Travel

How to travel long term: Tips and tricks from a tight-arse

I’m not good with money, never have been, probably never will be. I don’t understand the stock market, the housing market or any other market except the supermarket, where I blow my budget almost every week, so maybe I don’t understand that either. At one point my bank staged an intervention because I’d lost seven eftpos cards in two years, which was why I was pretty stoked with myself when my partner and I saved enough money to quit our jobs and travel around Europe and North Africa. We visited 22 countries and territories over nine months (280 days), and the one thing everyone asks when I tell them what we did is, “how did you afford it?”

Our trip was an even mix of living it up and it and barely living, we ate a lot and ate pretty well most of the time but we also lived in an abandoned beach hut until the local kids asked if we were homeless which, technically, we were. We spent around $50,000 NZD (including the purchase of a car) on our cross-continental journey, which you might think is incredible or pathetic depending on how frugal you are. Either way I’ve written some tips on what helped us reach our financial goal and what we would have done differently if we had a second go at it.

Before you leave

1. Lock that shit up

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Alhambra, Grenada, Spain

It’s a cold, hard fact of life that your existence is going to be absolute misery in the lead up to any kind of big travel adventure. We saved for our trip for five years, and we went about it in a pretty half-arsed way until the last year, which was grim. No going out, no eating like a grown up. When you’re saving, the rule for leftover food is that if it’s not moving on its own, it’s good to go. This means that before left my job I had committed at least twelve unforgivable workplace lunch sins.

Remember that scene in the original Charlie and the Chocolate factory when Charlie Bucket’s mum is stirring that giant pot of boiled cabbage and they’re all very depressed about it? I ate like that, to the point brown rice and cabbage became my signature dish. Things really reached breaking point with my colleagues when I thought I could swing my leftover fish curry for one more day. I was wrong. Would I have preferred to toss that fish curry violently into the bin and go get Wishbone risotto? Hell yea I would have, but every payday I put practically every cent of extra cash into a locked account that would hit me with a $20 fee if I took anything out of it, and no Wishbone risotto is worth 25 bucks.

2. Embrace looking like crap

Unless you have a huge budget, your standards of personal beautification are going to drop dramatically once you are on the road, so you may as well get yourself used to it beforehand.

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A self portrait after 9 months on the road

Here is a detailed but by no means exhaustive list of things that you do not need to spend your money on:

Nails
Waxes
Massages
Eyebrows
Eyelashes
Hair cuts/colours
Any hair products other than shampoo and conditioner
Tanning
Fancy clothes
Fancy make-up

You are beautiful and flawless and also fuck the patriarchy. Your face will look the best it’s ever looked after a few weeks of not slathering flesh-toned goo all over it. It’s a win all round.

3. Sell your stuff

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It’s amazing how much I don’t miss having stuff. Carrying everything you own on your back is a great incentive to not buy a bunch of useless things, so trust me, you won’t be wishing you’d kept that decorative cardboard stag head when you finally return home. Fortunately, there are hundreds of Kiwis on Trademe who would all love to take your pointless DVD collection off your hands, and pay you for the privilege. Recycle Boutique will sell your good quality clothes and give you 50% of the profit back. Or you could take it all to your local secular charity shop of choice and hope that good karma will mean you find a $20 note on the ground.

4. Sort your money out

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London – home of the Monzo card (and some other weird stuff)

Unless you want to find yourself breaking out in fee-induced stress hives at a foreign ATM, it’s best to get your cash cards properly sorted before you leave. If you’re planning on travelling around Europe like us, Westpac is the New Zealand bank to go with. Westpac is part of the Global ATM Alliance, which means you can get money out in the U.K, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Germany and only pay the 3% transaction fee instead of the often hefty ATM withdrawal fee. They’ve also got you covered in large chunks of Africa, Asia, the US and Canada. If you’re starting in the U.K or visiting early on in your trip, you can also get a Monzo card, which will cover you for the countries not included in the Global ATM Alliance. You can get the equivalent of £200 cash out for free at any foreign ATM per month, with a 3% charge thereafter. Although free cash withdrawals were unlimited when we joined Monzo, this is still a pretty good deal. In countries where card machines at restaurants, hostels and supermarkets are plentiful, you can pay with your Monzo card and not pay a cent in fees.

When you’re there

1. Set a daily budget

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Italy’s Cinque Terre – pricey but worth it

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Feasting on the cheap in Kalamata, Greece

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Paris, France

If you’ve been living like a hermit with bad eyebrows who only drinks Double Browns on their occasional ventures out of the house, you’ll be wanting to spend up large the second you step off home soil. “I fucking deserve this” you’ll say as you spend $80 on dumplings at Shanghai airport, “this is totally reasonable” you think, handing over 10 pounds for a vodka soda at a London bar, “I bloody love wax figures of the worlds hottest celebrities and political figures” you chant in your head as you weep into your dwindling pile of cash. I am a big fan of the treat yo’self mentality, but it’s easy to get carried away at the start of any trip. Try to set your daily spend at a reasonable half way point between point A) making it rain and point B) eating anything that involves boiled cabbage. We had a daily budget which we altered depending on the priciness of each country, and did an OK job of sticking to it. The less you spend, the longer you’ll be able to travel, which brings me to my next point.

2.The best things in life are free

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Sunset at Poulithra, Greece

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The Highlands, Scotland

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The Rif Mountains, Morocco

I hate most quotes, I especially hate travel quotes. Seeing empty platitudes in swirly writing posted against a desert island backdrop sends me into a fit of completely irrational rage, but if there’s one idea I do believe in, it’s that you don’t have to pay to see beautiful things. Even the greatest museums pale in comparison to a stunning view, and when I think of the best times I’ve had overseas so far, all of them have involved being in the wonderfully cost-effective outdoors.

Keep this in mind when you’re considering joining the queue to see a castle, church or gallery. You will come across literally thousands of paid tourist attractions and half of them will leave you feeling extremely ripped off ( I’m looking at you Sistine Chapel), so try to pick just a couple that you want to see in any given country.

Half an hour on good old Google can also save you heaps, as you can often get into otherwise expensive attractions for free at certain times or on certain days of the week. Barcelona’s Parc Guell for example would have cost the two of us an outrageous €30 ($47NZD) during the day time, but if you visit before official opening or after it closes (hours vary depending on the time of year) it’s completely free.

In London, we were desperate to see a West End show, but didn’t have a West End budget. We entered the Monday night raffle for Book of Mormon (just show up at the theatre and put your name down) and won front row seats for £25. Score.

3. Buy a car

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Brasov, Romania

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Theth, Albania

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Saorge, France

If you’re travelling for more than a few months, and you don’t mind roughing it, buy your own set of wheels. While car rental is cheap in some countries, it’s borderline daylight robbery in others, and the rental companies might give you a silly list of rules like “don’t take this Fiat Punto off-roading in the mountains” or “don’t use your coal barbecue in the boot”. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

While using public transport is usually cheaper than paying for gas, it’s boring, time-consuming, and you have to smell the farts of 50 other people. Having a vehicle is not only quicker and more scenic, but it also cuts out other major expenses. Having a car big enough to sleep in or camp out of meant we only paid for accommodation for about two out of seven days of the week, and having a boot full of food meant we only ate out when we couldn’t find a place to pull over and cook a bowl of pasta. We would have saved thousands on food and accommodation in the six months we were travelling in the car and that was despite spending way too much on its purchase and upkeep. (See next point)

4. Buy a good car

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Friendly Albanian mechanic

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Somewhere in Greece

While this point may seem like straight-up common sense, I’m going to explain it anyway. We bought Monty the Monterey and his rusty trailer in Spain for a cool €2,500. If we were smart, we would have bought another car, not because we don’t love Monty, but because buying a car in a country where you don’t speak the language is a special kind of hell. After being passed around dozens of different council offices in three different Spanish cities, we were able to legally buy the car. Within three months of buying Monty, he had broken down in a pretty serious fashion on three separate occasions in three separate countries, something that would have been covered by the car dealers warranty if we had insisted he translated the entire contract from Spanish to English instead of a few select bits. Don’t buy a car that is massively uncommon in most of the areas you are travelling to, unless you want to be stuck in Albania for a month while you get parts shipped by a grumpy old man in Leeds. (Side note, Albania is actually wonderful and I wouldn’t mind being stuck there for six months, you can read more about it here)

5. Camp everywhere

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Borsh, Albania

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Botev Peak, Bulgaria

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Shack, Nea Kios, Greece

I have never understood the idea of luxury hotels. Why hand over your hard earned cash for a room you’ve got your eyes closed in 90% of the time? You’re travelling to see the world, not a nicely painted ceiling, so harden up that wimpy back and get used to sleeping on any and all surfaces. Searching for camping spots is a great way to get deep into the boondocks, and you’ll inevitably get woken up early by the dew, the sun or an Italian cop pointing a gun at you, so you’re bound to get the most out of your day. Apps like iOverlander and park4night have thousands of free camping spots submitted by fellow travellers complete with co-ordinates and details about amenities. We also used the furgovw website which lists heaps of free camping spots in Spain and other parts of Western Europe (just translate it from Spanish).

6. Get yo’self a side gig

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Reporting on the Barcelona terror attack for TVNZ

If you want to indulge in the occasional cheesy fridge magnet or novelty tea towel you might want to get yourself a bit of freelance work. This may be a little tricky if you’re a bricklayer, but super easy if you’re trained in something you can do on your laptop. I earned around $7000 from freelance journalism work while we were on the road, and given it was all up to me whether I did it or not, I really enjoyed it. Hours of stoned chit chat at hostels will turn your brain to mush if you’ve got nothing else to think about, so it’s good for your noggin. What’s extra great is that if you do your work for New Zealand companies, you can apply for a special tax rate, meaning you pay zero dollars and zero cents of tax while you’re overseas. Sites like Upwork post thousands of jobs a day for professions from computer programming to lawyering. If I’m honest, the writing jobs on Upwork are mostly ridiculous – “I need a ghost writer for a 10,000 word Mormon erotic thriller and my budget is $15” – but if you’re a web developer you could make some decent money, or if you’re simply desperate, you can dig around to find ok jobs that require nothing more than a reasonable understanding of the English language.

7. Cheap countries are the best countries

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Legzira Beach, Morocco

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Krakow, Poland

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Lake Koman, Albania

Maybe it’s the tight arse in me, but I find that spending excessively on food/accommodation/fun just for the sake of being in a trendy part of the world diminishes the enjoyability factor by a minimum of 85%, by which point you may as well be somewhere else. We visited a good chunk of the European capital hotspots  but were still more awe-struck by the rugged beauty of rural Morocco , the time-warp paradise of Albania, the delicious food of Bulgaria and the fairytale castles and villages of Romania.  Your money will go twice or three times as far in those countries, and the relative lack of tourism means people will treat you better too. Want to make your money last longer? Go where the tourists aren’t.

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Monemvasia, Greece

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Side note: It goes without saying that I wouldn’t have been able to do all this if I didn’t lead an incredibly privileged life in New Zealand. I had a good job, I didn’t have to financially support my family and I didn’t have any costly mental or physical illnesses to deal with while I was saving. I also haven’t spent any money on proper grown-up things like a house, a wedding, or paying back my student loan (sorry IRD). You will see people living in all sorts of dire situations on your travels, so, to quote whoever makes up all those annoying travel quotes, always remember that you are #blessed.

 

 

 

 

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Europe

What to do in Winter: Romania

Romania is a country of contrasts, candy coloured towns clash with castles fit for the nastiest of Disney villains. You’ll meet wait staff so rude they probably spat in your chips and locals who will invite you in off the street for a freshly slaughtered chicken to compensate. It gets mighty hot in Romania in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it for a winter escape, in fact, parts of the country look their absolute best covered in a dusting of snow. Here’s what you should do and where you should go to beat the winter blues in Romania.

Castles and History – Bran and Peles

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Bran Castle

 

There’s something about Romanian castles, all those spikes and pointy edges are a far cry from the squat and blocky English equivalents, and you can’t help feeling a bit more mysterious just standing next to them. I’ve lumped Peles and Bran together because of the (likely) possibility that you’ll be a tiny bit disappointed by Bran, Romania’s biggest tourist attraction, and therefore, Romania’s biggest rip off. At 35 lei per person, entry to Bran Castle costs more than most Romanian restaurant meals and you might be a little shocked to discover that despite the Dracula themed shirts/badges/pins/hats/masks/bedspreads/condoms that pile up on every stall in every corner of the town, once you’re inside Bran you’ll find no information on Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula whatsoever. In saying that, if you come prepared to see a beautiful castle and nothing more, Bran is hard to beat, especially with the bare branch, fog shrouded aesthetic of winter.

Peles Castle

If you like your castles sans vampire condoms, look no further than Peles castle in Sinaia, with its perfectly pruned shrubs, stone statues and towering turrets, it could easily be the castle that inspired the towering fortress on Beauty and the Beast. The palace, which housed King Carol and Queen Elizabeth of Romania is closed for renovations for the whole month of November, but the outside is so beautiful you can safely allot half an hour of gawking time for the façade alone.

Snow and Adventure – Brasov

Poiana Brasov

Given the Carpathian Mountains is home to a huge bear and wolf population, camping in Brasov isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s not for those that need to be constantly warm either, but waking up to an untouched layer of snow right on your doorstep is pretty special. If you prefer things a little fancier, head to one of the very affordable hotels in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort town that is gorgeous to walk through even if you’re not a skier/snowboarder. For an alternative hiking experience head to the Seven Ladders Canyon, or Canionul Sapte Scari. It’s a 40 minute walk through gorgeous pine forest before tackling the ladders and steel walkways that make up the canyon crossing. The walkways have recently been renovated so are much safer than they used to be, but thrill seekers can take comfort in the fact that there are still no harnesses, so death or serious injury is just a slippery rung away on the higher climbs. It’s only 10 lei per person to get in (a measly €2) but thanks to the wonderfully lax approach to security in Romania there was no attendant there when we did it, so we got in for free.

Canionul Sapre Scari

Colour and Christmas – Sighişoara and Sibiu

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Sighisoara

Itching for an antidote to Romania’s pointy castles and silent forests? Head to Sighişoara and Sibiu for cobbled streets so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Start in Sighişoara, the smaller of the two, and spend a couple of hours exploring the old town. Every house is painted a different colour and if you’re really wanting to know more about the whole Dracula thing, it was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, making it a much more legit Dracula nerd destination than Bran. Not far from Sighişoara is Sibiu which has got to be the most loveable city in Romania. It’s a mix of pastel-hued old school charm and hipster hotspots (check out City Burger, it’s amazing). Wander the alleyways before climbing the old council tower for a view of the city at sunset. From late November to December the Sibiu Christmas Market is in full swing. Complete with light projections, adorable toddlers in jumpsuits, and so much meat you’ll have the sweats for weeks, it’s one of the best Christmas markets in Eastern Europe.

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Sibiu

Ghost town charm and thermal baths – Baile Herculane

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Baile Herculane

Baile Herculane is, simply put, a photographers dream. Simultaneously ugly and beautiful, the former resort town was once the most cherished in all of Europe. Bad management in the post communist 90s led the once grand buildings to their demise. Many are boarded up, but you can still sneak through the Austrian Imperial Baths and admire the decaying hallways and chandeliers from the inside. Many parts of the baths are beautifully coloured and while you’ll have to dodge the beer bottles and faecal matter that cover some of the rooms, the grand hall has remained largely untouched. The surrounding hotels are more difficult to access, but wandering the empty pavements while plastic flaps from the windows is still an eerily magical experience. Baile Herculane still has the thermal springs it was once so famous for, and you can access these for free near Hotel Roman, one of the only remaining hotels in the old town area. Walk past the admittedly hideous communist exterior of the hotel to the side of the river, and you’ll find plenty of red-faced Romanians jammed into the two small baths on offer. If you get too hot, a dunk in the river will earn you the admiration of the locals and guarantees you a prime spot once you get back in the baths. Around dinner time the baths are practically empty and you can take a beverage or 7 to ensure you stay warm on your barefooted hobble back to the car.

Hot spring baths near Hotel Roman

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Europe, Travel

How to spend a week in Bulgaria

Want to travel to a few different countries in a week? Don’t do that. Go to Bulgaria instead. Part ancient village and part cosmopolitan city, a week long driving tour will take you through such dramatically different spots you could be doing a multi country trip. The regional towns and villages are all little old ladies in headscarves and big blue trucks covered in frost, while effortlessly cool Sofia is brimming with trendy bars and highly aspirational winter fashion. Bulgarians themselves are helpful, direct, and fiercely passionate about their country (get them talking about yoghurt or roasted peppers). The best part is that Bulgaria is so cheap you’ll be able to live like an actual human and not a sad and dirty little travel rat. Here’s where you should go to make the most of what Bulgaria has to offer:

Day 1: Melnik & Yagodinska

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If you’re coming from the south, Melnik is a great place to get a first impression of Bulgaria. Cute, compact and full of outstandingly photogenic brick-roofed houses, it’s a cracking place to spend a couple of hours before you kick off the rest of the trip. Fuel up with the first of the dozens of ginormous meals you will eat over the next 7 days. Bulgarians eat a lot and their standard fare is the definition of winter comfort food, try kavarma (meat stew in a clay pot), banitsa (delicious filo pastry pie stuffed with cheese) and feta on fries (self explanatory). You could spend hours eating and drinking in a local tavern or restaurant and spend less than €20. It’s heaven. On the way to your Day 2 destination, stop off at the Yagodinska cave, a delightfully Bulgarian tourist attraction where you can take a guided tour through the stalagmites in Bulgarian with exclusively Bulgarian tourists. There’s a Christmas tree in there and to this day I have no idea why, but it’s very nice.

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Yagodinska cave (Source: Google)

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Russian GAV truck common in the Bulgarian countryside

Day 2: Plovdiv

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Plovdiv Old Town

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Knyaz Aleksandar I – Plovdiv’s main pedestrian street

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Musicians practice near the Roman theatre

Plovdiv sounds cute and looks cute and the people dress their dogs in little puffer jackets which takes all the cuteness to its absolute peak. Take a wander through the multicoloured and cobblestoned Old Town and get ready to be befriended by the local artists. If taking photos isn’t your strength, you can imprint Plovdiv permanently in your memory by buying some of the extremely affordable local sketches of the museum or the Roman theatre. Take in the best view in town and another one of those preposterously sized Bulgarian meals at Rahat Tepe before checking out the colourful pedestrian street and all the adorable jacketed dogs.

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Zucchini fries and stew at Rahat Tepe

Day 3: Central Balkan National Park

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Haute cuisine near Botev Peak

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If you’re sick of adorable things after two days in Melnik and Plovdiv, get ready for a remedy in the form of fog-shrouded forests and the possibility of being attacked by a bear. The Central Balkan National Park is a real stunner, and seeing as you only have a day there you’ll get to see a lot more if it than those motivated exercise people seeing it by foot. If you’ve got a half decent 4wd (you can rent one from Sofia airport for about €35) you can make it almost up to Botev Peak and picnic among the clouds. There are some lovely fluffy horses up there which the bears will probably eat first, so you can relax on that front. Unless you’re on a 10 kilo sack of rice kind of budget, you’ll never have to worry about overspending on accommodation in Bulgaria, but if you’re intent on camping, living al fresco in the national park is the ultimate in peaceful yet freezing solitude.

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Day 4: Koprivshtitsa

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House museum in Koprivshtitsa

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Ok, it’s more colourful old houses, but Koprivshtitsa really is worth a visit. While Plovdiv is only part old town and part metropolis, entering Koprivshtitsa is like driving through a seam on the time/space continuum and popping out in 1845. Horses and carts are still a common form of transport, and you can really get to know the town by visiting the house museums, the former dwellings of local heroes which have been restored and now hold exhibits. Koprivshtitsa lies in a valley which means it’s icy cold for about three quarters of the year, but never fear, Restaurant Chuchura is the place to go to warm up and guess what EAT SOME MORE. You can safely expect to gain a minimum of 8 kilos (one for each day) while in Bulgaria so you’d better have some elastic waisted pants.

Day 5 & 6: Sofia

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

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The Russian Church

I’m not much of a city slicker, but even I grew pretty fond of lively, soon-to-be hipster destination of choice, Sofia. Full of well utilised parks, underground bars, museums and extremely trendy eating spots, it takes a while to run out of things to do. Locals have capitalised on the unpretentiously hip nature of the city, and have crafted tours to match. On day 1 treat yourself on the Balkan Bites food tour, where you sample everything from burgers to traditional yoghurt soup. Payment for the tour is a tip and you don’t have to pay for the food. The New Sofia Pub Crawl is (mercifully) a far cry from the usual traipse through starkly inauthentic Irish bars. Sip raspberry wine in a converted apartment with themed rooms, or look down at the jazz pianist from the rafters of Hambara, a hidden bar that doesn’t advertise at all, but is consistently full. The pub crawl will cost you 20 lev (€10) but you get a decent sized drink at every spot, which means you’re guaranteed to make friends as you bond over pretending to enjoy rakia.

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Sweet wine and cheese samples at Hadjidraganovite Izbi

On day 2, if it’s a weekend, hunt for bargains at the Sofia ski market, it’s held every Saturday and Sunday near the Vasil Levsky stadium and, like everything in Bulgaria, is outrageously cheap. You can buy skis for 10 lev (€5) and we bought two pairs of Goretex ski pants, a ski jacket, hat, gloves and a head torch for about 350 lev (€175). While most cold country dwellers dress head to toe like they’ve emerged from the crypt, women in Sofia love colour, fake fur, fake leather, diamantes, pom poms, big hair, perfect make-up and every other accoutrement you could typically find on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s amazing. Consider this on your shopping excursions, then if it’s snowing, take your pompommed self up to Vitosha mountain to one of Europe’s cheapest ski fields. If it’s too warm for snow, take a hike through more spooky forest. It’s an all-season win.

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Dirt cheap gear at Sofia ski market

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Mt Vitosha

Day 7: Rila Monastery 

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Rila Monastery is not only Bulgaria’s most famous attraction, it’s also a top contender for World’s Holiest Building That Looks Like A Gingerbread House. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by a guy who lived as a hermit in a cave, which seems like a shame given how good looking it is. The candy cane stripes provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian cathedral drudgery you see around much of Western Europe, and even the most church-weary traveller is bound to feel a bit emotional watching the morning cloud lift over the turrets while monks shuffle around the courtyard. Admire the beautiful and occasionally terrifying frescoes (there’s a lot of devil stuff) then head just outside the monastery walls to the local bakery. Start your Bulgarian adventure how you began it (by eating) and grab some mekitsa (fried bread with icing sugar) for 50 lev cents a pop. What’s not to love.

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Mekitsa at Rila Monastery

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Europe, Travel

8 great reasons to get your ass to Albania

Long skirted women catch rides on the back of their husbands pushbikes in the rain. Farmers use scythes and wear suits to work. Everyone waves at everyone and people don’t lock their doors. You can’t buy a Big Mac, a Whopper or a skinny frap’ at Starbucks but you can buy hard liquor at a petrol station.

Thanks to prolonged and vicious bout of communism that finished only relatively recently, most of Albania feels like the rest of the world probably felt in the 50s, but the vintage vibe is no bad thing. There are dozens, but here are eight excellent reasons to get yourself to Albania ASAP.

The nature

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Lake Koman

Small but perfectly formed, the Albanian landscape has it all, and is bound to make you wonder, often and loudly, why there aren’t a million other people there exploring it with you. Nevermind, the lack of camera flashes and fanny packs en masse makes the lakes, springs, beaches and mountain passes all the more serene. Catch a boat trip around untouched Lake Koman, it’s a guaranteed gasp-at-every-turn type situation, firstly because of its incredible beauty, and secondly because there’s a goat farmer waving at you from an perilously located clifftop cottage. How did he get there? What does he eat other than goats? It’s all part of the mystery. Theth, with its silence, grazing horses and mountain villages is storybook perfection. Prefer the beach? Head south along the Albanian rivièra and park up at one of the dozens of rustic (read: slightly abandoned) beach towns. Find the right spot and you might only be jostling for sand space with some friendly stray dogs or the occasional cow. The water is so clear you can see the flicker of a gill from 10 metres. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

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Theth

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The Albanian Riviera

The people

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That time we were invited to a 30th birthday party on Lake Koran

If you’ve been served by one too many French waiters, you’ll know the value of feeling truly wanted in the country you’re in. When the Albanians say ‘welcome’ they really, honestly mean it. Cops pull you over just to shake your hand and tell you to have a nice time. Farmers invite you in for coffee if they find you camping in their paddock. From cities and towns to the most remote locations, the warmth and generosity of Albanians is such a constant you might find yourself questioning whether there’s a catch, there isn’t. Sit down with a glass or seven of raki (grape whisky that tastes like fire), hit the hardwood d-floor to some Albanian folk music and get to know some of the most memorable characters you’re likely to encounter in your travels.

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Sick dance moves on display

The price

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100 Lek to visit the Blue Eye Spring

Albania is outrageously cheap. Tourism is still a developing industry, which means shiny new hostels in the cities will only set you back about €6-7 a night, and guesthouses in the regions will be even less. A fancy, several dish dinner with drinks? €6-8 per person. Entrance to most museums and historical sites peaks at an outrageous 200 lek (€1.50). We hired a car from Shkodra for €11 a day, and the guy from the company dropped it off for free (told you they were nice).

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200 Lek to visit the stunning Rozafa castle in Shkodra

Freedom camping

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Setting up camp in Theth

Albania is one of those rare and delightful countries where free camping appears to be either completely legal, or at the very least people simply don’t care whether you do it or not. Pitch up at the beach, in the mountains or on the shore of a lake, you might even get some curious young visitors and their goat herd thrown in as a bonus. The hospitality of Albanians can’t be overstated, so if you’re wandering around looking lost, expect to be invited to camp on someone’s driveway or stay at their house.

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Glamping(?) in Borsh

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Seat for two near Lake Koman

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Campfire time in Theth

The food

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A €12 meal (including drinks) in Shkodra

The phrase ‘cut off from the world for 50 years’ isn’t one that usually gets your tastebuds tingling, but trust me, the food in Albania is delicious. It’s a country of farmers, so expect plenty of protein. You might struggle to find a two inch thick rib-eye, but what Albanian meat lacks in quality is made up for in quantity, marinade and a shitload of charcoal. Albanian cuisine is also greatly influenced by Greek and Italian food, which means you’ll be able to enjoy delicious souvlaki or a moon-sized pizza for a fraction of the usual price. Love coffee? Prepare for the inevitable but worth it onset of insomnia while you sip your 5th €1 cappuccino in the sun.

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Delicious gyros in Berat

Old stuff

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Berat Old town

If like me, you love a crumbly building or two, Berat and  Gjirokaster are the spots for you. Wind in and out of antique shops in the old town of Berat, and marvel at the driving skills of Gjirokaster locals as they manoeuvre up cobbled hills so narrow an overweight donkey would struggle to get through. You can watch a 360 degree sunset over Shkoder from Rozafa castle, or bike to the city outskirts to check out the Mes bridge. It’s just a bridge, but the ride takes you through a bit of countryside, and the myriad cheerful greetings yelled from the roadside or passing cars makes for a guaranteed 24 hour smile on your dial. If you’re after some not so ancient history you can head to the compact but excellent Site of Witness and Memory Museum in Shkodra to learn about the brutalities of communist Albania, or Bunk’art in Tirana – one of the thousands of underground bunkers built by paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, which has been turned into a gallery/museum.

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Berat

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View from Rozafa Castle, Shkodra

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Mes Bridge, Shkodra

New stuff

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The Pyramid, Tirana

While much of Albania’s charm lies in the fact that it’s a bit of a time portal, you’ll still be able to get your cosmopolitan on in the big (ish) cities. Like a lop-sided muffin or one of those weird hairless dogs, the capital Tirana has an ugly but endearing charm. In an effort to make the admittedly hideous Communist apartment blocks look more appealing, Tirana’s former mayor set about painting them in more cheerful colours. The paint has faded a bit in some spots, meaning you can pass peeling pastels as you stroll from The Pyramid (the graffitied hangout spot for Tirana’s teens) to the flashy ‘New Market’ square. There are guys with twirly moustaches there, so you know it’s the real deal. The second biggest town of Shkoder also boasts a pretty cobbled pedestrian street where all the cool young things go to eat and drink.

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Pedestrian street, Shkodra

(Mostly) undiscovered 

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Lake Koman

For the greedy traveller, the best part of all of this is that you’ll barely have to share Albania with any other tourists. The rare lots of visitors won’t come in gigantic tour buses meaning the all-important photo album won’t be full of hats with neck-flaps. The lack of tourist dollars, of course, is not that great for the economy, and the Albanian government is putting a lot of effort into getting the numbers up. Metallic beachside resorts are starting to pop up in the south, and the fact many young Albanians speak excellent English will surely be a drawcard for those terrified of four syllable greetings.

Albania has transformed itself in just the last few decades, and it’s bound to change even more, so you’d better get there before everyone else gets the same idea.

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Theth

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The Blue Eye Spring

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Africa, Travel

7 must-sees in majestic Morocco

It’s vibrant, stinky and beautiful. Its captivating and frustrating in equal measure. It’s also got a hell of a lot more to offer than souks and sand. For most, the mental image of Morocco is really an image of Marrakech, but the temperature and the people get a lot more pleasant outside of the biggest city. Here are my favourite spots from a one month driving tour around the land of mint tea, tagines and terrifying driving.

Essaouira

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A hippies paradise, chilled out Essaouira definitely isn’t the tourist-free zone it once was, but if you like sea breezes and taking it so slow you’re barely moving, it’s the place for you. The hub of Essaouira is it’s seaside medina, and if you’ve been staying in a comparative firepit like Marrakech for a while a good slap to the face with a fishy gust of wind will do you no end of good. GOT fans can walk in the footsteps of the Mother of Dragons at the old ramparts, or you could spend your days bartering at the 1001 market stores. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t get verbally abused if you choose not to buy anything, and you may even find yourself purchasing a charming watercolour from a local artist who claims to know Cat Stevens (there really are a lot of hippies there). Those with a car can take a 20 minute drive out of town to check out south-west Morocco’s famous tree climbing goats, which are just as comical as they sound.

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*side note – Essaouira has tried to market itself to the surfing crowd, and while the wind makes it a good spot for kitesurfers, those who like their water more blue than beige might be disappointed. Head to Taghazout if you want to hang 10.

Taghazout

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In a country that’s often so hot it feels like your vital organs could melt out of any given orifice at any second, it’s a relief to find somewhere you can spend the whole day in the water and enjoy it. Morocco has countless beaches, but very few of them benefit from being clean enough to swim in without worrying you’re going to get tangled in fishing wire like an unfortunate seagull from a Greenpeace ad. Paradise Valley is a 20 minute drive from the small surf town of Taghazout, and it lives up to its name. Turquoise waters, private lagoons and cliff jumping spots to cater for all levels of insanity. There are multiple ways of getting there – some hostels in the area can take you out for the day, you can get a taxi where the drivers waits while you take a dip, although the best option is driving yourself. Pack a picnic and between the shuttle loads it’s likely you’ll have the place all to your little old self. Like the beaches, it’s not pristine, and if you come from a place where simply leaving an entire tagine at a waterhole isn’t commonplace, you might find it a little frustrating. The solution is to always take your own rubbish out, and if you can manage it, a bag of some other people’s rubbish too. Be the change you want to see and so on. Some people only do a day trip to Paradise Valley from a far away city, but I’d recommend booking a night in Taghazout to really make the most of it. It’s a tiny, colourful village where the water isn’t beige and the waves are surfable. Adventurekeys Hostel does a cracking breakfast and dinner, and does surf + yoga packages if you really want to zen the heck out.

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Tizi n Test Pass

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If you’ve been to Morocco and didn’t get hopelessly lost, did you really go? This rule applies to both the sprawling medinas and the roads throughout the country which do not correspond all that well with the easy-peasy instructions provided by Google maps. The Tizi n Test pass was the road we found ourselves on while lost on the way to Marrakech, and I don’t regret a second. The pass is a glittering example of Morocco’s highly unenthusiastic approach to health and safety. Overloaded trucks teeter along the edge of a 50 metre drop, the road is walled in some parts, in others it crumbled away some millenia ago and at certain corners the construction of life-preserving barriers was clearly just going to be too much hassle. Compete for road space with herds of goats that scamper to scale up the cliff face (watch your head, they might start a mini avalanche), and stop for tea at one of the cafés that looks like it’s balancing on the edge of the universe. If you have a crippling fear of heights, don’t worry, all that bile in your throat will disappear when you reach the next lookout. The view really is that good.

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Cascade d’Ouzoud

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Ok, the water is brown, and the sign says no swimming, but that’s probably just the dirt at the bottom and since when does anyone in Morocco read signs. Multi-levelled and glorious, Cascade d’Ouzoud, or Ouzoud Falls to tourists, is quite the sight. It’s a short walk down a mud track to get there (don’t pay a guide to take you or park in a paid car park, you don’t need to) and it’s likely you’ll meet a few cheeky macaques (tail-less monkeys) on the way. Once at the bottom take a moment to enjoy the thundering rush of water before jumping in yourself. You can swim behind the falls, or pay a guy on a boat to take you if you really don’t like muddy water. Then sit back and watch the locals fling themselves from the highest point. Unlike Paradise Valley, the climb up to the jumping spots is extremely slippery, and probably only worth doing if you have toes like a macaque. Get there before midday and it’s likely you’ll be the only tourists there. The falls are pretty amazing from every angle, so it’s worth walking up and down the stairs to get that perfect ‘gram.

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Atlas Mountains

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Another ‘thank god we got lost’ spot if you’re silly enough to drive through it is the Atlas Mountains. It’s a famous hiking destination, but if you’ve got limited time, or you’re just lazy, driving guarantees the highest number of jaw drops per hour. Crawl your way down gravel roads lined with mud houses. Wave like royalty as the kids in off-the-map Berber villages trail behind you on their donkeys. It’s not often you feel truly alone in Morocco, but sitting on the peaks of the multicoloured mountaintops that stretch for miles in each direction may well have you feeling you’re the only person left on earth. That is until a friendly local appears out of nowhere offering tea. Due to the state of the roads it is very unwise to do this drive in anything other than a 4WD, we did in a Fiat Punto and only just made it out alive.

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Chefchaouen

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If you ask a Moroccan about their favourite place to visit in the country, most will say Chefchaouen. Turquoise-tinged and visually stunning, Chefchaouen also has a refreshingly relaxed vibe most probably due by the enormous amount of weed grown in the region. If you’re there for a couple of days, spend the first wandering around the bright blue medina and snapping to your hearts content, then head up to the Spanish mosque on the mountainside to watch the sun go down. On day 2 head to Cascade d’Ackchour. Depending on the season, you might not see a waterfall, but there’ll still be crystal clear pools to take a dip in. Taxi vans regularly make the trip from the centre of Chefchaouen to the falls and if you’re lucky your driver will swing by the vast fields of marijuana the Rif Valley is famous for. There’s so much of it you could grab a handful as a souvenir, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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Erg Chebbi Desert

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It’s a cliche, but a camel trek in the Sahara really is a must do. Watching the sun reflect off dunes the size of a small town while your camel farts and grunts it’s way to the next camp is truly surreal. If you can, do a 2 night trek with some sandboarding thrown in. As previously mentioned, health and safety requirements don’t appear to exist in Morocco, so your guide will have no qualms about shoving you down the side of a 100 foot dune on a pair of old skis. You’re guaranteed to remember the experience because a) it’s really fun and b) you’ll be picking sand out of your scalp for approximately the rest of your life. By night sit under the stars and share bad jokes with your guide. Moroccan men love their hash, so if your guide has bought their own stash for the trip (highly likely), it’s bound to be a memorable night.

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Africa, Travel

How to save and stay sane in Morocco

Ah Morocco, for want of a better word, it’s completely fucking nuts. A relaxing, carefree holiday destination it is (mostly) not, but is it worth going? Absolutely. From scam avoidance to how to get around, to what to do during Ramadan, here are some handy dandy hints.

Scammin

Let’s face it, if you’re not Moroccan, you’re going to get ripped off at some point on your journey. Like coming down with a paralysing case of the shits (yes that’s a medical term), getting conned out if your cash in Morocco is going to happen. As many Moroccans will happily tell you, stall holders, restaurateurs, tour guides and parking guardians see you as a dollar sign in harem pants. You’re probably never going to get the same deal on anything as a Moroccan, but you can come close.

Tip #1: Trust no one

If this seems harsh, blame it on the Moroccan who said it while laughing at the fact we accepted ‘help’ from a stranger on our first day in Tangier. Lost? That’ll be €20 please (not including tips). Many locals offering assistance with directions or luggage say you can repay them for their act of kindness by taking a tour with them. If this sounds like a good deal, it’s not. Unless it’s pre-arranged or you know and trust the person it’s best not to accept the offer of a tour at all. Attractions included will vary depending on what city or town you’re in, but the last few stops will always be to market shops specifically designed for tourists, where the basic premise will be the same:

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Carpets on display in the Essaouira medina

1. Carpet shop

Forget all your romantic Aladdin-related preconceptions about woven carpets in far away lands, because all the carpet hawkers in Morocco will make you never want to see another carpet again. For the love of god do not buy a carpet if they give you the price in euros. Don’t buy anything if it’s priced in euros. That nice silk throw they’re plugging for a seemingly reasonable €80 ($125 NZD) costs 60 dirhams ($11NZD without bargaining) at the average market.

2. Berber pharmacy

The Berber pharmacy is where you can buy most of the same spices you get at home except in a jar instead of a Gregg’s box. You will be offered tea with ‘no obligation to buy’. No obligation to buy means that they’ll stop just short of chasing you down the street. Again, if it’s part of a tour, the prices will be dramatically marked up. You don’t need to pay €5 ($8NZD) for a 10 dirham ($1.40 NZD) lipstick.

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Spices in Rabat

3.  Traditional Moroccan lunch

Don’t buy food on a tour. Don’t buy anything on a tour. Just don’t go on the tour ok.

Tip #2 Takeaway is the way

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NZ $1.50 worth of pastries in Essaouira

Although Morocco is brimming with cafes, eating out isn’t a massive thing. If you want to smoke a dozen cigarettes and drink tea for a few hours you’ll fit right in at one of the hundreds of cafes, but sitting down to a restaurant meal isn’t so common. That means almost all the restaurants you are likely to come across will be touristy as hell. You should never pay more than 30 to 50 dirham for a tagine ($4.30 NZD), but in hot spots they go for up to 100 dirham ($14NZD) a pop. That would still be cheap back home, but you’re not back home, so don’t pay it ya bloody moron.

Look out for restaurants that leave drinks off the menu, if the food is reasonably priced and you’re assuming your Coke will be a piddly 10 dirham like most other places, you might feel like a spontaneous tagine-infused vomit when 2 drinks bump the bill up by another 100 dirham. You can always argue it if you feel you’ve been taken advantage of, but it can make things pretty tense.

Foodies don’t need to panic though. One of the main draw cards throughout all of Morocco is the dusty, spiralling, glorious markets. There will be a market in almost every city or town you could hope to visit, so buy food from there. A bag of delicious treats including breads, pastries, fruit and veges for 2 or 3 meals will only cost about 50 dirham ($7NZD) which will have you feeling a whole lot better about all those shady tagines.

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Bread, fruit, veges and deliciously oily fried fish from the Essaouira market

Tip #3 Parking guardians

Unless you’re staying on the outskirts of the city, there’ll be a parking guardian almost anywhere you might choose to park your ride. The guardians are self-appointed, and there’s debate as to whether their presence is a benefit or not, on one hand, it means there’s no metred parking in Morocco, on the other, they can be a gigantic pain in the ass. Parking wardens are identifiable by their hi-vis vests and the huge grin whenever a non-Moroccan (read: cash machine) comes into view. Should you pay them? Yes. Should you pay them what they initially ask for? Usually no. Unless there’s a sign with the price on it, (usually only at popular attractions, priced from 5-10 dirhams for the day) there is no fixed price for parking. Moroccans pay a few dirhams for a few hours parking and up to 25-30 for a few days. Demands of 30 dirhams for a few hours or 60 for a few days should be responded to with a jolly laugh and a convincing lie about how you’ve been living in Morocco for 3 months and you know how much you should be paying. Again, it’s a few dollars in New Zealand money, but are you an ignorant tourist willing to be taken for an absolute ride? Maybe, but let’s pretend that you are not.

Where to crash

Morocco can get you down if you let it. Sexual harassment is tiring, near death experiences with donkey carts are tiring, having to do a wee in an excessively barbed bush on the side of the highway is tiring. If you’re seconds away from throwing in the towel and heading to some highly cliched tropical island, stay at an Airbnb or small, locally-owned hostel.

You can unwind at a hotel, but if you need to be reminded that most Moroccans are good people, and in some cases borderline saints, nothing beats staying in someone’s home.

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Shisha at Fatima’s

In Rabat we met Fatima, who invited us to break fast with her during Ramadan, we ate, joked, smoked some sneaky shisha, and generally had a wonderful time. In Casablanca we met Kamal, who after noticing we were a bit late getting to his place (because we were hopelessly lost) went out and bought us a Moroccan SIM card and helped us set it up. He called us every half an hour the next day until we figured out how to get to our next destination. And at multiple hostels in Essaouira, Marrakech and Tinghir, we stayed up late, telling and listening to stories, and drinking so much mint tea it felt like our teeth were going to melt out of our faces. This is the famous Moroccan hospitalality you hear about, and it absolutely exists, you just need to go to the right place to find it.

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Breakfast is served at Hike and Chill hostel, Tinghir

Driving

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The Fiat Punto takes on Tafraoute

So you’ve decided to drive around Morocco. Perhaps your life is far too safe and predictable in its current state, perhaps you are morally opposed to lanes, perhaps you are simply pining for an early grave.

Driving in Morocco is refreshing. In Western countries it is frowned upon to let children run on the motorway, it is not recommended that you drive into oncoming traffic, so it’s a nice change when people get in their cars and stop caring about anything that might prolong the life of themselves and those around them. Here are some tips:

Tip #1: if you can’t beat em, join em

Moroccan drivers will get extremely pissed if you appear to be adhering to any kind of conventional road rules, including stopping at intersections, traffic lights, or indeed signs that say ‘stop’. Initially it looks like chaos, but if you adapt, it works quite well. If you want to overtake someone, honk and then go for it, whenever, wherever. Get familiar with the brake in preparation for a child or animal crossing the road in front if you, this could happen on a dirt road or a highway. Use your hands – if you’ve made a mistake, it’s time for a friendly wave, if they’ve made a mistake, friendly wave, if they’re crossing, friendly wave, if you’re crossing, friendly wave, and on it goes. Occasionally there will be a considerable lacking of friendly waving and a considerable abundance of angry yelling in Arabic. The solution? You guessed it. Friendly wave.

Tip #2 Need for speed

There are cops stationed seemingly everywhere on Moroccan roads. Many are stationed at checkpoints where nothing much seems to get checked (we were waved through every time) but despite the noticeable lack of fucks given about the most basic of driving errors, the one thing the coppers will stop you for is speeding. Give them your best ‘I’m an ignorant tourist’ smile (maybe even a friendly wave) and hope for the best. Going 20 or 30km over the limit will win you a 300 dirham fine, 150 dirhams if you’re only over by 10 or so kms, which is fortunately only just enough to deter you from doing it again.

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Getting friendly with the Gendarmarie

Tip #3 Take the scenic route

The motorways linking major cities are absolutely littered with toll booths. You’ll be charged 7 or 8 dirham at most points, but it can get into the the 20s and if you’re driving around the whole country, it adds up. Getting off the major roads is more scenic (and is presumably part of the reason you got the car in the first place) and gives you a chance to experience the tiny villages and mountain passes you’d never see by bus. If your car can hack it (and you should probably check this beforehand) the Tizi n Test pass and the Atlas Mountains are particularly stunning areas to drive through.

Ramadan

The month of Ramadan is the holiest time of the year for Muslims, which means it’s celebrated by practically everyone in Morocco. Those who are fasting can’t eat, drink (not even water), smoke, or have sex from sunrise to sunset. Many still have to work physical outdoor jobs. It requires the sort of self control people like me simply do not possess, so some tourists choose to avoid Morocco during Ramadan, which is silly. A few tips, and you’re good to go.

Tip #1 You will not starve

Unless you’re used to breakfast at 3:30am (times differ depending when Ramadan falls on different years) it’s unlikely food will be as readily available when you get up as it would be in your usual country of residence, but you don’t need to panic. Restaurants and cafés are closed for most of the day (and in some cases all month) but, given the prices at most restaurants, consider this a blessing. There are markets everywhere in Morocco, and supermarkets too, you just stock up, and you’re good to go. Medinas are busiest a couple of hours before iftar, when everyone is stocking up, and a few hours after, once everyone’s eaten. If you’re caught short and desperate for a greasy feed after hours on the road, McDonald’s is the non-fasting persons best friend. Your local Maccas is usually chock full of tourists, kiddies who are too young to fast, and their incredibly envious older siblings. It’s also totally fine to drink the tap water, I drank it for a month and remained cholera free. It won’t cost you anything, and it means you’re less responsible for the sea of discarded water bottles you’ll find around the country.

Tip #2 R.E.S.P.E.C.T

As a general rule, it’s better to cover up in Morocco, but it’s even more important during Ramadan. Would you go to communion with your sunburnt arse cheek hanging out for the perusal of the congregation? No. Put some pants on. I tried to dress as similarly as reasonably possible to the local women, with shoulders and legs covered whenever I was in town. It’s super easy to find cheap, lightweight clothing at the markets, and you’ll be less of a target for the many variations of “hello lady give me some love” if you don’t have your rig on show.

When it comes to eating, drinking or smoking, look around. Most of the people you’re sharing the street with are absolutely fizzing for a glass of water, so don’t chug a big bottle or scoff a sandwich in front of them like a wanker. Finding creative ways to escape the crowds is part of the fun of travelling during Ramadan, it might take you to a sand dune, a park or an extremely dodgy looking side road, either way, it’s something to write home about.

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Private lunch at Parc Perdicaris, Tangier

Tip #3 Be nice

If you get hangry at the mere thought of travelling without a jumbo bag of assorted calories, imagine how Moroccans feel about mid-afternoon. Tempers can flare, and arguments can erupt. In the Rabat medina I witnessed one old man who went as far as taking out his teeth and putting them in his pocket so he could fight another old man. Try to dismiss these rare incidents and innocent cases of really craving a pastry. If stall holders are being annoying, a polite no thank you, or 5 polite no thank yous (coupled with a compulsory friendly wave) is always better than aggression.

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Rabat medina, where he denture incident unfolded

These are some of the things I wish I knew before travelling to Morocco, now you know them too, so loosen up your friendly wave hand and get there.

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