Summer Travels: Cuba 2017

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No sooner had I added one blog post (on Canada), and taken a step closer to catching up on my travels, than I went on another international adventure. So while I’m now in debt by two weeks in Australia, I am now also in debt of one week in Georgia (Soviet version not American) and at the time of writing this three weeks in Cuba.

As three weeks in Cuba sounds like a hell of a lot of writing, this is definitely going to be a photo heavy piece. As I type, and our new puppy Hugo gnaws at my socked toes, I have made the executive decision to go for a maximum three sentence policy per picture.

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We arrived in Havana late in the evening and took a long walk through the old town of the Cuban capital the next day. We came across numerous courtyards like the one above, offering a little seclusion from the scorching hot streets and general hustle and bustle.

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Pretty sure this was the Plaza de la Catedral. The sanctity of the surroundings seemed to make it a pretty safe place to avoid general touts, but as you exited the plaza from any corner you would get a beckoning wave to a gift shop or restaurant of some sort. That being said, most encounters were friendly and the horde of cruise ship guests that had disembarked in the port received a touch more attention.

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‘Yank Tanks’ are not as proliferate as the guidebooks may have you believe, you are equally likely to see a Lada or Trabant imported from Russia in the 70’s or a clapped out Renault 405 form the 80’s. There does however seem to be two distinct categories of Yank Tank; the preserved and gleaming originals that are hired out to the cash rich tourist by the hour and the battered, diesel smoking  hard-top sedans that run on salvaged and make-shift parts. Of course, the one above comes from the latter category (minus tourists).

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A slightly more garish classic American car from the 50s or 60s. This spot is perhaps more significant for the lovely bakery that sits in the Union Francesa de Cuba behind. Some baked treats make hours of walking around the streets of the old city and the suburb of Vedado much easier to swallow.

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While walking around Vedado you’re more than likely to be either heading to Parque Lennon or you’ll bump into it. A classic  photo opportunity awaits at this cast iron bench-cum-statue which comes with its own personal security guard. The necessity of the security guard? To make sure no-one wanders of with Mr. Lennon’s glasses.

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This one could be a picture postcard for Havana, right? This is a memorial to Jose Marti, a man considered to be a national hero for his political activity and a symbol for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the nineteenth century, opposite Plaza de la Revolucion.

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Plaza del la Revolucion is a very nationalistic area (as the name may suggest), surrounded by monuments, Cuban ministry buildings and museums. This wire mural of Che Guevara sits on the side of the Ministry of Interior.

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As well-known for its pivotal twentieth century political history, Havana is also renown for its nightlife and in particular its Salsa music heritage. India being quite the aficionado was insistent that I participate (somewhat) in said heritage. While in Havana we attended L’egendarios del Guajirito. Despite its cash-cow, tourist drawing vibe, it did showcase the talents and heroes of the Buena Vista Social Club and similar ensembles. No cheap cover acts, the real deal.

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From our AirBnB in Havana we travelled by ‘taxi collectivo’ (clapped out Renault 405 – not pictured) to Trinidad de Cuba, a colourful village near the central Southern coast. Our accommodating hosts from Havana hooked us up with a ‘casa particulares’ belonging to some family friends of theirs and, as the system seems to go in Cuba, we knocked on the door of the given address and were shown to our quarters.

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Plaza Mayor (a commonly overused title in the Latin world) as seen from the gates of the main church.

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The main church as seen from Plaza Mayor.

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Contemporary Cuban art at Casa Ortiz.

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The view West from the bell tower of the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. The museum is worth a visit for the (one-sided) perspective of the counter-revolutionary struggles.

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A typical night out in any Cuban bar or restaurant is usually supported by a house band. Music is obviously reflective of the culture, often repetitive (you’ll hear the same Cuban classics repeatedly – Guantanmera anyone?) but now and again you’ll hit a spot with some authentic yet independent vibes. These guys brought energy to the room.

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We took a day trip to the Valle de los Ingenios on a local tourist train, an old locomotive that ran at a pedestrian pace over some rickety bridges. A disaster waiting to happen. It made two stops, the first being Manaca Iznaga where you can scale a large watchtower, which a slaver built to keep a beady eye on his slaves, for some idyllic Cuban countryside views.

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India, fortunately, was not driving the train, this was an abandoned locomotive that now rested at the end of its track at the FNTA sugar mill, a long abandoned enterprise that you could now pay a few dollars to wander around.

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Despite being, rusty, decrepit and dangerous the sugar mill hinted at the industrious nature of the past, long before countries that could harness cheaper, modern equipment effectively killed the sugar industry for Cuba.

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As with all things Cuban, colour is key, even on this workhorse engine.

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After our dodgy rail trip we booked an equally dodgy Russian Lada and its driver for another adventure a few days later (with a beach day sandwiched in between). I sat in the passenger seat as his resilient carriage dragged us up a mountain road, littered with hairpins and steep inclines to this mirador.

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The mirador was merely a side attraction on a trip to the Vegas Grandes waterfall. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the beginning of a trail and we took a slippery path that descended through the forest, past skittish wild horses, frogs and a snake. The waterfall was a treat. Tough enough to get to that only a handful of people took the effort to seek it out. We even had the spot to ourselves for a short time.

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The water was fresh, cool and clean. Ideal for a swim on a steamy Cuban summer’s day and a few liberating dives from the rock beneath the torrent of water that rained down upon you from above.

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Beautiful countryside, pristine beaches, the element of standstill in time, friendly helpful people (taxi drivers excluded) – these are some of the compliments you could pay to Cuba. Food however in Cuba is possibly the worst fare in the world, at least in my travelling experience thus far. That being said, this was the culinary highlight of the trip – a home cooked meal at Casa Messi in a small town called Remedios.

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There wasn’t much to do in Remedios, it was really just a little stopover on the way to Cayo Santa Maria. Stella, the in casa pug, kept us mildly entertained though.

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AT Cayo Santa Maria we stayed at a 5* resort, which could only be a starring system assessment of the beach as in reality you could confidently attribute a rating of -1* for food, 2* for drinks, 3* for room. However, that beach, sea, sky combo was quite epic.

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Demonstrating, through selfies, that this was (mostly) our beach.

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Ponderous posing.

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Sad because of the food.

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From Cayo Santa Maria we took an empty coach ride to Havana, where we stayed for one brief night, before hitching a ride in a taxi collectivo to Vinales in the Pinar del Rio province. The Vinales Valley is famed for its tobacco plantations, the rich red soil donating all the nutrients necessary to grow the lanky plants that the pungent leaves dangle from. The climate, you sense on arrival, is indeed tropical. High humidity persists, towering clouds always looming throughout the foreground of a deep blue sky and thunderstorms that bring brief but torrential downpours (like the one that greeted our arrival) are intermittent.

Vinales, despite having to suffer a horrendous stomach bug throughout the entire stay (and the remainder of our time in Cuba), stands out as my personal highlight of the Cuban experience. The limestone mogote littered scenery is dramatic, the setting genuinely rural and the land appreciated and mostly unsullied by the locals.

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Traditional homes and wandering livestock are common throughout Vinales, it’s not uncommon to see a few pigs cross your path, a brood of chickens scattered around your feet or indeed a horse and cart trotting down a main road.

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Tobacco is key to the regional economy, the harvest of course rolled into cigars. A large percentage of the harvest is given to the state to be sold as the famous brands you see worldwide, however the farmers are permitted to keep a smaller percentage for their own sale or use. We strolled down this pathway, deep out in the valley, to find a farmer adorned partially in old military attire, wielding a machete and smoking the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen. He kindly showed us his drying and fermentation house (below) and explained the process from harvest to rolling.

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Tobacco stench from a night out on the town is grim, but the aroma of the leaves in one of these drying and fermentation houses is at the other end of the pungency spectrum.

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An old bicycle, strangely found halfway into some woods.

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During one of our more adventurous hikes we really hit some deeper farmland. Although you’d spy the odd tourist group on horseback, you could still appreciate the landscape and its function for the Cubans.

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I don’t think the oxen had used this crossing.

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Good views of the limestone mogotes could be had for those intrepid enough to brave the heat and humidity.

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The local bus service.

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On one afternoon, I decided to hire a mountain bike (too small, mostly rusted and reasonably broken) and explore a little deeper along some of the lanes.

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Tobacco fields and more fauna adorned mogotes.

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While our first hike took us deep into the countryside and the tobacoo fields to the north and east of Vinales (Parque Nacional Vinales), we took a rather less travelled loop around from the east that brought us back up above the valley to the Hotel la Ermita –  a place where I wished we had stayed rather than in our casa particulares in Vinales which was a converted horse stable.

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This rather quiet route was free of other travellers and allowed you to pass some of the colourful local homes that sit above the main town and valley below.

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How to spoil a good view – stick a sweaty westerner in it.

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Before (above) and during (below) sunset view from the balcony of the Hotel La Ermita restaurant of the Valle de los Ingenios.

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Better than our stable with lumpy bed and pillows.

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Before we began our hike to Hotel la Ermita we had taken a taxi ride east of Vinales to this canopy zip line experience. Two guides took us and a few others up into the forest canopy after the daily downpour had subsided. Despite many things in Cuba being bodged, repaired or still used in questionable condition we were relieved to find the facilities and equipment in excellent nick. The zip lines were fast and long and offered great views of the canopy around you and the mogotes beyond.

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All set for a day as a steel worker.

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On our final evening we took a romantic dusk walk to the southern side of town and out into the local communities and tobacco fields. This gentleman, Antonio, beckoned us over to his medicinal garden and showed us around his home and coffee making facilities. He got very excited about coffee grinding.

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From the lushness of Vinales we took our final taxi collectivo back to the bustle, colonialism and culture of Havana. However, Havana is not all crumbly colonial buildings and American classic cars, at times the brutality and functionalism of communist influence can be seen in Havana’s architecture, too. Luckily, we didn’t stay here…

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…or here…

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…or here (although this was a pretty lively community area).

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We did however stay here, as a final treat and for a bit of Cuban luxury we plumped for one of the infamous ‘mafia’ hotels of the 50s and ’60s. This is the rooftop pool of Hotel Capri, once built (not by himself) and owned by the notorious mafia boss Santo Trafficante Jr, a man closely linked to attempted assassinations on Fidel Castro and JFK.

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Our time in Havana ended just down the road from the Hotel Capri at the grandiose Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we were served minnestrone soup (from a can?) yet were serenaded by an eighty year old Cuban lady at a grand piano. A somewhat fitting analogy for our time in Cuba.

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Summer Travels: Canada (a tiny bit) 2017

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We’re now in 2018 yet I’m still stuck in summer 2017 in the blogging calendar. I’m so far behind that I have to question whether I’ll post within a year of an event. I still have to put fingers to keyboard on ‘Summer Travels: Cuba 2017’ meaning I may have forgotten about ‘Christmas in Australia’ by the time I come to writing about that…

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Zagreb to London, with a brief stopover before jumping on a transatlantic flight to Toronto, had me feeling like Bugs Bunny in the picture above. After we touched down at the airport we took a city link to Little Portugal where we would stay in an Airbnb for a couple of nights. After failing miserably to operate a digital door lock at the residence and having to call the landlord out, who promptly opened it first time,  we immediately crashed and slept for almost 14 hours.

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The following day we walked from Little Portugal to Kensington Market taking in the gentrified vibes and graffiti adorned walls and other street art. Highlight of the walk being a stop-off in a grilled cheese spot called the Film Cafe on Augusta Avenue.

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The rest of Kensington oozed 21st Century hipster vibes, far-fetched imagery for those familiar with the loafer wearing, Ralph Lauren chino and shirt draped ‘Oxbridge’ toff district of West London. You definitely wouldn’t find any of the expressive graffiti that adorned the end of terraced walls slammed up against the side of Harrod’s, that’s for sure.

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Our Toronto wander took us to the Distillery District for some deserved lunch and less-deserved sampler sets of locally-brewed craft beers. Just to top off the lunch time gluttony we stopped in at SOMA chocolatemaker, a great spot to enjoy some handmade ice-cream or other chocolate based delight while watching the chocolatiers at work in an ‘open-factory’ setting. All in all, a great spot for a wander in the sunshine and to line your stomachs.

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We walked on, passing through the edges of the city centre and along the edge of Lake Ontario and the Toronto city harbour, until the summer heat took its toll on us and we could walk no further. We grabbed an Uber and headed-back. As far as I’m aware we didn’t do anything at night, the jet lag having caught up with us, besides I needed a rest before a half-day of hire car driving toward the American border and a night in Niagara Falls.

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As you can see, we made it to Niagara Falls. Picking up our hire car in downtown Toronto we drove south skirting Lake Ontario and battling through some bleak and heavy rain. We would stay the night at a guest house in the town, a place recommended by India’s parents who had stayed there many years before and had stated we would be handsomely fed at breakfast.

We arrived mid-afternoon and immediately set-off on the short walk to the falls. We exited the suburban area slightly downstream and first walked past the American section of the falls that lay across the border and water. The American section is fittingly slightly inferior in appearance, something that will suit any Brit, Canadian or probably world citizen’s ego. Appropriately, the rain that had blighted the drive from Toronto was still falling but as we walked further up river the skies cleared and a rainbow came out in the mist of the much more dramatic Canadian horseshoed section of the falls.

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The power of the falls and the sheer volume of water plunging off the end of the river bed below was overwhelming. The dusting of rain had kept some visitors away and we felt lucky to not have to fight through too much of a throng of people to get right up to the edge.

The rest of our time in Niagara Falls was slightly underwhelming, the town is a ‘bit’ trashy and we missed half of the fireworks show that evening as we tried to sleep off some of the clingy jet lag. A true low came in the evening post-fireworks where we could find nowhere to eat apart from a Pizza Hut in the basement of the brutal casino ‘resort’, where the tables were sticky and the pizza slices were soggy.

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To try and get a taste of true rural Canada we had planned to spend our remaining three days in Algonquin Provincial Park. The 400km drive north was quite a fun little road-trip and fueled a hunger to one day do a true North American version from coast-to-coast.

While our time would mostly be spent exploring the forested lake land of the provincial park we had chosen to stay at an AirBnB in Maynoooth. Maynooth is little more in size than an English village and comes with a familiar sense of community. We stayed with a welcoming couple who also ran a locally supported art gallery and whose personalities filled their graciously opened home.

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We had two full days to explore Algonquin Provincial Park. It was two days fraught with wilderness, adventure and unfortunately mosquitoes and injuries.

Route 60 was our access road and on the first day we chose to do some hiking on some of the numerous trails that the park boasts. Loving a challenge but also acutely aware of the potential for moaning from the other party I chose a medium to long day route called the Centennial Trail. The trail meandered through the forested land up to a ridge with views of the lakes and blanketed tree tops below. From here we would shuffle through the woods, looking for bears and moose that would never ultimately appear.

A necessary consequence of the hike was the combat between human and mosquito. Lake edges and muddy bogs brought swathes of mosquitoes and it was often necessary to sprint through boggy sections while wildly flailing arms against exposed areas of your skin to vainly protect yourself. Ultimately, I was eaten, a good twenty or so bites. India was merely nibbled. My reactionary swelling was immediate and representative of half-a-golf ball chopped up and sewn underneath my skin for each bite. I was left further unimpressed during one evasive flailing arm sprint where I typically managed to sprain my ‘glass’ ankle. Woe was me.

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Despite my misadventures and being victimized by groups of miniature insect bullies, I survived the Centennial trail and so did India. The pain was almost worth it as the pictures attest.

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The following day brought me great pain as I woke to find my bite affected limbs ridiculously swollen, I had quite the adverse reaction. Being a true hero though, I soldiered on. We had planned to go kayaking on one of the hundreds of lakes but the weather had turned a little overcast and we instead chose to hire mountain bikes to continue our Canadian wilderness experience.

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Despite our (my) hopes to run into one of the two-thousand black bears or thirty-five wolf packs that call the local grounds home we were unfortunate enough to see nothing but a fox, a couple of wild turkey, a bunch of frogs and a few snakes. The one pictured above had the gall to appear beside my foot as I stopped to observe some birds frolicking in the lake that sat parallel to the Old Railway Trail that we were cruising along. As India approached the area where I was currently straddling my bicycle she had the vision and wisdom to spy the reptile and immediately flee before failing to accurately identify as to where the offending, yet non-deadly, garter snake was that lurked beneath me. I survived, through nothing but confused blind luck and the fact that I wasn’t actually in any real danger at all.

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India grew tired and I went off on my own to cover a few more kilometres in the rain as she enjoyed some tea and I think an ice-cream. When we reconvened we drove across the park, east to the town of Huntsville for a late lunch and a coffee each that we bought from some talkative townsfolk.

Our short time in the charming Ontarian wilderness was coming to a close.  We had a wholesome meal with our hosts before an early night. The following day we drove back to Toronto and readied ourselves for our early evening flight to Havana, Cuba.

Summer Travels: Croatia 2017

Summer has long-gone, well at least the European summer, it’s still consistently nudging 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in Dubai. While time is slipping away my memories are still fresh enough to reflect upon a wonderful journey through Croatia, Canada, Cuba and Scotland. Meanwhile life and demanding work continues and blogging continues to be a residual thought, but my desire to continue documenting this great passage of my life persists. What follows could be described as a photographic blog (and a little cinematic precursor), with snippets of insight to the great countries we visited in the summer of 2017. Up first, Croatia.

 

DUBROVNIK:

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It was along the shores of the Adriatic Sea that almost two months of travelling would begin. Sometime in early July we landed on the elevated plain of Dubrovnik airport before a convivial taxi driver welcomed us to his city and deposited us at at our first Croatian ‘Apartman’. After sleeping off the previous 12 hours travel we awoke the next morning and strolled down to Bellevue beach, a pebble laden cove with refreshing waters and a plethora of teenage cliff-divers.

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After our morning at Bellevue beach, we spent the afternoon roaming the Medieval streets of the city. There is much to explore and get lost in; a plethora of amiable restaurants within the narrow streets offering shady respite from the mid-summer sun, opportunities to slip out of the city walls to mix with the locals sunning themselves on the edges of the fortress walls or to perch yourself on the edge of said walls and have a beer over-looking the glistening sea.

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As our afternoon wore on we went to catch the cable car to the top of the mountainous ridge that looms around Dubrovnik. At the top you get not only breathtaking vies of the unique city below, but if you take the time to wander away from the confines of the cable car station you can find some jagged rocks to the western limits of the ridge area to watch a spectacular sunset over some of the outlying islands. These very same islands we would navigate through by ferry in the following early hours of the next morning.

KORCULA and MJLET:

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From Dubrovnik we took a catamaran style ferry to Korčula, one of the many islands that lay in the Adriatic Sea off the Dalmatian coast. While Korčula is a stunning island in its own right, one which we thoroughly enjoyed exploring and relaxing in, we also took the opportunity to take an excursion to Mljet, an island national park which has two in land salt water lakes. This trip was part of India’s birthday celebrations and after we spent the day exploring Mljet, swimming in the warm waters of the inland salt lakes and diving off our semi-private boat into the crystal clear Adriatic waters off the island’s coast, we then spent the evening dining at Konoba Adio Mare. This classic Dalmatian restaurant served up fresh local dishes on a roof top terrace that is adjoined to what is claimed to be the home where Marco Polo was born.

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The remaining days were spent on Korčula, resting on our Apartman’s private dock in the sunshine, wandering around town, watching the local water polo club playing in their man-made sea-pool and exploring the scenic eastern peninsula by bicycle.

PLITVICE LAKES:

Croatia, already having blown us away with its Medieval grandeur in Dubrovnik and idyllic island life in Korčula and Mljet, was about to once again seduce us with its beauty. A long journey by catamaran to Split and then bus north saw us deposited at the edge of a busy country highroad in the village of Mukinje, a short hop away from the famed Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Our accommodation was less glamourous than before, but ideally placed us within walking distance of the national park entrance. We spent the next two days exploring as much of the national park and its stunning collection of waterfalls that cascaded down a valley interspersed with natural lime karst dams.

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On the first day we explored the upper lakes, we hiked down from our village through the forest and paid our entry fee. After figuring out the route we followed the meandering path around the upper lakes, passing by a multitude of picturesque waterfalls that plunged into emerald pools and lagoons. Our early start meant we missed the worst of the crowds that are generally predicted to arrive by the bus load during the middle of each day.

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As soon as it began to become apparent that the general tourist hordes were arriving we sought out the beginning of the Medvedak hiking region . There are a variety of routes and our choice was the Plitvica Trail, a combination of all the best bits that the ancient beech forest and mountain meadow environments have to offer. Minor cautions were in place for bears, wolves and lynx but all that troubled us was one retreating snake. Keeping open eyes for such reclusive predators ensured that we approached the trail in a manner that allowed us to absorb the absolute beauty of the area and the solitude that it offered beyond the corralled gaggle of tourists now far below us.

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At the end of the hiking trail we emerged above the lower lakes and managed to find a wonderful and surprisingly empty viewpoint of the biggest waterfall in the area the ‘Great Fall’.

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The second of the two days was a slightly more relaxed affair exploring the lower lakes and falls and taking a little more time to explore the caves and unfortunately mingle with the crowds. That being said, we still enjoyed the day and we were able to catch our bus the following day to Zagreb, safe in the knowledge that we had made the most of our experience in the Plitvice Lakes.

ZAGREB:

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Our time in Zagreb was very laid-back, it’s a quiet city with a very industrious brutal feel to the suburbs and with a scenic cobbled old quarter. In many ways it is incomparable to the European city break powerhouses of Prague, Vienna, Budapest and so on, but it has its own unique charm. Some of the highlights were the Museum of Broken Relationships, the remote and empty (people-wise) Museum of Contemporary Art and the Upper Town area’s streets.

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Talking of the Upper Town area, we were fortunate enough to time our visit to Zagreb with Dvorista (The Courtyards), a ten day period where various establishments that occupy the palatial buildings in the Upper Town allow their courtyards to be taken over by gastro dining enterprises, live music and outdoor bars. We visited three or four of these courtyards, each with a mildly inebriated crowd and its own USP. We quaffed champagne, drank craft beer and listened to various live acts.

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Zagreb was an ideal end to our time in Croatia, it’s a city that could be said to be symbolic of the country; there are mountains on the horizon, pleasant parkland, a flowing clear-watered river, architecturally intriguing buildings, pleasant and open but yet sometimes slightly rude people and for the most part suitably underdeveloped and under-exploited. Throughout the remainder of the summer we both mused that we would have preferred to have spent a bit more time exploring Croatia and it is certainly a country that I will return to, maybe as part of a greater trip around the Balkan region.

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.

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.