Friday, 19 April 2013

Off To Where the Sun Sets on Europe

Check one off the bucket list.

Having seen the majority of mainland Western Europe, I felt reluctantly obligated to see Portugal. Given a lucky window of opportunity, waiting two weeks for my Visa to Russia to process while in Madrid, instead of waiting around, I packed my bags once again and headed west.
Apparently you can buy love in Lisboa
But I did much more than just "knock Portugal off the list." In fact, I had a really great time there!

Portugal gets as little attention as central and eastern Europe but after visiting it I see why it is a rising star of tourism in Europe. Lisboa (Lisbon), the capital city, is a city that has it all, tied up in a neat little package. It has all the traits of a historical European city, castle on a hill overlooking a romantic old city by the water, plus it also offers many modern attractions and provides a good base for day trips to the countryside.
Mirador (lookout) of Lisboa
While I am not a shopper, I love visiting markets to see what the locals have to offer. In Lisboa, I was ready to throw my wallet at everything I saw. The second-hand markets, set up in first rate outdoor spaces in the city, sold absolutely anything and everything the slightest bit useful or desirable, from old plastic toys to film cameras and rusting silverware. If you are looking for new things, there are markets thriving with creative energy for the arts and crafts from jewellery and household decorations down to keychains and postcards. In fact, the Iberian Peninsula which includes Spain showcases the best arts and crafts in Europe. I managed to fish a few dollars out to buy my first magnets of the trip.

From Lisboa, I made a few day trips. My first day trip was to Cascais, a little oceanside town full of villas and yachts, to join a Couchsurfing photowalk event, and to get my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. My second day trip was to picturesque Sintra, complete with a dreamy Disney-like castle on a hill, and a view of the westernmost point of mainland Europe.
Castle at Sintra
I also had some of the best seafood of my trip in a little hideaway restaurant that indicated, through no indications at all, that it was a local joint. Eating here reminded me that I always had the best dining experiences by straying off the main street and finding places that didn't want to be found.

From there it was on to sleepy Lagos on the southern coast of Portugal. A day trip took me to Sagres and slightly beyond, to the southwestern most point of mainland Europe where mighty waves crashed into mightier cliffs.
Checking out the cliffs and beaches in Lagos

Back in Lagos, I went on a kayaking tour along its less mighty yet wonderfully abstract cliffs, its red and white hues of rock curving mysteriously, and unveiling pristine beaches in its bosom. The kayak tour stopped at one of the beaches for a rest. While most people were deterred from the water, still dreadfully cold and slow to warm up, it did not stop a Canadian like me from going for a swim! The irony here is that there were other Canadians on the tour who did not even consider dipping a toe in the water.

On my final day in Lagos, one where the sun shone down soothing warmth and with not a cloud in the sky, I descended into a rocky nook on Batatas Beach all to myself, and did some yoga. My mind cleared... bliss, happiness... and nothing needs more to be said about Lagos!

Flickr Photos:

Also photos from Sevilla:
Plaza De Espana, Sevilla

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Morocco - A Diamond in the Rough

March 21 was a special day. It was my birthday, it was the day I flew into Madrid to join my friends to go to Morocco, and it also marked nearly 8 months of travelling around Europe.

Now, some of you may say, and fairly so, that my travels have been rather safe. Turkey had eastern flair, but it meets the modernity and security of the west, and Moscow, Russia, though distant and seems mysterious and foreign, has a similar infrastructure, familiar to the cold climate cities of Canada.
The Atlas Mountains - welcome to the desert
Morocco was my first venture into a truly untamed land, one that operates with a minimal emphasis on rules. This Diamond in the Rough has an exotic appeal that makes you feel like you are walking in Disney's Aladdin. Morocco felt like a whole new world... its spectrum of unbelievable-ridiculous to miraculous-beautiful stretches as far as the bright white moon rising in the desert.
A desert ghost, revealed only by moonlight 
Here cars share the road with donkeys hauling carts, people are super friendly, and shopkeepers haggle persistently and persuade like CEOs. The streets of the medinas, the old walled city centres, showcase a dazzling array of wares that glitter from greens to reds to yellows. The surprisingly diverse landscape is blanketed with as many impressive colours - more green than you think.
Stand aside when a donkey is coming through! 
Moroccan food is defined by lots of spices, and is headlined by Berber whiskey, couscous and tajines, which consist of cone shaped pottery cooked by fire. We ate a lot of couscous and tajines and, while it was very good, we started getting sick of it after awhile. It should be noted that Berber Whiskey is just mint tea. You can't find any alcohol within the bustling medinas. Anyhow.. let's get to the story!
Chefchaouen, the Blue City
I travelled with my friends Sam & Claire, English teachers in Madrid, who I met at La Tomatina at the end of last August, which now seems like an eternity ago. We took a flight into Tangier and immediately hopped on a taxi to our first destination, Chefchaouen, nicknamed the Blue City. It's no wonder, with its memorable baby blue walls and doors, papier-mached on a backdrop of a lush green valley while chocolate brown mountains loom above.
This girl started playing with my harmonica 
We instantly received the "friendliness" of the people - colourful-hoodie-wearing Berber shopkeepers waving you into their showrooms, restaurateurs telling you that you're hungry, and even people approaching you and, in a low whisper, offering hash, the best of which originates in the local region surrounding Chefchaouen. We preferred the friendliness of local children. Oh, and the cats too, which there are plenty of wandering the narrow pathways.
"If I fitz I sitz" - Cat in the Basket 
Fez was the most intense experience of possibly all my travels. The city of Fez has the largest medina of any Arab city in the world. Thus, tourists are actually recommended to hire guides to navigate in the medina's thousands of narrow, zigzagging streets. Oh, and also not to wander around at night. This is exactly what we decided to do after we arrived in the evening from Chefchaouen.

Once we got off the main street and entered the medina's maze, we got tailed by two different guys, acting friendly at first. However, several minutes later, when we tried to lose them, they turned sour on us. They began saying very mean things and wouldn't leave us alone. We eventually found our way back to the main street where they finally stopped following and hurling insults at us. Nevertheless, we were traumatized, and I had never been in this state of fear and anxiety at any point in my trip.
Wandering Fez with our favourite guide Rashid! 
Fortunately a new brilliant day followed, and the memory of last night was completely wiped out following our meeting with Rashid. Once again, we were befriended by a local but, while I was still wary, Sam had a good instinct about Rashid and so we let him guide us. Rashid turned out to be an amazing guide and good company too.
Claire, Sam and I trying on Moroccan clothing in Coca, Rashid's sister's shop 
We followed Rashid into donkey sheds and leather workshops including the large tannery. He introduced us to his sister Coca (pronounced kooka) who worked at the family clothing shop, and they even let us try on traditional Moroccan clothing, which is really beautiful. During the entire tour Rashid answered questions about Moroccan life. To top it off, he took us to the high point where we could view the medina in all its glory, brown mud-brick buildings waving up and down with the valley floor, standing like a forest among over 9000 little streets.
Donkey overlooking his medina domain 
Next we went for the overnight Sahara desert 2-day 1-night excursion. While we didn't quite make it into the heart of the desert, it still was an amazing experience from start to finish. The 8-hour drive took us through stunning landscapes that slowly transformed from vibrant greens to lifeless brown and gray rock, to sand. We rode camels into the sunset, getting off at our tent campsite in a beige plain surrounded by mini sand dunes, like waves cresting near the beach.
I got ass-burn from riding camels for 2 hours 
Enter Mohamed, one cool cat. His eyes shone of eternal wisdom (even though he didn't look that old) and his personality crackled through his big smile. Mohamed and his fellow Berbers served us a tajine chicken dinner, then entertained us "Justin Berber" style with singing and drums round the fire under a full moon night. Mohamed invited me to stay longer, maybe live like a Berber, nomads still wandering the desert, one earthly vestige that human civilization has yet to tame. I'm not sure whether his invitation was serious, but I would definitely consider it, especially if I could take care of camels, very charming creatures with really funny faces.
Mohamed is the richest man I know, not in materials, but in happiness, peace, and love of his desert home 
Our last stop was Marrakech, and possibly the best city of our visit. It's one of the bigger cities in the nation of up to 40 million people, and has something for everyone. The shopkeepers here were generally very friendly and relaxed, and I talked to many locals with no worries. I took pictures of some of them and even promised to print out their picture and mail it to them, since they probably don't own cameras or have an e-mail address.
A man surveys the street he's worked on as a shop seller for decades 
Marrakech's main square Jemaa El Fna, was a riot - the very heart of Morocco. This open space is never really "open" as its void is constantly streaming with noise and dust kicked up from taxis, scooters and donkeys, weaving their way carelessly around pedestrians and entertainers such as snake charmers and buskers, further cramped in by food stalls, cafe tables and shop wares.
Cheap and tasty eats outside in Jemaa El Fna. Me in my new Berber hoodie 
We all decided to splurge a little on our final stop, so we went souvenir shopping. I decided to emulate my desert hero Mohamed and bought a Berber hoodie, virtually the exact same as his! I still have to figure out how to bring it home with me, since my luggage is out of space.

Goodbye Morocco!
Sunset on Morocco
While I deviated from my ethics of not travelling by plane, flying from Berlin to Madrid to join Sam and Claire, then flying to and back from Morocco was totally worth it. Before this my trip had been missing something, it was too safe and, thus, boring. Morocco gave it that vibrant feeling of life uncorked, the best and the worst surrounding you so that unpredictability shrouds every turn around a street corner, but no matter what happens, it's new, a little scary, and very exciting.

I can go home now and say I saw it all on my travels. (caution: hyperbole)

Flickr Photos:
Wacky turbans