Journeying across Morocco

“They make a desert and call it peace” – Tacitus

On the morning of our excursion to the Atlas Mountains, I woke up as the sun was rising. Instead of lying in bed listening to the soft stores of the strangers around me, I grabbed my jacket and headphones and went to the terrace on the roof of the hostel. It was so peaceful up there. There were two fellow travellers wrapped in thick furs fast asleep on the cold terrace, silent and unmoving. Marrakech looked beautiful at dawn, the silence was only broken by the sound of a worker sweeping the streets with a straw brush down below. Whoosh, whoosh. I sat there for a while watching the world slowly wake up from my perch above the ancient city.

It was my grandfather’s funeral that day. But rather than allowing myself to be enveloped in sadness in this beautiful place, which I know Howard wouldn’t have wanted, I got up, popped my headphones in and played Gloria by Laura Branigan (Howard’s favourite song) and then I danced. I danced like no one was watching.

After a few more songs, I wandered downstairs to find my friends slowly waking up. So we all got ready, had breakfast and climbed in the car of our curly-haired guide – Iddir. None of us really knew what to expect. We hadn’t been to Africa. We didn’t do much research. We had never taken a tour guide. We didn’t even really know where we were going. But there are a few times when ignorance truly is bliss without harm, and this was one of them. Morocco blew our minds.

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Our journey on day one of the tour

At first there was Iddir getting to know us and giving us all nicknames. Denmark. Spain. Poland. Hannah (I was the one who’d booked the tour, probably the reason he could remember my name). Then we left Marrakech far behind us as we climbed up to the High Atlas Mountains in the 4×4. The scenery changed from red to brown to grey and then to a shocking green as far as the eye could see. The windy roads certainly weren’t appeasing for any of our stomachs, but the snaking climb was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. There was a vast stretch of grassland that was dramatically framed by the tall, dark mountains, only disturbed by the river jolting through the centre of it, carving a small valley of itself in the otherwise flat foreground. The clouds tickled the top of the mountains and blanketed the ones behind in a soft mist, creating the illusion of an infinite mountain range.

We then crawled back down through tiny Berber villages clinging onto the edge of the mountain and vast expanses of roads to Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, a place in which numerous movies and series have been filmed, including Indiana Jones, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, because of it’s unique beauty. I know I certainly felt like a lost princess in a fairytale climbing up the ancient steps of the Kasbah, despite wearing baggy trousers and an old t-shirt that certainly was very un-princessy!

After, we continued through the Hollywood of Morocco where there was film studios scattered about. Our stomachs were all rumbling by the time we reached the restaurant. A small place with a terrace on the side of a rather busy road with tables clustered together to meet the high demand of people eating there. We were squished together on a small table next to a family who we learnt, through our Spanish friend’s broken French, were Moroccans who lived part-time in France. The vegetarian food was absolutely delicious. The meat apparently wasn’t so good. But it was cheap and filling, so certainly no complaints from us.

Then it was the Dadés Gorges, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Toes’ because of the cliff faces sheer and fascinating rounded appearance, one of those weird and wonderful results of weathering. We then reached our final stop at around 5pm, our hotel submerged in the Dadés Valley, an entire hotel (La Gazelle Du Dadés) that only ourselves and a German couple shared. We were greeted by delicious mint tea and a wonderful meal of soup, tagine and sweet fruit later on.

The next day, after a good nights sleep in our own hotel room, we woke early to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread. We were all excited about going to the desert that evening and chose the appropriate camel-wearing clothes – leggings under baggy trousers and long sleeved tops that certainly did the trick – and off we went!

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Day Two 

At first we went through the Todgha Gorge on foot which was immensely impressive, I also had some interesting and extremely funny comments on my “botty” from some Berben men and finally got the hang of the hole-in-the-floor toilets. We then stopped for a cup of mint tea right by the largest oasis in Morocco, Tafilalt. We were then treated to a wonderful surprise in Rissani – lunch with our lovely guide’s sister, Fatima, a very kind lady who never stopped smiling. And a great cook. The food that I had at Fatima’s house was the best I had in my whole time in Morocco. We started with sweet biscuits, and then onto ‘Berber pizza’, next we had a wonderful cous cous with so much flavour and to finish we ate fresh fruit as we passed around the gorgeous Berber baby, one of their neighbours children. It was nice to get to talk to Moroccan women for the first time in our journey and it was interesting to find out that one of Fatima’s daughters studied psychology at university. We’re not so different after all!

It wasn’t long after lunch that we pulled Merzouga, The Sahara Desert. Oh my. It took my breath away. Seeing the desert on pictures and movies don’t do justice to the feeling you get of being so small within the all-encompassing dunes. Merzouga itself was eerily beautiful; being low season it was silent and it felt like we’d stepped back in time with ancient ruins and derelict dust roads, only disturbed by our own 4x4s engine and the Berber music that Iddir was blasting out of the stereo. We stopped by four camels waiting for us and we were each allocated a camel; I was at the front. I was completely taken with the sweet camels’ big doe eyes, gawky features and laid back demeanor. Even though riding a camel was completely different to riding a horse, there were no stirrups and no connection the camel’s mouth, I settled into the camel’s long strides with ease.

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We arrived close to camp and jumped off our camels, thanked our kindly guides and were pointed towards a dune where a few other people had gathered. It was sand-boarding time. My Danish and Spanish did pretty well gliding down the dunes, but I chose to bum-shuffle down on the board into camel poo, which wasn’t the daintiest, but fun anyhow! We then walked through the hard sand to our camp, feeling very sorry for our camel guides having to tackle this terrain for over an hour. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the camp, it had showers, flushing toilets, thick, soft bedding on comfy good-sized beds, lights and beautifully decorated in bright colours. That night, we drank tea, cuddled camels, watched the stars, smoked shisha, played charades with the people we met there, shared riddles with one another, laughed a lot, ate delicious food and we all were completely enchanted with the soulful sounds of the desert men and their drums by the fire.

The next morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise above Erg Chebbi, at first it was somewhat unimpressive and we were all cold from the biting wind, but then the wind settled and the clouds moved past slowly to reveal a glorious sunrise. Then, we were called for breakfast by Iddir’s cousin and soon enough after our ride back to Merzouga in the bright sunshine, we were back on the road and on the way to Fes.

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In my last post I mentioned an uncomfortable situation with a Moroccan man, but let me tell you now that nearly every other Moroccan that I came across was not only wonderfully sarcastic and refreshingly hilarious, but kind and respectful. With the recent terrorist attack in London being just one of many that have taken place recently and Trump ‘banning Muslims’, it is easy to group a religion together and label them as ‘bad’, but this is awfully sad and hurtfully narrow minded. The people I met couldn’t have been kinder, particularly those in the desert, where we all had a good laugh together and wished each other well in everything, despite being from different cultures.

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Day Three

On our way to Fes, we passed through Midelt, which is known for it’s apples and has it’s own apple festival; here the women were selling beautiful scarves and tapestry. Then we drove onto Ifran, which was a strange city to be found in Morocco. It looked as though it had just been cut out of Europe and placed in Africa, not only were the buildings European styled, but so was the university, all the way down to the Swiss forest just beyond the town, strangely combined with Arabian horses and greedy monkeys.

Morocco wasn’t a traditional holiday. It wasn’t hot when we went, nor was it a place where you would swim or sunbathe, or even sip wine on a roof terrace. If that’s what you’re looking for, than Morocco isn’t necessarily the place for you. But if you want to be excited every morning, the kind of excitement that wakes you up at 6am with butterflies in your stomach and a feeling rearing to go to see what will be uncovered throughout the day, if you want your mind to be challenged by all the new sights and smells and you don’t mind going with certain amenities for a while, then Morocco is for you.

It certainly blew my expectations.

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Cumbria, Nature’s Blessing

“The earth has its music for those who listen” – William Shakespeare

As much as I love travelling abroad, I do also appreciate the countryside of my home country, England. Since the last few weeks in Madrid have been difficult (though don’t get me wrong, I am still infatuated with this city) I would instead like to share with you my favourite place from home.

My most treasured British national park is the Lake District. It is particularly special to me as I visit Cumbria at least once a year and I have done since I was just an infant to visit my Granddad who lived in the quaint little town called Ravenglass, but despite my own personal attachment to this place, I believe it to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I know many who agree.

My favourite places in Cumbria include: Windermere, Keswick, Drigg, Whitehaven, Muncaster, Seascale, Millom, Wasdale, Boot, but most of all Wastwater and Ravenglass. Those I speak about below are just a few that are really worth a visit if you’re in the Lake District.

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Wasdale

Wasdale is the home of Britain’s deepest lake, smallest church and highest mountain. Not only do its great facets draw people to this place, but the way it makes victims of even the most seasoned traveller with its enchanting essence and haunting beauty; the way the summit of the mountains spear the clouds and their backbones carry the weight of aging dry stone walls built over one-hundred years ago; how the lake on a calm day mirrors the mountains creating the illusion of the already immense valley to appear twice the size, engulfing its visitors in its perplexity. Yet on a stormy day the mountains tower over you, the calm lake turned to turmoil making you feel as though you are the pinpoint of the earth, or the main witness of nature’s grand gestures. As though you have stepped into another world.

There are many walks around Wastwater, both challenging mountain hikes across screes and pikes, but also easy strolls in the valley. Of course, there are a couple of pubs situated on the mountains of Wasdale serving traditional British ‘pub grub’ and an interesting selection of local beers and ciders. If you’re feeling brave you can even take a dip in any of the lakes within Wasdale, but take care as the stream can be strong and the water extremely cold.

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Ravenglass

I have seen this little fisherman’s village in the dark of the night, when the air was so still and the sea so calm it looked liked glass delicately frosted and on it’s dreary days when I would blunder through what seemed like a tempest, where the grey sky hung over, the sand turning to a perilous mud, sucking in my trusty boots and compelling us to fall onto our bums in a graceless fashion and the ethereal times when the waterfront was shrouded in a cloud of mist, only shadows of gauntly boats could be seen.

Though this village is particularly special to me, as it is where my grandfather lived for much of his life, thus I would spend most summers here. But other than a personal affection for this place, Ravenglass holds it’s own with hidden treasures and a charming appeal to visitors. There are splendid walks across the fells, the beaches and bridges of Ravenglass that will lead you to the Roman Bath House, Muncaster Castle and beautiful views across the area.

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Boot

Nestled amongst the mountains and rivers of Eskdale, Boot is a small village comprised of old stucco cottages, traditional stone bridges and a tiny railway that can take you to and from Ravenglass. On a warm day, it is perfect to bring a picnic to one of the pebbled river beaches and spend the day relaxing by the picturesque streams.

Although my perception of Boot has been tainted as I was there during the Cumbrian Shootings of Derrick Bird in 2010 where 12 people lost their lives, this devastating and frightening event really shouldn’t put you off this beautiful village. It offers peaceful walks around tiny streams and vast waterfalls and again some tremendous local food and drink in their pubs (my favourite being Boot Inn, shh don’t tell Brook House!)

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Millom

I must admit there is little feeling better than the wind rushing through your hair and being one with the full power and speed of the ten-ton beast beating it’s hooves on the golden sand beneath. Just me and this beautiful creature thundering across the beach without a care in the world, the backdrop of lavender fields and mountains on one side and the endless ocean on the other, there’s nothing that can be done now but to trust my stead and laugh with joy as we recklessly crash through the waves.

Now if you know me, you will know I am a huge horse-lover, hence the mention of my experience with the horses at Murthwaite Green Trekking Centre, which is a perfect riding school in Millom for experienced riders and beginners alike. However, even if you are not into riding, Millom is still perfect for a beach-day with its combination of cliffs, fields, mountains, pebbles and a vast stretch of golden sand.

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And for now, thank you to the beautiful British countryside and the people in England that still make it my home, maybe it is still ‘Great’ Britain after all.

(Credit to my step-dad, Marlon Cole, for his beautiful photography)

Horse-riding in the Spanish campo

“What if I fall?” – “Oh, my darling, but what if you fly?”

As an avid horse lover and equestrian, I was concerned that my time here in Madrid would be horseless. Luckily, this isn’t the case, and thanks to a wonderful group on Facebook (Madrid Pet Lovers, you should check it out if you love animals and live in Spain, I have somehow acquired a lovely foster cat through this group!) I found other likeminded horsey people who recommended different stables to me and even arranged a ride together that weekend, exciting!

My parents were visiting on that said weekend, so at first I was reluctant, but my mum (even more of a horse-lover than me) sent me off with my step-dad, Marlon, and off we went out to the stables in the Spanish campo with the girls from Madrid Pet Lovers. Surprisingly, the stables wasn’t too far out at all, just 3 stops from Sol on the Renfe Cercanias to Cantoblanco Universidad and a 20 minute walk across roads and tunnels until we reached grassland with horses grazing peacefully and the most beautiful grey Andalusian dancing in the ménage with his rider.

Then in came some horses from their last ride, the Spaniards high up on their mounts, helmetless and carefree. As each of rider jumped off, they handed over their horses, I got a big bay horse who looked kind and gentle. At first, I was a little disappointed as I would have liked a grey Andalusian, but I felt relaxed on him, so my disappointment soon went as I settled into his rhythm. My step-dad had decided beforehand that he didn’t want to ride and would instead walk the trail taking photographs, hence the amazing pictures.

As we left the yard, I immediately felt confident on this big horse, so not long into the ride, I felt comfortable enough to push him into a brisk trot, keeping up with the speedy Spaniards ahead! It was such a lovely place to ride, one side was a view of the mountains stretching out far, and on the other side was the skyline of Madrid, the three tall skyscrapers glowing orange in the setting sun.

I soon asked if we could go for a gallop, so me, Louise and Sabrina went off onto the stubble and encouraged our tired horses into a steady lope, not pushing them too hard.

When we got back into the stables, it was with a huge grin on my face and a big pat to my horse, it had been such an amazing hour and a half!

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Unfortunately, since that ride I have been back twice and have ruined my nerves a little. The second time by falling off a rearing horse before it took off and vanished out of site in seconds, along with my friend on her horse, which was a pretty scary ordeal for me as I had not fallen off a horse since I was 12-years-old, an accident where I was left with a life-changing injury (a story for another day). The third time, I was nervous after my fall, so each time my excited horse leaped forward into canter or threw his head around, I froze in fear, anticipating him to buck or take off.

But now I hope to take riding lessons here in Spain to get over the nerves so I am able to go on an amazing ride again in the Spanish campo once again!