A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about scenery

Thomas of Arabia

Days 93, 94, 95, 96 The Great Sahara, Gladiator, Game of Thrones and so much more

sunny 45 °C

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With our journey through Morocco largely uncharted, we have freedom to choose our adventure. We want to get to Fes from Marrakesh which is going to be tricky using public transport. When we find a private tour that efficiently gets us to Fes via Ouarzazate and Merzouga, deep into the Western Sahara and close to the Algerian border – places we’d be nervous to venture on our own.

I must say, Tommy Trip Planner outdid himself! Our 4-day tour in a 4WD was incredible and took us to places never contemplated in our wildest dreams and truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

We said farewell to the wonderful staff at our Riad and were collected by Mohammed, our tour leader and driver. We headed east towards Ouarzazate and quickly started to climb the magnificent Atlas Mountains, where centuries old Berber Villages are set into the rock, where not much changes – except for the advent of satellite dishes, which adorn the traditional mud and straw construction homes.

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We drive through mountain passes and Passo di Tizi n'Tichka with an altitude of 2260m.

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We continue through Villages, dry and dusty desert and stop off at look outs over vast canyons that open into brilliant green oases. We follow each oasis by road and pass numerous palm groves and farming. Our perception that the desert is devoid of water, but are astounded that rivers and water holes are bountiful. The rivers, a trickle now in late summer but in spring are raging torrents as the snow and ice in the Atlas melts, feeding the landscape and communities below.

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We stop off at a co-op for widowed and divorced Berber women who show us the step by step process to make argon oil and argan nut butter. It's supposed to be the premier oil - Jen takes a fancy to the oil and I hoe into the nut butter. We buy a small jar of the oil and Jen assures me it’s great for keeping skin soft and the money goes to a good cause.

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The roads are impressive and we pass many sections of roadworks, as part of a massive road project.

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As we continue on, we take a dramatic turn, off road for about 6 km, through what can only be described as barren rocky desert with a mountainous backdrop.

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It is a surreal and eerie experience, quiet and almost feels like a vacuum.

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We continue on through salt flats and huge expanses.

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We stop for lunch before heading up to the Kasbah "Ksar Ait Ben Haddou".

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Our lunch was simple Moroccan meal in a traditional restaurant. What was most outstanding was the Waiter. He greeted our Guide in Berber and Arabic, took our order from the French menu in English and seamlessly switched to Spanish for the group of young ladies from Barcelona panicking that they didn’t speak French. He let them squirm a little and then eloquently explained the menu for them. We chatted with him and he also speaks Italian and German.

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Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, Ksar meaning “Castle”, sits atop a hill overlooking a fertile valley and oasis. Kasbahs are traditionally a walled communal home occupied by a number of families as a cooperative in order to protect the inhabitants from invasion from other tribes.

In the famous lyrics of the Clash, this Kasbah most definitely rocked!

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The “Granary” is the highest point and was used to store grain and supplies, as well as the families’ treasures as this was the most protected place. Some Kasbahs only had one door – aiding security and often had lookout towers around the perimeter to protect the heart.

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So why does Ksar Ait Ben Haddou look familiar? It's famous for staging scenes in over 50 movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile and Kingdom of Heaven. Whilst the structures are gone, the Gladiator locale is still there.

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More recently Game of Thrones has shot many scenes here.

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Nobody puts Donkey in the corner...

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The town Ouarzazate, "the Hollywood of Morocco", is nearby which is a huge movie set that first sprung up with the movie "The Mummy". It feels like we’re driving through an Indiana Jones movie!

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We continue through a seemingly Martian Landscape.

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Next stop the Rose Valley,

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A rock formation Mohammed calls Monkey Fingers,
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Magnificent rock gorges and scenery

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and a valley oasis of over 200,000 palms creating a fertile green ribbon through the desert expanse.

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Best let the photos speak for themselves.

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We ended the night in the Dardes Gorge in a hotel built into the rock face. This was the view from our room.

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The next day we take in the look out at the top of the Dardes Gorge before continuing on "the Road of 1000 kasbahs". When Rockfalls occur they are devastating, taking the road with it. Here the team are repairing a recent fall.
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The scenery out the window is always changing and also hypnotic as the landscape of the Atlas Ranges is so vast and unending.

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Mohammed drops us off at start of Todra Gorge allowing us to walk along and have the magnitude of this Gorge reveal itself to us.

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The sheer walls rise up about 400m from a fresh water river fed by natural springs and water seeping down from winter snow.

The continual flow of cold water is a great way to cool drinks.

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It is a divine cool place where locals come to relax,
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have picnics,

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relax

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kids play in the water

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and the donkeys have a drink and a good ol’ dust bath!
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It's noticeably cooler in the Gorge, with temperatures out in the open now risen into the high 30's. There’s a wonderful atmosphere. The hotel at the base has been closed due to a rock land slide that took out the restaurant of the hotel. Thank fully no one was there at the time!

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Again, there is a local natural spring that the locals prefer to collect water from

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We drive for a few hours with the scenery always changing from the rocky Middle Atlas ranges to flat barren rocky expanse, broken up a village built around an oasis with palm groves and paddocks.

We stop for lunch and get our bearings

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As the rocky landscape gradually gives way to Sahara Sand, we notice a series of mounds in parallel rows at regular intervals along the highway. Mohammed obliges and drops us off at a solitary tent in the parched landscape.

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Stepping out of the car, the heat envelopes us, now in the low 40's. We are welcomed by a lovely fellow who lives out here and shows us the mounds. They are wells, since dried up but the past times, were wells connecting aquaducts conveying water from the oasis outwards to supply life giving water.

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We go underground and the temperature drops 20 degrees.

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It is like Coober Pedy. The Guide tells us we could walk all the way to the village underground, about 7 kms away. During Ramadan, locals often hang out in the tunnels to conserve energy and escape the heat during the day’s fasting.

The area we’ve been exploring is also ancient and was once under water as a great ocean existed. There are many diggings for trilobites, ammonites and other geode fossils. We are warned not to buy the brilliantly coloured geodes as they are artificially coloured by the locals who try to sell them at every lookout stop along the road. As is customary, we are offered and grateful accept mint tea and we rest awhile in his canvas tent. We enjoy the cool breeze under the canvas of the tent and the absence of noise, we could have sat for longer in the peace. We are amazed this man and his brother live out here in the desert and survive.

We continue on and catch our first glimpses of the golden colours of the Sahara desert and the Erg Chebbi dunes which are one of Morocco's two Saharan ergs – large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand. Locals have woven palm fronds into a grid as dune preservation measures to stop the sand blowing over the road and eroding.

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In the heat haze and barren landscape the desert towers above everything else. This is Dakar Rally country. The massive dunes rise up on the horizon and eventually we are driving along the edge of the Sahara, about 2 kms from the dunes arriving at Merzouga in the afternoon, on the western edge of the Sahara and a couple hundred kms west of the Algerian border.

It is now 5.30 pm and the heat of the day has gone, cooling to low 30's.

We dump our bags at the hotel, pack an overnight bag, ready to take a camel ride to camp a night in the dunes. Exiting a side access from our hotel, Jen and I are looking at each in amazement as we wait to climb on the camels to head into the Desert with the Sahara as far as our eyes can see.

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We both feel as far away from home as possible.

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Our camels take a slow meandering pace in an orderly procession.

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It takes over an hour going deeper into the dunes and go deeper into the desert, enjoying sunset along the way.

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We arrive at camp, about a dozen round tents, surrounding a collage of berber rugs on the sand, snuggled into a valley between the dunes.

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We have a full moon so Jen and I quickly climb up a nearby dune to look out easterly and gaze across the Sahara.

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We sit there in silence and all we hear is a soft wind and the occasional growl from a camel bedding down for the night.

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The atmosphere is great, with our fellow campers from all around the world – Spain, Argentina, Italy, UK, striking up conversations, sharing wonderful stories or just sitting with a wide eyed look of amazement.

After dinner, the crew take up traditional Berber instruments and encourage us all in a sing along and dancing.

We are given the option to sleep in our tents, or drag our mattresses out to sleep al fresco. As the night is so hot we don’t hesitate to have the crew haul our bed out on to the rugs on the sand. After dinner we climb up another dune taking in the silence and the knowledge that we’re sitting on a dune in the Sahara – so far away from our life at home. We don't get to bed until after midnight. A few hours later woken up by the brightness of the full moon, with gentle cloud cover gone, its like a torch shining directly over us. The wind has whipped up a little and blowing sand across our beds and filling open mouths with sand. We don't care, we are in the Sahara desert!

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We get up before sunrise and the whole camp climbs the nearest dune to get a complete view east and the sun rising.

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Jen and I sit on the edge of the dune for about an hour while the others just drift back to sleep. It is one of those scenes where you sit quietly and enjoy the moment and pinch yourself. No photo does any justice to the beauty and how the colours change as the sun rises.

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We ride our camels back to the hotel again taking photos and videos to make sure we don't miss anything.

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As soon as we disembark, the saddles are removed and the camels have a glorious roll in the sand and trot straight into the yard where their morning hay awaits.
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With bewildered looks on our faces, and bleary eyes, not quite believing what we actually experienced we are greeted by friendly smiling faces of the hotel staff and the glorious spread of breakfast!

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After breakfast and a very necessary shower – there is sand everywhere – it’s time for a snooze. A few hours later, Mohammed takes us to a few Merzouga attractions.

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This included the well where locals like to collect water. Whilst municipal water is available, they prefer the spring water that flows constantly, filtered through the sand into the well where women gather to fill plastic bottles. The women come from traditional families and are wary of tourists, especially prefer not to have their photo taken.

We then enter the oasis and learn about the organisation of the gardens.

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There is an aqueduct flowing through the centre with side channels branching off every 10 metres, but dammed with earth. Mohammed explains that each plot along the aqueduct has an entitlement to about 6 hours of water in order.

When a farmer’s turn comes, the earthen dam is unplugged and downstream blocked so the water flows along the irrigation branch, allowing the farmer to water crops of peppers, carrots, onions and other crops amongst the date palms. If the full allocation is not required, the farmer can sell the entitlement to another. There are no signs, no timetables, no officials moderating the arrangement but it works – an honour system that is likely unchanged for centuries.

We are in medjool country – where the finest dates are grown. There are thousands of date palms, seemingly randomly growing from the side of the road into the oasis but every one is owned by a family. Sometimes the land and the date palm is owned by different parties. Again, there are no signs or assertions of ownership but there is order and honour.

We are offered dates straight from the tree – a sweet sticky treat and not grainy, so much more amazing than what we get at home.

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We then visit local nomad co-op shop where we were enticed to buy some carpets but were able to resist. We also enjoyed a concert from Gideons des Sabre (Pigeons of the Desert). Originally slaves brought from Mali and Senegal, and then abandoned to a semi nomadic life in the Sahara. They sing and dance to celebrate their history and liberation. A statesman of the tribe is building a life for young men and saving the traditional music by recording the music and selling CDs.
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Being on the edge of the Sahara, Merzouga is a town at the centre of trading routes with caravans of Africans, Moroccans, Andalusians and the Middle East passing through for centuries.

Now, time for lunch at a local family restaurant, Cafe Nora, where there is only one menu item - Berber pizza.
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This pizza was OUT OF THIS WORLD! It has to be included in one of our top 10 meals of the trip.

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We tried to verify the ingredients with the waiter. Whilst he was happy to confirm eggs, beef, onion, carrot but would not reveal any of the spices. We later found out it contain a special mix of 44 spices that are a trade secret. We could barely walk out of the restaurant but couldn’t possibly leave one bite behind. Don't be surprised if this ends up on a dinner party menu at our house as Jen is determined to try to recreate the spice mix!

The afternoon comprised sleep and a welcome dip in the pool.

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The temperature has climbed to plus 45 degrees which instantly drains your energy and slows you to a lethargic pace. It is the hottest day of our travels and the locals tell us in peak summer it gets to 55 degrees plus.

Once the sun starts going down we again go back out to the dunes to take further photos. The dunes have a mesmerising hypnotic effect and we can’t get enough.

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Jen's Keens are on their last legs, having hiked her around the world many many times, its time to retire them when we get home.
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Experience everything and leave only footprints

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Our Riad is wonderfully Moroccan and, even though we're still digesting the Berber Pizza and request small portions, a sumptuous 4 course meal is unleashed upon us.

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After breakfast the next day we head out for a few more photos, to be sure we have enough.
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Today is a long haul to Fes, around 500 km's through the middle Atlas Mountains. First stop is a local traditional market in a town nearby Mohammed's home town.
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This market happens twice a week and many people come from nearby villages to buy and sell their wares. People come by donkey, push bike or a van and there are only 3 other foreign travellers in the market.

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Henna powder
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We are now amongst clothes shops, vegetables, spices, nuts, olives, dates, chemists shops, house wares, open air butchers with hanging meat, furniture being made, basket weaving, welding gates, shoes made from leather and tyre rubber for soles and repairs for bicycles.
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There is even a donkey parking lot. If it has a saddle it’s there for parking, if it's has no saddle it there to be sold!

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There is also sheep, cows and goats up for sale. I was told early in our travels that I could sell Jen in exchange for a few camels. Talking jokingly to hosts in our riads, they opined I could fetch a price of a few thousand camels. I resist, to me she is priceless!

We go through the middle Atlas Mountains and the scenery is forever changing and spectacular. We drive along a 100 km oasis valley that sits in a massive canyon.

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Again, we come to appreciate that water is not that scarce in the desert, with dams being built to supply a massive underground network. Everywhere we drive we can see the manhole/vent for the pipeline at intervals.

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Moroccans love Football (the round ball variety) and I have to tip my hat to them as this is their typical playing field, two goals and a whole lot of rock.
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We are reunited with the Atlas Mountains which are magnificent and massive.

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Crossing over to reveal rich pastures in the plains below.
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Many many thanks to our amazing driver and guide, Mohammed.
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We have lunch in a town where the main street is BBQ alley with smoke billowing out of every other shop. Most BBQ joints are a butcher and BBQ – select your cut of meat from that hanging out front and they’ll cook it then and there. We look down the street and the air is filled with BBQ smoke and the chaos of parking attendants wrangling cars in exchange for a few dirhams, vendors with carts and people going about their daily life.

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Note the guy photobombing our picture is the Providore of this fine establishment who happened to be missing all but thumb and pinkie on one hand - best he be the host than the butcher behind the counter.

We are grateful for Mohammed navigating the busy restaurant for us and we devour our plate of mixed meat cooked over hot coals.

As we drive out of the town we notice there are wild dogs at regular intervals sitting along the road. This goes on for about 10 km and our guide explains the locals throw scraps out of the car for the dogs to eat. It is hard to see these dogs trying to survive in this harsh environment surviving on scraps. There are very few true nomadic tribes left but there are still a number of families who live in tents, tending to livestock, moving on when new pastures are required. Donkeys are the main mode of transport and, like the dogs, it is hard to see some small donkeys seemingly overloaded and carrying their owners. Donkeys are also often tethered to the side of the road to graze.

There are also wild donkeys picking amongst the sparse rocky countryside.

We pass through the mountain ranges and the temperature starts to drop. We start passing through forests, colours reappear and a green haze materialises. We pass through Ilfrane, the Switzerland of Morocco. It’s a mountainous high altitude region with access to water, perfect for ski resorts. It is an affluent community. We then enter a forest with the same breed of monkeys as we saw in Gibraltar.

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Finally we drop down into the Apple Valley with orchards of apples and olives. The King of Morocco is subsiding farming and development in the desert, including solar panels to pump irrigation, enabling farmers to create huge plantings of fruit trees. Our tour is drawing to an end as we sight Fes.

It has been a special experience to see the Sahara desert along with the spectacular rugged Atlas mountain ranges, canyons, kasbahs, palm groves, many oases and traditional villages.

We have loved Morocco and would encourage everyone, if planning a trip to Europe, allow time for a visit to Morocco and this tour has to be on your "must do" list.

Posted by tszeitli 04:22 Archived in Morocco Tagged landscapes mountains scenery sahara outstanding opportunity_of_alifetime Comments (5)

The Final Leg of España

Days 87 and 88 Seville, Antequerra and Ronda

sunny 45 °C

Seville

We left La Linea early and headed north towards Seville to see the Royal Palace, Real Alcazar.

The journey took about 2 hours by car but we stopped off for a typical Spanish road side breakfast. The place was lively with people coming and going. We both fitted in, order our ham, cheese sandwiches and coffee in Spanish and started to watch the Olympics with a couple of Australians winning their heats in swimming. The waiter joined in as we cheered. It is a great community atmosphere that is wonderful and genuinely lovely social interaction to start the morning. The waiters are the heart of the place and the customers are like family.

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Real Alcazar is still an operational palace for the royal family. It is unique as from its initial existence in XI century AD its been a capital for numerous tribes and different religions over the centuries. The buildings and associated gardens are a combination of Christian, Jewish and Islam cultures.

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The Royal Bedroom

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Inside the building with all its open areas and tiled walls and floor makes a great place to get away from the out side heat. We spend the first hour (no photos allowed) in the upper palace which is still the functioning area for the King of Spain. It was simply decorated and lovely to walk through and steeped with history of past royal families. We continued our walk around including the gardens. The architecture, with ceramics being the defining theme for everything - the colour of the floor and wall tiles, the way the sun comes into areas and the ability to look into 4 rooms at one time make the whole walk quite surreal. It's a place you have to walk around very slowly to make sure you see all the detail.

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The Queen's private swimming baths.

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We get a great feeling from Seville. Its a wonderful city with beautiful parks where the shade is cool and great boulevards. Lots of history and very green with all its parks, and it is cool to see Australian gum trees which have been exported to Spain (as well as other countries).

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We enjoyed exploring this city, taking a long lunch between 3 and 5 as its simply too hot. Yes, that really says 45 degrees at 5:30pm!

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I'm not sure if it was the heat but we had fun exploring this town.

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Antequerra and Ronda

Our final day with the car and staying in Caserbemeja is a road trip to Antequerra. Antequerra is only 20 km's north and 10 times bigger than Caserbemeja and also contains an old part of the town with a old church and castle, an Alcazar, on top of the hill. We managed to manoeuvre the car up a bunch of narrow windy streets and did a quick photo stop. Initially we wanted to spend our time here but never really found accommodation that ticked off the specification like Casabermeja.

Still it was nice to see and maybe I would have spent all my time playing golf if we had stayed here.

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Next stop a further 1 1/2 hours away is the ancient town of Ronda. We walked into town and through a park and came to a spot overlooking the valley. Ronda is famous for a bridge that spans a gorge in the heart of the town and the numerous building that precariously have been built on the edge of the gorge.

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With various literature luminaries spending time here.
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Hemmingway famously wrote about bull fights and there is a bull fighting museum which Jen and I avoided.

The trail to the bridge is lovely to walk along with its outlook and 10 minutes later we arrive at the bridge. Scattered on both sides of the bridge and both sides of the river are numerous restaurants that seem to be hanging on the edge.

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The drive back was a big loop to the coastline through the Andalusian mountain range. Coming down from the range I now understand why they call the coastline Costa Del Golf. Tucked away in the valleys are carved out lush green golf courses and resorts. Again I fought off temptation and drove past all of them. Jen just smiled as I caught a glimpse of each one.

Back home and our Spain travels are now complete. It's gather our things, pack our bags, final dinner in town, adios to the locals and switch back to travel mode. We are now entering our final 3 weeks of travel, leaving Europe for now and looking forward to our next adventure.

Posted by tszeitli 13:29 Archived in Spain Tagged architecture alcazar scenery hot graffiti islam roman_ruins ceramics christianity muslin sevillia Comments (2)

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)

Revisiting Past Journeys and Goodbye to Driving.

Day 47 and 48 Mostar, Sarajevo and back to Zagreb

sunny 30 °C

Jen visited Mostar and Sarajevo five years ago. She wanted to revisit these two places, which she holds very special, and show me around.
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Mostar is a tiny town but hugely significant due to a tiny bridge and the war during 1991 to 1998.

It was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva River. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina's most recognisable landmarks.
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It has been a tourist site for centuries, with daredevils diving off the bridge to squeals of delight from onlookers, provided enough coins have been collected from patrons in the restaurants and those below on the shore. It is still the case today. This diver was trying to drum up more by teasing the crowd that he was almost ready to jump, but needed a little more.
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Lots of tourists and tourist shops but that did not bother us. The place has a mystic about it that is hard to describe.
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You also need to have some understanding about the Civil War between the peoples of the former Yugoslavia - which is complicated and is as difficult to comprehend today, as we are sure it was during time.

The thing that gets you straight away is this beautiful bridge. A stop at the bookshop at one end of the bridge to watch a documentary compiling footage for the dark days of 1993 culminating in the majestic bridge finally crumbling into the river in November 1993, after steady barrage of mortar and artillery attacks, despite the efforts of Mostar's residents to protect it, is tremendously sobering. The history books speak fondly of the bridge, and during conflicts over the centuries, the bridge had been spared - as if the bridge had a higher presence. It leaves you shaking your head in disbelief or in tears. It goes through how the bridge and surrounding area was completely destroyed and then recently rebuilt. Jen commented how much had changed and still felt emotional towards it.

I have a look through her photos from that Balkans trip.

We could see the changes that have occurred in that relatively short time. War wounds have healed more but the scars, physical and emotional are still there.

To lift our spirits, its time for Icecream and we're on our way to Sarajevo. The scenery during the drive is spectacular.
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Jen did a great job getting us to the apartment which was 1 km from the Old Town. We quickly made our way into the square and wandered the streets and the memories came flooding back for Jen.

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There is a saying, famously proclaimed by legend, that whoever drinks water in Sarajevo - never leaves Sarajevo and is destined to return. Jen returned!
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We stumbled across an exhibition dedicated to the images and stories of the Srebrenica Massacre, during the Balkans War. The exhibition went through and explained how over 8000 Bosnian people (mostly men and boys) were slaughtered and the efforts to find and identify the victims. So far investigators have found 100's of mass grave sites and there are still thousands missing. The movies and pictures in the exhibition left everyone we saw speechless including ourselves.

Sarajevo also suffered brutal periods, laid siege by the Serbian army, cutting off from the world, inflicting massive damage and loss of Bosnian people. The town was surrounded by the Serbs and the fighting and inhumanity was something that had not been seen since the Second World War. When I was here in 1985 you could feel the tension between all the groups and once communism ended and Tito gone, it opened the flood gates for a horrific and brutal period. The World said, after WWII that we must never let this happen again, but sadly the 1990s demonstrated it can.
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With our World currently trying to deal with the challenges of IS, racism, displaced refugees, and America seemingly descending further and further into chaos, we despair for what the future holds.

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After a spot of souvenir shopping and an espresso, Sarajevo style, we visited another significant spot where Prince Ferdinand, heir to the Austro- Hungarian empire, and his wife were assassinated in 1914 by Franz Ferdinand which was the spark that ignited the First World War.
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Jen was also able to find the small bazaar she and her travel companions visited last time which gave her a fun kick! [Simon - do you remember this place?]
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We continued to wander the many little lane ways with numerous shops bashing out amazing pieces of copper and also coffee grinders. It is especially poignant that bullet casings and artillery shells are used by metal smiths for pens, coffee grinders, and other "souvenirs".

The old part of town has been rebuilt and now has a different feeling and move forward. Many of the Sarajevo Roses have now faded away or been re-paved, the needs of a bustling city, overtaking the reminders of the painful past.

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After procuring some delicious fruit to sustain us, we headed off for our 5 hour straight drive to Zagreb where we would fly out and onto to our next adventure. The drive from Sarajevo to the Bosnia border was along 2 lanes highways with lots of trucks and was pretty slow at times. Once we crossed the border it was back to 4 lane highway hurtling along 130 km / hr. Once again the BMWs and Mercedes flying past me at 160 km/ hr. We had travelled over 1600 km/s and sadly tomorrow morning we would be saying good bye to our little Ford Festiva buzz box.

All in all our adventures through Croatia and Bosnia has been amazing, diverse, spectacular scenery, beautiful beaches, crystal clear water and a very unique history although more recently very brutal. The people are friendly and helpful and the food has been mouth watering delicious. Big thumbs up from Jen and I.

Posted by tszeitli 14:18 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Tagged history driving scenery old_town rebuild revisit war_scars don't_forget Comments (2)

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