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Posts from the ‘Sport & Adventure’ Category

Surfing & Yoga at Surf Maroc

Onwards, in a taxi, to somewhere north of Agadir. A place called Aourir, known by everyone as Banana Village, just a little south of Taghazout, the surfing community of the area. The journey is chaotic but funny as our enthusiastic taxi driver bombs down the motorway towards our destination. This is argan tree land, there are thousands of them planted everywhere, on the hills, the side of the road, in every small patch available.

Late afternoon, we arrive at Villa Mandala, a wonderful house on the beach. A warm welcome awaits from Louise & Emma, our yoga teachers and hosts for the week. We also meet the other residents of this 7-day yoga and surf retreat – an array of nationalities from Europe and the US, a great mix of personalities and backgrounds.

Our schedule each day includes two hours of meditation & yoga early morning, followed by a hearty and wholesome breakfast, before Eunice and Karim, our surf instructors, turn up to take us surfing to the various spots in the area. We return mid-afternoon, salty, sandy, windswept and sun baked ready for another two-hour session of yoga early evening. We are then rewarded by an amazing Moroccan inspired vegetarian feast cooked up by Shane Vincent, the Global Table Chef.

I take part in a 4-hour cookery class with Shane and some of the girls on holiday there. Going to the market to pick out the produce is a great experience, the stalls are over spilling with fruit and vegetables, it is busy, hot, fragrant. Back in the kitchen, Shane has us working like a well oiled machine: peeling chickpeas and almonds, toasting seeds and nuts, making curry paste, melting chocolate… Cooking the evening meal for everyone is incredibly rewarding.

On the surfing front, Eunice, our instructor, is an incredible teacher – clear with his instructions, patient, happy, kind and always full of praise when you finally catch that wave and stand up. If you ever get the chance to go on a Surf Maroc holiday, be sure to seek him out.

And, of course, the yoga… This holiday changes everything for me. I’d never been particularly into yoga before I went to this retreat. I dabbled a little here and there for several years, focusing on running and cycling rather than increasing my flexibility or strength. The wonderful set-up, the teachers, the progress I make and the open atmosphere this retreat offers takes me to a place where I suddenly understand why people are passionate about yoga. I now embrace it, trying to practice at least three times a week by any means I can – be it alone or in a class.

Surf Maroc’s Villa Mandala is the place to go if you want an active holiday, with great food, some pampering, a welcoming environment and the opportunity to feel not only revived but relaxed. You can do as much or as little as you want… which is just what you want when you are on holiday, away from all the obligations of your usual life.

Rousing Marrakesh

Imagine all your senses being stimulated at once, the smell of spices & food, the taste of ‘whiskey marocain’ (mint tea), the sight of vivid colours in the souks & smoke plumes emanating from the food stalls, the warmth of the sun on your skin, the stickiness of the humidity, the cobbled streets teeming with people, the rousing call to prayer, the sounds of the snake charmers’ instruments, drums beating, mopeds speeding past, people selling their wares. This is Marrakesh. It’s loud, it’s big; it’s an exuberant friend – the life and soul of the party. Don’t be fooled by its liveliness, it also has quiet moments; in the beautiful riads, the ruined palaces, the less frequented streets away from the tourist spots.

We spent 4 days there at the end of June, staying a stone’s throw from Djemaa el Fna, the city’s amazing square. Famous for its snake charmers, acrobats and storytellers, the square is bustling with people from dawn till well beyond dusk. Stalls selling fresh orange juice, dried fruit, nuts and water are there for the duration. Come the evening, the lantern-lit food stalls set up adding to the already electric atmosphere. The decibels increase: music floods your senses from all quarters & stall holders tout for your business relentlessly. Being at the heart of this organised mayhem makes it an overwhelming yet incredible experience.

Places to see:
Ben Youssef Medersa: My favourite place in Marrakesh was the Ben Youssef Medersa, a koranic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque. Exuding a sense of peace and stillness, the large central courtyard is a sight to behold with its intricate carved cedarwood lintels, stucco work and zellij tilework. Mesmerised by such elaborate artistry, I felt transported to a different time. Dormitory quarters are found upstairs and are an insight into how students lived. It’s almost impossible to imagine that at one time over 800 students were housed there.

El Badi Palace: Now a ruin, El Badi Palace was originally commissioned by the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the 14th century. Although stripped bare from anything valuable, you can’t help but feel that this was once a place of luxury and magnificence. It is vast and an oasis of calm away from the busy streets of the city.

Koutoubia Mosque & Minaret: Standing at an impressive 70m high, it is found close to the Djemaa el Fna square.

Majorelle Gardens: This carefully laid out botanical garden with groves of bamboo, palm trees, a cactus garden and lily-covered ponds was created by painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and later owned by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. A delightfully tranquil place, the bright blue pavilion contrasts beautifully with the verdant plants inhabiting this little piece of paradise.

There are many more places to see in Marrakesh and the bus tour is one of the best ways to see the city. You can get off at any of the stops to explore further. And, because the ticket lasts 24 hours, you don’t have to do it all in one day.

Coming soon: Marrakesh, where to eat, sleep & shop…

Mieux vaut tard que jamais

Due to major renovations in my flat in London and my new found freedom in Switzerland, I’ve found it quite hard to settle down, both to write for the blog and generally. I’ve been distracted by skiing (on very little snow and in glorious weather), running (up and down a few rolling hills), flying back to London (to see my gorgeous niece and nephew and manage ‘Project Flat’), and cooking (some experimental mishaps with a few minor successes thrown in for good measure).

I’ll be back soon. I have Coconut Panna Cotta to tell you about. It’s worth the wait. Honestly.

A retrospective: summer of 2010

Yesterday was the last day of summer. Through the lens of my camera, this is the story of the past few months.

English Countryside: Beautiful Oxfordshire

South of France: Restful Provence

London suburbs: Dulwich

Stillness and peace: Switzerland

Statuesque: Greece

Tell me about your summer. Did you see new places? Take up new hobbies? Discover new eateries? Fulfill your goals?

Stillness

I spent last weekend in Switzerland, and it rained. Mostly. Every day. I attract the bad weather. Jinxed I tell thee. Despite this poor show on the meteorology front, we went to this beautifully peaceful place called Champex-Lac. The stillness. The stunning surroundings. It brought peace. The photos speak for themselves.

I have no recipes for you this week. I did make Heidi Swanson’s Pierce Street Vegetarian Chilli when I was there. It was delicious and the texture was perfect! I’d add some smoked paprika to give it a little more depth. I served it with some potato wedges with melted Gruyère. I’ll be back next week with some new recipes.

Within My Sights

10k Race Bib

Well I did it. 10 kilometres. 51 minutes and 55 seconds. With a stinking cold and a moment’s rest on the course because of the pain. 36th woman out of 155 women racing. I am pleased… but the bug has bitten and nothing less than sub-50 will do now.

I’d been training for a couple of months and was really looking forward to testing my mettle in a race. Then the familiar telltale signs reared their ugly head on Thursday: itchy nose, sore throat and extended sneezing. I knew I was done for. Psychologically, I think it defeated me a little and this is something I need to work on for future races.

John was there to encourage me on the sidelines: ‘Keep going, you are doing brilliantly; there are 34 women in front of you’. No pressure there then. It reminded me of my cross-country school days where I would ban my mother from turning up only to find her hiding in a bush along the course counting the girls in front of me: ‘There is only one girl in front of you. RUN!’. In an otherwise painful race, this memory was a bright moment which made me chuckle and up my pace a little.

So what’s next? I’ve already signed up for my next race in a month’s time. And after that? A half-marathon in Brighton in February. Having goals makes me feel alive and well.

Belle & Sebastien

I am back. Oops. I got lost. So where were we… ah yes. Holidays. So…

The Hautes Pyrenees, peaceful, beautiful, low key yet impressive.

Gorges de Kakouetta: Truly impressive, the walls of the gorge are up to 300m high and barely more than 5m apart in some areas. The lush vegetation is jungle-thick and waterfalls fill the air with a fine spray. This is best done early in the morning when there are no tourists, it gets crowded from 10am.

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Col de Tourmalet & Pic du Midi de Bigorre: We undertook a 4-hour walk from the Col de Tourmalet (2,115m), the highest road in the central Pyrenees and one of the most famous climbs on the Tour de France, to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2,877m), which is renowned for its astronomical observatory. The weather was glorious but the air was fresh and after a rather uninspiring climb on rocky terrain, the views were breathtaking once we got to the top. We took a different route on the way down and were lucky to spot a marmot soaking up the rays on some rocks. I wanted to adopt it, John said no.

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Luz St Sauveur: This delightful little town, which used to be a 19th century spa, is the perfect place to stay if you want to explore the area for a few days especially if you are a keen cyclist or hiker. We found a room at the friendly and very affordable Hotel Les Templiers, which is run by an Australian lady and her French husband. The hotel is located opposite the Church of St-André, guaranteeing you a charming view when you open the shutters in the morning! I daren’t say romantic, John might squirm…

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Cirque de Gavarnie: One word: breathtaking. Its edifying size and stunning surroundings makes this Unesco World Heritage Site a must-see in the Pyrenees. The imposing rock amphitheatre, with its 400m Grande Cascade waterfall, rises to over 3000m and makes you realise how small humans really are. Again, this is an early morning jaunt as it gets very busy later on in the day.

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I want to go back. Soon. It is a very serene and stunning area of France from which you come back feeling relaxed and scrubbed shiny and new from the inside out.

Les Corsaires

Holidays. Abroad. To nice places. They should be made compulsory by the government. I have just spent two weeks in South West France and I am full of happy memories and new experiences. Needless to say I have the holiday blues. It’s very bleu indeed.

After flying into Biarritz, we caught a train south to St-Jean-de-Luz where we were spending our first two nights. This Basque seaside town has something for everyone with its friendly and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Old fashioned charm oozes from the narrow lanes, old buildings and fishing port. The restaurants are plentiful and overall the food was fairly good, with several affordable menus on offer.

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One of the reasons we chose this destination was because we both wanted to learn how to surf. John is rather gifted in the sports department so I thought that starting this new venture on an even keel might give me a chance to be as good as him! We took a couple of lessons with an instructor who took the meaning of laid-back to a whole new level. Both in his attitude and instructions, it should be said! Surfing was fun but hard. The waves keep coming at you as you fight to get into position to try and catch a wave. Swallowing sea water and scraping your limbs on the sand at the bottom of the sea make for exhausting work. When you manage to stand up, it is exhilarating. You want to keep going and going and going.

After our stint in St-Jean-de-Luz, we moved to the Tamaris Plage campsite near Guéthary. It was my first foray into camping since school days. The bungalow we rented was perfect for our needs… had the weather been nice. We had about three days of heavy rain and I think my sense of humour might have deserted me at some point. Cooking on a temperamental two-hob stove was certainly a culinary moment I won’t forget. My friend Justine described it as ‘shabby chic’. I think I’ll let her believe in this romantic notion a while longer.

When the sun was shining, it was glorious. The sea is a stone’s throw from the campsite with a beach a minute’s walk away. The sunset was dramatic, with shades of purple and pink lighting up the sky.

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Guéthary, which was recommended by my friend Hilary, is the place to stay if you are into surfing. Not as busy as Biarritz and what one would call a village, there is something really understated about the place. It is very refreshing. Seaside bars and restaurants are popular but never overcrowded and the food was always very fresh and full of flavour.

We ate at a wonderful restaurant called Cenitz. It is literally on the beach. If you are in the area, you must go. The food is delicious and the setting is idyllic. Book your table at the right time and enjoy the sunset whilst sipping on a glass of rosé wine.

This is a stunning area of France, it is easily accessible with cheap flights and the public transport links are pretty good. If you hire a car, it’s even easier. I’d return in a heartbeat.

Next week, our foray into the Pyrenees…

Veni, Vidi, Vici: Helvetia

Petit Col Ferret

Returning to my homeland is always a pleasure: the fresh air is reviving, the view of the mountains is always beautiful and the cheese is, well, delectable and invariably calorific!

 

 In 4 days, wine was drunk, food was consumed and mountains were conquered. Here is how…

 

The Wine

Grapes

Having recently bought a vineyard, my father took John and I to his 700m2 plot of land for a little apéritif. It was a sight to behold, row upon row of vines drooping with gleaming grapes overlooking the valley and mountains, and my Dad, secateur in hand, trimming away the excess grapes lovingly. By the vineyard, there is a small cabane (hut) containing a rustic wooden table and two benches. A perfect place to sip a glass of Fendant, a crisp white wine made from the Chasselas grape, after a hard day at work.

 

Papa VigneFor as long as I can remember, my Dad has always loved wine and this was the logical progression for his lifelong passion. This is his first year as a budding winemaker and the vendanges (harvest) will take place in September/October, with the bottles of wine ready in May/June next year. The whole family is awaiting the wine tasting with great excitement!

 

 

 

The Food

After the apéritif and once back at the chalet, there was only one thing to do. Yes, you guessed right: EAT CHEESE. Raclette to be precise, a semi-firm salted cow’s milk cheese from Valais. Traditionally, the raclette cheese round is heated by a special machine, then scraped onto diners’ plates. The term raclette derives from the French word racler, meaning ‘to scrape’. It is accompanied by small firm potatoes (Bintje, Charlotte or Raclette varieties), gherkins, pickled onions, dried meat and dusted with freshly ground black pepper. Raclette is typically consumed with tea , or with a Fendant.

 Raclette Machine

A modern way of serving raclette involves an electric table-top grill with small pans to heat slices of raclette cheese in, which is how we enjoyed it. You can get hold of raclette cheese in the UK: online at Natoora or in any International Cheese Centre shops. It’s never as good as the raclette cheese in Switzerland but it has certainly hit the spot when I have been craving some Swiss foodstuff.

 

The Mountains

Walk Ferret

And what better way to work off a cheese feast than a mountain walk. Two to be precise: one to the Petit Col Ferret (2490 m.), a pass, which separates the Mont Blanc Massif from the Pennine Alps, between the canton of Valais and the Aosta Valley and the other to Pas de Maimbré (2362 m.), at the top of the cable car in Anzère.

 

The first walk was a shock to the system after very little exercise recently but the views were magnificent and the pain was worth it. John, having spent a couple of weeks running up and down a few mountains, was speeding ahead whilst I lagged behind, huffing and puffing (and moaning frequently).

 Pas de Maimbré View

The second walk, which my Dad accompanied us on, was a little easier and quite different. The mountain was covered in scattered clouds so it made for more dramatic scenery. Nearing the top, we were greeted by bright sunshine and an arresting view of the valley below.

 

Switzerland is, and will always be, part of my heritage and I am thankful I spent my childhood and teenage years growing up there, experiencing all it has to offer. Returning there, if only briefly, is a small pleasure which I will never tire of. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder…

The Magic of Physical Exertion

We all know why exercise is good for you: it prevents the many contributory factors that can cause heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity and it helps stimulate the cells that strengthen your bones. In combination with a healthy diet it helps maintain a healthy body weight, builds up your immune system and research has also shown that regular exercise can reduce your chance of developing certain cancers (colon & breast).

But more than anything for me, it helps me stay mentally healthy. The release of the brain chemical serotonin boosts my mood and reduces any feelings of anxiety and depression. By exerting myself, I am flushing away all the negativity which has built up during the day. The other thing I have found is that exercise gives me focus: as I become fitter, I feel more in tune with my body, more able to up my pace and challenge myself. In turn this makes me feel more in control of my life and health. This feeling of control gives me more confidence and as a result, I become braver and bolder in more areas of my life.

As proved by my recent lack of exercise, which has manifested itself through a subdued mood and a general sense of apathy, it is high time I got back on the road: running, cycling, walking. First stop, the Swiss mountains this weekend…

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…more about that next week.