Friday, March 19, 2010

An Adventure in Your Own Backyard

I realize I have been absent from my blog this past week, and I want to apologize. Life has been very hectic with work and finishing up final papers for classes. But I am officially on my spring break now, so I should have more time to post.

One thing I have realized from all the work I've been given is that there are incredible places to visit right outside our door. Yes, right here in the U.S., there are plenty of places to go.

I know I talk a lot about heading overseas to exotic destinations and far-off countries. But anything that differs from our everyday lives can be considered exotic. Maybe not in the contectual sense of the word, seeing as most of us consider rainforests and rare animals and primitive cultures exotic, but a dictionary definition states: of a uniquely new or experimental nature; strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance. I can say with confidence that many places in this country seem very odd at first glance, because, let's face it, we're not accustomed to them.

Through my research for my travel writing internship, I have discovered fascinating facts about cities I never even thought to visit. Now, I really want to go to Boise, Idaho. Yep, never thought I would ever say that. But the city of trees--yes, that's it's nickname--looks like a great place for a long weekend. The city is a recreational paradise, with rafting, hiking, skiing and biking. It has fascinating museums and impressive historical landmarks. It's home to the largest concentration of Basque people in the United States. And did I mention they serve the best fingersteaks anywhere? That's because no one else makes them!

A couple other cities I am adding to my list of destinations are Albuquerque and San Antonio. Both have an air of the old west combined with the vibrant culture of Mexico. And they have some great attractions. Who wouldn't want to see the Alamo? Or ride the longest tram up a mountain? If nothing else, the food is spectacular, I'm sure. I plan on trying both red and green chile on my food in Albuquerque, and I will definitely get a tamale in San Antonio, along with some pan de dulce!

Of course I want to see the world, but part of that is venturing to cities in my own country. So let the journey begin!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring Break Baby!

March is in full swing. Although this month is usually associated with St. Patty's Day, there is another "holiday" that comes to mind--Spring Break. I guess it wouldn't really be termed a holiday as much as a week-long event full of parties, beaches, drinking binges, and hazy mornings. These are welcomed by most--if not all--college students, because spring break is a must, a right of passage, a memorable experience--if you can remember any of it.

But what about when college is over? The times of all-day drink fests and late-night parties are long gone once you enter the real world--at least for most college grads. So where do you go? Sure there are some popular Spring Break destinations where you can avoid the crazy college crowd and still enjoy a week of sun bathing on the beach. The Caribbean, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Mexico. I have nothing against these vacation spots; I would, in fact, say they are some of my favorite places to go for a relaxing week of lazing in the sand. But these days I am much more interested in going somewhere exotic, someplace new and different, where I can explore and learn about a new culture.

A place like Morocco, for instance. It has become a popular tourist spot due to it's mix of traditional and modern culture. Most of the cities still maintain that authentic, North African feel; with winding streets, bustling markets; delicious, fresh food; and camels galore. On top of all this, the historic sites make Morocco worth the trip.

As a lover of the movie Casablanca, I would have to make my way there first. The night life is said to be incredible, the clubs and bars worth an evening of exploring. During the day, you can see Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco. Other than a few surrounding neighborhoods, like Corniche on the shore, Casablanca has little else to offer.

Next, I would head to Marrakech, located at the foot of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The city is divided into two districts: The Medina and Gueliz, the historic part and the modern part. A day can be spent in Medina wandering around the souks looking for the best bargains on local art, food, and clothes. Djemaa El-Fna is a town square filled with snake charmers and monkey trainers by day; dancers, musicians and story tellers by night. To get a taste of local history, I would visit the Saadian Tombs or El Bahia Palace. This city also provides a glance into the ancient Berber people, the natives who used to inhabit the land. While the city features incredible sights, sounds and smells, it is in the surrounding mountains where the beautiful scenery lies. Ourika Valley is home to numerous different waterfalls, which can be reached via hiking trails. Old villages rest peacefully among the cliffs and trees, waiting to be discovered.

Morocco has the privilege of being on the edge of the famous Sahara Desert. The Sahara region of Morocco is where the small city of Ouarzazate is located. If I went to this city, I would have to see Ait Benhaddou, one of the best preserved Kashbahs in the world. (Rock the Kashbah!) From here I would venture along the route of 1000 kashbahs, to the town of Boumalne. And for a truly unique experience, I would drive out to the the city of Mhamid, saddle up on a camel and take a trek out into the Sahara.

Finally, I would make my way to Fez, one of the oldest medieval cities in the country. The medina in this city is a maze of streets easy to get lost in, and maybe that's for the best. It's when you get lost that you truly find something incredible. Within the medina is the tannery, where old leather-making techniques from the Middle Ages are still practiced today. Fez also provides a glimpse at some of the most authentic Islamic architecture, especially seen in the Bou Inania madersa, a 14th century religious college.

While taking a relaxing trip to the warm, tropical locales of a traditional Spring Break is wonderful, I would much rather venture to the exotic regions of the world, ones I have never seen. These places offer so much more than warm weather. They provide history, culture, diversity. Now that's a Spring Break worth looking into--at least for me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Medieval America?

In the heart of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, a feat of, well, medieval engineering is taking place. An architectural team, with the help of learned historians, is building a genuine, full-sized castle. Yes, you heard me right, a castle. Although the project terms the structure a fortress, the pictures suggest nothing less than castle. The Ozark Medieval Fortress will consist of 45-foot-high walls, a drawbridge, and six-foot-wide stone walls surrounding the inner courtyard. It is set to open in May of this year.

But if you plan on visiting it in the next few months, it won't be there, or at least not all of it. You see, it's a work in progress that the founders intend to finish in a few years time...20 to be exact. That's right, this castle is authentic in every sense of the word. It's being constructed with the materials and techniques of the 13th century. Visitors can witness the building process first hand, but don't expect any modern technology to be present, or modern clothes for that matter. 30 masons, carpenters and stone carvers, dressed in authentic medieval dress, will be using hammers, chisels and ropes to build the massive structure. And to cart the material around? Horse-drawn wagons. It's like a play...without actors.

So why do this? The inventor of this undertaking, Michel Guyot, has always had a passion for castles and medieval history. He is fascinated with how these structures were built back when materials were not so technically advanced. He promised himself that one day he would build a castle from scratch the way they did in the old days, and the dream was realized back in 1997 with the Guedelon project, built in France. So why build another in Arkansas of all places? A french couple, who retired to the Ozark region, were intrigued by Guyot's project and wanted him to do the same thing in the States. They gave him their land in the mountains, thinking it was perfect for a castle, and Guyot accepted. Arkansas, the "Natural State," offers Guyot plenty of room to work, as well as an idyllic setting, a peaceful mountain landscape.

As an admirerer of European structures--churches, castles, bridges, etc.--I can't help but be excited about this new attraction. Americans finally get a castle! The Europeans have enough, now it's our turn. As Eddie Izzard so bluntly puts it--"Cause you think we all live in castles. And we do all live in castles. We got a castle each. We’re up to here with f**kin’ castles." (Just so you all know, I love Eddie Izzard, and if ever I can reference him, I will.) But what he says is true, they have a lot of castles. And now we get to experience the full extent of what it took to build them.

So if you're looking for a different tourist attraction this year, why not head on over to Arkansas and check out these real-life masons and master builders as they carve and hammer and chisel this castle into creation. A history book right in front of your eyes.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Fun Article from Daily Candy

As I've mentioned before, I receive emails from Daily Candy Travel, and today's article was particularly interesting. It features some pretty interesting accomodations around the world, places where travelers can step out of their boring routines and into some unique digs. If the picture below doesn't intrigue you, nothing else will.

For more odd hotels, read the article!!