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!

Seville

Of course I start with an orange tree.

I had heard that the street trees in Seville are orange trees, Seville orange trees, the bitter oranges used to make marmalade, but I hadn’t expected quite so many orange trees.

Oranges and moorish architecture.

How many oranges trees? Reports vary, 14,000? 25,000? They do well in the climate and provide shade year round. Important in the hot summer months.

Orange trees surround a peaceful plaza.

The city employs people to gather the dropped oranges, and recently has started using the fruit to create electricity through fermentation. Most Seville oranges grown in the region are exported to Britain to make marmalade. But there are plenty on the streets here for youngsters to use as impromptu footballs. The scent of blossoms must be lovely in the spring.

I did my best to help out, having marmalade with breakfast and buying chocolate covered orange peels.

We also did our best on the tapas front. Vegetarians look away. Wandering the narrow streets we looked for small places where we could sit outside or in a window and watch the street life. One spot took us 3 evenings to get into, it was very small. The first evening we went at 8pm – ha! Good luck. The second evening we tried at 6:30, nope – already full. Finally we got there at 5:50 and scored a table in a window.

Note the jamón legs hanging above the bar.
Jamón ibérico. Now hanging out on our table.
We did it, got into the tiny bar.

Mission accomplished and appetites calmed we headed out to a flamenco performance on International Flamenco Day. It was just an hour long and stunning.

They wisely forbade photos until the very end when they said photograph away. I imagine it would be super distracting to look out at the audience and see phones held aloft.

We walked. And walked. And walked the narrow streets. Some so small I could touch both walls, some wider with cars just squeezing through, tires squealing as they slowly hit the curbs.

No cars here.
Rich added for scale. The narrow street leading to our hotel.
I need to start asking for a different pose.
Ah, there we go. Jumping for joy in a car free street.
Lunch outside in the Triana district.
Happy travelers. Off to Morocco next.

The Engineer as Hero

Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.

Engineers are great, aren’t they….

We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.

In the Dry Dock – that’s water up there!

I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.

Brunel chose to use a new and highly efficient propeller for the SS Great Britain, shaving weeks off a Transatlantic journey

You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.

The Kitchen…spooky realism abounds, as even rats can be seen moving about the cupboards.

The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)

Morning dew on Brandon Hill, Bristol

Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.

Proper tea and a scone at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath

Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.

As much as you want to, you shouldn’t touch the water at the Roman Baths

After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)

The Temple Gardens out the back door of our hotel

After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we deduced to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.

The Castle Bridge opened in 2017, offering an inspiring human powered crossing of the Bristol Harbour (but still not enough bike parking!)

But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge and is key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, a his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.

The 1,300-foot long Clifton Suspension Bridge soars more than 300-feet above the Avon Gorge…so nice!

But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!

London weekend.

Favorite thing about London? The transport. Transport for London (TFL) has quite a task keeping the underground, overground, and all the amazing buses moving. Once again, Citymapper for the London win. Using that app allows us to get anywhere in London on any mode. Turn by turn call out bike directions, we love you, especially the dock to dock bike share feature. As Rich notes, that was the missing piece when using bikeshare and directions. If you aren’t using Citymapper as your preferred transit/mobility app, give it a try, we think it’s the best.

Backpack mode in the tube. It was a shock to have everything on our backs instead of on our bikes.

We met up with one of our fantastic nieces for lunch and a walk. We biked around on the cycle share Boris Bikes, also known as Santander Cycles. we went to the Imperial War Museum and lost track of time in the amazingly well curated World War 2 exhibit. We didn’t take many photos. Too busy enjoying the city.

After lunch walk on the Grand Union Canal. I have a thing for narrow boats and locks.

The Imperial War Museum reminded us of how great museums can be. The WW2 exhibit was next level curating. Diverse, engaging, and accessible. It made me want to write a sternly worded email to the Louvre about the problems we saw there while visiting Paris. We had been in the Louvre for about 3 hours when my wonderful husband said “Do they even exhibit any female artists?” And I thought I was the staunch feminist in this marriage! Good question, I replied, proudly. The top item on my sternly worded email to the Louvre would be a request that they call out in a map, or with specifically marked or colored description tags, the few female artists they have on display.

London bikeshares.

When I did an online search for information on female artists at the Louvre it turned out we had noticed several, without being aware that they were works by female artists. I don’t believe any of the art covered in the needlessly complicated audio guide, (Nintendo based, a big hit with the mostly over 55 users I’m sure), was woman painted. Next in my email I’ll mention the badly laid out cloak room/lockers, lack of drinking fountains, lack of signage and directions, and the exit through the shopping mall with again, no signage on how to exit the shopping mall. The art is, of course, amazing, but the curation is not up to date. We certainly didn’t plan our Louvre trip very well, we never even made it to one wing – we simply couldn’t find it – but as Rich said, a well curated museum shouldn’t need a plan of attack. It should be more intuitive and obvious where you want to go.

Pub lunch photo taken by our amazing niece.

We have reveled in being able to communicate again with our move to English speaking UK. After so many weeks in countries where we spoke the language poorly (Rich’s French is pretty good, mine is awful), how nice to understand and be understood. It was also lovely to meet up with friends from SF, and our grad school attending niece. After many weeks of mostly each other for company we both enjoyed the time with friends and family. Where next? Off to Wales.

Reflections on the City of Light

We finally ditched our beloved bikes and rolled into Paris in style on the TGV from Annecy. Since we travelled on a weekend, my €49/year discount SNCF Carte Adulte offered first class for just a few Euro more than second, so first class it was with nice facing “Club Duo”. “Good train time per $!” as my friend Mike would say.

Upper deck of the TGV. Comfy (me) and stylish (the train)

Carrying our gear on our backs was quite a shock and we have both vowed again to rid our bags of even more things before we move onto to any travels further afield. Seriously!

French chocolates on the TGV

We chose to stay in the 10th Arrondissement, and were pleased with the choice as it spans a clear transitional world between the more traditional Parisienne neighborhoods such as the Marais to the more working class and immigrant neighborhoods. It is a fascinating mix of cultures, but clearly dealing with strong gentrification pressure. There is a palpable delineation between the older neighborhood residents and the new boho hipsters. The similar global urban story of businesses transitioning to serve the new residents, and the older residents being priced out. And maybe we are adding to the problem, or are we just supporting a variety of small businesses?

The backstreets of the 10th on a Sunday afternoon
Rue de Belleville on a warm fall evening

The neighborhood is also blessed with the lovely Canal Saint Martin, which is even more pleasant now that ped/bike priority streets have been added on both sides, and reminded us of the Panhandle in San Francisco. (with water and locks of course)

Canal Saint Martin

We explored Paris every day to a blissful exhaustion, but found rush hour walking tough, both on the busy boulevards and back streets, as sidewalks are single-file only with the usual urban bobbing and weaving. We also took a few trips on Lime e-bikes, and some of the new bike facilities are fantastic! But wayfinding and the intersections tough for first time Paris cyclists. Cyclists are everywhere and go in every direction, but are mostly looking and have tamed cars with their unpredictability and sheer quantity. We like that.

Lots of mobility options in Paris

By the way, as of November 2019, Velib does not accept US or Canadian credit cards, even with chips, chip and PIN, and card authorization through your cc company. Big bummer, as we tried numerous times ways and were thwarted. Apparently too much fraud??!

Morning on the Pont des Arts

We did hit a few of the major tourist spots, such as the Louvre and Sacre-Couer, but found exploring the edges of Montmartre more satisfying then the throngs by the famous stairs.

Tomb of Oscar Wilde, Père Lachaise Cemetery

I am still amazed how the A-list sites are absolutely inundated, yet one turn up a quiet side street can reveal hidden wonders and always find that in big cities, we prefer random neighborhood wandering, small museums and parks.

Our favorite bar in Montmartre which was delightfully out of central casting for 90s indie film!

France and the people we have met have been so kind to us, both on and off the bikes, and we are starting to feel a little more kinship and understanding with their perspective on living life, history, geography and the struggles to maintain liberté in the 2020s.

Au revoir et bon voyage!

What to eat along the way.

Week four of nearly daily cycling means quite a bit of eating and being sure we have plenty of water during the day. Breakfasts are mostly included at the hotels we stay at, so that’s one meal sorted each day.

A typical picnic lunch, but with an actual picnic table. Quite the timely find. Our hedgehog patterned tea towel/tablecloth/napkin, and the striped bag which has bamboo cutlery, a sharp knife, and a corkscrew are picnic necessities.

Our lunches are usually picnic style, with sandwiches purchased at a bakery in the morning. We feel qualified to critic sandwiches by county so far: Switzerland – too much mayo or salad cream or sauce! We resorted to scraping and squeezing excess goop off the sandwiches which were mostly purchased at supermarkets.

Sandwiches on board, ready for de-mayonnaising.

Switzerland doesn’t seem to have the quantity of bakeries we are enjoying in Germany. And, German ready made sandwiches are mostly mayo free. Butter on the bread holds up much better, and cucumber, lettuce, tomato and even a slice of hard boiled egg makes for a very nice lunch. Oh yes, and lovely seeded rolls! German sandwiches get the nod so far.

Apples have been a constant presence in my front bag.
We pick them here.
We pick them there.
The tall guy can pick them anywhere!
These little red ones with very white flesh are my favorite. The green ones with a touch of red are so tart!

Why so many apple trees along the roads? I’m not certain. We only pick from those that are obviously not part of an orchard which is someones living, and I’ve read a few different reasons for why so many apple trees dotting the landscape. Perhaps from 17th century laws requiring grooms to plant oak and apple trees before marrying, maybe the more common sense and practical notion that tree lined roads are lovely and apple trees do well. We also had a week of plums gleaned from trees in villages which were so overloaded they were dropping on the street.

Finding benches in the shade is a never ending quest. Should have removed my wet laundry from the back of my bike before taking this photo.

We have also learned the difficult and squabbling way that we have enough energy after a long day cycling to check in to a hotel, unpack (ie dump panniers upside on the floor), shower, and get drinks and dinner at ONE place. Not drinks at one place and move on to dinner at another – that doesn’t end well for hangry cyclists. Pick a place that meets both needs. Thankfully, Biergartens abound!

This pumpkin soup at a Biergarten in Beilngreis was fantastic.
Why yes, I am about to demolish this huge plate of food.

Stay well fed and carry plenty water, refill water when the opportunity presents itself, and happy pedaling!

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

It was not a long day biking to get here, but some good hill climbs, especially since the town sits on a ridge above the river. Let me amend that, the gorgeous town sits on a big ridge, far above the river.

Viewing the town and saying, oh yes, it is on a hill.
Rich riding through the tourists into town.
To our super cute hotel.

On the advice of Rick Steves, we went to view the alter carvings and paintings at St. Jakob’s church. St. Jakob is St. James, as in Camino de Santiago, or St. James’ Way.

St. James is the one with the scallop shell on his hat. Rich is the one with the mask on his face.
Statue outside the church. I’m not sure if this represents a pilgrim, or St. James himself.
His scallop shell and a finger shiny from being touched. (Yes, we did all the ‘pull my finger’ jokes.)
Camino markers outside the church. It is 2,102 kilometers or 1,300 miles to Santiago.

Rothenburg is one of three walled towns in Germany with an intact wall. And the town itself was spared from being too badly bombed during WWII by a quickly arranged surrender. The throngs of tourists attest to the charming nature of this town. The wall is amazing to walk, and our after dinner wall walk was thankfully quite free of thronging tourists.

Captivating views from the wall.
We were quite far along before I realized that Rich literally has his head in the rafters and has to bend down to see what shorter me sees.

We also took Rick Steves’ advice to skip the Schneeballen, the local pasty, but after a nice breakfast I did take some photos as we rolled out of town.

Breakfast with a view down into The Valley.
Closed up the morning we rolled out.
Couldn’t resist some photos.
Pasty dough deep fried is how it was described. I’m sure it’s delicious though.

The ride out of town to our next destination, Schwäbisch Hall, was 70k and three river valleys. But I didn’t think about the long day ahead as we rode over cobblestones to leave Rothenburg. Happy Pedaling.

Happy cyclist.
Ready to roll.
Stop for map check under the wall.

How to get off the tourist track.

Step 1. Bike tour. You end up staying places that are not A list, ones with no big attractions but lovely people and normal settings where you might be only tourists, and folks in the bakery will be interested in what the heck these two Americans with not great German language skills are doing here.

I should have started my series of amusing fountains in town squares earlier, but here we go.

Step 2. TrustedHousesitters.com Check it out. You meet wonderful people and pets and spend time living a bit like a local.

The goose herder?

You get to go for walks on well signed local trails to beer gardens.

Squirrel trail? Sign me up!
That lower right sign is the beer tour route.
My own little bottle of wine with lunch.
Rich and a yummy Keller beer, at yet another beer garden. They are the perfect pandemic place to go and we seek them out.
Our sweet little charge, thank you to her for being the best little cat and to her human companions for choosing us to keep her company.
She loves to drink out of a proper glass. I love to watch. Cat tongues are fascinating.

Two days off the bikes and we head off today to Bad Windsheim, a pretty short ride, where there is both a thermal bath, one of Rich’s favorite things, and an open air history museum- one of my favorite things.

Happy pedaling!

From a few days ago, fall is in the air and beware- you may see socks being worn with these sandals very soon.

A town you’ve likely seen, but may not realize. Nördlingen, Germany.

It’s our second visit to Nördlingen, the first was six years ago on our broken collarbone trip (me, 3 days into a 3 week trip), on that trip we were taking trains and had left our bikes in München. This time we biked to this walled town which is situated in a much larger crater left by a meteorite millions of years ago. The wall is a huge draw for us. It’s a very unique and cozy attraction. We spent two nights here this time.

The wall walk combines some of my favorite things, car free walks, garden peeping, and house peeping.
Really a unique experience to walk the intact wall. One spot had repairs being done, but the rest was walkable.
There are houses whose back walls are the town wall, or which are built through the wall.
Ah, the glamorous side of bike touring. Resting in the shade of a town WC. It was a long hot day riding to Nördlingen.

Between the wall and its history, and a local train museum, we had plenty to do on our rest day.

We saw this museum across the train platform the last time we were here but didn’t have time to check it out.
Rich added for scale, Rich is six foot five. That is a huge piece of machinery.
So many historic train locomotives and cars are just sitting on the rails, reminding us of the history of train travel. And the human capacity for innovation.
Some are simply falling into decay.
But many are lovingly housed and maintained. This is the roundhouse.
Yes there was wine, my first Silvaner of the trip.
And our first brats. This little place was set up during the Saturday market and had a line when we saw it, we quickly got in line. About 2 minutes after we got our lunch they sold out and closed up.

So where have you likely seen this charming town? In the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, the Wonkavator flies above the town in the final scene as it crashes out of the factory roof – remember?

If you saw the movie you likely remember a shot like this from the glass elevator.

A little forgotten history, and a push to include women in museums.

We’re in Zermatt, Switzerland, which is famous for skiing, being car free, and the Matterhorn. OK, that car free part might only be relevant to some for its fame, but it was a big reason why we came here.

Golden hour selfie with the Matterhorn being imposing in the background.

Who reads in room magazines at their hotel? Me! Zermatt Magazine has a super interesting article about the first woman to go up, and summit the Matterhorn – get ready, it’s earlier than you might think. And, like much of women’s history, kind of sort of ignored a bit.

This plaque was placed on the Zermatter Walk of Climb in …. 2019. A bit late, thinks me.
This plaque outside the Zermatt museum is a bit misleading, An Italian woman came close to summiting in 1867.

Per the excellent hotel magazine article (I’m a big fan of airline magazines too.), an 18 year old Italian woman, Félicité Carrel was the first woman to attempt to summit but had to turn back 100 meters from the summit as the wind came up, caught her wide skirts, and almost blew her off the mountain. Take a moment and imagine that, climbing in skirts- big skirts.

This American climber got there a bit late, the British climber Walker heard she was on her way to Zermatt and quickly got her team in place to try for, and reach, the summit.

Did I care about mountain climbing women before reading this article? No. Had I even thought about when women started mountaineering in the Alps? No again. But I made a point of going to find the plaques on the street and visiting the Zermatt museum because of the article.

The museum is trying to address the fact that women have been left out of so much cataloging of history. These orange signs were a new addition, reminding visitors that there were women and they were not included in the official accounts.

There’s Lucy Walker, on the right – the one in the dress. Bad photo, sorry.
These orange placards alerted you to a bit of missing history.

Oh yes, the excellent article by Thomas Rieder also points out that that the woman from Liverpool, Ms Lucy Walker, summited the Matterhorn only six years after the first ascent by Edward Whymper and team. Read that and think about Mt. Everest which took 22 years for a woman, Junko Tabei from Japan, to follow the first summit of Hillary/Norgay in 1953.

The American climber Brevoort, photo from Wikipedia.

I get overwhelmed just looking at that mountain and imagining climbing it. But I am so grateful to this excellent opportunity to add meaning to our visit here. Hotel room magazines for the win. Museums for the win, and adding women back into history as a goal.

The mountain has more meaning for me now. It’s not just a beautiful background.