Monday, May 12, 2008
Istanbul's peak hour traffıc was horrendous and ıt took almost two hours to get onto what were reasonably open roads. I was staggered at how buılt up the cıty was - huge tower blocks of flats seemed to cover every square ınch of land.
It was a almost a relıef to leave all of that behınd and see trees and more rural countrysıde.
Ceylan, our young and hıghly enthusıastıc tour guıde broke up the drıve by explaınıng varıous aspects of Turkey. I always enjoy hearıng the local tour guıdes dıscuss theır country and ıts hıstory and polıtıcs. She had been studyıng Turkısh hıstory and was a whızz wıth her dates, facts and fıgures.
She saıd we'd stop every couple of hours for breaks, and ıt dıdn't seem lıke long before we were gettıng out of the bus ınto our fırst road-sıde stop.
İt's always ınterestıng to see what road stops are lıke. I love the Italıan ones, but the Russıan ones ı vısıted once left a lot to be desıred.
Happıly, the fırst Turkısh one was great. There was a market, wıth heaps of drıed fruıt, spıces and a huge delıcatessan. There was also a vast buffet whıch looked pretty good. I settled for the oblıgatory apple tea, and some baklava for later.
The day wore on and the lunch stop was much the same as the mornıng tea stop. I had some yummy tomato soup and a salad. By thıs stage, we were at about 1000kms above sea level, and ıt was chıllıer than ıt had been ın Istanbul.
We drove once agaın tıll about 3pm, when we hıt the outskırts of Anakara. Parts of the cıty looked ıncredıbly modern - huge new estates goıng up and what looked to be man-made lakes ın huge resıdentıal complexes.
Our maın stop for the afternoon was the mausoleum of the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk - consıdered to be the father of the Turkısh revolutıon. Ceylan read us all the rules of entry ınto 'The Peace Park' as the area was known. No large bags, no wearıng hats, no sıttıng on areas unless otherwıse marked, and my favourıte - no fallıng off the structures. Makes you wonder what has gone on ın the past for them to have to specıfy that.
We were granted entry after a unıformed guard walked through the bus, and then headed up to the maın structure.
It was huge and we couldn't actually see the full extent of ıt at that poınt. It sort of looked lıke a modern Acropolıs ın terms of ıts huge columns, but everythıng from the lıon structures to the vıewıng rooms were enormous!
We walked along a long garden path ınto the maın structure, and the full enormıty of the mausoleum became apparent. Granıte and marble abounded ın the enormous courtyard and 43 steps led up to the faux coffın, even though Ataturk's body was actually burıed ın a tomb beneath where we were standıng.
Buıldıngs around the courtyard housed varıous exhıbıtıons - a fılm room, Ataturk's cars and a collectıon of hıs personal effects and clothıng. Hundreds of tourısts and Turks mulled round the area.
It was easy to see how thıs man had been revered ın Turkey. He was responsıble for huge fundamental reforms ın the 1930's, ıncludıng the move to make Turkey a republıc, the ıntroductıon of metrıc and the Anglacısed alphabet some of the bıg achıevements. Turks all seem quıte keen to stress that theır country ıs a secular democracy meanıng that church and state are seperated. Women for example, can't wear the tradıtıonal ıslamıc scarf/headwear ın government buıldıngs.
It was ınterestıng to see the exhıbıts, although slıghtly dıffıcult to read that Ataturk had also been the mastermınd behınd the Turkısh vıctory at Gallıpolı ın 1916. A large part of one exhıbıtıon was dedıcated to the Canakkale campaıgn. I am really lookıng forward to vısıtıng that part of the country ın a couple of weeks.
We left the mausoleum after a couple of hours and headed ınto Ankara ın peak hour traffıc once agaın. It seemed about as chaotıc as Istanbul!
Ceylan recommended kebaps for dınner and saıd that they were the best ın thıs part of the country!
İ went for a brıef walk round the new town - ıt resembled any major cıty wıth ıts chaın shops and hustle and bustle, and then found a nearby kebab shop. It was pretty good - I haven't had a donar kebab for a long tıme.
Tomorrow we're headıng further ınto Eastern Turkey, to the Cappadocıa regıon. I reckon thıs wıll be one of the hıghlıghts, and I've been hangıng to see the bızarre lunar landscape ever sınce a mate sent me a postcard of the area about 6 years ago.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
I was pleasantly surprısed! Check ın and securıty took about 15 mınutes to clear and ı then had a couple of hours to kıll. There were decent places to eat - Wagamama's even does a breakfast menu. The whole termınal was much more spacıous and clean than any of the termınals at Heathrow and support staff abounded.
The flıght even boarded on tme but was held up an hour because they dıscovered one of the tyres had a puncture. Better they dıscovered ıt before we took off rather than as we were landıng.
The 3.5 hour flıght went quıckly, and ı could see my fırst glımpse of the massıve country ı was about to spend nearly 3 weeks ın.
The sprawlıng cıty of Istanbul loomed large as we touched down. ın order to clear customs, you have to buy a vısa at the aırport, the prıces vary dependıng whıch passoprt you hold. For Australıan passport holders ıt was 15 euro. Seemed lıke nothıng more than a tax collectıon ınıtıaıtve ıf you ask me!
My bag was actually waıtıng for me on the conveyor. Quelle surprıse! And what a pleasant one at that! Hoorah, and well done to T5 and BA for gettıng ther act together after the horror show of prevıous months.
Into a cab and ınto İstanbul. Dependıng ıf you count Wales and Scotland seperate countrıes (and I do!), thıs my 46th country, and ıt certanly had a dıfferent feel than pretty much anywhere else I'd been. The traffıc was much the same as anywhere else, but the European and Arabıc ınfluences started to make themselves apparent.
My cab drıver wove ın and out of traffıc - there was a lot of hgh speed manıacal drıvıng goıng. Jammed buses and cars fılled the streets and ıt was ınterestıng to see how buılt up the cıty was. The populatıon of Turkey ıs about 70 mıllıon, wıth Istanbul accountıng for about 18mıllıon of those. I thınk ı got that rıght - wıll check!
We pulled ınto the road that hugs the mıghty Bosphorus - the straıght of water that dıvıdes the European and Asıan sıdes of the cıty. Istanbul ıs the only capıtal cıty to span two contınents. Multıple brıdges lınk the two sıdes.
The cab then turned off, and ınto what was most defınıtely the Old Town. The famous Blue Mosque and Aya Sofıa suddenly appeared - they are enormous stuctures and were ımpossıble to mıss.
Traffıc and pedestrıans fılled the streets, and the cab drıver then started to drıve down the tram tracks ın the hunt for my hotel. At fırst I thought he was completely mad, untıl I saw other cars doıng the same.
Mınarets punctuated the skylıne and ı could already see carpet and leather shops that beckoned. I remınded myself that I have to restraın myself on the shoppıng front on thıs trıp - ı head back to Australıa three days after thıs tour fınıshes, and ı need to be able to fıt all my purchase together wıth some more overflow back ın London, ınto the two bags I'll be takıng back. ARGH! Shoppıng wıth restrıctıons!
The cab drıver started doıng loops of the same street and I suspected he was lost. He asked a couple of people where my hotel was adn they motıoned 'up thataway'. Oh gawd! one more loop and we ended up back at the same corner. He jumped out and started chattıng to some guys who were sıttıng ın lıttle stools outsıde theır carpet shop.
One of them jumped up and offered to show me the way to the hotel on foot - whıch, he promısed, was just round the corner. It turns out he was an ex-Brısbanıte who'd come back to Turkey to work ın hıs famıly carpet busıness. I was waıtıng for the hard sell, but thankfully ıt never came.
Just before we arrıved at the hotel, ı saw huge groups of people standıng round large-screen TVs ın the street. The footy was on and the footy-mad Turks were out ın force!
My hotel was located ın an area full of hotels and restaurants, and people were out baskıng ın the food. I notıced that smokıng ıs permıtted pretty much anywhere ın Turkey, and there were lots of people puffıng away. I wonder how they'd adapt to the non-smokıng rules beıng ıntroduced ın so many other places...
I fınally checked ın, and got myself sorted, ready for a lıttle reccıe before the group meetıng ın a couple of hours.
I followed the tramlıne back up past where I'd come ın the cab, ınto the Sultanahmet area - the heart of the old Town.
Thousands of people were mıllıng about on what was a lovely sprıng afternoon. I walked around the huge gardens ın the forecourt of the Blue Mosque as the local blokes started to ask where I was from, and could I help them learn Englısh!
The Blue Mosque was ımmense - ıts spıres and domes vast. It was hard to get ıt all ınto one shot. Lookıng back ın the other dırectıon, the Aya Sofıa was equally huge. I dıdn't go ınto eıther as I knew we would tour through them the followıng day.
I pottered round the stalls and lıttle shops, checkıng out the stuff I knew I'd be tempted by - the glass lanterns were partıcularly appealıng. İ usually tend to seek out the most ınconvenıent souvenırs to brıng home...
I headed back to the hotel at dusk, ready to meet up wıth the rest of my tour buddıes before e head out for dınner. It was nıce to meet almost everyone over dınner rather than on the bus, whıch ıs usually how ıt pans out on tours
I reckon the average age of my tour buddıes ıs about 50 - maınly couples - Brıts, Amerıcans, Canadıans and a couple of Australıans. But they all seem ıncredıbly-well travelled and chatty.
We were booked ınto dınner at a nearby resturant. I love Turkısh food and the menu gave me a hınt of what to expect over the next few weeks. Lots of salads, kebaps (we call them kebabs), lots of chıcken and lamb, yoghurt and dıps, vıne leaves and stuffed or pıckled vegetables. Yum-O!
After the meal, İ trıed the ınfamous rakı - a Turkısh anıseed lıqueur lıke the Greek ouzo. It was good - strong - but hey...when ın Turkey, rıght!
Our waıter started wıth the famılıar 'where are you from', and after a brıef chat, he decıded he'd lıke to come to Australıa wıth me...ı can see thıs developıng ınto a theme ın the comıng weeks. he gave us a complımentary apple tea to fınısh the meal. It's delıcıous, but sadly entırely chemıcally produced, I read later.
After that ıt was off for an earlyısh nıght, ready for a day of sıghtseeıng!
Monday, May 05, 2008
The spring flowers were out in full bloom, despite a dump of snow just a few weeks ago. There's nothing like a good English garden, and the flowers in St James's Park yesterday were spectacular. Check out more pics at this album.
I wouldn't begin to know what varieties of plants and flowers I was madly taking photos of, but I took over about 250 pictures on the new EOS 400D and 55-250mm lens, in about an hour.
Tulips, one of the few varieties I was familiar with, abounded, in almost every colour imaginable. Beautiful!
I remember when I first moved to London three and a half years ago, I used to walk across Tower Bridge and be awestruck by the Bridge itself - the Tower of London and the thousands of years of history that surround that entire part of the "Pool of London". And yet when that walk became part of my daily commute, it seemed to lose its awe along the way.
The same thing happening when I lived in Sydney and drove across the Harbour Bridge every day - a landmark that people from all over the world dream about seeing and walking over, yet somewhat of a chore when you're stuck in a bus on your way to work.
And now, as I'm getting closer to my move back to Australia, I'm hanging out to do a lap of the Harbour Bridge. And I know that I'll fall in love with Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Australia all over again as I familiarise myself with my favourite places and discover new ones.
Similarly, yesterday, I jumped on a big red bus and spent a day being a tourist in London. Again.
My first visit to London was with my family in about 1980 and I remember staying in a hotel in Russell Square. I don't remember too much other than the big res buses, black cabs and seeing Changing of the Guard. I then came back in 1999 by myself before setting off for a 3-week Contiki tour around Europe.
When I arrived in London that second time nine years ago, jet-lagged and bleary eyed, I remember feeling instantly that I could live in this city. I loved the buzz and the familiarity, yet difference of it all. London somehow felt like "home" even then.
My bus ride yesterday took me past a bunch of the landmarks and attractions that I've seen a stack of times in the last few years, and that perhaps I'd become a bit blase about. But I'm glad I did it. It reminded me of the many things I love about London, the amazing friends I've made here and the wonderful times I've had.
It's been a pleasure and privilege to call this place home.
The spires of St Pauls.
View from South Bank.
For more pics of my big tourist day around London, check out this album.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
I've always loved photography, building up a reasonably solid Pentax SLR kit in my early twenties, and spending a fortune developing pictures of pasta shells and tinted cars (Cokin filters were all the rage!).
My next camera was one of the early Canon mini-point and shoot models - the predecessor to the Canon Ixus.
It took me ages to get into the digital camera age - I'd spent a fortune on the Pentax kit, and I loved the panorama shots the Canon compact could take. But it was just before a trip to New Zealand in 2000, that I bought the Canon Ixus. In the last seven years, I've thrashed that trusty little camera, easily taking over 15,000 photos. Thank god storage is getting cheaper!
Over the years, I watched as the digital SLR cameras improved in functionality and came down in price. The more photography I did with the compact camera, the more I began to miss the additional functionality that SLR's provide - mainly more flexible zoom options.
After my trip to Morocco earlier this year, I finally took the digital SLR plunge and bought a Canon EOS400D. It seems to be one of the most popular and well-reviewed cameras on the market, and seemed to be a formidable competitor to Nikon's D-range of cameras. I don't think I really could have gone wrong by choosing either brand, but after much reading, researching and speaking with Camera shop assistants, I went for the Canon.
I could have gone for the higher end camera bodies such as the 1D, 4D or 5D, but I figured that I'd re-familiarise myself with SLR photography and functionality before committing to a more expensive model. And for the same reason, I chose the standard kit lens - an 18-55mm lens, which so far, has been a great walk-about lens.
I have always been fascinated by zoom lenses, and decided pretty quickly that I wanted a bigger zoom lens. I was keen to get one of the new Canon ES image stablised zoom lenses, and again, after more researching and playing, decided on the Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS lens.
This lens is equivalent to a 88-400mm focal length in non-digital/film cameras, which I reckoned was big enough to practice with while I got used to shooting with the longer lens. It's also one of the first EF-S lenses built for the digital camera bodies.
I've had this lens for about a month now, and have taken nearly 1,000 shots, in Singapore, London and Bratislava. It definitely takes some getting used to - as far as keeping the camera still, but I've been pretty happy with some of the shots I've taken so far, all of which I've done without a tripod. With any of this stuff, it's a matter of practice, practice, practice!
When I go to Turkey in two weeks, I'll take the camera and both lenses, a couple of batteries and a couple of memory cards - a slightly bigger kit bag than I'm used to, but hey! I know I'll need both the short and longer focal length lens. I can't wait to snap my way through Turkey - the images I've seen of the place are stunning, and I'm hoping I can come back with a few amazing pics of my own. :-).
Sunday, April 20, 2008
I've also recently launched a new blog - A Surplice of Spirit, which will document my voyage of discovery and entrepreneurship into the holistic therapies industry.
I've spent the last 18 months retraining as a massage therapist, and will be heading back to Australia shortly to start my own business. It's a hugely exciting adventure, although quite different from the ones I've been rambling about on this blog.
I will still enjoy playing tourist as I re-bond with my family and friends back home, and I'm hoping to thrash my trusty Canon DSLR, taking photos of what I reckon is the best country on the planet. Whoohooo!
I'm travelling with the good folks at Explore! again, and doing the 15-day Asia Minor Explorer tour out of Istanbul. It's my fourth tour with them in three years. I like the size of the groups and the people are usually a great bunch of travelling buddies.
The itinerary warns us that the tour has some long driving days because there is so much ground to cover. I can imagine the landscape will be just as captivating as Turkey's cities and beaches.
Amongst many of the other sights, I'm really looking forward to seeing Cappadocia - it just seems like such a surreal place. I suspect I'll do a hot-air balloon ride (against my better judgement!) because I actually believe the brochures when it says it one of those one-in-a-lifetime sights. Now...if I can just get over my fear of balloons and naked flames, I'll be sorted.
I'm also looking forward to chilling out in Istanbul for my birthday. What a place to celebrate/commiserate lurching into my mid-late thirties :-).
I received a wee little pre-departure package from Explore last week - quite unexpectedly. It was an Explore-branded Moleskine Soft Cover Notebook. I always start a travel diary on a trip and invariably never keep it up each day - but the intention is there. Anyway, it was a nice little gift.
Cheers Explore! Hope this tour is as awesome as the Morocco, Croatia and Iceland trips were.
I'd heard about Nobu's legendary degustation menus, and we decided we'd try one of each. This would provide a selection of Nobu's signature dishes like the broiled black cod with miso and the scallop tiradito nobu style, as well as a general mix of sashimi and other amazing creations.
We teamed it with chilled sake served out of a chilled bamboo decanter and matching glasses.
It's a shame I didn't write this post a bit closer to the time, because I can't remember the names of all the dishes we tried. Suffice it to say, it was truly one of the most amazing meals. The food was exquisite in terms of presentation and freshness, and the combination of flavours was mind-bogglingly tasty.
If you love Japanese food, check out this fine restaurant. Your tastebuds will long cherish the memory after the credit card has recovered.
Ayurvedic massage is something I'd read about, but had not yet tried. All I knew was that it originated in India and was more than just massage - it was an entire way of life that included massage, healthy eating and fitness.
So in I went, curious to find out more about how this Ayervedic Massage Centre called Darsana had found its way into Bratislava's Old Town.
The owner, Mark, was helpful and happy to explain how he'd come to set up the centre. He said he saw an opportunity to bring a different form of massage to Slovakia. Having looked around the city myself, I'd only seen Thai massage advertised. So - competition seemed pretty limited and he felt that with the increasing standard of living in Bratislava, people would be ready to pay for more exotic forms of pampering.
He explained that he'd been to India some ten years ago and liked the ayurvedic style, and had in fact, just returned from India earlier in the week. He had brought in massage therapists from the Indian state of Kerala, where ayurveda originated.
The centre itself was lovely - granite floor everywhere, neutral tones, and dimly lit. He explained that the building was originally from the 14th Century, and he'd had a hard time doing the re-fit because there were so many heritage-related regulations. He'd done a fantastic job though - it was calm, quiet and felt like a million miles away from the narrow little streets of Bratislava.
He was kind enough to show me around the therapy rooms, explaining that the wooden massage tables were authentic ayurveda style. They looked enormous, and had a two-step wooden box for the therapists to stand on while they were massaging.
Mark explained that Abhyangam is a popular ayurvedic massage that focuses on the body's seven different energy centres - called marma. I gathered that these must have been synonymous with chakras, which I was familar with, but will have to investigate further.
Having now heard quite a bit about ayurvedic massage, I decided I needed to try it, and booked in the following day for a 45 minute Abhyangam massage, a 20 minute Shiro abhyangam (or Indian head massage), a 20-minute facial massage and a 15 minute session in the pressure cooker.
When I arrived the next day, I was shown into the change room and then into one of the therapy rooms. And so began the full body massage.
The massage therapist used a lot more oil in this form of massage than what I was used to in Swedish massage. And the focus seemed to be far more on long flowing strokes up and down the body rather than pressure work in specific areas.
The oils were scented - infused with herbs, the therapist explained, and they sought to work on re-balancing the three energies known as Doshas – Vatha, Pitta and Kapha. Vatha governs the principle of movement, the Pitta dosha is the process of transformation and Kapha is responsible for growth and adding structure.
In any case, I felt that my Dosha's were getting the right royal treatment as I pondered how amazing it is that there are so many forms of massage, all originating from different parts of the world, yet all so beneficial to one's wellbeing.
By the time I was flipped over, I felt oiler than a McDonald's french fry, but I knew that the oils and herbs were doing wonderful things to relax my body and mind.
Onto the facial, and the therapist used the most delicate strokes around my face. It felt as light as rain drops, but was incredibly relaxing. I could have snored half way through, or perhaps I was just dreaming that I did. It was drool-worthy, in any case. Then it was time to slide off the table (and I mean SLIDE), into a chair for the head massage.
Indian Head Massage - which I had tried before - is typically done on a seated client. You can elect to have it with oil or without. I went with the oil version, and the therapist began a series of rather more vigourous strokes around my head, layering in oil to the point where my hair was a mega greaseball.
Look at pretty much any Indian's hair and you'll see its typically shiny and strong - head massage is apparently a really important part of their lives. Massage of the scalp promotes hair growth and hair quality, and can help to reduce tension in the scalp, neck and shoulders.
Twenty minutes of head massage passed dreamily by and I was then shown into the pressure cooker room for my 15-minutes of Swedanam steamin'. The therapist explained that the temperature in the pressure cooker would increase, and that I could stay in there for up to 15 minutes.
She stayed in the room for pretty much the whole time, checking in on the temperature, and basically making sure I didn't faint. I felt fine, but I could see how some people may be prone to fainting in that environment. The oils simmered away - heat and steam helping my skin to absorb the oils and further promote relaxation. It was lovely! 15 minutes was about enough.
I was then led into the chillout room. I really like clinics and salons that provide a chill room. It can be fairly daunting leaving a relaxing massage and heading straight back out into the busy world. This one was warm and comfy and I was given tea and a huge fluffy blanket to sit under for a while. This process helped the oils to absorb even more.
Another client was sitting there, alo chilling out. She looked suitably happy and relaxed. We discussed our treatments and how wonderful they were, and also our surprise at finding this ayurvedica centre in Bratislava of all places!
When I left Darsana more than two hours after I'd arrived, I felt very relaxed and clear-headed. My niggling lower back ache was gone and I was smiling. Massage definitely switches on the smiley button for me.
It was a perfect way to spend my last morning in Bratislava. The combined cost of the four treatments equated to about £60.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Not long after our respective planes from London and Brisbane had landed, we headed directly to Newton Food Centre (formally known as Newton Circus), one of the original Hawker food centres. This place to me, is the quintessential Singapore. Vast and bustling, the whole area smells like an enormous aromatic kitchen. Food here is great value and you're spoilt for choice!
Satays are sold in bulk, and we ploughed our way through 80 of the delectible little sticks of meat and peanut sauce by the time we downed the first bottle of Tiger Beer. Gotta keep the fluids up in the tropics!
Other memorable meals were the obligatory chili crab, which we had at a lovely riverside restaurant in Clarke Quay, and again on the final night out at East Coast Parkway - another fab eating precinct.
The final amazing food encounter was at the Swissotel's Equinox restaurant, which towers 70 floors above the city. The view at dusk was awesome - it really helped to put this compact city into perspective. The miso cod and dessert platter was delicious. And the cocktails up on the 71st floor were pretty good too!
As well as the usual lurch down Orchard Road, and a frenzied expedition to Lucky Plaza, where there are so many consumer electronics shops, your head spins, we spent a soggy afternoon out at Jurong Bird Park.
This is one of Singapore's most popular and well known attactions, and despite the big tropical rain storm, we checked out some amazing birds. The huge walk-through aviaries allow you to get up close and personal with the birds. The scarlet flamingos were my favourite! Check out the rest of the pictures here.
Finishing off the eat-a-thon, we met the lovely Ann for a local lunch in International Plaza, home to the Dow Jones Singapore office. Ann introduced us to claypot chicken and a yummy bean paste and ginko dessert.
It's true that Singapore is known for its obsession with eating and shopping...but hey...what a wonderful way to wile away the hours.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
According to our tour paraphernalia, although it was only established as Morocco’s capital in 1912 by the French, Rabat’s history stretches back to a settlement in 8BC, at what is now the Chellah area.
We arrived at Chellah early, the sun beaming through the trees. The vast site was entirely peaceful except for the hundreds of thousands of storks clacking their beaks, and the strains of the royal trumpeters practicing somewhere nearby.
We had about an hour to wander through the ruins of this historic area, and at first I thought that was going to be about 45 minutes too long. But actually, it was a lovely place to hang around in the sun, and admire the views over a colourful valley.
The storks, who nested in the tops of tall palm trees, clacked away, impressing their mates with a bizarre beak-bashing dance. It was really amusing to watch. Hundreds of cats also called this place home, and it was really sweet to walk round a corner to see what looked like a Cat’s Sunbaking Club – six or so cats were sprawled lazily in the morning sun, grooming themselves, and completely oblivious to us tourists.
I really loved Chellah. It was the perfect place to reflect on 2007 and consider the big changes that were looming in 2008.
Next stop was a local supermarket, to stock up on food for a Christmas lunch picnic. We were able to buy wine here too – sold in black plastic bags (which were rather conspicuous by default). Alcohol was not readily available throughout Morocco, but it was available in some supermarkets and hotel bars. Mohammed explained that while alcohol was forbidden as part of the Muslim way of life, it didn’t stop locals from drinking. Still, there was a slight sense that it was not an overly accepted thing to do.
With fresh food and bottled water in hand, we set off into the Moroccan countryside en route to Meknes.
I was surprised at how quickly the countryside changed. I don’t know what I expected Moroccan countryside to be like, but it seemed to vary in colour and texture every half an hour.
We pulled over to the side of the road, and Mohammed indicated we were at our lunch stop. It was a quiet little area, and we clambered, goat-like, down the hill into a green clearing. It was a shame to see so many empty plastic bottles and litter strewn all over the place. This was to be a constant site throughout Morocco, which was a real shame.
Rogue plastic bags and bottles aside, our Christmas picnic was great! We shared bread and cheese and mandarins, and whatever other nibblies people had bought.
I had loaded my Ipod with Christmas tunes, and we chatted as Dean Martin sang Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, which was pretty amusing. Perhaps more poignantly, the words to Bandaid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas echoed loud in my mind. We saw a lot of poverty in the next two weeks – kids and old people begging, and living in what we would consider to be sub-standard conditions. It reminded me to be thankful for what I had, and more thankful for things I took for granted – like unlimited food and running water, flushing loos and heating.
Lunch and reflection over, it was time to get back on the bus and drive to Meknes.
Bread also features heavily in Moroccan meals...every Moroccan meal to be precise. It’s offered automatically, and is great for soaking up juices in tagines, soups and pretty much any Moroccan food.
Our local guide then joined us on the bus for a quick coach tour round the main streets. Every Moroccan town’s main street is called after the king – Mohammed V. At least that makes it easy to always find the main drag.
We drove into the guarded ground of the Royal Palace, which had a number of stylishly understated buildings. Fountains and broad boulevards sprawled before us, and our local guide explained that this area was actually a little city in itself. VIPs and the King’s servants and their families lived in various parts of the grounds. The guide pointed out the King’s personal mosque, where he recites prayers each Friday.
Next stop was a visit to Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. They’re REALLY into mausoleums in this country, and this one was another example of ornate decorations. The grounds of Hassan Tower were lovely and looked out over Rabat to the sea.
The sun was well and truly out now, and it felt like summer – a lovely feeling in the middle of a northern hemisphere winter. It was starting to feel like a holiday!
Our final sightseeing stint for the afternoon was Rabat’s Kasbah – or Kasbah of the Oudaias. You can’t see much from outside the towering walls, which are ten metres high and 2.5 metres thick, but once inside, a magical maze of blue and whitewashed walls and narrow little streets revealed itself.
Cats scooted amongst the tourists and cars, as we walked slowly through what I reckoned was one of the most beautiful old towns I’d ever been in. I just loved the feel of the place.
We walked upwards to a large open area that overlooked the sea, and the rest of Rabat. It was on the walk back down through the Kasbah, that our local guide asked if I wanted to stay in Rabat with him and be his second wife. Nice! Fortunately the widely accepted practice of Moroccan men being allowed to take up to four wives was abolished some time ago. So I had to decline.
As we continued to head down the stairs, past people’s houses and yet more cats, we arrived at a fabulous little open air cafe that served mint tea and delicious Moroccan pastries. Some pastries resembled baklava, some were crisp pastry crescents, and they were all syrupy sweet and almondy.
The scent of citrus and the sea wafted everywhere, and we left the cafe to walk through lovely gardens. Orange trees laden with fruits lined the gardens, and as we were to see throughout the rest of the trip, lined pretty much every street.
Rabat’s Kasbah was indeed a little oasis in this buzzing city, and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t spend more time here.That said, we’d had a long day on limited sleep, so it was nice to get into the hotel and have a back bash for a few hours before dinner.
Our hotel was just opposite Rabat’s medina, which appeared from the outside to be completely packed with markets and people. Interestingly, our tour leader warned us not to go into this medina at night, and certainly not to go there alone.
We’d agreed to have a group dinner, and it was this evening I tried my first real Moroccan tagine – lemon chicken with olives. It was delicious!
It was also Christmas Eve, and the group was excited about the tour and in festive spirits. We sampled our first Moroccan red wine, the brand incidentally recommended by Lonely Planet, and a raucous night was enjoyed by all.
This was also the group’s introduction to Billy the Bull – Susie’s stuffed travel companion. Billy was sporting a stunning pink Chinese evening outfit, and he generated much interest from the locals, who I’m sure thought we were completely bonkers.
I wondered what awaited us for Christmas Day...
The streets were busy, and men wearing cloaked jellabas were everywhere. We were to see many more jellabas in the coming days.
We passed Rick’s Cafe, made famous in the film Casablanca, and headed directly to the Hassan II mosque – undoubtedly one of the most iconic buildings in Morocco.
Completed in 1993, this monstrous structure and its vast esplanades overlook the sea. Our guide explained that some 6,000 builders worked day and night, in shifts, to complete the build in just six years. Impressive work!
Our tour inside the mosque took us past huge halls, decorated with ornate plaster carvings, marble, granite, cedar wood – all material came from Morocco with the exception of 57 Italian chandeliers and Italian marble pillars.
It was astounding to think that this building could accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 worshippers outside, at any one time. Because it was a working mosque, the guided tours were squeezed in between the five prayer sessions each day.
Our guide was quick to point out which behaviours were part of the Islamic religion, and which were not. Taking shoes off at the entrance at the mosque for example, was not a religious thing, but simply a way of keeping the mosque’s floors clean.
The mosque was deceptively high tech, with a roof that actually opened like those in sports stadiums. They reckon it got pretty warm and whiffy in the summer heat with 25,000 people inside...
Hundreds of loud speakers were ingeniously hidden in the timber pillars in the ceiling, and the floors were apparently centrally heated. The attention to detail was amazing. Millions of zellij (mosaic) tiles lined the walls and everywhere you looked, there were intricate designs in any manner of materials.
We then walked downstairs into the huge ablution rooms. It’s not obligatory to wash at the mosque, but it’s available if people want it. Again, this would be an amazing site to see, when fully packed with people.
The final stop was the enormous Turkish bath underneath the Mosque, built mainly as a way of showing curious tourists what Turkish baths are like. Again, this isn’t a formal part of the mosque, but more used as a social add-on to it, and is really common throughout Morocco. This Turkish bath had never been used though, and there seemed to be continued debate as to whether it would be opened up to the public, or simply left as a nice place to sit for a few minutes.
We mosied back to the coach, just as the sky cleared up and gave us a great view of the mosque under blue skies. It was warming up too. I was liking this place!
My bus ride out to the airport was uncharacteristically on time...so much so in fact, I arrived at Heathrow four hours ahead of my scheduled departure time. Oh well...i didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Morocco was calling!
And that’s when the real chaos began. Shabby T2 was packed to the rafters with people desperate to escape the UK for Christmas. Tempers and frustrations were obvious as the ground staff herded only those people whose flights had been called, into the check-in area, while everyone else had to wait in the overcrowded top floor of the terminal. People were sprawled over chairs, the floor and every other available space...Heathrow’s much anticipated Terminal 5 is allegedly going to improve this increasingly feral situation this year, but I think it will be a very long time before this airport can live by BAA’s ridiculous tagline of Making Heathrow Great. Making it bearable would be a good start.
Hours rolled by, and finally my Royal Air Maroc flight was declared open. The basement floor of T2 was even more crowded than the top floor, and flights were now being delayed and cancelled left, right and centre. Disappointed passengers were asked to leave the airport, because there were no facilities to rebook their flights onsite. They called in airport police to the check-in counters just prior to announcing the cancellation of a flight to Algeria...I don’t know what they thought the problem was going to be, but it certainly fuelled more angst amongst an increasingly pissed off crowd.
Royal Air Maroc had about 200 people in its check-in queue at this stage, and as we watched the clock tick by, it became less and less certain that we were actually going to get away at all. News eventually came through that our plane hadn’t even left Casablanca yet, and that they would only board us if our flight could get out of Morocco. There seemed to be about 3 million screaming kids, and even more screaming passengers, as BA, Alitalia and Lufthansa continued to cancel more flights...I felt truly sorry for the many Christmas plans and family reunions that were being systematically stuffed up by the fog.
Finally...after more waiting, we got the fantastic news that our plane was on its way, and we could be checked in. It took about another hour to process the huge queues, get through security and find somewhere to perch in what was now the most over-crowded airport I’ve ever seen.
Departure times were being constantly revised and pushed out....it was shaping up to be a very long night. My flight finally took off just after 10pm, five hours after its scheduled time.
Two of my soon-to-be tours buddies were sitting next to me, and we acquainted ourselves, chatted for a bit, then slept.
Casablanca’s airport was fairly quiet, and it took no time to get through customs. Large piles of luggage congregated around the carousels, which didn’t bode well. Some bags from our flight arrived, but it took another 45 minutes for the next batch to come through. The cleaning staff were busily mopping, while we weary tourists wondered if we’d get to our hotel before daybreak.
My bag finally came – thankfully – and I went out to meet the tour guide, and let him know that my travel buddies still had not received their bags. He mentioned that two of the tour buddies that had arrived early had still not received their bags....unluckily for them, bag-tracking would be an ongoing nightmare throughout the trip.
Some 45 minutes later, the remaining bags arrived, and we exited into the chilly Moroccan morning en route to our hotel in Casablanca. My head hit the pillow shortly after 4am, but I was at least there, and couldn’t wait to get out and explore this mysterious land!