That’s total, not each way, I must stress. The above is the best bit of that journey, the below is why I do it.
I took this in Plockton in the North West Highlands of Scotland in October whilst I was up visiting an old uni buddy. It’s a bit random and very grainy, but the little fella was incredibly jittery when I moved so I had to take a quick snap with my Blackberry whilst not actually looking at the screen in order to make sure I didn’t move too much and cause him to scarper. I don’t know why I automatically say he, as apparently male and female robins, unlike many bird species, actually look identical. He was though, regardless of his real gender, seemingly as happy as I was ensconced by the water’s edge in the beer garden of the Plockton Hotel, enjoying the unseasonal warmth of the late autumn sunshine.
Day five of my Moroccan trip in 2014 involved a ten-hour minibus ride from Fes to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes at Merzouga. The journey was notable for the ever-changing scenery as we crossed the Atlas and approached the Sahara, a stone’s throw from the Algerian border. The landscape, at first dotted with olive trees, gave way to something more barren, a rocky foreground backed eventually by snow-capped mountains. We came upon the dunes a little after sunset, later in the day than planned, and would have to wait until day six to see them properly.
In these early moments of 2015, as I sit here watching the yearly battle of excessive testosterone that is World’s Strongest Man (always a guilty pleasure at this time of the year), I find myself pondering where the coming twelve months will take me. One thing is certain, very shortly I will move to the seaside, not the seaside in the photo above – that’s Essaouira, Morocco – but the great British seaside, all shingly beaches and windy promenades. I’m not sure what makes me to want to live by the sea, I am, after all, absurdly terrified of sharks and other sea-based creatures, particularly those with multiple tentacles. That doesn’t stop me swimming in it obviously, as the fear also provides a lovely dose of endorphins, just marginally defeating the paranoia about being eaten. So aside from that one certainty, in 2015 I will have to steer my own destiny. I will travel more – be that in the UK or abroad; seek out some new running, swimming and triathlon challenges; take more and hopefully better photos; improve my work–life balance so that I can post more regularly; and generally find more interesting ways to enjoy this life.
As today’s British weather bestowed upon us such an abysmal, bone-chilling winter drizzle and failed to brighten from the dusky half-light of early morning, I thought I would counteract the ensuing melancholy by posting a sunny picture. This one was taken not far from Merzouga in south-eastern Morocco way back in February. Admittedly, it looks far hotter than it actually was in the Sahara at that time of year, but, not far from the Algerian border, traipsing around the near-deserted Erg Chebbi dunes, feet sinking delightfully into the sand, with the bountiful blue sky contrasting fiercely against the earthy red tones of the undulating landscape, there was an appealing delusion of warmth. This is the image I will focus on this December as I battle through the crowds of London: the drunken Christmas party revellers, the jaded winter commuters and the wild-eyed seasonal shoppers, all seemingly set on making each day a little bit more difficult for me than it should be. I will not become riled, I will not curse their complete ignorance of their surroundings, instead I will remember the calm that existed amidst the dunes and try to rise above the melee.
In the North West Highlands of Scotland you will find one of my favourite places, possibly in the entire world. Plockton is an exceptionally picturesque village (population 378), situated on the shores of Loch Carron. Sheltered by the Isle of Skye and skirted by the North Atlantic Current, it has a lovely climate in which cabbage palm trees flourish, providing it with a strangely tropical quirkiness.
I first visited as a child, more than 20 years ago, and this autumn, whilst in Scotland visiting one of my absolutely favourite people, I decided to make a side visit to see how it had changed. The most obvious difference was the lack of Highland cattle. Back in the early 1990s, my overwhelming memory was of the large, horned, shaggy ginger beasts wandering freely and slightly alarmingly through the village. Sadly, for visitors at least, the cattle have now been banished, by the aid of a cattle grid, punished for bumping folk’s cars and trampling their veggie patches. Regardless, the village that once inspired me as Lochdubh, the fictional backdrop for the TV programme Hamish Macbeth, is still incredibly charming and offered the perfect brief sojourn from my holiday in the Highlands.
Riad Reda was lovely, but also situated right next door to the local mosque. At 5 a.m. the muezzin took up the call to prayer as loudly as if a speaker had been positioned directly above my head. As evocative as it was, twenty-five minutes later, when he finally finished, I was keen to resume my slumber.
Thankfully the sight of breakfast swiftly brushed aside any lingering feelings of sleep-deprived grumpiness. We feasted on pastries, pancakes, boiled eggs and pistachio flavoured yoghurts, and washed it all down with fresh orange juice and strong black coffee. At 9 a.m. when our guide Hakima arrived for our day tour of Fes I was once again ready to take on the world.
We started outside the Royal Palace. Apparently there’s one in every town, with the one in Fes covering 80 hectares of walled-off land. Only being able to imagine what regal treasures actually lie inside, we stood out front and just admired its big shiny doors.
Our next stop was a panoramic view of Fes. A remarkable vista. A scene perfect for an annoyingly difficult thousand-piece puzzle: a vast sprawl of higgledy-piggledy buildings in varying shades of white, crammed together in tiny streets. Mohamed handed around his contact details again at this point, in case we should get lost in the endless warren of alleyways; it was not exactly encouraging.
First, though, we stopped at a tile and pottery workshop to admire the hand-made pots and mosaics. The time and effort put into every item – each mirror, table, plate and decorative fountain – was very impressive, but I was less impressed by the prices, as they were all sadly out of my range. Fair enough when you consider the man hours employed to create them.
Finally we hit the medina. Hakima led us in via a tiny backstreet. If you were blessed with a rugby-player’s shoulders you would have struggled to walk down it head on. How do they move furniture into the houses on either side of such a place? We had already seen from our visit to the restaurant the previous evening that the outside of a medina house doesn’t generally reflect the treasures hidden within.
The streets eventually opened up and we had to keep our wits about us, one lingering glance down a side street, one moment spent not paying attention to our brisk guide and we would have lost her, possibly never to be seen again.
The fruit and veg market was first, followed by the fish market and a tiny shop covered in squirming snails, many trying to escape becoming someone’s next meal by slithering up the walls. The meat market wasn’t great for my veggie sensibilities, with grey, spongey cows’ stomachs hung up to, well, to do whatever cows stomachs are hung up to do in a Moroccan marketplace. Everywhere we walked we heard the call of “ballach” as a heavily laden mule or a man pushing a well-stocked trolley would purposefully surge by. The linen and metal markets provided a momentary relief from the bustling food markets and we tried to avoid the puddles and the buckets of chemicals employed in the dying and polishing processes.
We briefly admired the peaceful tiled entranceway to the library before moving on to a tannery. Fes is famous for its leather goods and there are numerous places where you can climb up to view the tanners in action, treating the animal skins and then dying their hides in a series of clay vats above the cityscape. We were each given a handful of mint to sniff as the process can obviously smell a bit ripe. It wasn’t actually that bad and we were rewarded with a great view of the tanning process. Obviously, where there’s industry, there’s also a shop, so on our way back down we were traipsed through a series of floors where we could have bought leather jackets, bags and slippers, in a series of wonderful designs and colours. Being a miserly lot, we weren’t particularly forthcoming with our cash and left empty-handed.
Next came the Madrasah, another area of welcome calm; the combination of mosaic tiling, carved wood and Arabic text decoration was undoubtedly very beautiful. Then Lunch, at Le Patio Bleu: a tapas-style starter – salad maroccaine – followed by cous cous and veggies. Dessert was a selection of fruit, served incredibly dextrously by a man with no fingers.
By 4 p.m., when we arrived back at the hotel, we were thoroughly disorientated and yet very skilled at bartering for things we didn’t really want to buy.
Our evening being our own, my room buddy C and I chose to hunt down the local doughnut seller. That morning from the minibus window we had seen some children snacking on tasty looking pastries and had been coveting them ever since. Once found, we thoroughly enjoyed our surprisingly light, excessively sugary and deliciously cheap makeshift dinner as we strolled back to the palace to enjoy the big brass doors glowing in the evening sunshine.
Having discovered there wasn’t much more to see beyond the palace, we trekked back past our hotel and into the local medina. Beyond the back door of the palace, we found ourselves in a side road, on one side of which was a park and on the other…a bar! Having very quickly calculated that bar must mean alcohol, we were over the road in a flash and enjoying a Casablanca beer as the sun set.
Day three ended very smugly and with a minor detour for a second doughnut.