Monday, 16 February 2015

3 days in Marrakech

Finally our long awaited trip to Marrakech had arrived. Flying out of Gatwick meant a 1.5 hour train trip to the airport, but it was warm and comfortable inside the train as the snow lightly fell outside. Most of our flights away have been under 2 hours, so this one being over 3 hours was long to us. Marrakech is located in the northwest corner of the African nation of Morocco and at the bottom of the Atlas mountains, and yet the Sahara desert is only a few hours away. A real mix of cultures from French to Arabic and African, our school knowledge of French being put to the test.

We stayed within the medina at a Riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an interior courtyard and as we had arrived late into Marrakech, we opted to eat in the first night trying local cuisine and a lovely chicken tagine. Our lodging was just a few minutes walk from the main square - Jemaa El Fna. By day it was filled with stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice (orange trees growing down the main street wherever you looked) and snake charmers aggravating the reptiles and enticing people to take a photo - only one! A second photo costs more!!! Monkeys dressed in dolls clothes and encouraged to 'go to passers by' for yet another costly photo experience. It was entertaining watching the innocent tourist think they could just take a quick snap then get chased and hounded to pay the price. More stalls selling silverware, ceramics, fabrics, herbs and spices, oils and lotions, beanies and fez of all colours as well as an assortment of entertainment.

Dinner at our Riad in Marrakech

                                              Place Jamaa El Fna - the main square just

                               An entrance into the medina - the old walled city in Marrakech

Walnuts, almonds, figs, peanuts - all locally grown

Cobras and Vipers captivating the tourists

Vendor selling his bread - very tasty too.

And then there is the Souk! A labyrinth of alleys where one is destined to get lost. Prices are set by bargaining between the buyer and the seller and all trying to entice you into their stall by offering the best price and the best quality.

          Alleyway after alleyway, stall after stall of amazing colours and sights .... and people.

and they just go on!

Anyone for olives? - shame we don't like them.

                                         The most amazing displays of lamps and lanterns

100% manual wood lathe - locals call it the Berber Black 'n' Decker! 
After a day of walking miles, it was nice to take a bottle of local Moroccan wine up to the terrace top of our Riad to sit and relax. We were only a few minutes walk away from the noise and hectic pace of the square and the Souk but it was so peaceful up on the roof. 
Waiting for the wine to arrive. Just nice to take the weight off our feet.

Our roof top view across Marrakech
One day we hired a driver to show us the local area surrounding Marrakech. Thankfully his English was very good so we had a running commentary throughout the day. It didn't take long to get out of the flat surrounding area of the city and we were soon heading up towards the snow capped Atlas mountains. We passed acres upon acres of olive groves and orange orchards, all flourishing and a major export for Morocco. With an endless water supply from the mountains, the peaks being covered in snow even through Summer, everything was so lovely and green and the soil looked very fertile We wound our way up through the Ourika valley to a point where we were stopping for lunch. This was the end  of the road for cars - all villages further on up the mountain could only be accessed by donkey or foot. We were introduced to a local guide who took us up a path of sorts, an unexpected mountain climb to the waterfalls and a great vista back down over our base. Nothing like some strenuous exercise to get the blood pumping in the cold mountain air. Back down and another delicious tagine for lunch.

A view looking up through the Ourika valley. Restaurant tables set up near the waters edge.

Waterfall stop on our walk

The snow capped Atlas mountains

That evening, we had booked ourselves into the Medina Spa for some pampering. First the steam to open the pores, then we lay on marble tables (cushioned) and drenched with buckets and buckets of warm water. This was followed by an all over body scrub with fragrant soap, washed off and then another scrub with rock clay mineral. While this worked its wonders, our feet were scrubbed and massaged. Drenched again with another few buckets of warm water, dried and then a 45mins body massage with fragrant oil. Moroccan tea to finish - the only part we didn't enjoy. The experience was amazing and we floated back to our Riad for sleep.

Our 3 days was at an end and after breakfast, time to bid farewell to our hosts and make our way back to London. Clear blue skies all the way and a great view as we left the African continent, across Spain, the tip of France, the islands of Jersey and Guernsey and into the UK.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Lake Como

Our long awaited weekend away at Lake Como was finally here. After catching a lunchtime flight from Luton on a glorious clear sky day, 2 hours later we had crossed the rugged snow covered mountain tops of the alps and were heading for Malpensa airport in Milan. We were met by our dear friends Jan and Ross and getting used to the strange feeling of driving on the right hand side of the road, we wound our way through small villages to Lake Como.
Nestled at the base of the Rhatian Alps, it has to be one of the prettiest places we have seen so far on our adventures to the continent. Dropping the backpacks at our apartment, it was a 10 minute stroll down to the lakes edge, dotted along the way with beautiful historic old buildings and cafés everywhere. The sun was just starting to sink, so we found a spot looking out over the lake, ordered beers and a bottle of Prosecco and toasted to catching up with old friends. What a great start to the weekend.

The sun starting to set over Lake Como

Myself and Jan in the old part of Como town

The next morning, we set off in the car along the lakes edge making heading towards Bellagio. Stopping in the small village of Torno, we parked the car and meandered our way down cobbled steps towards the water. At the bottom of the steps we walked right into a film shoot and were quickly approached by someone talking very rapid Italian. At first we thought they wanted us to be 'extras' then realised they just wanted us out of the way so they could continue filming "damn tourists"! We opted to stop and watch  the proceedings whilst enjoying a coffee. We tried to asked for a latte, but it was totally lost in translation - cappuccino they could understand.

Coffee down at the film shoot in the village of Torno
Back on the road and heading for Bellagio for lunch. This little town has such a reputation and we could see why. A lovely tree lined waterfront where the ferries arrive and depart across the lake, a network of stepped and cobbled lanes rising up the hill, full of classy boutiques, cafés and jewellery stores with their famous handmade Murano glass. Whilst the guys lingered over a coffee, Janice and I decided it was time to shop for a souvenir of our trip and couldn't resist the Murano pendants. Thankfully it was not peak season, so it was easy walking amongst the tourists that were there. I can imagine this little town would be inundated in the summer and packed with all nationalities - such a popular destination. You could spend hours walking up and down the lanes, window shopping and just soaking up the atmosphere. And of course hoping for a sighting of George and his new wife - but not this time! Heading for home back along the narrow winding road and the breathtaking views around each bend never stop - mountains and water are such a lovely combination. While in Italy, it had to be Italian for dinner so pizza and of course more Prosecco.
                                                     Looking north towards Bellagio from Torno
Pete meandering down the cobbled steps to the water

Stopping for a breather - its quite a steep climb

Janice enjoying the boutique shops of Bellagio

Sunday we decided to do a leisurely lake cruise zig zagging our way up from Como and making for Menaggio, almost directly across the lake from Bellagio. Taking 2 hours to reach our destination, it was certainly a relaxing way to travel. Once there, we found a beach side cafe looking out across the lake, and settled down for a lunch of risotto and pasta, and of course more Prosecco.   

A lakeside villa along the way

Calling  in at Bellagio, across the lake from Menaggio

The view from our little restaurant looking south

Pete and Ross looking relaxed

How is this for a small car!! A Fiat 500
As we had an evening flight out of Malpensa, we took the faster trip back to Como on the hydrofoil, taking only an hour. A last walk around the town and back to the apartment to pack our bags and say our farewells to Jan and Ross. We caught the train from Como to the airport and it was a very simple trip, one change at Saronno and we were there. Lake Como should be on everyone's bucket list - it is a little piece of heaven. And of course all the better for sharing it with good friends.



    Thursday, 2 October 2014

    A weekend in Budapest

    Friday afternoon and I took the train from our village of Harpenden to Luton airport, only 1 stop and met Pete after work for a late afternoon flight to Budapest. 2 hours flying time and we had arranged for the Airport Shuttle Bus to meet us and transfer us to the Zenit Budapest Hotel located 1 street back from the famous Danube river. Our first impressions of Budapest were really breathtaking. Cities always look nicer at night but this one is really something special. Buda and Pest are linked with spectacular bridges, all very different from each other and even though it was nearly 10.00pm before we reached our hotel, we couldn't resist the urge to meander along the edge of the Danube taking in the views of this magic place. Right next door to our hotel was a quirky little wine bar - DiVin Porcello which stayed open until midnight, so after our walk in the fresh night air, we stopped for a bottle of wine and a platter of local cheeses and ham. Along with the meal came a dialogue of what we were eating and from where it came - a lovely way to start our weekend.

     Budapest Museum at night
    Chain bridge linking Buda to Pest
    DiVin Porcello - our wine bar for our late night munchies

                 Pete enjoying his wine, ham and cheese   .......  not sure what the background translation is!
    Up early the following morning to start the day at the Central Market Hall, much like the Queen Victoria markets in Melbourne, stall after stall of beautiful fresh produce, cheeses, salamis and meats, paprika in every form and then the souvenirs of embroidered wares and Matryoshka dolls. After a breakfast there of crepes and hot chocolate, we spent the next couple of hours walking up Gellert Hill and the Citadel,  Budapest Museum, Budapest Castle, Heroes Square and the Fisherman's Bastion with its spectacular coloured tiled roofs.
    The city centre is a network of paved roads littered with outdoor cafes and market stalls, hanging baskets of flowers from every street lamp and live entertainment never far away. And with an Indian summer happening, everybody was out and about.
    As they drive on the right hand side of the road, we had to remember to look left before crossing - something that takes some getting used to after being conditioned all our lives to look the other way.
    After lunch, we spent a couple of hours at the Gellert Baths, one of the many thermal baths in Budapest. Ornate ceilings in colourful mosaic tiles, thermal pools ranging from 18 degrees to 40 degrees and saunas up to 70 degrees. On weekends the baths are mixed and swimming costumes compulsory as opposed to weekdays where males and females are separated and costumes are optional. Thank goodness it was Saturday !!!!

                                    The view from the citadel looking south over the Liberty Bridge

                                     Looking north over the Elizabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge

    The view down the Funicular Rail from the Museum

                                       Impressive coloured tile roof of the Fisherman's Bastion

    A beautiful city to explore on foot
    Sunday morning we headed off to Szimpla Kert markets. Around the turn of the century, old tenement houses and factory buildings that were doomed to destruction were revamped with rejected furniture from old community centres, cinemas and attics giving them a real retro feeling. They were soon called ruinpubs and became very popular with the locals and tourists alike. One of the more famous ones is Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden) and on Sunday mornings it becomes a market of home made wares - jams, marmalades, relishes, cordials, soups, home grown veggies and herbs as well as fresh breads and cheeses. The décor is very eclectic and looks like it has been put together from the selection of a 2nd hand shop selling electronic devices, prehistoric toys, old bikes and even vintage cars. You name it and it has been recycled into usable things - my chair was a singer sewing machine base with a tractor seat on top. A great atmosphere with local music playing and just the place to sit upstairs, have a drink and soak up the atmosphere.

    Szimpla Kert Markets

    After checking out of our hotel, we took the underground to the Szechenyi Baths for the afternoon - probably Budapest most famous baths. It is the largest medicinal bath in Europe and its water is supplied by 2 thermal springs - 74 and 77 degrees Celsius. Set in an acre of land, there are 18 different pools, 3 main outdoor pools and the rest indoor heated pools. We systematically made our way up one wing jumping from 18 degrees all the way up to 40 degree pools, and then sauna and steam rooms the warmest being 70 degrees. An hour outside in the large pools where strong jets would pummel your feet or in another pool a whirlpool is created and you are carried along and quite a good speed and can actually find it hard to exit.
    The famous Szechenyi Baths of Budapest

    Inside one of the many thermal pools

                                    The large outdoor pool with the whirlpool section in the middle

    A late night flight home and crawled into bed some time after midnight but what a wonderful city to explore. "Koszonom" - "thank you" - the only Hungarian word we learnt - 'Koszonom Budapest for an awesome weekend'.


    Monday, 15 September 2014

    Our first weekend away - Tarbert

    We have just returned from our first weekend away and my first flight with EasyJet - a very smooth and easy experience. Luton airport is quite a large hectic hub, flying out to 40 different destinations on the continent. The nice part of being back in the UK is that nothing is very far, and the longest flight is 2 hours, and we are ourselves only 10 minutes from Luton airport. So leaving early on Friday morning, we flew to Glasgow (under an hour) and then drove down to have the weekend with Pete's mum in Tarbert on the west coast of Scotland. We wound our way along Loch Lommond, then up through the rugged mountains of the 'Rest and be Thankful', then down to Inverary and Loch Fyne and finally into Tarbert. A tiny wee village set around a harbour and marina, where nothing much changes from visit to visit - no matter how long it is between. Our last trip there was only 2 years ago but in a different season being November.

    The heather was still in bloom giving the hills a pinkish tinge, and the autumn colours more advanced than in England. On our arrival, the sun was shining on the little white houses and the views across the harbour stunning. lots of lovely scenic walks up to the castle ruins looking back down over the marina. All along the roadside, bramble bushes flourish and we helped ourselves to the sweet black fruit (much like mulberries but smaller).The big talk in the village was all about the referendum this coming week, whether Scotland should become independent from England and the people seem to be divided. Big banners of 'Yes' or 'No Thanks' are displayed in paddocks, smaller signs attached to street poles and plastered to kitchen windows. An interesting few days ahead.

                                   From Tarbert Castle ruins looking back over the village

                                         Looking across Loch Fyne to Portavadie in the distance

                                                                          Sweet brambles

           Tarbert harbour and marina. Pete's mums house 'Rockfield' can be seen on the point R hand side

    Never seen such large fuschias - the size of a tennis ball

    We're back !!

    After what seems like a life time ago, we are back to blogging - though the next 12 months will be land based rather than on sea based on Kittani. We are finally both back together in the UK after a somewhat tenuous start to our year back in the work force. Whilst  Kittani was being worked on in Satun boat yard, Pete was approached by his boss from Amex days and coaxed out of retirement for a 12 month contract with EasyJet at Luton airport, UK. It would give us the opportunity to see a lot more of family in London and Scotland, as well as staff travel to the continent to places we hadn't been, so we decided it was too good to pass up. With Kittani safely stored away on the hard at Pangkor, we headed to the UK only to face some unexpected issues.

    In a nutshell, I was refused entry as I hadn't pre arranged a visa to stay for such a long period. After 6 hours of detention, interviews, photos and fingerprints, I was put on a plane and sent back to Oz, leaving Pete to start our new adventure on his own. I then had to start the lengthy process of obtaining a 'Spousal Settlement Visa' and after having the spent the last 9 months hopping in and out of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore where they hardly bat an eyelid at you - UK immigration was a whole different ball game. After putting our life under a microscope and jumping through numerous hoops, I was finally granted a visa to come and go as I like, so after 3 months back in Oz, I have arrived.

    We are set up in an small apartment (though after living the last 4 years on Kittani - it is huge!) in the little village of Harpenden, about 10 mins drive south of Luton. A very pretty quintessential English village set around the common, lovely gardens and pretty hedged lane ways. There is no shortage of pubs and they all look inviting, so on our next rainy cold weekend, we will have to start trying them out. I completely missed the Summer, which I believe was quite a good one, but there is always next year. The trees are just starting to change colour and the next few weeks should quite spectacular. So for now I am just sussing out my new environment, finding out where things are and getting used to the pounds and pence.

    Two of our local pubs - looking forward to sitting in front of an open fire on a cold and rainy day.

    Harpenden - Our home for the next 12 months.