Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Africa (page 1 of 2)

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

So after a super fun 24 hours in Lalibela we arrived back in Addis Ababa for the last 2 nights of our trip. I’m a huge wine fan, so when researching the trip we found Castel Winery a french winery who had imported french grapes into the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and arranged a tour. By arranged a tour I mean we booked a guide and driver for the last 2 days to take us around. They contacted the winery and arranged a tour for us. So early one morning we set off. The winery is located 3 hours to the south of Addis- it being the rainy season everything was green and lush. Our trip plans for the day were to visit the winery, do a wine tasting, and then drive back to Addis where we had arranged a tour of this world famous women’s hospital that we had to reschedule from the previous day because of our flight delay.

This particular day was a great reminder that sometimes things do not go as planned. Sometimes travel is hard and frustrating and there are communication errors and shit just goes generally opposite of how you want it to. So we drove south towards the winery. The roads reminded me of driving in India- small single or double lane roads winding thru tiny villages lined with massive potholes and any number of bikes, motorcycles, car, trucks, cows all over the road. We passed several funeral processions as we passed thru the tiny villages. We stopped off mid morning for a cup of Ethiopian coffee and Fanta for Kiwi and drove to the winery.

We arrived at Castel Winery which is a large wine exporter. We had read blog posts about the lovely tours other travelers had, and again our tour company had emailed them that we were coming. Except they had no idea we were coming. So we arrive and negotiations were made as to whether we could be given a tour. Thankfully, a random employee gave us a tour of the vineyard and told us about the agriculture in the region and what types of grapes they grow. Which was great, except I’m primarily there to taste the wine. I will totally drive 6 hours round trip on backroads just to taste some wine. So next they arrange for us a tour where the wine is actually made. Which again is cool. But I’m here for the wine people. So after that tour they’re like “would you like to buy some wine?” And I’m like “hells yes, but after we taste is so I know which ones I like.” Being a real wine nerd I had already looked up all the wine they made and knew which ones I was keen to try. And then the guy said the words that I dread….“not possible.” And I’m like “what now?” And they inform us that the person in charge of the wine tasting wasn’t working today so there was no wine tasting. We had a total first world traveler melt down. I think I stopped breathing I was so disappointed. I mean that was the entire point of us driving all that way. We could’ve literally stayed in Addis and bought every type of wine that they made there and did our own wine tasting while getting day drunk instead of driving 3 hours there and back to taste zero wine. We went wine tasting and left sober. It was actually pretty fitting seeing as how our trip to Ethiopia had gone thus far. So they told us we could still buy wine. So we bought one bottle to take back with us. Naturally, being the person who likes to get the last word in I told the tour guide and the winery employees that if they want to get tourists obviously they need to have wine to actually taste. Kiwi chimed in and was like “you need to get some table and chairs and crackers and cheese…..” and I was like “Kiwi that’s the least of their problems- there’s apparently no wine to taste.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sulked back to the car, and because we were already tight for time for our hospital tour we opted to skip lunch and just try and make it back to Addis in time. Our guide and driver assured us this was possible despite our gut feeling that it was not. One lesson I’ve learned from mixing with other cultures is that often times people will just tell you what they think you want to hear instead of telling you something bad. This was that exact situation. In hindsight unless we were taking a helicopter back it was unlikely we ever could’ve made it back in time. Like hella unlikely. After 3 more hours in the car we were hungry, tired, and it was impossible to make our appointment so we had to call and cancel. Again. I was so bummed. The Hamlin Fistula Hospital was founded by an Australian couple in the 1970s. It provides free care to women who have sustained injuries related to childbirth. As someone who works in maternity and is passionate about women’s health I was really gutted that we missed this. This particular day was just not our day. We arrived back at the hotel 9 hours after we set out, starving and feeling defeated from the many obstacles of the trip. We had plans to meet up with one of the housekeepers I work with here Saudi Arabia. She was in Addis with her children to visit her family and this was one of the reasons I wanted to visit Addis. We couldn’t have felt less social after our day of irritation but we dragged ourselves to the shower and made ourselves presentable. I’m so very glad we didn’t cancel.

My work friend and her brother picked us up from our hotel and drove us to a nearby touristy restaurant that serves Ethiopian food and then also has traditional dancers. Her three children and her brother’s wife and their two young kids were waiting for us. We had such a fantastic evening. Truly. That night will always be such a special memory for me. We ate some delicious food and sat around chatting while I cuddled the brother’s 6 month old baby girl and gained the trust of his 3 year old son. They were adorable and they kept saying to the 3 year old “do you want to go to Canada?” And I was like don’t leave this kid unattended or he’s for sure coming to Canada with me. We watched the dancing and he sat on my lap (the kid not the brother just to be clear) and we took a ton of photos and got all the kids to do kissy lip selfies with us. It was the best. And then they refused to let us pay and even payed for our taxi back to the hotel which was beyond kind. I hope I can repay this kindness to them in the future. After a dark cloud of a day the storm cleared and the sun brightly shone on us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we woke up early for a tour of Addis before our flight back to Riyadh that evening. We did a little shopping. The textiles in Ethiopia are beautiful so I bought an absurd number of scarves and some jewelry. We then visited Holy Trinity Cathedral which is very much worth a visit if you are in Addis. We arrived at the tail end of a service and there were worshippers outside. The inside of the church has stunning stained glass windows, but the bit I liked was that the walls and pillars were tiled with this glazed tile which made the light reflecting through the windows bounce all over. Also the carpet was fuschia and who doesn’t love that?! From here we drove to a view point on Mt Entoto which over looks the city of Addis Ababa. Did you know that Addis is the fifth highest capital city in the world at nearly 8000 feet? Well you do now. You’re welcome. We drove down the mountain and visited the Lucy exhibit at the National Museum. While there I started to feel not so great. My stomach felt a little off and I was dizzy so I took a rest hoping things would improve. They did not so we went to a nearby restaurant and I tried some 7-up and soup which marginally helped. We visited the Ethnological museum which probably would’ve been interesting had I not been feeling so poorly. Our guide was a chatty fellow and basically read every single sign to me which was way over stimulating. After that we drove through Merkato market which is the largest market in Africa. They literally sell everything. We drove through because I wasn’t feeling great and our guide wouldn’t have let us out of the car anyways, because according to him there is a lot of theft and such there. I imagine that’s not an untrue statement from what I saw. We then went back to the hotel so I could rest before our flight as I was starting to run a fever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So later that night we headed off to the airport. The check in guy was great and gave us a row to ourselves as I clearly did not look well. This was the first time our flight was actually on time. Thank goodness. We boarded the plane and there was this creepy guy who was clearly taking photos of us. I was too ill to care but Kiwi was getting irritated. Right before take off he moved seats and sat directly across the aisle from Kiwi. I was just waiting for her to tell him off because he was hardcore staring at us. Then he tried to do his seat belt up. He grabbed part of his seat belt and part of the one from the empty seat next to him and tried two identical pieces to match. Naturally this didn’t work. Kiwi and I just sat there watching this happen. So he tied the belt in a knot and tucked it under his arm and look around to see if anyone noticed. Kiwi and I made eye contact with each other and then just about died laughing about the hilariousness of the whole trip. My medication kicked in and when I woke up the creepy guy had moved seats away from us. When we landed in Riyadh I texted my driver to have him pick me up crackers and 7-up. Sometimes having a driver is the bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So while a lot of crazy things happened over our 5 day trip to Ethiopia it was still overall a great trip. One for the books really. There’s no one I would’ve rather shared it with than Kiwi as we balance each other out and we laugh all the damn time which makes us great travel sidekicks. I can’t wait for our next adventure!!! Next week I’ll update ya’ll with what’s in store for me for the few months…..

Lalibela Ethiopia

Ok, so now you know the story of how our Ethiopian adventure came about. After one extremely long and dramatic travel day we found ourselves in Addis Ababa after nearly 36+ hours of no sleep. We were beyond exhausted and literally ordered room service and fell asleep. We had an early morning flight with our favourite airline Ethiopian Air, the following morning.

Bright and early the next day we caught a shuttle to the airport only to find out…..not very shockingly....that our flight was delayed a couple hours. This was a little annoying because we only had time for an overnight in Lalibela, and were planning to pack a lot into our time there. But these things happen and we didn’t want to get into a negative mood so we grabbed some cokes and some type of cake and people watched. Much to our delight we ran into a super cute Somali/UK family that had been on our Riyadh flight the day before. The mom was very nice and she had an older teenage daughter, and a boy who I’m guessing was like 13 and a young boy who was maybe 3. The 13 year old was the most polite child I’ve ever met. The 3 year old was naturally scared of strangers and didn’t initially take a liking to me, but eventually I wore him down and he kept trying to hold my hand like we were the best of buds. Operation befriend strangers child was successful. It’s a good thing his mom was keeping an eye on him otherwise I might’ve made off with him- he was super cute. So anyways because of our delay that morning it just so happened that we crossed paths with them which was a very nice surprise.

Our flight to Lalibela which is in the northern part of Ethiopia was uneventful (thank goodness!) We stopped off in a place called Bahir Dal which is on Lake Tana and then into Lalibela. Coming into Lalibela the countryside reminded me of the Grand Canyon. It’s rugged and colourful and there are little huts dotting the horizon. We jumped in a local shuttle to go to our hotel- the actual village is about 20min away from the airport. I watched out the window wide eyed. This after all is my first trip to Africa apart from Egypt and Morocco which are very different because they are Northern Arab Africa. We passed straw roofed huts, colourfully dressed locals, and the absolute best part for me was that they had RICKSHAWS!! Ever since driving a 3 wheeled auto rickshaw across India a few years back I’m obsessed with driving them. As soon as I saw the first one I turned to Kiwi and was like “I’m driving one of those today!” And luckily Kiwi is happy to go along with my crazy ideas so she was on board. We arrived at our hotel. There are understandably no super fancy hotels in this village but we stayed at the Maribella Hotel which was perfectly adequate and the staff were lovely. We met our guide for the rock churches who would come back and get us after we had eaten some lunch. I requested that our tour be by rickshaw, “preferably a rickshaw that I am driving.” Kassaye the guide was totally unphased by this and said “no problem.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a delicious Ethiopian lunch and I had a couple local Walia beers which were very tasty and we started to climb the 3 flights of stairs to our room. Part way up Kiwi says to me “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well take a rest then.” And I went ahead and unlocked the door to our room. Kiwi comes in and she’s leaning over her bed and again says “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well sit down then.” No sooner do the words come out of my mouth then I see movement out of the corner of my eye. I turn and watch her slow motion fall between the beds. My initial thought is that she’s fake fallen, but as I come around the side of the bed she’s laying in between the 2 twin beds, eyes open, not blinking, face pale and her lips are starting to turn a little blue. My mind was racing and I’m trying to figure out whether I yell for help- if anyone would actually hear me, and if there’s even a hospital in this village. I crouched down and felt her pulse which thankful she had and start shaking her and she eventually started blinking. Now a back story is that Kiwi is allergic to a wide variety of things and one of the requirements for us to take this trip was that she get an epi pen. So I’m like “Kiwi are you having an allergic reaction?” And she’s like “why is my iPad on the floor?” And I’m “like well you’re on the floor.” And she looks around and realizes that she is and she slowly sat up and we both laughed. I laughed mostly out of relief because it really was a scary thing to witness, and having to call a travel mate’s family to say that something bad happened is something I’ve always feared while traveling. But she was ok. I think it was a combination of the elevation and exhaustion so we took it slow the rest of the trip.

Once that medical emergency was out of the way we made our way downstairs to meet Kassaye. Outside to my great delight was Kassaye and a young rickshaw driver who was totally cool with me driving his rickshaw. So Kiwi got in the back with our guide and the rickshaw boy perched on the edge of the driver’s seat as he gave me a refresher of Rickshaw Driving 101 for Dummies. I stalled it the first time and then got it going and then he jumped in the back. I was smiling from ear to ear and both the guide and rickshaw boy were impressed! They said they’d never had a tourist drive a rickshaw in Lalibela before and by the end of the day we would be the talk of the town. So off we headed to the main cluster of rock churches. We drove through the main center of Lalibela and when locals got a look at me driving they would start clapping and cheering. The kids chased after the rickshaw. But the best for me was the look of surprise on the teenage girls faces that we passed. I loved seeing the excitement in their eyes. Kiwi kept saying “I can’t believe I’m being driven to a UNESCO site by kristinewanders in a rickshaw. This is the best!” And she was exactly, right. It was the absolute best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we arrived at the complex that holds several rock churches. Lalibela is an interesting town in that it is all Orthodox Christians. There are no other churches in the area- in fact the closest mosque is like 60km away. It is also considered to be a holy city and is a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The churches in this region date from the 7th to 13th century and are often carved out of a solid piece of rock. There is a lot of links of Jerusalem and most of the churches have names like House of the Cross or House of Mary as examples. Our first stop that day was to visit the Northern grouping of churches which comprises 5 churches in the same complex. The Lalibela Rocks churches became a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1978. It costs $50 US dollars a person to get into the Northern complex. To me that is pretty steep but they are very much worth being seen. There is a tiny museum on site which houses display cases with old art work and a history of the King of Lalibela and examples of the metal crosses the region is known for.

As we were checking out the museum a religious ceremony was finishing up so there were priests and other worshippers dressed in traditional clothing leaving the church complex. That made for some amazing photos. Over the next couple hours we visited several of the churches. They are carved out of a single piece of rock and each one is different from the others. Some of them the insides are bare, others like St Mary’s has the remnants of fresco paintings on the arches and ceiling. They have carved windows which allows for natural light to filter in. It’s amazing to think of how something like this was built with such precision. The archways are perfect. You need to wear good walking shoes though as the floors are uneven and you are climbing up and down to get to the churches. We were in Ethiopia during the rainy season so late in the afternoon it started to rain which turned the paths into mud and made it quite slippery. Luckily, the rains were short lived and we wandered the paths outside the church complex. We then got back into the rickshaw to pick up some supplies for one of the local schools. Kiwi had been in contact with the principle of the primary school there and was told that the kids needed soccer balls. She had kindly bought some nice Adidas balls in Saudi which were taken away from us in Riyadh by airport officials who said you couldn’t fly with soccer balls, but secretly we think they just wanted them for themselves. Anyways we bought 10 new soccer balls for the kids and squeezed them into the rickshaw with us. The young rickshaw owner had an old Nokia phone that had  Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” as his ringtone. Lucky for us he was quite popular so it would ring pretty often and Kiwi and I would start singing along until he answered it and we would all laugh!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning our guide Kassaye picked us up. He had been in the market the previous night and the talk of the town was of the girl who was driving the rickshaw. So now I’m basically #EthiopiaFamous for my mad driving skillz. We set off for St George’s Church.  Naturally we had requested a rickshaw again so I drove us there. St George’s Church is the church you see when you when you google Ethiopia rock churches. It is beyond stunning. A perfect rock cross roofed church carved into the ground. When you first view it it appears small, but as you walk closer you can see that it’s not nearly as small as you had originally thought. I was actually speechless and pretty much just stood there feeling like all the drama to get to this place was so very much worth it. There’s a path that descends down to the base of the church and we walked around it and took photos from outside and then inside. After that we climbed back up and took selfies with Kassaye and the rickshaw owner. Kiwi even convinced them to make kissy lips which is her specialty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then switched vehicles and on our way to the airport we tracked down the school principle and visited the school to drop off the soccer balls. Sadly, school was out for the summer so there weren’t any kids around. Maybe this was a good thing because I likely would’ve tried to adopt/steal several of them! We toured the school- like 2000 children attend broken into morning and afternoon classes with adult education classes held in the evenings. We then drove out of town stopping on the way to visit Bet Neakutoleab a church that is built into the wall of a rock cliff. It’s a bit of a walk down a rocky path to get to it but it’s pretty cool. I got to meet one of the local priests who showed me all the treasures of the church which consisted of the typical metal crosses, incense and an old colourful handwritten bible. From here we got dropped off at the airport. The airport there is super small. Like teeny tiny. Naturally our flight was delayed almost an hour. We had each purchased a metal Lalibela cross as a souvenir and didn’t even think that they probably wouldn’t be allowed as carry on. We made sad eyes to the security guy and he said he would ask someone if an exception could be made so we could bring them on board as we didn’t want to have to check a bag. He later came back to us and said he would ask the flight attendant if she would lock them up for the flight and return them to us when we landed in Addis. Much to our delight she agreed which made me dislike Ethiopian Air a tiny bit less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go to Lalibela the staff at the Maribella Hotel is really great. The local guide we used is Kassaye. He speaks great English and you can contact him via his Facebook page here.

Happy travels….

Ethiopian Adventures

Last month I went to Ethiopia for 5 days. You’re probably saying to yourself “hmmm Ethiopia is an interesting choice?!” My reasons for going were threefold. First, it’s an easy direct flight from Riyadh to Addis Ababa so it’s a great use of 5 days. Secondly, these UNESCO rock churches that I’ve been wanting to see are there and thirdly, one of the lovely housekeepers that I work with was taking her family home for the summer and would be in Addis during this time. So we booked a ticket. My kiwi sidekick has been to Africa a bunch and had previously flown with Ethiopian Air. Reportedly, they used to be amazing. Our choices to get there were to fly with them, or with Saudia stopping in Jeddah. The direct flight with Ethiopia Air was the logical choice.

I’m part of a Girls travel group on Facebook and in the week leading up to our trip I saw a couple different girls post about getting stuck in Addis  with Ethiopian Air, or having their luggage turn up with most of their things missing, or their luggage never turning up. I told my kiwi sidekick this but she was unphased. The day of our flight I came across another post about Ethiopia Air.  The person commented if you want some entertainment to read the reviews on Ethiopia Air’s Facebook page. In that moment for whatever reason I did want some entertainment, and so I searched them. The reviews were awful. I’m already a nervous flier so reading this was not an especially smart move. Basically, all the reviews had the same thing in common- things went from bad to worse. People said that if there was an option they would rate them zero stars instead of one. Phrases like “worst airline” “horrific experience” “total incompetence” keep repeating themselves, and my anxiety was building. This was red flag numero uno.

So after working a 12hour day shift we went home from work to finish packing. I grabbed an hour cat nap and we were off to the airport for our 3am flight. We arrived at the airport and it’s normal Riyadh chaos. Oddly, our flight isn’t even listed on the screen so for a second we think maybe we’re at the wrong terminal. Turns out we’re not, just for whatever reason our flight and airline aren’t on the monitor. Hmmm. Weird. Red flag numero dos. So we check in, and it’s mayhem. People have like a million bags and like 5 pieces of carry-on per person. As you can imagine getting thru security took all the remaining patience in us after working 12hours. So we wait at the boarding gate which is confusing as we aren’t sure if the flight is even on time because again it’s still not on the monitor. People are literally camped out in the walkways and it’s pretty much impossible to move around. I go find someone to get some intel on when we are actually leaving- because I’m such a stressed flier I like to take my prescription meds an hour before we leave so that as we are taking off I’m mostly asleep. So they say the flight is delayed a bit. A little while later a guy says we will be boarding soon, so I medicate. We all form a line (I’m joking of course).  There’s no single line per say, just like 10 lines that all end up in people crowding together and the people behind you pushing. Part of the plane begins to board and then there is a commotion and suddenly we are all back in the boarding area. Doors are closed and we wait. At first people are standing in place and then people just start dropping to the floor unsure whether to go take seats or if the issue will be resolved quickly.

Eventually a guy comes around and says “mechanical problem.” And I’m like what does that mean? And he just repeats the same phrase over and over which in that moment was highly irritating and I immediately decided I didn’t like this guy. Over the next 3 hours we would mill around the airport trying to get an update. There were very few westerners on the plane. As the delay went on it became apparent that Ethiopia Air well knew of the delay before we checked into the flight, hence why it never ended up on the list of departures. This of course was done on purpose so they didn’t have to put people up in hotels. Seeing as most of the flight was Africans I imagine they felt they could get away with treating people like this. This made me more angry. By 7am they had not given us much info or offered any of these people food or water. Many of the people on this flight wouldn’t have had the money to pay airport prices for things like food and drinks. Because I was already so annoyed I made a big deal about this to some of the airport staff and then they suddenly brought food and water out. We waited some more. We started to make back up plans. Where should we go instead we discussed? There was a flight to Dubai at 5pm. We could go home and repack and come back to the airport. Check into a 5 star hotel and lay by the pool and sip cocktails and get fanned by a pool boy. By 9am we were demanding to speak with the supervisor. I was told that he couldn’t come now because he was on the plane. We demanded refunds. They said that wasn’t a problem but that we had to wait for the supervisor. They then told us and a select few passengers that the flight was actually cancelled. Again they would refund us, but we needed to wait on the supervisor to officially state it was cancelled. So we waited some more- and bonded with a few other passengers over the disaster that is Ethiopian Air. So then the “supervisor” shows up and it’s this same jerk that we had to deal with earlier only now he’s saying that the flight is leaving right now. I’m all like “so the mechanical thing is fixed?” And he’s all like “inshallah” and my kiwi sidekick and I look at each other like are we actually doing this? And I swallow my anxiety medication and we board the plane. Eight hours after we were due to leave we actually left.

So we get on the plane and there are a bunch of crying kids because they are overtired and hungry and frustrated just like us. I put an eye mask on and my headphones in and I’m out. A while later I’m woken by someone shaking me. I groggily pull my headphones out and lift my eye mask and it’s a lady from South Africa whom we’d been chatting with earlier. She knew we were nurses and she’s saying to us “they need you. They’ve been paging a medical emergency for the last while, there’s a lady who might be in labour.” Kiwi and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders and try and get our shoes on and go see what the scenario is. I’ve never actually seen a birth take place. But I did recently compete a Neonatal Resuscitation course so I’m feeling mildly confident with my skills. The woman is on the floor. She does not speak English or Arabic. She looks to be having some pain but does not appear to be in active labour. She speaks Swahili. Thankfully there is one random dude who is acting as a translator. Kiwi leans over to me and says she knows the Swahili word for giraffe. Funny. But not helpful. There is also a girl there who has just completed nursing school. She has examined the woman and her water has not broken and she is not bleeding. I ask the man to translate a series of questions. When did the pain start? How many babies has she had? How far along is she? Can she still feel the baby moving? The pain started yesterday. It’s her 5th pregnancy, and she is 6-7 months along although to me she looks small. The baby is still moving.

I ask the flight attendants for the emergency kit. There’s not a ton in it that will be useful if she has this baby. We take her vital signs and give her something to drink as I’m sure she’s dehydrated given our lengthy delay at the airport. We are an hour outside of Addis at this point. A medical team will meet us when we land. The crew is helpful and professional. As we begin the decent they move the woman and I to business class. I have the man translate prior to him returning to his seat that if she feels severe pain or if her water breaks she should squeeze my arm. The plane lands and as we touch down she squeezes my forearm and her eyes go wide. So here we are taxiing down the runway and I’m under her skirt checking the situation. No bleeding. Her water did not break. Once we were stopped the medical team arrived and I reported off to them and the woman was taken away in a wheelchair. I wonder whatever happened to her.

And so that’s how we found ourselves in Addis Ababa deliriously tired. This was far from the only adventures we had on the trip, but luckily the kiwi and I travel great together so mostly we end up just laughing when things went awry. Would I fly Ethiopia Airlines again? No. Not unless it was free and it was the only option, but I’m sure there are worse airlines. More of our Ethiopian adventures to come….

My Top 10 from 2015

2015 was a pretty epic year of traveling for me. I’ve just switched over to my new 2016 calendar and I counted all the days I was out of Saudi traveling last year. It was 109. 109!!!! How is that even possible? Since the last time I checked I work a full-time gig as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia. But apparently I was on the go a lot. I visited 16 countries over the last year, 11 of them new for me, and I thought I would share my top 10 favourite memories from the last year. Enjoy!!

1. Cyprus

Way back in February I took a trip to Cyprus and my kiwi sidekick and I rented a car and drove around the quaint island. I have 2 favourite memories from this trip. The first was the a day we spend driving in the hills between Limassol and Paphos. The  day was cold and dreary and we visited a local winery and then made our way to a small village that was devastated and deserted by an earthquake in 1969. As we arrived in the village a torrential downpour started which only added to the creepiness of our visit, and we got soaked walking around taking photos. The village is on the way to a town called Lemona. The other great memory I have from that trip was the time a stranger gave us his BMW to drive for an afternoon. You can read about that travel tale here.

Creepy right?!

2. Norway

Two words. Lofoten Islands. Quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. They are picturesque and have this kinda of awestruck beauty that isolated and desolate places have. Every which way you turn your head was a postcard perfect view. The gagged snow covered peaks drop dramatically into the arctic sea and I would go back in a second. I think an Atheist would have a hard time believing there isn’t a higher power of some sort after visiting this island chain. See for yourself…..

3. Sweden

The whole of Scandinavia is awesome, and travel there is pretty easy. It would be a real shame if you went to Sweden and didn’t visit the Ice Hotel, even if only for the day! The Ice Hotel is an artistic marvel in that every year the design and decor is completely different. Different artists take part every year so the theme rooms change, which you have to admit is pretty cool. It is pricey, but well worth the stay. You can sleep in one of the actual ice rooms, or stay in a heated cabin like we did. Oh, and if you go make sure to do the tasting menu at the restaurant there- it is phenomenal. Maybe you’ll luck out and the Northern Lights will come out like they did for us!!

4. Finland

Dog sledding in Lapland has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was bloody cold, but so worth it.

5. Maldives

This view……I dream about it often. This is one of the most relaxed vacations I have ever had. Ever. It was hard to decide between spa, pool, eat, nap, read, repeat. This is also the place where I attempted to overcome my fear of the water and tried scuba diving.

6. Bahrain

So VIP culture is huge in the Middles East. You rarely see anything VIP in North America unless it’s in a mocking nature, but over in these parts everything is VIP. VIP movie theaters, hospitals, parking spots, entrances. It’s all a little over the top. That is until you catch a ride over the causeway to Bahrain in a vehicle with diplomatic plates and get to cross via the VIP lanes. Yep. And funfact….they have tea boys who come right up to you car to serve you tea, while you wait in line to cross the border.

7. Morocco

I blogged at great length about how difficult it was traveling in Morocco, but one the best things we did while there was take a cooking class thru Souk Cuisine. This class included a shopping trip to buy the needed ingredients in the Medina and was a great way to learn about local ingredients whilst mixing with the locals. Even though Morocco was sometimes very challenging the food was ALWAYS delicious. I would pretty much recommend doing a cooking class or food tour whenever you travel. I’m doing one later this month in Spain and can’t wait!!

8. Bali Indonesia

At the end of August I took part in a retreat on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Bali with 17 other ladies from all over the world. My time there was so needed and really came at a time when I needed to slow down and work through some things on my own. The location was beautiful, as were the many lovely ladies I met. This was a time of much needed R&R and reflection, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful friendships that were formed from my time in Bali.

9. Oktoberfest Germany

Even though I ended up with a GI bug from hell, Oktoberfest was a seriously fun time (while it lasted.) I mean what’s not to love about a group of traditionally costumed and hugely intoxicated people smashing beer steins together while singing traditional German songs at the top of ones lungs. It was a good time, and YOLO you really only do live once so you should go.

10. Sparkling Hills Spa in British Columbia Canada

Last month I took my mom to this spa about an hour from where she lives. This is a place people have been raving about since it opened a few years back and I was keen to see what all the hype was about! The hotel is pretty much the luxury accommodations in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and known for its spa, saunas and heated outdoor infinity pools. The views from the rooms are amazing, as are the 7 saunas and the indoor floating pool with classical music playing under the water. Well worth the visit, and it was a great mother-daughter retreat.

So really that wraps up 2015. It was a pretty great year. I’m really excited to see what is in store for 2016. I’m excited for the new faces I will meet, the new sights I will see, and the changes that will take place inside of me.  I found this quote that sums up my thoughts about the upcoming year perfectly, and my hopes for both you and I…..

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, for all of us, and my wish for myself.

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t prefect, whatever it is; art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman

Morocco……The Dirty Truth….

Firstly, this blog post contains adult language and is meant for…..you guessed it….adults. I don’t swear on this blog very often, however; swear words are needed to get my point across. Oh, and you’ve been warned. This is a doozy of a post.

I wanted to love Morocco. I really did. But truth be told this was the first vacation ever, that I wasn’t at all disappointed to be flying away. As I’ve already written it wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t. But when it wasn’t good it was really bad, and draining, and frustrating, and I’m surprised I didn’t actually punch someone in the face. Almost all the bad encounters we had took place in the Medina of Marrakech. I imagine if we hadn’t been 2 very western looking girls we might’ve had a different experience. I’m sure if we had’ve had a man with us many of these situation wouldn’t of happened. I should probably preface this post with the fact that the majority of the places I travel to, I’m used to standing out. I have blond hair. This tends to get a lot of stares in the Middle East. Same as when I traveled in India. And Bangladesh. And Southeast Asia. Until Morocco, my western looks usually only drew stares, and occasionally a “Hello“, or “photo photo!!” But generally, nothing more than that.

Morocco was another story. The first night we went out in Marrakech we got a lot of cat calling. Mostly “hey beautiful” and “beautiful asses” was what was yelled after us. Granted I agree that I do have a beautiful ass, but generally strangers don’t make a habit of yelling this. There were a few wedding proposals, but that first night we had no idea what was in store for us. On day 2 we were walking in an alleyway when 3 young boys approached us- they were between the ages of 8-11 by guess. One of them had a water balloon and they surrounded us. The next thing we know they are pointing at our breasts, literally fingers like a centimeter from our chests and then the kid with the water balloon puts part of it in his mouth and starts sucking it like a teet. No joke. My jaw fell open and I was speechless, which for those of you who know me doesn’t happen often. They trailed us for a few minutes all the while pointing at our chests while the one little shit sucked away on the balloon. Afterwards, all we could really do was look at each other and say “well, that just happened.

From here it only got worse. We ventured to the main square called Djemaa El-Fna. As I’ve previously reported this place is a complete cluster, and a people-watchers dream. The food stalls are delicious and super cheap. But that cheapness comes with a steep price that you pay by being publicly shamed and belittled by the men acting as touts for the food stalls. The food is sooooo good. And yet it’s such an off-putting experience to get it. Every time we went- which was a bunch of times, because of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had, we had some sort of shit happen. Let me paint the scene for you. There are aisles of food stalls, and literally as soon as you start walking towards them these food touts are already eyeing you up. And they start yelling at you immediately. And oddly, they’re all talking in uber fake Australian accents, which we never could figure out why this was a plausible tactic. So they see you coming. And they’re yelling at you to get your attention, and several of them start jogging over and they surround you and start shoving menus in your face. And you’re overwhelmed. Mostly because you’re hungry and just want to be left the hell alone. We ate at the same food stalls- the ones frequented by locals and not tourists as it’s a no-brainer that they had the best food. So we would try and ignore the aggressive touts and make our way to where we actually wanted to be going. At first politely trying to say “no thanks” or “we know where we’re going” and then these overly eager food touts would literally tell us to “Fuck off then” or “Go fuck yourself” or my personal favourite was to call us fat and tell us to “Take off.” I’m really curious about how this works to bring in business, or helps Morocco’s poor economy with bringing in tourist money. If you have any insight into this I would very much love to know. Once we overcame the shock of repeatedly being told to “Go fuck ourselves” we would order our food and sit back and watch the mayhem. It should be noted that the actual people who worked in the food stalls were lovely. They remembered us every time we came back, and were never rude to us. The other reason I was so bothered by these encounters is that these touts use intimidation tactics. They will literally swarm a woman on her own, and we even witnessed them going up to young guys and literally putting their hands on their chests to try and get them to eat at whatever stall they worked for.

This same tactic was used by people who worked in shops. Many times while walking thru the Medina our path would be blocked by men trying to get us to go into their store. We would try and step around them and they would side step to block us again. Sometimes they would actually touch us- grabbing our wrists to drag us into the shop, or they would try and push us in. When we weren’t especially receptive to this it wasn’t uncommon for them the tell us to “Fuck off.” Harsh. And when is it ever appropriate to grab a woman’s wrist to physically try and man-handle her into a store? Our second last day in Marrakech a guy grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me into his store and I started screaming at him “Don’t touch me.” I had completely had enough at that point.

The other thing about Morocco is that everyone, and I do mean everyone knows where you are going at all times. They will try and tell you that you are going the wrong way- “I’m sorry sir, do you even know where we’re heading?” And they always know whether that place that you are going, you know the one you haven’t yet told them, whether it is open or closed. Often they will claim it is closed. Don’t listen to them. Walk up the street and find out for yourself. It is so annoying. If by chance they actually ask you where you are headed, just keep walking. Or tell them “your mamma’s house” and keep walking. Cause if you stop I guarantee they will tell you that you are going the wrong way, and ever so kindly try the show you the way. Except that they way they will take you will only end with you being led to the tanneries. We learned this the hard way. Twice. It’s very obvious that if someone shows up with tourists to the tanneries they get a cut of whatever the tourist buys. Luckily, you can smell the tanneries before you actually get there, so you’ll quickly clue in if that isn’t your desired destination.

Obviously it wasn’t all bad, and we did meet some very kind and friendly people. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to Marrakech or Morocco. I’m just saying that if you are a woman and you look at all western you should be aware of the shitstorm that will likely follow you everywhere. I’m also writing this because you never know- someone from Morocco might read this and say “these don’t seem like great tactics, maybe we shouldn’t bully and shame the very people who we are relying on to help our economy.” I’ve been torn about how to describe my time in Morocco because it really pisses me off to think if only we had a man with us many of these things wouldn’t have happened. NEWSFLASH Morocco– woman travel solo, or in pairs and its 2015. We shouldn’t need to have a man with us just so we don’t get harassed. Oh, and also just as a general rule…when you tell someone to “Go fuck themselves” this is not conducive to business. Nor does it make me stop and think “on second thought maybe I do want to look in that store after all.

I’ll end with the fact that Morocco was beautiful, the food was excellent, and as much as I wanted to like it, when people ask me how my trip there was I’m conflicted as to what to say. So I say exactly this: it was a hard country to travel in. The hardest I’ve been to. And yet, I feel like I have unfinished business with it. I’ve traveled to 40 countries now, and this was the first time that I’ve left a country feeling like this. So Morocco, we might just meet again in the future, and if we do could you lay off the “F” word pretty please.

Did you have a similar experience traveling in Morocco? Have you ever traveled somewhere that you thought you would love, but didn’t?

Moroccan Food

A person can’t talk about Morocco without talking about the food. Moroccan food is spectacular. I seriously don’t think we had a bad meal. How often can you say that on a 2 week trip?! Often once you sit down at a restaurant complimentary olives are served, and lucky for me, my Yankee sidekick hates olives. So yay, more olives for me. We would start most meals with Moroccan salads. They consist mostly of cooked vegetables perfectly seasoned. I’m talking pureed eggplant with garlic, paprika, and cumin so it tastes super smoky, or sauteed zucchini with Moroccan seasoning, or a flavourful beet salad, or boiled and marinated carrot salad. Yumm right?! We would then usually share a tajine with couscous. For dessert there were delicious choices of pie, pastries, Moroccan cookies with almonds, or a simple plate of orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. Also before or after meals mint tea was served, which is probably the most popular drink in Morocco. It’s delicious- I always have mine sweet (with sugar) but you have the option of no sugar also.

Tajines are traditionally from North Africa, and there are many different varieties that often resemble a stew. The tajine pot is ceramic with a wide bowl like base, and a funnel type of lid. Historically they were cooked on charcoal, but present day they go on the stove-top. The tajines we tasted typically were lamb, beef, or chicken although there are vegetarian options available. Often they combined both the savoury flavours of the meat and paired it with sweet flavours of either mango, lemons, prunes, or almonds. Tajines are super tender- the meat often pulls away from the bone, and they are meant to be paired with either bread or couscous. The lemon chicken tajine was always good, as were the beef with vegetabes ones- it reminded me of a wintertime stew. Moral of this food story- you can NEVER go wrong with a tajine.

On the off chance that we were tajined-out (is that even a thing?) we would head to the main square in Marrakech (Djemma El-Fna) to eat the street food sold at the stalls there. It was so very good, and so very cheap, but the verbal assaults one had to endure to get this delicious food came at a cost. My next post will be about the negative side of Morocco, but for now we’re talking about delicious food. There is a soup called Harira soup that is super good and seeing as it was Ramada people would break their fast with this soup and a hard boiled egg. It’s similar to what we in the west think of as minestrone soup, and it’s a tasty treat. Also super cheap. The other thing that we tried many, many times, and that I have serious cravings for,  were these petite sandwiches. The one that I fell in love with took half a pita bread and mixed together cooked potato, a boiled egg, soft cheese, oil, salt and pepper and chilli powder. So easy, and literally the best sandwich I’ve ever had. We must’ve eaten at the square at least 5 or 6 evenings, as Harira soup and the petite sandwiches were so good. If you go- get your sandwiches from stall # 66. All the locals eat there, and everyone knows if the locals eat there the food will be dang good.

The soup stall

Aggressive food touts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my second last day in Morocco my Yankee side kick and I took a cooking class in Marrakech. We decided on Souk Cuisine because in addition to the cooking class we actually spent part of the morning buying the ingredients in the Medina and visiting a spice market. The class was taught by Gemma who is an ex-pat from Holland who has lived in Marrakech for the last many years. We met in the main square- there ended up being us and then 2 other couples on the tour. We were given shopping lists and bags, and led into the Medina in hunt of the ingredients. This was a great way to leisurely take in the markets, as well as be able to take some great photographs as we strolled past jars of olives and preserved lemons, past fresh local produce, and butchers selling fresh meat. We even had to arrange for fresh chicken- and I mean pick a chicken for the butcher to kill and pluck. This was hard for me- I’m not proud of this fact, but I like to be completely ignorant of where my food comes from. This was a little too real. From here we got a tour of the local spice market. Moroccan cooking uses a lot of saffron, paprika, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After we picked up all the ingredients needed for the cooking class we headed to a nearby house to start the cooking portion. In addition to Gemma we also had 2 Moroccan ladies assisting with the food prep. The menu changes, but for our class we prepared Moroccan salad with fresh tomatoes, zucchini salad, carrot salad with almonds and raisins, eggplant salad, a sardine appetizer, chicken tajine with carrots and chickpeas, and for dessert Moroccan sugar cookies. Since I have zero domestic skills  I was given the simple tasks- you know the ones you would give to a child. Yep. The real cooking was left to those with more experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part way thru the class my sidekick and I were left with the task of taking the sardine dish to the local communal bakery where it could be baked at high temperatures. There are communal bakeries in every neighbourhood where local women bring their daily  bread as well as other dishes to be baked for a small fee. We dropped off the dish and went back 30 minutes later to collect it. The men working there were naturally quite taken with us, wanting to show us how the oven worked, how deep it was, and the main baker posed for photos. Fun fact: the oven was super deep- he would shove in this long piece of wood and pull out like 20 loafs of bread. It was a really fun experience, and one that we wouldn’t have had were it not for this class. After the cooking was finished it was time to taste our creations, perfectly paired with chilled Moroccan white wine. It was a lovely afternoon. I would highly recommend a cooking class if you’re planning on traveling to Morocco.

Have you taken a cooking class while traveling? Did you recreate the recipes once you got back home?

 

 

Moroccan Hammam

You’ve never truly solidified a friendship until you’ve been scrubbed raw by a Moroccan lady while wearing only your underwear with your best mate. That is the mark of a true friendship. Let me set the scene for you……one of the riads that we were staying at asked us if we wanted to visit a local hammam and since I have never had a true hammam experience I was like sure why not?! So off we go to the Moroccan spa. We walk in and the place is quite nice, and we are given robes to wear, and led up to lounge on the rooftop terrace. Which in theory sounds relaxing, but it’s like 35C and we’re just basically sweating our asses off in one size too small terry-cloth robes. As it turned out the hammam was on the roof, so we’re led into this cement room with benches, and asked to lay down. Next thing you know buckets of hot water are being thrown on us. And when I say thrown I really mean thrown. Now the benches are covered in plastic. And as you can imagine plastic when it gets wet is super slippery. Like slip-n-slide slippery.

So we’re being doused with buckets of water, and I’m not especially a huge fan of getting my face wet. And also for some silly reason I didn’t even think to take off my mascara so now I’m topless with my best friend with 2 Moroccan women and I literally look like a crying Panda bear. It was a real special moment, rest assured. So after we’re adequately soaked we’re covered in argan oil and left to lounge in the humid hammam for a bit. So we’re chatting a little bit and the whole time my brain is thinking “stare into her eyes, DON’T look at her boobs. Oh shit you looked. Eye contact. Maintain eye contact.” Sorry J- I accidentally might have looked. My bad.

So the ladies come back in and tell us to turn over. This in and of itself was a major feat, as you can imagine a plastic bench is slippery when wet, but it’s slippery as heck when you’re covered in oil. I was imagining myself attempting to turn over, but actually propelling myself off the bench and landing on the hammam floor, at the feet of a strange Moroccan lady and then looking up at her like a crying Panda. Thankfully, this did not happen. More buckets of water were thrown at us, and then came the really fun part. The scrubbing. I’m quite certain I’ve never been cleaner once this lady was done. Basically your skin is scrubbed raw and all the old grey dead skin is left. It’s pretty gross. And they scrub everywhere. Including my feet, which trust me really needed it after days spent walking in sandals on the dusty Marrakech streets. But here’s the thing. My feet are super ticklish. As in I might accidentally kick you in the head kinda ticklish. Oh, and I giggle the entire time my feet are being touched. So now I’m resembling a half naked giggling Panda. Oh, the levels of humiliation…..

After the scrubbing, more water is thrown at us, and then they braided our hair. Which was a nice touch. Then we were helped into our robes and escorted to our massages. Correction. Couples massage. Yep, same room as my bestie. At this point I’m expecting the day to wrap up with a group shower. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.

Have you been to a hammam? Ever had a similar experience??

Chefchaouen Morocco

After stopping off at Volubilis we drove another 3 hrs to Chefchaouen a small city in the north of Morocco in the Rif mountains. Chefchaouen is famous for being the “Blue City” of Morocco. If you’ve ever drooled over photos of Morocco many of them were likely taken here. The city originates from the late 1400s. It grew in size as Jewish and Muslim refugees arrived from Granada, and remained relatively isolated until the 1920s when it was occupied by Spanish troops to form part of Spanish Morocco. Chefchaouen was reportedly painted blue back in the 1930’s by Jewish refugees who lived there. The city was then returned to Morocco when Morocco won independence in 1956.

The city is extremely photogenic, which makes it a prime tourist stop. It has a Spanish flare about it paying homage to the early inhabitants of the city, which only adds to its appeal. Our entire trip to Morocco centered around visiting Chefchaouen, and the city did not disappoint. We spent 2 relaxing nights here at Casa Perleta. If you go I think you should stay here. The staff were lovely, and it’s located near one of the main entrances to the Medina which means you won’t have to schlep your luggage very far. The only down side was that there was a megaphone from the mosque next door pointed right at our window- don’t let that deter you from staying here though, because as with most Muslim countries there’s always a mosque with a megaphone near by.

Casa Perleta terrace views

Casa Perleta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two nights was enough time to explore Chefchaouen. Our main goal was to take as many photos of blue houses, doors, door knockers, and blue windows as we could. As I’ve already mentioned ever corner you turn looks like it should be  a postcard. When you get tired of taking photos (is that even possible?) there’s other things to do as well. There are restaurants and cafes to sit at with great views of the main square. The old men of Chefchaouen love to sit around and chit chat around the old square. And they are super cute to watch. Coincidentally people of this village often wear these cloak like garments that are a cross between a housecoat, and a muumuu with a pointed hood. Personally I thought everyone looked a bit like a magician, or like an older Harry Potter character except that most of these outfits were either white, tan, or yellow.

 

 

 

 

 

How cute are these guys??

See- slightly wizzard-ish

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent some time at the Kasbah Museum which is housed in an old walled fortress from the early 18th century. None of the signs in the museum are in English (Spanish and French and likely Arabic if memory serves me)- but it’s still worth going because the gardens are beautiful, and the views from the tower are panoramic. Also if you’re a bit of a paparazzi like me they’re great for getting pictures of unsuspecting locals dressed as wizzards going about their day. I know I should feel a little bad about taking photos without permission but I’ve had my photo taken literally hundreds of times all over India and Bangladesh, and much of the Middle East. So fair’s fair right?!

Spanish Mosque from the Kasbah

Looks like a postcard right?!

After you’ve finished taking panoramic shots and sneaky photos of the elderly villagers you should make the short hike to the Spanish Mosque. Don’t go mid-day as it’s far too hot in the summer months. We went in the early morning, but it would be spectacular at sunset. I also wouldn’t go alone as a woman, as the only other people we saw on the path were men, and one of them I inadvertently made eye contact with while he was peeing. To be fair, I didn’t realize he was peeing until we made eye contact, we shared a really weird moment. So anyways, the mosque overlooks the town on an opposite hill about 2km from the edge of the Medina once you’ve crossed the river. It took us about 30min to get to the top at a moderate pace with a few stop-offs for photos. There were some stray dogs along the way- one of them decided to be our guide and luckily also our guard as he scared off a rather aggressive dog we crossed paths with at the top. The mosque itself was built by the Spanish in the 1920’s when they occupied the city- it reportedly was never used by the local Muslims. The doors were locked when we visited. It’s well worth the walk up because the photos of the city with the different shades of blue against the opposite hill is impressive.

Views from the Spanish Mosque

Our guide and guard dog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Colourful blue doors....

Colourful blue doors….

From here we had a driver take us 4hrs to Rabat where we caught the train back to Marrakesh for the better part of a week. Next in the Morocco series- the Moroccan hammam experience.

 

Volubilis Morocco

On route to Volubilis

On route to Volubilis

I have come to learn that Roman ruins look like…..you guessed it…..Roman ruins the world over. Sites that I have visited in Syria look similar to sites I visited in Jordan while still similar to sites in Cyprus and also to sites in Morocco. Romans had their building styles down. Seriously. So on route to the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen we stopped off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis. Volubilis is located about 90min west of Fez. We hired a driver to take us to Chefchaouen and had decided to make a stop-off to see these Roman sites.

Volubilis is only partially excavated, and is in varying states of ruin, literally in the middle of an agriculture field surrounded by a small town. They are reportedly the best preserved site in Morocco which was why we were keen to see it. The area was developed in the 3rd century BC and expanded under Roman rule in the 1st century AD. It is estimated that the 40 hectare site housed some 20 000 people at its peak. In the 2nd and 3rd century the basilica, arch, and baths were added and the area was known for its fertile soil and subsequent olive groves. By the end of the 3rd century the site fell to local Berber tribes and the area was abandoned by the Romans. It would remain abandoned for another 700 years before becoming an Islamic settlement in the 8th century. By the 11th century it was abandoned again. In the mid-18th century the ruins were damaged in an earthquake.

We arrived at the site mid-morning, and as it was the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan the site was empty. I don’t remember how much the entrance fee was but as with all tourists sites in Morocco it was very cheap compared to what you would pay anywhere else. There are guides available at the entrance but we decided to wander on our own. You will need at least 60-90 minutes to do it justice, and wear decent shoes as the paths are rocky. Also bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat if visiting in the summer months because there is like zero shade and you will be sweating your ass off.

Volubilis is known for its well preserved mosaics and the remains of the Capitol, Basilica and the Triumph Arch. The mosaics are roped off, but otherwise you can freely roam through the rest of the site. The Basilica has reconstructed columns where if you time your visit with stork nesting season you’ll be able to see the storks perched on the tops of the columns. I like the Triumph Arch the best personally. The mosaics were slightly confusing. In the House of the Acrobat there is one of a guy riding a horse (although it looks more like a donkey to me) backwards that was confusing. Also the guy looks naked. I feel like riding a horse backwards while naked is a recipe for disaster. According to my Lonely Planet it is meant to depict an athlete who received a trophy for dismounting his horse and then jumping back on while the horse was moving. Those crazy Romans!!!

The view towards the Capital

See the nesting storks??

 

 

 

 

 

Archway of the Basilica

The view of the Basilica ruins

 

 

 

 

 

Horse vs donkey??

Me at the Triumph Arch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main road from the Triumph Arch is called the Decumanus Maximus and is lined with the ruins of houses on either side. The House of Ephebus and the House of the Knight contain mosaics that are fairly well maintained, but the best preserved mosaics are found in the House of Venus. They are the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, and Diana Bathing. The story behind the mosaic of Diana Bathing was that a hunter named Acteon saw Diana bathing and she punished him by turning him into a stag. Well played Diana, well played.

Very ornate ruins of a column

House of the Columns

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Bathing

The ruins amongst the fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you find yourself in the northwestern part of Morocco you should make a stop at Volubilis. The green colour of the fields surrounding this archeological site make for great photos, and it’s not every day that you get to see a mosaic from the 2nd or 3rd century of a questionably naked guy riding a horse backwards. Trust me.

Fez Morocco

Fez is the second largest city in Morocco (Casablanca is the largest) and up until the mid 1920’s it was Morocco’s capital (Rabat is the current capital.) Fez is considered to have the largest Medina in the world. It has over 9000 maze-like streets and alleyways. The Medina was founded in the 9th century and the entire area is a UNESCO site. Similarly to Marrakech the city is broken into the old and new parts.

We took a 1st class train from Marrakech to Fez which takes about 8hrs. Moroccan trains are nice. They have AC, the bathrooms aren’t awful (although like Indian trains they just open onto the tracks), and they have a roaming food cart. We shared a 6 person berth and both had window seats. Not a bad way to travel. Personally, I love the motion of travel. I love to watch the scenery, and the world go by as I listen to music or just contemplate life. The train made it’s way northwest from Marrakech towards the coastal areas of Casablanca and Rabat before cutting east towards Meknes and ending in Fez. The city itself was much larger than I had originally expected. We booked a riad on the outskirts of the Medina called Riad Jamai and it was lovely. It you are planning a trip to Fez this is a great place to stay as it’s easy to get to by car, and the staff are super helpful. They have a lovely rooftop terrace which is a great way to take in the sunset while sipping a glass of wine while listening to the call to prayer chime in from all the surrounding mosques. This really is a magical experience. We decided to eat dinner here both nights, and they were 2 of the best meals we had.

First class berth

Moroccan rail travel

 

 

 

 

 

Riad Jamai

Riad Jamai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fez sunset

Sunset over the Medina

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had been forewarned about wandering the Medina at night by many of the locals we met. Petty-crime is the most common complaint. The Medina is so large that it’s rather intimidating, and this seemed like sound advice so we didn’t venture out at night. The following day we hired a guide who took us around Fez for an entire day. With a guide you can easily see everything you want to see in a day- but wear comfortable shoes because you will put on a lot of miles doing it. Fez is also not a flat city, so be prepared for some steep hills and to climb some stairs as you explore. We started off the day by exiting the Medina via the Bab Boujloud gate (otherwise known as the “Blue Gate” although it’s blue on one side and green on the other) and hailing a taxi to take us the the Jewish quarter otherwise known as a mellah. Prior to the exodus to Israel it’s estimated that between 250 000-350 000 Jewish people lived in Morocco, making it the largest Jewish population in a Muslim country- today, it’s estimated that around 2500 remain, mostly residing in Casablanca. We visited the Jewish cemetery and drove past what remains of some Jewish houses which stand in contrast to the Muslim homes as they have open second floor balconies. From here we walked over to the King’s Palace with its ornate golden doors and then visited the Batha Museum which is housed in a 19th century summer palace with beautiful gardens. We then walked back into the Medina winding our way past bakery stalls, butchers, and vegetable sellers. The market was a bustle of activity, as it was day before Ramadan would start and people were stocking up for festivities for that night.

It’s blue on the other side I swear…

Jewish cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

The King’s Palace

Gardens at the Batha Museum

 

 

 

From here we took another taxi to Merenid Tombs dating from the 13th to 15th century. These tombs offer spectacular views of the Medina below. Little is known of these tombs, but they are believed to possibly have housed royalty. From here we visited the Fassi ceramic and pottery co-operative and got a tour about how Moroccan pottery is made. Of course there’s no way to get out of there without buying something, because everything is super beautiful. I bought a lovely oven safe plate- which really is rather silly because I neither cook, nor do I live somewhere currently that has an oven. But it is very pretty so c’est la vie. We were then dropped back in the Medina and our guide dropped us off for lunch before we started touring again. Next on the itinerary was Kairaouine Mosque and University. The university is thought to be the oldest university in the world. It was opened in 859 and in 1963 it was included in Morocco’s state university system. As non-Muslims we were only allowed to sneak views (and photos) thru the doorways.

View of Fez Medina

Merenid Tombs

 

 

 

 

 

Old city wall

Public gardens in the new town

 

 

 

 

 

Pottery making

Beautiful Fassi Pottery

From here we did a little shopping. Then we ended up at the tanneries. Locals all over Morocco love the tanneries, in that no matter where you are going someone will suggest or try and lead you to the tanneries. Obviously the locals get compensated for anything you might buy. So off to the tanneries we go, because according to my bible (the Lonely Planet) Fez leather is some of the finest leather in the world. And I was itching for a new jacket. You can really smell the tanneries before you see them. They are gag-worthy. Luckily, they give you a fresh sprig of mint which only slightly masks the smell but did prevent me from vomiting in my mouth. I’ve read that for photographic purposes it’s best to go to the tanneries in the morning when the colour is most vibrant, but we went in the afternoon, and the pictures were great. So after we’d been told the whole leather spiel the pressure was on for us to buy something. And buy something we did. We both bought lovely leather/Berber carpet bags, and I bought a soft black leather crop jacket. I’m very much looking forward to being able to wear it in the cooler months. From here we wandered back towards our riad while stopping off at Nejjarine Fountain a very ornately restored fountain.

Fez tanneries

Colourful dye

 

 

 

 

 

Berber carpets

Najjarine Fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up our 2 nights in Fez. Of course there is much more to explore and we could have spend much more time here, but for us this was a perfect amount. From here we headed towards the famous blue city of Chefchaouen with a stop-off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis.

Have you been to Fez? What did you think?

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