A Travellerspoint blog

Sensational Abu Dhabi

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Etihad, to their credit, tried hard to make friends with us again. The flight was good, but the sleep was horrible (like they all are on planes), but probably amplified by the actual shortness of the night (about 5 hours of darkness) - throwing our body clock out of sync. The wall of hot, dry air as soon as we left the airport on shocked us awake though... it was already in excess of 40 degrees by 8.30am!!!

Arriving at our hotel - the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr - at 9am, we were still able to check in immediately. Wow, what a fantastic hotel. Our room has a view out towards the Shiekh Zayed Mosque, the largest mosque in the UAE. The hotel is superb - a beach, pools, 2 bars, 4 restaurants, and all the 5 star trimmings you would expect.

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A shower and morning tea at The Chocolate Gallery, Renae soon heads off shopping at one of the city's large malls, while Tim headed off to Ferrariworld (possibly a little over-rated) and the Yas Marina F1 circuit. The haze from the desert sand sweeping cross the UAE was intensifying, and soon many buildings - certainly those on the horizon - were lost from view.

After the near sleepless flight, and needing some relaxation, the afternoon was spent bck at the hotel we were able to catch Queensland's superb Origin victory in HD and ad-free (unfortunately, not Gus Gould free). The haze started to clear (slightly) as the wind dropped, but the 42 degree heat still saw the swimming pool call us.

As day turned to night, the pool side drinks turned into dinner at Frankie Dettori's restaurant... wow. Stunning. Probably the best meals we have ever eaten.

Our second (and last) day in Abu Dhabi followed a similar pattern... the morning spent at the Emirates Palace - an over extravagant hotel, where we indulged in lunch finished with gold flaked topped cappuccinos. Yum.

'The' sight of Abu Dhabi however is the Grand Mosque (the Shiekh Zayed Mosque), and we timed our visit perfectly to miss all the tour buses. Wow, what an amazing building. The mosque is huge - large enough to hold over 40,000 worshippers (at least 7,000 of these just inside the main prayer hall alone). The mosque is so ornately decorated too... crystal chandeliers, marble columns containing pearl in lays, gold finishes and other precious stones line many of the surfaces. It was definitely an experience we both enjoyed.

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Sightseeing over, a quick session at the fitness club is followed up with a few hours recuperating in the swimming pool, and rehydrating with cocktails at the swim up bar. We looked around and took in the view over our beach towards the Grand Mosque and watched as the sun set behind a hazy horizon.

What a fantastic, relaxing way to end our last full day on holiday. So here is this blog. Our final hours in the UAE before we are homeward bound. It has been an amazing trip... Dubai, Morocco, Spain, France and Abu Dhabi... 38 days and a lifetime of memories.

We're looking forward to coming home though, and catching up with our friends. Most importantly, we're looking forward to picking up Misha and Bella, we've missed them heaps.

Posted by timandren 14:08 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged abu_dhabi Comments (0)

Adios Espana

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We spend the last of our time in Spain back where we started - Madrid. Finishing off with shopping and a walk around the cyprus garden planted in the memory of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, we see the last of Spain in beautiful sunshine.

Madrid is a great city... it's not pretentious, it's not 'touristy', has retained its heritge, and is probably the best place to end our time in Spain. So to Spain, gracias and adios.

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The airport check-in was uneventful, as we looked to board our Brussels Airways flight to Belgium - part of Etihad's route from Madrid to Abu Dhabi. Even though we had booked with Etihad, we knew we were flying with one of the afflited code share partners. But, wht we weren't expecting was a disgraceful airline. The worst flight we have EVER had. Not known to us, Brussels Airways is a budget carrier (certainly not known when we gave Etihad our hard earned cash). Other than the fact that the two hour+ flight had no food or drinks, we literally were travelling cattle class... our own hand luggage had to be stowed between our feet and on our laps... school bus style. And then the air hostesses had the audacity to tell Tim to take his feet out of the aisle because that had to be kept clear in case of emergency! This, despite us carrying our own luggage (with others on the plane) itself being a safety hazard!

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Landing in Brussel's, we headed - straight after giving Etihad a serve - to one of the bars, and scratching together the last of our Euro's (soon to be a collectors item!!!) enjoyed the moment of finally drinking Belgian beir in Belgium.

Next, our Etihad flight back to the United Arab Emirates.

Posted by timandren 12:31 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The Spainish Countdown

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Crossing back into Spain, it was like we never left France. There seemed to be more French in San Sebastian than Spanish! As for those Purgeot drivers....

We arrived in San Sebastian and were immediately lost. The city is much bigger than we had envisaged, not helped by the highway taking us way down to the far western end of San Seb. The rain was pouring by this point, and the wind made it incredibly cold.finding our way to our hotel, we then needed to find a carpark! For those who have spent time in San Seb you will no doubt know the pain...

We jagged a spot, and refused to drive anywhere else. We were staying on the eastern side of the river, so immediately walked to the 'old' part of San Seb on the western side - when the rain and wind picked up. It was bitterly cold as the wind came in off the ocean... it was miserable! The weather didn't really change the whole time we where there... meaning we couldn't enjoy the tapas bar lined streets, the river, the headlands (with views back to San Seb) or even the world famous beaches. The closest we got to the beach was the few minutes it didn't pour with rain just as we were leaving!

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It must be a great place in the warm summers!

From San Seb we headed to Burgos - a much quieter town, well a least the part we stayed in. Our hotel was right on the river edge and we had an awesome terrace view. The main plaza and impressive Burgos Catherdral (nearly 800 years old, although it did take a number of centuries to build) were just a few minutes walk from us. Again, we were dogged by rain and even hail.

We were only in Burgos for a night, and soon headed south to Segovia, a world heritage listed town filled with some remarkable sights... the Roman Aquaduct (2,000 years old), the 12th century Segovia Fortress (a medieval castle thought to have inspired Walt Disney in his castle at Disneyland) and the 500 year old Segovia Cathedral being the highlights. Our hotel was right on Plaza Mayor, and our terrace room meant we could look out over the cobble stone square and Catherdral. The plaza was lively when we arrived - street performers, bands and kids playing soccer. But the square became quiet really quickly towards the end of the day... everyone simply left (so much for 'the lively square' Lonely Planet!).

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The town is full of history, being the site of so many battles as well as ancient innovation (by the Romans). That said, we'd spent pretty much a whole day here and experienced most of the historic sights. With the town feeling deserted, and with the many extra hours of Spainish daylight, could have continued onto Madrid - our final destination in Spain - which is only an hour away. We went back to our hotel for beers, until the restaurants finally opened, before the final drive to Madrid tomorrow.

Posted by timandren 15:14 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The Pyrenees Climb

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Leaving Zaragoza behind us, we head north and soon escape the industrial outskirts of the city. Our ultimate destination is a small lodge about 20 mins out of Laruns, in France, nestled in the heart of the Pyrenees.

We take 'the long road', which was awesome. Off the main "highway", our narrow country road takes us up, down and around some amazing scenery. The lower parts of the Pyrenees are a mix of greens and yellows as the trees all change colours as the season moves well into Spring. The rivers are still flowing with ice cold water from the higher (and still snow capped) alps which we can see in the distance.

Lunch is at the town of Broto, which is quiet other than a few people trekking and some people river rafting. It's also cold, despite the sun, but the clouds are stating to gather and it runs just a little.

About 30 mins later, and we've driven to the main car park of the Pyrenees park, we're the serious hikers are gearing up for their treks. While it did start to rain, the scenery remained spectacular. The mountains, gorges and cliff faces simply dominate.

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We keep heading north, climbing higher, and soon find France. The border crossing is soooo busy because (on the Spanish side) there are so many shops selling alcohol so cheap that everyone is stocking up. Not wanting to look out of place, we also bought a bottle of rum and 8 beers for less than 25 Euro!

And then we were in France.

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The drive through southern France was, for the distance to Laruns, much like the final climb through Spain. The mountain ranges were spectacular, and other than the arrogant French Peugeot drivers (easier to identity with the 'F' on the number plates), the drive through the Pyrenees ranges was enjoyable.

Laruns is a really small town, but we found a bar / restaurant on the main square - the quintessential European look... church dominating the cobble stone street, Renaults and Citroens parked on the edges, the mountains surrounding disappearing in the mist...

The rest of our time in France -about 24 hours - was typically spent on the roads, resisting the urge to speak the universal sign language to the French drivers who sat on our arse along the roads. We stopped at Bayonne, and walked the pedestrian streets around their main church and plaza, again doing more shopping - this time recalling some of the basic French we picked up in Morocco. It was really cold and overcast, and certainly not as 'green' a city as many we have visited in Spain... perhaps it was just the wether, but it fely like a very grey and bleak place.

Back on the road after a few hours, we found the 130kmh highway again, but headed south back to Spain. The rain closing in, the drive was made all the more harder by the French! Seriously, it's amazing that driving courtesy seems to stop at the Pyrenees border crossing! Sacrebleu! Get us ack to Spain!

Posted by timandren 14:30 Archived in France Tagged pyrenees Comments (0)

On The Road

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We picked up our sporty 2012 Audi A3 and hit the road... the wrong side of the road, indicators and wipers all going coming into the first corner. Driving in Spain Level 1 - first intersection - sympathetic pass.

Heading out of Barcelona at the tail end of peak hour, we don't travel far until we negotiate our first roundabout... the 8 lane, signalised Espanya roundabout where 6 roads intersect. Doing a couple of circuits to get the correct lane, we make the corner. Driving in Spain Level 2 - Roundabouts - pass.

We cruise through the outlying towns and avoid the super highway so that we can hug the Mediterranean coast. The water is so clear and blue, it is amazing. the road twists and turns around the hills which plunge into the Mediterranean, passing beaches, small coastal towns and boat harbours.

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As we start to head in land, we look for our highway to Zaragoza, our destination for the next 2 nights. Getting caught in the wrong highway on ramp, we find ourselves heading half way back to Barcelona on the tollway in the wrong direction. Driving in Spain Level 3 - highways - fail.

Eventually taking an exit and heading back away from Barca (and 13 Euro in tolls later) we stop at the historic town of Mont Blanc for coffee and a break. While all of the shops were closed (and so the streets were very quiet), the Plaza Mayor had a few coffee shops and bars open with locals and ther tourists enjoying the bright sunshine.

Back on the highway to Zaragoza and we found that the A3 drives sweetly at 160kmh. While the highways are signposted at 120, we found 140-150 was the norm, but we're still getting overtaken - sometimes by courier vans! The roads are so well built, that the speed isn't dangerous or reckless. And the Spanish drivers are reasonably courteous, which helps.

Zaragoza is an interesting place. It's a historic city, full of churches, but other than that there isn't a lot going on. That said, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (built from 1681) is an amazing structure that dominates the skyline from afar and the riverbank it sits on. It's an impressive sight during the day, at sunset and at night.

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More shopping, more beer, more tapas, and more sangria. Our short stay in Zaragoza is up.

Posted by timandren 10:40 Archived in Spain Tagged zaragoza Comments (0)

Beautiful Barca

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After Valencia, we were worried when we hit a similar metro system in Barcelona after arriving by our long distance high speed train. Having bought tickets for a completely different transit system (we still don't know what we bought tickets for, but it wasn't the metro!), we finally made our way to the centre of Barca - La Ramblas.

We are staying in a great little apartment complex right on La Ramblas, which was fortunate because all the hotels have inflated their prices because of the Formula One GP this weekend. The apartment also gave us more space, plus the opportunity to have our own breakfast and stock our own beer and wine from the nearby supermarket. Even though we are right on La Rmblas, our apartment has a view out to the east, and so with the exception of the occasional rumble from a metro train (heard and felt all over Barca), it is really quiet.

La Ramblas, wow. A great street, albeit super busy, lined with tapas bars, restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, fashion outlets, peep shows, fruit stalls, and home to do many street performers, musicians and pickpockets.

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We've done a heap of walking, enjoying the narrow side streets of Barri Gotic and all the other neighborhoods to the east and west of Las Ramblas.

The city is sprawling, and is full of surprises as we meander around the streets. The protests about the Government and Spain's economy aside, we haven't felt unsafe at all, despite what many of the travel guides may say. The city is full of tourists, and we even managed to find a typical Aussie bogan (a Richmond Tigers supporter none the less) at the Australian themed pub we found ourselves in late afternoon. There we watched EPL and got caught up in the excitement of Manchester City's amazing Premier League win - one enjoyed by us, the Richmond bogan, the touring Poms and the Spaniards who had all crowded into the small tapas bar.

Barca is also full of so many beautiful buildings and streetscapes. One of the highlights was the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, an amazing structure constructed in the 13th century.

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Of course, no visit to Barca is complete without taking in some of the works of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. "Different" comes to mind. We spent the most time at the Sagrada Familia, a completely amazing structure that words can't describe. Still being built, the cathedral was packed with tourists taking in the endless details to the facades, the spires and the main cathedral (now fully constructed - at least, internally). While the cathedral is huge, the massive stained glass windows still can't rid the feeling of descending into an underground cave... it really is a masterful piece of architectural art. Other than the floor, there are no straight or flat surfaces. It's construction must drive the engineers nuts!

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But time in Barca is best spent walking the streets, soaking up the history, people watching, and enjoying a cold beer or three with fresh tapas at one of the many bars. It is a beautiful city, and the perfect way to continue our time in Spain after the disappointment of Valencia.

Barcelona also marks the half wy point in our Spainish expedition, although we're now leaving the big cities and heading inland with our hire car. Now to tackle to the wrong (right) side of the road on our drive through The Pyrenees...

Posted by timandren 13:34 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona Comments (0)

Valencia. Hmmmm...

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The AVE trip was great. Travelling at 300kmh, we speed through the Spainish countryside from Madrid to Valencia. It's a bright, sunny day, and we notice the hotter weather as soon as we hop off the train. It's been pretty much the same weather over the past 3 days - cloudless and in the high 20's and low 30's.

As for Valencia, well, a mixed review. We first off noticed how much more arrogant the average Spaniard seems here. Those working in hospitality are fantastic, but walking the streets there is a notable change in common street courtesy (at least when we compare to Madrid). Then there is the smell, at least the smell the wafts around the streets near the main plaza in the centre of Valencia and near our hotel... the smell of sewerage doesn't go well with the beers and tapas.

We spent the first day seeing the main sights in the centre of the city, as well as getting our bearings for the place. The first impressions aside, the city looks amazing - again, another city with immaculately designed (and maintained) buildings. Some really beautiful streetscapes.

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We soon ditched the centre of Valencia and navigated a sometimes confusing metro system to head towards the beaches and port/harbour. Finally, a part of Valencia which we enjoy. We walk past the site of the 2007 America's Cup - amazingly so many of those buildings, still adorned with team colours/logos/sponsors, remain vacant and in disrepair and prevent access the the waterfront. The surrounding roads however, are beautifully landscaped - mainly because these streets form the Formula One circuit. This prt of the city really has potential with some good urban planning :)

After a few minutes walking, we find the beautiful white beaches set against the blue Mediterranean Sea. Lunch is at a nearby cafe which is enjoyed with some great beer. The view is awesome and we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere as we people watch. This is a huge contrast to our views about central Valencia. It really is a whole different place here. If only we had decided to spend our 3 days at one of these beach side resorts...

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Staying clear of 'downtown', we enjoyed the reasonably new zoo called Bioparque on the western fringe of the city. Apart from a few glass walls for the bigger animals, the zoo is designed so that all the barriers are 'hidden' so that you get some great views of all the animals in replicas of their natural habitat... the highlight been getting within meters of the lemurs in their open exhibit.

We've done a lot of walking in Valencia, seeing the old, new and weird (like the Star Wars styled complex anchored by the Instituto Valencia d'Arte Modern) - which has often necessitated hydration breaks at any of the many small bars which line all of the the streets. Thank you San Miguel, Amstel and Estrella. Yet the most fun we've had - and the best way to see Valencia - is via their CityCycle scheme! (which you can ride without helmets!).

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So Valencia... well, we've been. The city has had its moments, and does have some beautiful sights. Some of the food has been the best we've had so far in Spain, but those first few impressions stick...

We're looking forward to tomorrow morning's train trip to Barcelona.

Posted by timandren 15:25 Archived in Spain Tagged valencia Comments (0)

Hola Espana!

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Hola!

So we arrived in Spain, by plane. In the rain. What a shame. 

We had early boarded our Ryan Air flight with some apprehension as to what we were getting ourselves into - thanks Jade :)

That said, the 90 minute flight was made more comfortable by the 'premium' fare we paid to secure front row seats at the door! After a turbulent flight, we circled Madrid and landed, before taxing all the way it seemed to Barcelona. The low cost terminal is clearly on the fringe of Madrid's main airport!

The cab ride in was hampered by the rain, although the difference between Spain and Morocco was noticeable straight away. It's also a lot colder, but the rain is clearing and producing some brilliant sun shine when the clouds break open long enough.

Our hotel is in a fantastic location, just up from Puerta del Sol, the literal centre of Madrid (all the roads radiate out from this point). The city, from a town planners perspective, is fantastic. The buildings are amazing, the streetscapes are beautiful, the street layout is simple, and you only need to wander a short distance before you stumble on some perfect little plaza, chic lane way, tree lined boulevard or park where you can escape the Madrilino rat race (they say that Madrid has more trees than any other city in the world, and we're not going to dispute that!).

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We've spent the past two and a half says walking Madrid, seeing some fantastic sights, shopping, enjoying food, wine and beer at many tapas bars and cafes. It also helps having daylight until 9.30pm!

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Today was spent 'getting cultured' and rubbing shoulders with those arty types at Museo del Prado and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia - and providing our own commentary on the Rembrandt's, Raphael's and Picasso's we were standing in front of (wow, we can't imagine what was going on inside Picasso's head... his paintings are certainly 'different').

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While still being based in Madrid, we're catching the high speed train to Toledo tomorrow, before we leave Madrid for Valencia and the Mediterranean Coast.

Posted by timandren 14:42 Archived in Spain Tagged madrid Comments (0)

The Madness of Marrakech

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Driving through the outskirts of the city - the 'new' Marrakech - the new houses, golf courses, boulevard roads and large gated communities of the wealthy didn't give us any indication of the madness we were about to encounter (although we suspected what was about to come).

We drove through the crowded streets, the road contested by cars, trucks, motorbikes, mopeds, donkeys, horses, pedestrians and taxis, onward to the rose coloured walls of the old medina.

Entering through one of the many large gates, a wave of chaos hit. Said eventually finds a place to park (anywhere that a 4WD will fit) and we head into the labyrinth that is the 'old' Marrakech.

After the customary check in procedure (forms then mint tea) we brave the focal point of Marrakech - its central square, Jemaa el-Fna. With the sun setting, the square comes to life with crowds of tourists and locals, street vendors (markets, shoe shiners, juice stands, restaurants) as well as many street performers (including snake charmers, theatric performers, story tellers, trained monkeys...). The smell of cooking food; the sight of thousands of people converging at dusk; and the sound of motorbikes, car horns, musical instruments and the sizzling of cooking grills is definitely something that needs to be experienced when in Morocco.

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Our first dinner in Marrakech is at one of the street stalls - a large area of street 'restaurants' which literally get assembled about 5pm each afternoon. Just down from the large white sheets which still surround the site of last years terrorist attack, we chow down on fresh food cooked right before us. And it is so cheap... less than 100 dirhams (which in Australian money is about $10!). Followed up with fresh juice, and as the smoke of cooking food fills the night air, we tackle the lane ways of markets and stalls filled with clothing, spices, leather goods, fake FC Barcelona soccer gear, wood crafts, metal work and so much more.

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Marrakech is an amazing city, and we were fortunate enough to have a brilliant city guide to take us around some of the city's old historic sites, as well as navigating the maze of lane ways and taking in the seemingly organized chaos that is life here.

On the third day of our time here, we escape the chaos for about 24 hours, and head to Essaouira - a former Portuguese fishing village on the Atlantic coast. We drive from the desert surrounding Marrakech to the furtile areas growing olives, fruit and argon around Essouira in about 2 hours. Essouira is one of the prettiest and most relaxing towns on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, again largely contained within the fortified walls of the old medina. New hotels and apartments line the massive beach, but the old port and medina is still a hive of activity.

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We dine on fresh fish, and apart from the noise of the 'street' outside of the riad, enjoy the 24 hours we have there - especially people watching as the locals seemed a lot more relaxed than their countrymen (perhaps it is the "happy cakes" we where getting offered by the dread locked Rastafarians).

It was also great to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean - the sun slowly slipping over the horizon, casting the white walls of the town into beautiful shades of yellow and pink.

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We head back to Marrakech after the coastal repreive, we where are spending our last night in Morocco. We've just finished eating at Jemaa el-Fna, and taken in all the noises, sights and smells for the last time.

Tomorrow we pack up and catch a plane to Spain (yes, rhyme intended).

Posted by timandren 13:22 Archived in Morocco Tagged marrakech Comments (0)

On to Marrakech

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We left the desert sands behind us as we headed west, on the long and winding road towards Marrakech.

Over the course of 3 days, we've seen more of Morocco's fascinating landscape... more desert plains, huge gorges, more interesting villages and towns - especially the tiny agricultural towns built along the rivers which flow with the melting snow from the Atlas Mountains... the narrow strip of fertile, green ground stands out against the starkness of the surrounding desert plains.

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The Todra Gorge is impressive, although very busy with tourists (and not helped by the visit of a diplomatic envoy!). Staying at a large hotel on the edge of the Dades Valley that night - the first hotel since Casablanca - we enjoy our first beer/wine since our flight from Dubai. The Moroccan brew is a bit rough, but certainly quelled that longing for a beer! Sunrise from our hotel room saw us look over the town built on each side of the river, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance.

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We stop at the Soukra Oasis and Ait Benhaddou - home to a number of old kasbahs that have actually been used in a lot of movies - more recently, ones like Gladiator, Babel and so on.

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After a couple of days, we reach the Atlas Mountains, a beautiful mountain range which has dominated our horizon since we left the Sahara. Still snow capped in parts, we wind our way through the range to Col du Tichka... the highest road crossing of the whole Atlas Mountains (2,260 meters). The wind is cold, but It's a relief from the hot sun we were experiencing only an hour or so earlier on the desert plains.

Having reached the peak of the range, the drive down was awesome. Twisting, windy roads through tiny Berber villages, forests and more hills.

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The road is one of the most spectacular we have probably ever driven on, and the landscape matched it. As the sun drew longer in the late afternoon, we closed in on Marrakech, where we are to spend the next few days.

Posted by timandren 14:33 Archived in Morocco Tagged marrakech Comments (0)

The Extremes of the Sahara

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Over the course of two days, we've seen the extremes of the Sahara, and are amazed at its power.

When fine and still, the desert is simply an awesome sight. There are no words to describe it - so we'll use photos instead...

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The dunes simply go on for as far as the eye can see - massive dunes too, up to 300 meters in height. Outside of the dunes, our tour guide Said - probably the nicest guy in Africa, and coming from the desert himself - took us 4x4'ing across the Sahara plains (including the black desert - part of the Sahara rich in volcanic sands.

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We were fortunate enough to visit a nomad family where we shared mint tea. Surreal. The landscape is spectacular. It is beautiful.

Late afternoon was spent preparing for camp, where a caravan of camels awaited us. And while starting to become overcast, we headed off into the endless dunes. An amazing experience. The best thing we have ever done.

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After 1 1/4 hours, we make camp. A nomad collection of tents in the bowl of surrounding dunes for protection. It's very basic, but comfortable as a traditional desert dinners prepared for us. We packed our own water, but I was dying for a cold Sprite!!! (we've got used to not having beer in these Muslim countries!)

Night falls, and the sky is so blue, the stars and the moon so very white. The only sound is the wind, and the shifting of sands all around.

The clouds came over so we were not fortunate enough to witness the sunrise once we woke. The wind however, was at its most powerful. Sand was trailing from the peaks of the dune, spraying several meters as a fine stream of sand. It was time to take the camels back to town.

As the caravan left, the camels initially struggled in the soft dunes but soon found their rhythm. The sight, with the sun poking through the clouds, we unbelievable. Not long into the trek back to town, the winds suddenly picked up, and from there, never abated. It was absolutely amazing to see the power of the Sahara winds... we were belted with a spray of sand constantly as we trekked head on into the front. Sand was flying all around, and it seemed like the dunes were moving right in front of us. The footsteps of the camels who trekked past us only minutes before we left camp were disappearing right in front of our eyes.

It wasn't the relaxing or photographic experience we were after, but we now have an appreciation for the might and power of nature at its extremes!

We never thought I'd ever see the Sahara, let alone ride a camel into it's heart. Wow.

Posted by timandren 14:29 Archived in Morocco Tagged sahara Comments (0)

The Long Road to The Sahara!

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So let me set the scene for this entry...

We've just driven about 500km and have enjoyed a great dinner under the clear skies of Merzouga. The stars and moon are so white, and the traditional Moroccan drummers and singers are entertaining another group of tourists after their dinner. It is now night time, but we have caught our first glimpse of the mighty Sahara Desert.

The day started with a drive from the medina of Fes. The drive really showed how awesome the landscape of Morocco varies. Some of the views were simply breathtaking.

Leaving urban Fes, we pass through agricultural plains before hitting the first mountain range - home to the town of Ifrane which is called 'Little Switzerland' because of the landscape, the architecture and the winter holiday homes of the wealthy (including the King). Oh, and it snows here too.

From Ifrane, we drive further south through the forested mountains where we hand feed monkeys, before the landscape starts to take a dramatic turn.

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The snow capped mountains make way for rocky plains, then some massive mountain ranges and gorges through the Atlas Mountains. Ater an eternity of climbing and winding, we enter the Moroccan desert... a barren but beautiful landscape.

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Then, on the horizon, the massive sand dunes of the Sahara. As we approach, the shadows and contrasts are unbelievable. And we're only on the edge!

We turn off the main road (which until about 5 years ago was literally an off road track), and make our way to the small town of Merzouga, where we find our riad only meters from the edge of the Sahara sands. The massive dunes stand on the immediate horizon, and with sunset approaching, the changing colours was something we weren't going to miss.

A short walk into the Sahara sands and the panoramic view is like nothing we have ever seen before. Caravans of camels in the distance, massive palm trees, and towering dunes... the growing shadows of the town and the dunes creates a remarkable site.

I've spent some time chatting to a group of local children who rode their bikes over to me when they saw me walking out. They were eager to talk to me in English, and tell me about their nearby school and of course, the Sahara. I the found out, they we buttering me up to hustle me for the purchase of local crafts! They're quite the entrepreneurs!

So we watched the sun set over Merzouga and the Sahara Desert... bringing me to this log entry.

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It's dark, and now so very quiet! It is surreal.

We're looking forward to the next few days... meeting local tribes before our camel ride through into the desert. This time tomorrow, we'll be in our desert camp - under traditional nomad tents and the clear Morrocan night sky!

Posted by timandren 14:09 Archived in Morocco Tagged merzouga Comments (0)

Fascinating Fes

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Fes is simply fascinating. No doubt about it.

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Our authentic riad is awesome... the tile mosaics and carvings are so intricate, and our room is so cosy.

We're located on the outskirts of the labyrinth that is the walled medina, but close enough that we still access a few stalls and little restaurants the afternoon that we arrive from Meknes. Having arrived late afternoon, we've enjoyed more Moroccan mint tea with our guide Said, and our traveling companions from the USA first.

We wander up to the top of the marina to Chez Rashid for Cous Cous and kebabs. The madness of the marina is suddenly interrupted by men jumping around and yelling... FC Barcelona just scored against Chelsea. As we find out the following night, the Moroccans LOVE their football. All the restaurants and cafes are filled with men watching the games, and nearly every second stall holder in the medina is glued to the TVs they have hot wired together.

The medina though, wow, it really is a whole different world. It is a maze of sections dedicated to various Moroccan crafts, as well as homes, riads and restaurants.

The tannery is an amazing site, and we weren't all that overwhelmed by the smell (unlike the Korean tourists walking around with mint leaves shoved up their noses).

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From there, we wind out way again through the medina, in awe of how the locals use this massive precinct for every aspect of their daily lives.

A long day of walking and shopping ends back up at the small row of restaurants, with more football (Real Madrid) dominating the TV screens.

We wander back to our riad after a long day, having enjoyed Fes, but also knowing that tomorrow we will be the Sahara desert!

Posted by timandren 11:48 Archived in Morocco Tagged fes Comments (0)

The Ancient Roman Ruins of Volubilis

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Having left Meknes, we quickly made our way out of town and one to the country roads. The Moroccan countryside is fascinating... agricultural fields and tiny villages dotted along the way. The sky was clear and we were on our way to Fes!

The trip wasn't long (distance), but took most of the day as we stopped at the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. Up there with The Great Wall of China, this is one of the most breathtaking ancient sights we have seen.

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Dating back to 32BC, the site - while also damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake - still shows some amazing Roman ruins... including the Capitol, the Basilica, the main street (shop fronts) as well as the houses of the wealthy and the plebs.

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The ruins are amazing. The massive tile mosaics and the superb details etched into the columns and facades, still able to be read, is fascinating. The layout of the town, as well as the remnants of their infrastructure ('roads', and separate water and sewer systems) is - well, for town planners at least- impressive. And it's all 2,000 years old!

We can only imagine what Rome must be like...

Posted by timandren 11:36 Archived in Morocco Tagged volubilis Comments (0)

Rabat and Meknes

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From Casablanca we drove to Rabat, Morocco's capital city. It's only a stop on our travels to Meknes, but enough time to walk along the walls of the old medina as well as catching the cool breeze of the Atlantic Ocean.

While we had the opportunity to see the King's Palace (we politely declined his offer of lunch because we needed to get to Meknes), the highlight of Rabat was the chance to see and walk around the grounds of the UNESCO listed Mausoleum of Mohammed V with the Hassan Tower. Guarded by imperial guard, the Mausoleum is huge, and the tile mosaics are so intricate.

The Hassan Tower is really interesting because it is an incomplete minaret of what was intended to be he worlds largest mosque when it was built in 1195 (it's only half the height it was designed to be). Still, the Tower dominates the view of Rabat because of its prime location on top of the hill.

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Before leaving Rabat, we spent a few minutes walking around Chellah - the ancient Roman ruins which were destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

Lunch was served at a roadside restaurant just outside of Rabat... the kind of place you wouldn't normally stop to visit. We're glad we did. The food was fantastic - fresh off the rack after we saw them carrying in whole pigs and lambs for cooking. Eating with your hands takes a while to get used to, but when in Rome...

The drive to Meknes was a bit longer than we expected, but the landscape wasn't what we had envisaged - large areas used for agriculture, with small houses dotted over the countryside.

We arrived in Meknes late afternoon - one of morocco's four imperial cities. The ancient city's surrounded by massive walls (fortification) and we're lucky enough to stay inside the old town in a small riad which is accessed through a maze of narrow 'streets' filled with local traders. Once at the Riad, it is so quiet... the sounds of the plaza, the streets and everyday Meknes life can't be heard, not even from the roof top terrace with sweeping views over the town.

We spent the night walking the local markets as well as the square/plaza in the centre of the old town. While it was a fairly cool night, we found a fantastic restaurant on the higher terraces where we could overlook the plaza as well as the street performers, before making our way back to our riad for the night.

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Tomorrow we drive on to Fes.

Posted by timandren 11:27 Archived in Morocco Tagged meknés Comments (1)

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