Sunday, 8 September 2013

A glimpse of the African continent in Morocco

I made it to another continent!! 
Cue music:  "da da  da . dada hey hey!  ....... so this is Africa!" - supposed to be shakira. Anyway...

So it isn't exactly real Africa by any stretch. It seems more like the Middle East to me... But it's there in the continent :) one store owner seemed to be a bit offended when my friend and I mentioned that we were in Africa in a conversation, that he had roped us into to try and sell us something. Whoops! Interesting though. But even if it isn't stereotypical Africa-Africa it is still a whole world away from Europe. And absolutely incredible. I really love culture shock, it's kind of what I look for when travelling ;) and trying to navigate your way to a riad (traditional style building for lots of people to live in with a central courtyard that everything looks onto) in the the narrowing maze of backstreets in Marrakech definitely counts as that. 
Don't shake the hands if the shopkeepers. If you do... they will (ever so nicely) pull you in to offer you a good deal and some tea, and to show you everything they have as well as all their brothers stuff next door and their uncles things round the corner. Seriously. It can take a while and it's difficult to leave empty handed! Hahaha 

My journey to that hostel in a riad in marrakech was hectic. Amazing hostel though, totally worth it. They offered me breakfast and tea when I arrived! Nyaww! Traditional Moroccan stuff too!! 
It lasted about 20 hours door to door. Walk, bus, walk, bus, walk, ferry, taxi, train, petit taxi, walk.  The highlights? I got a photo (all sweaty with my backpack) with Miss Gibraltar who was raising awareness for Alzheimer's disease as I passed through town to start with. They sold fresh coconut on the streets in Tarifa where the ferry left Spain for Morocco. The ferry stopped halfway across because we had spotted a little dingy with three men waving their arms stranded and had to call a rescue boat for them (!!!)  illegal immigrants? Waiting for my overnight train their was a fair on next to the station, typical sort of fair with dodgems and fairy floss but they also had chickpeas with chilli spices served in a little ceramic bowl (eaten at the stall). so cool. Had to have some of that! Yum! The train was booked out for the sleeper class so I went second instead of going fancier... I sat up all night with so many people around that some had to stand. Wow. And some guys were illegally smoking a weird tabacco that smelt really really bizarre at the end of the carriage... They had to hide from guards in the toilets and behind seats! It worked for a while but then at about 3am there was an argument with some guards. (!!) I had a little boy sitting next to me though, he didn't smell or take up much space and he offered me some of his sandwich :) nyawwww!! I think I slept 4 hours in hour chunks over the 10 hour trip. Not too bad considering. I got to see a giant red african sun over the dessert sunrise from the window too - absolutely magical!! 
But yeah, breakfast and tea at a friendly hostel was just what I needed by the time I made it. Phew. And since it was so not and they have a small rooftop terrace we slept up there under the stars... !!!!!

Marrakech is insane too, after recovering a bit I went out to explore the souks (markets) for a couple of hours. Literally couldn't do more than that because it was sooooo hot! And somehow there wasn't much shade around. I wanted to buy everything, but couldn't be bothered fighting with shopkeepers to get a decent price... haggling sucks. That's one way of saving money I guess! Haha 
I met a really cool Aussie guy called Ollie at the hostel too, he arrived on the same train as me but had a sleeper. We went out to jemaa el fna (which is the main square and my favourite place in Marrakech - especially at night) for dinner. It is just hypnotic! That's the best word! There are snake charmers and  people with monkeys and we even saw a guy with a giant vulture in his bag... That he just whipped out randomly in clear spot. Though those are difficult to find. The square is HUGE and gets packed like its New Years or something every single night! wasn't even high season, the hostel was pretty much empty. So the animal people make money by donations for photos, then there are your beggars and street performers (most of whom don't really do anything... Hahaha), musicians who set up chairs around a wonderful carpet (carpets are to die for here) as a makeshift stage to play their banjo-like instruments, pipes and awesome drums. Then there are also Moroccan fair games and all the food and drink stalls. Soooo many!!! And there's only a limited number of different types too which is funny. For drinks there are about a hundred fresh orange juice places, then incredible spiced tea (also with really strongly spiced cake). Then food is a mix of various meats (including brain and tongue) or couscous and tajins. Ollie had brains twice. It was fun to watch. Hahaha they also have a spice soup as a starter, no idea what's in it. Tastes good! Desert is local ice creams or deliciously sweet and sickly nut/fig based pastries. Hmmm... Or just get  bag of dates for a dollar. They have stalls just for dates. 
Yeah. I love jemaa el fna!! In the day time it's more about henna (the ladies actually grab your hand and start before you pull it away!), weird potion sellers, sheeshas/hookas and all your market brick-a-brack. Still awesome but not as magical ;) 

I had another day in Marrakech before I left early for a dessert tour to Fez (!). So I wandered around exploring and visited a few things... palaces and monuments, as well as temples and some tombs. The architecture is soooo cool! Extremely intricate and beautifully coloured with tiles and the white washed sandstone. I got some henna too, that way I can wave it at all the people who ask me if I'd like more ;) 

Then I was off! I did a 3 day - 2 night tour to the desert and some small towns and sights along the way. It was incredible, a great way to see the country in such a short time too! did mean a lot of driving though. But I had a front seat in the mini van which meant great views at least :) 
We drove up through the Atlas Mountains which was stunning... stopping only for photos until we reached Hait Ben Haddou, a small and very old heritage listed town. It is made of sand bricks and piled onto a hillside with a castle/fort at the top. They have filmed heaps of blockbuster movies there apparently! Haha and you can see why, definitely the perfect Arabian nights/Aladdin sort of setting. We found out later that a big archway leading into the town, which was really impressive, was actually fake. Just part of a film set that they didn't want to take down. Everything else was real though!! ...they said. After having a tour of a traditional house and the village we went to a cinema museum full of more sets nearby. Cool! 
From there we drive past heaps more beautiful look out points and changing landscapes to our hotel in a valley. So fancy. I was in a suite, sharing with two Japanese girls who were super nice. I'm not used to this sort of luxury!! Haha though the AC didn't actually work as promised. Typical morocco. 

The next day was the best though, we went to an amazing gorge, full of picnicking locals avoiding the heat, and then a carpet weaving place surrounded by date palms. At one stop my friend and I went to try and pick some dates and a little local boy saw what we were doing (obviously we stood out a bit, and were doing it all wrong) so he took us to another tree and picked a couple of handfuls for us each!! So sweet!! And I ate fresh picked dates from the dessert!!!! and I love dates. Mmmmmm... 
Then in the evening we had really reached the Sahara (means desert in Arabic... Haha). We could see rolling red sand dunes stretched out ahead of us. This is where we got out of the van and onto camels!!! It was almost 2 hours on the camels both at sunset and sunrise, because we camped in a traditional Berber (local people) camp under the stars. Not that we could see that many because there was a blue moon (!!!!) which was absolutely gorgeous but also very very bright. 
Don't really know what to say about that night. It was amazing. We rode in, had traditional tajin for dinner, then the guides got out drums and played incredible music (and taught us the camel dance - we were such noobs, it was great). The keen ones climbed to the top of the highest dune, the camp was under it's shelter, for the breathtaking view. And it was breathtaking in more than one way. That was one serious climb!! But completely worth it. 
Then we were back on the caravan of camels at 6am. We had breakfast at the camel farm where the van dropped us and there was water ;) 

The group split from here. The Japanese girls and I went to Fez via public chicken bus.... Which was supposed to be an AC group taxi. Hem hem. But anyway, priceless experience that's for sure! 10 hours on a windowless bus (designed for AC) without AC packed to the brim with locals besides us. And it stank of sweat before anyone was even on. And it was 50 degrees outside in the shade. I'm not even kidding, this is the Sahara. We all bought 2L frozen water bottles and hugged them for as long as they lasted to stay sane. I think I sweated a lot more than that too....  But the locals were very friendly and took care of us as much as they could! I think they thought we were mad. We saw some cool corners of morocco though, I like to think it was a bit of real morocco ;)  we were all pretty happy to arrive and find our respective hostels/hotels though!! 

Fez was really cool, I would have really liked to stay longer but I had a flight to catch to Barcelona to me ALLY!!! The next day at 15:20. I did manage to catch up on a few things Internet wise, before joining a walking tour of the old medina (town) that morning before flying out. It was a great tour actually! Saw a lot of the main sights in a couple of hours; a beautiful mosque and koran school in one, the blue gate in the city walls (very pretty and famous), some of the backstreets and markets, the water clock (one of two in the world!), the town centre... And we had a tour of one of the tanneries! That was my favourite bit. It really really stank. They gave us all sprigs of mint to hold against our noses to help. Thankfully! They use bird poo and naturally materials to cure and colour the hides. But it smells mighty lethal. After the tour we had the obligatory tour of the shop and we told I great detail about the amazing deals they could give us. Lol! 
At about this point of the tour I realised I had to move FAST to get my flight. So then it was a race against the clock to find the hostel, get my backpack, taxi to the train station to share cab to the airport (via an Internet cafe to print my ticket) and then check in and security etc etc... I made it. Just. Lucky I was alone because even I got a bit worried at one point when we were stuck in traffic. And I don't worry about these things unless its really seriously likely I'm going to miss it. Plus, I didn't get flight insurance. Duh. ;) hahaha

But I made it to the hostel Ally had booked us in Barcelona and she was right there wondering where the hell I was! :) :) :) :) :) 
So suddenly Africa was over and I was no longer travelling solo, now that's a change! ...but dear Africa. I will be back!!

Monday, 2 September 2013

My mini Euro-Trip through Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar

Absolutely incredible ...but also a great way to spend money. I miss Latin American prices! But anyway, for this little segment of my journey I was racing to see everything. I just had to fit in Morocco after spending a month in England (that's how I justified it to myself anyway!). This meant skipping San Sebasti├ín on Spain's north coast, and Granada-Malaga etc on the east... and Porto in Portugal... But besides that I think I covered most of the best bits! 

My itinerary went like this:
3 nights in Salamanca (Spain)
1 in Caceres (Spain)
2 in Evora (Portugal)
4 nights with Sofia and Nuno in Lisbon and the Algarve Coast (Portugal)
2 nights in Faro (Portugal)
A day in Tavira (Portugal)
2 nights in Sevilla (Spain) 
2 nights with Lianne (Gibraltar) 

So I started in the golden city of Salamanca. It's known as the golden city because of its many many gorgeous golden buildings: from grand cathedrals, convents and monasteries to intricately carved town halls and public buildings such as the exquisite (and oldest in Spain) university or Casa de Conchas (house of shells), hotels, palaces and the grand central Plaza Major. It really is golden too, the stone they are all built from glows golden in the half light of dawn or dusk. Which makes the perfect setting for some tapas or ice cream at 8:30pm! I met some really cool backpackers there, lots of other solo travellers which is always good! One guy Javi from Argentina was really cool, and gave us all insider tips like ordering red wine with lemonade (what the Spanish-speakers drink instead of Sangria - cheaper and more modern) and hilarious facts like "concha" having a double meaning (shell and also vagina. So... umm... the Queens's palace is called the house of vaginas). You don't read that on wiki travel!! Haha 

Then I was off to another very historical medieval city called Caceres. In transit really. I did some speedy sightseeing, checking out a few cathedrals, museums and church towers for spectacular views all in one afternoon :) then had a delicious typical Spanish breakfast (included with the accomodation) of churros, coffee and fresh orange juice at a little cafe round before getting my bus to Portugal the next morning. Perfect final Spanish meal for a while! 
My shocking Spanish skills also got a bit of a work out on the bus which was good, I sat next to a chatty Brazilian (who was also very patient!). He told me all about his family and work across Brazil and Portugal and even bought me a delicious lunch at the bus pit stop! Sweetie! He also taught me a few phrases of Portuguese which was awesome considering I got off that bus in Portugal ;) 

I absolutely LOVE Portugal by the way. It is just beautiful. And the people are all lovely. They also make incredible wine, invented Port and specialise in almond and fig based pastries... That definitely can't hurt!
The most exciting Portuguese thing I did after arriving that day was savour a glass of local port in a small square just after dusk. It was incredible. 
Evora is also another exquisite tiny medieval town, like Caceres but Portuguese. So over the next couple of days day I meandered through more quaint medieval cobblestone streets on my way to various museums, cathedrals, roman temple ruins (and an aqueduct) and international art exhibitions. Oh, and wine and port tasting at fancy places! haha I'm learning for my future ;) The hostel was super small and cute too, with an eccentric but totally harmless owner and a bunch of cool travellers around. Evora is a little off the beaten track which gives it a different vibe. It has the cool chapel of bones too :D Good spot. 

From there I went to the Capitol Lisbon and couchsurfed with an incredible couple who have hosted about a zillion times and are the best ever!!! Nuno and Sofia :) with their gorgeous cat Duchas of course. If it wasn't for their incredible hospitality and advice I would have never managed to see or do nearly as much as I did in Lisbon. And I swear I still only skimmed the very surface! Lisbon is a really awesome city.
The way it was I did a day in the city centre, a day in Belem (a suburb off-center famous for its pastries and monuments/attractions etc) and a day in Sintra (a fairy tale town an hour out, full of palaces and gardens and more incredible pastries). Plus one night I went and had dinner in the central "barrio alto" at a tiny local fado (typical Portuguese music) place because Sofia had to work late. Unfortunately staying with them I couldn't go out properly and really experience the insane nightlife that Lisbon is famous for... But it was definitely worth missing it. No question. Sofia and Nuno are incredible.

We all went down south to stay a night in a tiny little town to visit Nuno's  parents. ...they let me come with them to see it and stay a night!! Such a wonderful family!! We arrived late Friday night and even though it was a super tiny rural town Nuno, Sofia and I still went and got a drink at the local bar and there were plenty of people around enjoying the slightly cooler night temperatures! Then the following day we slept in and prepared an enormous traditional Portuguese lunch with grilled salmon and sardines over an open flame, fresh cold tomato and other vegetable soup/salad (Gazpacho but mot pureed?), local breads and cakes, a Portuguese potato dish and fresh melons for dessert. Then we went to the corner cafe for coffees afterwards. I think we finished around 3 or 4pm? Haha. amazing!!!

Sofia and Nuno took me to the beach at Portimao (via Serpa to pick up some of their famous cheese) and then to a crazy medieval fair in Silves later that day/evening too. We road tripped across most of the Algarve coast in one arfternoon! The water was a lot colder there, not the Mediterranean this time! I mention it because it reminded me so much of Perth, and swimming in the sea back home!! Made me a little homesick. Way more refreshing but you can't stay in as long ;) The medieval fair was especially authentic and amazing due to it being held in a medieval town. So cool. Absolutely enormous too! Europe has so many festivals in summertime...!

After all that I just slobbed for a day in Faro. Needed to chill! So I cant't tell you much about the place... the hostel was nice! Haha but it's got to be done sometimes. 

I left early after my second night in Faro so I could stop off in Tavria especially to visit the 11km white sand beach on the Ilha de Tavira. Only a 15min ferry from town. I'd heard many good things. I spent pretty much the entire day on the beach... read my book, worked on my tan (lol jokes). I even did a bit of topless sun baking for fun. Hey, when in Rome! Haha then I was off again, got to keep moving to reach Morocco!! I arrived in Sevilla that evening. Another awesome hostel. I think I'm getting better at picking the cheap and good ones now ;) this one had an amazing rooftop terrace and cheap sangria as well as a big and clean kitchen!! Umm... Wow!

Sevilla was cool, but not really especially different. I visited the second oldest bull ring in Spain though, and a really good flamenco dance museum! I went for a run one evening and just abut died though... So hot! And humid. Well I hope it wasn't just me being unfit anyway... !! Haha oh well!

From Sevilla I left Spain again and ventured into Gibraltar. I think it wouldn't be a great place for just anybody, there are definitely going to be those who appreciate it and those who don't. But for me, it was just priceless!! The most hilarious and crazy place... A total mixing pot of cultures. You walk down the street and pass Arabic style buildings with beautiful curly arches, flat roofs and colourful tiles next to Spanish white washed houses with shutters and distinct European features, next to English town houses... Say what!??!? And everyone speaks English, they use pounds Stirling and have red telephone booths, post boxes and one red double decker bus. Not to mention there is a Morrissons supermarket, Marks and Spencer's and plenty of pubs advertising cooked Sunday lunch and fish and chips with mushy peas and gravy ...despite the intense heat all year round. Though... the giant rock that forms the 7 square kms that is Gibraltar does attract its own cloud that likes to hang around, and that's pretty English! hahaha 
The thing is they all speak Spanish too, and there are Spanish churros places etc too. And a moorish castle overlooks everything from the top. Crazy. And there are Barbary Macaques (tailless monkeys pretty much unique to Gib.) that you can visit whilst hiking the rock and exploring the impressive cave and war/siege tunnels they have inside the rock. 
My favourite part still might be the fact that the runway for their airport crosses the only road (and the main road for Gibraltar) that goes to Spain perpendicularly. They literally have to close the road and hence all Spain-Gibraltar access every time a plane lands or takes off (!!!) ...and they only fly to England. Maybe the UK. But not elsewhere. So funny. 
While I was there I stayed with Lianne (couchsurfing again) and she introduced me to a bunch of her friends and we went out one night :) it was awesome. Great place! They all said they loved it, but liked to get out a bit too. You get the small-town gossip affect a bit it seems! Super fun couple of days. Such a cool place and Lianne was an amazing host!! I hope she comes to Aus someday in one of her many travels!! 

And there we have it, my (solo) mini euro-trip. Next stop Africa!! And I didn't even have to fly. They have ferries. Have I mentioned how tiny Europe is? And close to everything else too?!! 
These people don't know what they've got, especially now Ryan air is around! :) 

 Hasta Leugo!