April 12, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Books, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Yes, Plaza Mayor is lovely, and checking out the world’s oldest restaurant, El Botín, at least once is pretty cool too, but, like any good traveler must know, these types of places rarely are local favorites. With that in mind, here are a few of the spots that I frequent the most, and that typically don’t make it on to the tourist radar.

Coffee and work
On any given day, you’ll find me hanging out at (loitering?) the cafés of Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood, bumming off free WiFi and sipping on a comforting cup of joe. My favorite, favorite spot is Pepe Botella, where the old-school café serves up their caps with a tasty cookie (which is really all that it takes to win me over). Other favorites include Tipos Infames, where I can surround myself with literary inspiration in the bookstore/wine bar/café/art gallery, and La Bicicleta for its wide open space and occasional early-morning hip-hop music (right up there with cookie-awesomeness). Finally, if you’re just looking for coffee (even coffee grounds) and don’t give a rip about WiFi, head to Toma Cafe; what I consider to be the epicenter of emerging coffee culture in Madrid.

I’m not going to lie: I don’t shop a lot in Spain. I find most clothing (save for shoes!) to be overpriced and/or under quality, at least in comparison to what I can find back home. That said, I never pass up an opportunity to visit Maxi at Antigua Casa Crespo. In his 150-year-old family shop, he and his wife sell the ultimate Spanish summer shoe: the alpargata (AKA the espadrille). Available in loads of styles and colors, the 100% made-in-Spain shoes cost — if you can believe it — under 10 euros for the basic style. Between the shoes and the friendly service, I never tire of going back for more. (Read more about Antigua Casa Crespo in the article I wrote here.)

My mouth-watering go-to is always La Ardosa – I just can’t ever get enough of their juicy tortilla, which I’m convinced must taste better given the Spanish-tiled walls and dusty-bottle-covered shelves. Then, when it comes to market experiences, I’m afraid I can’t hang with El Mercado de San Miguel (sorry!) – it’s nice, really, but jam-packed with people (eh hem, tourists), which I find not so fun. Instead I go to El Mercado de San Antón (especially for a nice selection of croquetas) or to Mercado de la Paz, where I can marvel at fresh produce and have my pick of pastries. Finally, for a proper sit-down meal, I go for the funky and inventive plates at La Gabinoteca.

My favorite somewhat-hidden spot to see is the Museo Sorolla, an inner-city mansion-meets-museum that houses the work of Valencia-born artist Joaquín Sorolla. Once his home, the museum is still furnished with his belongings, making it a lot more inviting than its other art-filled counterparts. And what I especially love are the gardens — free to enter, and filled with flowers and fountains, they remind me of a mini Andalucian paradise.

So now you tell me: What are you favorite spots in Madrid or in your city?

September 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Africa

Some places you can go guidebook-free, completely clueless, leaving the course of your journey entirely to chance. For the most part, Morocco is not one of those places. And since I’m sure you are all ready to hop on the next flight to one of Africa’s northernmost nations, I thought I’d hook you up with the Moroccan 411.

What to wear (ladies)
I hemmed and hawed over, well, my hemline, unsure of the wardrobe etiquette I should be following. My friends (who, albeit, went during considerably cooler months) told me they’d covered up, and our riad host suggested that it was advisable too. So that’s what I did. In 120-degree heat. And I was seriously the ONLY one. I’m not saying that I would have done it differently, but literally 99% of the boatloads of female tourists (not to mention many of the locals) were in sleeveless tops and above-the-knee shorts and skirts. The right and the wrong of this is subject matter for a different post, or perhaps an entirely different forum, but my final take-away was this: In the big cities (Marrakech, Fes, etc) I would have felt comfortable wearing a knee-length dress or pants, and a short-sleeve shirt, bringing a shawl for good measure. In the countryside, however, I think it was a smart call to rock the full-length gear, simply because fewer tourists pass through those parts.

Guides and such
I don’t usually opt for guides – I like to have my list of spots to check out, and then leave the rest to the travel gods. And in Marrakech, this was pretty much totally doable. Our riad hosts pointed us in the right direction, warning us about the main plaza and how we should stay away from people with monkeys and snakes (um, duh?), or those that try to give you henna tattoos against your will. We put on our game face and tackled that city like pros.

But Fes was a different ball of Moroccan wax. With some 9,000 alleys in the old quarter (proper streets and thoroughfares are nonexistent), it’s essentially a spider web, and you’re the fly. And guess who are the spiders? The “tour guides” (put in quotes because who knows which ones are legit or not), who will prey on you until you succumb to your inevitable lost-ness.

My suggestion is that, if you know you will want a guide (like in Fes, for example), do research beforehand and book a reputable one. I think we would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had someone pre-arranged and didn’t have to deal with any shady selling tactics.

Drinks and tea
Morocco was, how do I put this? Crazy HOT. So frequent beverage stops were needed in order to compose ourselves and cool off. With the aid of our list — cross-checked between guidebooks, online reviews and our riad hosts — we found a few spots in Marrakech worth returning to. We loved Cafe Arabe, a swankily refurbished 16th century merchant’s inn, with sweet views of the souk district below. On the rooftop terrace, I snacked on Moroccan pastries while sipping on an Italian caffe shakerato (one girl can only drink so many mint teas). Then, on our final night — and after days of me battling food poisoning — we headed to Terrasse des Epices to cool off under their misters while detoxing on dishes from their light fusion menu.

Picture taking
It turns out that many Moroccans aren’t so keen on having their pictures taken by strangers – not up close, not from afar, not in the background, and mostly not all. Fortunately, a friend of mine gave me the heads-up before I went, so I made sure to be extra sensitive when snapping shots (before taking the below picture, I actually asked our Fes tour guide if it was OK). The bummer is that I didn’t take many remotely close-up photos of people, but I’m glad that I knew in advance so as to avoid offending anyone.

Have you been to Morocco? Do you agree with these tips? Any tips you’d like to share?

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