Monday, July 2, 2012

A (Quiet) Gem in Alentejo

When you live in one of Lisbon's pretty little seaside towns getting away from the crowds of locals and tourists is at times almost impossible, which is what made the little town of Évora roughly an hour away from Lisbon (or 2 hours by bus) in Alentejo such a little gem.

In Évora, keen to get some good quality, tranquil nature walking into our timetable my husband enthusiastically asks our hotel receptionist "where can we go for a hike around here?" the receptionist  looks at us like we're mad and suggests another town 40km away where we can see a charming little town on a hill and have a coffee in one of the several charming cafe's. I didn't get the impression that walking is a national pastime here, actually, a couple of weeks earlier we found locals asking us why on earth we would possibly want to walk from Cabo da Roca to Sintra when we could easily drive there... but the Sintra forest is one of the prettiest forests I've seen in Europe and walking through there is well worth skipping a car for a day. And as it happens walking in Évora is also worth skipping the car and driving to the next town for coffee. Just outside the town you can follow a path along a 9km ancient aqueduct - the Água de Prata Aqueduct or Aqueduct of Silver Water built between 1531 and 1537. The walk takes you through some beautiful countryside with stunning orange, yellow and red hues speckled with green cork trees and the occasional white farm house.

Images by Mats Stafseng Einarsen.

Looking back on Évora

Though you don't have to get into the countryside to enjoy peace and quiet because Évora itself lacked the crowds and had a tranquil quiet vibe all along it's charming narrow streets making it perfect for a quaint little weekend away.

Templo de Diana


Must eat: local food in the countryside always has a tendency to blow my mind and the regional porco preto surely didn't disappoint but an interesting (and tasty!) regional dish that is a must try is the Alentejo gazpacho, chopped tomato, cucumber and green pepper are immersed in iced water and olive oil and then sprinkled with oregano, it comes with a side of bread for dipping. It was like drinking a Greek salad, and it definitely went down easy in the scorching 35c degrees and even easier with a delicious glass of white wine also from the region.

Alentejo style gazpacho

Stay: Albergaria do Calvario a beautifully decorated boutique hotel with friendly staff, excellent service and a delicious breakfast offering the best local produce.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Morocco - Assault on the Senses

Our overland trip from Marrakesh to Lisbon started with an explosion on our senses the moment we arrived in Casablanca and made our way to Marrakech. The smells, the sounds, the sights were all different, chaotic and overstimulating. Morocco was the first country truly outside my cultural bubble and the culture shock I felt was as claustrophobic as the narrow covered streets within the Medina walls.  

After working our way overland into Spain we were exhausted, exhausted from all the scams, all the hassles, all the garbage and all the foul smells, but at the same time strangely fulfilled - we finally stepped outside our comfort zone and got a taste of adventure again.

Morocco is a country of contrasts - it is ugly yet beautiful, chaotic yet peaceful.   

Morocco is ugly. One of the first things I noticed on arrival was the sheer amount of garbage floating around, it is everywhere and I mean everywhere, so much so that halfway through our journey we realised although great for sharing with our friends and family and for displaying on our walls, our photographs weren't really capturing all the truth and if we looked back on them in 30 years they wouldn't be a real representation of our Morocco adventure, so we decided to also start capturing the ugly truth and our photos suddenly got much more interesting. 

Shepherd among the garbage in the Rif Mountains

Chaotic rooftop in Essaouira

Marrakech Medina

Morocco is beautiful. There are details and colors carved within the Medina walls that just leave you stunned and architecture that leaves you breathless. The call to prayer is eerily beautiful and a constant reminder that you're in an exotic destination. Outside the cities there is nature that is simply wild and beautiful.   

Details in the Medina of Fez

Details in Rabat

Intense color on Riad walls

Cat takes refuge under lush bougainvillaea

Another cat takes refuge in a broken pot

Beautiful Azrou from afar

Beauty. The Rif Mountains

Beauty. Shepherd in the mountains

Pink walls of Marrakech

Morocco is Chaotic. Don't stop! Don't stop! It seems as though every time we stopped for any reason we were surrounded and hassled by beggars and absolutely everyone who had something to sell. Medina's and souq's are especially overwhelmingly chaotic on all levels: they are cramped, loud, smelly and colorful, they are never ending and winding. Shop owners yell at you, shop owners hassle you, people beg, loud music beats from Berber drums, colors stimulate you, stray cats everywhere, the smell of piss and shit overwhelms you, the smell of fresh leather, the smell of meat sizzling. The smell of all of these together. 

Marrakech Souq

Cramped and chaotic Essaouira.

Windblown streets Essaouira

Windblown in Essaouira

Morocco is peaceful. There is nothing more peaceful than seeking refuge from all the chaos of the Medina within the walls of a riad. Quiet, seclusion and a warm welcome with mint tea is the norm. Some of the friendliest hotel hosts we have ever encountered on our travels around the world were in Morocco, many who went out of their way to make sure we were relaxed and well fed.

Riad in Essaouira

Savoring mint tea

Rugs air out on a small quiet street that leads on a secluded nature walk
Stray cat in Azrou

Morocco is truly an adventure but you will need a thick skin, street smarts and a good sense of humor. Be warned and be prepared because every day is overwhelming in so many ways.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Box of Sweets in Morocco

The little white boxes of sweets are very recognisable in Morocco and they stir quite a lot of emotions, our little white box caused a commotion, was ogled, begged for and almost stolen.

We bought our sweets in Djemaa El-Fna, which was probably not unlike most nights buzzing with music, snake charmers, henna ladies and hundreds of tourists. Restaurant waiters continuously tried to lure us in to eat and we retreated into one of many, pleased to have a moment to savor the peace of no one approaching us, of no one trying to sell us something, of no one trying to beg us for money, where we could take our time to observe the chaos around us. It was there, after filling our bellies with delicious grilled meat that a cart full of sweets rolled by, we (and the French couple next to us) couldn’t resist the opportunity for something sweet and carby after our protein fest. Noticing this the waiters began to yell at the cake man and shooed him away from their customers.

After some mint tea with a couple of our sweets, we took our time heading home through the souq, browsing the rich coloured spices and fabrics, and politely declining offers from shop keepers, all passing eyes locked on our box of sweets. Soon we realised we were lost, and that one second of stalling is all it took for us to be approached,

”It’s closed it’s closed” the boy lied as he pointed in the direction we were heading.
”It’s OK” we say, we wanted to continue our lazy walk home without a guide.

But he persistently continued to follow and we continued to walk, suddenly he surprised us as he jumped and grabbed at the box, I held on and we were locked in a battle for the sweets that seemed to go on forever, but I won and he scurried off. Stunned I looked at the box in my hands now broken, the sweets a mess but salvageable, and although I no longer wanted them I held onto the box tightly anyway. We hurried on trying to find our way back to our hotel, but we were lost and we were getting deeper and deeper into parts of the souq we didn't recognise. And as shop owners began packing down for the evening I began to feel panic. But it wasn't long before we realised we had been going in circles, and on round three of circling the same streets we found our way back to Djemaa El-Fna where we could breathe a sigh of relief.

Back in the square we allowed a stall owner to pull us in for some spicy tea and cake. Relaxed we walked home via a route that worked for us the night before, a little girl approached us to sell a fluorescent wand, we declined and she raised her fingers to her mouth gesturing for a sweet ”you want a sweet?” I asked, she nodded and was left stunned as I handed her the entire box.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Our Bleh Airbnb Experience

Last month we packed all our things and made the big move, as travel lovers (and insiders) we were excited to try Airbnb for the first time and so we booked ourselves into an apartment for a month while we looked for a more permanent place live. We were so inspired by the honest, cheap and friendly vibe the whole thing seemed to have, and what better than living it up like a local?

We arrived on the weekend and things were looking fantastic, the apartment was spacious and so beautifully decorated, I was in bliss and I swore this was a new, cool way travel. But come Monday morning we were awoken by loud drilling and banging resonating in our bones. Yep, The host neglected to tell us the apartment downstairs was undergoing heavy construction.

After contacting the host we were assured this only had a couple days to go and the rest of the work would only be painting, we were satisfied. But as the days continued the noise also continued. From here on the host was unhelpful and almost impossible to connect with, Airbnb offered no solution so we decided we would live with this, the beach just a couple blocks down would be our quiet retreat when the noise, dust and smells got too much for us.

But 3 weeks in the power company turned off all power to the flat, again the host was difficult to reach, a few hours later after Airbnb managed to get in touch with them the host explained to us that it was due to them not having paid their electricity bill the last few months (seriously?!) they then proceeded to rig us up with electricity by stealing it from the neighboring apartment.

I decided with one week left that it wasn't the end of the world, after all I could warn other travelers by writing an honest review of our experience. But that was not the case, because regardless of the evidence in videos, texts and pictures we sent to Airbnb (by their request) it now seems like they have taken the hosts side and removed our negative review

I understand that this is a delicate issue for Airbnb, after all who is telling the truth? But if Airbnb want to succeed they need to understand that their stakeholder is the customer and not the host.  By all means don't banish the host from doing business after one negative experience, but what is the purpose of a trust based service when you can't leave a negative review?

Before the review was removed we received an apology and a coupon to use for our next booking and we may have given it another shot if our review was not removed, but if this is how Airbnb works then how can we trust that the next booking we make hasn't had a negative review that was simply removed?