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Posts from the ‘Travel’ 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.

Eat, Sleep, Shop – The Marrakesh Way

Discovering a country’s cuisine, having a comfortable place to stay and indulging in a spot of shopping is all part of the holiday experience. Here is what Marrakesh had to offer:

EAT
If you are anything like me, sampling the local cuisine is a must when on holiday. Despite most restaurants aiming their menus at tourists, the food is, in the main, very good. There aren’t many options if you are a vegetarian but most places do have a limited selection for the non-meat eaters. Also it is worth remembering that as a Muslim country, most places do not serve alcohol, though the higher end restaurants do. Here are a few recommendations:

For lunch:

Le Bougainvillier (33 Rue Mouassine): We stumbled across this one lunchtime as we were trying to find our way back from the Medina. Serves paninis, sandwiches, salads & cakes. The lovely courtyard is a great place to relax after a morning in the souks.

Earth Café (www.earthcafemarrakech.com) : Marrakesh’s first vegetarian café, it has a great choice of food. The portions are very generous, the prices are reasonable and the staff is very friendly. A great little place for a relaxed lunch. It also runs some cookery classes if you are so inclined.

For dinner:

Marrakchi (52 Rue des Banques): A restaurant positioned high above the Djema el Fna square, it offers a wide choice of good food, the service is great and the entertainment made for a great evening. We shared a vegetable pastilla to start and then had tagines. We also sampled a Moroccan red wine from the Meknès region – very palatable! Mains start at 130dh (approx. 13 euros).

Le Tanjia (near Place des Ferblantiers): This restaurant, in an old mansion with modern decor, served the best fish tagine of the holiday! The service was excellent and the prices were reasonable.

Djemaa el Fna Foodstalls: If you wish to eat at one of the stalls, I’d recommend choosing one which is mainly visited by locals, they don’t tend to hustle for your custom as much and the food is very good. You just take a seat at one of the benches and choose what you want from the menu. I greedily had several merguez sausages whilst John plumped for some calamari, all food comes with bread and they fetch drinks for you from stalls nearby. Being at the heart of it all makes it an incredible experience, one which I urge you to try if you get the chance.

SLEEP

If you ever find yourself in Marrakesh, I’d recommend staying in a riad, namely Riad Les Hibiscus, an oasis in the middle of the chaos. A two minute walk from the Djemaa el Fna square, its non-descript exterior belies the beautiful interior of tasteful white walls, sage green doors & woodwork, a small pool in the central courtyard, comfortable wicker furniture and interesting artwork. Stunning flowers & lush plants add to this haven. The room (Lotus) was comfortable, clean and peaceful and I cannot praise the riad’s hosts enough for their kindness and discreet manner.

SHOP

I found the souks incredibly overwhelming the first time we ventured there, there are no street names and it is easy to get a little lost! However, if you are blessed with a good sense of direction and a map, you should enjoy finding your way round. The souks north of the Djemaa El Fna square are made up of a long covered street, Rue Souk Smarine, which then branches out into two smaller streets, Soul el Attarin and Souk el Kebir. Off these, you can find all the souks, down alleys, lanes and small squares. Each are dedicated to specific crafts.

If you are not keen on haggling, I’d recommend going to the Ensemble Artisanal (Av. Mohammed V). It is a government run complex of arts & crafts with a good selection of goods – leather, jewellery, clothing, rugs, carpets and ceramics. The prices are fixed and you can shop without any hassle – I bought my niece and nephew some gorgeous babouches for a very reasonable price. At the back there are workshops where we saw some young ladies making carpets, an impressive and time-consuming task.

Next instalment: yoga, surfing & some great Moroccan inspired vegetarian dishes

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…

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?

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.

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.

Birthdays & Holidays

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June meant I entered my mid-30s with great reluctance. To soften the blow on the day, I was lucky enough to be in Estoi in Portugal sipping Cava by the pool at 9.30am. The day was made even more perfect when I opened my present from John: a two-day BAKING COURSE! The man sure knows how to keep me happy.

We rented a small villa with a pool and had a much needed rest. Having never been to Portugal, I was ambivalent as to what we were going to find in the Algarve. The reputation it holds for being overrun by ‘Brits Abroad’ was filling me with fear. I needn’t have worried, it was wonderful. The parts of Faro we visited were filled with history and were incredibly picturesque. White cobbled streets and alleyways, gorgeous churches, beautiful buildings, orange trees and small cafés (in which we had a splendid spinach quiche) all made for a very pleasant stroll round the town. In fact it reminded me of Seville which happens to be about 200km away.

IMG_1594We also drove (for what seemed like an eternity) down to Sagres, the most south western point of Portugal and visited the fort there. We then drove up the coast and took in the amazing and dramatic cliffs overlooking the sea. The flora in that area is quite fascinating, arid with plenty of pine trees and unusually shaped bushes. I was quite mesmerised by its almost otherworldly aspect.

Our only beach trip was a long haul affair. We drove to Olhão and from there we got a ferry to Ilha do Farol. Everyone else had been sensible and come with a parasol. Not us. Having arrived at our destination, we had to walk a good 10 minutes to the beach… it was worth it, it was not overrun with holiday makers which was a nice surprise. It was mainly populated by Portuguese families out enjoying their day off on the beach. John managed to burn the soles of his feet by walking across the hot sand and concrete… Oh very dear.

 

 

Fish The rest of the holiday was spent lying in the sun, swimming in the pool and reading. At meal times, we made salads and grilled fish outside. The tomatoes were heavenly, all they needed was a drizzle of olive and the bursts of taste that hit your tongue were out of this world. We also discovered Vinho Verde, which literally translates as ‘Green Wine’ – not because of its colour but because it is so young. The grapes are picked late and the Portuguese wine is drunk very young. It was delicious, zingy and fresh.

All in all a wonderful holiday. I would thoroughly recommend going to Portugal in June – it’s not as busy and the weather, although hot, is bearable. Renting a small villa and hiring a car for a week was the perfect way to enjoy some much needed down time and discover the area.