A week in Sri Lanka

With a week between terms 2 and 3 I embarked on a trip to exotic Sri Lanka. Continuing my experiment with video documentation of my trips, I put together some footage of my time on the island once known as Ceylon. This was certainly one of my most incredible travel experiences and I only wish that I had had more time to explore the country. Hopefully, the video does my journey and Sri Lanka justice.

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Abu Dhabi Sports Council LIWA Cycle Challenge 2017

I’m increasingly finding that I have less time and inclination to write considering my current increase in work responsibilities. With this in mind, I plan to move away from the written word temporarily and begin a minor foray into video and possibly photo essays of my travels and adventures. This isn’t to say I’ve given up on blog writing, merely I am taking a temporary sabbatical.

Although I have previously published this video via my social media, I would like it embedded on my blog for posterity, my first video story/compilation of a rather epic cycling event from January 2017.

U.A.E.

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It has taken some time to settle down in the UAE. The adaptation to my new environment has been dictated by the experiences found in my new employment. Six months later I feel that I am beginning to find my feet in the UAE. The last two months I have found the time and been in the right frame of mind to really begin to explore my surroundings and try to get a feel for the physical environment that surrounds me. So much of my time before this was spent resorting to western expat solitudes, sacrificing adventure to the climatic constraints and making compromises on the things in life I find the most happiness.

One of the overriding pleasures in my life in recent years has been cycling and the adventures it has brought me. While I immediately tried to get involved in some of the numerous social cycling groups in the UAE, I soon found the limitations of the cycling infrastructure and the frustrations of group riding quite tiresome. The majority of my cycling experiences have been solo or with only one or two other people, I have quickly found that group riding, whilst aerodynamically faster and more sociable, is pretty dull. There is only so long I can tolerate staring at someone else’s rear wheel and the additional concentration needed to avoid touching wheels takes much of the joy away found in taking in your surroundings. Anyone who follows my Strava will already be familiar with the repetitive circular  nature of the routes of the Dubai Autodrome, Nad al Sheba Cycle Track, the Ajman Camel Racing Track and the Al Qudra Desert Tracks. However, there have been some more vertically challenging group rides out in Showka and Hatta that have piqued my interest and these formed the build-up rides for the Urban Ultra UAE Cross-Country Cycle Challenge. On the 18th of November around 300 cyclists set-off from the coast of Sharjah and followed a 200km route across the desert, through the southern Hajar mountains and northerly along the coast of Fujairah to the Meridien Hotel in Al Aqah.

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My preparation for the event had been less than ideal, my training had been heavily affected by an acute respiratory infection that took me out of work for almost a week and even landed me in hospital for a day. The ‘challenge’ element of the name certainly felt fitting, I was still however quite confident that I would complete the route, just unsure of what state I would be in at the finish.

The cyclists departed in groups of about 35 under Sharjah Police escort. Our group (H) was pencilled for an average of 30km/h for the whole route which seemed achievable and proved to be quite accurate. The early brisk pace through the empty Sharjah streets was comfortable and this continued on the long stretch out into the desert, a brief stop after 75km to refuel at a petrol station was followed by the approach to the beginning of the mountains. In all honesty the climbs we faced were nowhere near as challenging as the ones that I undertook in Andalusia, but after 100km and rising heat they were not underestimated. The last descent toward the coastline that had appeared after the last mountain tunnel was thoroughly welcomed and after another refreshment break the long grind north along the coastline began. I felt surprisingly strong until a now very large mixed group (there had been some fracturing among groups and I was now amongst rider from groups A, C, D etc…) was broken apart by a sudden surge in pace. Due to some amateur wheel-holding ahead of me I lost touch and had to regroup with a smaller bunch, that being said, it was an enjoyable bunch to ride with and we crushed the last 35km.

The ride ended at the Meridien Hotel and as part of the challenge fee every rider received a BBQ buffet on the beach, I stole my way to the showers first after leaving my bike to be collected and trucked back to Sharjah before making a sizeable dent on the steaks, lamb skewers and grilled fish (yes, I ate fish I was that hungry). After a few well-earned beers some organized coaches returned us along a similar route back to Sharjah. We started in the dark and the day ended in the dark. I slept for 12 hours.

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Having somehow managed to drag myself across the breadth of the country the previous week, I decided to take a break from the bike and allow myself to explore some other activities and dedicate a bit of time to my social life.

Waking up late the following Friday (Friday being a weekend day in the UAE for those not in the know) I planned a trip to a beach resort up the coastline in Umm Al Quwain with India. Our initial foray to a beach resort was disappointing with the resort under some renovation and the beach seemingly a building site. All was not lost and we had a back-up plan – some ‘Urban Exploration’ at the abandoned Umm Al Quwain airport. On the E11 heading through Umm Al Quwain you can see the abandoned airport and a dilapidated and forsaken Russian cargo plane resting within the semi-collapsed security fences. The story behind this plane is quite interesting and pertains to real-life events dramatised in the movie ‘Lord of War’. The real ‘Lord of War’ had seemingly landed this plane at the provincial airstrip one morning, unbeknownst to all, and had presumably unloaded whatever illicit cargo it held before leaving the plane behind and disappearing into the desert. The plane, although towed away from the airstrip itself, still rests on the airports grounds. The engines have long been removed and various birds have found it a suitable nesting place, but no one has seen fit to scrap it or take responsibility for it. With the airport closed and overgrown it appears it will remain to continue its slow sink into the sand. The interior is difficult to access, there is a makeshift ladder made from a road barrier but it wasn’t safe enough to climb with no counterbalancing weight holding it down. It still makes for some fine photos and a creative advertisement hoarding for the beach resort we had earlier been let down by.

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While the cargo plane is difficult to get into there is another abandoned plane (and a third locked up by rusty padlocks in a tired hangar), this second plane is a small propeller aircraft. The exterior has been painted in the UAE flag colours some time ago and now has a heavy dusty coating that dulls the colours. Accessibility is less of an issue and the only main danger is from the prospect of ruining your clothes on the thick grime and dust, or from some hidden scorpions or the like. Feeling brave I made an effort to get into the disheveled cockpit seen in the image below where I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the mechanical elements all still move even if the electrics have long been stripped.

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The planes seen might no longer be able to fly or even make it to the runway but I quickly decided that my Toyota Yaris could negotiate the off-road sections that would lead to the runway. There are some concrete barriers intermittently placed on the runway to dissuade would be ‘Lord of War’ wannabes, but they are spaced far enough apart to allow a car to drive. I had a little blast testing my pathetic 1.3 automatic while India had a more productive time practicing her U-turns for her upcoming driving test.

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To end the day we drove into Umm Al Quwain and spent the last few hours in the low-sky sunshine at The Umm Al Quwain Beach Hotel watching a few kite surfers tear through the mild-surf and a endless stream of birds buzzing the Persian Gulf water-line and heading toward the marshes to the north-east. The comparison between this sleepy Emirate and its coastline is hugely disparate to that of the glitz of Dubai.

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With the weather (although still searingly hot around midday) being seasonably cooler and my sabbatical from the bicycle being extended, I decided to begin exploring what the Hajar mountains had to offer by foot. My first foray was in the mere foothills of the mountain range around Showka, an area that I was familiar with as it had served as the beginning of the training rides for the cross-country cycle challenge.

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India and I arrived at a small car park close to a minimal dam and reservoir from where we set off on what was supposed to be an anti-clockwise route of around 10km. We followed a small trail west, one that was barely visible amongst the barren landscape. No muddy or eroded trails in this environment.

We initially came across a small farm with a few camels, including one rather rogue and inquisitive one, and some surprisingly lush patches of coriander that were being attended to by some farmhands. Beyond this however there was nothing but Mars-like landscape that can be seen in the two pictures, one above and one below this text.

As the barely visible path eventually faded we were left with a few choices, the first being to climb a peak and try to plot a route to complete the intended loop or to head straight back along the valley. We chose the former and scrambled up the slope to the top. We were rewarded with excellent views but only two options, one of which being a bit of an adventure into the unknown and possibly stumbling across the planned loop back, or heading down through a rather shallow boulder ridden wadi generally heading back from where we had come. Erring on the side of caution and considering our low water supplies we took the rocky route down, picking a route through the small boulders being entertainment enough.

On the return, via the original pathway we spied another small camel farm and India made some new friends. They looked a little sad, and one tried to escape through the barb-wired fence. It was a good first foray and I soon planned the next hike.

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Next on my agenda was a hike into the mountains further north in Ras Al Khaimah. Having cycled up Jebel Jais a few times I had spied a few wadis disappearing away from the road-side and up into a landscape that was significantly more dramatic and imposing than that seen around Showka. Following some internet research I was able to discover a description of a route and some GPS way points that I would be able to add to my Google Maps, thus aiding me in staying on the right route, an issue that had been troublesome in Showka. This time I was loaded with water and on my own.

My planned route seemed quite a reasonable one, 14km, 8km up one wadi and 6km down another. Wadi al Shah to Wadi al Far. However it would in reality be slightly more than reasonable and indeed turned out to be quite a challenge.

After parking my car slightly off-road I began a shallow ascent through the lower reaches of Wai al Shah. The beginning of the wadi was quite simple to navigate through, in many places just resembling a dried-up pebbled river bed. This was not indicative of the terrain that lay ahead. Gradually the walls of the canyon steepened and the pebbled surface littered with occasional boulders became a bouldered surface littered with rocks the size of cars and small houses.

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As the hike intensified so did the prevalence of goats and the odd goat carcass. Goats lay where they had presumably fallen…from the cliffs. I checked my footing a little more carefully after the second skeleton.

The ascent began to steepen and the bouldering more challenging, yet not quite unmanageable. The main interest lying in picking the right route and not coming to a dead end of some form. There was even some time to appreciate the incredible views both above and back down the wadi.

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Eventually, the wadi widened and a scramble up some loose rocks brought me to what appeared to be a semi-abandoned farm. There were remnants of old stone outhouses but also a much more modern complex , as well as some dried  up dusty fields, resemblant of East Asian rice paddies. The sun was out now in full-force and the temperature quickly rising so I didn’t linger and pressed on.

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Beyond the farm area there was a steady climb to a GPS point at a small peak, in the wadi there had been tiny cairns giving hints to mark the way, but at the top of the peak there was a larger one surrounded by a strange natural rock formation on the ground beneath my feet. Over eons it appeared that a huge slab or layer of rock had cracked symmetrically, presumably from excessive heat expansion, to leave this wonderful lattice of giant-like paving slabs.

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Almost as curious as the rock formation beneath my feet were the fossils I spied on one rock on the slopes of the peak a few metres away, presumably this area, before rather dramatic tectonic movement, had been far below the sea. It was now well over a kilometre into the sky.

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My hike continued to another GPS way point, a ridiculously positioned farm atop a mountain ridge, the only way down being over a staggered cliff-face. It took some time to plot a route down, I hadn’t expected quite such a precarious descent. Below the cliff-face I met some other hikers heading in the opposite direction, with one poor woman asking me how difficult the terrain was on the other side. I said I couldn’t compare as I hadn’t taken the route before, obviously struggling she almost begged her partner to allow her to return the route she had come, with me. I described the route so far as I had experienced it and he somehow convinced her to press-on. After I had descended the much shorter, smoother, shallower Wadi al Shah I soon began to feel a little worried for her…

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I came out of the dusty wadi and walked the short distance between the entrance to both wadis along the tarmacked road. I dusted myself down and rehydrated in the car, the drive back home was full of reflection on a unique and epic hike. One for the memory bank.

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A long weekend shortly before Christmas gave India and I the opportunity to travel a little further away in the U.A.E. and explore an entirely new area to us both. We chose ‘The Garden City’ more officially known as Al Ain. Al Ain, although the fourth largest city of the U.A.E., is distinctively different to that of the more coastal metropolises of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, it’s less high-rise and the noticeable greenness of some areas of land served by irrigation systems fed by underground  boreholes is refreshing to the generally dust-afflicted eyes.

The first morning of our visit we spent at the Al Ain livestock market, a sprawling trade area full of goats  and camels. The market is supposedly busier earlier in the morning but we arrived mid-morning and thus probably missed the buzz of trade, it did however allow for more time to wander openly at our leisure, all-be-it at the open risk of inquisitive and sometimes pushy tradesmen. Our first encounter, literally just as we had left the car, was in the goat section where we witnessed the live birth of a goat. The afghan man tending to the live-birth of three goats (we missed the first and passed up the chance to witness the third), was literally laying across the mother’s stomach to push the kid out. It was swift and ultimately gooey, the kid was held to the mother’s face and the maternal instincts took over. The market workers encouraged to take photos but we were slightly wary of the unspoken cost (tips are expected), but even so it seemed a bit intrusive to take a photo of such an event.

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We wandered around the market, mostly checking out the camels, eventually giving in to the unrelenting prompting to take photos, it cost me 40dirhams eventually, but this cost also came with the prize of being left alone. In some respects it was also worth it to gain some insight into the market, we discovered that some camels are used for breeding, sometimes milking, others for racing and that the bulls (often huge and ugly as hell) were generally shackled up to prevent them from causing to much mischief. I met a nice Afghan guy who wanted to chat cricket and we watched as a shrieking camel was forced to the ground by six tradesman who tied the camel up and then proceeded to crane the camel into the back of a pick-up truck. It was certainly an unusual environment within a country that is now famed for its modernity, an example of a trade that is still supported by the traditions of heritage.

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In the early afternoon we drove up Jebel Hafeet, a 1300m stand alone mountain rising out of the desert sands that ominously surround the garden city. We stopped off at a mountainside hotel for some rather difficult to acquire lunch, not hungry enough for the buffets we ended up in the hotel lobby cafe where half our order was forgotten. After we were eventually fed we drove up the remainder of the steep and twisty climb to take in the views from the summit car park.

We later returned to the centre of the city and spent some time walking around the largest oasis in the city, Al Ain Oasis. This sizeable oasis is served by one of the ‘falaj’ (underground irrigation systems) and is home to fields of date palms, the spanning leaves of which shade you from above. It really is quite a pleasant place and in a country of unrelenting sun, sand, dust, noise and concrete it is a welcome haven.

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The following day began quite disastrously, we planned to take on an epic hike over the nearby border to Oman in a region of the mountains dubbed the ‘Hanging Gardens’, however there were some issues at the border, especially as we were unable to take my hire car over the border. It turned out that the logistics of walking over the border are also not so simple as the U.A.E. border control and the Oman border control are quite a distance apart (40km+). We ultimately abandoned that plan and returned to the hotel. We did some research and eventually booked a rather touristy desert experience adventure. This was planned late in the early evening so we relaxed around the hotel before setting off on a drive into the desert.

Along the way we stooped at the Zaman Lawal Heritage Village. This was a whimsical stop, we passed some signs on our route and, as we were going to be a little early to our booked desert experience, we pulled off the main road and up a dirt track to what turned out to be a reconstruction of an Emirati Bedouin village. We walked around the village but there wasn’t much happening, although the website does suggest multiple events are held here, maybe our timing was just off. We walked out the back and up into the dunes to take in the view.

As we were leaving we saw some young Emirati men with their huge Nissan Patrol vehicles pull up. Not an uncommon sight, but what was unique was that there was a hooded-falcon sitting calmly on the driving armrest in one of the vehicles. Falconry is visibly indoctrinated in Emirati culture, falcon racing is shown on television, the falcon is part of the government emblem and it is seen on various Emirati branding and there are signs for falconry centres around most Emirates, but this was the first time I had seen a falcon in the country…and it was perched calmly in the front of a 4WD.

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Our desert experience event was as touristy as expected, but it was also quite fun. It began with a brief stint of dune bashing in one of the atypical luxury 4WD vehicles. The vehicle and young driver expertly handled the dunes and predictably extracted whelps from some of the tourists (and India) as it lunged almost vertically down the dunes. This was followed by some quad-biking in the dunes, with one quad-bike for the guide and one for a guest we took it in turns for a 10-15 minute blast through the dunes. I certainly enjoyed it, the quad-bike squirming beneath me and initially constantly threatening to go the opposite direction to which I was aiming for, by the time I had grown accustomed to the handling time was almost up. India seemed to enjoy it too. I’m quite looking forward to booking a more experiential dune buggy adventure sometime in the early new year.

The evening continued with some traditional food served in a buffet as we sat around a dance-floor awaiting a belly-dancing display. The food was satisfactory and I certainly enjoyed the dessert, umm ali (a bit like bread and butter pudding), the belly dancer performed and invited various attendees to join her, thankfully she didn’t pick on me. The night ended with some shisha before we were asked to move along so the camp could close down. It was a convivial experience and even if some of it wasn’t particularly authentic we had a good time on the quad bikes.

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Our trip to Al Ain rounds off this blog post, there are a few more works in process though, some Christmas adventures to Paris, one more interesting hike and another cycle race in the U.A.E hopefully I’ll get them up soon.

Escapade to Morocco

Before I moved to Spain I promised myself that I would use my relocation as an opportunity to visit Morocco, over the Easter holiday I took this opportunity. Having been forced to adjust to a Spanish salary my trip was going to be in true traveller spirit, on a cheap budget, luxuries would only be found in the places I visited and the adventures that I would go on.

 

My journey began at Granada bus station where I took a rail replacement service to Antequerra before transferring onto a train route that passed by the scenic Los Alcornocales national park before I was deposited in Algeciras, a rather dull and rough port town. I walked into the ferry port and after some time boarded my ferry service to Tangier Med Port. The ferry journey was brief but Tangier Med port is inconveniently located 50km from Tangier where I would stay the night. I had read about a white coach service that left from outside the port on the main road. I followed some Spanish campers, suspecting they were heading for the budget bus, out of the port and to the main road. It was at this point that I was approached by a couple of weather-worn Moroccan men who tried to sell me some cannabis resin (that looked distinctly like compacted mud), I had been in the country for less than ten minutes. Resisting their poor sales technique, but welcoming their information that this was indeed the bus stop, I waited. My luck was in and the rather ramshackle coach arrived. I got on board sat down, watched everyone pay their fare and felt confused because the bus conductor hadn’t ask me for any money, I wasn’t sure if the Spanish campers had paid for me or if it was included in the ferry ticket.

After trekking from the bus station, via the train station to buy a ticket for Marrakech, to the medina and avoiding the mild hassling of questionable souls on the waterfront I quickly discovered my hostel for the night. I was welcomed by Abdul, the receptionist, who swiftly checked me in and made me some fresh mint tea. I had a nap, my journey had begun at six o’clock in the morning.

Waking to an empty room I felt hunger pangs and I headed out through the medina in search of nourishment. I found myself in Place du 9 Avril 1947, a central square where people seemed to gather to chew the cud. Looking lost it was here that I heard someone shout my name. Not quite believing it I swivelled round, seeing no familiar faces. My name rang out a second time and this is when I saw Abdul, the receptionist from the hostel. He asked me what I was doing and when I said looking for food he kindly offered to take me to a place he knew and maybe to grab a drink later.

As we walked back into the medina it became apparent that Abdul knew everyone, the traders, the cafe owners and so on, we didn’t walk ten metres without being greeted by someone. We went through the tight alleys to a place I would never have found on my own. At this innocuous restaurant I had a feast for virtually nothing. Chicken samosas with a sweet dusting, Moroccan ‘khobz’ bread with dips, chicken tagine and a desert of fresh strawberries and oranges dusted with cinnamon. Following my feast we went to a local hideout called One Bar above the medina on the hill, inside was a tiny smokey bar decorated with a variety of silly English platitudes and maths problems but full of atmosphere and chat. This was certainly not the reserved side of Morocco where alcohol is scarce and where women are only seen with parents or husbands. There was group of attractive girls dressed for a night out as they would be in Paris or Berlin, the final day of the six nations was on a small screen in the corner and the waiters and Abdul spoke with loose tongues. Despite my tiredness I was already losing the misguided imagery that I had conjured up while waiting for the holiday to come round.

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The following day I was up early to catch an early train to Marrakech. Feeling typically frugal I walked the thirty minute route to the train station and took up my first class seat (only a fraction more than second class and a guaranteed reserved seat). The train was scheduled to leave at around 8 a.m. but we remained in the station for three hours as the line was repaired at some point further down the line. Information was sparse and I only found out was going on by talking to some gentlemen on the platform, however after having been dropped off in the chaotic bus station yesterday I was at least comforted by the relaxed nature of the train station.

When the train eventually left we crawled along slightly inland from the coast to Rabat and then to Casablanca where I would have to change. This initial train journey,although slow, and interspersed with frequent stoppages in the middle of nowhere was quite interesting. The landscape was unfamiliar and my eyes wandered across the plains at the often well-tended agricultural landscape. I found it quite strange that there seemed to be fields but no physical boundaries to prevent livestock (goats and some odd cows) from roaming. This meant that every herd was attended to by a farmer or young child and an accompanying dog, often sat twiddling their thumbs in the middle of nowhere. It looked awfully lonely yet incredibly peaceful.

Travelling through towns brought occasional passengers, one town appeared to have a donkey and cart taxi service that ferried customers from the remote station to the distant town, other towns brought kids throwing stones at the train.

The change in Casablanca was a nightmare, predictably I had missed my connecting train but arrived at a convenient time to board another service. My reserved seat ticket was predictably now an unreserved one but despite a bit of shuffling I managed to acquire myself another first class seat, which was a relief as it was peak time in Casablanca and second class was a horror show that my travel weary body wanted no part of.

I arrived in Marrakech late, around eleven p.m. a mere fifteen hour journey. I walked out of the train station and negotiated a reasonable fair with a frail old man in an aged taxi on the main road that stood out amongst the more modern ones that were queued up in the rank behind me. We made it unscathed, although there was a close call,  to my riad on the edge of the medina. I checked in and passed out.

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The previous evening I had hoped to explore Marrakech at night but my late arrival prevented this and so I faced a crammed day in Marrakech before the next days trip to Essaouira. With this in mind I was quite displeased to be woken at 5 a.m. by the call to prayer, my bedroom window being opposite a local mosque. If you had shouted in my ear from six inches it wouldn’t have been as loud as the hoarse chords of the imam and his hacking cough that he also seemed happy to subject the community to. Ten minutes later sleep was allowed to resume.

After a heavy breakfast I set off into the medina. As I walked toward the centre I was engulfed by people some opening their businesses, others ferrying leather hides stacked onto hand carts dragged by donkeys and many more opening their doors to fragrant spice stalls and handmade leather goods shops.

The first notable landmark I stumbled upon was the Ben Youssef Madrasa a now vacated ex-Islamic College. The courtyard was grand, the tiling and decorative walls impressive and the numerous rooms upstairs for classes were small and intimate. You couldn’t imagine more than a few people (and very short people) in each at a time. A gaggle of guided tourists signalled it was time to leave and I took to the streets.

 

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In both mid-morning and mid-afternoon I spent time in the Palais el Bahia and the Palais el Badii. These experiences of both a rather complete and a rather destroyed palace were enlivened by the Marrakech Bienniale which was running from February through March. I enjoyed several art exhibitions highlighting some of the most creative and ethnically diverse work that I had seen in a long-time. At the Palais el Badii I was also able to visit the temporary home of MMP+ (Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visaul Arts) which had an enlightening exhibition titled the Darkening Process, which was well worth checking out as well as enjoying the view from the palace terasse across the ochre coloured rooftops of the old centre.

My art musings were gapped by lunchtime in the main square, Jemaa el Fna. I had a delicious beef tagine with figs and walnuts as a brief respite from the intense narrow streets and the hawkers, traders and scammers. Later I visited the cool Riad dar Charifa where you can enjoy a little luxury, rifle through some coffee table books and sip on some mint tea.

My evening was spent buying bus tickets for Essaouira and a wander around the rather more modern and less dynamic Gueliz area. It was a little glitzy and I wished I had headed back into the medina.

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It turns out that the call to prayer happens every morning at 5 a.m. in Marrakech, after another disturbed night of sleep I checked out and walked to the train/bus station and boarded an on time bus to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. The weather forecast was predicted to be changeable and cool but was apparently worse over the desert so I had decided to head to the coast for some R&R.

 

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After I arrived at my spacious and light Riad I went for a walk around the small coastal town and its harbour. The weather was squally and chilly but in between brief showers I perused the goods offered by the hawkers and traders in the souks and medina. The most interesting area was down by the harbour, medium-sized fishing trawlers were being repaired in dry-docks and numerous smaller fishing boats, decorated with swathes of sky-blue boobed in the water. On the harbour walls there was an open-air fishing market selling everything from small mackerel to large eels and sharks. The fish was ordered and filleted on site and as I watched one particularly gruesome filleting I was approached by the customer, a young French-Moroccan chap who explained how much he loved returning to his hometown to buy the fish on the harbour walls. The harbour was small but alive and it was engrossing to walk around the harbour, climb atop the harbour walls and watch the tradesmen and women at work.

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Tired from mornings travel and afternoon’s harbour, souk and medina explorations I went in the search of food. I stumbled upon a small Moroccan restaurant, La Tolerance, on a side street off the main arterial passageway. A kindly man who had the appearance of a slightly more portly Rafael Benitez, ushered me in and as I was ordering suggested the house speciality of camel tagine. I took his advice and fortunately didn’t regret it,a new culinary dish for me and a rather delicious one. To completely fill my belly I had a massive crepe from a street vendor that was filled with Nutella. In fact this would be come my go to street-food dish for the remainder of the trip. Addictive.

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On my final day in Essaouira I was greeted by heavy showers in the morning which meant a morning of sleep. I checked the forecast and saw a gap in the afternoon of clear spells and as soon as the skies let up I went for an adventure along the beach. The beach from Essaouira stretches as far as the eye can see, heading generally south I evaded a spattering of hawkers touting camel and horse rides along the beach and headed away from civilization towards the dunes passing the occasional kite-surfer. In the dunes I found an abandoned fort that was being reclaimed by the dunes and inhabited by small squirrels. Further inland is the village of Dihabit, rather abandoned and quiet and populated mostly by stray dogs, it is however famous for being the temporary home of Bob Marley and there are a few landmarks attributed to his memory in particular a rather gaudy cafe where the owners were heavily leaning on his legacy.

In the evening I ate at Mega Loft a live-music and dining venue near the bastion and ramparts of the town’s coastal defences. I had a deliciously cooked fillet steak and a beer for less than 10 euros accompanied by an excellent vocalist’s melodies and of course a crepe on the way home.

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The next day I took the bus back to Marrakech and then a connecting train service to Rabat, the journey went smoothly and it was good to see the Moroccan landscape in this area on a clear day, the coastal fields and hills nearer Tangier were wildly different to the much more barren landscape in this region and there was a much more stereotypical feel to the vistas and household architecture of small cubed mud buildings. Due to late booking I only found affordable accommodation in Sale, a city separate from Rabat on the other side of the the Bou Regreg river estuary.

Sale was greatly different to Rabat in that it was much more of a working city, the old-walled section, within which I stayed, was full of life and trade, people working on the narrow streets selling vegetables, spices and fresh livestock, ready to be slain for the customer’s orders. I felt very out of place here, not uncomfortable- people were friendly and even talkative, inquisitive as to who I was and why I was staying in Sale, where else I had visited etc… They had no interest in me as a source of income as they were not involved in the tourism industry, this was all focused across the mouth of the river in Rabat. It was very refreshing to see people as they were everyday and have a genuine feel for city life in Morocco.

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In spite of Sale’s traditional charm it has little on offer of outstanding cultural history or attractions beyond its character. On the morning of my full day I inadvisably walked to Chellah, a collection of Roman ruins perched on a hill overlooking the wetlands to the East. From Sale this was probably a metro ride but I walked nonetheless, however I did not encounter many surprises enroute, only busy roads and traffic. Chellah itself was quite impressive, mostly rebuilt overtime but the grounds were nice and the storks nesting on top of the ruins gave it a unique feel, likely to be shooed away or discouraged in other historical sites.

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After my morning at Chellah I failed miserably to gain entry to the Royal Palace and had to make do with a trip to the Mohammed VI museum of contemporary art which was very enjoyable despite it being quite the task to find the right door to enter the building… A selection of very creative pieces by Moroccan artists awaited inside and a whiled away an hour or so.

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After getting my art fix I made my way down to the medina where I got an amazing sandwich for a mere 9 dirhams at the southern end of the medina. Before this my appetite had been swelled by a rather odd wait in the street as an over-spilling mosque held afternoon prayer. I could have shuffled past along the edge of the street but it seemed quite rude and it was also quite the experience to witness so many men of faith taking the timeout of their day to visit the mosque and shutting down the streets to cars and traders alike.

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My afternoon was filled with exploration around the kasbah area and along the beachfront before I headed home with tired legs and  a touch of sunburn. A man with a broken chicken chaser invited me out for a drink of whisky in Sale after we walked through the whole of the medina discussing our days but I politely declined as I had an appointment at Les Deus Palais in Rabat to watch some International footballand have a few beers. The bar/restaurant was quite a surprise as I had encountered little in Tangier, Marrakech and Essaouira of sundown glamour and drink but this place was busy, filled with young people all drinking,laughing and unfortunately smoking, there were several groups of women who felt free enough to indulge in a cocktail with no fear of accostment by rather more conservative Muslims and I felt a little more quizzical about the contradictions between religion and general life in Morocco.

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My last day was spent mostly on the return train to Tangier, it was at this point that I realised that train conductors never asked women for their tickets, only men. Observations aside the journey back was relaxing and my stay that evening at the homely Baytalice hostel provided enough sleep for me to feel fresh enough the following morning to make the long train(delayed)/ferry(thankfully delayed)/train/bus journey back to Granada. My final evening before I began that journey was spent searching for cheap food in the town square (including mandatory Nutella crepe) and watching an organised fight between two boys around the age of eleven, a crowd gathered, a strange old man hyped the fight to the crowd of men and the two boys engaged in four rounds of boxing, it was bizarre to say the least.

I finished writing this blog post today, a shade over four months since I visited Morocco. It’s hard to explain why I have been unmotivated to complete it, partially because there was a lot to write and also because to some extent I can’t decide if I actually enjoyed my trip. I always felt restless, on the move and conflicted about the places that I visited. I do however know that I absorbed a lot in a short time, not just about culture in Morocco but also about the people. It was a valuable experience and one that has been unique to all my other experiences over the last six years, will I return to Morocco? I’m not so sure.

 

La Indomable… Mi primer Gran Fondo

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I picked up a bicycle again a little under two years ago. It had been a sabbatical of almost ten years, the time in between having been filled with various team sports, a few gym memberships and a mild interest in running. When I look back at my more youthful years now I recognise that I always had an affinity with the bicycle.

In the beginning there was the bicycle I learned to ride on, I remember the first ride with no stabilisers being on the road that led to the neighbourhood’s garages. Then there was my Raleigh NightBurner BMX that had red handle bar and top-tube pads that I loved, neglected (on arrival of a new mountain bike) and then cried over when I discovered that my Dad had given it away.

I clearly remember an image of the mountain bike that replaced the BMX being in a photo taken in our front garden, a Universal twelve speed in two-tone bright green and white colourscheme sat proudly against the garden wall. I was always jealous of my friends who flashed their fancy eighteen speed mountain bikes around, but that didn’t stop me from bicycle rides in the Devonshire countryside with them (or even sometimes my Dad on a Sunday evening) or racing around the local industrial park when it was abandoned at night or on a Sunday.

Finally there was a bright yellow mountain bike with Grip Shift gears that a work-colleague won in  Corona Beer sales competition at Tiger Tiger and which I immediately purchased so I could commute between work and university in my third year of university, and for a few more years after that. I distinctly remember blowing my nose after cycling home through traffic, along Oxford Road in Manchester, and a rather disgusting black, car exhaust fume infused snot always being dispelled when I got home. That bike was given away when I finally got my driving license, it was heavy and I was tired of it lingering unused in the hallways.

Almost two years on from the return of a bicycle in my life I find myself enjoying the whole experience, football, Ultimate Frisbee and running had left me with niggling injuries and pains, some that still haunt me today, but for the most part cycling just leaves me fatigued rather than being unable to walk properly on a Monday morning. My fitness levels are the best they have probably ever been and I have managed to ride across an entire country in South Korea, to the highest point in Thailand, as high as it was possible to ride in the Sierra Nevada and also a ride that encircled the Sierra Nevada. This means I feel there is more to give, so the logical advancement is more specific challenges, amateur races like Gran Fondos.

Earlier this year I picked out a local Gran Fondo, ‘La Indomable’ (the indomitable for those English speakers amongst you) a mass start amateur race that both begins and ends in Berja, a small town in the bottom reaches of the Alpujarras, a mountainous region that extends from the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Mediterranean coastline. I paid my entry fee, booked a hire car and over the following months upped my training schedule accordingly.

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Pre-race jersey and number collection

I drove from Granada to Berja on the Friday evening on the eve of the race, collected my competitor number for my bike and shirt before heading to El Ejido, a nearby farming town in the middle of the ‘plastic sea’ (Google it!) to rest for the night. The following morning my alarm rang at 06:00 and I showered, geared up and drove back to Berja. I put my bike together (small hire car…) and nervously made my way to the start line.

I waited patiently on the start line as in the region of 1,200 other competitors made the same journey along the start grid toward the start line. I had got there a little early before the scheduled depart and found myself about fifty bikes from the front, as the crowds increased behind me we gradually bunched up. To add to the nerves the inflatable marker that stretched above the start line lost power and collapsed on the riders at the very front and the guy that was immediately to my right suffered a dramatic hissing puncture despite not even having moved yet.

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The start line

Eventually the cavalcade of police cars, motorbikes, ambulances and race control cars ahead of the riders organised themselves and a flare was shot in the sky to signal the start. To my great relief I clipped into my pedals first attempt and we all rolled away through the streets of Berja. The mass of riders couldn’t pick up much pace through the town’s twisty roads, lined with locals clapping and cheering, but when we hit the main road the pace gradually built up and as we climbed steadily to a closed dual carriage way the pace lit up. The descent to the coastline and the ensuing 30 km along it set a frantic pace that didn’t dip much below 40km an hour and often crept upto 70km an hour. I somehow avoided a lost water bottle that sent riders scattering across the highway taking evasive action, but there were none of the serious pile ups that I had feared.

The road snaked inland towards Albunol where the first major climb of the race began to Alto del Hazo del Lino, 28km long and rising to 1,295m above the sea level that we had just turned away from. This was where I realised my true place amongst the amateur cycling ranks. I climbed at a solid pace for me, knowing there was still another 137km to go after the peak was reached, but I gradually dropped places to those who were lighter than me and those (who seemed to be everybody) who were riding carbon fibre bikes that were 2kg lighter than mine. Physics and genetics are a cruel beast, and when you are giving away 20kg+ to most Spanish riders because you’re 193cm tall you’ll inevitably lose time. That being said I had looked at the profile and knew that if I conserved energy now I would benefit in more suitable terrain later in the race.

Where the road forked near the top of the climb I reached the first feed station, which was essentially breakfast as I had failed to be particularly organised in the morning, and the riders would spilt in two, those on the full 197km ‘larga’ course and those on the shorter 147km ‘corta’ course. I of course was on the ‘larga’, being English.

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Pained face

The climb continued on for another five or so kilometres before a long twisty descent. The benefit of closed roads meaning all riders could enjoy the full width of the tarmac rather than the usual one side, which was fortunate as I flirted with the edge on a few misjudged hairpins. In the valley below the next climb began immediately. I had followed some of this climb the previous week when I had gone through Orgiva, Pampaneira and onto Capileira on a training ride. This time the route took a different direction after Pampaneira through Portugos and then onto Trevelez, the highest village in Europe at 1,480m (obviously discounting ski resorts) the climb peaking out at 1,537m above sea level and lasting a mere 35km…

It’s safe to say I shed a few more places but I also kept a steady pace, didn’t go into the red and as the climb went on the air, although thinner, became cooler. The summer sun was now blazing above and my biggest task was staying hydrated, I utilised a natural spring to replenish both bottles (the natural spring turned into a bit of a scrum as about ten of us descended on it at one time) and there was an extra drinks station halfway up where I could grab an isotonic drink.

Reaching Trevelez was a massive psychological boost, the two hardest climbs were in the books, the halfway point of the race had been bridged 13km prior to the village and the rest of the route was much more appealing to my physical strengths. In the centre of the picturesque village there was a food station, many riders were milling around the shaded tent where you could grab a bocadillo with some of the local ham as well as the high carb fruit, sweets, sugary coca-cola and refreshing watermelon.

After a quick stretch I was back on my steed and spinning out of Trevelez, a steady climb followed where I had my first conversation with another rider who had come down from a region not far from Madrid.We exchanged pleasantries and cycled together for a while reeling in some other riders before we lost each other on a descent, I didn’t see him again until the finish, he’d had a spill somewhere en route and one of his legs was bloodied.

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Looking a bit more relaxed

The profile of the remaining 85km of the race was much more suited to my strengths and I regularly reeled people in on both descents and on the shorter climbs which I find it easier to power over. At one point I had pulled back 98 places in the overall standings but somehow I lost 66 of those with time spent at the last feed station, with lots of people opting to ride straight through, on reflection I maybe should have just pocketed food items to go and not stood around for 5 or so minutes eating and drinking.

Some of the best roads were enjoyed towards the end, winding descents, lower category climbs and flying through villages where you were cheered on by spectators and locals enjoying cafe and bar terraces, I even felt quite emotional at one point, a combination of the unexpected support and the endorphins rushing through me. I particularly enjoyed the stretch through Lucainena and Darrical, a mostly single lane road precariously perched on a valley cliff face above the Rio de Ugijar that wound up and down. However I nearly had a big crash as I took too much speed into a corner, fluttering the brake levers as my rear wheel skidded and threatened to throw me into the cliff wall, I ran out of road and onto the dusty run off area and came so close to the rock face that my leg brushed the plants growing out of it as I let the wheels run and pulled myself back onto asphalt. If it had been on a corner on the drop-off side of the road I would have had to lay the bike down and take my chances on the asphalt.

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Going down, always the best bit

Despite this hair-raising moment I survived the course, the final stretch into Berja was along a duel carriage way, the last chance to reel in a few riders I could see further up the road but I also lost a place or two to some fast finishers. I turned off the carriage way and into the main high street towards the finish, one big effort to fly down the start/finish straight was abruptly ended at the finish lane as I was headed the wrong side of the timing beam. I had to slam on the brakes, skid and swerve to make sure my timing chip was registered. It was quite a comical end. I finished the 197km course in 08 hours 39 minutes and 55 seconds.

Following the race there was a race finishers meal in the Centro de Usos Múltiples de Berja of a plato alpajurreno, something not to dissimilar to a traditional English breakfast. They gave me a knife and fork but I didn’t have the energy to cut into my chorizo or lomo so I just used my hands. There was a presentation for the various overall and age group winners (not me), but I left half-way through to get ready to head home.

My overall impression of the event and experience was extremely positive, the organisation was far beyond what I had expected. The organisers really paid attention to detail and the services they provided from photographers and medical staff to food and drink provisions was impressive. Personally I took away a level of satisfaction of having completed the event successfully and now I have a position that I can look forward to improving on in my next event.

There are some links below to both my results, the route and the event:

http://www.cruzandolameta.es/clasificaciones/resultados/ii-marcha-cicloturista-la-indomable—291/informe/689/

https://www.strava.com/activities/605929457

http://www.laindomable.es/index.php

Reflections on my time in Busan for weteachkorea.com

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A few weeks ago my friend Luke, who I travelled to Japan with a few years back and played football alongside while I was living in Korea, contacted me with regard to writing a lifestyle/opinion piece on my time in Busan for his new website; weteachkorea.com

Glad to help, I sat down at my laptop to write my article. It was quite a cathartic experience to think back on all the things that I did in that wonderful city, some compelling thoughts came to my mind whilst reminiscing and contemplating and I hope that I shared them effectively. If you would like to read the article please click here. Check out my friend’s new venture and support it if you wish. It is developing into a very exciting resource for people considering a move into ESL teaching in Korea.

Andalusian Cycling, Summer and Autumn 2015

La Carreterra de la Cabra 3

After my summer travels in Europe I had a little free time before I began the academic year and what follows is a list of some of the more enjoyable cycle rides that I found myself doing as I prepared myself for work again and some that I have managed to squeeze in on my days off since I have returned to work.

I have decided to apply for a self-supported race called the Transcontinental Race which will take place next July/August, it would be nice to have a focus for the distance riding skills that I have developed and enjoyed over the last eighteen months and I think this is a fantastic adventure to really test myself in a competitive environment. Should my application be accepted, and judging by the large numbers of people registering there is a reasonable chance it might not be successful, I will be cycling in excess of 4,000km and climbing vertically over 65,000m from Flanders in Belgium, south through the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, weaving amongst the Balkans and to Canakkales in Turkey in hopefully less than fifteen days. It’s not only a race but also an adventure of the highest order and something I really believe I can complete. Winning is unlikely but I would like to surprise myself and a few people with a strong performance.

Anyway, this is all theoretical at the moment, I should know by the end of the year if I have been accepted as a contestant and in the meantime I will enjoy my cycling days here in Spain as always and if I don’t make the cut there are other races or trips that I am equally drawn to that will fill my summer months with joy and fulfilment.

Granada – Moclin – Granada, 73km

https://www.strava.com/activities/385384022

This ride begins on the road to Colomera, one of my favoured go to rides, but takes a left turn on to a rather roughly tarmacked road that leads to the small villages of Olivares and onto Tiena, the road is slow because of the uncharacteristically rough surface and on my ride that was slightly accentuated by a strong headwind and a shallow but steady uphill gradient, however the glide down from the plateau into Olivares is picturesque and relieving. From Tiena there is a zigzagging road that heads to a nearby mountain through farmland adorned with linear olive trees and from below in the valley this road appears to lead to nowhere at several points. However as I climbed I went round a few rocky outcroppings to discover the next stretch and eventually the ascent leads into a forested section. The real surprise comes as you exit the forest and looks across to Moclin, an incredibly beautiful mountain top settlement that proudly sits atop a small peak. Further adventures lie beyond to other towns like Limones but I have saved these for a day when I have a bit more time to get lost in the back-country.

Moclin 1 Moclin 2

Granada – Almunecar – Motril – Granada, 170km

https://www.strava.com/activities/387707932

With a full-day free I decided to take the plunge and ride to the coast. This sounds wonderful, something I should be doing all the time, but you must remember that I live at 650m above sea level and to go down to the coast I first have to go up before I can go down and then there is the return journey which is all up, also there is the heat of the Spanish summer! However this ride is the most rewarding I have done so far in terms of scenery taken in. From my home I headed to the Sierras de Tejeda, Almira y Alhama Natural Park (a mouthful) and sought out the Careterra de la Cabra (Road of the Goats). The Carettera de la Cabra is famous for its natural beauty and as being the route that Andalusian goat farmers would take many years ago to bring their goats to market in Granada from the Almunecar area. This walk would take two days. Fortunately after lots of undulating road I hit the spectacular vistas and downhill section through the mountains and I was in Almunecar after a few hours. The photos below speak for the unquestionable amazement the ride provides.

La Carreterra de la Cabra 1 La Carreterra de la Cabra 2 La Carreterra de la Cabra 4

In Almunecar I rode to the beach-front and followed the confusing one way street system before heading along the coast 30km to Motril where I stopped off for some lunch at a small cafe that had just opened up. There was an egg in my burger but with the thought of the huge climb back ahead of me I ate it anyway. I had done most of the climb back on a previous ride when I did a circular route down to Lanjaron and the Rules Reservoir so I mostly knew what lay ahead of me and I knew it would be more of a grind, with only a few scenic places to distract me, compared to the route I had taken down to the coast. My GPS app cut out halfway back as my phone died, but I however just about made it in the blazing sunshine and 35 degree Celsius midday/early afternoon heat. I think this is definitely a ride best taken in the cooler months!

Granada – La Peza – Darro – Iznalloz – Granada, 117km

https://www.strava.com/activities/408758417

Granada to La Peza is a stunning route, quiet roads, lots of climbs and smooth descents and I have ridden there and back several times. This time, however, I wanted to extend my ride to Darro and back through Iznalloz to complete a full circle of the Sierra de Huetor a mountain range that sits across the Rio Genil valley from the Sierra Nevada.

It turned out this ride was shorter than I expected, only 117km, but still has the kudos of circumnavigating a mountain range/national park. The highlight, as I expected was the Rio Genil valley to La Peza, but there are some great views of the striking ridge that forms an ominous spine along the northern side of the Sierra de Huetor. There was a bit of main road riding that was at first a little intimidating in comparison to the quiet back roads I’m normally on, but as usual Spanish drivers showed impeccable consideration and the whole road had an endless area to cycle in marked clearly away from the main carriageway.

Sierra de Huetor 1 Sierra de Huetor 2

Granada – Monachil – Prado Llano – Granada, 72km

https://www.strava.com/activities/419246404

I have cycled to the ski station in the Sierra Nevada (and beyond) several times but this is arguably the best route, physically demanding, but yet providing the most incredible scenery. I have descended the Monachil route several times, it being steep but not particularly fast due to the tight nature of the numerous corners. Ascending via this route was lung-bursting with some gradients hitting 40 per cent in the corners and the final push to El Purche appearing to be as if monumental wall of tarmac had been slammed right into your face. That being said when you pop your head over the horizon and join the more steadily inclined main road there is a fantastic sense of satisfaction. I also managed to perfect the use of my camera on the go rather than stopping to take pictures, a herd of goat being the first recipients of my new photographic skills.

To add to the wow factor I climbed above Prado Llano to join up with the A-4025, an old route up the mountain but now devoid of cars and relished the most beautiful of switch-back descents. Notably it’s getting cold now in the mountains and there was some snow apparent on the very highest peaks so I will have to invest in some more suitable winter and windproof attire to continue using theses routes over the coming months.

Monachil 1 Monachil 2 Monachil 3 Monachil 4 Monachil 5

Granada – Poblado Embalse de los Bermejales – Cacin – Granada, 94km

https://www.strava.com/activities/423642809

If my weathered face above hasn’t put you off, the final ride I am documenting is this fine loop out to Poblado Embalse de los Bermejales (a reservoir) which I have been past before on the way to Alhama de Granada. This time however I took a minor road back from the reservoir through an isolated town called Cacin. This road is quiet, hidden in a valley that feels it shouldn’t almost be there on the vast undulating plain to the far west of Granada and relatively unridden according to Granada. This route is a real leg burner if you attack it, especially on a windy day like this one. There is no flat just long ups and lazy downs but serves three hours well spent.

Cacin

Central Europe: Prague, Czech Republic

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I’ve been so preoccupied with getting my head around my classes at work for this new academic year that I have slightly neglected my writing from my summer travels. Fortunately I have only one more entry to make, and judging by how much time has lapsed and the minuscule notes I might not be able to give the full picture!

1. Edge of the town square

I arrived in Prague by coach from Vienna with a company called ‘studentagency’, who despite having a name that may not evoke images of comfort and luxury, turned out to provide the best coach service ever; entertainment system, leather seats more than adequate legroom and what amounted to table service from the on bus host! At a mere 14 euros I couldn’t have felt happier on what is generally my most despised form of travel. I arrived feeling reasonably fresh and walked across the city and over the Vltava River to the western side of the city where I checked into a well above par hostel (Adam & Eva Hostel) that boarded on having hotelesque facilities and décor.

Being a Saturday and the beginning of the football season in England I took it upon myself to be very British and search out a local bar to watch some football, I wandered around the local streets before I found a small little bar that had some German football match on one screen and, unfortunately, the Bournemouth vs West Ham game on another. No Tottenham for me, but all the same I had a few beers while I watched the English game and listened to the German commentary. I sat alone in the bar on one side as the regulars crowded the bar opposite until an elder Czech man came in, sat next to me, sparked up a cigarette and then started reading a right-wing newspaper and pointing out all the pro-nazism it contained. Full-time couldn’t have come quick enough and I went for a nap back at the hostel.

My evening was much more successful as I hung out with a Swiss guy called Patrick who I met at the hostel. We managed to find some traditional Czech food pretty cheaply across the river and managed to accidentally witness the Prague Astronomical Clocks animated actions as we walked through the Staromestska (Old Town Square), a huge throng of smartphone toting tourists oggled the clock as the puppet like figures appeared in their automated windows and the skeleton rang his little bell. Pretty respectable technology for a six-hundred year old clock. We walked back across the Vltava River over the Charles Bridge and then found a great little bar called Kavarna Mlynska on Kampa Island where we managed to squeeze in a few beers before closing time.

1. Prague by night 2. Astronomical Clock 3. Wall

The next day I set out on my own in the morning and trekked up through the steep Petrin Park to Prague’s very own mini version of the Eiffel Tower. There was a small festival happening at the base of the tower and I enjoyed some local craft beer and a roast pork sandwich while I debated the affordable entry fee to the tower against the inevitable crush of tourists. I opted to pay and walked to the top where I was rewarded with some incredible views across Prague although there was definitely a mini-crush on the upper-deck to negotiate to be able to truly enjoy it. As I descended I dallied at the craft beer tent again and ordered myself another beer, which seemed like a good idea. It being a vacation and all that, as I supped my brew I looked on at what I thought was a performance by some local folk band but turned out to be a performance by a local religious community; I only discovered this as one of the sock-sandalled followers sidled up to me and told me I had been invited to join their community. As I politely endured his sales pitch, I hastened my drinking and made a quick exit.

4. Petrin Tower 5. Tower view

After my friendly cult encounter I walked across toward Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral but baulked at the entry costs, it was nice enough to explore outside and take in the architecture, although I was disappointed to later realise that some of it had been free to enter. I was feeling a little sleepy after my mid-day beers and decided that I would get some sleep in before my evening plans came around.

6. St. Vitus Catherdal 7. Looking upto St. Vitus

Throughout my summer trip I had been unable to see any live professional sports, every time I arrived in a city I checked if there were any pre-season or early league matches but I was always leaving town a day early or a day late. Finally, though in Prague, my visit coincided with a home league match for Sparta Prague. On the league fixture agenda was a city derby against Dukla Prague. I left early to ensure I could buy a ticket before the game started and I walked along the edge of the Vltava before heading up through Letna Park, briefly pausing at the viewpoint where you can find the rather odd Prague Metronome and a very popular focal point for local skateboarders who were speeding along and having varying success at pulling off some tricks on the various concrete features of the park.

The Genrali Stadium can be found across the park heading away from the Vltava River and the more recognisably cultural districts of Prague. I was early enough to not have to queue for a ticket on the door but not too early that there wasn’t already a small atmosphere building around the stadium. That being said I was one of the first through the turnstiles giving me first chance to enjoy a beer or two and a pork steak sandwich on the concourse surrounding the stairs to the stands.

The game was preceded by some proud flag waving march around the edges of the pitch and I was quite quizzical as to why there were only a handful of away supporters in the stadium despite it being one of the Prague derbies. The game however was quite entertaining. Dukla would counter as Sparta consistently held the ball and created plenty of chances with their territorial advantage. Sparta went 1-0 up and as the game opened up toward the end they grabbed a second goal to earn a much deserved victory. Czech legend and captain David Lafata being the man of the match and also having the proud honour of having the best of a bad bunch of fan chants.

14. Slavia Ultras 15. Prague Derby

The following morning I embarked on a big trek across the city, I began at The Dancing House, one of Prague’s more modern and alluring buildings, much different from the neo-Gothic architecture that perpetuates around the historical centre. It was here that I went into an exhibition of Kaja Saudek’s cartoon art, an influential and rather imaginative artist who was often repressed by the communist forces of his time. The modest entry fee, worth it for the exhibition alone (although parental guidance might be wise), also included a free drink at the roof top Fred & Ginger cafe where I stole some WiFi to plan a few more of my stops for the day and also gave me a good vantage point of a large group of professionally dressed Korean women all posing for some promotional tourist link photo-shoot between the two countries on the riverside down below. A brief reminder of my old home back in Korea.

8. Kaja Saudek Exhibition

I walked along the river to the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral as well as the Vysehrad Castle and had a mooch around before heading uphill to the ‘boho’ district of Krymska where I had an incredibly healthy and delicious lunch at Plevel Restaurace. Vegan isn’t my thing at all but it has to be said that wholesome food when you are tired and weary from a long journey is undeniably appreciated. From Krymska I headed to the more traditional centre and took in the sights with the tourist throngs. My favourite moment came however in a rather innocuous park outside the Church of St. Ludmilla, where I sat on a bench taking in the sunshine and giving my feet a little rest from my side-street wanderings. At the base of the park near to the metro tracks there was a piano that had been previously installed for a long-since-passed monthly art project by Ondrej Kozba, the success of which has meant the pianos have remained throughout Prague. As I sat there a mother and daughter hashed away at the keys but after they went on their way a young woman walked through the park, seemingly on a typical walk to work or to meet friends, sat down and launched herself into some expertly played classical music. Her impromptu performance was eventually curtailed by some rather overly-curious drunk tramps who made her feel rather uncomfortable as they sat beside her and tried to talk to her. She took the interruption well and politely made her excuses and left, the moment not ruined but just oddly juxtaposed between beauty and skill and social deprivation.

12. Open Mic pianist

I took in a few more of the main sites and enjoyed the buzzing summer atmosphere around The Powder Tower and the Old Town Square, in spite of the constant annoyance of Segway tour guides touting for business and making general idiots of themselves before I went back to the hostel and thought about preparing my things for my flight back to Spain in the morning. One last night time excursion for a burger at a local bar where I was served by an incredulously enthusiastic and cheerful waitress, who coerced me into a couple of extra glasses of wine and my significant time in Prague was done.

9. Rather garish hotel 10. The Powder Tower 11. Municipal House 13. Penguins

The following morning a combination of metro and bus brought me to the airport where I flew to Barcelona. My onward flight to Granada, (which cost more than any of my other flights during my travels) was an awkward seven hours away but thankfully Barcelona Airport is full of enough places to relax comfortably, eat and entertain yourself. It gave me time to reflect on what had been both an enjoyable and eye-opening journey across some regions of Europe that I had never even been near before. The beginning of the refugee/migrant crisis gave it a sobering edge and a stark reminder that travel is not only to be enjoyed but also to be used as a tool to educate yourself and open yourself to new horizons, people and life choices.

Central Europe: Vienna, Austria

0. CoverHaving boarded the cross-border train from Budapest to Vienna I settled into the book that I had been picking up in bad weather moments and tedious flights. Train journeys are usually quite calm but this one had the added excitement of an unscheduled stop at the Austrian border to allow border patrol guards on. Although no one was ejected from the train they methodically worked their way through the carriages checking people’s passports and credentials, a gradual accumulation of ‘illegal’ refugees and migrants grew between the border patrol guards as they moved along the train. When we arrived in Vienna I saw the same group of refugees/migrants being escorted away, although it was quite a calm movement and certainly none of the events on my journey resembled any of those that have saturated television news shows and newspapers over the last couple of weeks.

In Vienna I stayed at quite a cold generic hostel, whilst efficient and equipped, lacked little charm. This was also a temporary home for a good number of migrants, and I say migrants in this case because they were exclusively young men or even groups of young men. I spoke to a few during my stay, an Indian man who was staying in my room who was trying to find work and papers in Austria and a couple of Tajik lads who were trying to get to Germany. There are definitely several sides to the coin of events currently happening in Europe and although the majority of people are fleeing war and persecution there is, at least from my summer experience, a significant number of people attempting to take advantage of the situation for other reasons. The hostel staff had quite a job on their hands keeping the hostel secure, on several occasions I saw them having to prevent people from entering the premises who were not guests and even at one point a man trying to acquire a keycard from reception despite not being registered at the hostel at all. All I could surmise from my observations is that it is an extremely complex situation and it is understandable that there are such divisions across European states; the priority though surely should be to show compassion and help those who need it.
1. St. Stephan Cathedral

Beyond the evolving troubles and struggles of the people I was inadvertently observing throughout my trip I was, with a gnawingly increasing sense of guilt, also keen to continue my own exploration. Having arrived in the early afternoon and only being limited to two days in Vienna, I struck out into the city. I took the subway to Stephanplatz and emerged outside another ostentatious city cathedral, which I briefly glimpsed inside before navigating my way towards the MuseumsQuartier. Heading west through the city you pass some palatial buildings such as the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek and The Museum of Natural History Vienna before arriving in the transformed baroque MuseumsQuartier. The pace of the day meant I had a choice of art galleries and I chose MUMOK over the Leopold for its renowned collection of pop art.

2. Pestsaule 3. Palaci Imperial de Hofburg 4. Austrian National Library

MUMOK (also awkwardly known as MUseum MOdern Kunst) is another gallery linked to the Ludwigs that I mentioned in my previous blog but I found this collection much more appealing and thought provoking, it also features some masterful pieces by Roy Lichtenstein and and Andy Warhol. I took a couple of pictures, but no more, it was allowed but art galleries are for appreciation, no one with any mode of decorum wants to be  known as that guy/woman who walks around taking photos of every piece of work with their obnoxious iPad…

Apart from the pop art big hitters there were some intriguing exhibitions by lesser known, or even unknown to me, contemporary artists on the other floors giving the art museum credibility for championing a wide variety of artistic styles and offering something to any patron who would visit. It was definitely my favourite art gallery throughout my journey.

5. MUMOK Pop art 6. Roy Lichtenstein 7. BOOM

As much as I enjoyed MUMOK, I equally enjoyed the general ambience of the whole area of the MuseumsQuartier, there were numerous cafes and bars serving fashionable drinks and food as well as having interactive public spaces where you could relax, meet friends (I have no friends in Vienna sadly) or pass some time reading a book (I did have a book). This was a common theme throughout the whole of Vienna and I felt it would be a fantastic city to live in.

8. MUMOK 9. Space Invaders 10. Magazine vending machine

Finding myself on the inner edge of the inner Vienna ring road I followed the road clockwise passing the national parliament building before finding myself outside the Rathausplatz, the city mayoral building. It was here that I accidentally found myself at the summer music film festival, an outdoor event where there were twenty plus pop up food retailers and a massive open air temporary auditorium semi-encircling the impressive Rathausplatz which was adorned with a massive screen. I conveniently arrived shortly before the evenings free performance so I grabbed a delicious plate of some kind of French version of a stew with roasted potatoes and a glass of wine and found myself a bench. I had no idea what to expect from the performance but it turned out to be a screening of an opera, Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. I will be honest and admit that I only watched half before I decided I had appreciated Vienna’s celebrated music scene enough and left my seat. The whole event and set up was mightily impressive though, just the kind of thing that any cultural city should be staging.

11. Parliament Building 12. Rathausplatz

The following day I grabbed the subway east to Leopoldstadt where I signed up for the Vienna City Bikes scheme. (One euro to sign up, free for the first hour and a euro for a subsequent hour, free again after a fifteen minute return period!) Having acquired my bicycle I spent the late morning exploring Donauinsel Island in the middle of the Danube. I cycled a good 25 km on my slow, heavy and cumbersome city bike but it was refreshing to be cycling along the picturesque riverside and seeing a different side to the city. After returning my bicycle I grabbed some cheap street food nearby before rehiring another bicycle and exploring the inner city and the stretch of the canal that dissects it. There was plenty going on and I enjoyed watching graffiti artists, stopping for a drink on the sun lounger bars that pop-up along the canal and swerving through tourists and pedestrians in the small parks.

13. Vienna Boris Bikes 14. Swimming pontoon in the river 15. Mario by the canal

16. Canal ride art

In the evening I was feeling quite fatigued and slightly sunburnt but I had arranged to meet Kasia, a Polish Couchsurfer living in Vienna. I met her at the subway near to the hostel and was introduced to her lively dog who joined us for a few drinks canal side in the city at Strandbar Hermann, a faux beach bar. I didn’t have much energy for a big night out so we went our respective ways before the last subway left. I arrived back at the hostel and passed out until my alarm woke me in the morning and I hurried off to get my bus to Prague.