Saturday, 26 July 2014

France, Paris - Summer 2014


Fries, Wine and Kissing
Tuesday, 22 July

The old romantic in me had me booking a short city break in Paris for me and my girlfriend.  It's a sort of Happy Birthday/Happy Anniversary/Sorry I'm Buggering of to China kind of thing.  It's weird to think that in less than two weeks time I will be sitting in my new apartment, halfway around the world.  It's a sad turn of events but excitement is still out shining at the moment.

I have been to Paris once before, and on realising that in my head I had mistaken the Blackpool tower for the Eiffel Tower I figure my memory of Paris is somewhat hazy.  Back then it was a trip to Disney Land and my only memory of that was not being able to ride on Space Mountain because I was vertically challenged.  So a second trip to Paris, now an adult and with a girlfriend?!  Oh how I have grown up!  We stayed at Hotel la Villa Glamour which was a very comfortable stay and located perfectly next to a metro.  After freshening up we caught the metro to Montmartre - home of Becky's favourite film Amelie.  We drank wine and ate in "Cafe Des 2 Moulins" which is popular because of its presence in the film.  Of course this does increase its prices a little but we were happily satisfied drinking giant glasses of red wine in happy hour and eating Steak Tartar; not quite the national dish but is iconically French!  Montmarte by night is what should come to mind when you think of Paris.  Quietly bustling cobbled streets lined with wine drinkers sitting outside glowing restaurants - It's lovely.  We saw the night through sitting on steps in front of the Sacre Coeur taking in the views, drinking beer and listening to buskers.  Not a bad first night in Paris.


Today our first port of call was to collect our Paris Passes.  For 115 euros this gives us 2 days worth of queue jumps and entries to the majority of the museums and sites of Paris and included free underground transport, boat and open top tour bus.  I have no idea whether it is worth it but I will keep track of my savings.  With our pass in hand we joined a guided tour of the very impressive "Palais Garnier (opera house)".  Sadly, the opera house does not perform over the summer period but the tour was fantastic and genuinely interesting.  That's a lot from somebody who probably doesn't really care for opera.  

Paris is great to just potter about in; there is something to look at, eat, drink and play in every nook and cranny.  We found a cosy creperie feeding locals called "Creperie St Eustache" which served simple, delicious crepes with no bells or whistles.  I would definitely seek it out again if I were in Paris.  We took the open top tour bus to the Eiffel Tower and unintentionally spent the rest of our day there.  For a start, we were surprised to realise that the ParisPass doesn't actually give us anything towards the Eiffel Tower.  A queue jump would have been ace.  But nothing.  We queued to get the tickets, then queued to get the lift 3 quarters of the way up and then queued once more to get to the very top.  Was it worth it?  It's like going to Iceland and not seeing the Northern Lights.  Oh wait, I did do that...  You can't go home having not done it!  And it means I can now add an item to my list and then cross it off (Because that's how "to do" lists work right?!) which is drink Champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower!  The views were amazing and the fact that we had to queue for so long to get to the very top meant we got to appreciate the views in both sunlight and starlight.  Every cloud and all that jazz.   We ate Foie Gras for dinner which is a French delicacy of fattened goose liver.  Produced quite controversially by force feeding the geese to fatten them up it's not the best quality of life I'm sure but it does make a mild, unique and buttery tasting offal.  Not to say it's worth it.  I don't know what I think about it.  Let me sleep on it and I'll tell you in the morning.   
A good year and great legs
Thursday, 24 July

No that's not Becky.  Well it is but it's not what I'm referring too!  Yesterday was a beautiful day to be in Paris.  We made the most of our ParisPass and spent the morning climbing the Arc de Triomphe; cruising the Seine river; marvelling at Notre Dame Cathedra;, nosing in quirky Museums and the piece de resistance - wine tasting in an old wine cellar.  If I were to recommend one thing to do in Paris, it would be a wine tasting class with O Chateau.  The ParisPass gave us a free wine tasting session, however, much to our pointless dismay was fully booked.  Insistent that we could not leave Paris without a spot of wine tasting we upgraded to a 2 hour "Tour de France of Wine" for 55 Euros in which the ParisPass gave us 20 euros off.  Man what a mistake going for the standard wine tasting would have been.  We passed the sorry people in the bar with their 3 glasses of wine as we went downstairs to a cellar for our 6 glasses (I jest it looked lovely but nothing in comparison to what we got!).  We joined a small group of novice wine drinkers and were educated in wine by a charismatic young man who owns the business.  We were treated to one Champagne, two white wines and three reds.  Servings were more than generous and empty glasses were quickly topped back up.  We paid 15 euros extra for a cheese board and bread was readily available.  Though potentially slightly swayed by the copious consumption of wine, I have to say the cheese board was the God damn best frickin selection of cheese I had ever eaten.  Ever in my life.  I entered with little knowledge or interest in wine but left with a genuine fascination.  However short lived that may be.   
The Louvre has a completely different slant to it when visited post wine tasting.  We pretty much broke even with our ParisPass and the Louvre was our last "freebie".  We saw everything (lies) in there in just half an hour! Even with time for a Mona Lisa selfie.  Ok so we probably didn't do the Louvre much justice and many would scoff at the idea of being in and out in half an hour (or a Mona Lisa selfie!) but in the end it's just stuff that doesn't interest me very much.  It is clearly, and with good reason, a well loved attraction by millions.  Just not by me.  We decided to spend the rest of our final evening in Montemarte; our agreed favourite place in Paris.  Dinner of Snails, Confit de Cannard and Crepe Suzette screamed out we were tourists.  And of course we drank wine, lots of wine, but none of that cheap crap.  Good legs and a smell roasted winter orchids and a hint of Apricot dew...  :o)  

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Morocco - Summer 2014

"Hi I am looking for Mohamed"
Wednesday, 28 May
Surely the single purpose of having a name is so that you can be identified among other people.  We have probably introduced ourselves to 9 people so far and 7 of them have been called Mohamed.  The other 2 were women - called Fatima.  Morocco is just a 3 hours flight from England but feels so much further.  We landed in Fes with no real plan of what to do for the week.  A few jottings on paper after a half an hour of free WiFi at the airport suggested a small route travelling around the North.  The only thing we knew for sure was that we wanted to see Marrakesh and so our first stop in Fes was the train station to book ourselves onto a night train.  It was in the taxi from the station where our holiday really began to blossom.  Like the butterfly effect, so much has happened and it all started here - let me explain. As we didn't need to stay the night in Fes we had no hotel to go to and faced the possibility of spending the day lugging around our rucksacks.  Our taxi man, Mohamed, had a "mate", Mohamed, who owned a hotel and was apparently very happy to look after our bags.  "No Charge!".  What!? A little hesitant but we went along with it.  Mohamed (the taxi driver) drove off, without payment, insisting that we can pay later when he takes us back to the station.  Over a fresh Moroccan mint tea, Mohamed (The hotel owner) rubbished our plan to go North stating that this was "where everybody goes to smoke hash" and looked down his nose at us for even suggesting the idea.  Instead, he recommended that we ventured South to the Sahara desert and the Atlas Mountains to witness real "Mother Africa".  Ok, he clearly has a point; this sounds waaay better!





After helping us plan our itinerary, Mohamed took us to his friend, Mohamed, who works in a leather tannery.  This was the first point where we felt slightly pressured to part with some cash and after a few snapshots of the tannery and feigning interest in purchasing a leather jacket (clearly an essential item in 30+ degrees), we bought nothing which meant Mohamed was not best pleased.  He begrudgingly passed us onto a lovely young man called Mohamed who took us to some place that made (or pretended to make?) and sold Argan oil.  This is the first place that we got ripped-off.  Wrapped up in Fatima's sale talk we spent £12 on a bar of soap, some face cream and a small bottle of Argan oil.  All of which we did not need and all of which we found half the price in Marrakesh. I keep telling myself that it wouldn't be a real Moroccan experience if you did not get fleeced at least once.  Our last stop on this impromptu guide was at a weavers house where a man called Mohamed showed us the machine that he hand-built to weave cloth.  He was very friendly and wrapped us up in some of his creations (above).  What we really liked about him was that he wasn't pushy at all.  We left without buying anything and sauntered in and around the Medina until late.  The markets are a lot less grabby in Fes in comparison to middle eastern cities and I felt comfortable having a browse without being pounced on.  We ate a kefta sandwich (grilled minced beef) down a little side street of the Medina and washed it down with fresh beetroot and orange juice.  Beetroot juice? - Oh the split second fear in my heart when my toilet looked like something had been violently murdered in it! The owners were clearly entertained by our presence in their tiny kitchen and it made the perfect first Moroccan meal.  30 dirham (approx £2) for 2 hot sandwiches and glasses of fresh purple juice.  With our train not leaving until 2:30AM we had some time to kill.  We hung out in a shisha bar for a couple of hours and then ate in a restaurant near "our" hotel. The owner of the restaurant was Moroccan but lived in Chicago and gave us some sound advice for our trip; the butterfly effect was still working its magic.  He recommended that we refrain from booking an excursion for the desert and just take a bus to the area.  He explained that there would be plenty of camp owners grabbing all of the tourists to join them and that we should just sit and wait in a cafe. We could then barter down to as low as £10 for a night in the desert as they would be more eager to fill the beds!  Sound information.  And all of this because we got in Mohamed's taxi from the station.





Medinas are walled in mini cities within cities.  They are the very old part of the city with most of the 'roads' just a couple of meters wide.  In the Medinas are Soukes (little shops) and Riads (traditional houses with an open courtyard in the middle).  Our hotel in Marrakech (above) was a beautiful Riad called Oumaima and cost about £30 for a room.  From above, Medinas must look like ancient mazes as they are nigh on impossible to navigate around.  Locals have cottoned on to this fact and they look out for lost looking tourists so they can guide them, in person, to their destination and then ask for money for the inconvenience caused.  We had a map and so on getting out from our taxi (Taxis don't fit on Medina streets) we would have eventually found our way to the Riad.  However, a friendly 'selfless' local asking where we're staying seemed much quicker.  We not only learnt that you don't ask for directions but that you can't even tell somebody where you are going. Whether you are lost or not, it will result in them storming off ahead of you before you can tell them that you don't need help.  One guy asked for money even though we got to our Riad before he did! In Marrakesh, everyone is out for a quick buck.  Becky was explaining how last time she was in the square she got done over by a woman who grabbed her hand and started a henna tattoo before she could say anything.  No more than half an hour after telling me this story I turn around to find a woman holding Becky's already half tattooed - it was near finished before the words "no thank you" even had time to come out of her mouth.  "Just for good luck" she kept saying and then asked for 200dh (£14?!) for the pleasure.  We stood our ground and managed to pay 10dh.  She wasn't happy and Becky quite liked the pattern in the end.  Pretty impressive for 15 seconds work.  So it seems the girls get attacked with Henna (we found it quite entertaining watching others fall for it!) and I got a monkey in a nappy literally thrown on to me from behind and then asked for money.  We stayed well clear of the men with snakes.  Unless it is free, you are never going to get a good deal in Marrakesh.  It's a shame as you find yourself being wary or every kind gesture.  We bought some tea from a street vendor and a man shifted over on his cushioned bench and called us to sit with him.  I didn't think anything of it but Becky was sure that they were going to charge us for it.  Alas they didn't and my faith in humanity was saved.  If you can take it all in good spirit Marrakesh is a fascinating experience.  However, I can see why it may not be everybody's cup of mint tea.

Where better to take out two of the national dishes than in Marrakesh.  Couscous for lunch and tagine for dinner.  The couscous was served with beef and vegetables.  Couscous is couscous; nothing special;  it's like having rice as your national dish.  The tagine on the other hand... now that's a national dish to be proud of.  We ate at Restaurant Jama which Becky recalled from her previous visit to Marrakesh; beautiful setting in a fairy lit courtyard with an orange tree as its centre piece.  Beef tagine with figs and a basket of Moroccan bread.  Bread is served with every meal and is used more as cutlery than as a side.  This was my first ever experience of a tagine.  Served in the dish it's cooked in, bread is all you need to scrape up the sticky caramelised bits stuck to the bottom and soak up the meaty juices.  No overpowering spice, just slow cooked, sweet, succulent, meaty goodness.  It's all I'm going to eat from now on.  That's a lie.  I pretty much followed that up with a bowl of snails.  I wasn't hungry but as we made our way back through the square the markets had been transformed into a giant food court!  I couldn't not have anything! A whole row of stalls just sold snails and they were of a reasonable portion size for somebody who had just eaten a whole tagine. 





Following the instructions from our friend in Fes we spent yesterday morning catching a bus to the coach station to book two seats on a Supratours coach to Merzouga; a village that acts as Morocco's gateway to the Sahara.  No excursion, just a one way bus ride.  The day saw us ticking off Lonely Planets list of top 5 things to do in Marrakesh.  We face-timed home in a park with wifi (!?), ambled through an old palace and visited a tomb that had restrictions to get close to any of the good stuff.  It was a hoooot day and instead of ice cream carts, Marrakesh has ice cold fruit salad vendors (top right)!  What an amazing idea! Healthy and refreshing!  Walking through the old medinas, every now and then you see a crowd of men (yes - always men) around one food vendor.  My curiosity found me squeezed between a group of men gorging on fish meatballs and bread sold by one very popular guy.  These people don't tend to try and rip you off as they are not used to seeing tourists at their stall!  My favourite meal experience so far cost just 10 dirham (70p).  We did some shopping in the soukes, watched the sunset from a terrace cafe and then ate in the giant food court in the main square.  Steamed sheep's head with tongue and brain was what the locals were eating and of course where I managed to drag Becky.  It's an all out war between the food stalls in the fight to attract tourists to their grill.  It tickled us that the sheep head stalls only seemed to bother approaching the Chinese tourists.  We sat down and felt the heat from the stares as we pointed at the grinning sheep's head looking up at us.  Sliced up and elegantly served (Pah!) with salt and cumin.  We (I) ordered it as a side with two lamb tangias (like a tagine but cooked in a tall clay pot buried into a bed of coals - you can see one in the picture).  Brain is not a pleasant texture, it breaks down in your mouth a little like toothpaste that's been left out over night.  I did have to concentrate a wee bit to keep my gag reflex at bay.  Much like Becky is now on these winding roads to Merzouga.  Only 4 hours to go!

There is nowhere to hide in the desert
Sunday, 1 June

The hardest test for physical strength and endurance is climbing a sand dune; I had to give up before I passed out.  The hardest test for mental strength is being able to push a twosy out behind a dune.  "Behind" a dune gives the impression of being hidden.  Dunes are enormous; like trying to discretely pinch one off in the middle of an empty car park.  I could walk a mile and you would still see my squatting silhouette.  Well there is a first time for everything.  I'm not going to lie, it felt liberating.  In hindsight I would have preferred to use the toilet; I just happened to have asked the wrong person who prefers "au naturel" over physical and surprisingly clean toilet, which Becky had the pleasure of using when she woke up.  Our camp (which I can't for the life of me find online anywhere!?) claims to have the least impact on the Sahara's ecosystem than any other camp.  


So our plan to turn up to Merzouga without booking anything didn't quite work out.  It was getting dark; we were the only tourists on the bus and we feared arriving to a ghost town with no idea what to do.  It just so happened that the strapping young man (Becky's thoughts, not mine) that got on the bus with us in Marrakesh owns his own camp in the desert!  Butterfly effect still in action.  We had well over 12 hours to discuss and barter with him and in the end he was just a really friendly, sound guy.  And what was his name? Moha.  I wonder what it's short for.  We paid roughly £105 for the two nights in the desert including activities and visits.  We arrived to a town which was accurately described by our friend in Fes.  There were a lot of people asking us to stay at their camp but we felt happy and proud with our decision.  Moha took us to his family home (left) to freshen up and leave our rucksacks.  Whilst we waited for our camels, his mum made us mint and Absinthe(!?) tea from her garden and served us bread, olives and olive oil to snack on.  Under the stunning desert stars, in the dead of night; we trekked for 2 hours to our camp.  It was beautiful... for about 5 minutes until my arse got sore and scenes from the film Taken started to cross my mind.



There is no comfortable way to sit on a camel.  In total we have spent 5 hours on the back of a camel and I have experimented with all positions.  There are none.  Zero.  Your arse will ache and your cheeks will chafe.  Chafe right down to the bone.  Getting off a camel provides a similar pleasure to releasing a few trouser buttons after a big meal.  You breathe a sigh of relief and are in no rush to fasten them up again any time soon.  Or in terms of getting on a camel, ever again.  Life on camp in 40+ degrees Celsius is super chilled.  We arrived to camp fire songs and soon retreated to our cosy tents.  The morning was when I dropped the kids off in the desert and when we attempted to scale the dune.  Theres not much to do in the desert during the midday peak heat other than eat, read and play cards.  Moha set us up a little camp under a tree and we happily lazed until the sand didn't melt the souls of our feet any more.  We drank tea with a nomad family, had a tajine cooked for us by Mustafa (Moha's brother), practised the art of sand-boarding and took a camel for a walk.  The Sahara is a completely unique environment and Moha and Mustafa have created the perfect camp to enjoy it in.

We told Moha of our plan to go to the Atlas mountains and he recommended us to stay in Azrou.  He had a friend staying there and so he called him up and got him to pick us up from the bus station when we arrived.  How amazing is Moha!?  In fact he also went with us to the town and made sure we got a good deal on a taxi to the coach station.  We love Moha...  And now, we love Yusef!  Our new friend that picked us up and took us to a nice cheap hotel to stay in.  It just happened to be the same one he was staying in as it turned out that he was on vacation too!  A Moroccan, from Merzouga, living in Barcelona, but regularly stays in Azrou; his favourite place in the world.  Azrou is green, cool and fresh.  The complete opposite environment to the Sahara; it has scenes that really wouldn't look out of place in Englands Lake District.  Yusef is a happy happy man who regularly smokes the happy stuff and drinks all day and all night.  A Muslim of the left as he called himself.  We were constantly trying to work out what he was getting out of helping us so much but it turned out that he is just a very nice man.  We spent the evening drinking beer with him and his friends whilst they recommended sites and planned our following day.  He ended up being our guide for our time in Azrou and met us in the morning, with a beer in his hand, and took us for breakfast.  A cafe no bigger than a shipping container, I had my favourite breakfast of the holiday here.  Locals dressed for work stopped by and ordered eggs, bread and tea; scoffed it and went on their way.  Bread baked that morning and eggs quite possibly laid that morning.  They were simply fluffed up in a pan, sprinkled with toasted cumin powder and then smothered with a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.  Man it was gooooood.



Yusef had a 12km trek planned for us and bought some bread and cheese spread for a picnic before getting us a taxi into the forest.  This area of Morocco really is beautiful.  Yusef immediately lost our lunch to a monkey but it was more entertaining than annoying.  He told us stories of his fascinating life as we hand reared baby monkeys and strolled through tall trees.  He even found us a scorpion to gawk at under a rock.  Our plan was to catch a coach to Fes in the evening ready for our flight this morning; however, Yusef convinced us that it was much easier to catch a taxi in the morning straight from Azrou.  This gave us another evening with Yusef and his friends which he was delighted about!  He organised our 5am taxi and then bought a bottle of local liqueur to share with us in a car park.  Yup classy tourists.  For dinner he treated us to a Moroccan harira soup down a side street in the town with a side of dried dates and finished our final evening with a bottle of wine on the terrace of his hotel room.  We drank it in a traditional way shared between friends where we all drank from one glass.  We did the same the night before except this time Becky had the honour of designated pourer.  Yusef absolutely made our time in Azrou and after treating us to dinner and a bottle of wine we still have no idea what he had to gain from being so lovely to us.  He went completely out of his way, on his vacation, to accommodate us.  Meeting people like that is what travelling is all about.  In one week, we have essentially been on 3 different holidays; none of which would have been possible had we not met the right people at the right time.  And it all started with that taxi driver in Fes.  And to think that we were planning to travel North! What a boring holiday that would have been.  :o)