The searing heat of Central Morocco.

Here we are in Morocco, smack bang in the middle of summer, and it has been scorching. Desert trips, further south, have been talked about, but not with any real ferocity. We know all too well what hot really means, from our recent experience in Egypt. I can only thus begin to conceptualise the brutality of the heat further south. Yep, we opted to be “wooses” on this one, and took a rain check. We have literally followed summer around the world, and after almost a year, I can truthfully say that I would not mind being in Melbourne in the throes of winter. That’s a pretty big statement coming from a serious sun lover!

Fes, or Fez, as it is also known, is the third largest city in Morocco, and is one of the country’s four imperial cities. It has a huge and exotic medina with an interesting Ville Nouvelle ( or new town in English). It is the term used to describe the newer areas outside of the medinas in Morocco’s larger cities. They are surprisingly modern, and in some cases you feel like you are in Europe. I repeat, Morocco has a cosmopolitan flair which I would never have envisaged.

Having said that, the medina in Fez is a hive of activity, and once in the depths of its interior, another and very different world comes to life, and you barely realise that a modern world exists outside of it. It’s a place that challenged ALL of my senses ALL at once. Old women sell their wares, from fruit and vegetables to other bits and bobs like they just stepped out of the middle ages; chunks of cows and other beasts hang outside in the souks ( a market; or commercial quarter in an Arab city) enticing more flies than humans; men hammer away and create metal objects before your very eyes; and you can SMELL the leather shoes and handbags before you see them! Nestled in amongst the 1000s of stalls, were the shops whose workers’ job it was to take the wool off the sheep hides (my stomach did a quadruple somersault)…as my friend Rita Garcia would say, ” A scratch and smell experience”.

There was one smell however, that was worse, and which made all the others pale in comparison….the famous (or infamous!) tanneries of Fez. This is the area where they dye the sheets of leather before they become our bags, shoes and leather goods. As we rounded yet another windy road, there was another vomit inducing whiff, and before I had enough time to say, give me a bucket, there we were getting whipped into a tiny doorway, and viewing handbags and shoes which smelt like the local abattoir. As I held my hand over my mouth, I was promptly handed some mint leaves, which supposedly curbed the smell. As my eyes scanned the products however, I decided that it would be unfathomable to purchase anything which smelt so vile. For the rest of the duration of our time in Fez, I would do a runner each time I saw leather goods…I SAW shoes, I SMELT flesh rotting!!! What I saw and what I smelt simply did not seem to match up!

Fes is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and many non-Moroccans are now restoring traditional houses (riads and dars) as second homes in the Fes medina. We stayed in one of these. As soon as the local lads see someone with a backpack, they follow you, surpass you, tuck into the hotel before you do, make it look like they took you there, and then seek commission. We are not supposed to work this out, but, we obviously have! As we walked into the riad we ended up staying at, Dar Bouanania, I said hello, and “He didn´t bring us here”, all in the same breath, which, I suppose, is not that hard for me to do. We ain´t paying anybody a commission, especially if we found our own way there.

The souks are amazing, if not for the interesting products, for the people, both locals and foreigners you see there. What a juxtaposition…whilst tourists are sometimes being ripped off blindly (depending on their nationality and negotiating skills), the locals continue with business as usual. We not only walked in and around the medina, but also outside of it, which provided some interesting views and landscapes. It never ceased being hot, and we cannot tell you how many 3 dirham (50 cents AUD) glasses of orange juices we had. There were vendors everywhere.

In Fez, Alex and I felt very privileged to be able to enter the home of some local people. It started out with a man called Mohamed asking Alex some questions on how to use his new camera, and ended up with being invited into his mother’s home. Here we shared several hours with not only Mohamed (who lives in Casablanca with his family), but his brother Youssef (who lives in the United Arab Emirates, and was here on holiday) and their gorgeous elderly mother, Neftsaha, who despite her total lack of English was a delightful hostess. She could not offer us enough, including food, cookies and rosemary tea. By the end of our visit, she was hugging and kissing me and telling me that I was beautiful. I told her that she too was gorgeous! It is amazing how much “talking” you can do with your hands! Well I am the daughter of Italians, so that has given me a pretty good head start. We visited her again before leaving Fez, and told her how honoured we felt at not only being invited, but being re-invited to her home. Yet another priceless experience, which will remain in my heart forever! For me, this is the true essence of what travelling is all about!

Time for a quick getaway from all the hustle and bustle, and something a little cooler too. We decided on a little Berber town called Azrou. It means rock in Berber, whose meaning was obvious upon arrival. As it was nestled amongst the mountains, it was rather refreshing at night, which was welcome relief. We really did not do much here, except for sleep, eat, relax and wander around the not too large souk. During the lunch hours, the people seem to disperse, partially due to the heat, and partially to chill out over and then relax after lunch, but at night time, it is like one big party! We found much of Morocco to be like this.

Next was Azilal, which was really only going to be a stop over in order to see the Cascades d´Ouzoud, supposedly the most spectacular in Morocco. Unfortunately, yet again, the “show stealers” were all the trash and cigarette butts, many floating in the water. It detracted substantially from the “show”, and as I saw the multitudes of the people (mainly men, as the woman do not bathe in public unless fully clothed) bathing, my brain was doing a silent cataloguing of all the potential diseases. It seemed like a great place for dial-a disease to me! On a serious note, the falls were rather pretty, and I have no doubt that if cleaner, they could indeed profess to be “spectacular”.

Marrakech here we come………enticed by your exotic image and the likes of real snake charmers in your central square, we figured we could cope with the 43 degree heat! No documentary or travel show could have prepared us for you, however! You were scathingly hot, but with your constant action and commotion you provided us with such an elevated assault on the senses, that we often fell asleep standing up, that is to say exhausted, as we battled with the incessant barrage of information! Marrakech you are like an exotic liqueur, ready to consume those of us who taste you!

We splurged in Marrakech and stayed in a couple of truly beautiful riads. One was called Riad Noga and the other Riad Kaiss. They were both beautiful in their own and very different way. Whilst Riad Noga had an attention to detail that was unrivalled, from the shampoo and body gel in the shower to the sweets and fruit by our table side, Riad Kaiss was so very much in the style of a typical Arabic house, with lots of spectacular tile work and interior gardens. Please click on both of the links above, they were both well earned, as well as hidden luxuries! The former even had a pool, but who had the time! The latter was owned and had been decorated by a French architect called Christian Ferre. Very tragically, he died of a heart attack whilst we were actually staying there. We offer our sincerest condolences to all his family, as well as all his staff at the hotel. May he rest in peace.

I should mention that Marrakech is in the south west of Morocco, at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Hot, hot, hot is its middle name! In the days following our stay there, the temperatures rose until they hit 50 degrees celsius. I seriously forewarn all who choose Morocco as a vacation destination – July´s temperatures are the hottest, and the heat is brutal!

Marrakech has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco and also has the busiest square in the entire continent of Africa, called Djemaa el Fna . As you would expect, there were people selling everything from shoes to meat. I must say, those chunks of protein hanging up in the “fresh” and open air made me thankful that I was a vegetarian! On a serious note, Marrakech is famous for exactly that……weaving in and out of alley way upon alley way and being both enticed and/or hassled to buy, buy, buy! On a few occasions, I had to tell myself to breathe in and breathe out…very, very deeply! I must say, I seriously lost it on one or two occasions. This is “coffee chat” however, and if you are interested I will tell you all about it when I get home! Needless to say, it did involve me being rather brutal and blunt about the way I, and subsequently, other women are treated. I know I should zip it, but sometimes the part of me that wants equality for all, just rips out of its seams! Let’s say, body in 1st gear and mouth in 5th!

One day we did “Marrakech Tour”, which is a bus which takes you to several points all over Marrakech. The beauty is that you can get on and off as you like. We decided to visit the “famous” Menara Gardens. You know that famous view seen on all the postcards….blue lake, and palm trees with a frosted mountain backdrop…..what can I say, perhaps, thank goodness for photo shop!? It was pretty Joe average, but once we were there we felt that we at least had to walk around the lake…….in searing heat, and despite the fact that we had to buy a bottle of water which cost three many times as elsewhere! We also visited many other interesting sites, like the the Koutoubia, which is the largest mosque in Morocco. Its architecture and richness of decoration make it one of the masterpieces of Hispano-Moorish art. We also visited the El Badi Palace, which dates back to the 16th century, and the Kasbah, which is basically the old fortress.

And then there are all the quirky places, things and people, which seem to pop up in the most unexpected places. We particularly liked the snake charmers in the main square, the “camel” in the internet cafe and the man we saw taking a nap in the unlikeliest of places. A good laugh, a great photo opportunity, or both!


With each new place comes a new experience, or learning curve, but again, it was time to “jump” on to the next place.

Ombi

Note: I am sorry but we are several weeks behind with our blog updates. Please be patient as the others will soon follow. Since leaving Morocco, we also passed briefly through France, Germany and Japan. We arrived in Hong Kong on the 16th of August, and we are now in the process of organising visas for both China and Vietnam. D-day has come and gone, and…….no we are not returning to Australia……yet!! We decided to let our ticket”expire” and will continue travelling through China and South-East Asia for a few more months. When are we coming home? Sorry, cannot answer a question that I do not know the answer to, so…..stay tuned!

The wisest men follow their own direction” – Euripides (484 BC – 406 BC).
(OK, so I would have used “people” instead of “men”, but even all those years ago, this dude realised that taking the lead was far more exciting than following the crowd!)

Next: Relaxing on Morocco’s coast.

(Photos: 1.- Fez as seen from up high. Of course we walked there to get the view! 2.- Entering the Fez medina through the main gate. 3.- The tanneries of Fez – look interesting, smell revolting! 4.- The heartbeat of the medina, Fez. 5. Local, hand-made, edible delicacies. 6.- At home with Neftsaha, Fez. 7.- Azrou at sunset. 8.- Cascades d´Ouzoud. 9.- Riad Kaiss, Marrakech. 10.- Marrakech’s central square by night, Djemaa el Fna. 11.- Cloth seller, Marrakech medina. 11,12,13.- (L to R): Snake charmer, afternoon nap, using the camel express….ooops, I mean internet. 14.- Time to jump to the next destination.)

Moroccan Whiskey…….and a Funky Blue Medina.

No sooner had we set food on terra firma than we noticed that there were cafes everywhere, predominantly patronised by men I might add. No sandwiches or snacks, just lots of good coffee and Moroccan whisky, with an obscene amount of sugar. Sugar in whiskey, I hear you ask? Well, Moroccan whiskey is the term used for the ubiquitous mint tea here. As it is a Muslim country and, in theory at least, alcohol is not served, this is conjunction with the proliferation and abundance of mint, has given this country its famed and of drunk beverage. Not a bad “drop” I might add, although with the shameless amount of sugar that goes into each glass, one soon reaches saturation point…..pun, very intended!

Tangier was not really what I had expected. As soon as we stepped off the boat and into the port, I realised that it was much more modern and cosmopolitan than I had envisaged. I suppose with Egypt still very fresh in my mind, I was expecting something much more conservative. I probably had not accounted for Morocco’s proximity to Europe, both culturally and geographically. Here we saw many local women who were not totally covered up, including their heads, and even the men were generally less covered than in Egypt. I am not going to lie, there was indeed a moment of euphoria, as I realised that I would not be destined to three weeks of searing heat wearing long pants. Yes!!!!!!!! I do like to be a conscientious traveller, and respect local customs, but after what I had briefly seen, I was already dreaming of finding a place to stay, so that I could strip off and put some shorts on!
We ended up in a cheap, small but very clean place, close to the shore called Hotel L’Ile Verte. I highly recommend it. The staff, especially Said, were super friendly. If you happen to go, say hi from Alex and I. Of course, the obligatory thing to do in ANY Moroccan town or city is to get lost in its medina…..they all have one! A medina is literally a “city”, but it is a word now used for the original Arab part of any Moroccan town. It is usually encircled by a high and old wall, and the buildings within are tall and narrow, and the roads between them are more like alleyways, as they snake around in any which way. Usually no cars in a medina, as the cars are wider than the roads. Most medinas are a labyrinth, that only Moroccans seem to be able to navigate. We foreigners have two choices, to stick to the 2 or 3 main alleys and not get lost (90 percent), or just go with the flow, get lost, and end up…………wherever (10 percent)……….destination Ombi and Alex!
So, Tangier for us was a place of lots of great coffee (coffee culture is alive and kicking here!), mint tea with way too much sugar, amazing olives (remember, we are in the Mediterranean here), getting lost here, and, as usual, chatting to the locals. We even had our own corner cafe thing happening for the few days that we were there, where we would meet up with our new friend Johan, and chat about the meaning of life.
One day, we bought some bread, olive, cheese and other bits and pieces, and decided to sit on the beachfront promenade and watch the world go by, as we ate our picnic lunch. We were really feeling good, life has indeed been great to us. We were soon approached by a young girl, who was perhaps 12 years old or so, wanting to sell us a rose. In my mix of both broken French and Arabic, I tried to explain to her that I did not need a rose and that I had nowhere to put it. At this point I should mention that due to the past French colonisation of the country, many Moroccans also speak French. Whilst she realised that I neither wanted nor needed a rose, I too understood that the rose was merely a means to an end. I looked into her soulful eyes, and asked her if she was hungry. She placed her beautiful henna-tattooed hands (here the custom amongst women is to paint designs on their hands and feet; henna is the natural reddish dye which comes from a plant, and therefore is temporary and not permanent) on her lap, and bowed her covered head, whilst nodding slightly. She was hungry! If somebody had have smacked me over the head with a crowbar, it would have had less effect! With my heart in my stomach and a knot in my throat, I quickly prepared her an olive, cheese and tomato sandwich, and handed it over. We watched as she ate it, ever so slowly, relishing each bite as if it was her last. Every time she looked up at us, her eyes expressed what her mouth would never have been able to tell us in a million years, and I had to focus and concentrate so that I would not break down and cry. When she had finished, I asked if she wanted another. The reply was no! She had had enough, and that was that. She thanked us several times, and took my hands into hers. I will never forget those big brown eyes as she said goodbye and walked away. She thought we had given her so much! We had in reality given her so very little! When I could no longer physically see her eyes, I looked out into the huge expanse of water in front and cried brazenly, as I am doing now as I recall and type this. I can only repeat the million dollar question, Why do some people have so much, when others have so little?
Whilst in Tangier, we also met a Spanish couple, who had come across by car, and they invited us to go and watch the sunset with them one night. The areas, both east and west of the city, sit up higher than the city and offer staggering views……yep, just like in the movies. We also visited a cave called the Grotto of Hercules, and the most impressive aspect was the shape of the hole in the rock overlooking the sea……Africa……….tingles ran up and down our spine.
Next was a place called Tetouan, in the Rif Mountains, and not too far from Tangier. Surrounded by remarkable scenery, I would imagine that the mountains would look impressive topped with snow, in the winter months. At this time of year they rise and loom spectacularly over the township. To be perfectly frank, apart from this, and someone trying to get into the back pack that Alex was carrying, it was a bit of a non-event. I will not go on and on, except to say that we were in the crowded medina (which although classified by UNESCO, failed to impress), and suddenly saw Alex swing around. He quickly told me that someone had tried to unzip his pack. We knew exactly who it was, as we are always aware of our surroundings. Although nothing had been taken, the prospective thief knew we were onto him like a chubby kid onto smarties, and you should have seen him do a runner, when I flapped my arms and started screaming, “Gendarme, gendarme” (police, in French). Acted out like a tried and true backpacker Alex! Good teamwork! Starsky and Hutch eat your heart out!

And then there was the funky blue medina……not to be confused with the cold one, of course! Chefchaouen, is a small mountain-top village, also in the Rif mountains. It is laid back, easy going, pretty in the real sense of the word, and …..painted blue, and various shades of it! In pockets it really looks a little like the Greek Islands, without the sea. We stayed inside the picturesque medina; which perched up high, was surrounded by picturesque mountains. Another little treasure that has made our “We’ve found paradise” list.

Does the word Rif sound vaguely familiar to any of you? This is what my friend Greg O’Hern (also travelling the world, and having been here recently) said about it in his write up of the place:

“Reefer – that’s got the attention of a few of you I’m sure! The word “reefer” actually comes from Morocco. In the Northern part of the country are the Kif mountains, an area renowned for its marijuana cultivation. In these parts its called “Rif”, and quite often comes in the form of hashish, the compressed and compacted form of Mary-J. Over the years the hippies that have come and gone from the area in search of good dope started referring to it as “reef” and from there to “reefer”. It’s the Rif in the Kif.
On a more serious note, I cannot tell you the amount of times that we were offered hashish here. Not being a user and jack of being asked (we ARE foreigners, right, so we DO use it, right!!), I resorted to telling the sellers that I was a member of the Australian Police Force. My other tactic was to ask them if they were Muslim, and thus challenge them on their either selling or using it. Got a few interesting responses, best discussed over a cuppa or a beer, whatever you are into!

As Alex and I have a penchant of doing, we rocked up to this funky blue medina on the opening day of the Alegria Festival We struggled to find accommodation at first, but walking up and down those steep alleyways for a few hours eventually paid off ( read…..we were eventually exhausted). I could totally see the laid back veneer of this town, but for the three days we were there, it rocked to the tunes of Cuban and Spanish artists, as well as Moroccan ones. Street performers, including fire breathers, made the place come alive. It was all free, and let’s face it, who is not into free entertainment. Foreigners mixed with locals as well as other Moroccans from all over the country, and a good time was had by all.

Coffee and tea are so cheap here, and one of our favourite pastimes has fast become people watching, whilst sipping on a mighty fine drop!

NOTE: Congratulations Australia! On the 1st of July you FINALLY went totally smoke free! Both Alex and I are sooooooooo excited at the prospect of being able to go to places that had prior to this date been on our no-go-zone list. May I be blunt, would I be anything less; smokers have rights…….BUT SO DO WE!!!!!!!!!!!!! The right to breathe in air which is unpolluted and not toxic, as is our choice! All of this aside, I urge smokers to be conscientious and to dispose of their butts appropriately. You do not throw your trash on the floor, so why your cigarette butts? We are destroying our Earth, and whilst our generation talks of WHEN global warming will occur, our kids will talk about WHAT effects global warming is having! There have been places on our travels where we have seen more cigarette butts on the floor…than the floor itself! Ugly, unhealthy or an environmental disaster?

Dedication: We would like to dedicate this blog to our dear friend Harry Kontos. Harry, it would be impossible to write about all of the environmental damage we have seen in the last 11 months without dedicating an entire blog to it. I will say this, however, we are wrecking our world, and we are wrecking it fast, and the effects are profound! What saddens us most and has us particularly perplexed is watching supposedly intelligent, educated and first world individuals treat their world like an ash-tray. And here, we are NOT only referring to cigarette butts. If we keep adopting the “she’ll be right Jack” attitude, and waiting for the next person to deal with it…….we will soon find that by slowly hacking away, and killing our Earth and “its contents”, that there will be NO next person! It’s time to wake up and smell the roses!

“It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis” – Margaret Bonnaro.

(If you have a quote that you particularly like, send it to us and we may use it.)
Ombi
(Photos: 1.- Can I have a glass of mint tea……and about 8 cubes of sugar please? 2.- Collecting water, daily life in the medina. 3.- A typical medina sight. 4.- Olive-topia!. 5.- Afternoon nap, in the midday heat. 6.- Funky blue medina, Chefchaouen. 7.- The medina & the Rif mountains,Chefchaouen. 8.- Dancing salsa with Abdel, Alegria Festival, Chefchaouen. 9.- Wake up and smell the roses.)

Next: Fez, Azrou and Azilal. Our attempt to wander away from the beaten track.

Our brief flirtation with Spain.

We have now definitely got the pedal to the metal! With only weeks left on our ticket, we are now practising the art of ” getting it together” as quickly, efficiently and smoothly as we can. And I must say, we are doing a pretty good job.

As our next flight is from Casablanca (in Morocco) to Madrid, the idea is to do a little of the Spanish coast, before catching a ferry to Morocco from around southern Spain. We figured we could spare a week in Spain! Our flight across was fluid, and we caught a bus to La Rambla, which is Barcelona’s main drag. It was around 10.00pm and it was pumping! There were bodies, street entertainers and vendors everywhere. I wondered where the party was…..there is NO party, we were told….this is La Rambla 24/7, all year around! Looking for a place was…a little tricky….not only was it expensive, but almost everything was booked. So, we did the old traipsing door to door, and checked a few rooms. Some were frighteningly dirty, or as Alex would say, not up to Ombi’s standards. My standards are actually not that high, but they do include shower drains which are not furry, clean sheets, and air that smells, well…of air, and not stale smoke!

Persistency pays off, almost every time, and we did find a room in a hotel, although it was close to midnight. Bargain of the year it was not, yet neither was it outlandishly expensive. It had air-con and included a buffet breakfast. And….it was close to the action. After checking in, we had a quick shower, settled into our very comfortable bed, and promptly visited la-la land.

We spent the next few days exploring Barcelona, and there truly is so much to explore. This is also a place that I had visited some 12 years ago, but like many other places, it too had changed dramatically. With the advent of the euro, I found it to be much, much more expensive than I remembered. Also, Spain now to me feels much less rustic and Mediterranean-like and much more European chic. I know times and people change, but I think I liked it better before.

Bar-thelona, as it is pronounced in Spain (c’s and z’s are pronounced with a lisp in Spain), is the capital of a region called Catalunya, which also has its own regional language called Catalan. Whilst the Catalunyans are fiercely patriotic, they do also speak Spanish. There is no doubt that whilst huge, Barcelona is full of treasures, some found easily and others hidden. Although now so very cosmopolitan, with streets that would easily rival Milan’s designer avenues, it is also full of Gothic, Romanesque and modernist splashes…….welcome to this vibrant city.

No trip to Barcelona would be complete without taking a look at the works of Gaudi, a famous architect who was known for his unique style and highly individualistic designs. The most famous of all these works, is the imposing church of the Sagrada Familia. Despite the fact that Gaudi died in 1926, works are still in progress….. it could therefore be said that it is a living work of art. The views of Barcelona from the towers are unforgettable. Gaudi also left his mark in the way of a number of other exotic and eccentric buildings, such as Casa Battlo and La Pedrera, not to mention Parc Guell, a playground filled with colourful mosaics and more of those outlandish Gaudi designs( by the way, contrary to what you may have heard, the English word gaudy, does not come from Gaudi).

We do not do this often, but another day we took a “tourist” bus all over the enormous town, and I must say that due to its enormity, we were able to see much more than we would have been able to alone. This included the Barcelona Soccer Club Stadium, Poble Espanyol (let’s say the Barcelona version of Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill), the Olympic Stadium, Port Vell (Barcelona’s port area) and the Gothic part of the city (with its winding, narrow, and sometimes dead end streets, which looked as if they had been lifted directly out of medieval Europe).

Another thing we do not normally do, but did in this buzzing city, was treat ourselves to a buffet dinner and flamenco concert. The dinner was average, but the concert was phenomenal. The most intoxicating part was watching the speed at which the dancers’ feet moved……I wish!

Another day, we simply walked around, and just soaked up the people, places and the culture. For this you must be prepared to wander and get lost. Getting “lost” gets you off the tourist track, and helps you to stumble onto places where the real people live. We also checked out Barcelona’s beach…….I know that I will sound arrogant here, but is was pretty bush league. C’mon give me a break here, I am an Aussie, and we all know that we have some of the best beaches in the world!

After umming and aah-ing we decided that we would go to Granada next, to see the renowned Alhambra, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic art and architecture. We ended up getting a bus, as all the trains were fully booked out. Or should I say, we had to book in advance. Advance….are you kidding, we do not know what we are doing from one day to the next. We are the king and queen of wingin‘ it! July in Spain is a nightmare, it is hot and busy, and full of travellers. If I had a month’s holiday, I would NEVER choose to do it in summer. As they say, horses for courses!

Beautiful Granada….nestled at the foot of the snow-clad Nevada Mountains, on the Mediterranean Coast, close to the Strait of Gibraltar, it seems like a world away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona. Here things are more tranquil, as you walk around in a place that has a distinctive bygone era feel about it. Granada is unique as it was once a haven for Muslims, after the fall of Cordoba. The result is a place that has a distinctively Islamic or Arabic feel about it. The serenity felt so normal, and I wondered at what point the two cultures began to compete instead of living together side by side.

The Alhambra is simply stunning. Sitting on a hilly promontory, about a 20 minute walk or so from the city centre, it was once the residence of the Muslim Kings of Granada.The Alcazaba, the Alhambra’s fortress, dates from the 11th and 13th centuries, and the state of preservation is excellent. It is a place full of palaces, patios, gardens and even a museum, but the piece de resistance is without a doubt the Palacio Nazaries ( Nasrid Palace). Its splendour may be attributed to its patios with outstanding mosaic work as well as the intricacy of its stuccoes and woodwork. This is the type of place you could do in an hour, or 5 or 6. We opted for the latter…scrutinising the mosaics, marvelling at the woodwork, and relaxing in the gardens. With the temperature hovering at above 40 degrees celsius, relaxing in the shade of the trees in the many gardens was virtually compulsory.

I must also add that we had some fairly decent food in Granada, including some ice-cream that rivals Italy’s. OK Italy, you are still the King of Gelati, but some of your neighbours are catching up!

It was finally time to make our way to Morocco, so after sifting through the information of a new travel friend (thanks Greg), doing some on-line research ourselves, and asking around, we decided on the one hour ferry from Algeciras ( on the southern tip of Spain, near the straight of Gibraltar) to Tangier, almost the northernmost tip of Morocco. So, we woke up nice and early (must say, at this point we are both a little bit over nice and early!), caught a bus to Algeciras (which also served as a clothes dryer), and then walked the short distance to the port, where we bought a ferry ticket to Tangier. The ride was short and sweet, and before we knew it we had almost completed the 14 kilometre ride between the two points, and in the distance…..there she was……..Morocco……another lifelong dream about to come true. What exactly would await us there?

Ombi

“It is not so important to know everything as to appreciate what we learn.” – Hannah More.


(Photos: 1.- Street artist, on a dunny break, La Rambla, Barcelona. 2.- Market fare, of La Rambla. 3.- In the winding alleys of central Barcelona. 4.- La Sagrada Familia…still under construction. 5.- The chimeneas on top of Gaudi´s Casa Batllo. 6&7.- Flamenco show. 8.- The Alhambra, as seen from one of its many gardens, Granada. 9.- An example of the Alhambra´s fine workmanship. 10.- Clothes dryer….on the bus to Algeciras. 11.- Which one´s Ombi? Still having fun after 11 months on the road.
)

Perugia, Naaaapuli and kissing Italy goodbye.

Can you imagine my surprise when about a year and a half ago, when Alex and I still had the jewellery business, I received an e-mail from an Italian guy I met years ago? I met Fabio for the first time some 14 years ago, whilst on a ferry going from Italy to the Greek Islands! Out of nowhere I receive an e-mail asking if it was really me! To cut a long story short, Fabio googled my name, and up I came! Remember that we had a business web site, so my name came up immediately. Come on, how many Ombretta Zanettis are there in Australia? Needless to say, I promptly e-mailed back, and before we knew it, we had set up “skype date” (I repeat, computer technology…..where would we be without it?) We were soon chatting away like no time had passed, and I promised that I would swing through Italy, as you do, when we passed through on our upcoming world trip.

So, some 17 months later and 11 months into our trip, I contacted Fabio to say that we were coming. Although both originally from Napoli, Fabio and Federica now live in Perugia. We only spent a night in Perugia, but spent a truly wonderful day with Fabio and his family, which included his sister Rosalba, brother-in-law and nephew, as well as Federica’s mum, Bianca. Fabio and his brother-in-law Andrea came to pick us up at the train station, and gave us a whirlwind tour of Perugia, before going back to his house. Besides catching up on 12 years worth of news (I saw Fabio again 2 years after I met him), we also…….surprise, surprise, ate copious amounts of food! Only eat once a day in Italy….that’s all day!! Sauteed eggplant, mozzarella, salami, prosciutto, olives, bread, pasta alla bechemel, pizza (from Federica’s dad’s pizzeria in Naples), wine, mineral water, not to mention the birthday cake, which was one big baba , with swirls of whipped cream on the top! It does not get better than this! How many more times can I say that Italy is a foodies Mecca? You will certainly hear it a few more times before this blog’s out!

It was only a day, but we packed in a lot, both conversationally and food wise. Fabio had organised….you know with the Italian connection thing….for us to stay in the Holiday Inn, at a very reasonable price. I’m not going to lie, it was so tremendous to be able to lie in a bed with an A-1 mattress and a pillow that was neither Mt Kosciusko nor as thin as a piece of rice paper. The buffet breakfast was excellent to say the least, oh and the “complimentary” lunch (aka the continuation of the buffet breakfast) was not too bad either. Our splurge was short lived, as we had to get up early as we were off to Naples.

We went to Naaapuli (as the Neapolitans pronounce it) via train, and on the way met a lovely lady called Michela. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, we did not take Michela up on her offer to go and visit her, but, we will next time. I promise you Michela!

As they say in Italy, “Vedi Napoli e muore“, or as we would say in English, “See Naples and die”. Naples, you either love it or you hate it! I love it, and can never get enough. It’s crazy, frenetic, dirty, unorganised, exotic, seedy…..bring it on, this is Naples! There simply is not another place on earth like it! And every time I go back, I am reminded of my roots, and of course my mother! As much as I am proudly Australian, Naples always shows me who I really am, and where I come from…..definitely a “figlia di napolitana” (daughter of a Neapolitan). Despite being famous for Sophia Loren and pizza, I am much more inclined to say that Italy’s sfogliatelle should be the show stealers! What, you do not know what sfogliatelle are. Now, THAT is a culinary crime! Did I mention the coffee? Again, bring it on! There I go again, it really IS all about food!

Now the reason I really jammed Naples onto the agenda when time is burning ( I am now constantly hearing my ticket calling out its expiry date!), is that my mum’s first cousin, Giovanni, would be here at the same time. I have visited Giovanni a few time in the USA where he lives with his family, and he has also been to Australia, the most recent being only a year and a half ago. Now, 11 months into an around-the -world trip, we would be in the same country at the same time, when his trip was only a total of two and a half weeks. This was an opportunity that I was going to miss for nothing!

When we arrived we ended up at a place called Hostel of the Sun, very close to the heart of the city. It was run and owned by the very affable and very Neapolitan, Luca, and his excellent staff. From Tiziana, Gemma and Carla, on the front desk, to Taty (originally from the Dominican Republic…which I guessed!) in the kitchen, they were all super friendly and entertaining. I have to say, I just love Neapolitans and southern Italians! I can really see the “me” in “them” and I just love their warmth,vitality and love of life. It is, without a doubt, a southern Italian trait! Despite the chaos and the hardship, they always seem to find a way! As the Neapolitans say, ” ’ca nisciun’ è fesso“, which loosely translates to, “here, nobody’s an idiot”. In the face of adversity, they always seem to find a solution!

I have to confess that it is my favourite place in Italy, and further more, the first time in Europe on this trip that I felt at home. Europe is lovely, too lovely for me in fact, and it is mostly very organised……and then you reach Naples, and you have to cope with a million sights, sounds, smells and situations. I like this hustle and bustle. Safe may have been part of what I enjoyed 18 years ago, but after the likes of Central and South America, I am much more into adventure and culture. Europe for me has become too easy, which also extracts some of the fun. To be perfectly honest, and it is only my opinion, it now sits comfortably in the 3 O’s bracket: over-rated, over-priced and over-populated! There are a lot of places on earth that are far more exciting and that really do give you more bang for your buck! The only bang for your buck in Europe, is the one that almost kills you every time you go and pay for something, which is almost always ludicrously expensive!

You cannot see it all, but we tried to fit in a few of Naples’ sights, including the Amalfi Coast. “Dramatic scenery” is an understatement, and nothing really prepares you for the narrow roads (The Great Ocean Road move over!) that wind precipitously around 50 kilometres of sheer rock face. There are a number of little towns where you can stop off and take a look see, perhaps the most famous two being Amalfi and Positano. Both famous and beautiful they attract hordes of tourists. Despite their beauty, again they were obscenely over priced, but I could have almost coped with that, if it was not for the quadrillion people there……shopping on things they could have bought at home! Hello, we are in Italy, take a bit of a look at the spectacular surrounding scenery! No better buy that leather handbag that I can buy $5.00 cheaper than at home! Why go to Italy, when you can go to China! No sorry, China now comes to you, albeit politically and economically incorrect, as well as at a much cheaper price! I am cheeky, aren’t I!

We visited museums and palaces, strolled through the historical centre, visited the Palazzo Reale, which was the former official residence of the Bourbon and Savoy Kings, but we mostly just strolled, ate lots of sfogliatelle (well, me anyway!) had copious espressos (the best in Italy!), and just soaked it all up!

Drum roll……………………….and then was our day with Giovanni. He had been on the island of Capri (no, we did not get there this time), and we were supposed to meet him at midday, as he arrived by ferry in Naples, but we missed each other. Long story, but we called him on his mobile and met him at the hotel he was staying at close by. As we arrived, he was there to meet us at the front door of the hotel, where a number of hugs and kisses promptly followed. It was so wonderful to be able to see him again, and we both stared at each other in disbelief! We had seen each other in Australia and the USA and now in Italy! It all seemed a bit surreal really! After a couple of hours in the hotel chilling and chatting, we went out for a stroll. We had our own personal guide as Giovanni was raised in Napoli. He took us to Caffe Gambrinus, which is Naples’ oldest and one of its fanciest cafes. It is supposed to be a haunt for artists, intellectuals and musicians. Luckily I do not lack self esteem or confidence, as my shorts, singlet top and hiking shoes were no match for the flashy designer gear which surrounded me. He then showed us the home of the first and original shop which made and sold Naples’ famous Pizza Margarita.

After going “home” to get changed into something a “little more decent” (I dare you to find “decent” in a backpack which has been hauling mostly the same clothes for 11 months!), we went to Giovanni’s sports club in Posilippo, which is where he used to hang out and do sport as a young man, before leaving his beloved Italy. Sports clubs in Italy are a little hard to describe as we do not really have an equivalent in Australia. They are more like a cross between a sporting and a social club…..any excuse to be able to mesh friendship, drinking, coffee and food. I say cheers to that one. Giovanni showed us around the club, which sits right on the spectacular Neapolitan Harbour, and introduced us to many of his old friends. We then sat down to an exquisite, creme de la creme dinner, whom he also invited his close friend Corrado too. Great food, amazing company, mind blowing scenery. Need I say or describe more!

After dinner, Corrado took the four of us in his car, and showed us Naples from above. By this time it was dark, and the lights illuminated the bay in such a way that…..just when you thought it could not possibly get any more spectacular, it could and it did! Ah yes, I had seen Naples and I was almost ready to die, but not quite! We still had Rome to do! Corrado then dropped us off at our hostel, and we both gave Giovannino, as we fondly refer to him, a big hug and lots of kisses goodbye. Not before telling him that I loved him of course! I believe that if you love someone, tell them! Life is short, and people are not mind readers! I told Giovanni that we would see each other again, and I meant it! We looked at each other with that look which is hard to describe but which comes from a soul level, and we both felt it.

Next morning we were off to Rome, but not before one last sfogliatella and a couple of good espressos. I am starting to sound like all we did in Italy was eat, which wouldn’t be too far off the bat really. I am also sounding like I am obsessed with food…again, in Italy, that would not be too far off the bat either!

Rome…..get in at 4.00pm, already had hotel booked, hotel had a leaky plumbing system, moved to another but better and cheaper room in an apartment close by, visited Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, St Peters Basilica, Vatican City, Piazza Navona, throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain (one was for the soul of our dearly loved and now parted friend, Giulia Arcuri, who we knew loved Italy, loved Rome and loved life!), Piazza di Spagna, walk all over the central part of Rome (due to its enormity, it would thus be fair to say that we walked SOME of the central area and not its entirety)….. huff, huff, puff, puff…….catch train from Roma Termini Station to Leonardo da Vinci Airport, check in and…..fly from Rome to Barcelona the next day at 5.30pm! Did you get that? No? We barely did either! Having decided to spend an extra day in Naples, we knew we would not be able to do all that much in Rome. Well at least we thought we wouldn’t, but we sure gave it our best shot. Had not really expected to arrive at the Clayton’s Room either (the room you’ve got when you haven’t got a room!). It did subtract us from an extra hour of playtime, but it was a brilliant self-contained room in a plushy apartment block, which was a welcome surprise. It just meant that we were flat stick for almost 24 hours! Needless to say, we collapsed in the plane and I slept for the entirety of the short trip to Bar-thelona! (That’s how they say it in Spain!)

Rome is big, overwhelming, and has a remarkable history, and 2700 years worth at that. Being in Rome is like tripping over one of your child’s toys. You are constantly “bumping” into or “walking” into things that you had not previously seen or noticed! I love the way in which the new city has simply been built around these enormous toys! Oops, monuments!

St Peter’s Basilica just blew me away, but not necessarily in such a wonderful way. It truly is spectacular, and a work of art, but each time I see it, I am overwhelmed by a multitude of things. One of these things is trying to reconcile how an institution as great and wealthy as this one can have so much, whilst so many have so little! It does not make any sense to me at all! Whilst people are lining up for hours and hours and hours to get into the Vatican Museums close by, and paying a small fortune I might add, there are people all over the world dying of starvation. I just don’t quite get it! I wonder about the priorities of both people and institutions. And I feel saddened, very saddened in fact. It’s a conspiracy……. I always thought that 2 plus 2 equalled 4.

“Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.” -Unknown

Dedication: This one is for our beloved friend Giulia Arcuri, who died a little over a year ago. You are always in our hearts and thoughts, but in Rome your light was shining brightly. We love and miss you. And for you too Maria (Brancolino), who was Giulia’s best friend. Your constant and unfloundering devotion and care towards Giulia taught Alex and I what true and unconditional love is all about. May love and light always protect you both.

Ombi

Next: Spain, begining with Bar-thelona.

(Photos: 1.- Perugia, Umbria. 2.- Lunch at Fabio’s. L to R: Alex, Fabio, Andrea, Antonio, Rosalba, Federica and Bianca. 3.- With Fabio and Federica. 4.- Having a sfogliatella in Amalfi. 5.- Munching on a pizza napoletaaaana in Spaccanapoli. 6.- At the Hostel of the Sun, where breakfast is included, nuttela is king! 7.- Positano, Amalfi Coast. 8.- Ombi & Giovannino at the Posilipo Sporting Club. 9.- Ombi, Giovannino & Corrado at the club, with the bay of Naples in the background. 10.- Night view of Naples. 11.- Neapolitan delicacies. 12.- A 21st century Roman gladiator….having a smoke!. 12.- A beggar in Rome.)