I’ve Been Thinking About Marrakech

The Halloween episode on The Simpsons, where Homer buys the shitty wish granting monkey hand, is how I first learnt about Marrakech, and watching Almost Famous is how I learnt that Morocco is a country in North Africa (with some confirmation from my older sister) – as you can tell, watching the moving image ironically gets me off of my arse, but these images directed me to a city where I proved to myself that I could be a more independent backpacker.

I’ve spent four full 2016 days in Marrakech, but I speak confidently when I say that I got so much out of them. I arrived via the overnight train from Tangier because my preconceived idea was that, if I’d flown in, I’d get a dose of culture shock that would set my anxiety off. Unfortunately Tangier made that a reality, so, upon my arrival at Marrakech Railway Station, I found my ideas to be completely wrong. Yay!

I was passing (I was picked up) gardens and theatres and horse drawn carriages and I wasn’t once getting a dose of the anxieties, and this was very similar with the traffic leading to the airport, so I’m definitely considering a flight to the city when I return. To me, Marrakech is singular and for the time being, the most interesting city I’ve visited.

Now I’d originally intended to stay very close to the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa, but my first hostel manager proved himself to be a dick. So, upon my return from the Sahara (I did the Sahara – they’ll be a post) I set myself up at the Dream Kasbah hostel off of Rue de La Kasbah. I feel that if you have the right kind of accommodation, where you’re comfortable and at ease, the rest of the world becomes so much easier to reach – I just didn’t have that with the first hostel.

This neighbourhood is a little further from the square but it is so much nicer, quiet and something to look at – one of its most distinguishing features is the Mosquée Moulay El Yazid. I found no great fault with the hostel or the area, except for a guy who wouldn’t work the horn on his motorbike and some teenagers who insisted I pay them for a handshake – yes, they will go far.

Back to this oh so interesting city, where secluded back alleys and hanging flowers by taxi ranks prove most picturesque, you will find a blend of artists, randoms willing to help out (one guy offered me a stool to sit on whilst my companions haggled for a handbag – all true) and all the rest, most of which will kindly inform you that the royal palace is closed, even if you’re not looking for it.

Despite the few who will want to take advantage of you (more mellow here than in Tangier, I swear it), there are genuine people out there in the world, so it’s important not to lose faith in that fact.

On the ‘what to do’ side of things, there are a couple of staples I’d happily recommend. Again, some things are best done with a friend but if you’re travelling solo, like I did, buddy up with whomever you’ve had breakfast with. Speaking as an anxiety ridden introvert now, Marrakech, as well as Tangier, did wonders for my ability to socialise with other travellers.

Firstly, hit the souks! Next to Jemaa el-Fnaa, this market is huge, mental and the guaranteed epicentre of getting lost (you haven’t visited a souk right if you haven’t gotten lost) so that’s where having a buddy proves beneficial – things should be a little less Blair Witch also.

You will find just about anything you could need, from handmade woodworks, leather products, spices and even socks. Now, haggling is a big part of the souks and low and behold, I’m a terrible haggler (this is where befriending a Finnish-Swedish type artist pays off) but I learnt enough to get a wooden cobra for ten dirham cheaper on my last day – hashtag winning.

Additionally, if you wish to find your way back to the square, simply ask to be pointed towards  Koutubia Mosque (having a fixed point to go back to can be a blessing) – my suggestion is to ask a security guard or a vegetable seller because I found little chance of them wanting to rip me off. Also, when it comes to communication I was doing just fine with English, as well as my limited French, Darija, Berber and my very polite hand gestures.

On the topic of local sites, I found myself drawn to two of them – one intentionally and the other completely by accident… but some accidents can be a happy thing.

The first is the Jardine Menara, an olive grove with its own man-made pond where you might find a turtle looking back at you. This was a picturesque morning experience and I’m glad to have found it – the walk from Kasbah was a big ask (crossing a Marrakech street can amount to being a blood sport – THERE, IT’S SAID!) but the locals I crossed were happy to help (thank you limited French).

Menara, also describe as a garden, was quite peaceful and inviting – the only downside is that you might get pestered by a random to buy a t-shirt.

Palais Bahia is the second stop worthy of mention – whilst I may not have seen the royal palace, I’m happy to have had a stroll through Bahia. It wasn’t too far from my first hostel (which will remain hated) and like I mentioned earlier I found it completely by accident (I was supposed to be on a day trip but I missed the bus because I wasn’t given specific details).

Palais Bahia was a visual experience – there was art on display but I was more drawn to the architecture, especially the outdoor areas, where I was taking in the colours (it should be noted that I don’t really travel for architecture so this place certainly left an impression). It won’t cost much to enter either.

Now before Morocco I wasn’t the biggest foodie – I was one of those who didn’t like eating alone in a restaurant – but after Marrakech I feel more comfortable taking a seat and looking over a menu because food kinda does keep us alive, right?

Whilst I had my share of tagines, I have to mention the plate of schwarma, ordered on Rue Bab Agnaou, that I downed on my final day. THIS WAS A FEAST! That’s right, I ate like an Avenger and my inner fan boy couldn’t be more proud.

When it comes to drinking Marrakech is good for alcohol… but I don’t give a shit about that – I’m not a big drinker… of booze, but I love orange juice.

After mint tea, which I’m happy I converted to (I absolutely hated mint before I hit up North Africa), I’m fairly certain that orange juice is Morocco’s second national beverage of choice. However, whilst the taste is beautiful, it’s the juice vendors in Jemaa el-Fnaa who deserve a special mention. Whilst competing for business, they were lively, funny, inviting and happy to have a conversation.

Still on the topic of consuming nice things, if you have a sweet tooth, go. to. Marrakech! I tried a few sweet things and one I’ll highlight is the m’hanncha I brought from the Patisserie des Princes on Rue Bab Agnaou.

For those unaware, m’hanncha is a pastry wrapped log filled with a mix of citrus, pistachios and rosewater – I’ve made my own but it was very different (and I’ll say inferior) to what I tasted on Bab Agnaou. Another element I found interesting about the Patisserie des Princes is that they kept live bees in the display cases. I don’t understand why but a woman sucking said bees up with a vacuum cleaner can become a lasting image in one’s memory.

And lastly, and this is a favourite for many, I suggest you sit back and take up a spot of people watching. This is a good addition to when you’re sitting at a café, eating nice things, and the rest of the world just proves way too interesting to ignore.

And that’s what can happen if you give the big tour the flick and go your own way. I feel far more capable of taking my own steps now, and without someone keeping an eye on me, and that can be the ultimate reward when you go travelling. Anyway, these are the things that will come to mind when I think about Marrakech.

All Along Antrim

This is the tail end of January, 2016.

I looked up from my breakfast as other guests rushed to the nearest window in the International Youth Hostel, all of them abuzz about something big. So, after putting down my fork I joined them and got one of the most pronounced reality checks to date – it’s snowing in Belfast.

This was something different indeed.

Naturally I got my share of photos for the inevitable Facebook post (this is the first time I’ve seen snow in an urban environment so it is something) before casting the experience to the back of my mind – the impression doesn’t last much, mostly because I’m seeing Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coastline. That’s all I’m caring about.

Now, I’m a loud and proud Game of Thrones fan (I’m sure there’s a name for people like me a la Whovian and Sensie) and that’s the kind of tour I hop onto outside the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street (the snow had stuck around so the Europa’s staff were allowing tour members to wait in the lobby – good karma to them!)

The show has influenced a lot of my big backpacking adventure so I’m ready to see the Northern Irish locations on the A2, which will be topped off with a stint at the Giant’s Causeway. Whilst I do enjoy experiencing the locations used in film and television, I’ve always primarily been drawn to the natural. With that said, today should be something special.

The Antrim is absolutely stunning – I’ve grown up visiting sun drenched stretches of coastal road so I was most welcoming of the drastic change in the weather (I’m from Melbourne so I’m conditioned for influxes of cold) – the fresh snow on the green compliments everything.

On the itinerary are Carrickfergus (where the rising sun greeted us) and Carnlough, and then some of the stops whose names I have sadly forgotton.

The cave where Lady Melisandre birthed her ‘shadow baby’ was on the tour, which in fact serves as a resident’s driveway here in the real world (cosplayers were in attendance there) and the quarry where Brienne and Margery made their first appearances – think it was there that I got a look at the far off Scottish coastline… so I have at least seen Scotland!

We moved on to Ballintoy Harbour where the sun made another comeback (we’ve had a mix of snow, rain, wind and grey clouds since leaving Belfast) and the sea was foaming – I have never seen so much foam. It was wonderful to gaze at. This is the kind of natural that sticks with me. 

Nerd fact – Ballintoy Harbour served as Lordsport in the Iron Islands, where Theon reunited with his sister Yara and had what could be the last of his more notable hard ones… before Ramsay wanted more pork sausages.

The harbour was being overtaken by the sea, but it was something else to marvel at – I loved feeling the fierce wind, tasting the air born salt which had landed on my lips and watching a fully geared up surfer take on the waves. My personal nature normally dictates that I head away from the cold but Ballintoy may have changed that to some degree – well done!

Next on our list, and this is the icing on the cake that is the day – the Giant’s Causeway. My love of nature might have been amplified here.

Now for those unaware, the Giant’s Causeway is made up of many, many, many basalt columns that at some points are submerged into the North Channel. Many of these columns are hexagonal in shape which allows for them to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Additionally (and this is a big positivo for me), there’s a legend that goes with the Causeway – mythology and legends are sexy to me in case you were wondering.

It’s believed that the Causeway was constructed so that Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool – who’s loving this?), who was either a giant or a human warrior, could do battle with a Scottish opponent. Scotland’s island of Staffa has a similar formation of columns in Fingal’s Cave which supports the legend of a bridge that once stood across the sea.

Upon arrival we all had the freedom to walk down the road leading to the Causeway, thus allowing us to go at our own pace (there is a shuttle bus service for anyone interested.) It was scenic and beautiful and everything else I love to see when on the road, but it was at that point when Northern Ireland showed me what it could do… weather wise.

As I, the weather beaten Melbournian Sheep, said earlier there’s been a share of rain, snow, wind and sunlight… but the Causeway treated us and about a hundred plus others to some of the hardest hail I’ve ever felt!

I am not kidding – hail is no one’s friend. NO ONES! Short of diving under a parked van that the attending rangers were using, there was nowhere to hide. NOWHERE! One reprieve I can think of is that it didn’t last longer than a few minutes.

When it came to leaving, we were treated to two final sights – Dunluce Castle, which left us all satisfied, even if it was a drive by, and the Dark Hedges.

This stretch of country road, lined with amazing and looming beech trees, serves as the King’s Road. This is where the day got a little bit ‘fairy tale’ and I was appreciative – I’ve never seen a picturesque road like this back home. It’s quite singular. Again, people were everywhere but this is a travel quirk I’ve long since learnt to hate but accept.

Now of course I’m going to recommend Antrim (this post should suggest such a thing) but mostly because I was left with a sense of satisfaction that only a fan of fiction can be left with. Add to that, the Antrim is also the most northern point on the planet that I have ever experienced so that’s an effort I’ll always smile about.

I wasn’t in Northern Ireland for long (I no longer plan every aspect of my journeys for that and other reasons) and I’m still peeved, but the country has given me my share of reasons to go back and see what else it has to offer – I’ll probably hire a car though. I like going at my own pace.

 

 

So I Needed Something New

This, I can assure you, has been a long time coming!

A bit of housekeeping first (I do like that word for some reason).

I travelled to Thailand for the first time back in 2014… and it was there that I had an interesting experience.

Ups and downs were had so naturally it is in the traveler’s nature to share said experiences with the people back home.

So, following my return to Melbourne and with a few extra weeks thrown in, I sat down to lunch with a friend in a foodcourt and let everything out (stories I mean – the… KFC stayed down).

It was a nice hour and something worth of conversation, but I was left feeling certain of a few things at the end.

A, my jaw was hurting like hell and B, I knew I couldn’t stop talking about my adventures.

Enter the unregrettable decision to start travel blogging – I haven’t encountered anyone who can say otherwise.

I made the move to Blogspot and it was there that I shared my stories about backpacking around Australia and abroad – I’ve done this up until now, 2017, but there comes a point where nice things like a menu bar become highly desired.

So that’s why I’m here, on WordPress, and ready to make a change with these words and pictures (that you can tell that I’ve taken with a Samsung) I love to share.

Add to that, a few of my older stories will be tagging along from the first incarnation to join in with the new – I’m sure they’ll get along.

We’ll see how I go but because I believe that a cup can only be ‘half-full’ I’ll choose to be optimistic and say that I’ll be here for the long run.

Happy and safe travels, and here’s to the words to come.