rest and relaxation.

You won’t see a lot of photos from those two weeks because we didn’t really take any. Instead, we plopped ourselves down on the beach and did nothing. We’re usually really active travelers but for once we let oursleves just be. Christmas passed quietly and so did New Years. Through it all, we read books, swam and thought about life. And we tried to get used to the fact that our trip was almost finished.

 

  
It didn’t seem quite real—and it still doesn’t. But tomorrow we’ll start our journey back to Seattle. There’s a lot about traveling that we’ll miss—and a lot we won’t (stay tuned for our individual wrap-up posts). It’s bittersweet to be trading in the exotic for the familiar. But in its own way, home is just our next great adventure. Because the true test of a traveler’s spirit doesn’t come from traveling at all. It comes from the struggle to make life at home every bit as growth-inducing and memorable as being out on the road. We’re ready for the challenge.

SE Asia: Cambodia

Posted by on Jan 5, 2016 in Our Grand Tour of Europe, Uncategorized | 4 comments

After exploring Europe (and Turkey and Morocco) for nearly eight months, Mac and I were ready for a different kind of adventure and a completely different culture. So we set off for SE Asia. Our plan was to spend a week in Cambodia and three weeks in Thailand.

Because we flew in to Bangkok, we had to cross most of Thailand to reach Cambodia. We could’ve flown but we decided to take a 7-hour train instead. The ride didn’t disappoint. There was lots to look at inside–and outside–of our 3rd class car. We spent most of the ride gazing around in awe at everything from the chickens and puppies riding next to us to the fields and lotus flowers we passed by. Mac said it was just like watching National Geographic.

 
   

Once we reached Cambodia, we set up a home base in Siem Reap, the town closest to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat–and the whole reason Cambodia was on our bucket list to begin with. It was a photographer’s paradise.

  
  
 
   
 

We enjoyed visiting the temples so much on our one-day educational tour that we returned the next day to ride bikes around the religious complex and take everything in at our own pace.
 

Everywhere we looked, we found something interesting, from kids farming lotus flowers to a migration of 50+ monkeys, including this cute little baby one. (This was when I still thought monkeys were cute. In Thailand, one attacked me and tried to steal my lunch out of my hands. It was terrifying. But I won.)

  
   

There was some foreshadowing that monkeys are mischievous creatures. We watched these guys attempt to unzip another biker’s purse. While they weren’t ultimately successful, they did manage to get away with the woman’s water bottle, which they punched a hole in and drank out of.
   
 

When we weren’t exploring Angkor Wat, we were exploring our little town. Siem Reap is a small, very poor village with a bustling tourist district. It was strange to see such poverty and affluence mixed all together but somehow it worked.

  

We made time to watch some traditional Cambodian dancing, which is meant to bring to life the exotic women depicted on the Angkor temples.
  

And thought about going to a happening lounge … until we got creeped out by the welcome sign and the possibility of being surrounded by people who needed to be reminded not to bring grenades to a club.
  

So we turned our sights to culinary adventures. We started small, with coconuts fresh off the tree and shark/alligator Cambodian BBQ.
  
   

We heard rumors of “mystery meat” but didn’t think much of them until we saw this very helpful sign.
 

Finally, we were ready for our biggest culinary adventure yet: crickets, snakes and spiders.

   
   

Mac led the charge on this one. We got chasers first, to help wash everything down.
   

And then debated the best way to eat everything. 
  

I had trouble working up to it.
 
 

But finally got on board.

 

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be. The spider legs tasted like pork puffies and the snake was tough and a little spicy like jerky (with vertebrae poking out). The cricket was actually the worst, because its legs and wings kept poking the inside of our mouths. And it didn’t taste very good. But we were quite proud of ourselves for being so brave.
  

Cambodia was everything we were hoping it would be–very, very different from Europe. We’d like to go back someday to see even more of the country beyond Angkor Wat. But we’ll skip the bugs next time.

Europe Trip: Scandinavia

Posted by on Dec 28, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe, Uncategorized | 1 comment

Our last big adventure in Europe, from late November to early December, was spending two weeks in Scandinavia. We had planned to visit both Sweden and Norway in search of old friends and unknown family. Along the way, we got a good dose of cold weather and winter fun.

Our first stop in Scandinavia was Stockholm, where stayed on a clipper ship that has been converted into a hostel. This specific boat, the af Chapman, had been on our travel bucket list ever since we’d seen it on a travel show while we were preparing for our trip. We don’t usually book accommodations in advance, but we made an exception for this spot. It was fun to stay in our own cabin on such an old-fashioned ship–and well worth the wait.

  

The boat was great, but our favorite part of visiting Stockholm was actually reconnecting with Olaf, a Swedish childhood friend of Mac’s, and his family. They took us to a cool tv tower for an amazing view of the city and showed us all sorts of places only locals could know about. We visited a Swedish daycare, learned about local politics and the Swedish economy and enjoyed amazing traditional dinners. It was more than we ever could have hoped for and was a great lesson in true hospitality.

  

In between visits with Olaf and his family, we explored the city on our own. I loved soaking in the Swedish Christmas spirit. There were decorations and little reminders of the holiday everywhere. And everyone looked so stylish in their cold-weather gear!
  

The best-dressed award, though, had to go to a group of Danish girls we met while walking around the old town. They had plastic wine glasses tethered to their very eclectic suits and all kinds of other helpful little tools for impromptu drinking. I had to ask them to explain their costumes, of course, (it turns out the costumes are traditional outfits for Danish students and they’re customized according to the students’ majors) and grabbed a photo with them.
  

From Stockholm, we headed to Norway to meet some of my Norwegian family that I’d never met before. It was quite a journey to get to Gaupne, the town my ancestors are from and where much of my Norwegian family still lives. Our favorite part of the journey was on a boat through the fjords.
  
 
 

At last we arrived–and it was like a storybook. Odd (pictured below) and Svein, my shirt-tail cousins, took us on a driving tour of the area. We got to see the church where my great great grandparents–and my great great great grandparents–are buried. And we were lucky enough to meet even more of my family and get invited to a big Norwegian lunch at Svein’s house. It was such a wonderful couple of days. I really loved learning more of our family history, hearing stories about my great grandpa and seeing heirlooms that have been in the Øvrebø family for generations. I even got to learn how to correctly pronounce our original last name (kind of–it’s actually really hard). It was a really special experience.
   

   

With friends and family checked off our list, only one big thing still remained for us in Scandinavia. We really wanted to experience cold, snowy, Arctic Norway. I’d always assumed that Norway was snowy for most of the year but it’s not. So we had to fly all the way north, to the town of Alta (400 km north of the Arctic Circle), to experience the Norway that had been on our bucket list.

We’re so glad we did. Alta turned out to be one of our favorite spots of the whole trip. We immediately fell in love with the water and the mountains, which were all kinds of enchanting shades of gray that changed almost hourly. We jumped right into the Arctic lifestyle, eating reindeer (it felt a little mean so close to Christmas but it was tasty), relaxing in the jacuzzi and taking slippy walks on the icy roads.
  

We even went dog sledding, which surpassed all of our expectations. We both loved driving the sled, cuddling the dogs and waddling around in our massive snow suits.
      

The next thing we tried was ice fishing. We got to dig our own holes with a massive hand crank and then had a good laugh over how small our poles were. Unfortunately, we liked ice fishing more than the fish liked us. We sat out on the frozen lake for quite a while and didn’t get even a single bite. We still considered the day a success. After all, it was a day spent relaxing in nature–and that’s our favorite kind of day.

  
  

We also broke Mac’s snowshoeing curse, which was a major win. He’d always wanted to go snowshoeing in the past, but something happened every time to make it impossible. He finally got to go snowshoeing in Alta and loved it.
 

Everything we did in Alta felt like a dream come true, especially seeing the Northern Lights. We had been crossing our fingers that we’d be lucky enough to see them and they came out in full force on the night of our safari (we hired a guide to drive us around and literally hunt the Northern Lights with our cameras). It felt like the perfect ending to our Europe trip, the brilliant manifestation of the travel magic we’d been experiencing for months. Because it wasn’t just Alta that was a dream come true: it was our whole trip.

    

We thanked our lucky stars that we’d been lucky enough to see so much of Europe … and Morocco and Turkey. But after Scandinavia, we were off on a different kind of adventure: SE Asia. So we traded our snow suits for swim suits and hopped another plane for the last major chapter in our travel story.

Europe Trip: The Bavaria Files

Posted by on Dec 21, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 1 comment

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I know you were expecting more of the same professional-level blogging that this pretty girl has been providing all trip.

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But just when you were getting comfortable with the soothing rhythms of Ms. Overby’s writings … BOOM, a Mackenzie blog appears. This entry harkens back to mid-fall for our trek through Germany’s southern region of Bavaria. If only there was a video I could post that would most accurately sum up this region …

BANG! Cute kids in lederhosen flailing about like the weird inflatable things at a used car lot. Now for all intents and purposes I could just drop the mic right there and walk off stage cause Germany isn’t getting much better than that, but for the sake of our endearing fans, I will elaborate further.

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We set off from just south of Munich with the hopes of hiking the entirety of King Ludwig’s Way. King Ludwig was apparently super rich and had a fascination with medieval lore, including castles, knights and dragons. Basically he is one of my idols. Anyway, he built a bunch of cool castles around one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Germany. How could we not hike it?

 

YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

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Kidding, not even wooden Gandalf could stop us. As you can see from our collection of colorful pictures, the fall season was in full effect. The air was crisp, the days were getting shorter and leaves were changing, all to the beat of our marching steps.

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Candidly, Bavaria is one of Cassandra’s favorite spots on earth. She loves the culture, loves the food and loves the scenery. Cass had been excited for this leg of the trip since the early stages of planning. I believe she ordered over 500 helpings of Weinerschnitzel over our 10-day excursion (note: figures are estimated). It was with this sentiment as our backdrop that we stumbled into a small German village, exhausted from a day of hiking. The lovely couple that rented us a room owned a small dairy farm in town. We knew this because the barn was attached to the room we were staying in. Being in such a small town, we thought it prudent to inquire early about where to best rustle up some grub. The landlady informed us that everything in town was shut down due to the yearly village talent show. She then invited us to tag along, if only to experience of a bit of the local vibe and get some food.

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What we ended up walking into was a full-blown fall festival talent show. Think Oktoberfest without all the drunk tourists. This was traditional Germany with all the “fixthins.” We had lederhosen and dirndls galore, songs, skits, cheesy jokes, beer and sausage. It was a true “Rick Steves eat your heart out” moment.

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I even rallied the next morning to help the farmer with his cows. All in all, it was quite the authentic experience, the kind that every traveler hopes for but that can never really be planned.

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Our next hike brought us to the fantasy, nerd-inducing castle of Neuschwanstein. This castle was the basis for the castle built in Disneyland. Constructed on a large cliff and surrounded by a river, it lords over the valley below.

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Ok, why not one more.

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After doing a few swipes with my stick sword, ala the hero in Sleeping Beauty, we continued along our crimson- and gold-painted trail. Trekking though meadows and forests, we continued to live out the fairytale to the last step.

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And with nothing else left to say, I leave you with another bit of the hilarity that is the act of being German.

Europe Trip: Eastern Europe

Posted by on Dec 18, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 2 comments

In late October, Mac and I were ready for our grand tour through Eastern Europe. We had quite a list of places we wanted to see—Lake Bled (Slovenia), Budapest (Hungary), Krakow (Poland), Prague and Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) and Berlin (Germany). There wasn’t a lot of time for each place. In some areas, we only had 3 days. But both of us saw Eastern Europe, with its powerful history of occupation by both Nazis and Communists, as a key component in our global education. Along the way, we saw some amazing sights. We’re excited to share them with you—and hope to inspire you to do your own tour of Eastern Europe.

We started our grand tour in Lake Bled, Slovenia, with its idyllic, fog-enshrouded church island. It rained most of the time we were there but we didn’t mind too much. We tromped around in our rain jackets and spent plenty of time relaxing over big dishes of Slovenian food in our hotel’s restaurant.

 
After three days in Lake Bled, we headed for Budapest. This was one of the best surprises of our trip—we absolutely loved Budapest, from its gorgeous buildings to its ruin bars (set in bombed-out buildings from WWII) to the Communist walking tour we went on. BTW, walking tour day was also laundry day—and it was cold out. The result was the ragamuffin outfit you see in my photo (yep, I’m wearing socks and shoes with my summer dress and puffy).    

 
  
From Poland, it was off to Krakow—and one of the most moving experiences of the trip. We spent a day touring Auschwitz, the famous concentration and extermination camp from WWII. Even though we knew generally what we were in for, we were still shocked by the sheer amount of cruel and evil acts committed in the camp.  

   
Krakow and Prague were only a night train—and a cheat meal—apart. (We normally try to eat local wherever we are but sometimes we just crave McDonalds … and give in to our craving.)

 
Although Prague was beautiful, we just didn’t connect with it the way we did most other cities in Eastern Europe. We couldn’t put our finger on exactly why, either. Maybe it was too touristy; maybe somewhere along the way it had lost a bit of its soul. Whatever the reason, we were excited to leave the city in favor of the Czech countryside.


 
The small country town we chose was Cesky Krumlov. It was romantic and old-fashioned and charming—everything we were hoping for.

  
 
It didn’t hurt that we got to stay in a room that matched the vibe of the town.

 
After feeling like we’d gone back in time in Cesky Krumlov, we transitioned back to the modern world by finishing our Eastern Europe tour with a trip to Berlin. The city was in fine form and greeted us with vivid colors, lots of history (including a 3rd Reich and post-WWII walking tour) and as much graffiti as we could photograph.

      

  
It was over way too quickly. Almost before we knew it, our days in Eastern Europe were over and we were on a bus bound for the Netherlands. But that’s a whole different story.

Europe Trip: The Netherlands

Posted by on Dec 17, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 0 comments

Throughout our entire trip, Mac and I have planned our itinerary around the weather. Even though it meant spending more money on transportation, we wound our way through Europe (sometimes in zig-zag patterns) hitting towns, festivals and attractions at prime time. For most of the trip, our strategy worked. Until the Netherlands, that is. We were supposed to visit the land of tulips, windmills and dikes in July but we chose to do a boat cruise through Europe then instead. That meant we didn’t get around to visiting the Netherlands until November—the country’s rainiest month.

We didn’t let the weather deter us, even though it tried its darndest. Our original goal had been to bike the notoriously flat roads. In between seeing Amsterdam, the Hague, Delft and Rotterdam, we did just that. It was some of the most challenging biking we’ve done all trip. We faced such strong headwinds that at times we barely moved forward; torrential downpours soaked our rain gear right through; and we had to wait out a few squalls in the shelter of overpasses. But we did it. And we got some great windmill porn along the way. Here are our favorite shots.

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To Endings … and Beginnings

Posted by on Dec 8, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 1 comment

When Mac and I originally set out on this epic journey, we thought for sure we’d be home by the beginning of October. It’s funny to think that with our original timeline, we would’ve been back stateside almost two months ago. Instead, in the fall we decided to extend our trip. After all, when are we ever going to have the opportunity to travel like this again? Probably never.

  

Extending meant we had more time to wind our way through Europe, which is what we were doing until today, when we flew to Southeast Asia. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting about the last of our European adventures, from hiking King Ludwig’s Way in Bavaria to biking through Holland to embracing winter at the very top of Norway.

  

 
  

It was very bittersweet for us to finish up our grand tour of Europe. And it still doesn’t feel quite real. But we’re excited to kick off this new adventure in a totally different part of the world. For the next month—and the last month of our trip—we’ll be exploring Thailand and Cambodia before heading back to Seattle in early January.

We’re looking forward to beaches and hot weather, which they have plenty of in this part of the world. But more than anything, we can’t wait to see all of you when we get back home!

Some Turkey for Your Turkey Day

Posted by on Nov 24, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 3 comments

We wanted to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and share some of our Turkey for your turkey day! We needed a second helping of the country after we missed out on Cappadocia the first time around (in June), so after Morocco (in mid-October) we circled back. It was well worth a return trip and we’d definitely recommend it as an addition to any travel bucket list. From hot air ballooning to other-worldly landscapes to hidden cities, Cappadocia is one of the most unique spots we’ve ever seen, let alone visited.

  
 
  
 

Morocco: The Best Place to See Only Once

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 2 comments

By mid-September, Mac and I had run out of Schengen time—you’re only allowed to be in Europe for 90 days out of every 180 on a tourist visa. So while we waited to be let back in, we headed to Morocco (northern Africa) to at least wait in style.

I had been to Morocco once before, for three days back in college, when the country had completely captured my imagination. I enthusiastically sold Mac on the romantic Moorish architecture, colorful jalabas (traditional clothing) and exotic camel safaris. So off we went for a three-week adventure. Little did we know we’d be getting way more adventure than we bargained for.

  

To be honest, it probably didn’t help that we were coming to Morocco from England. In just two hours on a plane, we went from being completely comfortable in our surroundings to dealing with a disconcerting amount of culture shock. Even though I knew generally what to expect in Morocco, I was still taken aback by the maze-like dusty roads, the plethora of street hustlers, the people who looked nothing like us.

  

It’s a hard line to walk as a traveler: being in a place that is so foreign that it expands your comfort zone while also being comfortable enough to enjoy the experience. It’s a line that would challenge both of us in Morocco. 

  

We started off the best way we knew how, by learning some of the local language (Arabic) and culture at a private afternoon workshop run by Creative Interactions. The best part? We got to cook tajine, a traditional Moroccan dish, and ask all of the questions we wanted to about religion  and politics.

  

Armed with our beginner Arabic, we set out to explore our homebase of Marrakech. It’s not a city that goes down easily—it’s chaos incarnate, a complete assault on the senses. Picture the city from Aladdin, with all of its confusing alleyways. Then add a chorus of mosques sounding the call to prayer, the spicy scent of kabobs on the grill and the contorted bodies of snakes dancing to their charmers’ shrill flutes. Finish things off with a good dose of people—people everywhere, hawking goods from shanty shops, crowding in market stalls, climbing over each other to reach a pile of newly arrived jalabas. It’s wonderful and terrifying, all at the same time.

  
  
  

More interesting than chaos,  we found dichotomy. It was fascinating to us that everyone has a satelite dish, yet most deliveries—and trash pickup—are done by donkey.

  
  

We walked up and down alleys for days, ducking donkeys and carts and motorcycles, to explore the chaotic city and its well-hidden neighborhoods. One of our favorite places to explore was the tannery district, where we held mint, aka “Berber gas masks,” to our noses to fight the putrid smell as we watched sheep and camel leather being made.

  
  

And of course we tasted everything we could—which led to three weeks of stomach problems for us both.

  

After exploring Marrakech, we were eager to move on to a more peaceful place. We took a day trip to the surprisingly gorgeous Atlas Mountains—and got caught in a traffic jam of historic proportions as two fighting villages blocked the only road through the mountains as part of their dispute. Mac took it all in stride; I hyperventilated in the backseat.  

  

We tried again for a peaceful place and finally succeeded with three days at a “luxury camp” (in this case, luxury still means tents) in the Sahara Desert.

  
  

  

It was a magical experience. For hours, we rode camels. When we got tired of that, we sandboarded on the hot dunes and ate under a cloudless blue sky while watching the sun go down in the distance. All around us was complete and utter silence, except for nighttime, when the air would fill with the deep beat of drums and the tinny clicking of shackles.

  
  

    

 
For those few glorious days in the desert, we blocked out Marrakech. We forgot about the stress of such foreign travel. We didn’t know that there would be many other challenges to test us during our time in Morocco, from overnight buses to sand storms to 3rd world postal services, but for a time our forgetting and our ignorance were bliss.
We don’t regret going to Morocco. After all, it gave us some of our richest experiences of the trip. But take our advice: seeing it once is enough.

Making England Worth the Cost

Posted by on Nov 19, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 3 comments

After soaking in the magic and mystery of Scotland, Mac and I continued south to England. I was nervous about this part of our trip. After all, the dollar is notoriously weak against the pound; I knew it was going to be really expensive. Also, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s actually harder to plan a memorable trip to a country that’s really similar to your own. You have to work twice as hard to seek out the exotic and the impressive. Luckily, with a lot of research and some great recommendations from friends, we landed on 10 experiences that made our time in England not only worth the time but also worth the expense. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Hiking in the Lake District

The weather wasn’t gorgeous most days, but the slow drizzle added to the ambiance in the Lake District (northwestern England). We stayed in an inn that was frequented in the 1800s by none other than the famous British poet William Wordsworth. Of course, we had to download some of his poetry and read it aloud. And we channeled the olden days by hiking to classical music. In this hidden corner of the world, it seemed just right.

  
  

  

2. Checking out the British “street furniture”

There was nothing intellectual or deep about this favorite of ours; we just had a great time popping into the telephone booths we came across. Nowadays, some of the booths are being used as internet hotspots—it’s great to see them retrofitted instead of taken down.

  

3. Enjoying afternoon tea

Our first afternoon tea (below) was quite simple; it was just tea and a scone. By the time we made it to London, we had worked our way up to bonafide afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason. It was a highlight of our whole trip—for hours, we ate little sandwiches and cakes and drank pot after pot of tea. It felt quite fancy and decadent.

 

4. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles

We knew we had to learn more about the greatest rock group in history and Liverpool was the perfect place to do it. From going on a Fab4 cab tour that visited all of the famous Beatles sites to hanging out in the Cavern Club where the Beatles used to regularly play, we got the dose of British rock that we were looking for.

  
  
  

5. Visiting Sherwood Forest

This one was a must-see for Mac. So we spent an afternoon exploring the forest, collecting acorns from the surprisingly large trees and finding out how Sherwood Forest is being protected from modern robbers (developers).

 
  
   

6. Discovering the mysteries of Stonehenge

If there’s one absolute must-do in England, it’s visiting Stonehenge. We were worried that the stone formation would in fact be small and disappointing (kind of like the Mona Lisa) but we were pleasantly surprised. Stonehenge was just as awe inspiring as the Discovery Channel promised it would be.

  
  

7. Being groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

You don’t have to shell out a lot of money in London to have a great theater experience. For 5 pounds (about $7.50) you can be a groundling at Shakespeare’s original Globe Theater. That means you stand on the ground level, next to the stage (yep, you don’t have seats) and only feet from the actors. We loved the Shakespeare play we saw, Measure for Measure, and Mac even got hauled off by the actors and incorporated into the very beginning of the show. It’s not often that good entertainment is cheap, but in this case it is. 

  
  

8. Taking in the iconic London Tower Bridge

When it comes to beautiful bridges, the London Tower Bridge definitely holds its own. Our favorite place to admire it: on the lively canal in front of the Tower of London Museum. (It’s also a great place to people watch.)

  

9. Seeing the British WWII war rooms

I had to take Mac to my favorite museum in the whole world, the war rooms at the Imperial War Museum/Winston Churchill Museum. There, you can see the actual bunker where Churchill directed Britain’s WWII strategy. Most everything in the museum is original, from the cabinet room to Churchill’s bedroom (Little known facts: Churchill took a nap every afternoon and bathed twice a day.). With a little bit of imagination, you can feel like you’re in 1940s London.

  
 

10. Marveling at the elaborately dressed royal guards

I’d love to say we were above having a good laugh at the headpeices, but we weren’t. It was probably good that we found something to laugh at, because the huge crowds meant we really had to angle to see anything at all. Here’s our advice for seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace: arrive at least an hour and a half early.

  
  

From funny headpieces to fancy tea, it turns out there’s a lot about England that’s exotic—and well worth the price of admission.

Top 5 Enchanting Things About Scotland

Posted by on Nov 14, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 1 comment

After visiting Northern Ireland, Mac and I were eager to see more of the United Kingdom. Our original plan had been to go straight to England but at the last minute we took the advice of fellow travelers and bought plane tickets to Scotland. We’re really glad we did—from surreal scenery to fascinating folklore, there was so much magic in Scotland that we easily fell under the country’s spell. What made it even better was the fact that it caught us entirely by surprise. Here are the top 5 things that enchanted us about Scotland.

The hiking: From the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands to the outskirts of busy Edinburgh, there was no shortage of incredible wilderness to explore. It wasn’t simply the wilderness that captivated us, though. It was also the interplay of light and fog that turned even ordinary sights into mystical settings.

  
  

The symbology: Wherever we went, we were sure to find thistles (the national flower) and unicorns (historically from the crest of Scotland’s royal families). You have to admit, there’s something quite charming about a country that puts spiny flowers and make-believe animals on a pedestal.

  
  
  

The literature: One of the best things about Edinburgh was the  abundance of good stories and great writers. We spent some time retracing the steps of J. K. Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter at The Elephant House cafe and based everything in the book—from buildings to streets to character names—on actual places and people from Edinburgh. The bathroom at the cafe, which happens to be owned by her brother-in-law, has been turned into an unofficial fan club.

  
  
  

The food: We couldn’t resist trying everything from haggis (sheep organs mixed with onions, oatmeal and spices) to tatties (Scottish potatoes) to pigeon (yep, the bird). The verdict? Mac liked the haggis but I thought it was disgusting, everyone loves potatoes and pigeon isn’t bad at all.

  
  
  

The Loch Ness monster: One of our last—and most important—adventures in Scotland was conducting our own search for the Loch Ness monster. We didn’t find “Nessie,” but we did find a stunning, mostly untouched lake (loch means lake in Scottish) that made us want to camp, hike, swim and explore for much more time than we had available. That—and “Nessie”—will have to wait for another trip :-)

  
  

The Trouble With Northern Ireland

Posted by on Nov 5, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 4 comments

After spending three weeks in the Republic of Ireland, Mac and I continued on to Northern Ireland. Because of its brutal recent past with the Troubles, a decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants, it’s a part of the world not many tourists have made it to. Indeed, the tourism industry in the country (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland) is less than ten years old. Both of us grew up with the Troubles—and their many bombings—dominating the nightly news. Once the smoke had cleared, we were eager to see Northern Ireland and learn what all of the violence had been about.

  

Despite its sordid history, Mac and I assumed that Northern Ireland was almost going to be an extension of the Republic of Ireland—the same friendly faces, the same corner pubs. We noticed our mistake almost as soon as we got off the bus in Belfast. It wasn’t just the people (less overtly friendly) and the buildings (no pubs) that seemed different; the whole vibe was un-Irish. Belfast seemed, in a word, sanitized. Lacking its own character or charm, the city felt like a place that wasn’t Irish, wasn’t English, but also hadn’t quite made up its mind about what it was. Little did we know that gut feeling reflected a lot in the country, from its politics to its economy.

  
Before launching into the complexity of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, we took some time to appreciate the natural beauty of the area. A day tour of the Giant’s Causeway introduced us to the country’s #1 tourist attraction: huge geometric rock formations that seem to grow out of the ground. The excursion also gave us a great look at the northern coast of the island, which was unexpectedly our favorite part of the day.

  

 

With sightseeing crossed off our list, we started to delve more deeply into the history of the Troubles. We were planning on taking a black cab tour, a three-hour drive and political lecture by a local, but we wanted to have a good base of knowledge to make the most of the experience. So we turned to YouTube and a few documentaries that gave us a better idea of what, exactly, defined the Troubles.

Honestly, the whole thing initially confounded me. Here were two groups of people sharing the same island, both believing in the same Bible, God and Jesus—and yet they found enough religious differences between them to fight, often times to the death.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. And when it comes down to it, religion isn’t always about religion. It’s also about culture, values, political divisions and how you see and treat people who believe differently than you, all key things that can lead to religious conflict that’s doesn’t have much to do with God at all. Many shades of gray appeared once we dove into the documentaries.

If you want to learn more, here are some resources we found especially interesting. One is a compilation of recommended films about the Troubles and the other is on the Shankill Butchers, a rogue sect of Ulster loyalist serial killers. There’s also a song about the Shankill Butchers that you can listen to here. For a quick background read on the Troubles, check out this article. Another good summary can be found on Wikipedia.

Armed with a better understanding of the Troubles, we embarked on our black cab tour. Our driver, Pat, was a Catholic who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. In addition to driving us around and showing us pictures and newspaper articles from the time, he shared his own experiences from childhood.

  

Of course, his was one side of a very complicated story (which he absolutely admitted and was quite fair about) but it was also very compelling. At a certain point, people who have been denied basic rights—jobs, housing, the vote—in their own country because of their religion (in this case Catholics in Northern Ireland) will rise up. And that’s what happened with the Troubles.

Once we got Pat talking, he didn’t want to stop. We loved how passionate he was about his story. And we loved everything he took us to, especially a large collection of political murals (the Catholics and Protestants each have their own) that are still updated with relevant political messages every year. At some murals, family members were paying their respects to their dead loved ones.

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One of the bizarre things we saw firsthand on the tour is that Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are still kept separate in Belfast. And not just in name or concept. There are actual walls and gates that descend at night and on weekends to physically separate them—some looked just like sections of the Berlin Wall.

  

The walls were littered with political graffiti and broken bottles that hadn’t quite made it over the massive dividers to the other side.

  

The Troubles officially ended in 1998, but all around us was evidence that they weren’t quite over, not all the way. Northern Ireland is still a country on the mend.

After seeing the bold murals, the grieving family members, the physical dividers between Catholics and Protestants, we had to wonder: When will this country and its people ever truly heal? Pat didn’t have an answer for us but he did share some hope for the future. The government is doing a better job these days of representing all of its citizens. Schools and camps are being integrated so that children get exposure to and build friendships with kids of other faiths. (In Pat’s day, schools were so segregated that he didn’t meet a Protestant until he was a working adult.) And the government hopes to take down the neighborhood dividers within the next seven years.

And us? We’re looking forward to returning someday, once Northern Ireland decides not just what it isn’t but what it is.

Ireland: The Can’t-Sees and the Must-Sees

Posted by on Oct 30, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 6 comments

In the beginning of July, Mac and I traveled to Ireland. Our plan was to spend three weeks exploring the green country by foot, bike and rental car. Even though Ireland isn’t all that big, we wanted to experience its diversity, from urban Dublin to touristy Dingle to quiet Connemara.

We had several must-sees on our Ireland travel list but were also both hoping for something more—something unseen. For Mac, it was about connecting with his Irish roots. I was after a glimpse of the true Irish spirit.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the beginning, it was enough just to soak in the sights and sounds of Dublin. Bright colors made the buildings pop against a perfect and decidedly un-Irish cerulean blue sky. There were friendly pubs and street musicians on every corner. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without the sound of clinking glasses and rowdy ballads. Of course, it helped that we stayed in a bar, as we did for much of our time in Ireland (a lot of the bars rent out rooms), where at a moment’s notice we could have both. 

 

One of our favorite souvenirs from our travels has been a foreign music collection. With all of the live music around us in Dublin, it didn’t take long for us to start curating an awesome Irish playlist (Spoiler alert: we’ve included it for you at the end of the post).

 
It was in Dublin that we began our love affair with Irish food—heavy pot pies, steaming meat and potatoes, and enough food at every meal to feed an army. Initially, we thought Irish breakfasts were the best. They’re so big—ham, bacon, eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, white pudding, toast—that they keep you full all day. After a few days, though, we had to cry uncle. We simply couldn’t eat that much food for breakfast. Dinner? Well, that was another story.

 
We were definitely starting to put on weight. But our expanding waistlines might also have had something to do with all of the beer we were drinking.

 
We started our education in Guinness by touring the brewery in Dublin. We learned how to pour the perfect pint and looked at old Guinness ads. Mac felt right at home.
 
  
We loved the liveliness of Dublin but soon set off in search of a more traditional Irish way of life. It didn’t take but 20 minutes in our trusty rental car, an underpowered little white thing soon nicknamed “Sheep,” for sprawling city blocks to be replaced with rolling hills and farms. Everything was a different shade of green. Until evening, that is, when everything was given a golden dusting by the setting sun.

 

We couldn’t get enough of the fields and the colors, which was great because the roads were so narrow and rudimentary at times (and Mac was trying to drive a stick shift on the opposite side of the road) that it took us quite a while to get anywhere. He was fond of saying it was like driving by Braille. At the first sign of an oncoming car, Mac would move over until branches were slapping the driver’s side. That meant we were over as far as we could go, which wasn’t always enough. At one point, we were forced to the side of the road by a large truck and popped a tire.

 
Rental car escapades aside, we loved our drive through the rocky Irish southern and western coasts, with their massive boulders, technicolor sheep and charming ruins—oh, and their legit rainbows.

  
  
  
  
We broke up the driving by hiking near the Ring of Kerry and Cliffs of Moher and biking around the Dingle Peninsula. The scenery was perfect: rugged, inhospitable, beckoning. Contemplating the landscape was almost a spiritual experience; it was so easy to picture the ghosts of Druids and warlords past that surely haunt each imposing cliff, each mysterious pile of rubble.
  
  
  

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Of course, we had to make time for a few castle visits. We got to stay the night in Ballynahinch Castle—one of our favorite nights of the whole trip. We felt like we’d traveled back in time to the days of drawing rooms, horseback jaunts around the estate and falconry. The rain had kicked in by this point, so we spent a lot of our time drinking by the fire and watching the moisture streak the windows. It was magical.

  
  
This and our other favorite stops exposed us to the more traditional Irish life that we were searching for. One day, we explored a living history exhibit from an 18th-century Irish farm. The bucolic photo hides what happened next: the neighboring cow suddenly sprayed diarrhea all over the barn and almost hit several tourists. The farmer milking the cow got a real kick out of it. I think it was the highlight of his whole afternoon.

 
Another day, we visited a modern sheep farm and watched a demonstration of sheep dogs doing what they do best—rounding up sheep. The added bonus was watching a sheep actually get sheared. The animal may look dead in the picture but rest assured that it’s not. If you hold sheep firmly enough, they just go limp.

 
  

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Our stops on our round-Ireland road trip were exposing us to a lot of Irish people and culture, just like we’d hoped. And Mac, especially, was loving it. We were surrounded by people named Mackenzie (though here it’s usually a last name) and men in paddy caps—and Sundays were almost exclusively reserved for sitting in the bar all day. It was his heaven.

Through our interactions with the Irish, I got what I was looking for, that glimpse of the Irish spirit: the gift of gab, the ability to drink unlimited pints of Guinness, the encyclopedic knowledge of every Irish folk song ever written, and the eagerness to hunt down strangers and talk to them. But the funny thing was, I didn’t only see it in the Irish-born Irish; I also recognized it in Mac.

 
As someone who lives in Seattle and is quite familiar with the “Seattle freeze,” I wondered why the Irish were so nice to strangers. In the pub one night, someone explained. Many Irish left their island during the Potato Famine, bound for the United States and other countries. And lots of foreigners now come to Ireland searching for their roots. So in the Irish mindset, the stranger they meet might just be family. What a lovely way to think about things. It’s like one of my favorite quotes: “A stranger is a friend waiting to happen.”

 
For our last week in Ireland, we didn’t want the distraction of driving. We just wanted to soak in the lifestyle we’d learned to love, to have the chance to be locals instead of tourists. So we rented a house in a tiny village in Connemara and tried our darndest to be Irish. We watched Gaelic football semi-finals at the pub, ambled in the fields after a good rain and stayed cozy with round-the-clock peat fires. Mac even made me a temporary writing desk out of other furniture, so I could put down on paper just some of what had inspired me in Ireland—the food, the landscape, the people. I even started a new book project on the logistics of long-term travel

 

  
If I close my eyes, I can go there now. Especially if I start playing the Irish songs we fell in love with on our trip (below). Try it for yourself; the songs are easy to disappear into. Or better yet, go there. Just make sure you don’t miss the can’t-sees for the must-sees.

Our Awesome Irish Playlist:

  1. Whiskey in the Jar
  2. The Streets of New York
  3. Molly Malone (Version One)
  4. Molly Malone (Version Two)
  5. The Fields of Athenry
  6. Caledonia (Scottish)
  7. Wagon Wheel
  8. Wild Rover
  9. The Town I Loved So Well
  10. Summer in Dublin
  11. Country Roads
  12. Ordinary Man
  13. Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears
  14. Danny Boy
  15. Dirty Old Town
  16. The Rattlin’ Bog

Word to the wise: You can find all of these songs in a typical setlist in a traditional Irish pub (yep, even the ones we like to think of as American songs). Or you can just click on the links above and hear them via YouTube.

Where in the World?

Posted by on Oct 15, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 7 comments

It’s a question we’ve been asked a lot lately–where in the world are you guys? There’s a short and a long answer. The short answer is that we’re in Cappadocia, Turkey. The long answer is that since we last posted on the blog we’ve spent time in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Morocco and now Turkey.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing location-specific posts as usual. But here are some of our favorite photos to give you a taste of what we’ve been up to.

Drinking beer in Dublin (Ireland)

  

Learning about the Troubles in Belfast (Northern Ireland)

 

Falling in love with the Scottish Highlands (Scotland)

 
Visiting Beatles landmarks in Liverpool (England)

 
Riding camels in the Sahara Desert (Morocco)

 
Playing with monkeys in Marrakech (Morocco)

  
Dressing up in jalabas (Morocco)

 

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia (Turkey)