The Sahara

Fes –> Merzouga —> Erg Chebbie Dunes —> Ouarzazate

Our hostel manager in Fes spoke perfect English and helped us organise our journey into the Sahara desert. Everything was booked and paid for so Adam and I didn’t have to worry about a thing. We caught the overnight bus to Rissani where a four wheel drive was waiting for us when we arrived at 5am. As we sped across the desert towards Merzouga, the town on the edge of the famous Erg Chebbie dunes, the sun began to rise and revealed the most desolate and barren yet beautiful landscape. As the massive dunes began to take shape on the horizon, Adam and I could barely hide our excitement and anticipation for the days ahead.

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After spending the day at the hostel catching up on some sleep, eating lunch and looking around we were informed that our camels were ready and that we would soon depart for our first night out in the desert. Adam was given a lesson in tying his headscarf and then we were on our way.

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Riding camels across the dunes has to be one of the highlights of our trip so far. When we reached our bedouin tents along with the other travellers who would be camping for the night we all rushed out and explored our surroundings like little kids who were having fun in the snow for the first time.

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That night we played cards, ate delicious chicken and vegetable tagine, listened to our hosts play the drums whilst sitting by the fire and smoking strawberry flavoured shisha. The next morning we woke up at dawn. Adam and I were the only ones who made up to the top of the largest dune in the area. From there the views were out of this world. We could see all the way to the Algerian border (closed to Morocco) and panoramic views of the Sahara. In the photo below, you can see two small figures just above our shoes which shows how high we actually were.

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We spent the rest of the day walking up and down the dunes, reading our books, sleeping and eating. It was the most blissful day of relaxation. In the afternoon we got back on our camels and trekked further into the desert for our second night.

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This time it was just Adam, myself and our guide. All of the other tourists had chosen the ‘one night’ option whereas we had decided to stay with a nomadic Berber family for our second night. This was really special. We were on the camel for another couple of hours before arriving at the family’s house/s.

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The mud houses were humbling and the lack of ‘stuff’ was too. There were five children and four adults living in the desert. Adam and I played frisbee with the children and spoke in a mixture of broken English and hand gestures with them whist the adults and our guides cooked dinner. As the sun set it began to rain (a rarity in the desert as you can imagine) and it got very cold, very quickly. The rain didn’t last long but the children were ushered away and Adam and I were left with chatting with our guide while devouring our amazing dinner of vegetables and couscous. There was no risk of being cold that night as the little mud hut we were staying in was surprisingly warm and the camel-hair carpets that were beneath us and covering us ensured that we both had the deepest and warmest sleep we’ve had on this trip.

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Lucky because we were up at 5 o’clock the next morning to watch the sunrise from our trusty camels as we made the journey back to our hostel in Merzouga before catching a bus to our next destination, Ouarzazate.

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If it wasn’t for the sand that had made its way into every fold of skin, in our eyes, hair, bags, clothes, we might have thought that our trip out to the desert was only a dream.

Fes

Other tourists who we met in Chefchaouen warned us against Fes. They told us that the touts and faux guides were persistent and scary, they told us that the medina was an indecipherable labyrinth of dark and scary streets and that overall there was not much to do. I don’t know which ‘Fes’ they were talking about, but it certainly couldn’t have been the one we visited.

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Fes was incredible. The old city, where we were staying, was built mostly in the 11th century. The winding streets, some only a foot wide held so much history that it was almost overwhelming. The riad/hostel we stayed in was over 600 hundred years old and it was an attraction in itself. As soon as you walked in, you knew you were staying somewhere special.

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The views from the terrace over Fes gave us panoramic views of the impressive city which is surrounded by rolling green hills. Adam and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore.

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In the first ten minutes of arriving at the riad we met two Aussie brothers from Sydney, Ed and Rod. We hit it off straight away and ate dinner together in the hostel that night. Pastilla was on the menu and man was it a feast. Pastilla is a rich layered pastry filled with spiced meat (usually chicken or pigeon), topped with a pattern of cinnamon and icing sugar. Ours was homemade by the lady who owned the riad and came with various Moroccan salads and fresh bread. It was delicious and the company was fantastic.

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We made plans with Rod and Ed to see the sights of the city together the next day. First up were the Tanneries. Fes is supposed to be the leather capital of the world and the old tanneries that they use to cure and dye the leather is a very popular tourist attraction. It is frowned upon to enter the tanneries themselves but all of the leather shops surrounding them open up their terraces to tourists who want a glimpse of the leather making process.

The tanneries smell horrible because they still use the old method of curing and softening the leather using cat urine and pigeon poo. Sounds ridiculous but the leather shop owners actually give tourists bunches of mint to hold under their noses as they look down over the tanneries. It’s at its worst during the heat of midday so we made sure to visit in the morning. The tanneries require hard workers with even harder stomachs as part of the process involves stomping on the curing leather repetitively with bare feet and legs.

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They still use natural ingredients to dye the leather as well. Saffron is used for yellow colouring, poppy seeds for red, henna for brown, indigo for blue and mascara for black.

A highlight for me was the souks. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes were out of this world. Picture stalls of every description lining narrow streets for hundreds of metres. Some selling hundreds of colourful spices in sacks and jars beckon amateur chefs to take a closer look.

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Others offer different varieties of dates, figs, prunes, walnuts and almonds. We nicknamed a strip of stalls ‘nougat alley’ for obvious reasons where, if you are lucky, you get offered a taste as you walk past. Apart from the leather goods, there are merchants selling all kinds of craft-ware ranging from carpets to jewellery, woodwork, teapots and other trinkets.

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The food markets were overflowing with fresh produce. I bought a bag of the best strawberries I have ever tasted there. There were live geese and chickens sitting waiting to be sold (talk about fresh!). The butchers were not for the weak stomached. Whole cow heads hung in the shop fronts and carcasses on full display. Apparently you choose the cut you want and it is butchered on the spot. We spent hours in the souks over the few days we were in Fes and I don’t know if I could ever get sick of it.

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After we had explored as much of the medina as we could we decided to try out one of the many hammams in the city. Hammams are bath houses where men and women go separately to scrub, steam and massage themselves a couple of times a week. I have only had experience in Japanese style bath houses (onsens), so I was really eager to check out how they do it in Morocco. Unsurprisingly, it was very different. I got undressed in the dressing room down to my knickers and stood there waiting to be directed by the Moroccan lady running the place. She took me into the steam room which was crowded with naked woman all washing themselves and chatting. She then proceeded to scrub me and pour buckets of warm water all over me. Once I got used to the heat and being washed by someone else, it was quite relaxing. At first I thought the Moroccan women resented my presence in the hammam but after a bit of time they warmed up and a few of them even chatted with me about life in Fes and what I thought about Morocco. Overall, very happy with the experience.

That night we ate at a fabulous, albeit a little expensive, restaurant in the main strip called Cafe Clock. We ordered camel burgers and chicken couscous and both were absolutely delicious. There was live music playing downstairs and a healthy mix of locals and foreigners making it a great place with an attractive atmosphere. We all slept very deeply that night and thought it might have been the mixture of delicious food and the hammam.20140325-104037.jpg

Magical Morocco

Tangier —> Chefchaouen

Morocco has quite simply stolen our hearts. Adam and I are in love with this country, the people, the scenery and, of course, the food! All of this said, when we first arrived it was quite a different story.

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The ferry from Tarifa, in the south of Spain, to Tangier was a rough 30 minute ride across the mediterranean. Both Adam and I had our heads down on the tables in the ferry cafeteria as it rocked mercilessly. Thirty minutes felt like two hours but eventually the ship pulled into Tangier and we walked with wobbly sea legs towards the taxis that were swarming into the port ready to take the foreigners for a ride (both literally and figuratively).

We should have done a bit more research as to how far our riad (guest house) was from the port. After a two minute ride in a grand taxi (more on that later), Adam and I paid the driver at least 4 times what we should have and were immediately accosted by a group of faux guides. We were shocked and a little unsure of what to do so we ducked straight into the safety of our riad’s reception.

While we were checking in, the receptionist’s phone rang. After she’d finished speaking in Arabic, she told us that the person on the phone was a neighbour warning her that there were a group of men outside waiting for us. The look on our faces must have been priceless as she quickly assured us that we weren’t in any danger and that it was just faux guides hoping to make some money by leading us around the city. She told us that she didn’t recommend that we go with any of them and showed us where all the local sights were on a map that she’d given to us. Even so, once Adam and I were in our room we agreed that we were both feeling nervous about travelling in Morocco if this is what it was going to be like.

We did a lot of reading about how to deal with faux guides and touts before we left Spain, but it is very confronting when you are first faced with it. By far the most effective way of dealing with this unwanted attention is to politely say ‘no thank you’ without ever slowing your pace and showing no hesitation in where you are going – even if you haven’t got a clue where you are. These touts/faux guides are just trying to earn a living and don’t feel any shame or embarrassment when hassling tourists but also don’t seem to react badly when being told politely and firmly ‘no’ and ‘thank you anyway’.

After two nights in Tangier Adam and I were becoming experts in predicting who was going to hassle us and how to handle it. The city itself had few sights and attractions worth mentioning but we realised later on that learning to deal with faux guides in Tangier was going to set us up for a much more enjoyable trip around the rest of Morocco.

Chefchaouen was our next adventure. This small town exists in the northern hills of Morocco and is completely white washed with a blue tint. We fell in love instantly and set three full days aside to explore the town and the surrounding area. Our Riad located in the centre of the medina (old walled city) was stunning.

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The view from the terrace was straight off a post card and the English woman and her two sons who owned the riad were hilariously frank and had the best advice on where to go, what to do and more importantly, how much to pay. They even had wine and beer which isn’t common as Morocco is supposed to be a ‘dry zone’.

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We loved walking around the blue medina, getting lost and taking photos. Chefchaouen is full of tourists and you can see why – the picturesque city had little surprises around every corner.

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On on of our days there we walked up to the lookout above the city which took us a couple of hours. The views were breathtaking.

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We also took a full day trip out to the national park an hours drive from Chefchaouen. We shared a grand taxi with an English couple who were also staying at our guest house and had an awesome day walking 18km return to a stunning waterfall and swimming hole, through huge gorges and bushland.

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Who would have thought there’d be a cafe waiting for us when we reached the waterfall. After a delicious Moroccan mint tea and some lunch we hiked back to our taxi driver who was waiting to take us back to Chefchaouen and our guest house where the promise of cold beer was tempting us.

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The Algarve

Lagos —> Faro

Our spirits continued to climb after Lisbon. We travelled down to the famous Algarve coast where we spent the next few days in Lagos. Apparently in summer, Lagos turns into an Australian party town. As soon as we arrived we immediately felt relaxed. The town had a ‘surfy vibe’ and the weather was glorious. The hostel owner picked us up from the bus station in his old van and it was so refreshing to see the seats and floor covered in sand from a morning trip to the beach.

The hostel we were staying in didn’t provide us with dinner each night. This proved to be a nice change as the kitchen was well-stocked and it was fun going down to the supermarket and buying our own ingredients. We could make nice big salads and eat a few of the things that we were craving after travelling and eating out for so long. The other guests staying at the hostel had the same idea so we would eat together each night and play cards whilst watching the Sochi Olympics. We loved watching the Canadians jumping out of their seats and screaming at the computer screen when their ice hockey team made the finals.

In the mornings one of the girls running the hostel would make us banana pancakes and serve up deliciously strong coffee. We felt so much at home that Adam decided to investigate whether there were any judo clubs in the area. There happened to be one just up the road from our hostel so one night he went and joined in the training session. I’ve never seen him so excited and he had a great time making new friends and seeing how the Spanish do it.

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On our first day in Lagos, we went down through the old town which is gorgeous and stacked full of restaurants lining its cobblestone streets. At the very edge of town is where the famous Algarve cliffs begin and you can walk for hours along the edge and stopping at each of the little coves.

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We had packed our bags with our lunch, plenty of water, towels and swimmers and spent at least three hours wandering the little paths that line the cliffs.

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Sometimes they got a bit hairy in places or came to a dead end but we didn’t mind. It was such a nice way to pass the time as the weather was fantastic and the views were spectacular.

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We didn’t make it into the water but the t-shirts were out and we both had to put on sunscreen which was a nice change.

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On our second day there we hired a scooter for 25 euros and spent the day scootering up the coast.

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It was absolutely beautiful and each little town had its own vibe. Adam got used to the road rules quite quickly and we stopped at a surf beach in a town called Sagres and ate our sandwiches whilst we watched the hardcore surfers riding waves in towards the rocky cliffs.

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On our way home we were stopped by a policeman and after we got over our initial fears, we had a nice chat with him in broken English. He breathalysed Adam, checked his licence and moved us on.

Lagos gave us a little bit of respite from tourist days where you go and see monuments and wander around big cities with loads of people. We visited at a good time in the year as foreign tourists were scarce.

It was sad to leave sunny Lagos, but we moved on to Faro and spent another three days relaxing in the sunshine and exploring Portugal’s fabulous coastline.

Lisbon

This beautiful city in Portugal stole our hearts and I swear it had nothing to do with the weather which was starting to clear (yay!).

Lisbon is a beautiful city. Apparently the saying goes, Coimbra is the brains of Portugal, Porto is the heart and Lisbon just shows off. Well, Adam and I would have to agree. In fact, we changed our plans and stayed four nights instead of the two we had booked. The weather was sunny for most of our stay and whenever it wasn’t we would just check out another museum or spend the afternoon at the fantastic aquarium. You would need weeks to make a dent in all that Lisbon has to offer.

Part of what made Lisbon so special was that we had booked bunks in a ‘party hostel’ for the first two nights and it exposed us to other travellers to socialise with. One thing we have noticed about Portugal is that most of the hostels provide dinner for a small price. Usually three course meals with all drinks dramatically discounted or free. This encourages their guests to get to know each other and makes the atmosphere very friendly and welcoming. We had four amazing nights just in our hostel getting to know people and eating the most delicious home-cooked Portuguese food.

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We spent a few days exploring some of the amazing sights that Lisbon has to offer. Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) was amazing and the windy weather made it even more impressive.

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The monument to the explorers was also breathtaking. The sheer size of it and the detail in the sculptures was amazing. We took the lift to the top and enjoyed the 360 degree views.

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Sao Jorge’s Castle was also a highlight.

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The views over Lisbon were incredible and I found the most AMAZING nata cafe that specialised in the famous Portuguese Pastil de nata (custard tarts). I was in heaven – I had to stop myself from having a third.

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Although we were getting a little bit sick of churches and monasteries we ended up visiting the Jeronimos Monastery and were very glad we did. Such an amazing church and cloister.

We also spent one day exploring Cintra, a little township outside Lisbon. It was like stepping back in time. The castles were amazing and we spent hours at a place called Quinta da Regaleira.

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This fairytale garden had secret wells that you could walk down into, an underground cave system that you needed your phone light to go through, various medieval towers and other hidden treasures. Adam and I spent a few hours just getting lost and he practically had to drag me away.

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