Marrakesh, Morocco

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I’ve always wanted to step foot on all seven continents. I had achieved five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia) and looking to check Africa off my list next. I have seen the coasts of Djibouti and Somalia in the Navy, and I have been to the Seychelles Islands, but I had never stepped foot on mainland Africa until this fall of 2016.

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My wife and I were traveling between Spain and Germany for a few weeks and decided to take a cheap flight from Barcelona to Marrakesh for a few days. It’s a short hour and a half flight. As soon as we passed customs and I converted our money, we caught a taxi to the riad we were staying at. A riad is the term used for a Moroccan house with a courtyard or garden in the middle. It’s a short taxi trip from to the edge of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main market square in Marrakesh. maroc_marrakech_jemaa-el-fna_luc_viatour

As soon as we got out of the cab, we were swarmed by men either trying to help with our bags or show us how to get to our riad, and they all wanted to be paid for their services. I told them “stop” and “no thank you” in Arabic, and that seemed to do the trick. One guy said I’m going to get lost in the small alleys. What he didn’t know was that I had already programmed our riad all of the famous sights in Marrakesh into my GPS watch. I walked straight to our riad through a labyrinth of alleyways like I grew up in Marrakesh.20161002_10104620161002_192332

After we checked into our beautiful riad, my wife and I decided to go to the main market square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. As you walk down the small alleyways in Marrakesh, you have to really pay attention as to what’s going on around you. The alleyways are only six-feet wide with vendor shops pouring out onto the fringe and people on motorbikes sharing the same walkway. It’s not that dangerous; just pay attention to what you see coming at you and listen to what may be coming up from behind. As the alleyway opened up to the main square, we could immediately tell that we were in the heart of the city. There are hundreds of vendors selling everything from spices and fruits to oil lamps and rugs.20161004_20420620161003_21532020161004_204757

The sun was starting to set around this time, and I wanted to get a picture with the snake charmer and his cobras. The snake charmers are only out during the day because if a snake gets loose in the market after dark, it’ll be pretty hard to find. As we got closer to one of the snake charmers, he came up and shook my hand and started with whole sales pitch. I asked him how much, and he kept saying cheap and kept loading my body with snakes.20161002_195148

I figured it couldn’t be that much money in a country where people live off of $2.55 a day. After we got about eight pictures, the guy says he wants €50 ($55), and I told him to kiss my ass. He said that €50 is cheap and I said, “Ok, I’ll meet you halfway at €6.” He said, “This is nothing!” How ungrateful, right? He just made €6 tax-free in five minutes. If that’s nothing, then I’m in the wrong business. I told him, “Take it or leave it,” and he finally relented. Just as I was paying the snake charmer, I looked up and saw my wife getting pulled away by a woman in burka. Apparently, when I was paying the snake charmer, a lady who does henna tattoos came up and started working on my wife’s hand.20161002_200746 She told her repeatedly that she didn’t want it and that she had no money, but the henna woman kept going anyways. As I got closer, the lady tried pulling my wife into her chair that was in a row of other women trying to pull the same scam. Next thing you know, this woman and I are playing tug of war with my wife. I would have grabbed her arm and ripped it off my wife’s wrist, but when a Muslim woman is wearing a burka, it probably means she’s not supposed to have contact with any man but her husband. I didn’t feel like starting a religious, international conflict that week, so my wife and I simply pulled harder and eventually broke her grip. The woman started slinging vulgarities at us, including F-words, but we quickly walked away without looking back. I learned two valuable lessons that evening: 1. Never ever shake in hands in Marrakesh until a price is agreed upon. It may seem rude to refuse an introductory handshake, but the locals will know you’re no pushover. They consider a handshake to be something completely different over there. If you shake hands before a price has been settled on, you have already agreed to the transaction, and the price will be figured out later. 2. Don’t ever let you’re wife go out in a third world country wearing Tory Burch from head to toe, a Louis Vuitton handbag, and gold head band. It makes it harder to negotiate price when your wife is radiating money. After that culture clash, she decided to go back to the riad and change clothes.20161004_154601

For dinner that night, I indulged in one of my favorite meals in the entire world, shawarma. We have shawarma back in the states (or at least we claim we do), but it’s just not done right. Shawarma is an Arab and Israeli meat preparation in which lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, buffalo, or mixed meats are placed on a spit and may be grilled for as long as a day. I found a shawarma joint on the edge of the square and ate there three times a day every day I was in Marrakesh. For less than eight dollars, I was able to get two shawarma wraps with fries, two huge bottles of water, and two large fresh blended fruit smoothies. Gotta love that conversion rate! The main variable that makes or breaks a shawarma joint is the harissa sauce! Harissa is a delicious hot chili sauce. My wife has heard me bitch and complain about the lack of harissa sauce in the states for years, but after she tasted it in Morocco, she said she completely understood. After dinner, we turned it in for the night because we were going to be riding through the Palm Desert on camelback in the morning.

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The next morning we meet our tour bus with the other tourists on the edge of the main square. From there we went made a few more pick ups and then headed about an hour outside of Marrakesh in to the desert. After a while we pulled up to a small village that from the looks of it had been deserted, but as we got closer to our outpost, the tour guides and camels started to come into view. We got acquainted with our guides and camels and then were given head scarfs to help keep our heads cool.20161003_12253320161003_122608 We rode for an hour through the Palm Desert until we came across a little oasis with a clay hut and a gentleman ready to serve us a traditional Moroccan lunch consisting of mint tea and Moroccan Msemen flat bread. After sharing stories of who everyone was and where they were from, we headed back to the outpost to conclude our camel ride and head back to Marrakesh.20161004_142349

Once my wife and I arrived back in Marrakesh, we wanted to go take in some of the local historic sights. We first headed to the Saadian Tombs to view the beautiful architecture. The mausoleum contains the remains of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. The tomb was built in the late 16th century and was lost until being rediscovered in 1917. After paying our respects to the royal family, my wife and I headed to the Koutoubia Mosque.

The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest and oldest mosque in all of Marrakesh. The mosque was constructed in the mid-twelfth century and has remained ever since. We did not go inside because it was closed at the time we visited, but it was a sight to see. After the Koutoubia Mosque, we got a few pictures with monkeys in the market and then headed back to our riad for a much needed siesta. That night we just relaxed, took in the sights around us, and ate some more shawarma.20161003_143700

The next morning, my wife and I headed to the Bahia Palace before all the tour groups got there. The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens that was built in the late 19th century and intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means “brilliance.” As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the traditional Islamic and Moroccan style. This was accomplished the craftsmanship of woodcarvings, paintings, and geometric tile designs.20161002_124659img_830120161002_12441420161004_151619

After Bahia Palace, my wife and I headed back to Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main market) so I could try my luck at snake charming. Once we got there, we were immediately bombarded with snake charmers all with their hands out ready to shake. With one swift gesture I put both my hands in my pockets and said, “No price, no shake.” I was immediately elevated to a level of bargaining that they usually don’t get from a Yank. I said I wanted a few pictures playing the flute for the snake and a fair price that I wasn’t willing to budge from. One of the guys took my offer and then we shook on it. I got some great pics and then when I went to pay him, he wanted double my offer. I laughed and then gave him the amount we agreed upon. You have to be stern with these people or they will hustle every last cent out of you. I’ve been around the world, and these salesmen are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.14656381_10100809571838842_5501169822552510938_n

My wife and I then went shopping for an oil lamp that she wanted while I bought some Yves Saint Laurent replicas that I just couldn’t turn down. We then proceeded to stuff ourselves with more shawarma and tagine before heading to bed so we could wake up and catch our flight in the morning.

Overall, our entire trip to Marrakesh was wonderful. There was beautiful architecture, amazing food, and everything was cheap! The riad that we stayed in was called Riad l’heure D’été, and it was absolutely friendly, clean, and located within footsteps from all the main attractions. I highly recommend this riad to anybody who is planning a trip to Marrakesh.20161005_12085420161003_143323_001_0120161004_204419

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Hong Kong

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When you talk about Hong Kong, you have to talk about Hong Kong like it is it’s own country. Even though the British gave back Hong Kong and Hong Kong Island back to the Chinese government in 1997, Hong Kong is very much different than the rest of China. Hong Kong operates under the “One Country, Two Systems.” This basically guarantees the people of Hong Kong will not be messed with economically or politically for the first 50 after Great Britain left in ’97. Needless to say, they have their own culture and their own flag to match.

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I visited Hong Kong when I was backpacking East Asia in 2013. I was leaving Cambodia and traveling to Beijing when I decided I wanted to stop off in Hong Kong for a few days to see about getting a new suit and to see if the Hong Kong replicas are all they’re cracked up to be. I flew into Hong Kong international airport, which is unlike anything i have ever seen; it’s essentially its own island.

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After grabbing my bags, the hotel I booked laid out a convenient bus route to take me from the airport to the hotel. The buses that service the airport are almost all red double-decker buses, just like the ones in Britain. It was about a 30- to 40-minute bus ride, but it was definitely worth it. The bus takes you up along the side of the mountain so that you can get a great view of Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, and Hong Kong Island. The waterways are filled with hundreds and hundreds of boats ranging from fishing boats to oil tankers. It’s really unlike and other port I’ve ever been to. As I got deeper into the city, the streets became very densely populated and came to life with upscale fashion, electronics, and noodle shops that literally went on for miles.

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The hotel I was staying at was called Chungking Mansions, and it is right in the center of Kowloon. Kowloon is the peninsula across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island and is the epicenter for entertainment and shopping on the mainland side. The “mansions” I was staying in were anything but luxurious. The mansions are closet-sized, single rooms located above a multitude of electronics stores, clothing wholesalers, and replica watch hustlers. But, considering the location, it was a good deal at only $30 a night.chungking-mansions-hong-kong-nathan-street-1160x833hong-kong-room

Surprisingly though, it was pretty quiet in my room. There were only three showers on the whole floor. And when I mean shower, I mean a one-person toilet room with a shower nozzle mounted on the wall above the toilet, a drain on the ground, and a glass folding door with the light switch in the hallway. I wasn’t complaining though; I was backpacking and was just happy to have a room to myself.img_1016

I cleaned up and then proceeded to head out and see the sights. As I was walking out of the building, I was approached by multiple men who were trying to sell me replica watches out of a catalog. I came to Hong Kong because I wanted to see if they really had the best replicas, so I asked one of the guys if he had Audermars Piguet and Patek Philippe watches and he said he did. Next thing you know, I’m two blocks away, on the 15th floor of some building in a Pakistani apartment with no windows, browsing through watch catalogs. Let me tell you now, the replicas in Hong Kong don’t live up to the hype. Every watch I picked they either wanted way too much for or the quality was far from par. Maybe I am a connoisseur for high-grade replicas, but I had just seen better quality and for a quarter of the price in Cambodia the day before. Once I evaded that situation, I then went in pursuit of a world-famous Hong Kong tailored suit.

Many of the streets are lined with custom suit shops, so it won’t take long to find one. As I looked through the shops, I saw high quality suits at high prices. I was under the impression that you could come to Hong Kong and get a beautiful suit for cheap. They do have quality, but I believe they overcharge on the price because they know they hype too. I had just purchased two gorgeous suits a week prior in Bangkok that was a fraction of the price of Hong Kong. The remainder of the afternoon was spent getting lost on the back streets and hopping from noodle shop to noodle shop before I headed out for St. Patrick’s Day. I can honestly say that the best noodle restaurant in all of Hong Kong is located at 17 Lock Rd, one block over Nathan Rd. in Kowloon. I ate at this restaraunt at least twice each day I was there. I can’t pronounce the name of the restaurant, but I have provided a picture and GPS location (22.297440, 114.171475). The restaurant is on the second floor with a street-level entrance.

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Next to my hotel was a really nice authentic-looking Irish pub. So what better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day than in an Irish Pub? Well, after I found out they were charging $10 for a pint of Guinness, I said, “Hell, if I’m going to pay $10 for a beer, I might as well go to the top of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) building.”

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It is the tallest building in Hong Kong, and they have a beautiful bar at the top. As I was walking to the ICC building, I saw multiple parks with people practicing Tai Chi. The parks in Hong Kong have people practicing Tai Chi and meditation all day and all night. I eventually reached the ICC and took the elevator to the 108th floor that opened up to a spectacular upscale bar and a 360 degree view of the whole city.asian-invasion-068dsc01018

After a few Guinnesses, I decided to head to Hong Kong Island to see what it had to offer. I took the subway under the harbour and popped up just around the corner from the main street where all the bars were located. After popping my head into a couple of pubs I met some German guys who were hopping around to and asked if I’d like to join. Naturally, I said yes.dsc01022

We were on our way to another pub when there was a tidal wave camera crew and photographers. Apparently, these people were filming a reality show in Hong Kong, and somehow I got wrapped up in the scene. After my ten seconds of Hong Kong fame, my new friends and I caught a cab back Kowloon where they were also staying and where I would ultimately turn it in for the night.

The next morning, I was headed to Macau with my new friends. But before I met up with them, I decided to go meditate at one of the many parks in the city. Then I headed down to Victoria Harbour where they have a Hong Kong movie Walk-of-Fame and a statue dedicated to Bruce Lee. I then caught up with my friends and took a hydrofoil ferry to Macau.h20tai20chi20002_web1asian-invasion-069turbojet_hydrofoil_cacilhas_in_hong_kong_harbor

When we got back that evening, I split off to go see the world-famous Victoria Harbour light show that happens every night on both sides of the harbour. If you ever go to Hong Kong, it is a must see on the to-do list. The show goes on for about ten minutes, and every building (no matter how big or small) is lit up with lights that operate in sequence to the music being projected. symphony-of-lightsdsc01050asian-invasion-072dsc01052

After the light show, I went shopping for a little while and then turned it in because the next day I was catching a flight to Beijing. Hong Kong is a place unlike any other. It’s similar to New York, but with a culture and outlook that sets it apart from any other city I’ve visited in Asia or the world. I very much enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and look forward to coming back to see some of the many sites that I missed, but for the short time I stayed, I couldn’t be happier.dsc01061

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Germany

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I first visited Germany when I was backpacking through Europe in 2010. I was heading from Amsterdam to Prague and decided to stop off in Berlin for a walk through history. Or in this case, it was a ride through history because the main highlight from my trip to Berlin was taking a Fat Tire Bike Tour throughout the city. I have taken the Fat Tire Bike Tour in Barcelona as well and can highly recommend their service if you’re looking for a funny, educational trip through time. On the tour through Berlin, I got to see sights like the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall,

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Hitler’s final bunker,

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Check Point Charlie,

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The Reichstag building,

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the Holocaust Memorial,

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the Brandenberg Gates,

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and many other historical sights.

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I loved every moment of Berlin because I am a huge history buff, the city was clean, everything operated efficiently, and my second language is German, so it was easy for me to get around. I only spent three days in Berlin, so the majority of this post is about my most recent trip to Germany in the fall of 2016.

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One of my best friends lives in Stuttgart, so my wife and I went to visit him. As soon as I got off the plane in Stuttgart, I felt at home. The air wasn’t humid, the leaves were changing because of the shift to fall, and all the taxis were Mercedes. Philip was still working, so we took a cab to his flat to meet up with a friend from Colombia, Ivan, who was also staying with him that week. We all got acquainted, and then Philip came home from work shortly thereafter. He said that he had a week full of activities planned based on what places and things we would like to see. It was late in the afternoon, and we were all hungry, so Philip suggested that we have dinner at the Fernsehturm Stuttgart.

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It is the first telecommunications tower in the world, constructed from reinforced concrete and has been the prototype for many such towers world-wide. From the top of the tower, you can see all of Stuttgart. It was overcast while we were up there, but I highly recommend going on a clear day.

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As we were up there, Philip pointed out the Stuttgart Oktoberfest that was all lit up and said that we would be going there the following night. We had to hurry to go to dinner so we can get up for a full day that was going to start with Philip getting a sports car for us to drive on the Autobahn.

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The next morning, I woke up after Philip left to go get the car. Ivan and I headed out to one of the many bakeries that are infused into German culture. After returning with breakfast for my wife, Philip showed up with a 2016 Lamborghini Huracan! The car is obviously only a two-seater, so he took my wife for a ride, then Ivan, and then he came back for me. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the section of the Autobahn that had no speed restrictions. After entering into no-speed-restrictions section, Philip did not seem to shy away from taking advantage of the car’s 5.2l V10 engine that produces a mean 602 BHP and can do 0-97km/h (60mph) in only 2.5 seconds! After a little bit of time, Philip let me take a turn behind the wheel for a short while.

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We were flying on the Autobahn, doing a calm 270km/h (168mph), when we ran into afternoon rush-hour traffic, and my dreams of breaking over 322km/h (200mph) had come to an end. Philip and I turned the car back in and quickly headed back to his flat so we could get changed for Oktoberfest that evening. Philip had three pairs of lederhosen for Ivan and me to try on, while my wife had a beautiful dirndl to wear that she borrowed from Philip’s mom. The lederhosen that Philip had were top-notch! The pairs that Ivan and I had were each around €500 while Philip’s lederhosen cost more than €1000. They were all made from deer suede and were embroidered and heat-branded with pictures of deer with huge antlers.

 

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Oktoberfest in Stuttgart is no joke. Just because it originated in Munich doesn’t mean Stuttgart takes the tradition lightly. As we arrived on the fairgrounds, I was almost blinded by all the bright lights coming off the amusement rides. I kept thinking to myself, you gotta have a pretty strong stomach to drink profusely and then climb into a pirate ship that goes in a complete circle. The Beirgartens were located throughout the park, but mostly toward the center. The “Beer Tents” in Germany are far from tents. They are massive buildings that are constructed in only two and a half months and look like they are meant to stand the next two and a half decades.

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After Oktoberfest, they take them all back down. We feasted on folk songs, many liters of beer, and outstanding German cuisine and then headed over to a private party hosted by Stihl power tools because Philip’s friend was bartending there. She got us into the party and then proceeded to feed us champagne, beer, and what seemed like an endless supply of Jagermeister shots.

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I was talking with this older guy from Holland that does the promotions for Stihl, and next thing you know he starts break dancing out of nowhere. He was in his 50s with a baldhead, a bright white beard and a helicopter leg swing that could rival Alfonso Ribeiro. That night was fun to say the least.

The next morning, we went to the Porsche Museum before we left Stuttgart. Stuttgart is home to the Porsche and Mercedes headquarters. We only had time to see one, so I went with Porsche. I have always had a fascination with the 911, but I plan on seeing the Mercedes museum next time.

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After seeing a vast array of trophies and racing machines at the Porsche Museum, we headed out of Stuttgart and off to the Bravarian region to explore Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle (Castle of King Ludwig of Bavaria). Neuschwanstein Castle (New Swan Rock Castle) is most popularly associated with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle (as my wife well knows) because it served as the inspiration.

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All along the way, we were greeted lush rolling green hills littered with small chapels and livestock. As we got closer to the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, we can start to see Neuschwanstein Castle.

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At the base of the mountain, there is a gorgeous lake that both castles overlook as well as a spectacular view of the farmland and the nearby village of Fussen. After taking in the beauty of King Ludwig’s Hohenschwangau Castle, we then headed up the road to his son Ludwig II’s castle. The castle was built in a Romanesque, Medieval style, but it is only about 150 years old. It’s construction was started in 1869 and was not completed until 1882, and none of the public saw the inside until the after the King’s death in 1889.

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After being opulently overwhelmed by the castle and the surrounding scenery, we all decided to stay in one of the many cute, German cottages in the city of Fussen because the next day we were headed to Munich for the original Oktoberfest.

The following morning, we drove about an hour and a half until we got to the center of Munich. After finding GS Hotel on short notice on Hotels.com, we were in a taxi on our way to the biggest festival in the world! And during the real time of Oktoberfest that takes place in the last week of September! When I got out of the cab, I couldn’t believe the size of it! It was the biggest festival that I have ever seen and it’s solely dedicated to copious amounts of dancing, eating, and drinking beer. I guess you could say it’s my Graceland.

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There are so many Beirgartens from all around Germany and other Germanic countries. The Biergarten that Philip got us into was supposed to be the most popular, and it takes a year to two years on the waitlist to get in, but Philip already had that covered, and we were seated right away. Everything was wonderful; the crowd was cheerful, the food was fresh and hot, and the beer was flowing by the gallons! Now, here comes the bad news. As the day goes on, people slip their friends into spots as soon as other people at the table leave. We had elbowroom at noon, and by 4pm, everyone is pushed up against the person sitting in the bench behind you. And then add on top that, almost everyone stands on the benches to sing. So the earlier the better, at least when you’re in the more popular tents.

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After a while, my wife and I decided to get some fresh air and go shopping for a beer stein to bring back. I have a hobby of collecting expensive beer steins from each Germanic place I visit, and this time was going to be no exception.

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After seeing every store twice and hours of negotiating prices in German, I finally got the good quality beer stein I wanted for a great price. My wife and I walked around from beer tent to beer tent, and then we caught a cab back to our hotel because we had a flight leaving at 2 p.m. the next day, two and a half hours away. We were a little worried about catching our flight because we lost Philip and Ivan earlier in the night, but like true champs, they came crawling in around 4 a.m. with sleeves from stamps of all the nightclubs they went to and an essence of bad decision making. We woke up early and headed back to Stuttgart to grab the remainder of our luggage and then off to catch a plane Barcelona. This trip to Germany was easily one of the best vacations I’ve had in my entire life!

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