Happy New Year everyone! I think 2022 is going to be great. Why? We woke this New Year’s morning to the rarest of sights- sunlight and shadows; the first real sunshine since we stepped out of a taxi at the Marrakech Airport….20 days ago. (Wait, why did we leave Morocco?)
Apparently December set some sort of record for gloom in the UK; which is saying something. We’ve been leaning into the dark winter, but have a new appreciation for the Northern European lust for sunshine by January…we even started taking Vitamin D last week, and the tanning bed salons looked a little less repulsive to us. A little less.
But New Year’s morning was indeed a glorious London Day and we took full advantage of it by immediately heading up Primrose Hill to take in the beautiful view and then exploring on foot Marylebone down to the heart of the royal parks of St. James, Green, and Hyde Park. And we were just enough ahead of the masses to experience a very peaceful central London.
We also had some fun conversations with some local youngsters who had been up all night and just about ready to sleep after taking in the sunrise on Primrose Hill. Oh yeah, we’re hip too kids, we just left out the part of going to bed at 10:30!
So thanks to the kindness of some very generous friends, we have spent the past week living a bit like locals in the beautiful North London neighborhood of Primrose Hill.
It’s been great to explore in all directions by foot, tube, and bike share, as we continue to discover more of the London magic, and the layers of overlapping neighborhoods, pathways, alleys, and mews
So we had originally planned (and actually had tickets) to go back to France on the train tomorrow, but that’s been postponed at least a few weeks due to non-essential travel border ban from UK imposed due to Omicron.
It’s all quite political as both sides of the channel have massive case loads and spread, so (tested!) travelers are a blip on the trajectory of the pandemic.
We have learned that it’s very important to look at how countries have responded to different phases of the pandemic to understand how new restrictions may be imposed again. (i.e. Morocco!).
So instead we have decided to head to the Lake District for a week to do some nice winter hiking, and exploring…but first with a stopover in Liverpool, which has been reborn and is loaded with great museums and sites, in addition to some famous band apparently being from there.
As we revel in the beautiful scenes that are Paris and London at Christmas, we can’t help be struck by the stark differences in culture, religion, and economic trajectory with Morocco. And as always, we have a renewed appreciation for the happy accident of where we were born and raised.
Strangely, the contrast of travel trips synapses in your brain that heightens the experience on both sides of the divide. Our 25 days in Morocco were a sensory overload at times, but a bustling neighborhood in Paris in the run up to Christmas now feels equally disorienting. There is something to be said for fresh eyes to appreciate your culture.
The Moroccans we met were almost all kind, generous, and friendly, but the culture is very different. Returning to Paris at Chrismas time was a bit like a bucket of cold water being poured over our heads (challenge !?) Morocco is shaped at its core by the religious norms of Islam, leadership by a constitutional monarch, and a history as regional and nomadic traders. These are not things we have a great context for understanding.
But as advocates for car-lite living, Morocco offers an amazing glimpse into urban and village life with little motorized support. The Medinas, Kasbah, and Souks of each place we visited had a distinct personality. Some were lightly touched by tourism (such as Tétouan and Meknès), while others, such as Chechaouen had been reimagined in new colors seemingly just to make perfect Instagram photos.
The larger Medinas, such as Fès and Marrakech are more a hybrid; with tourist influences concentrated to one district (like Jenaa El Fnaa or Bab Boujeloud)
I think Fès, with its size, extremely narrow alleys, constant dead ends, and some significant slopes and stairs was probably my favorite to observe and explore the real heartbeat of modern medina life.
But regardless of the number of tourists in the various medinas, they are all living communities with thousands of residents and thousands more who come to shop, sell, eat, or stroll. The infrastructure often looks precarious and hand methods are frequently the primary construction tool, with small scooter-trucks, hand pushed cart, or donkeys with saddle bags. Nothing is easy, but in land where labor is pretty cheap, and higher end construction materials dear, this is the continued ways in most of the medinas of Morocco.
As someone noted in their review of the Riad where we stayed in Fes., “you walk out the door to the Middle Ages” ok, that might be a little of an exaggeration, as cell phones, some refrigeration, and slightly more modern water and sanitation co-exist: And some parts of some Medinas are downright charming and bougie, with boutique hotels, riads, restaurants, and galleries. The vast and complex medinas have their various neighborhood character, just like any city.
What makes the medinas so unique now on the planet (and almost all are UNESCO world heritage sites) is that they survived the ravages of 20th century redevelopment. Just outside many Medina walls is the Ville Nouveu, and these vary in charm and layout.
The rest of Morrocon urban and suburban architecture is focused inward, and therefore does not provide a rich or pleasant streetscape to the more western eye. Even some middle class neighborhoods look downright barren from the outside, as the scale of three story buildings is not in context with often very wide streets. This inward focus is a challenge to a traveler in Morocco, as you generally are on the outside of family life and local culture.
But less so in the medinas, where you can experience the typical Riad and often gaze down from rooftops and terraces at the Medina life around you.
One of our traveller friends stayed in a room with a family in Morocco for a few days, and that sounded like a great way to get even more insight into “true” Moroccon life. We had some great experiences and especially insightful conversations with Riad and restaurant hosts about the tourism challenges with Omicron our last week as the “only tourists in Morocco”.
We had an exciting journey in Morocco that ended a bit strangely, but we take away the kindness and some of the spirit of so many we met. As with any developing economy, you wish them luck and the good leadership to truly elevate peoples lives. And maybe a bit more help from their American friends.
“Salam, Bonjour, Hello!” Morocco’s mixed colonial past and tight relationship with the US makes for a very interesting travel dynamic and has caused me to engage in this hierarchy of greetings. Arabic for respect, French as a backup, and chippy English hello to let them know we are American. We all love each other, right?!
After leaving Meknès by train, we settled into a great apartment in the center of Rabat, conveniently just 5 minute from the Rabat Ville train station.
After Fès, Meknès, and Moulay Idriss, Rabat felt a little like returning to Europe, with a more diverse, prosperous, and international feel. Of course as the capital of Morocco, it has the many trappings of a capital city..embassies, agencies, and fancier restaurants. It also has a vibrant Medina and visible middle class.
Rabat is a good walking city, with fresh Atlantic air and wide sidewalks with one notable addition….more cars. They rule the streets a bit more and have a disturbing habit of parking them willy-nilly across any available space.
But for the most part, it is pretty well managed, and traffic across Morocco is pretty light. It feels that they have built a lot of infrastructure in preparation for a future that they have not grown into yet.
Everyone with some means or touching the tourism sector is talking about the shutdown of air travel here through the 13th of December. Optimistically, we have a flight booked to London via Madrid for the 14th. We continue to monitor the situation, but don’t expect confirmation that flights will actually resume until later this week at the earliest when maybe more is known globally about Omicron.
The Moroccan government has taken COVID very seriously and had good success at stemming the cases and deaths over the past 21 months; however, this means there is a strong chance that the travel ban is extended. When that happens, we will then be stuck in Morocco, but not trapped, as this is an amazing country with lots to discover and enjoy, with almost no tourists. Strange times indeed.
The embassy has sent one notice via the STEP (safe traveler program) system which we signed up for prior to coming to Morocco. It just had a list of some outgoing flights that were scheduled until the 6th. Most are filled, cancelled, or outrageously expensive, so we are sticking to our hope that we will have more options in a week or two… slight anxiety, but manageable.
So we continue to explore historic sites, museums, and eat as much as we can to make up for the lack of other tourists. While many Moroccan museums can still use some better curation (and funding no doubt) there are some gems. The King Mohammed VI museum of contemporary art in Rabat is one of these, with 2 great exhibitions, and permanent Moroccan and African modern art galleries.
The range, depth, and voices portrayed in art from the continent was particularly fascinating to us, as it’s not something you see covered much in Euro-Anglo museums. The building is also beautiful. A bargain at $2 and arguably a better experience than the Louvre crowd madness.
We also made the better part of a sunny Wednesday heading out to the National Zoo. It’s a great zoo with surprising infrastructure and vast open area for many of the African animals, both those endemic to Morocco and the more transitional central and South African Savannah creatures.
A word of caution, we took a small blue taxi out there as it’s 5km from central Rabat, but it was not easy finding a taxi (or bus) back! We walked about 1.5 miles along a busy road (sidewalks yes, taxis no) and finally were able to flag one at the edge of an 8-lane arteial. Just in time, as our marital travel bliss was fraying with this challenge.
We liked Rabat and our apartment a lot, so extended to 4 nights and actually felt a little sad leaving for our onward adventures. But we decided to head to the coastal “surf/beach” city of Essaouria by 4 hour trian to Marrakech, and Supratours bus for 3- hour final leg.
You buy Supratours bus with the trains ticket and they are run by same National rail service, ONCF, similar to Amtrak thruway buses in the US. The train ride was really nice at 60-100 mph and allowed our first glimpse of the more arid south and the dramatic High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech. Lots of snow across the whole range!
We have now arrived in Essaouira and checked into our first apartment, which is nicely equipped and comfortable but no sun or views, so we will be moving tomorrow to a place on the edge of the Medina with ocean views. The uncertainty of our times has pushed us to seek some comfort and perks due to the lack of tourists.
Stay tuned for updates and let’s hope Omicron doesn’t cause much more misery in the world. Collective fingers crossed.
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.
It was nice to stretch out the legs before the 4+ hour trip to Fes via the generally pleasant and reliable CTM bus line.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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%.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mission accomplished and appetites calmed we headed out to a flamenco performance on International Flamenco Day. It was just an hour long and stunning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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)
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.
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.
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)
After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided 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.
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, which was 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, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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)
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.
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??!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Stay well fed and carry plenty water, refill water when the opportunity presents itself, and happy pedaling!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.