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Days 97, 98, 99 Fes

sunny 33 °C

The night we arrived in Fes was a whirl wind. Mohammed first dropped us at the bus station so we could pop in and buy our tickets for the remaining portions of our trip and then transported us to the the edge of the Medina.

We bid goodbye with heartfelt thanks and were immediately handed over to the custody our Riad host, also Mohammed, who met us at the car and guided us to our accommodation. Instantly, we are struck with how different Fes Medina is to Marrakesh.

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We walk a mere 150 m of narrow lanes 2 m wide, through a crowded lane of shops 4 m wide and finally down a darker lane to Riad Taryana. Once inside its like stepping through a portal to an alternate reality. We take a moment to absorb the beautiful mosaic tiled courtyard, with three floors and with internal facing balconies. It's so quiet and we hear absolutely no noise of the bustling turmoil outside on the streets of the Medina.

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Mohammed gave us the 10 minute briefing of all things Fes plus making arrangements for a one day walking tour with a guide from the Fes Tourist Board assuring us, because its endorsed by the Tourist Board, there's absolutely no obligation to buy anything...yeah right!

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The next day, after a delicious breakfast, our guide, Fouad takes us for a walk around the Medina. We booked the 3 hour option (rather than the whole day) but very quickly realised 3 hours was an illusion and we weren't getting home until the end of the day.

The Medina is built on a hill and we are staying near the top at the famous Blue Gate.

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Unlike Marrakesh, most of the restaurants are centred at the top of the Medina, near the Blue Gate. But, like Marrakesh, the spruckers are equally skilled at "encouraging" us to dine with them. One fellow feigned huge dishonour when we declined to dine with him, instead having tea at another restaurant, so we were "obliged" to dine with him on our final night.

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It's a couple of kms to get to the other end. As it is Friday so a significant amount of shops are closed and it is easier for us to walk around. Some of the laneways are only shoulder width and we wander the quiet streets chatting with Fouad.

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Whilst there are many wonderful things about Morocco, it is a developing nation, where poverty and social welfare are constant challenges. People with disabilities or those unable to work, are forced to beg, relying on Alms from good Muslims, as pensions or government help is minimal. What is most heartbreaking, especially for Jen, are the street cats. We know that they love cats and dogs, but unfortunately lack of desexing means there are way too many kittens and cats on the street. We regularly see dishes of water and food scraps left out, they are all too thin and likely need worming. Jen struggles to resist trying to feed them all as it only exacerbates the issue. We hope that, with time and development, the people will have enough for their own necessities and pet care should follow.

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Fouad gives us a quick history lesson of Morocco and in particular its French history.

In the 19th Century the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire. As the world became more mobile, the Ottomans struggled to manage the area from Istanbul. Pirates roamed the coastline and with various European states holding small regions, English in Tangier, Spanish elsewhere and the French wanting a bit too, based on the strategic location of the Mediterranean but the Berber and Bedouin tribes still independent. After a number of conflicts with France (based on French occupation of Algeria), Spain and Germany, the Treaty of Fes was signed in 1912 making Morocco a Protectorate of France. Dissent grew until World War II with nationalist movement gaining momentum. They believed an Allied victory would pave the way for Moroccan Independence. In January 1944, the Istiqlal (Independence) Party released a manifesto demanding full independence, national reunification, and a democratic constitution. Unfortunately, the French refused to accept the manifesto and continued colonial rule. Nearly 9 years later, in December 1952, riots brought a watershed to tensions between Morocco and France. France exiled the Sultan to Madagascar and outlawed the political party. Active opposition to French control escalated and the French were forced to negotiate their exit from Morocco. So, whilst full independence wasn't achieved until 1956, the Manifeste De L'Independence, is still celebrated.

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We walk to Al Quaraouiyino University, approximately a 1000 years old and the oldest continually operating University, the first to award educational degrees in the world. It was a university for the education of theology and philosophy (which in centuries past captured all doctrines of medicine, mathematics, astronomy etc). But now it is exclusively for the studies of Islamic religion. It is listed as a UNESCO site and currently being extensively restored. It also sits beside the main river to flow through the Medina.

The river retreated underground a long time ago, and is heavily polluted. As we learn throughout Morocco, there is considerable investment in infrastructure and improvements. The river has been reinstated above ground and the next step is to address the pollution to restore the glory of the river.

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We take a walk through Bou Inania Medersa one of the oldest theological colleges in all of Morocco.

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Like Ben Yousseff in Marrakesh, there is a quiet calmness and a respectful solitude to this place.

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Next stop nestled in amongst the riads and shops is the leather tannery. This place is where the raw hides of sheep, cow, camel and goat come to be cleaned, washed, coloured and dried and then ready to be made into everything leather. The conditions for the workers are pretty bad as most of the process is manual and they have to step inside vats of tanning chemicals and colours to soak the leather with their feet. Today the smell is tolerable but they still give us some fresh mint leaves to mask the smell.

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We are taken down from the roof top into 2 floors of leather goods ranging from jackets, bags, shoes, sandals, slippers, belts, all in numerous styles and colours. They do look beautiful but leather products are something we don't need to buy. We thank the guide there and we get away from the assistants very polite but still a sell job. Looking at an entire wall of every type of leather jacket imaginable, the guide assures us that if we can't find one we like, one can be custom made in three hours! As we have travelled now for about 8 days we have heard all the typical ways the locals try and entice you to buy something. It's very subtle and always starts off "Moroccans want to talk and just chat, please come in and have a mint tea...if you don't like then you don't buy....I will not pressure you!", "oh you are Australian, we love Australians". Its quite an art form.

We walk near the largest mosque in Fes, Kairouine, which holds about 22,000 people and has 14 exits. We take a peak inside the the beautiful archways, white and tiled walls, and rugs. The mosques are a haven for people to sit, wash and get out of the heat. As its Friday, 1 pm prayers are the main session of the week with the mosque filling almost to capacity.

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After, we get caught at an exit as hundreds leave after prayers and its like being in a Beijing subway human traffic jam. The lanes have specific sections that they make and sell local products, e.g. Copper, timber furniture.

This is Place Seffarine, named for its coppersmith shops, now closed following Friday prayers, for the rest of the day.

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Fountains are a lifeblood of the towns. The water is not safe for tourists but locals are accustomed to the mineral content. Many shops host a container of water out front for any local to pause and quench their thirst.

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This place was a historic trading post and hostel where caravans could dock, tether their camels and refresh.

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After managing to successfully evade buying leather goods earlier, we thought we had sussed out Moroccan shop keepers, but our next stop was the artisan co-op rug palace. The owner first takes us upstairs for a 360 degree view of the city, pointing out landmarks.

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He draws our attention to the University and its tower which was used by philosophy students centuries ago to gaze to the heavens to try to figure out the world, much like Galileo did and diligently carry out their studies in the rooms below the green roofs.

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We knew he was softening us up, but it was nice to talk to him about the history of Fes and also current issues - his sadness at the pain in the world wrongly committed in the name of Islam, experiencing the world through satellite dishes and modern day issues.

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Once back downstairs, the mint tea magically appears, we are invited to sit for a moment, and very quickly beautiful rugs are laid out, layer upon layer in front of us, we're happily caught in the Web. He is working on Jen and the "women always picks the colour" and " it's something for life", "she is a beautiful woman" "the woman is the head of the home, you can't be successful in the world if you don't have a happy home" . Quickly the carpets are being flung in front of us and Jen and I know we are in trouble. Fortunately the night before we agreed that we will buy a rug to complete our collection of rugs at home so we select two carpets and enter the game of bargaining. Fortunately these rugs are better quality than the ones in the Merzouga Coop.

The negotiations are fairly quick and we have our carpet rolled up, and money exchanged (including an escort to the ATM), and everyone is happy. The carpet we bought will go perfectly with the other Persian rugs we have at home and it's a great memory for us of our time in Morocco.

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Lunch is down a small laneway that we would have never found ourselves and we enter a beautiful Riad style courtyard made into a restaurant. The decor is stunning, the tiles vibrant and food delicious, and plentiful - this was just one entree (we shared).
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And every meal is followed with Moroccan Whiskey (Mint Tea) which is perfect.

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We agreed with our guide to grab a petit taxi and go to sites outside the Medina. First stop is on top of the hill, with ancient Kasbah ruins, adjacent to the Medina to get a full view of the vastness of the Medina. We get an appreciation of how packed in are the buildings and how far the old city wall goes.

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We drive to the Royal Palace and wander through the the main street of the Jewish quarter. Contrasting Moroccan Islamic architecture, the buildings here have the balcony on the outside. No Jewish people live here anymore, having moved to a new region of Fes. Unlike the Middle East and other parts of North Africa, Muslims, Jews and Christians are able to live in harmony and without conflict.

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One thing the Moroccans we meet are very quick to emphasise on how tolerant they are of other religions especially Jewish and Christianity. They want us to know the ISIS Muslims and the ones in Nice and Paris are not real Muslims, they are just crazy people. From what we have seen to date and heard we believe this is the case. Jen and I think it is definitely not extremist and the current King Mohammed VI has made significant changes to the rights of women, education, dress codes, empowering women to positions in parliament and professional life. He is well educated and enlightened about the future - subsidising solar panel farms and investment in irrigation and water reticulation, and has even forced the closure of the manufacture of plastic bags to address rubbish.

It's back into the taxi and we take a ride up the hill to the co-op ceramic and tile factory. This place was amazing. It is where they make all the Moroccan style plates, bowls, cups, tiles, fountains, table etc.

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First stop is the pottery wheel and Jen is asked to have a go. She jumps at the chance especially as a 6 ft young good looking Moroccan with strong hands was about to give her a lesson on how to use the wheel. I instantly think of Unchanged Melody, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost and roll my eyes. Jen is just grinning.....what!

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We are taken to the kilns and learn the interesting fact the ovens are actually fuelled by burning olive pits and hay and get to required 1200 degrees C.

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It's onto the painter who has numerous pieces in front of him. Everything is painted by hand with precision accuracy. We learn about the dyes and that this purple dye turns blue when fired.

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The painter grabs Jen's hand and paints a henna style design and her name in Arabic. This guy probably does this to very pretty girl that comes by but it still has Jen grinning from ear to ear with her signature smile.

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The assistant shows us where the workers chip all the tiles into pieces for all the mosaics for walls, fountains, tables and ponds.
These guys spend all day with a small pick and chip the tiles to various shapes and sizes, beside a guy assembling a mosaic fountain - all done in reverse and then grouted.

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Its now into the show rooms and see all the various products and the fountains capture our eyes. The colours are so vibrant and we think how good would that look mounted some how on the wall next to our pool at home. Quickly reality kicks back, there is no hope we get in our backpack. The assistant assures us they can deliver!

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We resist but take plenty of photos of the styles and make mental note of the idea for when we redo the tiles at home. We have to buy something - two little bowls carefully wrapped hopefully make it home in one piece.

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On our way back, at this fountain in the roundabout, amongst peak hour traffic, this darling fellow was gleefully splashing about enjoying the cool water in the heat.

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Well that was the a full day of great sites, loads of facts and something very unique. Jen and I loved the whole day, our guide Fouad was fantastic and we have fallen in love with Fes.

Unfortunately we've succumbed to gastro so we don't venture too far. We wandered nearby streets and look for some small souvenirs for home. My mate Mike has requested a Fes from Fes. We stroll down one of the two main lanes that have the general stuff you can buy but the thing that surprises us is that virtually nobody wears the fes and its hard to find a shop that even sells them. We find the things to buy and go have lunch to develop a shopping strategy. As most of you know I am the introvert and Jen is the extrovert but somehow I got to be the designated negotiator, even though Jen does this stuff for a living, go figure! We go back out for dinner and shopping and successfully mange to bargain on one set of gifts. However, we were up against a seasoned pro - a 12 year old boy and I knew I needed all my years of bargaining experience to say I got a good deal but he was highly accomplished and tried all his best tricks. I used the old method of leaving the shop as the price was too high. After about 30 minutes we beat him down from approximately $90 to a more realistic $28. Success!

We have finished with Fes and loved every minute of it. It is a fun place, few tourists, very traditional and again super friendly. Next morning we do some final photo shots from the roof of our Riad. Time to say goodbye.

The next day is a travel day by bus from Fes to Chefchaouen, a four hours trip. The trip was uneventful other than it was 45 minutes late leaving Fes and got later as we went due in part to a comfort stop right beside an open air BBQ. Tried as we could, we were bewildered as to how it worked. You buy a portion of mince or cuts of meat at the butcher, pay by weight, then hand it to the BBQ guys you press it into wire racks and cook it over hot coals, then proceeding to turn and shuffle through the cooking process, along with at least a dozen other racks, without tags or labels and then shoving them in loaves of bread and handing over to the owner. How on earth do they keep track of who's meat is whose. Minimal delays were encountered at the next comfort stop, again for reasons unknown, the bus driver refused to allow a grandmother board and ignoring her as she proceeded to follow the bus banging on the side as he eased out of the chaotic car park. We don't speak Arabic but it didn't take much to understand the abuse she was hurling at him.

As we come in the hot and windy bus station we realised the town is perched uphill and the Medina is straight up from the bus station and we need to walk up a road at 20% gradient.

Our Riad is above the square and we settle into our three days in Chefchaouen.

Posted by tszeitli 10:18 Archived in Morocco Tagged food culture history shopping friendly fes negotiations gastro Comments (1)

Real Madrid - Nos encanta España!

Days 73 to 76 Madrid

sunny 38 °C

The weather is HOT and we don't have air conditioning so trying to stay cool is a challenge - which we happily meet. We have AWESOME bars, restaurants and yummy food on our door step.

Venturing out for dinner on our first night, we fell in love with the area. This is the Real Spain!

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Roaming the Plaza del Sol with street performers whose skills are on a whole other level, mariachi bands who are always off key, street vendors selling anything and everything. The crews selling knockoff handbags, sunglasses, hats and shoes, with eyes constantly scanning the crowds for police, laying out their fake wares on sheets tethered at each corner, ready to be whisked up and flee with the sacks thrown over a shoulder at a moment's notice.

I made friends with the local general store owner who happily sells me Beers, Wine, Cava - Jen's new favourite drink - and as I discovered, Spanish Sherry, the renowned Tio Pepe's nonetheless, which I thought was Dry White Wine, but was actually not too bad, over ice.

The TV has a tragically awesome HIT-TV channel streaming current and recently current hits. Neither Jen or I have watched music videos lately, so we receive an education on what the Kids are Doin' these days! It reminds Jen of Saturday morning Video Hits.

Our Apartment overlooks a bustling street right off Plaza del Sol which is busy 24 hours a day. After our daily siesta, we open our double french doors (once the extreme heat between 3 -5 pm passes) and let the sounds and smells of Madrid envelop us, and then we head out for dinner.

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Our first morning it's off to do a Segway tour to get a quick feel of Madrid and also go to the Bernabéu, home stadium of Real Madrid, voted by FIFA as the greatest football club of the 20th Century. I actually thought it should have gone to Collingwood but I will let that slide. Given it was FIFA, voting had to have been rigged.

We met our guide to get our instructions and crash course in How to Segway.

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We have some apprehension as to the process of hopping on one of these contraptions. But how hard could it be we asked ourselves? The sum total of our briefing comprised the guide saying, "Step on, here is the stick, push forward, it goes forward, pull back it goes backwards, move left it goes left, move it right it goes right, OK, practice over there." directing us to an adjacent laneway.

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One minute later, "Okay, be careful, leave 1 m space, don't hit anything and let's go!". Great safety talk!

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Vamos, We're off.

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[A bit difficult to take photos on Segway but this was the most quintessential Retro building I've ever seen]

We then speed for the next 45 minutes zipping through the streets of Madrid - with our guide pointing out key city features - to arrive at the famous Bernabéu.

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For the Non-World Game followers, Real Madrid is Cristiano Ronaldo's current team and has been by far the most successful football club in the world, ever.

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11 Copas de Europa, 19 Copas del Rey, 32 Campeonatos de Liga Champion, 1 Copa Mundial de Clubes de la FIFA. The stadium holds 85000 people and when full of screaming supporters it would be intimidating.

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The Tour is very well done, starting with a view from the top section.

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What we would ordinarily call the NoseBleed Section, but when en Español...

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The tour is very well put together.

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The anticipation builds as we enter the trophy room, a multi media extravaganza, with display cabinets overflowing with trophies and memorabilia through the ages, video displays of past and present players, famous matches and the history of the Club.

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The presentation was interactive, and walking through the area it gave you a huge sense of awe and the tradition behind it.

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I could have spent all day in there watching the clips from historic matches and the theatre of penalty shoot outs and great goals.

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I have previously talked about the great Puskas, one of my father's idols and a Hungarian Legend. He played 254 games for Real Madrid and won 3 European Cups, so a little link back to my Dad.

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A most impressive collection of silverware.

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All of this culminates in the room everyone comes to see. As we walk the tunnel, through pulsing lights and the sound of a thumping heartbeat, gets everyone aroused.

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We enter the darkened sacred inner sanctum which houses Eleven gleaming Copas de Europa,
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along with Ballon d'Ors awarded to legends of the game each year.

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No other side has come close to matching the success of this team, ever. FIFA therefore created a special award, Copa Mundial de Clubes de la FIFA for the Best Club of the 20th Century.

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We get to wander the change rooms.

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There's plenty of twinkling eyes and giggles from the girls, knowing that Ronaldo has been naked - RIGHT HERE!

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Compared with the visitors quarters, they do have a very nice set up.

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"We never want to look too far ahead. We take one game at time!"

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Then out through the ramp to ground level - where the magic happens.

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Looking back up into the stands, its easy to see this as the modern Colosseum where today's gladiators fight with honour and determination (and for rewards far greater than any Roman Emperor could have imagined) to the fanatical cheers of passionate supporters.

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I was in heaven but Jen also got a kick out of seeing what a club like Real Madrid is like and how the locals love this Club so much.

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Having Ronaldo, probably one of the two of the best players in world toady, also helps.

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Its a wonderful rivalry between Madrid with Ronaldo and FC Barcelona with Messi - Spain is almost the Futbol centre of the Universe. I visited a few sports shops in both Barcelona and Madrid. Not surprisingly, they stock almost exclusively EVERYTHING FC Barcelona or Real Madrid, and very little else.

The ride on our Segway was just as quick back as we spent a little longer at the Stadium as we planned. You all will be happy to know we got back safely, no accidents, no falls, no near misses.

Lifestyle in Spain is very different to back home. People wake up late, things slow down between 2 and 5 pm, and come alive around 9pm. Dinner kicks off with a sangria and normally finishes around 11.30 pm.

When in Spain....do as the locals.

Next day, two words......day off.

Slept in! Headed out at lunchtime to something that should be introduced in Australia. It's Museo de Jamon. Vegetarians avert your eyes.

Basically a delicatessen with a stand up bar serving Bocadillas (sandwiches) as simple as can be with gloriously rowdy waiters yelling your order to the crew in the back.

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Within moments, fresh bread, with your choice of cured ham cut off the bone and local cheese for €1.50 and €.90 Cervesa appears in front of you. No butter, mustard, lettuce or other fancies.
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You get a little appetiser when you order (a bowl of crisps, a mini hamburgesa or olives) .

There are hundreds of smoked and cured leg hams ageing in tiers hanging from the ceiling.
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The noise and chatter is a glorious messy atmosphere.
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Local workers, office people and tourists roll in and out all day. We ate here a couple of times - the Bocadillas were amazing and for the sheer entertainment of the waiters and the customers. Today we got takeaways heading off for a picnic in the park for a siesta under the trees.

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The park is near the Palacio Real Espania and the Catedral Al Mudena.

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Reminds me of Buckingham Palace

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Despite it being baking hot, its cool in the gardens.

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Back to our apartment with a stop off near the Plaza de Mayor coming across the Peluqueria de Caballeros. What's that you ask?

It's a barber shop and I needed a haircut. Apparently this is one of (or could in fact be) the oldest barber shop in Madrid.

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No one spoke English but a few gestures, and the barber taking one look at my head, we were good to go. The old photos on the wall of well dressed and likely important clients, telling of its history as the prime barber shop of of its day. Once it was a long room with 30 barber chairs lined up. Whilst Barber shops like these are making a resurgence back home, its a place where tradition is its pride, not a fad for hipsters. Great value at with €12 euros and the barber was meticulous with the little hair I have.

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Emboldened by our Segway hire, we elected to hire bikes for the day. A five hour bike ride around the outer area of Madrid.

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As Madrid is very bicycle friendly, it was nice to be able to stop and start at will and especially enjoy two huge parks that are only 2 km out from Plaza Del Sol to roam around.

We visited: Palacio de Cristal, Garriera De St Jeronimo, Paseo De Prado, Estanque, Templo de Bod, and back to the Palaceo Real Espania for a lovely lunch of Tapas.

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We were just in time for Turtle Feeding

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"I like Turtles"
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Dinner was in our local street that we've come to love and it had to be Paella. Again we washed down our food with sangria, and the paella traditional and delicious with the streets always alive.

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Overall we found Madrid to be closer to what we hoped Spain would be. Food, culture, vibrant, alive, friendly and great place to hang out. Our Spanish is kind of getting better but so many people speak English now, we often get tongue tied, as we figure out what we want to say in our heads, start to speak only for them to answer in English - so a weird Spanglish ensues.

Next stop will be Casabermeja, most likely the opposite as this small town is away from the tourists and very traditional.

Travel day to Casabermeja. If you go to the map, it's 1 hour bus ride north from Malaga which is the start of the Costa Del Sol. The main beaches run from Malaga all the way down to Gibraltar a distance of about 140 km. Overall the trip to Casabermeja went well and was made simpler with the instructions from our host Luis.

Although, it did not start off well as we entered the subway at 6.15am. After buying our tickets to get to the train station, 3 metro stops away we read the notice board that said the line was closed down for refurbishment and we had to either take a bus or take another line. The joys of travelling on your own and we had to catch a train in 1 hr time. Plan b into action, catch a taxi. Disaster avoided and we're on our way.

Hola Casabermeja, home for the next 13 days.

Posted by tszeitli 05:26 Archived in Spain Tagged food bikes madrid hot tapas sangria segway cava cervesa Comments (1)

Cuisine de Provence with Old & New Friends

Day 65 to 68 Aix-en-Provence

sunny 38 °C

In 2008, I cycled through the south of France, Provence district, following the Le Tour de France and loved the place with its scenery, weather, lifestyle, cycling and above all its food.

Of all the cooking styles, I prefer Provençal for its rustic elements, simple quality ingredients, well rounded flavours and great for home cooking. We also quickly learned that, contrary to the perception that French cooking is full of butter, butter and more butter, Provençal cooking uses almost exclusively Olive Oil - a much healthier option so my esteem for this style has only improved.

So what better opportunity than to skip across from Italy on our way to Spain and arrange cooking classes in Provence - as one does!

We found the perfect town, Aix-en-Provence, about 1 hour north of Marseilles. Time to expand our culinary skills. Also we planned to catch up with friends, Grant and Katya, who are now living in Grenoble. They'd visited Aix before and it took very little persuasion to convince them to come down to meet us.

This town is renowned for its produce, cuisine and a touch of Paris, often referred to as the 21st district of Paris, although Parisians are definitely considered foreigners by the proud locals. Its a 2000 year old town, settled by the Romans during conquests East. "Aix" means water and this town has a number of (still operational) roman baths and hot springs so it was the perfect spot to establish an outpost for the Roman Legions to stop and replenish before continuing their marauding.

The town lives only for the seasons and seasonal produce. They shop every day for what they need and what you see in the markets and restaurants is only in what is season. Its a nice way to live, they don't expect produce out of season and plan a menu around what is in season, guaranteeing freshness and food at its best which, as we are reminded, in order to get produce out of season, it is often picked green for durability during transportation, held in cold storage and artificially ripened, compromising flavour, vitamins and all the good stuff.

Aix has a reputation for great restaurants with high quality food and is a hub for Cooking Classes.

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The town is also famous for a special sweet candy almond shaped biscuit called Calissons, translated means cuddles. It was developed in the 15th century by the royal kitchens as a wedding present from the last Baron of Provence, King Rene of Anjou, to his young bride and the town to celebrate their wedding (the King's second). Today, Calissons are proudly sold in Aix and we understand that once a year there is a festival where there is a blind tasting of makers to determine who makes the best. The right to make Calissons is also regulated and only certified bakeries are licensed to make them.

Provence is a dry weather region so no green pastures for grazing cows. With terrain more suited to sheep and goats, it has become famous for its sheep and goat cheese as well as wines, particularly, Rośe.

Our Provençal Education kicks off with a full day cooking class with Giles. The day begins with a tour to the local market which has been operating in the same square for decades where Giles explains a lot about the produce and the producers and buys our ingredients.

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The market was full of the atmosphere, aromas, colour and freshness we were hoping for. This lady is an icon of the market, selling her own produce, picked late the evening before, or very early each morning to be on display hours later.
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We were dazzled with the variety of produce we just don't see in Oz. Heritage Tomatoes that are glorious
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and we fell in love with Peche Plates a type of flat peach, that is sweet with beautiful crunchy juicy texture, perfectly engineered for easy eating as we wandered the market...
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...in addition to learning about and sampling the local olives (green through black), dried fruits, honey (including lavender and other flavours) and other delicious products offered by the stall holders. Jen could not stop swooning over the intoxicating aromas from the fresh bread, cheese, olives, herbs and cured meats.
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We knew straight away the food we were about to cook would be a taste sensation. Jen and I could not get enough of this market - visiting it many times throughout our days in Aix.

Next stop was to an exclusive vineyard, Château Simone, famous for its Rośe.

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Located four kilometres from Aix, originally it was the bastide of the Grands Carmes d'Aix Monks, but has been in the hands of the intensely private Rougier family since 1830. Old documents bear witness to the fact that vines have been cultivated here from time immemorial. They normally don't allow visitors so the opportunity to visit this most private family vineyard was unique. From the beautifully cool cellar with barrels about 20 years old, tasting room and gardens all oozed history, everything about French culture and a sense of refined serenity and peacefulness.

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We then arrived at Giles' nearby property, put on our aprons and we're ready to learn. We were set up outside on a large table in a wonderful garden setting, selecting herbs we would need straight from the garden. And we're immediately put to work.
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It was the perfect way for a bunch of strangers from around the world to learn about food and cooking whilst enjoying good company.
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Giles is a wealth of information, answering all our questions and patiently guiding us through the cooking tasks assigned to each of us.

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Jen got a little reminder of home as one of Giles' very friendly cats is a perfect (although a little chubbier) clone of Tzara - so cuddles were in order between tasks in the kitchen.

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After a few hours of chopping, dicing, mixing and numerous stories told by the group we eventually sat down to a five course late lunch:
1. Tapenades of green and black olives with anchovies, capers, olive oil and pine nuts
2. Onion tart with anchovies
3. Petits Farcis - Nice style - paying homage to Nice despite the horrific events a few days earlier. It is fitting to celebrate something so great about Nice amid so much pain. Ham, pork and beef mince stuffed into hollowed out onions, eggplant, peppers and zucchini.
4. Three different kinds of goats cheese, oozy and pungent
5. White nectarines and yellow peaches with mint syrup, and pine nuts.

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All washed down with special Château Simone wine.
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The day was a huge success: we learnt cooking skills, made traditional Provençal food, enjoyed the scenery of the hills of Aix-en-Provence, drank beautiful wine, sampled fresh produce in a local market and met wonderful people. This is what travelling is all about.

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The next day was simple. We met up with my wonderful friend Grant and the radiant Katya to catch up over the past few years. Breakfast, walk around the shops and markets, lunch, home for a siesta, back out for dinner and drinks. That's it.

The following day, after Le Petit Déjeuner (breakfast) in the Hotel de Ville (Town Square) surrounded by centuries old buildings, our Provençal Education continues with a half day cooking class.
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We again tour the Market with Mathilde, a Parisian living in Aix running cooking classes at her wonderful L'Atelier Cuisine de Mathilde.

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The menu this time was:

1. Figs with goat cheese, pine nuts, honey and mint wrapped up in pastry parcels and baked.
2. A slightly different version of Petits Farcis Provençaux - veal and pork mince stuffed into onions, peppers and zucchini with tomato sauce on a bed of rice. True to the commitment to the season, in July, Petits Farcis is the only plat du jour .
3. Dessert was an opportunity to learn the classic Creme Brûlée infused with vanilla. Its amazing how everyone gets a devilish look and a sparkle in their eyes when handed the blow torch - fire it up and watch it BURN!

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The whole lunch was delicious and very filling and so a siesta was needed, not before a palate cleanser on the way back.

Again out for dinner with the weather still mid twenties and still lots to talk about.

Next morning we all met at the market for a brunch and to say our farewells. Thank you to Grant and Katya for making the effort to come down to Aix-en-Provence and have the opportunity to catch up. Jen and I will remember the town in many special ways. We're also inspired by our cooking adventures and excited to get home and cook for family and friends.

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The rest of the day was just a typical travel day you take each time you move on. Pack up, checkout, walk to the bus or train station terminal, catch a bus to the airport and get through customs, plane to another city, fingers crossed your bags arrive, find the airport city bus, bus into the city centre and then hike to your apartment. Before you do all this you have to work out all the logistics but for someone who used to be called Tommy Trip Planner its a piece of cake especially as we now have the iPad and everything readily accessible on the Internet. In the mean time, Jen checks out the things to do in the next town, edits what I write and finalises the photos for the blog. By now we know what each other strengths are, perfect foundation for a happy marriage!

Posted by tszeitli 09:10 Archived in France Tagged food scenery friends wine cooking provence Comments (1)

Giro d'Toscana (sponsored by Chianti Classico)

Day 54 to 60 Cycling through Tuscany

sunny 35 °C

We have left the art world and museums of Firenze and started our cycle tour through the hills of Toscana.

We caught the bus from Florence to Colle val d'Elsa, were collected by our hosts, Eleanor and Luke, and deposited at our first hotel, kitted out with bikes and instructions. We're in heaven - Tuscany really is this beautiful!
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This was our opportunity to get away from the crowds, eat local delicacies, enjoy bike riding in spectacular surrounds and maybe loose some weight after weeks of great food.

Our starting location, Volterra, whets our appetite for the scenery, food and accommodation of the next 10 days.
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We did months of training back home and our concern was whether we still had our bike legs. It can't be that hard, it's only 40 km per day.

How wrong we were!

We set off from our hotel on the first morning, excited but a little naive about the hard slog ahead of us - particularly after the 5 course dinner the night before!

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Overall we covered around 150 km, did climbs of 5-10 km at times with gradients between of 7% to even 11% and the weather most of the time was an energy zapping 35 deg Celsius. Portions of the ride were on strata bianca , a rough white quartz gravel road, which can be tricky.

I have to hand it to Italian drivers in how polite and careful they were when ever driving near us. Our drivers back home could take a leaf out of how to deal with bike riders - particularly as roads rarely have much shoulder and are often narrow / single lane. Not once were we hassled, tooted or fists raised in anger during our ride.

The towns we stayed in were Volterra, Pancole, Colle Val d'Elsa and Pescille on the outskirts of San Gimignano, the town that was on our horizon for most of the trip, our ultimate goal, getting a little closer each day, and is the heart of Tuscany.

Well, what's the best things about riding a bike in Tuscany?

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1 - The Magnificent Scenery

As you ride along you just lose yourself in the vineyards, olive groves, little Italian villages going about their daily routine, oblivious to us and the goings-on in the rest of world, rolling hills, farming lands and the peacefulness.
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Day 2 of the ride, from Pancole to Ulignano featured riding along a ridge with beautiful views of valley and hillsides on both sides.

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We had superb views of the major medieval town of San Gimignano and full 360 deg perspective of Toscana.

2 - Medieval Towns 500 to 600 years old

The smaller ones we visited were:

  • Gambasi Termi on the first day, arriving at lunch time, parched and a little shell shocked after a tough morning climbing strata bianca through oppressive heat. The waitress at the little family restaurant understood we needed water and giant bowls of pasta - STAT! After consuming three litres during lunch, we continued on.
  • We took a day trip riding into Certaldo, and up to the Medieval tower, Certaldo Alto. Dating from the 1400s, the old castle is partially original and partly restored and has an interesting history, including time as a court, gaol and executioners locale.

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Inside had been re-purposed into an art gallery. It was quite an interesting setting for modern art against the backdrop of Medieval and Renaissance frescos.
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Certaldo Alto is a quaint hilltop town that seems to have been overlooked by tourists so it is nice to wander the cobbled streets admiring the curiosities and laid back atmosphere.

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And the views are majestic!
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  • Casole d'Elsa. Very few tourists but so much charm and a glimpse of how the locals still live. A most arty little town, with two streets, a water fountain for drinking water, where locals go about the daily ritual of taking their caddy of bottles down for filling. We climbed the tower, which is above the government offices, so it felt like we were interloping as we walked through their offices, past the tea room, and out onto a ledge, up a ladder, onto the roof, and a short skip onto the top.

And again, well worth it for the views.
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  • Poggibonsi where we bought water in Lidl (Aldi in Oz) and felt like we'd stumbled through a portal to an alternate reality - eerily identical to Aldi at home. We stopped for an icy pole before joining the Pista Ciclo Touristico bike trail, a delightful trail through woodlands and meadows.

We took a day trip to Siena, San Gimignano and finished in Volterra.

San Gimignano is a world of its own, perched high on a hill with its 11 towers, cobblestone roads, views of Toscana, local food smells and local food that made you feel hungry all the time. They also conveniently have half bottles of Chianti (very reasonably priced) perfect for having with lunch while wandering around this darling town.
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The Towers of San Gimignano are iconic and are constant feature of Tuscany. We loved having the towers on our horizon, dawn to dusk.
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3 - Food, Food, Food oh, and Chianti, of course!

What can I say! There is never a shortage of places to eat and we did our best to try local produce as much as possible. Outstanding meals were as simple as fresh pesto linguine in the square at Colle val d'Elsa - a mountain of pasta that magically disappeared in the blink of an eye, a pizza in a little village to a traditional family restaurant in a grotto on the side of San Gimignano serving guineafowl, rabbit and wild boar.
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We felt privileged to enjoy two meals in the courtyard of the 200 year old monastery where we had the restaurant almost to ourselves, beautiful food and the whole atmosphere was serene.
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Whilst we wholly support screw tops on wine, it is nice to enjoy the ceremony of the waiter preparing and opening the wine with a cork. Champagne is also opened in the traditional manner with a sabre and cheers of "Bravo!"

Dinner each night is a treat - especially because we've earned it! And the wine selection is all local.

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And all have the most beautiful views.

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The food has been amazing. One thing Jen and I are determined to do when we get home is to eat fresh pasta. It is a totally different experience. Fully recommend it.
Each town also was never short of "fagy" shops and each day, no fixed time a "fagy" was always on the menu.

4 - The Hotels and their amazing Swimming Pools

After riding 5 to 7 hours a day, up and down hills and in 35 deg heat, the sight of our hotel and their sparkling swimming pool was a welcome relief for our aching bodies. The views from all were spectacular and each one had their own unique little bit of magic. The hotel in Colle Val d'Elsa was a converted 200 year old monastery with a divine travertine swimming pool.
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Rolling into the cool grapevine covered courtyard of Pescille, after a long hard slog in 35+ heat, we rejoice!
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and then head for the pool to cool off.

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Enjoying a beer in the hydrangea garden of Pancole. The owner's wife had the greenest thumbs.
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Sunset over the horizon pool in Volterra, against a backdrop of the Tuscan hills made us appreciate how lucky we are, and soaking in the pools at the end of the day helped us to forget about the soreness of our bums after each day's ride.
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5 - Yes we did it!

It is always satisfying that at the end of the day we had achieved something special. Knowing that we were getting away from the crowds, being alone on the roads and being able to stop whenever we wanted was the real reason why we chose to ride around Toscana. You ride along and you see so much more, smell the olive groves, go from town to town and say "Buongiorno!" to the locals as you roll through villages. Our trip notes made us feel a little like we were in a game, giving ourselves a little cheer when we find something we're supposed to. The notes said we would see a "small shrine", La Madonnina. We were on the lookout for a small building, so we had to chuckle when we found it.
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Before we arrived we thought that 40 km a day is going to be easy! We were very wrong. The climbs were tough especially the first day. As we climbed and climbed in the heat on the first afternoon, desperately wanting to reach the illusive "Villa del Monte" to signify achieving a milestone that would mean we were closer to the finish - it felt like every large house HAD to be "Villa del Monte", but alas, it was just another lovely Tuscan home, and on we rolled! We made it though, each day, enjoying a fine dinner, glass of wine and a beautiful sunset to reflect on the day's achievement.
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(sunset in Pancole)

It took us probably about 1 1/2 days to get our cycle legs back but still we needed to be careful in the heat and make sure we drank water. I have to say Jen did an absolute fantastic job on just rolling along with what ever Toscano threw at her. By the last day she was powering up hills and not even using the granny gear!

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6 - Siena and the Tower

On one of our days off we caught a bus into Siena thinking a quick wander around and just chill out. Well, Siena is something quite different, even if there were hundreds of tourists in town.
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Siena is the town where they have horse race in the middle of the Piazza Del Campo which was a little bigger than a bike velodrome but on a slope. It is enclosed with all your typical Italian buildings and restaurants but it has a charm all of its own. We loved it! At the bottom corner of the square is the Torre del Mangia, a tower that requires climbing up 400 steps and at the top is a 360 deg view of Siena and its surroundings.

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The view is spectacular!

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7 - Lunches

Before we left for our trip, our plan for Tuscany lunches was to buy in the morning our bread, cold cuts of meat, local cheese, some tomatoes and a bottle of Chianti and pick a spot along our travels. Well that's pretty well what we did! From sitting in an olive grove next to a villa overlooking a valley to sitting beside a creek near a field of sunflowers or stopping off at a local pizzeria in a little village.

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Lunch of a Tagliere and Insalata (not to be confused with Tagliatelle pasta) in Certaldo.
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8- Opera, yes opera!

To add a bit of culture and a surprise to Jen, I organised tickets to a 1 hr opera concert in the Chiesa a di San Jacopo church in San Gimignano. This church only held about 50 people who all came to see tenor Jan Lund and piano forte Giacomo Benedetti. For you who know opera, (not sure who that is) the songs played were by Handel, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Faure, Tosti, and Marchesi. The music, the power of the tenor's voice and the single piano all filled the tiny church - no microphones, and overwhelmed us. You sit there lost in the music even though you don't understand a word. This was an opportunity to do something very local and unique and whenever hear opera I will think of San Gimignano.

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Overall a great experience, lots of laughs, lots of pedalling and all made better to having done it with Jen.
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It was something I always wanted to do and to have Jen with me is something I will cherish and will have great memories.

The climb for the last 5kms up to Volterra was the toughest challenge on the last day.
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We made it!
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I can fully recommend if you are into cycling then go do Giro d'Toscana!
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Also a special thanks to Luke and Eleanor from Headwater for helping us with all the logistics especially getting us to Pisa.

Posted by tszeitli 14:37 Archived in Italy Tagged food hills scenery country wine cycling tuscany Comments (6)

We have arrived in Paradise

Day 44, 45, 46 Sumartin to Makaskar

sunny 35 °C

Beautiful 45 minute ferry trip from Split to the island of Brać. This was never on our plans so a totally unplanned experience - the beauty of travel on the go.

We have got used to booking our accommodation 1-2 days in advance and there has been no problems at all. We disembarked the Ferry at Supetar and quickly headed off, following windy roads up into the hills. Very narrow at times down to a town called Milna. Just your typical fishing village. We went for a walk, and, as you do, dived in for a quick plunge. You have to experience how cool, and clear this water is. We relax and float about in the clear blue water with our only company being the millions of little fish swimming around us..

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Back in the car and Jen's turn to have a drive. Easy drive - no traffic, no traffic lights, except shear fall down the side of cliffs along barely more than single lane roads with no shoulders and the odd gravel truck to make it interesting. Although, one town did have a traffic light at each end of the only street in town because it was too narrow for cars to pass. She handled superbly and I got a chance to see the scenery. Lucky for me the scenery was spectacular, winding our way through little villages comprising a church and a few houses built into the hillside. As we came over the top of the island, we arrive at Bol with a sea side Peninsula of Zlatni Rat. This is where everyone goes on a hot day. The beach covers both sides of the peninsula and is again crystal clear, cool water with fishies and no current. We don our goggles and swim out to the buoys.
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Zlatni Rat is a classic European beach resort place jutting out into the ocean. Packed with people but when you can swim in such beautiful waters it does not matter.

Back into the car and then to our final destination Sumartin where we will stay for 3 nights. This place is a small village where the car ferry leaves from. Aside for the influx of cars a couple of times a day for the ferry, nothing changes much here and things get real slow. Our room was cosy and 300 m from the town and beach so this was the time to chill out.

The first morning after some advice from a Sydney lady now living with her husband in Zagreb and building a house on the island we found a little coffee shop out of town beach with the most spectacular lookout and cafe - only three menu options but it doesn't matter when the coffee is good and simple fresh food is on offer and the view is magnificent.

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We adapt to the beachside life very quickly - sleeping in, beach, fresh produce for breakfast, swim, walks, lunch of delicious selection from the Deli and fresh bread from the bakery, ice cream, swim, snooze, swim, dinner, walks, sleep. And repeat.

Often we were the only ones on the local beach or at worst a few local kids having fun.

This place is incredible, they even have magic boats that seem to levitate!
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Its HOT but fortunately the beach is usually only 100m away
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or we hang out, enjoying the breeze and view from our apartment balcony.
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We work our way down the strip for dinner options. Local restaurants with surprisingly extensive menus and staff eager to share their cuisine with us. One special meal was the fresh mussels. So fresh, that as soon as I placed the order, the waiter trottted outside, hauling up a basket and retrieved a bowl of mussels, which were promptly prepared and in front of me within minutes. Now that's fresh! Jen had a delicious gnocchi meal in a sauce that was mouth watering. The waiter was very friendly and gave us a complimentary shot of local made Raki, to aid in our digestion (of course) and we finished off the with a palacsinta dessert.
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With the fading sun, on the balmy evenings, Sumartin is peaceful and has been the perfect escape for us.
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The last day was pretty much the same routine. We broke it up with eating slabs fresh water melon on the water's edge with our feet dangling in the cool water feeling relaxed and very happy with our change in plans spending 3 nights in a very special place.

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We caught the 3 pm ferry back to the mainland to stay in a town called Makaskar. The scenery was spectacular as you got a great view of the rocky coastline that goes down the Dalmatian coast.

The ferries are also quite comical. The Sumartin Ferry only has room for 25 cars so arriving late can mean having to wait for the next one. There is usually a procession of cars, either left over from the previous departure or getting in early for the next, at the ferry stop. We checked out and parked the car as soon as the morning ferry departed to ensure we got on the afternoon ferry. Fortunately, its right next to the main street so we spent the morning, swimming, eating and hanging out.

When time comes to load the ferry a semi organised procession ensues. Fortunately we're one of the first on ahead of the RVs and trucks carting massive chunks of granite to the mainland.
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Again, beautiful ferry ride in the open water with rocky mountain backdrop.
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Our little car disembarked safely, dwarfed by the other passengers.
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It was stinking hot so we decided to go straight for a swim. Well, this town could not be more different from Sumartin. The 2 km beach was covered with tourists and the path at the back of the beach was filled with hotels, restaurants and tourists shops. Back to reality as this place is where the masses come to have a swim and a holiday.
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Well, that ended our sea side island hoping adventure that went way beyond our expectations. It was now back in land, heading for Mostar and Sarajevo. We head inland under the mountains (via impressive tunnels) popping out the other side to a complete change of scenery.
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We stop for breakfast on the edge of the valley, FO4A0213.jpgFO4A0215.jpg

And we're on the road to Mostar.
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Posted by tszeitli 22:20 Archived in Croatia Tagged food beer water beach sun paradise swim relax Comments (2)

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