Thursday, January 15, 2015

Not quite escaping Christmas in Morocco


Atlas Mountains in Morocco
As the year was drawing to a close the question remained of where we were going to end our year of travelling, how we were going to spend Christmas and when we would go home. The where we decided would be Morocco as this would likely remove Christmas from the equation entirely and the when ended up being New Year's Day. Apparently people don't like flying after the big night out, and flights were half the price of the days before and after. As we are light drinkers the decision was easy. It also seemed appropriate, as we had left home on the 27th Dec 2013 and spent our first New Year's Eve ever away from home, to come back just after our second New Year's Eve in a foreign country.

We decided on a short Tucan tour, our first in 7 months of random travelling, to maximise our experience and time in unfamiliar territory. The tour was subbed out to the local firm Nomadic Tours and feeling decidedly nomadic ourselves had a nice final tour of the year ring to it. Christmas Eve arrived and we immediately started heading east towards the Sahara Desert and finishing the day near Todra Gorge.



At Ben Haddou
Woke up Christmas Day without fanfare; in this predominantly Muslim country it's just a normal day. We drove out to the gorge seeing kids going to school, people working, walking, carrying out their normal activities. A fairly surreal feeling for somebody who has spent the last 53 years of this day among family and friends giving out gifts, sharing meals and considering it special. We arrived at the gorge and hiked into an oasis and this is where things started to feel strange. Among the palm trees, with people riding or pulling donkeys, it started to have a vaguely Christmas card feel to it.

Some of our rock climbing photos
We continued on to the face of a cliff where the option to rock climb was offered. What else are you gonna do on Christmas Day in a Muslim country? Although it looked a lot higher than I imagined when it was discussed, I decided to give it a go. Tackling the lower one first I was placed in a harness and the safety rope was tied in several knots around a clip. I then put my life in the hands of the guy holding the rope (and his rope tying abilities), the rope itself and the hook placed in the cliff face about 30m up. In reality you are pretty safe I think, but when looking down from a fairly sheer cliff your mind can magnify the chances of any of those safety features failing. It was hard work but good fun. Down below Elizabeth and the other tour group members were yelling encouraging statements and cheering me on. You look for small rocks, ledges or holes in the cliff face to use as anchor points to push or pull yourself up to your ultimate goal. Every time I would have trouble finding the next anchor point the disembodied voice of the rope holder would drift up from below shouting 'go right', 'go left' or 'it's easier the other way'. I finally reached the ribbon tied to the hook in the cliff and proceeded with the best part, abseiling down. Once I had got my breath back and encouraged by that success and feeling pleased with myself I tackled and conquered the even higher rope (50m).

To my delight and never failing to amaze with her determination and courage, tiny Elizabeth also decided to tackle both climbs and completed both with seeming ease and dexterity. We hiked along the bottom of the gorge back to our hotel and quite a sumptuous Christmas dinner of a variety of tagine dishes and finished off with a creme brulee, complete with a small Christmas tree, obviously trying to make the foreigners feel more at home.

Helllooo buddy :-)
The next day (Boxing Day) was a drive out to the Sahara desert going off road until we reached our auberge, the place where the Berbers had our camels assembled for the trip into the desert. These gentle and friendly creatures took us up and down sand dunes for the next hour until we reached our camp of tents. Another Christmas card moment occurred looking at the long shadows the camels were making on the sand. The camel behind kept overtaking mine slightly with its head alongside me allowing me to give him an occasional pat on the head. We were surprised to learn that the desert is not all sand dunes, it is mainly large tracts of hard rocky ground punctuated by clumps of sand dunes that roughly stay in the same place year after year.

New lake in the background
We were also surprised to see a large expanse of water in the distance. Recently they had experienced a huge amount of rain, receiving more than they would normally get in a year in one day, and even more surprisingly their first rains for over 5 years. It looked really beautiful like an oasis on the horizon but the consequences were seen all around this region with washed away roads and bridges and damaged buildings. More climate change surprises like those witnessed everywhere we go.

Elizabeth and friend sand surfing
Hurry up and start the fire
First up as we arrived was the dumping of our back packs and heading into the dunes for some sand surfing. It was great fun and easier than it initially looks with a few children nearby joining in the fun. Afterwards it was first come, first served on tent selection and a tiny Christmas tree with battery lights appeared on the tiny round table near the main tent. We all sat around discussing the experiences thus far while sipping the Moroccan specialty of green tea with mint leaves. Dinner of various tagine dishes was in the main tent. Although the day had been quite warm, with the sun gone the temperature was dropping quickly.

Toasting marshmallows
Entertainment in the desert
The guides got a roaring fire going outside and we all gathered around it while they entertained us with bongo drums, hand cymbals and singing of African sounding music. Ultimately it became our turn to entertain them back and we all had trouble remembering all of the words of any song known to man. So with the help of an ipod to prompt for forgotten words, Elizabeth and I completely sang through the Eagles' Hotel California. Packets of marshmallows then appeared and we proceeded to toast them over the fire. Insider tip: marshmallows dipped in whisky before toasting are surpisingly (or unsurprisingly) yummy. The guides and travellers drifted off bit by bit until Elizabeth and I, due to a dwindling fire and out of wood, also retired to our tent for the night. FYI the Sahara can get extremely cold at night (negative temperatures). With numb toes, gloves and hat on, and two heat packs within arm's reach (yes I do not like the cold), I finally fell asleep wondering if they would find an icycle in the morning.

AIT Ben Haddou
I survived the night and at first light we were on the camels and heading back to civilisation. The trip back included stops at the Atlas Corporation Studios, Morocco's answer to Hollywood, and the heritage town of AIT Ben Haddou, site of movies such as 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Jewel of the Nile' and 'The Living Daylights'. The town is still lived in even though it does not have power and is kept in the same state as it was generations ago. Eventually we made it back to Marrakech, where we found a club that sold alcohol and enjoyed some unwind time with red wine and belly dancers.

The Hammam I went to
Finally, in the spirit of 'when in Rome' and 'you're only here once', we subjected ourselves to the full Hammam experience. Boys and girls had separate times and sexes working on them. First off you are taken into a room where you undress and hopefully have brought your own bathers, or you get given very unflattering paper ones. When ready you are taken into a large room, sat on a big table whereupon a rather large gentleman dipped a bucket in a pool of warm water and proceeded to wash me down. This was not a gentle wash down; bucket after bucket was dropped over me or thrown at me.

I was then led into a small sauna that was thick with steam and left until I started getting dizzy. The same man then came and dragged me out and proceeded to wash and mercilessly scrub me down with something called black soap (byproduct of Argan Oil), showing off the large chunks of dead skin peeling off me. Then it was another sauna followed by a rough massage where my legs and arms were twisted behind me, cracking sounds occurred and other muscles similarly 'loosened' up. Another splash down, another sauna and finally a shower, a robe, some Moroccan tea and time to recover. I was then taken upstairs for a one hour relaxing massage. Quite an interesting experience and I left feeling like I had been cleaned, twisted and oiled to within an inch of my life. I might go straight to the relaxing massage next time...

A super fun tour group :-)
thanks Mary for the photo


The fabulous tour group that we had been a part of then went in three different directions and we were left in Marrakech for two nights on our own, including New Year's Eve. It was a terrific group and we felt the loss after a very busy and fun time in Morocco. Hopefully some new lifelong friends were made. New Year's Eve was a bit of a fizzer and we ended up in our room at midnight. Just like Christmas, it is not really celebrated here as they run on a different calendar. Soon we were on the plane back home with a 7 hour leg being bumped up to business class (finally) so we could see how the other half travel. It certainly increased our expectations and back in economy class for the last leg we felt like battery hens. Something to be said for ignorance is bliss. As we entered the baggage area in Perth Airport we were summoned to the counter and informed our baggage decided to stay in Dubai, clearly not in a hurry to settle down. Goodbye 2014, hello 2015, our year of travel was over, tired and without our bags we were home...
The correct way to make
Moroccon tea


Desert camp

AIT Saoun


Jardin Majorelle Gardens

Jardin Majorelle Gardens

Jardin Majorelle Gardens
Entry to the old city

A common sight in Marrakech
Marrakech Museum

Ben Youssef Madrasa

Marrakech Museum
Marrakech Souk


Storks at Badi Palace
Badi Palace

Badi Palace
In the moment :-)
View from our hotel

New years eve in the main square


The Sahara
Some Videos

video
Me rock climbing

video
Elizabeth sand surfing the sahara

2 Years of Travel and we are up to 47 countries












Saturday, January 3, 2015

So this is where Port comes from...



Our accomodation in Lamego
We headed north and towards the centre of Portugal. The idea was to stay in a smaller town and use that as a base to look around the countryside and bigger cities. We found ourselves at the charming town of Lamego, its main claim to fame being the Sanctuario. Around 650 steps from the town centre to the top and then even further to our hostel. Again snagging an amazing deal on amazing accommodation due to the low season. This place was more like a chalet than a hostel with a huge lounge with fireplace and a kitchen. It was supposed to be shared with two other rooms but since we were the only ones there we had the house to ourselves. Our friendly host showed us around and let us into his wine cellar built into the hill itself. He would even have the fire going and the house warm for us by the time we returned from our outings.

The Sanctuario from the town of Lamego
Even though this was the off season the weather was amazing. Out of two weeks we lost one day to rainy weather where we had to slum it in front of the roaring fire, catching up with some movies in English on the large television and cooking in the well stocked kitchen. Hard times. On the other three days in Lamego we spent one driving around the countryside following the Douro river, one exploring the town itself and one catching a train into and exploring the large port city of Porto.

Enjoying a Tawney port in Porto
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal but does not come across as a sprawling city. The home of port wine, this heritage listed city is full of charm, old buildings, the river Douro and plenty of samples of port wine, my favourite being a tawny port with Elizabeth liking the rose port.

The heritage listed town of Coimbra
It was time to head back down to Lisbon with one last stop, the town of Coimbra, another heritage listed town. Finally and with a huge sigh of relief, I was able to drop the car back off to the rental company, scratch free. I really thought after driving in five countries that this would be the time I would have an accident, the drivers here are just so aggressive. During a free walking tour later through Lisbon, the tourist guide told us they are considered the second worst drivers in Europe. Don't worry guys, I am sure you will get top spot soon :-)


Our last few days in Portugal were in the centre of Lisbon in the Living Lounge Hostel. One of the fanciest hostels we've ever been in, each room is individually decorated in a different theme by local artists. We explored the more out of the way old quarter of Lisbon, the Alfama district and its Jewish sector. We learnt about the huge earthquake that destroyed 80% of the city in the 18th century (9.0 on the Richter scale) and saw the shell of the church that is still standing today. The earthquake happened during the 'day of the dead' where everybody put out candles and went to church. The earthquake lasted for a massive 9 minutes, the lamplights spilled their oil, the candles fell, lighting the oil, and most of the houses were made out of wood. People rushed to the water only to be met by a huge tsunami. The topography of the town was rearranged in the process with new hills and flat spots. Religious leaders, typically, said the town was cursed and should be abandoned, due to all of their sins, but luckily the leaders did not listen. The church itself was studied to find out why it was not destroyed and they built a stronger Lisbon that is still standing today. Fascinating stuff, love travelling.

Fabulous Fado
On our last night there we made it to a quaint little bar that specialises in the local Fado music, a type of folk music with guitars as accompaniment and sung with great feeling and dramatising gestures. Very flamenco sounding but with the soulfullness of jazz. Even though we could not understand what was being said the beautiful guitar sound and the emotion of the singer made it very entertaining. The location was perfect, reminding us of the small country pubs in Ireland with the performance occurring amongst the customers in the middle of the room. The night life only gets going after 10 and the wine was VERY strong, so with Elizabeth's help I stumbled home about 2am and only got about 4 hours sleep before needing to get up to go to the airport and our last location for the year.
The town of lamego from our hostel

Sanctuario from a the winter statue

Main train station in Porto

Porto

The Duoro river in Porto

The old town in Porto from the other side of the river

Coimbra streets

Coimbra streets

Coimbra streets

The Alfama district in Lisbon

The Alfama district in Lisbon

Lisbon

This is a full cup of coffee?

Still working tram in Lisbon