Beauty all around us.

Above Ambleside.

Nine days of hiking. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the available trails. We’ve moved a bit south to the very lovely market town of Kendal, known as the gateway to the Lakes District. The terrain here is less craggy and peaky, more rolling hills and sweeping vistas, but just as beautiful as the Lake District proper and with just as much amazing hiking.

Stone circle of Castlerigg.

The stone walls, the farm animals, our interactions with friendly hikers, and of course the pints at the pub garden at the end of our hikes have been keeping us well entertained. I’m fascinated with the many different types of stiles that get us over fences and walls while keeping the sheep and cattle contained.

Ladder stile over a wall.
Classic wooden stile over a fence.
A narrow gap with a tiny gate.
A very narrow gap, requires even Rich to squeeze through. This is actually called a squeeze stile.
One of my favorites, stone steps up a stone wall.
More robust steps, usually there is a small gap at the top, and here, a metal bar across the gap.
A rather fancy ladder and platform stile, outside Cartmel.

Along with clamoring over stiles we’ve opened, and correctly closed and secured many gates. Many many gates. So many gates we joke that we now have masters degrees in gate-ology.

The farmers depend on hikers properly closing gates. We make sure we do.
A kissing gate, it simply swings and requires no securing.
I appreciate these signs educating hikers about the animals in the fields.

We’ve had some lovely chats with other hikers. The fell runners and the one tarn (lake) swimmer we saw have impressed us with their hardiness. And, we’ve stopped to talk to hikers who are well into their 70s and 80s. We say to each other after those interactions, with luck that will be us, years from now, still happily hiking together.

Zoe, a 4 month old Jack Russel terrier, accepting a treat supplied by her human.

As we’d hoped, the Covid curve seems to have peaked here in the UK. We’re glad we’ve stayed in apartments and kept out of crowded places as long as we have. Yes we’ve had some very chilly pints and cups of tea outside, but it’s been the right thing for us to do.

A foggy view on the River Eea.

We’ve seen so much stunning countryside. This time in the Lake District in winter was not something we planned on, but we’re enjoying it so much. Travel in the time of Covid is stressful, we think we’re doing a good job keeping ourselves relatively calm and certainly well exercised.

Muddy boots and the green green hills of Cumbria.
Sunrise over the River Kent with Kendal Castle ruins on the hill. This is the view from our apartment.

What’s next? Back to our good friends in Wales. After that, uncertain at this point. We need to get our COVID booster shots entered into the EU tracking system so we have the ability to abide by vaccination rules in France, as our current Pass Sanitaires are now invalid without the booster info being updated. It’s probably easiest to do this while in France. So, maybe France is next.

The happy travelers on the road to who knows where.

Day 22 on Survivor, COVID Island.

Leaving London for Liverpool on an early tube to train.

We joke. Sort of. This is an island, and the COVID rates are quite high. The prevalence of Omicron has changed how we’re traveling and what we’re doing. Travel from the UK to France is still not allowed, but Germany is again allowing travel from the UK. We had planned to go back to France but that was impossible. The testing requirements and test costs to go to Ireland put us off going there. So, hello Liverpool!

Hello Liverpool. By the Albert Docks, Museum of Liverpool in the background.
The River Mersey and a large ferry.
The historic wet docks of Liverpool.

Liverpool was recommended to us for its museums, and it has absolutely lived up to the recommendation. So far we’ve visited the Museum of Liverpool, The Tate Liverpool, The Walker Gallery, the Maritime Museum, which includes the International Museum of Slavery – so much to see that we went twice – and today the British Music Experience.

Old lock miter gates, not in use at this location but impressive to see.

Why so many museum visits? Well, they are quite good, and it’s dang cold out. We’re still walking a lot, so many interesting things to see here, but when you don’t have many options to warm up inside, it’s back to a museum. It helps that most of the museums are free. We always donate at the donation points but it means that popping in for an hour and to use the bathroom is easy.

Liverpool Cathedral is the largest cathedral and religious building in Britain. Seriously huge.
One of the many fascinating brick buildings around town.

We’re hoping the COVID rates will calm down in the next few weeks, but until then we keep on being safe and staying out of crowded pubs and restaurants. We’ve had lunch inside at empty restaurants, and cooked our own dinner in our hotel room kitchen, but mostly we bundle up and look for sheltered pub gardens and heat lamps.

Albert Dock – heat lamp and sheltered.
Rope Walks neighborhood for tea. No shelter, no heat lamp.
Pub garden, shelter and blankets, no heat lamps.
COVID cold weather unicorn: pub garden with shelter, heat lamps, and next door pizza take away. The lovely bartender even brings out utensils and a pizza cutter for our calzones.

We knew that travel during the time of COVID would be challenging and changeable, so we roll with it. Would we recommend a winter trip to Liverpool? It’s not the easiest time to be a tourist, but there is plenty to do here and the locals are very friendly. We’re so glad we got the opportunity to spend time here. I do miss sitting inside cozy pubs though.

The chilly but happy travelers.

We move on to the Lake District tomorrow to do some hiking. We’ll take the train and plan to rely on the reportedly very good bus system to get to and from hikes. As COVID testing and travel rules change frequently, we continue to make no firm plans, only scenarios.

Edinburgh has our hearts. Bring your walking boots.

Castle tour on a grey day. So lucky to have family to spend time with.

Edinburgh is a delightful city. The hills and stairways remind us of San Francisco- but with very different architecture. To see gothic spires dark against a cloudy sky, and the castle lit up with red lights as you turn to look back climbing a staircase reminds us how lucky we are to be traveling, even with the added challenges.

Who cares about a little rain? Not us. And not the locals apparently, not many umbrellas in sight, just jackets with hoods.

We’ve been in an apartment near Grassmarket with my sister and her youngest daughter, and what a joy to get to spend so much time with them, to light the fire after long walks and all curl up with books.

Dramatic skies from Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcano.
Rich and I took a bus ride out to Pentland Hills for a hike.
For years we’ve had a running joke about Scottish trail builders not believing in switchbacks. And here we are, going straight up the mountain.
As we climbed the fog thickened and the distant views were cloaked, but that made us notice the smaller vignettes instead.
Ice on the barbed wire.
Iced over grass.
Beautiful colors and my intrepid travel planner.

Even with COVID crimping plans a bit (no pub fireside sitting this trip) with all of us boosted and being cautious we did some indoor activities, such as tea at The Dome. An early time slot meant we were mostly alone. The Dome was decorated enough to satisfy even my love for Christmas cheer.

The former bank building takes a lot of garlands.
The Christmas tree at the bar does not disappoint. And there’s the dome.
Oh yes, there trays of yummy food.

In keeping with these COVID times we did stick to mostly outdoor activities. Please don’t think that’s a hardship in a place as beautiful as Scotland. In a city as dramatic as Edinburgh you want to spend a lot time exploring and stopping to look around.

Dean Village on the Water of Leith. My fellow happy travelers.
The Dean Bridge.

Traveling with a civil engineer means there will be pauses to admire impressive infrastructure. ”The bridge was one of the last major works before retirement of the bridge designer, civil engineer Thomas Telford, and was completed in 1831 when he was seventy-three years old.”

Edinburgh Castle from the western kirkyard shortcut – avoids the climb over the mound.
The wall of whiskey at The Drinkmonger. Another safe activity is buying and drinking whiskey.
No such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Rich shows how it’s done.
Greyfriars Kirkyard. Love the drama of bare branches against a grey sky.
The Happy Travelers on Arthur’s Seat. Fog light is quite flattering.

Today we bid farewell to Scotland and head to London for a week. After that, who knows. We’re eyeing a few places in the UK to do some hiking, or, if France decides folks coming from the UK can again enter France, back to Paris. Stay safe friends and family. Wherever we are we will stay safe as well.

How to have fun in the UK while staying safe? Stay outside.

The Tower Bridge and the recently boostered travelers.

The Eurostar from Paris to London delivered us to a world where Omicron was causing worry and rising cases. Our first task was our required COVID test, and our next task was to find a place to get our booster shots. A bit of on line searching led us to Guys St. Thomas hospital, some standing in line and some waiting in chairs, and two hours later we were boosted.

The unassuming site of our boosters. There was no charge even for foreigners, so we went on line and donated money to the hospital.

While we wait the seven days for our immune systems to ramp up their responses we stay out in the fresh, healthy, bracing, clean, cold, brisk outside.

Family! So lucky to have these two to spend time with. Walking the Regents Canal.
We visit outdoor beer gardens and order pizza, bundled up.
Order your pizza and meet their bicycle delivery person out front.
Walking on Hampstead Heath, the view from Parliament Hill.
Pint of cider at lunch in another pub garden.
Take out dinner in our hotel room. The glamorous side of travel during COVID. This made me feel for everyone who has quarantined in a hotel room during the time of COVID.
Masked up, windows open, enjoying the top deck of a London bus.

No lie, it freaks us out to see pubs and restaurants full of unmasked people enjoying themselves in London. We watch the COVID numbers rise and retreat even further into our safe behavior. With our Christmas plans shifting and changing we get on the tube and to the train station to head to Edinburgh.

Early Sunday tube ride.
The numbers of transit riders are down again in this new wave of Omicron.
At Kings Cross Station to get on a train to Edinburgh.
Auld Reekie. Edinburgh. Hello.
The Happy Travelers out in the fresh air of Scotland.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and stay safe all.

Last tourists out of Morocco, please report to the airport.

A very empty Marrakech airport. It is a beautiful airport.

How quiet was the Marrakech airport on December 12th, 2021? Birds. We could hear the chirping of little birds who had snuck into the terminal. We heard and saw them in the uncrowded check in hall, in the line-less security area, and out at the empty gates. They were flying around, perching on ductwork and light fixtures, and scouring the area for crumbs. With so few travelers they weren’t having much luck finding food. Flights had been curtailed for two weeks already, and the Kingdom had just announced an additional travel ban through the end of December.

Two days before, up in the Atlas Mountains. Still thinking our Dec. 14th flight would be flying.

A few days earlier we had rented a car in Marrakech after arriving via bus from Essaouira to spend two nights up in Inmil. We wanted to see the splendor of the Atlas Mountains. While out hiking on our first chilly morning in the mountains we got an e-mail from the US State Department telling Americans still in Morocco to leave or risk being stuck. Almost immediately on the heels of that email came one canceling our December 14th flight. Uh oh.

The travel planner springs into action. Out of the photo is the cell phone tower which made this quick action possible.

Rich got a flight booked after a tense bit of time with all operating airlines websites failing to work, and flights already booking up. Relieved, but not completely comfortable, we quickly hightailed it back to our Riad to pack and get back on the road. We needed to get a COVID test that day or early the next morning in order to be able to fly to Paris.

One last fun interaction with these young girls coming home from school who were thrilled to practice their French with us.

Our division of driving labor is Rich driving and me navigating. We made it down from the mountains and through Marrakech to the COVID test center with only one bobble. A slightly tricky trip down a crowded market street to get back on the main road on the correct side of the lab to park the car. That doesn’t sound as stressful as it was, with Rich having to thread the rental car between scooters, vendor carts, and pedestrians. We returned the rental car and Rich booked us in to the thankfully nearby Raddison Hotel. If ever there was a time to check into a comfort hotel this was it.

Waiting for our room while relaxing by the pool.

Oh yes, I failed to mention I was on the rocky road of food poisoning, with the worst yet to come. The distraction of scrambling to divert plans kept me propped up until the next day when I succumbed and took to bed.

Jardin Majorelle-Yves Saint Laurent Mansion. My only outing in Marrakech.
After this photo Rich put me in a taxi back to the hotel and headed out solo.
Jemaa el-Fnaa square. Normally packed with visitors, very quiet as viewed by Rich during his second breakfast.
Bahia Palace also eerily empty.

Once again we could feel the sense of despair from all the hospitality workers, knowing that no more visitors were able to come to Morocco. The taxi driver to the airport failed to turn the meter on and we didn’t even bother to protest or haggle, just paid, tipped, and wished him well. We were likely his last tourists for some time.

A few days short of our planned four weeks, but thanks to Rich’s amazing planning skills we saw a lot of Morocco.

While waiting in line at the airport to check in and check bags we struck up a conversation with a lovely mother son traveling duo who had come to Marrakech to spend three months and were also heading out early due to the shut down. We had managed to complete almost our entire hoped for itinerary, so we left with no regrets – except my food poisoning. They were headed to Bangkok via Paris and Amsterdam and had a 14 day quarantine to look forward to in Bangkok.

On the way to security screening. No crowd. Me keeping it together for travel day. Just.
Marrakesh Menara Airport’s gorgeous ceiling. In 2019 it handled over 6.3 million visitors.

And here we are in Paris. Another one of those culture shock travel days completed. Doing COVID testing and entry paperwork for each leg of our trip back to the UK adds another level of frustration to travel in the age of COVID. Rich keeps track of the ever changing regulations and makes sure we have printed copies for airport days. I’m sure the challenge of the paperwork and the cost of the testing is putting a lot folks off travel. We took a deep breath in Paris and enjoyed the Christmas feel I was missing in Morocco, before we dove back into on-line forms and registration of tests to get to the UK. Next stop, London and then Edinburgh.

The happy travelers in Paris, on to the next chocolate shop!

Stay safe , and Happy Holidays all.

It’s getting awkward…

Hello empty restaurant, we will be your only lunch customers.

Morocco welcomes about 6 million tourists a year, per 2019 numbers. That’s an average of 17,000 per day. When we arrived in November to Tangier we could tell that numbers were low, tourism was just picking up, but there were other tourists. Other folks at our Riad, other slightly stunned faces getting lost in the Medina, other tables at restaurants occupied by non locals.

Rich enjoying a lovely meal in Essaouira. One other group showed up at what is, according to reviews, a very popular and busy farm to table restaurant.

When the travel ban to Morocco was announced and the borders closed to incoming flights on November 30th, the numbers of other tourists started going down, and of course was not replenished. We were in Meknes when that news came, and we could tell the mood soured at the Riads and restaurants which had made themselves tourist friendly, only to be told once again they would be without tourists, without a livelihood.

The proprietor was very gracious and explained the limited menu being served. We were the only ones again.

Moroccans are some of the most welcoming and friendly people you will meet. It hurts us to see the numbers of travelers going down and down as folks find flights out, like a lovely Canadian brother and sister we met, or the nice guy from the UK who was on a 10 day trip. It’s more noticeable in a town like Essaouira, which is a very popular town with travelers and tourists.

The Medina is always interesting, and people were only kind and helpful.
The smart Medina cat sleeps by the large bags of cat food.

There is a sweet spot of travel which we seek out and love – not too crowded, off peak or shoulder season, places are open but not busy, locals aren’t overwhelmed with visitors – this is not that time. This is too empty. Restaurants not opening because why bother? Vendors with no tourist customers and no tourist money coming in. It feels awkward to be the only customers in a restaurant, the only non locals strolling the shop lined Medina streets. We feel so bad for the economic hit being taken and wish we could somehow make up for the missing thousands of tourists, but of course we can’t. So we are extra nice, we tip extra large, and inside we cringe.

This one looks like they take no nonsense from anyone, cat or human.
After six days in Essaouira Rich had committed the “grid” to memory. I just followed him.

We feel totally safe here, COVID numbers are low, vaccination rates are high, but we do hope that our planned December 14th flight out will happen, and Morocco will be down two more tourists. We’ve already decided that if for some reason we don’t get out, we’ll go to Rabat again, which is a city that doesn’t depend on tourists and where we could just live life without feeling so awkward.

Awkwardly happy travelers.

It’s an interesting and challenging time to be traveling. We knew that COVID wasn’t done with the world yet, and we had discussed a scenario such as this. Stay safe all, we’ve left the coast and are heading for the Atlas Mountains.

Essaouira easy life.

The travel planner leaping into the sunset.

Easy but not completely stress free. Although we have no jobs or children to get back to, and our friends and family will understand if we miss Christmas in the UK, it’s an odd feeling, not knowing if things will ease up or tighten down. Will we go or will we stay.

Horse and hounds and kite surfing.

We’re in an apartment in the Medina with a gorgeous view and a treacherous staircase. We go up and down saying big step, little step, medium, big, medium, medium, small – oh, big! It’s almost but not quite spiral to add to the fun. We look out to the ocean and the ramparts which were used in Game of Thrones. The rooftop terrace offers another stunning view, but the wind which makes Essaouira a windsurfing hot spot also makes terrace life a bit tricky. My glasses almost got swept off the table and out to sea.

Wine glass holding firm against the wind on the rooftop terrace of the second apartment.
Somewhere along these ramparts the Mother of Dragons did her thing.
Sunday morning at low tide there were so many Football games going on. The wide beach at low tide is a great games field.
Another beautiful sunset.
We spend some time watching the tides.
We spend time on the beach.
We spend time greeting kitties in the Kasbah.
The view from our living room where we sit and read. Rich’s feet added for scale.
Essaouira. Sure is easy on the eyes, say these happy travelers.

We head to Marrakech in a few days, and maybe on a flight on to the UK a few days after that. Rich is busy figuring out what the current requirements are, and where and when to get our COVID tests. But for now we are happy here in Essaouira, eating good food, going on beach walks, and enjoying our little apartment.

Oh-Ohmicron!

We headed out of Chefchouen on Thursday morning, and despite the light drizzle, decided to walk the mile or so out of the Medina down to the bus station.

CTM buses connect everywhere

It was nice to stretch out the legs before the 4+ hour trip to Fes via the generally pleasant and reliable CTM bus line.

Cheryl in her Cleverhood, perfect for rainy travel and keeping your pack dry too!
Bonus of a long bus journey is the midway food stop: amazing charcoal grilled spiced lamb…oh so good!

We could have also taken a ‘petit taxi’, which are everywhere and serve mostly locals, often in shared rides. They generally don’t use meters, especially for tourists, so always agree a quick price before getting in; not much hassle, but it helps to know the ballpark fare by asking your Riad contact or researching online.

These sidewalks were made for walking

One thing we love about Morocco are the prevalence of good sidewalks on most city streets, even in some rural areas. They are often a non slip surface (sandstone?) and patterned in a brick and tan color; and often accompanied by nice street lights.

Sidewalks even good enough for these cats

Chefchaouen had more tourists than Tanger and Tetouan (almost zero!), so it was interesting to see how a more tourist oriented mountain town was recovering from from pandemic travel impacts.

Heading up into the Rif Mountains

It has a lot going for it besides the picturesque blue and tidy Medina. There is lots of good hiking nearby, even right from town. The Rif Mountains dramatically rise thousands of feet above and were shrouded in a magical autumnal cloud mist.

Some young new friends who probably haven’t seen many tourists in past 20 months…lots of smiles and English practice.

We have learned that hiking and outdoor activity is always a huge boost to our mental state when embarking on more culturally foreign travels. So we were pleased to get in a nice few hours of hiking up beyond the Spanish Mosque.

Waiting for tea at the aptly named Cafe Panorama, which is well disguised as a family homestead.

Admittedly, we headed to Fès with a bit of Medina burnout. But after setting out into the pre Jummah (Friday prayers) frenzy of the markets on a Thursday afternoon, we were soon both jolted back into sensory overload.

The Bronze Market in Fès

The scale; scents, sights, and sounds of the vegetable, meat, spice, and trade markets that spread out along the Medina edge near our Riad and the Place r’cif was surreal and a travel moment we won’t soon forget.

A calm section of the Fès Souk

But we woke up the next day to the news of the new variant, and both realized that the fragile recovery of much of the world may be pushed back again. It makes us immediately sad for those we have met in our travels that really depend on tourism, as well as parks, conservation, and resources.

Live snails by the scoop

All flights are cancelled out of 8 Southern African countries and restrictions popping up elsewhere quickly. But with Omicron cases showing up in other counties, it’s just too soon to make a drastic decision. The safest decision would have probably been to stay in San Francisco…but that ship has long sailed! So where to go and what to do?

Long bean soup in a bubbling clay pot by the Creek – the perfect post hike treat

Options to return to Europe or the US may prove to be less safe or the variant may prove not a game changer in risk with the vaccinated. Or it may be worse? So we’ve decided to press on for now, unless the state department really advises to leave. Morocco still has very low COVID rates and a relatively high vaccination success at ~65%.

Bab BouJeloud (“Blue Gate”) in Fes: the Medina gates used to close at 6pm and you had to get permission to enter into by the gatekeeper!

We also just heard that flights into Morocco have been suspended for two weeks! Everyone here dependent on travelers is visibly depressed. We feel so bad for them and everyone suffering through the past 20 months. And especially as the European holiday season was approaching.

We’re not sure how this might impact our ability to get out of the country, but we’ll be just down the street from the US Embassy in Rabat, so can just go knock on the door, right?! Stay tuned and stay safe!