Operation Extract Covid Boy is GO!

So, as per the aforementioned Plan, we start getting everything in place and I can’t wait to put fucking Russian-bogan Gold Coast in the rear view mirror! We check out from the hotel and are waiting in the reception area (yay, belatedly back on the functioning internet), for our driver. I get a message in garbled English and immediately think, ‘Oh fuck, please don’t ditch the job!’ Hmmm… my lack of faith in passenger transport companies is showing. Angus and I are carefully inspecting everyone who pulls up outside or walks into the hotel reception. Angus is like ‘Is that him?’, ‘What about that guy?’ But my finely tuned sense of ‘what drivers look like’ goes, nope, nope, nope…and finally ‘Yep! That’s him. He’s got the finely tuned bod of someone who spends their life on their arse in a car eating whatever crap they can pick up on the way – never mind, we are just thankful he’s turns up.

Traffic promises to be a right pain in the arse, but at this point, I don’t care – if the driver had failed to turn up all the rest of the plan falls on its arse and I’d be trying to cadge an Taxi for a 71km trip, in a country that doesn’t have Uber. Part way through our transit, just as we are leaving Montenegro and entering Croatia, Angus gets an email from the Montenegrin Health Advisory letting him know his PCR test is definitely positive and could he please let the know what his symptoms are. I’m not paying much attention to this (and I’m not sure he responded?), but the boys message us on WhatsApp and tell us they got the same email. Oh well, onwards to Croatia we go.

We get to the apartment that we booked near the Dubrovnik Airport around 2pm and Angus immediately crashes in the lounge – He’s happy because the internet is about 20Mb and I’m happy, because I finally get a room to myself with an independent air con system, so we are finally able to take our masks off for a few hours. The view from the balcony was particularly lovely, and while it might be a nice spot to spend a weekend if you were totally self contained, there are zero restaurants or groceries anywhere nearby and once more we are on the second floor so I’m being maddened by flights of steps yet again. Angus finally gets hungry enough to go off in search of someone to order a pizza for him… and our B&B host happily assists him. The pizza was pretty good actually – though I am sick of eating bread (I rarely eat bread or bread products at home and it’s making me feel just ick). At some point in the evening we realise the A/C is pretty shit and it’s actually now cooler outside (wasn’t when we arrived, it was 39C), so we throw open all the windows and try to get a cross breeze going.Next morning, being Sunday, now that Montenegro is in the past and we are in the far more civilised country of Croatia, we call an Uber and make our way to the airport. Out AirBnB host assured us it was a tiny airport and there was no reason why we needed to be there two hours early as the lines are always short. She was wrong and we are glad we ignored her. Angus stood in line with all the mouth breathers in his mask and I waited on the sidelines for us to get to the top of the queue to get some boarding passes for our extremely expensive flights. There was barely a mask to be seen in here which is kinda infuriating… but we kept ours on. Waiting at the gate was an experience I really hope never to replicate. I had the misfortune to sit myself down beside a young Australian guy – roughly about Angus’ age, and I couldn’t help but hear his conversations – firstly on the phone with his girlfriend, and then with his mate. I was disgusted to hear how they were talking. The guy was on his phone speaking with a woman who was obviously his girlfriend, and he was all, “I miss you and I love you so much, I’m being so good while I’m away babe… Brendon, though, Brendon is being a total man-whore, but not me!” He was cloyingly saccharine and sounded completely insincere from where I was sitting, (though that may have been coloured by my inherent dislike of people who speak at annoying loud volume in public spaces). Anyway, he gets off the phone with the GF and starts talking to his mate, who I am going to presume is Brendon. Brendon proceeds to show him a picture on his phone of a table full of good hearty Mediterranean food and was saying, “Man that was an awesome meal, so fucking tasty even though I threw it all up later. Haha!” Urgh… I’m surprised they couldn’t feel the disdain oozing from my pores, but I guess that would mean they’d have to pull their own heads out of their arses long enough to notice there are ‘other people’ nearby. Next thing Brendon is pointing across the gate and saying, “Oh fuck, don’t look, don’t wave, it’s Emily and them, I don’t want them coming over here. Look at them – fucking nerds in masks and shit.” … breathe Robyn, breathe… they’re not my responsibility. Then Brendon with the Food Photo says to BoFriend of the Year, “I can’t believe she’s wearing a mask when she was happy rawdogging you all last week! Hahahaha!” BFotY then jabs Brendon in the guts and says, “Don’t you ever tell anyone about that, ya cunt.” And they carry on a bit more like that as we are boarding the aircraft and they decide not to get up and wait in line like ‘fuckwits’, but to cut in when the girls they are trying to avoid make it towards them. Ugh. Two more gross young humans I could never imagine… I bet their parents are so proud. 😐

Anyway, I digress, we wait at the airport and eventually get onto our Aegean flights and thankfully it looks like our luggage is coming with us.

It’s probably quite a nice view if the windows were cleaned, like ever. Aegean isn’t the worst airline I’ve flown, but it’s definitely not my first choice – our other option though was to fly Turkish Airlines and go Dubrovnik > Istanbul > Istanbul > Athens, so here we are. Athens Airport – greeting us with a n information point that was a decidedly unhelpful Google search page. We didn’t have too much trouble getting through customs though we were vaguely wondering whether Angus’ Covid positive status was attached to his passport at all given he’d had to provide it as ID when he went for the PRC test. At some point while we were in the air, the Boys back in Budva and Angus all receive an email telling them they need to isolate for seven days?! WTF Montenegro??? You can’t PCR test someone on a Friday and then tell them on a Sunday they can’t go anywhere… that advice probably should have been given at the time the test was administered! Now the Boys in Budva were starting to make noises of serious buyer’s remorse – they were possibly going to be stuck there for an entire week, and were wishing they’d bailed with us!Customs was okay, I managed to limp through to baggage claim and thankfully our bags had made it with us (yeah, the faith is really gone on that one, thanks Lufthansa!). We then find ourselves ordering an Uber – I still feel dirty every time I do it, but here it turns out most of the Uber drivers here are in branded taxis anyway – so I guess it’s at least one way of knowing exactly how much your trip is going to cost you before you get in the car. We give him the name of the hotel in Athens, it’s about a 35-40 min trip and I sit back thinking I can relax for a bit… we’re nearly there… we’re nearly there Until we hit the highway and I think, shit ‘we’re going pretty fast’ and look over and see the driver is doing well over 140kmph in a 100 zone! I double check my seatbelt and make sure Angus has his on before grabbing my camera to take a snap. I manage to just grab a pic just as HE’S SLOWING DOWN TO 130KMPH TAKE AN OFF RAMP. Fark.. no wonder you only had a 4.87 rating, Besian! Somehow, perhaps by magic or the gods finally taking pity on us, we make it to our hotel without incident and check in. And immediately I feel half my stress melt away – this is immediately followed by a conviction that this is now when I’ll get sick for sure. Running on cortisol and adrenalin for the last couple of days has not been fun; now I’m stopping, that’s when it’ll take me down.

We get into the room and immediately make ourselves at home by moving all the furniture around so that my bed is as far away from Angus’ as possible and our heads about 4m apart when sleeping. We send Mr K a proof of life pic and then back on with the masks and a well deserved nap. In the interim at some point, Mr K has googled up the hotel and found out it has views to the Acropolis, and sent me a message asking if we can see it: Like, literally my head is beneath the window in question, but I had zero energies to get up and check.
We spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights in the Athens Hotel. Angus was feeling quite a bit better and hadn’t had any fever since a slight temp Sunday morning… while I was going slowly mad wondering when I was going to come down with it.

The hotel was good, we had breakfast included in our rack rate but I’m not a big breakie eater so I had my cup of tea and some fruit for breakfast, and I pulled out the old backpacker habits and managed to squirrel away bread, butter, ham, cheese, boiled eggs and feta each morning so we didn’t have to worry about lunch. Also got to know Wolk really well (Greek MenuLog) and had some nice souvlaki and grilled skewered things ordered in at dinner times.

So here we are staying until Wednesday when the transfer hell will start all over again.

Transit – Lyon to Bucharest

Oh dear god, who planned this transit!

Got back to the hotel after the concert at 0130 having walked about two kms away from the stadium to try and get an Uber driver.  Not as easy as it should have been and there didn’t seem to be any regular spot or any recognisable system to try and get a taxi other than to be closest to where the taxis might enter the complex which of course kept creeping further and further away!  Not great network planning French Transport People.

Anyway – 0130 at the hotel, 0450 alarm set to make sure I’m all packed and downstairs by 0515, which of course meant I was wide awake by 0430 in anticipation of the alarm.  Sigh… it’s always the way.  Taxi turns up and ‘Out madam, non probleme.’ Off we whisk to the airport, only at some point his Waze tells him that there are blocked roads ahead and he tries twice to get around it before doing a complete 180 and heading back where we came from.  I’m overtired and rather cranky, but with it enough to know that I should check my seat belt when he starts barreling along a highway doing 140km to make up the lost time.  The fare which should have been 15-17mins, ends up being more like 25 and he wants €59 for getting lost. Twice!  I put in on the credit card, and he says ‘No tip?’ And I say, ‘Yeah right, you were lost and speeding and you want a tip?’  First bit of shitty customer service since we got to France.  Wanker.

After rushing to get to the airport for the 0530 requested check-in, I find myself in a queue of about 250 people being checked-in by TWO airline staff.  By the time I get to the top of the queue, I’m well and truly over being on my feet and my back is reminding me that we sat in Great Seats but seriously shitty chairs for several hours the night, so much so that the guy checking me in asks if I am okay… I tell him I am in great pain and he lets on that the flight is over-booked and he will try and move me to business class and I think my day is looking up because a little more space would be appreciated when I’m in in a lot of pain.  I then go rough security and customs and all that rigmarole, down to the boarding gate and it’s literally now 0710 and boarding has commenced.  Onto the plane we go, the lady at the gate gives me a new boarding pass for the business class seat and says, ‘No meal.’  I haven’t eaten but I don’t really care so I take my seat.  The business breakfast come out and look like carbs on carbs with a carbs motif anyway, so hard pass.  The economy section of the plane gets offered a selection of things to purchase (but I didn’t notice this until the connecting flight).

Arrive in Frankfurt – a little late. Urgh… stairs down onto the tarmac and a bus to get to the terminal.  My 50 minute layover now whittled down to 30 mins and suddenly it’s hurry up and get to the right gate again.  We arrived at Terminal 1, A Gates and I needed to be at B24, which turns out to be in an entirely different building, cleverly hidden by a 1.5-2km underground tunnel that isn’t really on the airport map. I make it to my flight and have a passing through for whether or not my luggage has made it, and settle in for the remaining 2.5hrs to Bucharest.  Make a vague attempt to sleep, get handed a bottle of water and for whatever reason – there is no food offerings on this flight.  It’s getting a little ridiculous at this point, the last thing I had to eat was at 2pm the previous day before the concert where we got too distracted to find dinner Saturday night and then it was too late to find anything.

So I turn up in Bucharest after an uneventful flight with an uncomfortably hard landing and lo and behold… no Luggage!  The little telltale Air Tag tells me it never left Frankfurt.  Fuckity, fuckity, fuck fuck!  I have a airport transfer booked and he’s getting antsy waiting for me in the arrivals hall and I’m trying to wait in the line of other people’s whose luggage was also lost and get an email saying – ‘We’ve located your luggage in Frankfurt’ like they’re fucking proud of their efforts or something.  So I click through a form on the website and lodge a request to have it sent to the hotel in Bucharest when it finally turns up, and go out to meet my cranky driver in a cranky mood myself.

Buckled in once again for another crazy drive with another crazy person at the helm but at the end of it there is Angus and hugs and a few hours of rest.  In the meantime, I get some emails from Lufthansa saying my bag had been booked on a later flight and would be arriving in Bucharest at 1800, and I’m thinking I don’t trust these bastards to get that suitcase to me by the morning.  So Angus spoke with our guide, Gorgi who said we should head to the airport to pick it up before we went for dinner.  Sounded like a good plan at the time.  The AirTag was telling me it was located in Bucharest Airport from 1815 as we head out there and you’d think this would be a ‘Here is my luggage tag in exchange for a suitcase’. kinda deal – but you’d be wrong!  There is no outside customer service desk for claiming lost luggage, just a courteous phone with a bunch of numbers for different airlines.  NONE of which were answering, not even when we tried customer service numbers for the airline in Germany or the offices located in Bucharest.  Which meant, we ended up loitering outside the border restricted area and literally jumping on every single employee who was swiping to go into the restricted area to send out some goddamn Lufthansa staff.  

There were four of us all waiting on luggage, two of us standing there with our iPhones showing them where out suitcases are on the AirTag apps.  EVENTUALLY – after roughly 45 minutes of haranguing staff – someone agreed to sign me in (with my passport) and let me locate my bag and get the fucking hell out of there.  Which took all of three minutes once I got someone’s attention.  You’d really think there would be some sort of, oh I don’t know, System (TM) in place for reconnecting people with their belongings when this happens, which I understand it does with alarming regularity. :/

It was quite 20:45 by the time we got out of the airport and were trying to find somewhere for dinner.  Georgi, bless his cotton socks was suggesting we get out of the bus in the middle of a busy section of town, walk about 1km to a food court in a shopping centre, when I shanghaied the entire group by encouraged them to go to a wee Italian trattoria which was about 100m from where the bus was parked.  We had a nice risotto and some truly dreadful house red wine before getting back to the hotel around 23:30 and collapsing in a heap!

And all this because I wanted to go to Rammstein.  Such a pain in the arse!  And I’d do it all again tomorrow if it meant going to see that concert!

Post Pandemic Transit Time

Well, I’ve finally made it out of the country and back on the road. Travelling feels both intrinsically different and yet inherently familiar at the same time – as oxymoronic as that sounds.

I’d been watching the travel nightmare stories on the news over the last few weeks and armed myself with very low expectations of a) arriving anywhere remotely near my scheduled arrival time and b) my suitcase managing to make it to the end with me. Those pictures of the ‘Heathrow Luggage Carpet’ were a bit hard to ignore and did not exactly instil confidence. In an attempt to ameliorate being left standing around a baggage carousel waiting for luggage that no one could locate, I have picked up some AirTags and popped one in my suitcase. At least I’ll know whether or not it is there and be able to decide to leave without it or not? *shrug*

First leg was a domestic hop BNE to SYD because business airfares to London ex BNE were $2-3k more than going from SYD when I was booking. The plan to fly business was in part because I’m nowhere near travel fit! Two years of being stuck at home, and recent surgery on my hands meant I am trying to take it easy as possible. I got a message saying to be at the airport 90mins before my domestic flight due to ‘peak demand at this time’ only to get there at 0930 for a 1100 flight to find a completely concourse, both at the check in, and security screening. Either I am the only idiot who was doing what they recommended or the recommendation is an overreaction. Meh… just popped into the Qantas lounge wait.

Boarding call to head to the gate and there I found ALL the people and barely 2 in every dozen people were wearing a mask. It feels awful to be surrounded by maskless people coughing and sniffling when you know Covid cases are still around 5000-6000 each day in Qld and you know 20 people died from Covid yesterday and another 19 died today. People have just given up. There is a mask requirement in place, but no one is policing it at all. The flight to Sydney was uneventful. While everyone was reminded repeatedly to wear their masks on the plane when they’re not eating – I’m getting the feeling the policy is an effort to protect the staff more than the passengers at this point. Don’t care, whatever makes everyone keep their mask on while we are stuck in the plane!

Now because my hands are still lacking in strength, I had decided to jump into a taxi to get from the Domestic to the International terminal, rather than taking the free shuttle and having to heft my bag about and possibly end up standing and having to hang on. I planned to give the driver a generous tip for the convenience to me and the pain in the arse I knew it was for him to return and go to the back of the cab queue. I told the cabbie that I only needed to go to the International terminal and he loaded my bag and I got in the car and he started driving and then said “The meter isn’t working ma’am, it has technical problem, but you can still pay by credit card and I can still give you receipt, ok?” Now I’m immediately doing that internal sigh thing you do when you know someone is about to try and rip you off… and I said to him, “Legally you’re required to have a functioning meter – should this car even be on the road if the meter doesn’t work.” He started pfaffing with it saying “It sometimes work, sometimes not, ma’am.” He then logs into his system and surprise the surprise the meter is working. I watch as he clicks a few buttons and it says $9.90 and then turn to my phone, I look back up as we are nearing the end of our three minute drive and it says $35.40. I said to him, “Excuse me, why is the meter saying this trip is $35?” He replies: “It’s the airport tolls, ma’am.” We’ve driven <5km I argue with him saying we haven’t gone through any tolls and definitely didn’t drive under any toll gates, so please break down the fare for me. He claimed it was $5.50 flag fall, $4.40 airport fee and then the three minute drive and the tolls. I responded by saying: “What’s your cab number, please?”, as I leaned forward to photograph his meter and ID. He said “4116, ma’am.” Followed by a pause, then says “Why?” And I responded by saying I work for a transport consultancy and we work with taxi companies all the time, and that his company is one of our main clients. That I didn’t appreciate him trying to rip me off like this, that the fare should be barely $15-18, and that the last cabbie I reported for trying to rip me off got fired. Well, didn’t he back pedal… He spent the remainder of the drive into the International Terminal apologising and saying he won’t charge me the tolls and saying over and over, “Please don’t report me, ma’am. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I said I’m not paying more than $20 for this trip and that is being generous, I gave him both barrels about ripping off tourists and giving a bad impression to the city and our country, and landed on blasting him on, “You wonder why everyone prefers to use Uber now!” He just kept saying “Please don’t report me, ma’am. I’m very sorry ma’am.” … meh, by that point it was too late, he’d already been reported to his head office. Why does shit like that keep happening? I swear I don’t have single good cab story in the last six years (come to think of it since the market became saturated with ride share options).

Anyway, I leave the sad cabbie and head into the terminal to find the Sri Lankan Airline checkin counter – and it’s not open. :/ I arrived in SYD about 1300 and my flight had been scheduled to leave at 1630 but I had received a notification that it was now leaving at 1825 so the check-in counter wouldn’t be manned until 1530 which is a pain in the arse and there is zero seating on the public side of the terminal. It was then that the one staff member who was at the counter said, “Your flight isn’t leaving until 1955 now.” *ugh* I managed to go for a wander and find a seat near a family who were at least pretending wear their masks and figured I just had to wait it out… Eventually, 1530 rolls round and I’m (yay, business class) in a very short queue, I check in and head towards security, where that was an enormous hidden queue as 3 out of a possible 17 security points were open. Staff shortages were evident everywhere. Eventually get through security and get myself settled into the Qantas Business Lounge – but not before a ‘discussion’ with the front desk who was “sure we don’t have reciprocity with Sir Lankan Airlines”. Oh yes, yes you do! Another long wait ensues in the lounge but at least this time there is a comfy chair and free alcohol… what are you gonna do.

Eventually we are loading onto the plane and I gotta say, I don’t like the attitude of my fellow passengers with the business seats – they’re literally pushing people out of the way and barging through the crowd to make sure everyone knows they’re the ‘not like them’ waiting around for economy rows to load. One guy was tut tutting the whole time as people were trying to get their tired and confused children to comply and get out of his way and they just seemed boorish… I was trying to fade into the walls and not be all forward. I mean, I’ve flown business plenty of times before but obviously not often enough to be all pushy and entitled about it.

Sri Lankan business class is all of 28 seats or so and there was about 10 of us in the cabin. So I have to say the service was excellent. By the time we got boarded and champagne’d (and I use the term lightly, as they serve some hideous sparkling white wine from India which I did not want a second glass of!), I could feel the days ‘hurry up and wait’ fading away and I settled in for our 11 hour flight to Colombo, leaving only four hours after the originally scheduled departure. Meal service was swift and polite. Food options were excellent and the meal I chose was very tasty. The inflight entertainment was neither here nor there as I had my iPad loaded up with TV shows and movies. I watched about 4 episodes of This Is Us and then lay my seat down to go to sleep… and jesus titty fucking christ if that isn’t the best thing on a long haul flight ever, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! The seat reclines fully flat and you can roll and sleep on your side comfortably if you want to.

Next thing you know, I’m being woken for the inflight service prior to landing. We were originally scheduled to arrive in Colombo at 2300 local but instead were arriving at 0130… not sure how that works, leave four hours late and arrive barely two and a half hours late, but I do know we were at 40,000 for most of the flight and the pilots seemed to have the hammer down. All good, we get to Colombo at the appointed ungodly hour and I silently thank Mr K for suggesting that I book an in-airport hotel for an 8 hour stay as my flight didn’t leave until 1300… until that is, it got pushed forward to 1215 and then pushed back to 1400. I don’t know – but this time I’ve given up on the schedule and am just hovering about hoping the staff don’t let me miss my flight. The Serenediva Airport Hotel was nice and tidy, their fancier rooms being all booked out, I found myself in a lime green abomination with a comfy bed and a clean hot shower. I managed to get to sleep around 0230 and didn’t wake up until 0800.

I still had a few hours until I had to leave the room, but desperation for a cup of tea without long life milk drove me out of the room at 0930 towards the Sri Lankan Airlines Serendib Business Lounge. Best cup of tea I’ve ever had – shouldn’t have been surprised… we are in Sri Lanka! Managed to amuse myself in the business lounge for hours, aided by the recliners in the Quiet Room and the chatty ladies in the ‘foot massage’ corner… yes, the Serendib Business Lounge in Colombo has a partitioned off room where you can get a free foot massage. Damn, but this international travel on a business ticket is something I could get used to! Eventually it’s time to load again and we are advised to head to the gate. Again, some of my ‘fellows’ at the front of the plane are acting like entitled parts – once even asked someone to move out of the gate seats set aside for business passengers so they could sit down and wait the ten minutes before we board completely oblivious to the fact that this poor soul may have been stuck in that seat for literally hours between their connections.

Second leg was as uneventful as the first. Lovely service; the Purser even came and introduced himself and asked if I needed anything at all to make my flight more comfortable. I asked for some fresh masks if they had any, and he came back immediately with three… never mind I’m the only person wearing one at this point. Weirdly after my day of doing very little in the lounge, I managed to doze off and on in my flat bed most of the way to London. I was already aware that I had never done a long haul and arrived so free of back pain before – I couldn’t believe how well I pulled up when we got into London. I had sore feet, (but that fibromyalgia shit doesn’t really go away and there had been queueing on concrete, but my back felt pretty good.

Arrive in London at 2230 – again I don’t know how we leave so late and get there nowhere near as late, but I wasn’t complaining. Walked straight through to passport control, no lines, did the passport/photo thing, walked through to the baggage hall anticipating disaster and noted there was a lot of unattended luggage laying about but made a dash to the bathroom while I waited to see what horror was going to ensue. Came out of the loos and stood near baggage carousel number two feeling a bit, ‘yeah what are the odds’, and opening up the Find My Stuff app to see where my suitcase might be (half expecting it to show up as being in Colombo still!). To my surprise, I opened the app, and it showed my suitcase with ‘with me’, I looked around for less than ten seconds and spotted my bag. Unbelievable. With a small laugh, I collected it and waltzed through customs. Without a doubt one of the BEST transits I’ve even done, even though it was a full 46 hours since I left my front door! My previous record of a hideously painful 40 hour trasnit from Quetta to Brisbane left for dust.

Came out the doors to be greeted by a cheerful Stephola who sped us off proficiently through the London traffic to her little village whereupon we had a couple of calming drams of Hellfire Sloe gin and then sleep. 🙂

It’s good to be out and getting ready to see new things again – but yeah, I am so not travel fit! It’s gonna take a awhile to get back in the swing of things.

Back to Marrakech

We had a lovely relaxed morning in Essaouira yesterday before making our way back to Marrakech by public bus.  I knew that this trip had some public transport in it – and initially, I was thinking, ‘Well, that could really suck’.  But turns out I was concerned for no reason… this is not Turkey c.2007 apparently – the bus driver is not allowed to smoke, use his phone and drive in the middle of the road here – so me and Moroccoan ONCF bus services can remain friends. The transit was the best type of transit. Uneventful.

Our group checked into our various hotels – most of us at the Moroccan House Hotel in Marrakech, and we checked into the Trois Palmieres, some four doors up from the rest of the group.  There was something about the very noisy electrical box in Room 45 that made us feel like the hotel might burst into flames or electrocute one of us when plugging in a phone that made us not want to stay there again.  We had informed Intrepid, but they didn’t seem to share our safety concern, so we just ended up repaying for the booking.  It was a good move; worrying about spontaneous combustion is rarely conducive to sleep (all that watching the bushfires unfold on the news back home was probably not helping).

Tonight was the last night of our tour and a farewell dinner with the group.  Across the two back to back groups, we have been fortunate to be travelling with simply wonderful groups of people, from London, New Zealand, Brisbane, California, Melbourne, South Africa, Quebec, Ukraine, Greece and Victoria, BC.  And of course, our Intrepid leader, Samirr who is originally from the High Atlas Mountains, but now lives in Marrakech.  We don’t usually do group tours like this, so were pleasantly surprised to have met such a lovely bunch of people – we have been duly warned by others who have travelled with Intrepid, G-Adventures and Peregrine a lot, that this is not always the case!  Most of them were seriously happy to have been with such a harmonious group too. We had a lovely dinner, shared contact details and there were hugs all around.  It’s weird how you can get to know people so quickly – I’m going to miss my morning hug from Chris.

Anyway, we had some work today do while in Marrakech, and then it was one last foray into the medina for some last-minute shopping. I have to admit that after our madhouse experience here just before New Years, I wasn’t really looking forward to it.  I mean, we were told that town is busy on the weekends, and it would be much quieter when we came back on a Tuesday… but even I hadn’t anticipated this quiet: Gone was the soundstage with the makeshift concert venue set up for 40,000 people, gone were most of the snake charmers, monkey handlers, watermen, spruikers, and the heaving tide of humanity that we pushed through when we were here last.  The place was just eeriely quiet.  This is 10am on a Tuesday in Marrakech’s main square!

Even once we dove into the medina, it was predominantly empty!  Which was both great – no crowds of locals and tourist to push through, and also not great – we were the lone target for the few pushy shopkeeps we did encounter.
Literally, shop after shop, empty. Guess what Dr Nick?  I have made it through three weeks in Morocco surrounded by gorgeous pashmina and haven’t bought a single one!  Not even under the pretence that it’s a gift for someone else… who would have thought such a thing could ever happen!  🙂 
After our rather quiet (and I have to admit, pleasant) trip into the medina, we went to pick up some laundry and do a few errands before it was back to the hotel to play Tetris with the luggage – that’s always my job.  Making it all fit in.  We normally make sure we don’t buy things that need to be declared when coming back into Australia – it always just reeks of too much effort when you’re shattered from the long haul, but the handicrafts here have defeated us and we have several things that need to be declared, so I have carefully packed those for easy access at customs.

Saw this sign and remembered that I have failed to mention that Morocco still has barber-surgeons… you go to the barber for your haircuts, shaves and basic dentistry etc.  Yeah… you first. Spent the afternoon getting some work underway and packing.  After that, though, we were too stuffed to go out to hunt and gather for food.  So this is what we ordered from room service at our hotel – a Scillian pizza (with way too much capsicum and missing the requested anchovies), a kefta tagine (which was very tasty) and some Moroccan goats cheese and herb briouats (little filo pastry pies).  It was extremely tasty.

I’ve found a nice looking recipe for a kefta tagine that I’m going to have to try out when I get home.  https://tasteofmaroc.com/moroccan-meatball-tagine-tomato-sauce/
After this, we managed to find a movie on the TV, (‘Man on a Ledge’, in English) and aimed for an early night.  So much for that!  Woke up at 04:17 and haven’t been able to get back to sleep which seriously sucks when I am facing a 24hr+ transit starting around 11:00.  :/

Transit to Chefchaouen

This morning we left Fez behind and set off in a private bus (thank fuck for that – the original itinerary said we’d be on public transport!) for Chefchaouen. The private bus was so we could stop here and there and check out a few things on the way, have a picnic lunch somewhere and take our time… it’s not my preference to turn a 4 hour drive into a 6 hour one, but if it saves us from squishing in with 50 or more, and a driver who’s likely on his phone and smoking while whipping around the mountains on the local bus, then I’m down with that.

We had a few photo stops on the way, this is one of the water reservoir dams that feeds Fez.  You can see the waterline is way down on ‘what it is supposed to be at this time of year’. We also made a stop at an orange orchard so we could buy a few fresh oranges for our picnic.  The oranges here are lovely, you can get large, cheap glasses of fresh orange juice in restaurants everywhere and the juice tastes slightly more like mandarins than the oranges at home. Everytime we get into the countryside, I can’t believe how green everything is…. the grass is lush and green, the trees are green, the stock looks fat and healthy… the drought at home is quickly brought into stark contrast. Another stop we made was at an olive press co-op.  Some of the smaller local farmers don’t have the expensive machinery required to press olives, so they bring their harvest here and their bags are numbered.  They then wait their turn and put their olives through the press.  The air felt thick and kinda slimy… the ground is literally dripping in olive oil.I actually disllike olives, which is weird for me as I usually love savoury and salty foods.  The smell here was getting to me quite a bit.  Bags of olives belonging to different farmers. A couple of the men who worked here – their clothes are soaked through with olive oil, their hands and faces black with oily gunk.  This must be one of the few largely automated processes we have seen in Morocco so far… until now, it seemed like nearly everything is done by hand.
The first press olive oil is thick and green. Everyone was offered a bit of bread to try it, along side other oils that had been processed for the second time and third time. I quite like my extra virgin olive oil, but not being a fan of things that actually taste like olives, I gave it a miss (good thing that turned out to be – at least two in our group said they paid for it as it went right through them and they were running for the bathroom a few hours later). Anyway, back on the bus and a few kilometers down the road we stopped for a picnic lunch. Before leaving Fez, we went to an enormous supermarket and all picked up some tidbits for lunch.  We had some very tasty sandwiches and wraps with meats, cheeses, nuts, dates, figs etc. We even managed to buy some drinks so many had picked up some beers to have with lunch. Hay stacks for the winter.  Everywhere, you could see enormous rows of prickly pear.  They use it for a few different purposes – hedgerows are grown to make fencing to keep their animals in.  The plant itself is eaten in some dishes, and the flowers are used for a natural dye.  At home it’s a noxious weed. About another hour or so down the road and we arrived at Chefchaouen.  Chefchaouen is nestled between two mountain peaks – the word itself actually means ‘two mountian horns’ – and is located at 560m above sealevel, about 70kms from the Mediterranean to the north and 130kms from the Atlantic to the west. From this lookout we could see some glimpses of the blue walls this city is so famous for. We arrived at our hotel Darechaouen and were greeted with cups of Moroccan mint tea and date cookies while they sorted the rooms out.

We found ourselves being escorted to a lovely suite room with a large living room attached and a huge ensuite.  Very nice!

After everyone had settled in, we went for a bit of an orientation walk around the town.  Firstly up to see the mountain spring that feeds the town with fresh water.
After the winter snow melts, this spring will have twice as much water pouring from it. Directly to the left of these four ladies was a bench with four men, presumably their husbands… “What you talking about?” – “Shopping” … “What you talking about?” – “Football”

Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 as a small kasbah (fortress) to fight the Portuguese invasions of northern Morocco.  Many local tribal people, Berbers and Ghomara peoples, as well as Moriscos and Jews, settled here after the Spanish Reconquista in the medieval period.  In the early 20thC (c1920) the Spanish seized the city to form part of Spanish morocco.  Spanish troops imprisoned local leaders in the kasbah for several years and there is a decidedly Spanish influence to a lot of the local architecture and food etc.
The blue walls are what draws the tourists to town – it makes a stunning backdrop for photographs and is reminiscent of the blue-trimmed whitewashed walls of Santorini or Mykonos.  No one is entirely sure why the walls are painted blue – there are several theories though.  One popular theory is that the blue keeps the mosquitos away, another is that the Jews introduced the blue when they took refuge here from Hitler’s regime in the 1930s.  Another is that the blue paint was brought down as leftover paint from what was used to paint fishing boats to the north.  And yet another theory is that the blue symbolizes the sky and the heaven to serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life.  However, some locals apparently say that the town mandated walls were to be primarily painted blue simply to attract tourists at some point int he 1970s… which while far less whimsical, is probably far more likely.
And it works.  Chefchaouen is a very popular tourist destination, partly due to its proximity to Tangier.  There are over two hundred riad and hotels to cater for the influx of tourists – once largely catering to the European tourists (lots of Spanish arrive here at Easter and Christmas holidays), but now more commonly the Chinese tourists are here for their photos too.  

The region is also known for its native handicrafts that are not seen anywhere else in Morocco, particularly Berber style woollen garments, rugs and woven blankets. Want to see my scoot?! The surrounding countryside is well known as a prolific source of ‘kief’ – marijuana, and as we walked the town you would semiregularly get a strong whiff of pot as you rounded a corner or walked past a shop. There are public fountains dotting the town that are gravity fed directly from the mountain spring – hundreds of years old, they have seen a lot of use. There are quaint little alleyways in every direction, most of them steep and because of the fountains located around the place, most of the walkways were slightly wet and rather slippery. Chefchaouen is also knowns for it’s remarkably varied and popular blue doors… so many gates and doors everywhere – some simple, some elaborately painted, some enormous and some so small I have to duck to go in. This (below) is one of the most famous photo spots in the city… Samirr warned us that if there were Chinese tourists here, we would ‘have to come back next year’ rather than wait for them to finish taking their photos.  The locals are completely over the habit of Chinese tourists to stand in front of any famous object and take fifty photos of themselves in a myriad of very posed positions (tbh, so am I – Iceland last year was a real test of patience on that front).

When we arrived here of course there were a handful of Chinese tourists hogging ‘the spot’ for their selfies and posing away for their friends with the camera… as soon as one moves out of the way, another will quickly jump in.  Samirr’s shoulders slumped and he said, ‘I guess we have to come back next year’.  Instead, as one (totally overdressed Chinese lady) was moving out of shot and another was about to move in, I very loudly and firmly said to their group ‘Thank you! Thank you!  No people for a moment please!’ and unexpectedly, it worked! They all held back while our group took a few photographs of the street with no people.  Samirr was impressed at my crowd management skills, our small tour group was pleased to have their chance at photos sans Chinese tourists, and I was simply stunned at the amazing beautiful blue colours of the steps on this tiny little street that attracts people from all over the world.

As we walked away from the area, everyone was thanking me for clearing the street, but after last year in Iceland where we would stand around patiently waiting for 10 to 15 minutes or longer, waiting for self-absorbed arseholes to get out of the way – I give up.  You obviously need to speak up or you just end up wasting time or missing out…  patented Mommy Voice for the win.

A little futher we came to an area of town selling pigments for the local craftsmen. I know it looks like the town is nearly empty in most of these photos – but this is just my judicious sense of timing.  Pick a spot and wait for the person to move right out of frame and *click* before someone moves into the left of frame.  But trust me, there were plenty of people around and the medina only became busier as the sun went down and the locals came to town for the restaurants and clubs.

The original 15thC kasbah which we may go visit tomorrow… The town’s main square, which is pretty much at the bottom of the steep medina.  Still.. there were further little alleyways winding further down the mountain and we were diving back into them to find a Berber carpet shop.  As tradition dictates, one must go carpet/rug shopping when in Turkey or Pakistan or India or Morocco and well, nearly everywhere from North Africa to the Subcontinent!
Abdullah, our host offered us all sweet Moroccan mint tea… very sweet this time and quite refreshing.  This is also part of the tradition, coming right before the selling!  In Turkey, I think they have much more success with the selling part, as they often ply customers with beer and raki instead.  Here, have a buzz, buy a rug! The group waiting for the rugs to start falling. And so they did… Abdullah*, threw down about fifty rugs in total, all of them locally made by Berber tribes, and in a wide variety of colours and sizes.  These rugs are unlike any I’ve seen before, predominantly kilim style and most of them asymmetrical in design – which makes me twitch like all giddyup.  So I was pretty safe from any unplanned rug purchases.

(*We were fairly confident that Abdullah was stoned off his gourd which was vaguely amusing.) Anyway after our rug shopping experience, where no one found anything they liked, we went to a restaurnt called, Restaurant Bab Ssour, for a lovely rooftop dining and some delicious local tagine dishes. The view across the medina from the rooftop terrace. Goat cheese is a speciality local dish, served with balsamic.  It was really good and had a smooth creamy texture.
Goat tagine with plums!  The meat was just falling off the bone and absolutely delicious. After our long day of driving followed by what was supposed to be a short orientation walk (6kms), we head back to the hotel for a vodka tonic and crashed in our big luxurious bed.