Building Castles in the Air

I am writing this sat in my lovely house in England that overlooks fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I began writing this just over a week ago when I was still in the hustle and bustle of sunny Madrid. A place that over time has taught me that there are so many good and open people in this world and such beautiful places beyond the imagination. It has also taught me that life isn’t just about living to work, but working enough to live and thrive. And I have certainly learnt how to thrive!

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Taking my Erasmus year in Spain has undoubtedly been the best decision I have ever made. Travel has always been in my blood and I have ever wished to have the confidence to get myself out of England by myself and set my life up abroad. I choose De Montfort University largely because of DMUGlobal and the opportunities they offer around the world, including Erasmus and as soon as I stepped into their first presentation about Erasmus, I knew it was for me. The only issue was is that I wanted to go for a year and I wasn’t able to transfer my credits from the year abroad to DMU, thus I would have to do an extra year. But as I felt I had been let down a lot by my English university experience, I decided to take the leap and go for it anyway!

The next dilemma that came was choosing the place out of a huge list of universities around Europe. I was torn between Dusseldorf, Bordeaux, Oulu and Madrid, but since I always had a soft spot for Spain and desperately wanted to learn Spanish, I chose CEU San Pablo in Madrid and there my journey began.

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I visited Madrid beforehand to choose a flat to live in and visit the city and university, both which impressed me but I still didn’t have huge expectations. When I arrived it was hot. Really hot. Madrid seemed hugely intimidating and rather lonely, it was hard opening a bank, finding everything for the flat, getting the transport card, finding the uni and not being able to speak any Spanish.

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But just a couple of weeks in, I was falling in love with Madrid and the people there were wonderful. My time in Madrid went from strength to strength and without me even realising it for a long time, I was living my dream. I had my own little flat, a foster cat, I was learning Spanish slowly but surely, Madrid at my doorstep and at the weekends I took day-trips to neighbouring cities, or if the girls were up for it I went on bigger trips to other countries or the coast. At the start of this year, I did have a wobble after a break-up, moving flats and all my friends leaving from the first semester. But after an amazing trip to Porto with great friends and an eye-opening adventure in Morocco where I had the most amazing time ever with more wonderful company, things just carried on the uprise until the day I left.

Now, it is time to awaken from this wonderful dream and whirl of emotions, experiences and evolution that has been my life for the past 10 months. It’s time now to work hard and study hard so I can accomplish this as a real lifestyle when I finish university. I know that Madrid is a once in a lifetime experience, but this is not the end for me, it’s just the beginning of an international lifestyle.

I have never been so inspired to travel and meet more people as now, and I have no doubt that there are more adventures to come. The only thing I am questioning is not when, but where?

Although not everyone will have the same positive experience of living abroad as this, some of you may not even be interested in travelling and will find your happiness elsewhere in careers or studies or families. But I hope everyone has the chance to find their own Madrid.

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My 8 Favourite Places in Madrid

So my time here in this beautiful city, Madrid, is reaching it’s final days so I wish to share with you my favourite places here that I have discovered over the past nine months, all of which make living here particularly special for me.

If you are still living here and haven’t been to these places yet, they are definitely worth taking a look at before you leave. If you are visiting Madrid, choosing a few of these to go to will make your stay here even more charming.

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Opera

The first tourist stop that most people make in Madrid is Puerta de Sol, which is a beautiful plaza that is the literal centre of Spain. However, one of my favourite plazas in Madrid is that Plaza de Oriente that is very close to the metro Opera. Not only does it recognisably contain the famous Opera house, Teatro Real, but it is framed by some of the grandest buildings in Madrid in an arch, with the largest palace in Europe as it’s backdrop. To the north of Plaza de Oriente, there are beautiful gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) linking the palace to Plaza de España. Just a short walk to the south, near the end of Calle de Bailén, there is a small park with a magnificent view of the Palacio Real hanging over the city that I find particularly stunning, as well as inside the palace itself. I must when visiting Opera at night there is something magical about the majestic buildings lit up against the dark sky.

Parque Cerro del Tío Pío

If you want to see the best sunset in Madrid, Tío Pío is undoubtedly the place to go. Although it is quite a trek if you live anywhere north of the centre in Madrid, it is a trip worth making. This park is just a ten-minute uphill walk from metro stop Buenos Aires on the blue metro line (linea 1). At first this park may not catch the eye, but after climbing to the top of one of the small hills, a breathtaking view of Madrid can be seen like no other in the city. It is the perfect place to visit with a loved one or a group of friends with some vino to watch the sun go down over the sleepy city.

Lago

Just one part of Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid that stretches for miles and miles, Lago is the perfect escape from the city’s heat in the summer! With many different activities, it is perfect for anyone and everyone. There is the option to either go for a short stroll around the lake, sit and relax with a glass of tinto de verano overlooking the palace and cathedral, mountain bike or hike through the many trails in the park, take the cable cars over the large park or even go swimming at Piscina de Lago (my favourite part of lago!)

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Malasaña

Oh Malasaña… what a quirky, fun barrio it is! I must say this will be one of the neighbourhoods I am sure to miss the most when I return back to England. If it is a bar crawl, food crawl or vintage shop crawl you are looking for – Malasaña has it all! I keep finding new quirky things there each time I visit, for example last time I stumbled into this shop (Pinta en Copas) where you get free tea and coffee as you unleash your creativity by painting your own piece of pottery. There is nothing much more satisfying than getting some work done at one of the laid back cafés such as Café de la Luz or Toma Café, then browsing through the vintage stores such as Magpie Vintage or Templo de Susu, having a healthy lunch at Bluenasaña or the Greek & Shop, moving onto to a natural ice lolly for desert at Lolo Polos then meeting friends at one of the many unique bars in this wonderful place to sip sangria or cocktails until it is time to move onto to the party in one of the neighbouring barriosChueca or El Centro. Day well spent!

El Retiro

This may just win the prize for my favourite park in Madrid, which is a hard place to earn as Madrid boasts such wonderful parks. But there is something about El Retiro. This park is located just off the centre, bordering Atocha, Banco de España and Ibiza, but by stepping into this park it takes you miles away from the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the capital city in just minutes. Although El Retiro is slightly busier than the other parks, it is easy to see why. With its beautiful vast lake, the Crystal Palace, exquisite statues, sculpted gardens, la Rosaleda (a charming collection of roses), and last but not least the Monumento a Alfonso XIII which often attracts talented buskers that never fail to transport me to another world in the beautiful surroundings.

La Latina

Not only do I love the way this neighbourhood’s name sounds “La Latina”, but I also love the relaxed, cool vibe that comes with being here. Every week this barrio hosts a large flea market, which is definitely my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning in Madrid, wandering through all the wild and wonderful stalls before stopping off at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapíes for lunch or relaxing in La Latina’s square (Plaza Cebada) listening to the free live music with a bite to eat from the Mercado de la Cebada that backs onto it. But La Latina is not merely good for a lazy Sunday morning, but it’s also great for the bustling nightlife too! Walking though the streets at night in this neighbourhood is like no other, with the excitement for the night to come radiating from the buildings and the streets hard for anyone to squeeze through due to clusters of locals and visitors alike pouring out onto the streets from the bars (such as Leka Leka, La Buha or Los Pajaritos) in animated chatter – even in the dead of winter! 

Gran Vía

Coming up the stairs from the metro to Gran Vía never fails to take my breath away, whether it be on a peaceful winter morning or at dusk on a teeming Friday night, it’s magnificence always touches me. Callao tends to end up being the meeting place for a good day or night ahead, with the Schweppes sign towering above the plaza and the stained glass windows above Desigual, Plaza del Callao always makes it’s statement. Gran Vía is the place for shopping, with all the brands scattered down its elaborate street and Fuencarral leading off it with alternative and hip stores. It is the place to be. But Gran Vía is also the place for parties, with international clubs such as Independence, Moondance and ‘locals’ club Star Coyote that are hosted on the infamous street or nearby.

Parque del Oeste

Quite different feeling to that of Casa de Campo, although it is no where near as large as it’s neighbouring park, Parque del Oeste has many different elements all interlinked through beautiful walkways and maintained gardens. At the top of the park towards the north there is part of the park that rests just beneath the Faro de Moncloa, an observatory tower that allows visitors to see all the way across Madrid in an 180˚ glass observatory zone. At the bottom of Parque del Oeste is the Templo de Debod, a 200bc gift from Egypt rebuilt in Madrid in 1972, it is a place that feels like no other, arguably in the whole of Spain. Because of its high position, the temple is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset as guitarists or saxophone players that leave their impression upon the young night often serenade it.

 

Although I have been here almost 10 months, there are still things that even I have not done but plan to do in the next couple weeks that may be worthy of this list, this includes to:

  • Drink the famous milky cocktail in the cave bar El Champadaz near Moncloa.
  • Visit Mercado Antón Martin and Barceló
  • Watch the sunset from Circulo del Bella Artes
  • Eat the homemade tortilla from La Buha
  • Watch a flamenco show at La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton
  • Listen to the live jazz music in Café Barbieri
  • See the turtles and oasis in the Atocha Railway Station
  • Watch the guards change at the Royal Palace

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.