Travel theme: Hills

Whenever I think of hills, the picturesque Eastern Europe comes to my mind. It reminds me of our last road trip before we left Europe in 2014…driving thru the rugged hills and mountains of Dinaric Alps, some with heavy snow and some with endless lush greenery. Those mountains and hills looked more bold and appealing than the French or Swiss or Bavarian or Italian Alps. They are unspoiled and untouched…a bit of scary and a bit of relaxing. Here is to my memory, with some Eastern European hillside…

The scenic highway from Tirana, Albania to Skopje, Macedonia (thru Kosovo)

The scenic highway from Tirana, Albania to Skopje, Macedonia (thru Kosovo)

Scenic highway to Tirana, Albania (from Podgorica)

Stunning road to Tirana, Albania (from Podgorica)

Scenic drive from Sarajevo to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Driving from Sarajevo to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

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An Insight Into Marrakech, And 4 Things You Must Find Time To Experience

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Marrakech has to be one of the most breathtaking and astonishing cities in the whole world. It’s a riot of color, culture, music and life. The architecture is authentic even today, the squares and streets and bustling and busy. There is manmade nature to rival the peace and serenity of the natural beauty found high above in the cities mountains. It is the ideal place to spend a long weekend, a week or a fortnight. It balances chaos with calm, demure with boldness.

Read on for an insight into the incredible place, and four things you must find time to experience while you are there.

Stay In An Authentic Riad Or Villa

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First things first; staying in a beautiful villa or riad should be an absolute priority for your visit. If there is one thing that the Moroccans are truly excellent at, it is building and decorating their homes. You’ll quickly see that luxury in Morocco isn’t hard to find. If you want to be bang in the center of things, look for a luxury riad with a central location. If you want a little more serenity, a villa on the outskirts will be the place for you. Spacious ones, with their own pool and amazing views, are idyllic. There is also a pretty big chance that buying property here in future will make an appearance on your bucket list. You have been warned!

Trek The Atlas Mountains

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High up above the city, looking down like a grand and watchful guardian, are the Atlas Mountains. Book a private tour up to them, and then take a hike! The landscapes and vistas are breathtaking, and the views will be unforgettable. Don’t forget your walking shoes, hat and enough water for the high temperatures!

Wander Jardin Majorelle

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While the Atlas Mountains are entirely natural, back in the heart of the city you’ll find Jardin Majorelle. This place is also known as the Yves St. Laurent Gardens. That is because this is the guy who designed, built and curated this place. He is the guy who you will owe your huge thanks and blessings to when you see it with your own eyes. The colors are so bold and beautiful, they may make any you’ve seen before pale in comparison. And the plants, trees, water and shrubs are special enough to draw you in for a peaceful couple of hours.

Get Lost In Jemaa El Fna

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A great holiday or vacation is usually all about balance. So, balance the mountains with the gardens. Balance a luxury riad with the bravery to try some delicious street food in one of the many market squares. And balance a relaxing morning by your pool with a frenetic afternoon at Jemaa El Fna. This is Marrakech’s biggest, busiest and most popular hub of shops, stalls, restaurants and cafes. Don’t be content with staying around the perimeter. Pack a bottle of water, some long clothing and dive right in. Go and get lost in the winding streets, and finding authentic wares from friendly, cheeky market sellers.

Painted Hills in Central Oregon

PAINTED HILLS STATE PARK (CENTRAL OREGON):  The yellow, gold, black, red, and orange colors of Painted Hills are some of the stunning works of mother nature and is one of the most unique geological attractions in Central Oregon. It reveals millions of years of history in the layers of mountains. Through the rugged landscapes of Central Oregon, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon is nature’s one of the miracle. And Painted Hills in John Day is one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. The geographical beauty and colorful layers of these eroded hills are educational for kids and fun for adults to hike the small trails. All the trails are short and easy for anyone and offer spectacular view of the hills.

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Driving to Painted Hills in John Day National Monument…one of the most unique geographical attractions in Central Oregon

We were there with few family friends during the kids’ spring break, in end of the March, 2016. We stayed in Bend for two full days. 1st day was spent by driving around in our car (make sure to have sufficient engine oil) and going to Old Bend and The High Desert Museum and 2nd day was for Painted Hills State Park and Smith Rock State Park. The weather was nice, without any rain. But summer would probably be the best time to explore this place. We wanted to go to Newbury Volcanic Monument and Lava River Cave too, but both were closed and don’t usually open until April.

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Colors and layers of Painted Hills in Central Oregon

Painted Hills is not that big area and just took us couple hours to stroll and enjoy the colors of the small hills. If you are a passionate photographer, I would recommend to go there during sunrise or sunset for gorgeous colors combinations. It is out in the middle of nowhere…there is a toilette facility near the entrance but no restaurants or vending machines. There is no park entrance fee.

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Painted Hills near Bend…one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon

Vancouver, British Columbia and Its Surroundings

VANCOUVER, B.C.: Vancouver is considered as one of the top destinations in Canada for its variations of activities for its guests, climate, food, shopping, culture, and thriving city life. While Vancouver Downtown has a vibrant and energetic vibe, its green spaces and big parks within the city are place to enjoy quiet city view from afar. Only couple hours from downtown, you can enjoy snow-capped mountains, ocean sides, and some outdoor adventurous destinations. This is where local Canadians go to play and enjoy during the winter months.

TIME of TRAVEL: It was our second time in Vancouver. This time we were there with another family during the Memorial Day weekend in May, 2015. Though it was closer to summer, we had sweaters and jackets for our trips to mountains. It gets very cold and windy up there, therefore, always wise to be prepare with coats and boots, especially for the kids.

EATING and SHOPPING: Vancouver is known to be very diverse when it comes to food. Downtown Vancouver and its surroundings are packed with tons of international and local cuisines. We had Middle Eastern, Indian, Bangladeshi, and fast food (Nandos) during our visit. You may find one whole street is known for one type of food and the next block has another type of restaurants. For shopping, downtown Vancouver is an ultimate paradise with lots of brand name stores and local boutique shops.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had 2 full days to enjoy Vancouver. We started early and stayed out late. Especially, if you are planning to go to the mountains, plan ahead and start driving before the traffic starts or wait until late morning.

1) GROUSE MOUNTAIN: We visited Grouse Mountain and Stanley Park on our first day in Vancouver. Also known as the Peak of Vancouver, Grouse Mountain is a perfect getaway from the chaos of city life. Grouse Mountain gives a beautiful view of whole Vancouver, Stanley Park, and English Bay.

 

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On top of Grouse Mountain on a foggy day near Vancouver, Canada

It was very foggy the day we were there which made it even more exciting. We saw the Lumberjack Show, Birds in Motion, and electric chair ride that took us 1100 meter high to Peak Chalet. Some other activities visitors can do up in the Grouse Mountain are Skyride, Mountain Disc Golf, Mountain Ziplines, Helicopter Tours, Theater in the Sky, Grizzly Bear Cave, and lots more. Usually the shows go on for the whole day with multiple show times but check the time table for each show to manage your time wisely here.

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“Birds in Motion” show on top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver, Canada

We took a family package called, “Peak Experience” for 2 adults and 2 kids for $122 but there were other bundles to choose from depending on which mood you are in. “Peak Experience” included Alpine Experience and Peak Chair ride. You can find snack bars and restaurants up in the Grouse Mountain.

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Skyride on top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver, Canada

2) STANLEY PARK: By the time we came back to city and drove to Stanley Park, it was already dark. Stanley Park is another getaway within the city. Lush gardens, beautiful English Bay, strolling paths, and green meadows are here to welcome anyone year round. We stopped at a place where we could get a view of the famous Lion Gate Bridge, beautifully lit at night. Lastly, stopped by one side English Bay from where you can see the dazzling lights of the Vancouver on the other side of the water.

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View of Lion Gate Bridge from Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada

Stanley Bay has an aquarium, few restaurants, old totem poles here and there. You can easily spend half a day or more in this park.

 

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Vancouver skyline on the other side of English Bay as seen from Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada

3) WHISTLER VILLAGE CENTER: Our second day started by another mountain area of Vancouver. Whistler Village Center reminded me of Chamonix in Mont Blanc, France. This is a very European style pedestrian only village center with shops, live music, pubs, galleries, gelato bars, and outdoor/indoor restaurants surrounded by mountains. Many tourists come here for winter sports or summer hiking in nearby mountains.

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Whistler Village Center near Vancouver, Canada…loved this place for its European touch and look

Village Square and the Mountain Square are some of the pretty places to stop by. Mountain Square is where you can get cable car to go to top. Again, beautiful and artistic buildings here gave me the feeling of Europe. Town Plaza is another fantastic place to shop for winter gears or just to chill.

4) RAINBOW PARK: From the Whistler Village Center, we drove about 45 minutes or an hour to come to this park. There is a beautiful big lake and small mountain/hill on the other side of the lake. With some public facilities, this is a pretty family-oriented park for strolling, jogging, picnic, or just chilling.

 

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Rainbow Park near Whistler Village Center in Vancouver, Canada

5) QUEEN ELIZABETH PARK: This was our last spot in Vancouver during this trip and we made it to this park on the 3rd day, before our drive towards Portland. This looked more like a beautifully decorated garden to me. Many different species of trees and flowers adorn this place. Visit the Japanese Garden and Rose Garden while here. It is a big park and very nicely maintained. We spent couple hours here but you would probably need half a day to explore every corner of this garden.

 

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Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, Canada

It is free to enter the park and has a parking lot near the entrance. Bloede Conservatory inside the park requires a ticket to enter. The conservatory houses a typical rainforest, tropical birds, and plants inside a big white dome.

Europe’s 3rd Smallest Country – San Marino

SAN MARINO: Republic of San Marino is a unique little country that claims to be the world’s oldest republic. In addition to that, this is also the third smallest country in Europe after Vatican City and Monaco. Its capital, also known as San Marino, sits on Mount Titano at more than 650m above sea level, and it offers impressive views of the surrounding hills, countryside, Adriatic Sea, and Italy. It’s the main city of this country and where we spent all of our time during this trip. The appealing historic center along with Mount Titano is a UNESCO World Heritage site of this capital. The few towns that make up San Marino are all located on the mountain sides.

Mount Titano from distance where San Marino sits about 650m above sea level.

Mount Titano from distance where San Marino sits about 650m above sea level.

TIME of TRAVEL: It was our second attempt to go to San Marino. First time we were in Tuscany (February 2012), we made our first attempt to go there, but had to return back to hotel after more than an hour drive towards San Marino due to heavy snow storm in the mountains. This time our trip to Tuscany was in October of 2013 and the weather was extremely favorable. It was a long drive but thanks to the scenic highways and roads, they kept us energized all the way.

OUR HOTEL: We didn’t stay overnight in San Marino. We stayed in My Hotel One in Radda in Chianti in Tuscany, Italy and made a day trip here. It took us about 3 hours to reach here after getting lost a few times but it was worth every moment.

EATING and SHOPPING: Food in San Marino is exactly same as Italy, like pasta, pizza, and gelato. We had lunch at a restaurant called Cesare Cafe exactly opposite of La Fratta on Via Salita all Rocca, right after entering the Old Town next to parking lot 6. They not only had very good food and good service, but we also enjoyed the magnificent view of the hills from the restaurant windows.

Same goes for shopping, souvenirs are very similar to the ones you will get in Italy, except you don’t have to pay the tax that you will do in Italy. Old Town has many shops for leather, purses, generic souvenir items, and so on.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Historic old city center of San Marino is very well-marked and all the sites are within walking distance. It offers spectacular views everywhere you look. All the sites here are very well-preserved, maintained, and marked clearly for everyone. Here are all the places we’ve visited in Old Town of San Marino in a day.

One of the gates to enter the Old Town of San Marino

One of the gates to enter the Old Town of San Marino

1) OLD TOWN: We spent our whole time in the Old Town of San Marino and that’s where most of the touristic sites are. Good restaurants and shops are everywhere too. Even if you just walk around the city thru its narrow streets and winding up and down ways, you will be thrilled with all the surprises you will find in this small town. We parked our car outside the wall and walked on foot taking time in each spot and enjoying the stunning views from up here every once in a while.

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

2) 1ST TOWER – GUAITA: After a small pedestrian shopping area in the Old Town of San Marino, we climbed uphill to reach the 1st We got a mind-blowing view of the encircling mountains as soon as we reached the base of the tower.

The 1st Tower of San Marino which dates back to the 13th century

The 1st Tower of San Marino which dates back to the 13th century

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the principal defense of Mount Titano and of the town of San Marino. The first documented record of its existence dates back to the 13th century. Over the centuries, it has been extended and modified to adapt the structure to the evolution of warfare. It also served as a prison where dangerous criminals were tortured and kept. Extensive renovations were carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries which emphasized the 15th century appearance of the building. This is the reason the tower looks so much older than similar fortresses in nearby areas.

This was one of the three medieval towers of San Marino. We didn’t visit the other two towers, but they are open to the public. It is 3 euros for one tower and 4.50 euros for two towers combined. We spent about an hour here walking around the old walls and going thru few sections of this tower.

View from the 1st Tower in San Marino

View from the 1st Tower in San Marino

3) BASILICA di SAN MARINO or BASILICA del SANTO: About 5 minutes’ walk from the tower, in Piazzale Domus Plebis, is Basilica di San Marino. It’s main façade with Greek-style Corinthian columns, all white interior, majestic ceiling and altar, and statues on the sides of the walls inside make this place elegant and a must-see in San Marino. It is free to enter for anyone…so don’t miss the chance.

BASILICA di SAN MARINO or BASILICA del SANTO in San Marino

BASILICA di SAN MARINO or BASILICA del SANTO in San Marino

4) PIAZZA della LIBERTA or PIAZZA PUBLICA: Going down from the basilica to the left for only two minutes is Piazza del Liberta or Piazza Publica. This is a small piazza that houses the City Hall and other government official buildings. The best part of it is that you get a phenomenal panoramic view of the layers of mountains and towns below. There is a statue in the middle of the piazza overlooking the people of San Marino. It looked like this is the main square of the city and a popular gathering place for the locals.

PIAZZA della LIBERTA or PIAZZA PUBLICA in the Old Town of San Marino

PIAZZA della LIBERTA or PIAZZA PUBLICA in the Old Town of San Marino

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