Moroccan dunes: a good place to bury your head in the sand?

Erg Chebbi

The Erg Chebbi dunes at Merzouga, close to Morocco’s border with Algeria, may not be the largest in Africa but they’re pretty spectacular. The Rough Guide to Morocco says that in the summer they are usually teeming with travellers, particularly the French, but during my visit in February I could easily have rocked my inner Lawrence of Arabia and found some very pleasing solitude amidst the great mounds of bright orange silica. The Guide also says that in the hottest months the Moroccans are drawn to the area because of the health benefits of the dunes. Apparently, burial up to the neck for just a minute or two is touted as a cure for rheumatism. I don’t know about that, but at the moment, as an escape from my daily grind, I would probably settle for burying my head firmly in that dune pictured above.

Morocco: ‘Of all the gin joints in all the world’

In January I suddenly realised that I hadn’t had a decent holiday for a while. I wasn’t including the long weekend I spent in Amsterdam in December in this thought process, concluding that I needed a sustained period of time away from my long commute, hellish project and my constant companion: my laptop. I was in serious danger of needing to have that particular item surgically removed from my life.

I thought about relaxing places I could safely travel to on my own, but then I realised that although I am quite happy being by myself, I didn’t really want to have to suffer my own company for two whole weeks, particularly somewhere I wasn’t familiar with. It was no good, I was going to have to explore the possibilities of group travel. Horrifying images of enormous buses travelling in convoy flashed into my mind, loaded with decrepit OAPs, following behind some annoying know-it-all tour guide who insisted on waving an umbrella in the air and shouting ‘follow me, keep up’ as we trailed dutifully and far too swiftly around some oversubscribed tourist hell hole.

I didn’t know where I wanted to go. The problem with world travel is that the more places you visit, the more places sneak into your consciousness to replace those already visited. The world contains too many potentially fascinating destinations. Frankly, where are you even supposed to begin when you actually just want to go everywhere?

Having recently holidayed in Morocco, my sister suggested that as a possibility, and I started exploring the options. I quickly realised that outside of the obvious, that being Marrakesh, it looked like an incredibly interesting and attractive country. A few companies also lead 15-day tours there, from the old port of Casablanca, across the Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara and back across to the ocean at Essaouira, before concluding in Marrakesh. It would be a bit of a rush, but what the hell, it would at least allow me to get a feel for the country. I booked with Imaginative Traveller (or Exodus, everyone seems to be part of Exodus), and would leave at the end of February. There’s really no point hanging around when the evil holiday demon is sitting on your shoulder taunting you.

A week before I set off, Britain was struck by high winds, terrible torrential downpours, fallen trees and, as a result, abysmal travel disruptions. On the day, I set off early. The train to Waterloo was dutifully on time, a great relief. The tube journey out to Heathrow was not so well-behaved. After kicking us all off at Northfields, with no warning or explanation, my fellow passengers and I stood, getting ever more alarmed, on a silent platform, until eventually, after 20 minutes, a packed tube train arrived. I piled in, probably much to the dismay of the already sardined passengers, but needs must. I’ve never missed a flight in my life, and I certainly was not starting then.

It did mean that I was far from being a chilled traveller when I finally made it to Heathrow. I reminded myself that I was at least on holiday, life could be significantly worse. Morocco is only three hours from London, and fortuitously in the same time zone. As the tour just seemed to arrive in Casablanca, check out the mosque and skedaddle for Rabat and Fez, I was keen to judge for myself whether the city was worthy of more time and had booked my flights separately so that I could spend an extra day there.

I was underwhelmed by Royal Air Maroc. My vegetarian dinner failed to materialise and the stewardess’ suggested alternative was a gluten free meal. A gluten free chicken meal. Whatever. I was still on holiday. I’m not totally naïve, I’d already eaten at the airport.

Imaginative had booked me a complimentary taxi from the airport to my hotel, but the driver would have to wait for over an hour as only half the luggage from our flight deigned to put in an appearance on the carousel. The rest of us sat, waiting unusually patiently, whilst the airport staff tried to locate it. I was glad I’d packed spare underwear and mini toiletries in my hand luggage. Oh no, wait, of course I hadn’t. Just as all seemed lost, our bags miraculously appeared. Where they’d spent their extra hour, who knows, but they seemed unscathed by the experience.

It was quite late by now, at least 10 pm; however, the roads were still fairly busy. This was not a good thing. Sat in the passenger seat of that taxi I resigned myself to what would surely be my ultimate fate. As the driver weaved in and out of the three-lane highway, forcing slower cars out of his way, undertaking those who refused to budge, and backing off alarmingly when they cut back in front of him, I thought to myself, at least I had had a good life. I had a loving family and I had travelled around the world and seen some truly wondrous places. Hopefully we would crash spectacularly and, having been killed instantaneously, I wouldn’t be aware of the mangled corpse that I would leave behind. Understandably I was delighted when we finally reached the safety of the hotel. I was in one piece, except perhaps for my shattered nerves, they were in an indeterminate number of bits scattered along the length of that terrifying journey.

My first night in Morocco was spent in a three-bed room in the Moroccan House Hotel. It was comfortable and the staff were very helpful, if not a little uninformed that I was joining a tour and therefore staying for two nights, not one. My room was also decorated in what can only be described as Moroccan Gothic horror, which added some fun to the occasion.

Despite the delayed tube, the terrible flight, the mystery of the lost luggage, the frankly alarming taxi journey and the décor that would have been at home in a Bela Lugosi film, I was deliriously happy. I was, after all, embarking on another adventure.Morocco

It’s not every day you see a cat riding a bicycle (Essaouira, Morocco)

Cat riding a bicycle

OK, so riding is a little bit of a lie, sitting on a bicycle is undoubtedly more accurate, but it didn’t make such a good title. This was taken a couple of weeks ago in Essaouira in Morocco. Essaouira is a fishing port about three hours’ drive from Marrakesh and is infinitely preferable in my humble opinion to that particularly overwhelming tourist hotspot. Being a fishing port it’s a bit of a no-brainer that it’s swarming with our feline friends. However, unlike in many of the countries I’ve visited, these stray cats were a healthy, fluffy-looking, well-fed bunch. Who knows how this particular moggy managed to get up onto the seat of said bicycle, but he’d certainly found a good perch on which to enjoy the final warm rays of the day’s sun, before the little streets of what is a very picturesque north African town were once again plunged into cool evening shadow.

Amsterdam: Day three: Joggers, drag queens, prostitutes and transvestites

“Those were the gays my friends”: So sung the drag queen performing in the atrium of the Amsterdam Museum that Sunday as we wandered moderately unimpressed through its galleries. Unimpressed with the museum, not with the drag queen, she was pretty good.

The day had started with a run past the Heineken Museum, up under the Rijksmuseum, along through the diamond district and past the designer shops that border it, into Vondelpark. I like to run when I visit a new city, it gives me a different perspective than just walking around the usual tourist bits. I find I am more aware of my surroundings, I like to observe my fellow runners, finding a happy satisfaction in how similar our shared activity makes us. You surely have to be suspicious of a town or city in which you fail to see a fellow runner? Well, Amsterdam was ticking all the right boxes, Vondelpark was teeming with runners of all shapes and sizes, of every speed and fashion taste. Every man and his dog was basically plodding and panting around the park that morning and it made me happy to be amongst them.The Amstel

After a nice hot shower back at the hotel and a cinnamon and raisin bagel topped with walnuts and cream cheese from Village Bagel, we decided to walk a different route into the city centre. We struck off down alongside the Amstel, along Waterlooplein and past the Hermitage, where we stood awhile looking at the flocking green parakeets that had made their home in a particularly nice-looking tree. Where they’d come from, I don’t know; the Netherlands didn’t strike me as their natural home. It was again overcast and a little chilly, the weather obviously wasn’t cooperating with my plan to take lots of wistfully beautiful photos of canals flaunting artistic reflections of tree-lined, Dutch-architecture-filled streets.Near the HermitageReflections?

The Waag at Nieuwmarkt revealed to us the sad reality of an old building constructed in a city close to sea level. Subsidence was finally taking its toll on the former weigh-house, and what I’m assured was once a fine place for an al fresco coffee was a building site that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Restoration Home.

From there we stumbled into the famous red light district. I don’t consider myself exactly prudish, but I’ve never encountered the sex industry up close before. In Thailand I had absolutely no desire to follow the backpackers and sad old buggers into the sex shows of the Khao San Road, and certainly wouldn’t do it just to cross it off some lame tourism to do list. K said they’d actually cleaned up Amsterdam’s red light district quite a lot since she was last a visitor to the city, and it certainly wasn’t as seedy as I’d been expecting. It was a little strange though wandering around the little old streets, catching a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of some scantily clad lady, perched on a stool in a booth, touting for her next customer. I tried to act like it wasn’t an unusual sight, and couldn’t work out (in such an English way) whether it was rude to walk around and not have a quick look into the odd booth to see what they were selling. We found ourselves following the inevitable group of portly, badly dressed, stag do blokes, overhearing one comment that ‘their bodies are nice, but some of their faces aren’t up to much’. Looking at him, I think the ladies would have thought that at least they had their bodies to be proud of!One of the only directions you can point your camer in in the red light districtAt the heart of the red light district, Amsterdam

And so back to where we came in. It’s not every museum that hosts a drag event in its hallways as you are exploring its exhibits. It was definitely an interesting backdrop to a display of the history of Amsterdam that wasn’t particularly thrilling. The best bit was definitely the Piet Mondrian exhibit (sadly this ended on 5 January). I’ve always known him as the bloke who painted the pictures of the squares, but it was one of his earlier works, The Windmill in Sunlight from 1908, that struck me. You really need to see it in the flesh to understand how incredibly vibrant it is, a computer screen doesn’t do it justice.

Post museum we found ourselves back in Dam Square, wondering what to do next. It was then that we heard a very chirpy brass band strike up. As we looked over to where they were playing we were a little surprised to encounter the extraordinary sight of a group of people with black face paint and curly black wigs dressed in some sort of shiny, colourful minstrel outfits. I don’t really do deep political and social commentary on this blog, it’s just the rambling musings of the things I see and do on my travels, so I’ll just provide you with a link to the BBC’s report of the controversy surrounding “Black Pete” and allow you to make up your own mind about whether he’s outrageously inappropriate or just a harmless old tradition.Black Pete

The day ended with a visit to Pie Minister, where we were served by a lovely transvestite lady, and then a soothing pint in an old man’s pub, complete with an old wooden till.End of day three

Day three was definitely an eye opener.

Saharan sunset, Berber style

Berber sunset

I’m aware that I still have a day of Amsterdam to finish off before I can commence writing about my latest travels, but I thought I’d pop this up as a quick hint about what’s coming next.

Was our Berber guide purposefully posing? Perhaps he always stands silhouetted against the Saharan sunset so that each of his tourist groups can try to get that perfect shot; perhaps I am just turning into a cynical old hag? Either way, bless him for doing so as I love this picture, which was taken last week about 100 km from Morocco’s border with Algeria amongst the dunes of the Sahara desert. It will always remind me of an exceedingly laidback evening, spent just far enough from the trappings of technology and temptation. Perhaps we should all spend a little time on a distant sand dune and think for a while about what is actually important in this life.

My windy valentine

A paddle in the park

You would be hard-pressed not to have seen the storms and flooding in the UK over the last few weeks. The pictures of colossal waves crashing against the UK’s south-western shores, tearing up railway lines, collapsing seafronts and revealing long-hidden fossils have graced the covers of our newspapers daily. We seem to have finally hit a lull, but I’m sure I’m not the only who isn’t convinced we’ve seen the last of it.

However, I am exceptionally lucky not to live in a flood-hit area, and have only had to deal with a collapsed fence and a few very long and depressing commutes. The worst coming on Friday (Valentine’s Day), when, thinking I was practically home, a tree took up residence on the track, closely followed by another a hundred metres further on. One hour gradually became five, and I’m embarrassed to admit I actually had nowhere better to be. Although I was obviously quite chuffed when some running buddies offered to rescue me and feed me chocolates. Typically the train moved on at that point and eventually deposited a very weary, hungry, sober lady home…after the shops had shut for the night.

On Sunday, when I had finally recovered from my depressing Friday journey, I ventured out to the local park. Having heard tales of muddy park runs from my running buddies, I was intrigued to see how it was faring. The above photo is a snap of the park run course, the usual route is the bit on the left of the inquisitive bird. I’m almost grateful for a commute that leaves me too tired to compete.

Amsterdam day two: Begins with Rembrandt and ends with Johnny Depp

Day two started with a walnut and cream cheese bagel in a hip café a stone’s throw from the hotel. Amidst the concert poster wallpaper and a retro 70s soundtrack, we planned our day. Well, actually it was more like an anti-plan. The day would undoubtedly involve lots of walking, some looking at canals, the avoidance of bicycles and a stop for coffee and cake, and a beer or two, but beyond that we were free to roam. Who knew, we might even pop into a tourist attraction along the way. I have a pal who intricately plans his holidays, ensuring every moment is accounted for, unwilling to miss a single cultural or touristic experience wherever he goes. And whilst sometimes I also travel that way, in December I was tired. I had spent nearly four months working solidly on an incredibly unforgiving project, I didn’t want to think or to plan. I was happy just to wander where each day took me, and thankfully K seemed content to do the same.

So we travelled a different route back to the city centre, through Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square). The square was named in 1876 after a centrally positioned statue of the man himself; however, his likeness no longer gazes down from its plinth across an empty garden. In 2006, in celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday, a three-dimensional bronze representation of De Nachtwacht (The Nightwatch) joined him. The sculpture of that most famous of Dutch paintings toddled off on its travels for three years, visiting the US and Russia, but is now back and providing hours of potential profile picture-taking fun for each passing tourist. The display is a perfect backdrop for some comedy posing, particularly at a time when the human race with all of its digital photo-obsessed selfie-taking seems more vain and self-absorbed than ever.Rembrandtplein

Just down the road from Rembrandtplein is the Bloemenmarkt (flower market). Founded in 1862, it is apparently the world’s only floating flower market. I think I was expecting to be overwhelmed by a sea of colourful blooms, but, and probably rather obviously, the market mostly flogs bulbs and an array of souvenir tat, from fridge magnets to painted clogs. I was a little disappointed. Walking down the side of the stalls took about ten minutes, but at least the weather was good, and so, with gorgeous blue skies bringing everything into sharp focus we promenaded around the cafes and boutique shops of Amsterdam, looking for a suitable coffee and cake stop.Bloemenmarkt

Down one route they were fixing a canal bridge, holding back the water to allow people to work on its foundations. It looked so strange, one moment there was water, and the next there was not. We passed through one slightly less than salubrious area, covered with graffiti, but very artistic graffiti. We finally rested our feet at a café opposite a marijuana shop, taking the time to people watch through the window.Holding back the watersHere kittyCafe

After lunch (yes cake was lunch) we took the ferry across to the northern bank of Amsterdam’s waterfront, to the Eye Film Institute. We travelled by what I think was supposed to be a pedestrian and bike ferry, but were also joined rather incongruously by a really odd little electric car. We would see a number of these tiny transports, generally parked up on pavements around the residential districts. They struck me as a bit pointless in a city where the bicycle is so obviously king.To the EYEEYE Film Institute

The institute was hosting a film festival, but as well as showing films it also houses a cinematography museum and is an incredible piece of architecture, a clear contrast to the canal houses of the Dutch Golden Age of central Amsterdam. We briefly admired the view from the café, visualising a crisp glass of white wine on the waterside balcony on a summer’s day. But, summer it was most definitely not, so having completed our musings we jumped back on a returning ferry.Contrasting architecture

It was a short hop from the ferry stop behind Central Station, down past the Christmas market to Dam Square. The palace, situated on the west side of Dam Square, opposite the war memorial and next to Nieuwe Kerk, was built as a city hall in the seventeenth century, initially becoming the royal palace of King Louis Napoleon and later the Dutch royal household. Entry cost €10 and was worth taking time out of the cold to view the plush interior, particularly the Citizens’ Hall, overlooked by the mighty Atlas bearing the weight of a celestial globe, and the Tribunal, in which death sentences were once proclaimed.War memorialThe Palace

Day was rapidly transitioning into dusk as we left the palace and headed for Jordaan, Amsterdam’s arty neighbourhood. Our feet were aching but we had to traipse further before finding an acceptable drinking establishment: the Wester, opposite Westerkerk. With a large Heineken in hand, the world was eventually right again.

Having missed out on pizza the night before, we found ourselves eating in a very cramped and slightly tatty Italian restaurant just behind the Amsterdam Museum. It wasn’t glamorous, it didn’t have even a hint of shabby chic charm, but the food was ok, the carafe of wine palatable and the service efficient enough. It was not, however, a place in which to hang around for the dessert menu and so we departed, back to the hotel, with a pit stop at Lidl for beer and snacks. It’s not a very rock and roll admission, but instead of a crazy night out in what must surely be one of Europe’s wildest capital cities we retreated to our room and the slightly tamer entertainment of ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’, starring a delightfully oddball Johnny Depp and the still huskily sexy Antonio Banderas.

Day two was done.