Thursday, 26 February 2009

Hull to Bruges

We're just couple of days into our driving trip to the continent, which started out being a month, but after realising just how difficult it is to dry your jeans at this time of year, and how hard it is to find a laundry in the first place, we've scaled back to a more palatable (and washable) 16 days.
It started auspiciously enough, leaving as we did from what is reportedly the worst place in Britain: Hull... we were only there for about 10 mins, so I couldn't possibly comment.
We caught the overnight ferry to Rotterdam, which was 10 1/2 hours, which we slept through, then it was off through the Netherlands to Bruges in Belgium.
We meant to come to Bruges last time we had the car over, but ran out of time, and we're so glad we finally made it, as this has to be one of the most lovely cities we've visited. The centre of town is really well preserved from medieval times, with narrow winding streets, gothic cathedrals, and lots of beautiful old buildings.
The highlight of the first day will have to be the Friet Museum... yes, an entire museum dedicated to fries/chips. To be honest we only went for a bit of a laugh, as we didn't think there would be much to see, and fries does seem like a ridiculous subject for a museum. My, were we wrong. As it turns out, fries are a national dish in Belgium, apparently they originated here, and they've been perfecting them ever since. There is even a medal system to recognise those who have owned or worked in the chippy industry for over 15 years... brilliant. It was really rather good, and the sample at the end beats English chips hands down - although they do cook them in beef tallow and horse fat. Ick.
Bruges is relatively small, so it's quite easy to get around almost all of the sights on foot, so we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a bit of a circuit around the outskirts of the centre, looking at the old windmills and canals etc.
The next day we walked up the Belfry, which is kind of the main landmark in the city, as it's so damn tall. There are quite a few steps up, but the view from the top is worth it, as is the sound of the bells (although they could warn you when they're about to go off, as I nearly leapt out the window when they started clanging away!) and the room where they control them from.
Still on foot, we went over to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses some actual drops of Jesus' blood... which obviously were dried by the time they got them into the church but apparently they turn back into liquid during times of trouble. Riiiight. The Basilica itself was tiny but gorgeous, and worth the visit, blood or no blood.
There are a ridiculous number of museums, so we had to choose just a couple (Fries was clearly non-negotiable) and Kent snuck the Chocolate museum in to our itinerary... it was great, but a bit unfair for those of us who are allergic to chocolate, as it smelt amazing, and there were samples. It did mean he got my portions though, so I was able to negotiate a proper museum into the plan next - SintJan Hospital museum, which was home to a few gruesome looking medieval medical tools, and a whole host of amazing art from the church part of the hospital. Across the street is the Church of Our Lady, home of one of the only Michaelangelo sculpures outside Italy, Madonna and Child - it is just sitting there, in the church, for anyone to see... I'm constantly amazed by how open the access is to so many beautiful and famous things. The best part was that there was virtually no one else there, so there were no pesky bloody tourists obscuring our view and getting in the way of photos! Speaking of which, here they are (the photos, not the tourists. Obviously:

K & E xx

Friday, 20 February 2009

Eryn's Fish was the Biggest

When friends that we borrowed off Rod, Pete and Ginny, decided to move to Norway for a bit of a change, we decided we should visit. Having booked the late evening flight we again headed toward London in the car into a blizzard. Bergen airport, where we were flying into had been snowing heavily that day and, as we found out, was delayed by more than three hours. So at 2:30am we walked out of Bergen Airport to two feet of snow. We finally got to the Bed and Breakfast, that did not serve breakfast, at 3:30am.
We had a good three hours sleep before heading to the ferry terminal. A nice start to a cruisy, relaxed few days away from it all.
Pete had warned us, and we knew from previous, that Norway was expensive. But the ₤200 or $600 for the return ferry ride even surprised us. It was a four hour ferry from Bergen to Floro. Very beautiful trip through the fjords, it was a great day weather wise, unfortunately it would be the best we had.
Pete picked us up form the port and took us back to their boat mooring, which was a ten minute drive. Then onto the wee boat for the five minute trip across the fiord to their Island, Groening. The house they are in is beautiful, very farm cottagey.
The first job for the day was to feed the sheep. This involved filling two sacks with free-flow hay, putting this in the boat and delivering it to the bit of the other islands that the sheep were on.

No blow by blow any more. The next three days were filled with: fishing, both Eryn and I caught some, they fed us for two nights, Eryn's was the biggest; feeding sheep, about 100 of the 180 total; eating some amazing food that Ginny made such as Venison stew, fish soup, lamb leg and deserts.Other interesting notes: I fell in the fjord, no doubt Pete's fault. We were coming into beach and I nobly was standing at the front reading to jump ashore and pull the boat up, when we hit a seaweed covered rock, boat went left, I went right – into the water. Eryn caught a fish, it was the biggest fish caught in Norway that week according to our estimates. On the third day it got above freezing. We hit record highs of 1.5 degrees. Pete rowed across the fiord. Only took about 25 minutes. Went for a drive around one day. Had a look at some of the farms Pete wants to get hold of.All done, a very good trip. No desperate days of 5 museums per day, no schedules and yet I survived.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Despite Mother Nature's serious attempt to thwart our travel plans, we managed to make it to Marrakech with no holdups whatsoever... a bit of a relief really, as the preceding day had been full of nervous phone calls to airlines, airports and rail companies. The plus side of the 'wintry blast' was an incredible view as we took off over London - definitely worth everyone else's inconvenience, I'd say!
The hotel was something quite special - the ceiling was hand painted in an ornate design, there were two four-poster beds, a balcony and harem-style couch... essentially, it was everything you thing Marrakech will be like. Good start.
Our first morning we walked about 25 min from our hotel in the new town to the Medina, mostly to visit the Information Centre... which was closed. Helpful. We weren't overly surprised as the guidebooks do all say that hotel staff are a lot more informative than the centres, so it wasn't too much of a spanner in the works. We went past Katoubiya Mosque, the tallest building in the city (in fact, there are laws which mean nothing near it can be taller than 3 stories, and buildings in the new city cannot be higher than it, so the view from the top is reserved for Muslims, as us infidels aren't allowed in mosques in Morocco - never mind, we had our own cunning plan for this - more about that later).
After lunch, we had a quick wander around Jamaa El Fna (the main square) and into the souks, after being stern with ourselves that we would NOT be buying anything today, no matter how guilty the vendors made us feel... it worked and we walked out unscathed (but eyeing up a few shiny things). It was here that we made a small mistake... pausing. Yes, you might think stopping briefly is a perfectly legitimate action whilst taking in a new city, but it isn't. Not in the main square anyway, as we found out when pounced on by a snake charmer who was anything but. Oh he was all smiles as he draped one of the reptiles around Kent's neck (I had the good sense to step back) and another on his head (eeew), then grabbed our camera so he could take a photo of us... but the smile soon stopped as we tried to leave without giving him the equivalent of the GDP of a developing nation. Kent managed to placate him with the equivalent of 20p, but I was concerned for a while there that we weren't getting the camera back...

The next day we stayed a bit closer to home and walked to the Majorelle Gardens, which are/were owned by Yves Saint Laurent. It's in the thick of the city, next to a busy road, but the high walls make it feel really quite peaceful and the gardens themselves are beautiful, with lots of exotic, err, things (not sure what it all was, but pretty all the same) and bright pots and walls.
The forecast for the next day was a bit bleak, so we opted for a bus trip to the Ourika Valley, which is in the Atlas Mountains - the other side of which is the Sahara Desert. [Eryn has left the building] The twelve year old boy that was to be the guide showed up with his people mover, fashionably late. And we were off, picking up two french women on the way. It was about 80kms to the top of the road. Most of that through very poor-looking flat semi-desert with the occasional shop selling either dead animals, of various kinds, with heads and legs on; or what some would call food shops, that were all seduced by coca-cola's offer of free shop painting, in a pretty red colour. After 40kms of passing horse and carts, dodging old men on motorbikes, being passed by tossers in Mercedes and honking furiously at all of them and more, we started to climb into the valley. At some points the road was breaking up a bit and at others the rivers we were working through had a lot of cars in them.
We stoped at a "genuine" Berber house and had a look at the way they lived and their facilities: the old water powered mill and the cooking and sleeping facilities. We also stopped further up at an Argan oil co-operative store and production unit. Argan is a type of plant that does not grow anywhere but southern Morroco. They make it into both a food oil and skin oil. We didn't buy any.
As the SNOW [in Africa] got heavier we stopped at one of the cute little bridges to take some photos. When we got to the top we were not keen for the three hour round trip walk to the waterfall so we headed home via another carpet store. But there was nothing as good as the Turkish carpet we had, so, much to the salesman's consternation, we bought nothing.
The next day we headed to the port town of Essouira. "Two hours" the bus guy said, only four hours 40min later we were there. Not the nicest town in the wet but we had a reasonable look around the port, bastion, markets and a museum. No doubt on a very nice summer day would have been very nice. Was getting home going to be the smooth two hours it should have been? No. Five hours later.
Sunday, God's day, the aforementioned infidels God's day. If Eryn hadn't been convinced that this is a very dirty stinky city yet, she was going to be by the end of the day. We had a walk through and around town. Quite a lot of walking for the day. We headed into town to have a look around before heading through to the tanneries on the other side of the Medina. Having walked around for about an hour and then popping out of the centre in the same place we went in, oops, we followed the city walls around it to get to the tanneries. The tanneries is the traditional place all the animal skins are tanned the natural way. In piss and bird shit. It smelt a treat. Was a very interesting process. Sing it with me.... You put the camel skins in the shit; you take the camel skins out; You put the camel skins in the piss; you take the camel skins out; You put the camel skins in the bleach; you take the camel skins out; scrape off all the meat; that's why it smells so sweet.
We had a look around two and into the shop with all the made and dyed leather goods. But we didn't buy anything, were getting good.
Also went around to the old Badii Place massive old palace built over 25 years. Was said to be one of the most luxurious and best decorated in the world at the time. Only lived in for 80 years. It is said to have taken 12 years to get all the good stuff, gold, tiles and ornaments out when the new emperor was demolishing it. Still in good enough state to get a decent view over town and see how huge it would have once been.
Last full day. Eryn was really keen to walk away from town up some hill at the back of town. And even though the guys at the hotel said it was dangerous Eryn just said "nah, it will be fine, aggressive drunk Africans nor scorpion and snake sandwiches bother me, lets go". So I dutifully followed. We headed about 25 minutes walk away from town towards some hills with old middle age city walls on them. Then up we went, took some photos and back down the other side. Fearlessly beating a path through the drunk Africans, mercilessly slaughtering hordes of snakes and inciting internal warfare amongst the ranks of scorpions that amasses to meet our arrival.
Had another wander around town and bought a few things. Had our fifth dinner of chippie sandwiches. That night was the first we went out to the evening market in the Jamaa. Every night dozens of dinner restaurants set up shop in the square and staff pester the money out of all and sundry walking past.
And that was much as it went down in Africa.

Kent... and Eryn who doesn't know this is up yet...

Monday, 2 February 2009


After a quick turnaround from Turkey, we piled the car up again and headed west, towards Wales. We've both been there before, me when we were on holiday in 2006, and Kent when he stayed with Louise's parents and worked on the coast for a few weeks a couple of years before.
Our first attempt at leaving Sheffield didn't go so well - the car refused to start. We have been worrying for the last few months that something might go a bit haywire with the car while we're cruising about, so, fortunately, we took out some breakdown cover before we left Ipswich... phew!
It was very dark and a lot later than intended by the time we made it to our accommodation near Newport, on the Pembrokeshire coast, so we headed straight inside... a static caravan, which was a new experience for both of us, and not too bad although it ended up being so cold in the bedroom that we slept on the couches in the lounge by the gas fire! We did a wee bit around Pembrokeshire over the next couple of days, visiting Britain's smallest city, St David's (population 2,000, but it has a cathedral, so it gets to be a city), Fishguard - site of the last invasion of Britain (by the French in 1797 - embarrasingly shortlived), Pembroke Castle and St Govan's Chapel, a tiny chapel perched in some cliffs - it was gorgeous! We called past Pentre Ifan, an acient burial chamber nearby, which beggars belief, the massive rock on top seems to be balanced on the tiniest points of the support rocks, and yet it's been standing for thousands of years. After a false start when we went to one place that seemed a non-event, we found the actual attraction was a reconstructed Iron Age village (thatched roof round houses), called Castell Henllys. The map didn't show it as anything particularly noteworthy, so it was great to just stumble across it... we ended up spending ages there. We managed to sneak in a visit to Cilgerran Castle and Carreg Sampson burial chamber on the way home too.
We left Pembrokeshire for Mid Wales, and despite having a fairly full day planned, the car had other ideas, deciding that today was the day it would make noises that you normally expect to hear coming from a tank, rather than a 1L car... so we found a garage and got it checked out (times like this make me miss being able to call my Dad to ask what's wrong!). As it turned out, the muffler had come lose and was past its best, so a new one was summoned and arrived within a couple of hours, so it wasn't a complete waste of a day, and we managed to get to Mwnt (no idea how to say that, I'm afraid) for lunch and Llandovery to see the ruins of the castle there, before driving to our digs, England and Wales' most remote hostel, Ty'ncornel. It was quite a way from everywhere, and the last mile of the track was a bit iffy, but the reward was a converted farmhouse, with an open fire, and no one else staying. Once the fire was roaring, we defrosted a bit and decided we would once again have to sleep in the lounge as the rest of the place was a bit Arctic... Kent even got up a few times in the night to keep the fire blazing - so sweet of him!
We stayed with Louise's parents, Sue & Cyril, in Berriew for the next three nights and they were fabulous hosts, and in an ideal place for some cruisy days, checking out a huge antique shop, Stokesay Castle, the ruins of the Bryntail Lead Mine, and Ludlow, where I finally had my watch fixed (perhaps now we will get up earlier?). We also went up the coast to Harlech, the site of one of the most impressive castles we've been to, then it was onto a Roman amphitheatre site (as we later found out, we didn't look at the right things there though), 500ft underground into some slate mine caverns, then another burial chamber.
When we holidayed, Kent's father suggested we go to Portmeirion, but we ran out of time, so we made sure we went this time around, and it was well worth the visit. It's an 'Italianate' private village, created by an architect who saved some old facades of buildings in other towns around the country and built up a really colourful, beautiful little town. The weather was a bit average when we were there, and it was still lovely, so I imagine in summer it's even better. From there, seeing as we just can't get enough castles, we stopped off at Criccieth Castle before we went to our bunkhouse at the end of the Lleyn peninsula (the sticky out bit on the west coast in the north of Wales). We walked along one of the headlands the next morning, which, despite our host's estimation that it would take an hour, took over 3, although the scenery was amazing.
Our last day in Wales was Sunday, which meant lots of things were closed, including what seemed like the entire town of Holyhead, which we drove all the way across Anglesey Island to walk around, but never mind, we still had a quick walk around near the marina for a look at the yachts and ferries. We were mostly just killing time until the Segontium Roman Fort opened, so as soon as it did we were on the doorstep, wandering around, absorbing the history... it never ceases to amaze either of us that these remains have been there for SO long - these ones started being built in 78AD! The volunteer working there was really interesting too, he really knew his history, so it was great to talk with him about all sorts of Roman and other history. I have just read that back and realised what utter geeks we are... but it's hard not to be. Photos, geeky and not-so-geeky, below:

Then we drove back to Sheffield, some of the way in some fairly heavy snow flurries - it was very pretty, but a bit worrying as all we've seen and heard in the news today is how much there's been all over the country, trains into London are mostly suspended, the roads are trecherous and Heathrow has had to cancel lots of flights and delay others... and we're supposed to be flying from there to Marrakech tomorrow afternoon after driving to Ipswich and taking the train from there... eek! Never mind, am sure we'll get there in the end...

K & E x