Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Notes from a Travel Journal: The Train to Ella

Over the summer, I spent a couple of weeks travelling around Sri Lanka as part of a Gadventures tour. It's an easy way to visit multiple different places within a country without the hassle of trying to work out local transport for yourself.  However, local transport can often provide some of the most interesting experiences, and true to form, the train ride to the little town of Ella turned out to contain some of my absolute favourite moments of the whole trip. So here's the story from my travel journal.

We drove to Nuwara Eliya station, got second class train tickets (110 rupees each, around 50p) and headed to the platform. Our guide explained the procedure to us: the train is almost always busy having come from Colombo and is used a lot by locals to get between villages and by backpackers to get to Ella. So the trick is to barge on the train and grab all the seats we could in a mad stampede. 

We tried and managed to get a seat for everyone... except me as I foolishly gave mine up in favour of looking in a different carriage. There were around ten carriages in total and I wandered through a couple half-heartedly just in case there were any left elsewhere.

And that's when I came across the best seat in the house! The doors to the train were open and I could perch in the doorway, legs hanging out, wind in my hair watching the scenery fly by.

It was magical. Most of the group stopped by at some point to admire the view and take hanging-out-the-door pictures, but I guarded my spot jealously from others. The views were magnificent and the green countryside rolled by, sometimes hidden as we drifted into the clouds, sometimes stretching out for miles below our outstretched feet and fingers. The train was busy, locals hopped on and off, people ran to board as the train lumbered out of stations and boys scurried up and down the carriages selling tea from flasks and assorted pastries. It was magical; being on that train felt like what travel is all about. It was exhilarating feeling the wind sting my cheeks into colour, and drawing my legs in sharpish whenever the train chugged into a rock cut tunnel.

The journey took a couple of hours all told and we heaved our bags off the train. We wandered through the bustling little backpacker town of Ella to our hotel. There were lots of coffee shops, restaurants, twinkly lights and souvenirs; Ella felt very different to other towns we had visited. We set out for dinner in the evening, landing at a spot which was heaving but screening yet another World Cup match. I scarfed down some more kothu rotti and poppadums, chasing it with a daquiri and was quite ready to hit the sheets that night.

Kisses xxx

P.S. This blog post is part of my November travel series; I'm spending the month documenting some of the trips I've taken this year, sharing extracts from my travel journal and my photos. My aim is to do this for each day in November as a personal challenge, to get photos and words put together and record some of my favourite experiences from the year. As the weather turns chilly, it's a lovely feeling to curl up in doors and reminisce about travels past, and plot travels for the future.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Notes from a Travel Journal: Exploring Fes Medina

I spent a week over Easter backpacking around Morocco with my friend Liz.  We had the most brilliant time poking into different places, seeing the famous sights and getting off the beaten track in this wonderful country. But my favourite place was Fes and the twisting, winding, maze-like alleys of the Medina. I have a few stories to share today of our time exploring this fascinating slice of another world.

We made it to Fes and spent the afternoon and evening exploring some of the Medina. We climbed up to the top of a building to have dinner on a roof terrace - the view looked exactly like the sandy-coloured sprawl of rooftops in Aladdin! The Medina is amazing: tiny streets rammed with little shops and stalls selling EVERYTHING. It’s so fascinating, and it’s huge and still sort of follows the old medieval layout so you can wander around and get lost for hours in the most brilliant way, investigating tiny alleys and poking around different districts. It’s so busy and bustling with life, even just having tea in a cafe on the street is like a little adventure.

Trying to buy anything however, is an exercise in haggling. I have my own way of haggling. Which is a nice way to say I am not very good at it. When trying to buy little wooden coasters, priced at 5 dirhams apiece, I thought if I bought a bunch I might be able to get a better price. Working on the assumption that I might manage to get one small coaster for free (bargain!) I went to begin negotiations and pay. However, before I could ask, I was actually offered one small and one large coaster for free, plus a discount on one coaster that was more expensive, plus a free one for Liz. She wasn't even involved in the transaction, so quite how she ended up getting a present I don't know.

It all counts as haggling though, as I ended up paying less.

Later on in the evening, Liz and I were having mint tea outside, opposite a little pastry stall. During our time in Morocco, I had developed a little weakness for these amazing, sweet and nutty treats, and so I went to buy a selection for us to nibble. Unfortunately I failed to have quite enough change so was given one as a present (“un cadeau”). Returning to the stall later that night, armed with more change, I presented my 12 dirhams to the cheery proprietor for as many pastries as that would buy, as I had no idea what they actually cost. I was expecting maybe 4, but was given 6 - winning at haggling! Liz sniggered at my technique, but while I might offer comedy value, I still got a bargain in my opinion.

However, I did genuinely win at taxi haggling, winning a stand-up row in the street late at night, conducted in English, Arabic and French. I refused to pay 250 dirhams for a journey that had cost us 50 previously. The taxi drivers variously insisted they didn’t know where our hotel was, it was too far (how do you know if you don’t know where it is?), the price was normal, late night journeys cost more (they do, but it’s an extra 50% after 8:00pm and anyway, yesterday, the price was only 50 dirhams). Then a waiter in a nearby restaurant offered to come with us for directions; I flatly refused as I am NOT paying a waiter to ride around in a taxi with us. Armed with GPS and the arrogant determination of the worst kind of tourist, we eventually settled on 60 dirhams.

The taxi driver didn’t know where it was after all, but he made it to the vicinity and we just piled out of the cab to walk the rest of the way, which was probably quicker anyway.

The next morning, we set off back into the beckoning folds of the Medina to spend the whole day exploring.  Fes Medina is not somewhere you navigate through. You just go, and recognise that you will eventually pop out again at some point. As a rough guide, going downhill means your going further in, but going uphill means your heading out.  But you might equally end up in a quiet, residential section of dead ends, as we did, with locals very keen to move us along back to the touristy bits where we belong.

Each different section of the Medina is tumbled together, but they each have their own identity.  Silverware, wooden carvings, pottery, ironworks, silks... you name it, it's probably there in Fes. Equally, amid the noise of merchants calling out their wares, you might happen across a serene and peaceful mosque sequestered down an alleyway.

But the most famous of all the districts is the leather area.  A hotch-potch of buildings are clustered around huge, open dye pits that you don't know are there until you get up on the roof. The views are spectacular, geometric shapes spread out below in a patchwork of history, and workers toiled in the coloured pools under the sun. We could see the different processes that go into making the leather soft and pliable and brightly coloured.  The smell is reputed to be horrific, but while it's faintly unpleasant, the rumours were vastly exaggerated in our opinion. We were given little sprigs of mint to smell though, which was entertaining.

After a day cruising the Fes Medina, we stopped at a cafe near the blue gate to watch the world go by and have the now-ubiquitous mint tea. The little tables spilled into the alleyway and as the dark twinkled far above us, life exploded around us. Locals and tourists busied past, stall holders and traders caught up with one another, and there was drama in the form of a large hole in the floor, covered by a sheet of corrugated card with a stool perched on top. Every so often, someone would stumble on the edge of the crater, or walk into the stool, and once a chap came to throw some rubbish down the gap. It was fascinating! 

We also watched people buying an array of different breads from a small shop opposite: the warm tasty vegetable pastries we had enjoyed in Casablanca, the traditional round loaves, giant wheels of bread sliced like cakes...and huge circles of something that looked exactly like stomach lining. Tripe-tastic. Eventually, someone bought some and the proprietor ripped off a handful, rather than cutting or shaping it. It looked gross! So of course, Liz went to get some. She came back with a chunk and said that it was called Crepe Bebe. Baby crepe. Weird. And then she repeated it for me and I realised she was actually saying crepe Berber, which makes more sense. Berber crepe.

It turns out it’s not tripe at all. It’s basically the most enormous floppy crumpet you’ve ever seen.

I felt like an idiot. But it tasted great. I hope I get to return to Fes one day.

Kisses xxx

P.S. This blog post is part of my November travel series; I'm spending the month documenting some of the trips I've taken this year, sharing extracts from my travel journal and my photos. My aim is to do this for each day in November as a personal challenge, to get photos and words put together and record some of my favourite experiences from the year. As the weather turns chilly, it's a lovely feeling to curl up in doors and reminisce about travels past, and plot travels for the future.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Notes from a Travel Journal: The Rocky Mountaineer

During the summer, my parents and I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Canada, which had been a dream of my Dad's for a long time.  However, the main highlight was set to be a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train which rumbles and chugs its way on days-long journeys through the stunning scenery of the Rocky Mountains.  This was our raison d'etre, and so today I'm going to share an extract from my travel journal about the two days we spent on board. Choo choo!

Day 1: Vancouver-Kamloops (284 miles)

We were up early doors (5:15, ouch!) to clear out of our Vancouver Airbnb and get a cab to the rocky Mountaineer station. The adventure had begun! And it immediately felt pretty fancy as our cab was met by station staff who wheeled our luggage through a special Rocky Mountaineer station to check in. They whisked it off and we had an hour to spend helping ourselves to free tea and coffee and listening to a chap serenade us on a grand piano. So classy and civilised!

There was a bag piper at boarding time, a ceremonial train whistle and a call of “all aboard!” and then we were directed to our carriage, CB02, where we walked the red carpet between a pair of flags, met our hosts Caitlin and Lynn and took our seats, across the aisle from each other. The carriage was huge: so light and spacious with comfortable seats and before long, we were given a sparkling peach drink to toast the journey and we were off!

The ride was fascinating: very luxurious, everything was provided and the hosts were so cheerful, constantly walking up and down, bringing refreshments and sharing wonderful bits of information about the incredible views which rolled by. We followed the Fraser river to where it met the Thompson river, following that in turn to Kamloops. We saw ospreys and eagles wheeling overhead or chilling in their giant nests. We saw the rapids of Hell's Gate, rolled over magnificent bridges and spied mile-long freight trains with over 170 carriages, rumbling along the tracks. It was truly magnificent. Fluffy clouds skulked over the mountains, before clearing for the afternoon. In the last hour the heavens opened and a lightning storm lit up the sky.

And while this was going on, we enjoyed tea, fruit salad, a cinnamon scone and yoghurt with berries and granola for breakfast, all served to our seats. I could definitely get used to this!

Then the bar opened (of course - got to have a bar for elevensies) and it was time for a drink: Baileys on ice. And a little snack to go with, so I had mixed fruit and nuts coated in chocolate.

Lunch was a salad (and a huge glass of white wine) followed by salmon in dill sauce with roasted veg and garlic mash, and then finished off with a chocolate brownie served with raspberry coulis and warm chocolate ganache.

The afternoon had time for another tea. And another Baileys and snack (a spicy cracker selection, yum!) and then a freshly backed oat and raisin cookie for the last leg of the trip. Brilliant food and it felt pretty fancy. I approve of any situation where I don't have to go more than an hour without being fed.

A coach transferred us the 2 minute drive to our hotel (we couldn’t possibly walk) and we eschewed dinner (too full), instead taking a walk through Kamloops’ riverside park in the sunshine. Then there was time for a cuppa and a round of Backpacker before bed.

Day 2: Kamloops-Banff (308 miles)

Another early start - we were up at 5:30 to catch our coach back to our carriage, but we were on board, chugging out of the station and toasting our journey by 6:45. Our hosts were cheerful and chirpy as always, and the departure had more familiarity about it this time.

I had a croissant, fruit salad and French toast with maple syrup for breakfast. It was yum!

The scenery continued to be the star of the show as we trailed along beside 7 different rivers. The Trans-Canada Highway wove in and out of our route and we climbed up through the Rockies, gaining elevation by chugging through spiral tunnels cut into the mountain. We spotted rafters out on the Kicking Horse rapids, saw eagles soaring overhead and skimmed along the shores of enormous lakes of fantastic shades of grey and blue.

There were more snacks (hello earl grey mix: a pinch of earl grey leaf tea with banana chips, dried cranberries, raisins, sunflower seeds and yoghurt raisins), my morning baileys, lunch was a slaw with lime and coriander dressing, followed by prawns in a tomato and vegetable sauce served over brown rice risotto and with roasted veg. And there was cheese cake with berry compote to finish. YUM!

There was also time to get on with a bit of travel journalling as the view slipped past. This is most definitely the life. I rounded off my strenuous afternoon with tea with a splash of Baileys, a combo recommended by the hosts. Not bad!

The journey finished with a slightly bizarre sing song to the tune of “We all live in a yellow submarine” except with new words which didn’t really rhyme or scan but sung with enthusiasm by Caitlin, and a singalonga chorus of “we all ride on the rocky mountaineer” There was also a poetry recitation where people in the carriage could read out poems they’d written as a small competition.

It was a jovial and amusing end to the ride and we pulled into Banff in high spirits. What an experience!

Kisses xxx

P.S. This blog post is part of my November travel series; I'm spending the month documenting some of the trips I've taken this year, sharing extracts from my travel journal and my photos. My aim is to do this for each day in November as a personal challenge, to get photos and words put together and record some of my favourite experiences from the year. As the weather turns chilly, it's a lovely feeling to curl up in doors and reminisce about travels past, and plot travels for the future.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Notes from a Travel Journal: Dubrovnik

During the Easter break from school, my partner Pete and I spent a week exploring the delights of Dubrovnik and Montenegro.  Dubrovnik was a city that was new to us both but which everyone seems to say is fantastic. They weren't wrong, and we spent a lovely couple of nights in the Old Town enjoying this beautiful part of the city. So here are a few highlights from my travel journal for this trip.

We arrived in Dubrovnik after a 3:00am start, an obscenely early breakfast and a flight across Europe through which Pete dozed more successfully than I did. We caught a bus to the Old Town and watched as the coastline appeared and the city walls swung into view. We had arrived!

Dubrovnik's charm struck me immediately; cobbled tiny streets striking up and down the coastal cliffs, houses leaning together, clustering under red roofs occasionally giving way in haphazard fashion to wider avenues and open squares. We ducked down a small alley which transformed into a staircase and made it to our lovely hotel at the tail end of lunchtime. Our room was great and I could lean out of the window up high in the rooftops and peer up and down the street and catch the sights and sounds and goings-on of the old town. It was magical.

The sun was shining and it was warm; I changed into a dress, no tights, and Pete donned shorts and we set out for an afternoon adventure! However, we seemed to have mis-timed things a bit: the cable car was closed due to high wind. Which was confusing as it was warm and the air was still, but the cable car man insisted it was too windy at the top of the mountains.

So we explored a little, and visited the Franciscan Monastery and Pharmacy. Built in the 14th centenary, and then subsequently knocked down and and rebuilt in the face of war and earthquakes, it was very peaceful. We peered at various relics and admired the murals, wandering the cloisters. 

The air began to get chilly and there was a spot or two of rain. Not what we were dressed for. But no worries, we continued undeterred and went to get an ice cream. The threat of rain turned into a drizzle and we sauntered through the old town enjoying ever-so-slightly damp ice cream and pondering our next move. Most things were closing for the evening but we weren’t ready for dinner yet. And we were definitely no longer dressed right; cold and drizzly hadn’t really been a factor earlier.

Only one thing for it: head back to the hotel for a nap and a hot shower and head out again later. Perfect!

Some research indicated a wine bar nearby, so feeling refreshed (albeit a bit sleepy) we ventured forth again. I tried a flight of three Croatian wines and Pete opted for beer. Still staying awake, we clambered up and down steps and alleyways until we came across a restaurant we liked the look of, and enjoyed a really delicious dinner.

But we were both so ready to fall asleep once we got back!

Then next morning, we got up bright and early to explore the city walls; the lady at our hotel had advised doing this before the tour buses and cruise ships arrive and flood the place with tourists. And that turned out to be an excellent recommendation.

The city walls encircling old Dubrovnik are impressive: solid, thick, massive and strangely beautifully-built ramparts enclose the little area within, filled with a delicate tumble of terracotta-roofed houses, all made of the same pale stone. The sun jumped in and out behind the clouds, sparkling off the sea as we clambered up and down steps, admiring the views across the rooftops or over the ocean. We certainly earned our breakfast.

Having made the most of our day, we started the evening with a couple of drinks at a little bar, which made surprisingly good Caipirinhas! With a couple of those behind me, we wandered out into the city to find a restaurant. This turned out to be my favourite meal of the whole trip, at a tiny place Pete found on Trip Adviser.

Strolling the streets of Dubrovnik at night was such a treat. The tourists are mostly gone and stepping into little alleys feels a bit like going back in time. You can go up and down steps and round corners, suddenly finding yourself in a hidden square or a wider street with the golden light from restaurant doorways spilling out and the cheerful noise of diners enjoying a meal al fresco. The air was fresh and as night enveloped the old town, it was very peaceful.

Our restaurant claimed to serve a fusion of Asian and Croatian dishes - CroAsian if you will. I admit it sounds dubious, but they gave us a table outside with blankets to put round our shoulders just to keep the edge of a chill away, and we ordered.

We shared some fantastic tacos to start, rich with spices and chillies, chicken and chorizo and smothered in a delicious sauce. Then I opted for zucchini and amaranth balls in a curry sauce, partly because I didn’t know what amaranth was and partly because I sort of hoped it might be like arancini. Well: nailed it. It was amazing, crispy balls with melty middles, a delicious curry sauce with definite Thai influences and I gobbled it up like no one's business. Along with another cocktail. Seemed rude not to. An amazing dinner, and a perfect evening in old Dubrovnik.

Our final morning in Dubrovnik dawned bright and sunny and we packed up our hand-luggage-only possessions and wandered through the old town one last time. It was quiet, the ferry crowds and tour buses not having yet arrived and the sunlight gleamed off cobbles and slabs worn smooth over time by many feet. The old town was bright and light, cheerful in its farewell and we sauntered through the enormous arch of the walls to leave, strolling down to a natural harbour, dominated by the imposing and majestic walls and keeps, and protected and hidden by vast rocky outcrops.

We slid into seats at a harbour-side restaurant enjoying the view, the sunshine, the sound of the waves. Seagulls wheeled around and peered curiously at our breakfast when it arrived. It was a lovely golden morning with wonderful company and a fantastic aspect.

Kisses xxx

P.S. This blog post is part of my November travel series; I'm spending the month documenting some of the trips I've taken this year, sharing extracts from my travel journal and my photos. My aim is to do this for each day in November as a personal challenge, to get photos and words put together and record some of my favourite experiences from the year. As the weather turns chilly, it's a lovely feeling to curl up in doors and reminisce about travels past, and plot travels for the future.