Doing the Booster Limbo

We left the beautiful and empty lake district via an easy one connection train trip to western Wales, and have been enjoying a lovely week in Tenby, courtesy again of our endlessly generous friends.

The moist and green footpaths around Tenby

The weather has been favorable as well, with little rain, and temperatures pushing 50 most days, as this is often one of the warmest locations in the UK.

Daffodils reminding us that spring is on the way!
The nicely renovated Manchester Piccadilly Station – our only transfer from Kendal to Carmarthen, Wales

We even had the opportunity to part ways for a few days, as Cheryl went to Cheltenham in the Cotswolds with our host, and another old friend for a ladies getaway, while the guys stayed behind in Tenby.

Cream Tea at the Ivy in Cheltenham

Although we almost always enjoy each other’s company, It was good for both of us to have some independent time for a change, and a bit of an odd sensation after so much intense time together the past 6 months.

The boys on a beautiful day on the Pembrokeshire Coast

Long term travel with a partner definitely requires a special relationship, and a lot of give and take. Luckily this comes naturally to Cheryl and I, but we still have to both respect each other’s personal space, independent desires, and known quirks (Just mine of course, Cheryl is perfect -;)

Watchful eyes in Cheltenham

Meanwhile the world continues to spin and adjust to Omicron, although we are happily past the early January peak in the UK. We certainly hope that the world gets to some endemic normalcy in 2022, but there are a lot of challenges, including proper global vaccination supply. As for us, we know we are lucky to be traveling at all and are still so thankful to the NHS for providing us a booster shot in December, as this allowed us to continue our travels with more protection and in a responsible manner.

Freshwater West Beach – a favorite of surfers and kite surfers (yes, it’s often breezy)

However, since we weren’t registered in the NHS system, we only have small hand written vaccine cards recording our booster. We were given a heads up that this could be an issue going forward, especially for travel documentation, and indeed this month, we have found that our electronic (EU) COVID passports have now expired in most countries, as there has been a new standardization around a 270 day (9 month) validity from original vaccines without a booster.

Walking alone along the cliffs near Tenby reminded me not to get too lost in that podcast

So we need to get our booster vaccines we received in December into a more usable electronic format. We think we have found a solution as you can actually register with a local GP surgery in England as a non-resident, and access the record after being assigned an NHS number. We could have registered in Wales in theory, but the health systems are actually quite separate and we were warned that the transfer of the record from England could be fairly quick or take months…something that wouldn’t work for our desired onward travels to France and Italy.

The Fresh Ponds of the Stackpole Estate. Back when you just made ponds for your amusement, but now a perfect habitat for migratory bids

So we set off to Bristol, England yesterday to try to get registered in the area after some initial success online and with some phone calls to various practices that are still accepting new patients. Many are full or shut off due to COVID and/or ongoing GP shortage issues in the UK. Health systems are strained everywhere.

Up and down the coast path to Saundersfoot

As a bonus, we had a bit of an adventurous day getting to Bristol, England yesterday due to signaling issues disrupting a west wales Main line. When our first train leg was cancelled (and next train in 4 hours!) we quickly booked a taxi to the next transfer station, where our onward journey was still shown on time; however, then found out that the problem was still down the line. Doh!

Oh Oh, no trains going from Carmarthen!

Luckily, after some confusion, Transport for Wales did manage to rustle up a few small mini buses to get us past the issue. And in fact, the friendly driver offered to drive the 20 or so of us to a more convenient station for quicker connections and we ultimately got to Bristol an hour earlier than scheduled, by catching a connecting train with two minutes to spare. Small travel win!

Two full hands in Cardiff; happy transfer after making our trains to Bristol

But we are in a sort of limbo while we try to sort out our booster record, but we will try to make the best of it. And it’s interesting to return to the Bristol-Bath, an area that we really enjoyed in our first visit last fall. You so often say in travel life, “we should come back here some time to see more, etc….” But you rarely do. This is one revelation we discuss as we travel new places now; do you think we’ll come back here someday? Yes, no, maybe….but always realizing that regardless, travel to a place is always a snapshot in time, and a unique experience.

The Hanoi we fell in love with in 2007 was not the same Hanoi in our 2017 return. Of course, the UK does have many places that haven’t changed much 500 (or 5000) years, but the country is still a very different place than 5 years ago, as it has a whole different vibe post-Brexit, and mid-pandemic. The travel experience is a complex blend of a place’s physical infrastructure, social, political, and environmental influences, all filtered though the lens of your personal attitude and biases.

Back in cool Bristol, cool brew pubs and bike bridges included

So what next? Excellent question. On our 7 hour train ride last week from the Lake District, we had some time to think about 2022 and develop some broad scenarios. The challenge is to parse out our 90 allowed Schengen days in the prime spring/summer/fall. Some of the goals include more bike touring in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltics….tied to the Grand Depart of the 2022 Tour de France in Denmark on July 1st. (Hotel reserved a year ago -:).

Our friend Gary’s dog Misty on the way to the pub lunch at the Stackpole Inn

In the nearer term, we are looking to do some more exploring in Italy, perhaps walking some of the beaten tourist routes more off-season, such as the Cinque Terre, or Venice. Then “home” to the US of a for a month to see as many friends and families as we can ( and consume as many burritos as humanly possible!)…..then back across the pond to explore Turkey for a month, a place we have long wanted to visit, before swapping out for our bikes again. Central and Southern Africa are also on the short list for later in the year, as well as the Camino Del Norte in the fall. Of course, these are all subject to quick pivot as needed based on the state of the world.

Colorful Tenby Harbour

So hopefully the blizzards are clearing and the sun is starting to shine a bit more wherever you are, as we emerge from a long dark winter, and the burdens of a pandemic. For now we move on in the UK with the uncertainty that has become a way of life.

Happy travels!

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.

Car Free in the Lake District in Winter?…Why Yes!

We moved on from lovely Liverpool late last week and arrived Keswick by train and bus (locally pronounced Kehz-ick) on a spectacularly snowy day in the Lake District.

Dramatic winter skies ascending near Grasmere

We were very glad that our professional bus driver was plying the slushy mountain roads, especially on the sheer edges of deep lakes; nevertheless, we did take note of the emergency window systems on the bus! (avoiding what I called a double decker bus watery grave…-;)

Can we do this without a car?

Our decision to base in Keswick was based on a number of factors, but primarily that we could get there by public transit, and numerous lines route from there to other parts of the National Park. It also has a few museums, nice shops, and many services in town, including a great regional supermarket, Booth’s.

Our row cottage in Keswick came with a friendly outdoor kitty neighbor no charge and a 5-10 minute walk to town or the bus
Cheryl trying to cajole an adorable Lake District sheep to follow her home

Oh, it also happens to be very quaint, with a lovely pedestrianized core and footpaths heading in every direction, including along the large Derwant Waters, what we in America might call a lake!

Morning light on Derwentwater in the Lake District NP

We actually wavered a bit about whether we “needed” to rent a car, but then read about many others visiting car-free and thriving with the great regional transit system. After 6 days here, we know it was 100% the right decision for us.

The 78 bus to the end of the line at Seatoller…schedules, a shelter, and multiple trailheads
Cheryl ready to hike…the other friendly passengers were day tripping photography buffs from Manchester

Our decision also considered the fact that this area is heavily impacted by car traffic, much like the National Parks in the US. Nevertheless, the car parks and road are still surprisingly busy here mid week in January, as driving is still seen as the easiest and best way for most to experience the park. Despite some pay parking in many of the towns and villages, the roads are still free and there is an abundance of free parking available.

Hey, there goes our bus!

But it’s not just about the carbon footprint of driving for us. We’ve seen the impacts automobile congestion, noise, and pollution have on communities. When practical, we don’t want to contribute unnecessarily to the problem. Although traffic is fairly light in the middle of winter now, it apparently is extremely congested most of the year, and a nightmare in holiday periods.

On the way to Styhead Tarn; did we mention there is water everywhere!

The typical scenic two lane roads barely fit two bus widths (they slow to pass) or even some large cars and trucks! Luckily most people in the UK still drive pretty small cars, but they still impact the safety and experience of the bikes and walkers that also use most roads. Many drivers here go too fast for conditions and it can be nerve wracking even on small unmarked country lanes.

Fragile sub-alpine tundra above 500m
The surprising alpine world of northwest England…Styhead Tarn near the Great Gable

National Parks and holiday areas have specific problems, and many have now taken to managing traffic through various methods, such as fees, closures, parking management, and shuttles/transit. The Lake District National Parks is no different and really is trying to address the problem by providing a really good bus system at fairly reasonable (but not cheap) prices.

Returning on the upper deck just before the early winter sun set
The backbone 555 bus runs throughout the core of the district and will connect you to the train in Windemere…closed double deck BTW

The buses are reliable, extensive, clean, and even a joy with double deck service on the some lines and 1/2 open top double deck service on two shorter lines through very scenic areas. So the buses really do double as sightseeing and transit for locals and visitors alike.

Yes, it WAS chilly on the open top bus, but the views will keep you warm

The other key is easy payment. The Stagecoach bus system offers payment by any tap cars/Apple Pay, etc for single/day trips or you can buy a loadable smart card right from the driver £1 fee for week or month passes.

Information is key! Most stops had schedules and route info.

We bought the 7 day gold pass form £29 each, which allows unlimited travel on the entire systems, which extends to the coast and all the gateway/border cities of the whole district.

Less sun, more dramatic colors
Walla Crag view on a misty winter day
But the sun was out today!

The only suggestion we would make to the Stagecoach bus system is to make the pass an 8-day or 7+1 trip pass, as many holiday rentals are 7-nights, so you generally have 8 days of travel. We are going to have to buy another day pass for our last day out of the park…. a minor annoyance. Let’s make this an even easier decision for people.

Gourmet Scotch Eggs from the Keswick farmers market are the ultimate winter hiking food

So we highly recommend coming to the Lake District in the winter. Although the transit system runs a little less frequently, and a few of the lines to very remote areas are peak season only, you will have a lot of the typically crowded places to yourself. Just make sure to always bring your waterproofs, and leave the car behind.

The intrepid travelers press on despite some serious hat head

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.

Good Day Sunshine!

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?)

Some early morning sun in Regent’s Park

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.

Soaking up the five minutes of sun in late December!
More New Year’s Day shadows in Regents Park

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.

Cheryl loving the newly improved sidewalks and pedestrian zones of central London.
New Year’s Day Horse Guard preparations. Beautiful horses, but unfortunately no jousting
Easy to get bike shares anywhere in London with a contactless credit card £2/day for unlimited 30 minute trips

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!

Warm winter weather means outdoor dining has still been in play.

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.

Great pubs everywhere…this one above Hamstead Heath

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

Near the highest point in London at Whitestone Pond…easy views through the mostly bare trees.
The atmospheric Hill Garden and Pergola in Golder’s Hill Park

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.

Modern Hall Park…the southern end of the Northern Line..more typical weather

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.

These beautiful Egyptian geese were a little too friendly!

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!).

Our favorite pastime…canal walking
I will be Cap’n of a canal boat someday…dreaming at the London Canal Museum
Most of the glorious London Area canals used to be off limits until the 1970s…so hope for all the private canal right of ways in the USA.

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.

New Year’s Eve takeout noodles in an Islington Pub beer garden.
Riding on in the New Year!

Stay tuned, stay safe, and Happy New Year to all!

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.

Funky Warm Medinas

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.

The very real Medina of Tétouan, vertical and varied life within a larger middle class city

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.

We were always comfortably out of comfort zone in Morocco

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.

Small squares like this in Marrakech offer more space for informal vendors and a break from the maze of alleys

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.

Beautiful Blue Chefchaouen

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)

Fes on the jumah (prayer day)…a good time to walk about in relative calm

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.

The magical and endless souks of Fes
Gates and walls control access to the Medinas and huge Kasbah walls limit the chance of invasion…except by tourists

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.

The Moulay Idriss medina is completely vertical: so most goods still moved by foot and donkey (and Cheryl!)
Lots of hand crafted wood still throughout Morocco
Chief Sewer Inspector

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.

Light rays for cats can be precious in winter, but narrow alleys mean less heat and sun the rest of the year
The medina fish market of Essaouira…cats out of view

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.

Most of the medinas have some “main streets” that are wider and allow some motorized access for construction and deliveries
Cheryl not smiling at the fairly typical drab streetscapes outside the medinas
But inside, nightime is particularly magical

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.

The food souks and services are still at the core of almost every Medina
And so much good food, so close!

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.

Sneaker and Track Suit Alley in Meknès…not much space as each vendor has extended their retail space into the path of travel!
Same space, early morning, encroachments retracted!
And the same Meknes Medina from above…you often wonder how it all works

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”.

Bikes are very popular in Essaouiara, typical of most flat beach towns

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.

The happy travelers back in Paris

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.