Morocco Explored

We travel from Manchester to Marrakech tomorrow and on Sunday morning will head off on our tour with Morocco Explored. Interesting getting our head around the culture in Morocco, it’ll no doubt be unlike any other place we’ve been to. We received a 6 page info pack with the itinerary you can see below, I’ve copied just the tipping advice section from the info pack, we’ve made a bit of a cheat sheet from this as a reminder to ourselves, we so don’t want to offend anyone along the way!

Lots of fun to come, as well as some sunshine and warmer weather 🙂

December 30
Your driver will meet you at your Marrakech riad or hotel at 8am, take you to the vehicle and transport over the High Atlas mountains Tichka pass. You’ll have time to stop for coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice and enjoy impressive landscapes. We’ll pass through Ouarzazate, and many Berber villages clustered with kasbahs (fortified dwellings that house many families and their livestock). Stay in Dades valley auberge (small country inn), overlooking the valley gorge and gardens. Includes dinner and breakfast.

December 31
You’ll have a short drive to Tinehir, and you can wander with a guide* through Todra Gorge: a massive fault dividing the High Atlas mountains, rising to 300 m in a narrow valley thick with palmeries and Berber villages for a close look at traditional Berber ways of life. By mid-afternoon take time to settle into your room, before New Years celebrations and dinner. 8pm the fun begins, New Years buffet dinner includes traditional whole roasted lamb (Meschui) with all the trimmings and live music.

January 1
After breakfast, transport further into the desert to our auberge 29 km from Merzouga. Afternoon you will meet your camel guide* and ride at sunset into the Erg Chebbi dunes to our carpeted desert camp and sleep in traditional Nomad tents. A tagine dinner will be served under the stars in this beautiful setting, afterward learn to drum or dance by the fire in the traditional style of the Sahara.

Our desert camp is far from the crowds coming from Merzouga. It consists of a circle of five nomad tents that each sleep about 4 people but they are very rarely full. They are equipped with carpets, foam mattresses, warm wool blankets, freshly washed cotton sheets and pillows – camp also has solar lighting and nice pit toilets, kitchen tent and dining tent, and carpeting around the fire pit. All camel guides are local nomads working to support their families, and our very friendly camels love to have their ears scratched.

January 2
Return by camel at sunrise to the auberge for breakfast and shower. The remainder of the day is spent driving back to Ouarzazate where you’ll stop for lunch and visit the old Glaoui Kasbah Taouirt. Then we cross the High Atlas once more, down the Tichka pass. Arrival evening in Marrakech at approximately 6pm

Tipping
For great service and going-the-extra-mile it’s traditional to tip in the travel industry. Any one who devotes their time with you will appreciate his/her services well rewarded. Even though they do receive a daily wage, mountain guides, camel drivers, mule handlers and drivers fall into this category. Please tip individuals if they deserve it!

You can decide if you want to tip as a group or as individuals. Present a tip using your right hand. The tip will be discreetly tucked away, with barely a thank you.

General tipping rates
Any guides you hire for anything – beyond the ones we have pre-arranged – should be paid (tipped) at minimum 100 dirhams an hour or more. Guides do not earn a wage at all, your payment is their only wage. Generally a local city or site guide will expect to be given 400 dirhams or more for a days work equal to 3-4 hours; or 100 dirhams or more per hour from your group as a whole. If your group is larger than 4 people, please increase the recommended amount to 200 dirhams per hour.

Any guides we have pre-arranged and listed in your itinerary Whats Included: will be paid by us – you can tip them extra dirhams if you like their work but anything under a 100 dirham tip is considered an insult – its better to not tip at all. If you want to tip, give a meaningful amount.

Drivers are not guides. They are paid for their work, but also rely on tipping to make a good living at what they do.
For any of your drivers you can tip:
– for a daytrip at least 200 dirhams or more if you like him.
– for an extended journey like your desert tour at minimum 100 or more dirhams for each day he works with you, up to a max of your choice.

For camel trek guides each person should give 50 dirhams or more. Tipping waiters in restaurants is appreciated at the normal 10% to 15%. Café waiters can be tipped a five to ten dirhams.

Asking for money for just about anything seems to be on the rise in Marrakech, most notably in the square where, if taking pictures, they will ask for 100 dirhams. It used to be 10 – not sure where this is coming from but perhaps packaged tourism is cultivating some kind of greed factor. Ignore their demands and give them 10 – 20 dirhams with a big smile.

Christmas in Shap

Leaving sunny Barcelona behind us we didn’t have high expectations for our arrival into London Luton and we weren’t disappointed … it was extremely cold and very wet! Nice timing that we’d decided to treat ourselves and had a car booked to pick us up and take us straight to Leamington Spa. Had a lovely couple of days catching up with Rhona and Larry and on Saturday headed north to Shap a tiny village on the edge of the Lake District. Our digs here is Brackenber Lodge a beautiful cottage built in 1877, very comfortable with good heating …. very important 🙂 The countryside is very green, undulating fields separated by dry stacked walls and running streams, the weather is quite fresh 😉 but has been wet so the only snow to be seen is on the mountain tops.

We had dinner in the pub on the first night, a short walk from our cottage..it was very cosy in front of the fire and we all ate extremely well. We also did a trip to Glasgow on Monday for Rhona to check out a venue for a function in January, an easy day trip on the train.

Christmas Day started with a beautiful breakfast of Eggs Benedict and champagne, what an awesome combo…. and to be honest the rest of the day was spent eating and drinking, a 3 course lunch prepared by Larry and Rhona that took from early afternoon to the evening to consume, the best of food & wine and Larry’s selection of Christmas songs, finished off with a cheeseboard and port in the evening.

We took a couple of walks during the day, getting fresh air, checking out our surroundings and stretching our legs. Many calls throughout the day to keep in touch with the family. So good to be able to stay in touch and see everyone whilst we are travelling.

On boxing day Larry went to Carlisle and bought Liam and Matthew back to the cottage to spend time with everyone. A bit more walking exploring the walking tracks, all rugged up…and a quiet night playing cards.

Our week here has been great, catching up, resting & relaxing along with, of course lovely meals and many bottles of great wine 🙂 time to start thinking about the next part of our journey now, Morocco may be a bit of a culture shock?

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Gaudi’s Barcelona……

It is difficult to find words to properly describe the effect of seeing Gaudi’s architecture. Immediately you see it is different to anything else. When we stood outside Casa Batllo, the house he renovated for a local family, we just paused in admiration it is uniqueness and very distinctive style.

His architectural style is greatly influenced by nature and this house really does look and feel like it is alive and has a pulse. There are no straight lines, every wall, door, window, chair, table is curved. The doors to each room are brilliantly crafted, the door handles are uniquely designed to fit your hand, this is also a building that you can’t resist touching and running your hands over. He used curved stones, twisted cast iron and ceramics in organic like forms.

The other immediate impression is that the building is colourful, and inside and out colour is everywhere. The house is covered with coloured tiles arranged in mosaic patterns.

So it is the combination of the unique design, the curved stonework, and colours that create a very memorable visual experience for us.

From here we went to see Casa Mila, an apartment block he designed and constructed. Again it is uniquely Gaudi…we went to the rooftop and wandered around the many chimney stacks on the curved, undulating roof. Inside the apartments the same curved walls, doors, windows and individually designed door handles were everywhere.

Two more Gaudi visits…Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia. At the top of Güell park is a terraced area where we got a great view of the park and of Barcelona City. There is seating around the terrace, curved and swirling of course, covered with multi-coloured tiled mosaics, brilliant and beautiful!

La Sagrada Familia is one of Gaudí’s most famous works in Barcelona, a huge Basilica that has been under construction since 1882 and it’s not expected to be completed till 2026. Yes, that’s right…144 years to construct! Ok so, it’s BIG…it is awesome, it’s a construction site, it’s gobsmackingly brilliant! It was only 15% complete when Gaudi died, he knew he would not be alive to see its completion when he designed it, he never drew complete plans, just made plaster models and gave direction to the workers on how to build it. Unfortunately his original drawings were lost when the basilica was damaged during the Spanish civil war. The construction relies on private donations one of the reasons for its slow progress.

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Barcelona

An early flight out of Seville and on to Barcelona until the 20th. We have received lots of good advice about Barcelona, it has a great reputation as a party town, full on hustle and bustling crowds, great shopping and good entertainment and of course the brilliant architecture of Gaudi….lets see!

The hotel we’re staying at is the Casa Camper, a great hotel in the is right in the centre Raval area of course it is in the old part of the city, lots of lane ways and little streets to wander and get lost in…little bars and restaurants everywhere, small shops, big shops…places everywhere to spend your money! There are of course many great places to eat here, just a couple that stood out for us were Rita Rouge, nice and close to our hotel with a great cocktail list and the 4Gats, an iconic restaurant that’s been around since 1897. Pablo Picasso used to frequent this restaurant when he was only 17 and actually designed a poster that was used as the front page of the menu at the time.

It is also the home of FC Barcelona and this football mad city houses the third largest stadium in the world, seating 110,000 fans. We went to the stadium to see Barca as the locals call it, play Athletico Madrid. Wonderful experience, huge crowd, stirring rendition of the local anthem with flags flying and everyone on their feet. FCB 4 def AM 1

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Our choices of places to stay when we travel are B&B’s or small boutique hotels. Our hotel in Barca is the Casa Camper, our number 1 pick of the places we’ve stayed in so far, a great hotel with lots of neat initiatives. Almost like they designed the hotel with travellers in mind, how unusual! We have our own sitting room across the corridor from our bedroom with a comfy sofa and hammock, our bedroom looks out onto a vertical garden which lets in lots of light but is totally private, the lounge area downstairs is stocked with food and open 24 hours and all the staff are young, enthusiastic and extremely helpful, we loved it here!

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Seville take 2

We had a nice drive on Thursday morning from Cadiz, just taking a slight detour (on the bitumen) along the way to visit another pretty village (Arcos le Frontera) that’s perched on a hill on the banks of a river, once again just so picturesque. We then dropped the Panda off and grabbed a cab to our hotel in Seville.

Our home for 2 nights is the Suites Murillo, a gorgeous apartment right next door to the cathedral, lovely views from our balcony windows and the roof top terrace.

We are just so relaxed now and in no rush to do lots of things. We checked out the cathedral on Friday, again one of the worlds largest, completed in 1507. A mosque had originally stood on the site but was knocked down and converted to a church. La Giralda was the tower of the mosque and has stood on the site since the end of the 12th century, it’s over 90m high and we climbed to the top of tower by a series of 34 ramps, these were used rather than stairs so the guards could ride their horses to the top, great views of the city once we were there. The cathedral also contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

Finding the right the right place to eat can sometimes be a challenge, somedays we have a plan that doesn’t always work out and others we just stumble on a hidden gem. After the cathedral visit we walked past a Tapas bar called ON and could hear the crowd inside, so thought we should check it out, a funky little hole in the corner sort of place and the food was awesome! That evening we had a plan and attempted to follow directions to a restaurant that we’d read a review of and after 3 goes at following the map and about an hour of walking we finally found it, all good but not wonderful. The 2nd night we thought we’d just follow our instincts and after about an hours strolling and a stop in local bar, hung with more than the usual number Serrano hams, we stumbled on the Barrio De Santa Cruz great restaurant, felt like it was set in a cave, all dark and full of nooks and crannies, just beautiful!

Eating and drinking in Spain is easy on the pocket, just very challenging to the waist line. Gin is popular here, always served in a large wine glass and poured from the bottle at your table, where the waiter fills your glass at least half full. The first night in Seville we went to a bar that stocked over 100 gins – a hard decision when you get asked which you’d like 🙂

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The coast & Cadiz

We started our day by giving Panda a drink and a much needed wash to get rid of the evidence of the misadventures from yesterday. We the drove 1/2 hour to the coast to the beautiful town of Motril, a white village perched on a hill overlooking the ocean. Breakfast there in the sunshine of toast and coffee and then headed west, hugging the coastline towards Cadiz.

Spain’s motorways are brilliant and pretty consistently 120kph speed limit, tunnels cut through the hills and massive bridges span the valleys. The scenery of quaint little villages didn’t last too long and quickly turned into a series overdeveloped coastal towns full of unit blocks and condos stacked on top of each other. Spain attracts 50 million tourists a year, most of them come in summer to the beaches and I guess they all need somewhere to stay!

We dropped into the town of Tarifa along the way, the most southern point in Spain and just a short ferry ride to Morocco which can be seen in the distance. The ferry crosses the Strait of Gibraltar and takes only 30 minutes and 20 euro.

Cadiz is the oldest continually occupied settlement in Europe located on a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by the Atlantic. The old town is a labyrinth of cobblestone lane ways and there’s plenty to explore here. The lane ways are decorated with Christmas lights so very pretty at night time.
There are a series of walks set up that follow coloured lines on the pavement, makes it very easy find your way around. We walked the perimeter of the town following the sea wall and then stopped for lunch at a little seafood restaurant, Taberna Casa Manteca. The cook came out and spoke to us gesturing towards the ocean, we obviously couldn’t understand a word he said so he went back into his kitchen and came back out with a fish on a plate and we gathered that it had been caught fresh that morning. So that ended up being our lunch, grilled whole it was just beautiful. The first night we ate at a restaurant recommended by the guy we rented the apartment from, the xxxx, a really great meal and the next night, once again in search of somewhere special we stumbled across La Candela Tapas Bar an awesome fusion menu of many and varied tapas.

We decided to stay here for 2 nights and are in a nice little studio apartment at Casa Palacio right in the middle of the old town. We’ll head back to Seville tomorrow.

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Las Alpujarras

So, today our Fiat Panda had an unintended off road experience. On leaving Granada we decided to explore the Las Alpujarras region which is on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada.

We read about one of Europe’s most scenic highways which starts at Tarifa in the south of Spain and crosses 8 countries to finish in Athens. You can hook into part of this route in Lanjaron traversing the mountains and visiting 3 white villages perched on the hillside along the way. The bit we missed was that this is a walking track! All was good for part of the way but then the road deteriorated into a goat track, but as you do when you’re going forward the best option was to keep on going. We wound our way up and around and climbed and the road was rough, the snow capped peaks that had started off in the distance ended up being very close. Needless to say the scenery along the way was just awesome – we have a new found respect for the panda.

Once we found our way back to the bitumen we went to the tiny town of Canar for lunch, walked into the bar, where the old men of the town were gathered and had a great local soup for lunch. One of the old guys spoke a bit of English and was interested to here about our travels and where we were from. Searching for somewhere to stay we again headed up the hill but the villages there all looked rather quiet so we came back down the hill and are in the town of Ortiva. We plan to head to the coast tomorrow towards Cadiz.

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The Alhambra & the Hammam

The Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain and number 2 in Europe the Vatican City being number one. During peak season they allow a maximum of 6,600 people entry per day, we’re very happy to have visited during the quiet time. The Alhambra dominates Granada’s skyline and is Spain’s most beautiful monument it was a fortress from the 9th century and was converted to a palace complex in the 13th & 14th century. We had a full day there exploring the gardens and palaces within the walls and found photo perfect moments at every turn looking down to the beautiful white city of Granada.

We then had a 6pm treat at the Hammam al Andalus (Arabic Baths). The baths have a combo of hot, warm and cold pools, steam room, a tea room where mint tea is served and an area for massages. The atmosphere is dark, lit by lanterns and very calming. We wandered between the pools, sipped on tea and then had a lovely massage to finish off. Any chance that we have to visit another of these we’ll be there!

We’d booked to see a Flamenco show at the Venta El Gallo in the evening and after showering and changing after the baths thought we’d wander to that area of town, have a pre dinner drink and the see the show. Once again our timing was a bit off no bars were open, a bit early for for dinner drinks at 8pm. We ended up finding the restaurant we were going to and sat outside and had a drink to pass the time.

We didn’t have high expectations of The Flamenco show and thought this was something that we should do as this region is famous as the birthplace of Flamenco, we also thought it maybe a bit of a touristy type place. The restaurant was quiet as it was Sunday, but our dinner was superb and the show just blew us away. A guitarist, a flute player, a singer, 1 male and 2 female dancers – it was just a passionate, spirited performance very hard to describe the emotion and intensity of the performers, if we get a chance to see another show while we’re in the region we’ll go again.

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Seville & Granada

Who woulda thunk it! ….

Our first night in Spain and we dun good. Out late dinner at 11pm with the locals and on to the bars ….

We arrived into Seville via the airport bus and then walked thru the city to the Hotel Adriano, Friday night and the place was pumping – people spilling out onto the pavement from local bars, music everywhere and the streets lit up with fairy lights. A late dinner of tapas and wine costing all of 28 euros at a local restaurant.

We drove to Granada during the day, in our Fiat Panda – an ugly box on (very small) wheels, the drive was scenic lots of ‘white villages’ dotting the landscape along the way and as we got closer to Granada the view of the snow capped Sierra Nevada looking more and more impressive. It took us 3 hours from Seville to Granada and then probably another hour to find our hotel, the Santa Isabella la Real, narrow cobblestone lane ways that turned out to be one way only, cars squeezing by when there’s only room for one (breathing in doesn’t help but I do it anyway) finally found the right street to find road works blocking the entrance, but Leon persevering and patient as always got us here safely in the end.

The squares here are the places to eat and drink during the day, they’re lined with cafe’s and bars, people everywhere, locals playing the guitar and singing a few tunes and sunshine, took care of our afternoon. An evening nap and then dinner, we arrived at the restaurant at 9.30 a touch to early we disturbed the kitchen staff watching the footy, we’ll try to do better tonight:)

The Alhambra (the Red Castle) sits above the city, its an impressive site we’ll go and explore there today.

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Tastes & sounds of Rome

Our day starts here with an espresso & pastry at a local cafe, taken standing at the counter, as in most parts of Europe, this will cost around a euro each, sitting will at least double the price – healthy, no – delicious yes!

We then wander the streets map in hand to where we’ve decided to explore for the day. The roads are always busy full of small cars and Vespas in a hurry to get to where they’re going, crossing the street at lights we wait for the green signal, if it’s a crossing you pick your moment and then walk realising that the traffic will work its way around you, this reminds us of Vietnam but the number of scooters on the road would be x 10 to here.

Rome is obviously huge city, but doesn’t feel it, its full of lane ways, cafe’s, small bars & boutique’s and across the road will be an ancient monument a beautiful fountain or a church. If we see a church we go inside, remove our hats and just sit and look, each one is different and all very beautiful.

Lunch – the freshest of panini or pizza and salad, we make our choice of where to eat away from a main road or famous site and are usually the only non locals in the cafe, then the food will be good and the price will be right, we often get smiles from the wait staff at our limited Italian, but we still have a go 🙂 House wine will be served in a jug for 3 or 4 euro and Leon will have a big beer.

The streets are full of sirens, terrible to think that someone is in trouble but Leon says its just an urgent pizza delivery 🙂 space for parking cars is precious and it’s comical the spots they squeeze into, often double parking, the person that’s locked in will lean on their horn until the other driver comes to move his car!

Our evening meals have all been at Luca’s recommendation, he has a basket of business cards behind the counter and will select a card and ask perhaps ‘do you like pasta’ or ‘do you like seafood’ the answer is always yes! Not only does he recommend the restaurant but also the dish we must try. The Bucatini the first night, seafood on the second and last night was at Trattoria Dei Villini where we had pasta and Tiramisu, the best we’ve tasted of both. These have all been local places close to the B&B, where the owner serves our food and once again we’re the only non locals. And yes Leon has a big beer and we drink the wine that the waiter recommends.

Yesterday we visited the Vatican City which is immense. There were workman in the square putting the Christmas tree in place. St Peter’s Basilica is of course amazing being the largest cathedral in the world, we climbed the 551 steps to the cupola and the top of the Dome which gave us a different perspective of the vastness of the city. We then went to the Museum and explored I think just a corner – the corridors here are over 4 miles long. We saw Egyptian artefacts that are over 4,000 years old and amazingly detailed Roman sculptures, statues and paintings – you start by reading the history of what you see and how the piece came to be in the museum and then realise that there are literally thousands more to see and that this would take a week not just an afternoon and that the sun is shining outside. We visited the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo painted in only 4 years, incredible and beautiful, no photos and you must be quiet, the guard yells for people to stop talking. We read the history of what we see from our Trip Advisor city guide App along the way.

We wandered the streets to the Trevi Fountain this morning and then decided the best way to finish our stay here was another bowl of pasta at the restaurant we went to last night – perfection!

We overnight in Seville and then a drive to explore the Andalusian countryside, not sure what WiFi availability there maybe during the next few days.

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