Monday, 23 February 2009

Last, lucky last..... lovely Lisbon

The holiday is now fading into oblivion and I have to get this finished before I head off on my next adventure which is to Australia in just a couple of days.

We have never been to Portugal and I have to admit I really thought it would be not much of much at all. Well I was in for a delightful surprise. I am not bilingual and I find languages difficult when travelling. Although I know a bit of French I get lost in conversation almost immediately...I am happy to read a few brochures and attempt a translation and I find I am really pretty good at it - my French vocab is quite broad, as long as I am reading it. I have no facility for language recall to construct sentences. My mind is not as quick when trying to interpret a conversation and sometimes the accents just stump me. So travelling in many places in Europe including Italy, France and Spain I have found myself struggling with conversation and very thankful when someone turns up who can either understand my very elementary attempts at their language or, better still, just speaks English. Please don't think I believe everyone should speak English, I find languages fascinating and just wonderful to listen to people chattering away in what to me is unintelligible nonsense. I am so envious of people who have learned a couple of languages when they were young and now have the facility to pick up, think in and speak another language.

So why am I going on about language! Well in Portugal (and Lisbon in particular) the locals seem to be very well versed in English with most speaking and understanding a few words and everyone we met very keen to have a go and try to communicate with us. Waiters, taxi, bus, tram and train drivers, hotel staff, museum staff, and just people in the streets were really happy to answer our questions and to try and speak to us in our language. I have to say it just made travelling so much nicer for us and also a lot easier. People in Portugal were very friendly and accommodating.

Lisbon is a gorgeous old city with many new parts that have developed over the years. The centre of the town has some fabulous attractions which can all be seen on a few trips with the city's sightseeing tours. There are three ways of travelling around and doing the sightseeing tours. You can hop a tram which will wind it's way through streets that a bus would have huge difficulty negotiating. A good walking tour would be possible in slightly more clement weather than we had. And there is a BIG RED BUS! The red bus does 2 or 3 different tours, the tram does a couple around the city and you could walk for miles on a nice day, especially along the river. The little streets and alleyways of the older part of the town, particularly down near the Tegus River are still as they were many years ago with their tiled facades and picture windows with flowerpots. There are enough churches to keep the avid church goer in a fresh place of worship every Sunday of the year! I have collaged some photos from Lisbon but our stay was too short and the weather too bad to do Lisbon justice.

So what did we do? Well we spent a lot of time on the sightseeing tours because you could see from the bus/tram and not be too exposed to the weather. We got wet walking the streets of the old part of the town and we visited the World Expo site. We also went to Fado Club to hear some delightful music. We bought a tricky little cap in a shopping centre to keep the rain off my glasses, and one for Brian Minns (our housesitter) to keep him warm in Scotland! And when it was just too wet to do anything the Australian Open was being broadcast on the telly so we just put our feet up and watched the tennis.

And we found the heart and soul of Portugal - well I think it is anyway - it is called Fado music. Please, if you have any soul or if you like music in any of it's forms, acquaint yourself with Fado. Where the Spanish have flamenco with it's gorgeous dancing and guitars, the Portguese have this divine lilting music, often accompanied by solo or duet in voice, and a few guitars as well. I immediately fell in love with it and found I could just sit mesmerised by it for hours.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Algeciras, Seville, Jerez and Cadiz.....Spain

We stepped off the ferry in Algeciras at about 5pm and headed from the wharves towards the town. We had our backpacks firmly insitu and we were feeling like teenagers off exploring the world - not a care in sight! We had decided our time in Algeciras had to be cut short due to the long ferry ride and we needed to start heading to Seville. We found the bus station and purchased tickets for the bus at 7 pm - express to Seville. As it was only 5pm we thought we would find a bite to eat and log on at an internet cafe to book our accommodation in Seville. Our estimated time of arrival was to be 10pm. There was a nice little kebab bar near the bus station and he told us where the internet cafe was. We checked email and the inevitable Facebook, ate a kebab, booked into a hotel and headed back to the bus station to catch our bus in plenty of time - it was about 6.30. So we sat at the bus station and bought a cup of coffee and watched platform 22 to see when the bus would come in. Well we sat and sat and thought the bus was late. Ron went to ask if there had been a delay........the bus had already gone and we had neglected to check time zones - we had gone forward an hour and had not changed our watches! The girl in the ticket booth looked at Ron like he was a dim witted idiot and issued tickets for the next bus at 9 pm! We had not thought for a minute about the time difference! I wonder how many others have made this mistake - C'mon fess up...let us know!

So now we arrive in Seville at midnight. There are no taxis at the bus station. There are no busses at the bus station (other than the one we got off) and we have no idea where our hotel is! We trudged off into the streets nearby to see if we could hail a passing cab. After a while one came along and we hopped in and were taken to the most gorgeous little boutique hotel in the old part of Seville - lovely room, lovely courtyard, lovely bathroom, lovely bed, deep sleep!

We have now become Big Red bus junkies and first thing we asked at reception was whether there was one in Seville - sure enough there was and it stopped about a kilometre's walk away from us. Off we went to find the stop. The walk took us along the river which is a lovely pictuesque stroll - rowing boats, people walking, jogging and pushing prams: skateboards and rollerskates, bikes and scooters; and the steady hum of the morning traffic. Once on the bus we did a full circuit of Seville and picked out the places we wanted to return to, namely Triana and the Plaza de Spana, El Arenal Flamenco Club and the Museum of Fine Arts. 

Alighting from the bus we walked across the river to the area known as Triana and went in search of Tapas and a glass of good Spanish wine. Well the Spaniards are used to the odd tourist or two. The Brits flock here in summer. We were taken into a cafe with the promise of tapas and wine. They served up enough seafood tapas for half of Britain (if they had been there) and we had the best wine we had enjoyed on the trip so far! It was delightful walking the streets of Seville on a Sunday with all the locals out drinking coffee and children playing about.  We visited the Museum of Fine Arts which was spectacular - see photos on our website - and then returned to the hotel to prepare to go to the Flamenco Club - El Arenal. It was very traditional flamenco and we had front row seats. The tapas was very tasty and the sangria was my choice for a drink.

The following day we hired a car and went to Jerez, the home of Sherry, and cadiz, an island on the southern coast of Spain. The Spaniards seem to sip sherry at any time of day and I have to agree it is a nice tipple! Once again the hiring of the car had to do with the weather and we had a pretty wet day for our drive to Jerez and Cadiz - not many photos I am afraid. However there were dry patches as we went through the countryside and once again it was just nice to sit and relax in a warm car and take note of the scenery and the daily activity. Spain is as fascinating historically as many of the places we visited in Europe on other tours. Names are dropped like Columbus, Vespucci and Cortes. It would take a month or more in any of these towns to learn about the history and soak up all the stories.

On returning to Seville we stopped in at the Plaza de Spana (see photos) and booked the bus for our last leg of the trip - to Lisbon in Portugal. We will revisit Spain if we get the chance. In fact we would love to have another 100 years to live so we can visit all the places we have been over again and really get to know them - ah! but this is the tragedy of being a tourist and not being able to live everywhere, though we are giving it a go!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

On to Tanger and the Mediterranean coast

It was another fairly bleak day as we set out on our trip north to Tanger so we were thankful to be in the car with the aircon and protected from the weather. We will return to Fes - there was a lot to see and do that we were just not able to enjoy due to the very bad weather conditions. We stopped by the old city on our way out of town to see if the weather had cleared enough to park the car and wander off into the souks and see the tanneries, but alas Allah had decided that Fes needed water that day and he was pouring it down in bucket loads! So we stayed in the car and set our compass (because we couldn't see much through the rain) towards the Mediterranean. We enjoy car travel and it allows us to stop when we like or to slow down and observe things we might otherwise not see on the train or a bus.

As we drove we came into (and out of) good weather along the way - so we did get to admire the countryside, the villages and the spectacular scenery of northern Morocco. Steep snow capped mountains, beautiful green valleys, flocks of sheep with the ever present shepherds, people going to markets with produce and coming home with supplies, suicidal taxi drivers who were in a race from village to village (usually in a Mercedes sedan from the 70's), women carrying huge baskets of sticks (presumably firewood) struggling along the road, children playing soccer and walking along the roads to and from school. It is a colourful country and the population is spread evenly across the land once you have left the big cities. There were a lot of abandoned buildings that stood testament to urban drift and many of the buildings people were living in appeared to be poorly constructed and serviced. I don't think rural life in Morocco is as prosperous as it may have been in years gone by. We noted the avenues of grapevines in some areas and wondered if the poor grapes from those vineyards were the ones that were destined to be tortured into Moroccan wine.

As we approached Tanger the traffic became quite heavy and it is amazing how quickly you find yourself in another set of city streets with traffic lights and mad drivers and only then do you realise how much you can contribute to this confusion by not knowing where you are going. Our compass was still set to find the sea so we just kept going until we saw a sign to the port area and decided to follow it. There is a lovely seaside boulevarde in Tanger, lined with hotels and cafes, a long promenade for walking and a huge beach area where there were horses exercising. We decided it would be nice to stay in a really lovely hotel called the Rif and Spa. It is built with all the features that we had come to know as a Morrocan style and it was lovely - I can recommend it as a great place to stay in Tanger, even if a little expensive. Previous guests have included Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, so I can only guess that at one time it was a very flashy place! I think Tanger must have had a real heyday in the 50's and 60's but it is struggling to maintain it's grandeur now and development appears to be occuring very slowly. Apparently it is a great holiday destination for the British - there were quite a few of them about despite the cold weather and the staff at the hotel said they arrive in droves with the summer warmth, much like the flies do (and they chuckled about that!). I can imagine it would be lovely in the summer and the city is certainly geared for tourists with discos and bars and numerous restaurants.

We took a drive out along the Mediterranean Coast, also known as the Moroccan Riviera, had lunch at the Sofitel which had a really nice art exhibition on at the time, the work of a local artist mostly in oil and some acrylics. The coast has been set up as a holiday destination and there are a number of small towns, large hotels and tourist attractions like water parks and amusement centres. There are also lots of opportunites for purchasing Moroccan pottery and other handicrafts. Pity we only had the backpacks - I could have bought a suitcase full of them!

And then it was time to leave Morocco. We packed up the trusty backpacks, handed back the car and headed for the pier at about 10 am for the midday ferry. Once again a cold raining and miserable day and hoping for better weather on the 'other side' of the Straits of Gibraltar. To give an indication of the weather the fast ferry we were about to board was cancelled - weather too rough for the crossing. So we were redirected, after running all around the docks in the rain and changing our booking, to the car ferry that was being loaded and should "leave soon". Well it didn't leave soon at all and we spent about 3 hours watching the ferry being unloaded and loaded with lorries and cars. It was actually quite fascinating and we could not believe how much came out of the ferry and then how much they managed to put back into it again! The most amazing part was the traffic management - people, cars, lorries, campervans, little towing tractors, forklifts and motorbikes went scurrying in every direction and there seemed to be just one guy telling them all what to do - mania on wheels it was........but fun to watch. Small children (and big kids too) would have been amused for hours.

We finally made the crossing to Algericas arriving there at about 6 pm - 5pm Morocco time - and THAT is another story. Let's just get this blog up first and maybe early next week you will hear the tale of the time in Algericas!

Check out the photos on If I am ever going to get this done I just have to leave photos out!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Fes, Meknes, Azbrou........and SNOW!

The trip from Marrakesh to Fes by train took eight hours because we had to return via Casablanca, and the train was running about an hour late by the time we reached Fes. Eight hours is a long time to not go to the toilet! However the trip was pleasant enough and we shared our compartment for most of the way with four women who got onto the train on the outskirts of Marrakesh. One of the younger women spoke a small amount of English and we exchanged a few words but exhausted those fairly quickly, so we read and snoozed and time passed slowly. About half way between Casablanca and Fes a man joined us and he spoke good English and in fact became quite chatty. He was employed by the Ministry of Tourism and he was keen to help us to have a great time in Fes, which he claimed was the best city to visit in Morocco. We chatted away with him (I think his name was Youseff) and he told us all the things we should see and what we should do in Fes.

After being on the move for quite a few days, and getting all the lowdown on what to see and do, we decided to stay in Fes for two nights. The first night, after the long train trip, we wandered the city and just took in the atmosphere. Fes has a rather grand boulevard that runs the length of the city and is very festively decorated. Despite the cold and occasional rain people were out in the streets in vast numbers. It was lovely just to feel like you were part of it all.

Youseff had told us to visit the old city and the Medina, but we were sort of all over the old cities and Medinas by then and didn’t fancy getting lost in another labyrinth of souks! So we decided to hire a car and head off into the countryside the next day. Youseff had also suggested we should visit some of the small towns in the Atlas Mountains – so that was the mission. He had mentioned Meknes as it is in the winegrowing region and Ron had told him of his interest in Moroccan wines – we were ever hopeful we would eventually find a good one! So we plotted a course that took us in a large triangle out of Fes to Azbrou to the southeast and then across to Meknes, which is south west of Fes, and then back into Fes. We planned on having a late lunch in Meknes and giving Moroccan wine another go.

Well what a day this turned out to be. After a hilarious start trying to find our way out of Fes with the help of a few roadside tourist guides (people we stopped to ask who could not understand us – or we could not understand their directions!) we eventually hit the road to Azbrou. In fact once out of Fes it was very well signposted and we had no trouble finding our way. We drove along and saw some great examples of country life, little villages and people going about their business. A few towns we drove through had markets that day which meant there were sheep and goats on the road and people moving about with produce for sale and shoppers with big bags of stuff headed for home. We just love observing the everyday goings on and seeing how people live their life in these strange and wonderful places.

The road kept climbing and we noticed the temperature dropping on the “incar thermometer”. The countryside started to change and vegetation became sparse and rain began to fall…..and then it was sleet….and then it was SNOW! The temperature had dropped to 1 degree and the windscreen was fogging up and we were finding it more difficult to see out. The scenery became totally white and we were in a downpour of snow. Now snow was the one thing I definitely had NOT expected to see in Morocco. After an hour or so of very careful driving we came into the town of Ifrane where we stopped for a coffee and a warm up at a roadside cafe. It was still sleeting and it was so cold I couldn’t believe it! On to Azbrou where once again it was raining and freezing cold so we decided to stay in the car and just keep going to Meknes. The Moroccan countryside is spectacular. We had expected desert but were really pleasantly surprised with rolling green hills that reminded me of New Zealand and the south coast of New South Wales in Australia. I would like to go back to the area around Fes and to Fes itself. We didn’t stay there long enough to do it justice! We didn’t see the tanneries and dye shops where they tan and die leather – and apparently they are an absolute must.

Meknes is an ancient town and has a wealth of history to be explored – but not on a cold rainy day verging on snowing! So we went to the Atlas Hotel and had a lovely lunch – Harira Soup. Now I have to say this is just a sensational soup and I am going to search the net to get a recipe. I believe it is a Moroccan Wedding Soup but is also used as a hearty winter warming brew and in Ramadan for breaking fast at the end of the day. It is spicy and hot and yet sweet and full of veges – YUM! It really warmed us up after our freezing morning drive. Meknes was another reason to return to Fes for another holiday one day. Oh and we did find a bottle of Moroccan wine which we drank half of and took back to the hotel thinking we might drink the other half ….. well it wasn’t that good and so it met a draining end!

It is really scary when foreign police pull you over – you just know you must look like a criminal to them – they all do to us! So we were pleasantly surprised when the nice men in blue from Morocco were really convivial and happy to wave us on and wish us a good day at the three places we were pulled over. Ron was pretty naughty and crossed an unbroken line and they still greeted us nicely – warned him not to do it again – and waved us on the way!

We wended our way back to Fes and decided after our big adventure we would treat ourselves to a nice meal at one of the good hotels in town, and maybe a nice bottle of (not) Moroccan wine! After another disappointing venture into the subtleties of Moroccan wine I was drinking a Martini and Ron had found a ‘reasonable by Moroccan standards’ red to wash down a pretty ordinary meal. It really is better to forego the alcohol and eat local!

Fes has a number of fabulous things to see and do but we are now feeling the pressure of our timetable and the need to head further north in order to make it to Spain and Portugal in the timeframe for this holiday. The weather is not really tourist weather and although we were rugged up it is not so much fun in the rain…….and we think that further north there is more cold and rain………why did we decide to do this part of the world now – well the answer is simple – we might not get the chance again – so make the most of it!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Marrakech Express……… “all aboard the train……”

I can’t think of Marrakech and not think of the song – Marrakesh Express. So – of course – we caught the Marrakech Express from Casablanca. Trains in Morocco are reliable, clean and efficient transport and the people you meet are friendly – though the toilets need to be avoided at all costs! Our little compartment would fit 8 but we travelled with 5 most of the way and had plenty of room. We met a merchant from Marrakech, Aziz, who owned a carpet and artisans shop in the souk behind the Medina in the Old City. Now there is a theme developing here – there is always a Medina and they are usually in the Old City. A Medina is like a town square but probably more. The Medina is a seething mass of humanity late in the afternoons and into the night when people meet to chat, eat and entertain themselves as well as pick up their local produce, bread, spices etc. The goods are very well priced and so you will see the local working people come to the Medina to shop, rather than the shopping malls and stores. However you have to have magnificent bargaining skills and if you look western in any way you just resign yourself to paying double what the locals do (at a minimum) and still getting a bargain! The Medina in Marrakech is legendary in Morocco. The people start to gather in the afternoons and there are snake charmers, troubadours, actors, athletes, belly dancers, poets, jugglers and more setting up to attract the money of people passing by. It is an atmosphere where you can easily be sucked into the crowd and surrounded in a flash – SO – Aziz warned us to stash all valuables (or leave them at the hotel) as thieves use this environment to quickly relieve unsuspecting tourists of anything they have that is valuable and not attached, or carefully hidden in a trusty money pouch under a few layers of clothing. Aziz suggested visiting one of the many restaurants around the medina where you can climb to the balconies on the first floor and survey the action from a safe distance while you have a coffee and some delightful Moroccan pastries, a tagine or one of many other tasty dishes. We stopped in at the Argan CafĂ© which was just around the corner from the main entrance to the souks. If you want to sit on the first floor balcony where you can see everything happening you have to buy a meal. We had already eaten lunch so we were relegated to the second floor where they serve coffee and pastries. We watched the sun go down and the Medina came to life before our eyes. After coffee and pastries we decided to find Aziz’s shop in the souks – he had provided a map and we did find it, however Aziz was not in and we wandered off to explore the alleyways. Once inside this area you could be lost for hours – and we were. We had no idea where we had wandered to and had to ask several people for directions to find our way out. We would get so far and argue about which way next and have to ask someone else. At one stage I thought “OMG I am never going to get out of here”. Ron’s sense of direction is hopeless and I had lost my way and had no landmarks ……… not good at about 8 pm and getting busier and hungrier! We did eventually get out and found our way to a lovely restaurant on one of the main roads where we met up with another Aussie couple from Adelaide. There are Aussies everywhere! Another spectacular Moroccan style feast and some VERY ORDINARY Moroccan wine. Ron says Moroccan wine may not be the worst wine in the world but I have yet to be convinced. I think Ron succeeded in finding a mildly palatable red, well at least drinkable, but I could not find a suitably tasty white. I reckon you would have to be desperate for a drink to stoop to Moroccan white wine. Just as well I have a taste for vermouth – I could usually find a Martini Bianco – perish the thought of abstinence. Many Moroccan waiters tried very hard to get us to drink their wine and we are suckers for a good story and lived in hope of finding something palatable – Yes, I guess we are just suckers really – many dirhams down the drain and Ron is drinking beer and I am on the Martinis!

Here is a collage of photos from Marrakech - and then we went to Fes..........

Casual in Casablanca

The ‘winter’ semester break started on the 15th January and this just happened to coincide with Cheryl’s resignation from the UAE University. For a number of years we have been saying our European tour of 2004 was incomplete because we didn’t get to Spain. We just didn’t have the time and the original tour had exhausted the coffers. (In other words we had extended the mortgage to the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation!) So we had promised ourselves a return to Spain for many years. The travel director was on the case late last year and deals were struck to use up our frequent flyers with Etihad and head to Spain. Now unfortunately Etihad doesn’t fly to Spain directly and that meant searching for some creative flying patterns. We decided on Abu Dhabi to Casablanca, overland across Morocco, pick up a ferry somewhere in the north of Morocco to Spain and then to find an airline that would get us back to Morocco on time to fly back to Abu Dhabi by the 30th January – the trip would take 12 days in all. One option was to include Portugal and to fly back to Casablanca from Lisbon in order to return to Abu Dhabi. So that was how the plan fell into place.

We arrived in Casablanca in the early morning after flying overnight from the UAE. Petit Taxis are the main form of transport within the city. I am sure (and this picture supports me) that they keep the taxis going by taking one part of of one and putting it in another! These tiny taxis were very cute, quite cramped for someone who is 6"4", but very efficient!

Our hotel – the JM Suites – was located within walking distance of the old town and Medina, the souks and the Hassan II Mosque. So after checking in and dropping off the bags (we were so proud of ourselves – backpacks with a COMBINED weight of 13 kg between us!) we headed off on foot to see what Casablanca had to offer. We were not disappointed and the rounding of every corner provided a new and different experience.

One of the first things we noticed was that people (and mostly the men) wore a garment called a ‘jalaba’. This is a garb that may be of any colour and some are patterned with stripes and checks. When the jalaba is worn with the hood up it creates the impression of an elf – or a wizard – depending on how tall the wearer is! The lower part is a gown similar to the khandora or dish-dash of the UAE. The upper part is a hood that stands up like a pixie cap. However it is common clothing for Morocco and is so typical that it can be seen in all Moroccan towns we visited. I think they were made of wool, possibly woven from goat or sheep, and they appeared to be waterproof and warm. Ron could not be convinced to buy one – we had to remember our pact on backpacks and no extra luggage!

We were wandering through the souk close to the old city and there were some very interesting stalls with shoes, spices, herbs, meat, lighting, clothing and all manner of items displayed on tables or hanging on walls. We met a man called Achmed who was charming and took us to many of the stalls and told us about what they were selling. He gave us directions to get out of the souks (thank heavens because we would have been totally lost!) and to follow the wall to the grand mosque of Casablanca – the Hassan II mosque. He also convinced Ron to buy some magic snake oil (just joking) and of course we feel he had an interest in being so friendly – but we also know that we benefitted fabulously from his advice and guidance and his charm. (Yes Wynne – we were probably swindled/ hoaxed … but we were happy to have the company and we didn’t feel too put on!)

After wandering the souks of the old town we headed for the Hassan II mosque which is located on the seafront. It is a magnificent building. Many of the mosques we have visited are beautiful, and their beauty usually lies in the tranquility and sanctity of them. The decorative tiles and carved finials, gates, entrance ways and etc. are spectacular at this mosque. In fact the mosque that is just near our place in Al Ain is built in the same style and has many of the same tiling features and decorative stonework.

A highlight for us in Casablanca was the Al Mounia Restaurant. It is a Moroccan restaurant that specialises in Moroccan cuisine. We both had tagines that were spectacular accompanied by Moroccan style salads and side dishes of olives and pickles. I am absolutely won over to tagine style cooking!

We enjoyed Casa but I have to say Morocco had lots more to offer and Casablanca was not the best of it for us………… is Marrakesh…………