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Saturday, January 2, 2016

My Lesson in Travel from 2015


As a 'traveller' I always feel the need to get out and explore virtually as soon as I've landed. Normally my holidays don't stick to one location and spending time lazing by a pool or on a beach is virtually unheard of. After an hour of doing this I feel guilty and wonder what else I could be doing  to make better use of my time and see more.

Whilst this approach to travel generally suits me there are times that I wish I could just relax and not pressurise myself to be continually busy.

The question is why should I feel guilty doing what most people take for granted when they go on holiday abroad?

In 2015 in the UK we hardly saw the sun so a week in Morocco was the ideal chance to feel the caress of the sun on my pale white limbs. This holiday was going to be just that. An opportunity to relax by the pool with a cocktail and to not be busy every moment of the day.


I somehow forgot the guidebook and my downloaded trip advisor guide failed to work which immediately removed a certain pressure of what I should be seeing or doing.

Instead I walked around without a map or specific goals and as a result immediately felt less pressure and more relaxed. 

I learnt that lazing by a pool isn't actually a bad thing as sometimes your body does just need time to recuperate. Despite lazing by the pool most days I still managed to walk about 7 miles a day, visited all the places I wanted to go and slipped in a cheeky overnight visit to the mountains.

I didn't visit everything on the must see list and for once I didn't care. 

Call this revelation empowerment or stupidity it doesn't matter. Perhaps I have finally learnt that just "being" and relaxing are not bad things but rather something we all need to do from time to time.
Hopefully I will carry this lesson forward into 2016 and occasionally allow myself to go away without the pressure of having to be continually busy seeing the must see sight, the best activity or the place no other tourists really know about!

What do you think? Should we be continually busy when we travel or go on holiday, or, is it OK to occasionally lie by the pool and miss out on what other people think you should see? 

Coincidentally, whilst laid by the pool in Morocco I saw the poolside fill up with glamorous film extras and directors. I discovered the basement of the hotel was being used to film scenes in a new Jennifer Aniston film about the Iraq War called "The Yellow Birds" based on the award winning 2012 novel by Kevin Powers. It goes to show that interesting things happen all around us we just need to pause to actually see them!




Saturday, December 12, 2015

Autumnal Colours of the Atlas Mountains & how to get to Imlil


Views of mountains & trees, Tamatert, Imlil

To escape the heat of Morocco many people head to the stunning Atlas Mountains. With temperatures a balmy 26 in summer and significantly cooler in winter they provide many with some much needed respite.

One of the most popular locations to visit from Marrakesh is Imlil as it is little over an hour to get there.

Initially you will pass through the flats but after Asni the road starts to twist and climb up into the mountains.

For some reason it never crossed my mind that in autumn the valleys would be full of trees blazing with leaves of orange and yellow. However, this stunning sight will greet all autumn visitors to the area.

Donkey in Autumnal Trees, Imlil, Morocco

In some places the road to Imlil passed through trees that met over the road creating a canopy of gently falling, fiery leaves.

Imlil itself is popular with those attempting the two day climb of Toubkal. This is the tallest mountain in North Africa standing at 4,167m. However the 5 hour trek just to the base was enough to put me off! Rather than climb Toubkal I decided to walk fromImlil to the next village along (Tamatert) and stay there as it had superb views of the mountain ranges and down towards Imlil.

There is a relaxed feeling here and the clean mountain air feels great after the pollution of Marrakesh. The river through the centre of Imlil is scattered with huge boulders which are ideal to sit on for a leisurely picnic lunch.

Local Life Tamatert, Imlil, Mrocco

I stayed at Kasbah Imlil in Tamatert and sitting on the terrace you could soak in the stunning views. From here you could see snow topped peaks, trees in all their autumnal splendour with locals going about their daily business and green terraces which goats grazed on as they travelled into the mountains and a more laid back, local way of life.

For those that balk at climbing a mountain for two days you can do some easier, low level treks that only take a few hours. Wherever you stay will be able to offer a guide or advice on where you can wander but there are some trails that are quite clear that you can wander along. 

Kasbah du Toubkal with autumnal trees, Imlil, Morocco


If you want to visit Imlil it's easy to get to from Marrakesh. If you go to the bus station at Bab er Robb close to the Medina you will find either buses or Grande Taxis.

Public buses are cheaper but you will have to sit and wait for them to fill up before they leave. You will be taken to Asni where you will have to get off and change for the Imlil  bus. I quite like public transport as you get a real feel for a country and this didn't take too much longer than a Grande Taxi as we only had a 20 minute wait at Asni.

The Grande Taxi is faster as you can take it straight to Imlil but sometimes faster isn't better especially when you're winding up mountain roads without barriers! If the Grande Taxi is filled it should only cost 50DH per person.

Whichever transport method you choose to get to Imlil I would advise leaving early in the morning. 

If you want some respite from Marrakesh then Imlil is a beautiful alternative to spend a few days.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Jardin Majorelle of Marrakesh & Free Alternatives!

Marrakesh never struck me as being a 'green' city so I was surprised when I started exploring to see how much green space there actually was. Of the gardens, Jardin Majorelle, is probably the most famous but this doesn’t mean you should dismiss the free alternatives. Find out more below…

Jardin Majorelle

Rue Yves Saint Laurent
Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco
One of the most popular green spaces in Marrakesh is the Jardin Majorelle. These cool peaceful gardens were created by the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle and purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner in 1980. With tranquil pools, walkways covered by plants and large beds filled with swishing bamboo or prickly cactus it's little wonder they are so popular. 

Pools at Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco

There are over 300 plant species living in this pretty place. The greenery is broken by coloured flowers and bright yellow and blue paint work in addition to bright orange fish in some of the pools. The blue colour used was specially mixed by Majorelle to supposedly match the work overalls of French workmen and it’s officially known as Majorelle Blue. Within this city oasis you can also pay hommage to the designer Yves Saint Laurent at his memorial where his ashes were taken for burial.

Yves Saint Laurent memorial at Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco

The gardens also house a Berber museum which has some interesting costumes and jewellery. The jewellery is in a dark mirrored room lit so it feels like you are entering a night sky of infinite stars. You can also view a gallery of Yves Saint Laurent 'love' artwork which he used on Christmas cards for family and friends.

The gardens cost 70dh to enter and the museum 30dh. There is also a cafe  with prices starting at 30dh for Moroccan tea and pastries. Get here early to appreciate the tranquility as it's quickly destroyed by coaches of tourists.
A golden flash of colour at Jardin Majorelle
A golden flash of colour at Jardin Majorelle
As an alternative there are a number of equally pretty public gardens that you can visit for free and without being jostled by fellow tourists.

Jardin Harti

Can be accessed from Place du 16 Novembre and Ave du President Kennedy


A cactus bed at Jardin Harti
A cactus bed at Jardin Harti
This was my favourite garden and in many ways it mirrored the Jardin Majorelle. There were borders filled with roses, plant covered walkways and beds filled with cactus, grasses and birds of paradise. There were even two friendly looking dinosaur taking pride of place in the children's playground.
Families sat eating picnic lunches on the grass under the shade of trees and young couples chatted coyly together.

Arsat Moulay Abdeslam CyberPark

Arset El Bilk


Arsat Moulay Abdeslam CyberPark

The claim to fame for these gardens is that they have free WiFi so you can forever be connected to the cyber world. Pretty, royal gardens with fountains and rose beds in a central location but sometimes being without WiFi is a good thing!

Oliveraie

Next to Hivernage
A view towards the Medina over Oliveraie
A view towards the Medina over Oliveraie 
This garden is huge in scale and is more like a tree plantation in reality. It appeared to be the place for local fitness fanatics to go for their daily run amongst the shade of the trees. It also has outdoor 5 a side football pitches.  You can take pony or camel rides here with the animals congregating on its edges with Avenue Mohammed VI and Avenue de la Menara.

Menara Gardens (Jardin Menara)

Aïn Mezouar

Menara Gardens, Marrakesh

These gardens are a little further out of the city centre however the central pool and pavillion makes them an attractive option if you want to relax or have a picnic. The gardens have great views towards the Atlas Mountains although the pretty scenes today are a million times removed from the gardens history. Established in the 12th century a Sultan supposedly drowned people in the pools of water after feeding them dinner!

Have you visited any of these gardens in Marrakesh or are there any other free alternatives you recommend? 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

No Time for Travel Hand Luggage Review

Having no time for travel means the last thing I want to do is spend hours waiting for luggage in an airport. Not only that, but having to deal with lost or missing luggage is a nightmare that I don’t want to deal with on my holidays! I want to step off the plane and get on with my adventure, so for me travelling hand luggage only is the way forward.

However, with some airlines becoming stricter over luggage I decided now is the time to invest in some new hand luggage and a review of the bag I chose (and its runners up) follows. The next question I get asked is how on earth I pack for a 2 or 3 week holiday using just hand luggage so perhaps there’s another article in the making just for packing! The name of the game is fit as much as possible in your cabin bag, but you will be confined by the bag you buy!

The current regulations for free cabin baggage dimensions on UK budget flights (in CM’s) are at the time of writing as follows:
RyanAir- 55x40x20 plus 1 small bag up to 35x20x20
Aer lingus- 55x40x20
Easyjet- 56x45x20
Jet2-  56x45x24
Flybe- 55x40x23
Wizzair- 42x32x25

Most of the carriers have a 10kg allowance, but I advise you always check for up to date dimensions and weight as they do change from time to time. Here are the main bags I considered with weight, dimensions, cost, pro’s cons and a summary.


IT worlds lightest 2 wheel suitcase

Dimensions 54x35x19
Weight- 1.5kg
Price- From £27.00
Capacity- 37 litres

Pro’s

  • Good capacity
  • Wheeled
  • Very lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Compliant with all (but Wizz Air) dimensions.
  • Wide handle set-up therefore no obstruction in middle of case.

Cons


  • Cheap construction
  • No Padding
  • Handles are poor quality
  • Not good for travel after the airport to hotel
  • Addition of wheels takes up room and results in less capacity

Summary
This is ideal for maximising what you can take if you’re going away on a city break and just need to transport clothing and light items.
Though there is a lengthy manufacturer’s warranty I was not happy with the quality of the handle or the lack of padding. I sometimes travel with heavy camera equipment and would not put anything heavy or valuable in this case. In addition, there is no option to carry this over the shoulder if the ground at destination is not smooth. I’d say there have been many positive reviews that put this bag in a category of a convenient transporter for short distances.


Cabin Max

Cabin MaxWeight- 0.66kg
Price- £31
Dimensions- 55x40x20

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Large maximum capacity 44 litres
  • Extremely lightweight
  • Will pack away easily when not in use

Cons

  • No Wheels
  • Cheap materials, no padding
  • Reports that stitching is suspect

Summary
From reading reviews the bag is given wide praise for maximising capacity but there are serious concerns regarding the quality of the material and stitching. I’d use this bag for transporting clothes but I’d be careful not to over fill it or to put overly heavy items in there. The bag will be fine for weekends away and maximising clothing for the beach! The impulsive side of me told me to get this bag as it was cheap, but experience tells me to buy quality or buy it twice! I’d also not like to take the risk of a bag splitting on me when I was away.


Lowe Alpine AT carry on 45

Weight- 1.36kg
Dimensions- 55x35x20-25 (expandable)
Price- £63

Pros


  • Huge 45 litre capacity
  • Complies with all carry on (except wiz air)
  • Retractable backpack straps
  • Removable Shoulder strap
  • Padded quality construction
  • Compression straps

Cons


  • No wheels
  • Fairly expensive

Summary
Flying in with quality padding, ample space, flexible carrying arrangements the Lowe Alpine was the best choice for my circumstances.
Without a rigid structure I can compress the bag if needs be then expand it upon arrival, it complies with most flight carriers and is lighter in weight than the lightest wheeled bag. The Lowe Alpine AT carry on 45 opens like a suitcase and interior compression straps hold your items down. I originally wanted a bag with wheels however I quickly realised this meant a compromise in both weight and flexibility. The Lowe Alpine bag can be used as a carry-on bag, a shoulder bag or a backpack. There is a discreet compartment for items like a tablet, keys, passports etc. and a further pocket on the front for travel documents, a book or whatever you like. The main thing for me was the decent padding!, I feel confident my things will be safe and the bag will last for years with durable materials, stitching and a quality lockable zip, which was why I decided to spend more.

The bags here are all good in their own ways, my decision to get the Lowe Alpine was mainly due to taking a DSLR camera in a camera bag along with 4 lenses and a tripod, which still doesn’t allow a huge amount of room for clothes! The point is what you decide to buy will depend on your personal circumstances.






Saturday, October 24, 2015

Visiting The Ulverston Dickensian Festival, Cumbria


Period dress in the Ulverston Dickensian Festival Parade

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping on your nose.”
The Christmas Song

Nothing signifies the start of winter more than the annual Ulverston Dickensian Festival in Cumbria. The two day Christmas festival occurs towards the end of November and as the name suggests it has a Dickensian theme taking you back to the 1850’s.

Each day there is a parade through the streets with all participants dressing up in “Dickensian” costumes. We’ve seen everything from traditional Victorian dresses to military soldiers, street urchins and prostitutes. Locals really get behind this and some parade participants start creating their new costumes up to a year beforehand in an attempt to get every minute detail correct!

Period dress in the Ulverston Dickensian Festival Parade

If you want to take part the main consideration is the weather as Jack Frost truly will nip your nose and there’s only so much that mulled wine and roasted chestnuts can do to keep you warm! Ladies in costume generally wear thick shawls and period hats to keep warm whereas men are often in heavy overcoats. If you don’t fancy wearing period costume then just make sure you have plenty of layers!

The Ulverston Dickensian Christmas Festival is an ideal location to start your Christmas shopping as the streets are lined with stalls selling local produce and delightful gifts. From Grasmere Gingerbread to Kendal Mint Cake Vodka or artisan sausages you’ll find a delicious gift for everyone or something nice for your tea!

There is a variety of music to suit everyone with traditional bands normally taking part in the daily parades.

Bag pipe player in the Ulverston Dickensian Festival Parade

You will find stalls selling mulled wine or hot chocolate to warm your hands and your belly and the smell of roasting chestnuts wafts through the air.

There are street entertainers to keep children amused and a variety of show ground attractions in the traditional fairground for those that prefer a little thrill!

Street Performer at the Ulverston Dickensian Festival

As the day draws to a close the Christmas Lights are switched on, Christmas Carols are sung and everyone piles into the local pubs to continue the festival into the evening.

Of the pubs The Farmers, The Rose and Crown and The Mill are popular choices all serving good food and a variety of drinks including our superb local ales!

Ulverston itself is a quaint town with a “Festival Town” reputation and quirky, individual shops. It’s easily accessible via the A590 with town centre parking or on the bus, and Ulverston train station is only a 5 minute walk from the town centre.

If you fancy a traditional Christmas festival that the whole family can enjoy then visit the Ulverston Dickensian Festival and make the most of your weekend by seeing what else the area can offer from beach walks to wild animals!





Sunday, October 4, 2015

Art in Edinburgh: From Escher to Lichtenstein & Bailey

While everyone knows that Edinburgh is THE place to visit for the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival I’m pleased to say that there is a great art scene there for the rest of the year too.

Edinburgh has not one but three National Galleries each with its own identity. Here I look more closely at the National Gallery and the Modern Gallery. That’s not to say that the Portrait Gallery is inferior it’s just that the exhibitions at the former galleries appealed to me far more so here’s my guide to art in Edinburgh….

The Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

This Gallery is right at the heart of Edinburgh only a few minutes’ walk from Waverley train centre and shops on Princes Street.

It’s free to enter the main Gallery where you can see a mixture of works from Raphael to Charden and Cezanne. The works are spread over three floors and they often have one off exhibitions.

I was lucky enough to visit when Baileys Stardust exhibition was on. As one of the greatest photographers of current times I loved being able to see his work up close. The striking images of celebrities were simplistic yet perfectly constructed. It shows that if you have talent you don’t need to hide it behind accessories, backgrounds and photoshop.

Celebrities at David Bailey Stardust Exhibition

The exhibition included some actual artwork by Bailey. This did incorporate his photos and my favourite piece was reminiscent of a Peter Blake silkscreen.

David Bailey Stardust Exhibition

Another interesting facet of the exhibition is a room dedicated to his personal life with pictures mainly of his beautiful wife. These glimpses into the life of someone who is always behind the camera are insightful and show a little more of the real “Bailey” and what matters to him. Another room looked at the area he was brought up in London which again shows real people and real life rather than the iconic images of celebrities.

There is a café downstairs – one selling more normal sandwiches etc. and another which has a slightly more formal menu showcasing the best of Scottish food.

The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art

This Gallery sits around a 30 minute walk from Edinburgh city centre but it is possible to complete part of the walk along the river which is quite pretty. It is split into Modern One and Modern Two with a road cutting between the two.

This Gallery has lots of outside space which it makes the most of with a sculpture park and pig rock bothy which hosts a variety of art performances and discussions.

Within the grounds you will spot Nathan Coleys “There will be no miracles here”. For anyone who reads my blog regularly you may recognise this name as his work also featured in Triennale Brugge 2015 in my Bruges visit.

Nathan Coley There will be no miracles here

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit the Modern Art Gallery was to see the artist room of Roy Lichtenstein. His bright pop art is instantly recognisable as one of the most influential artists of our time it was a not to miss opportunity. His works are spread across 3 rooms and include newly assembled group of his works.

Roy Lichtenstein at Scottish Modern At Gallery

Another major reason to visit was to see the work of M.C.Esher. I've loved his work since studying art at school where I used his work to inspire some of my final projects. Despite having his books at home nothing beats seeing work "in the flesh". His work is fascinating and some pieces I could stare at all day trying to work out how on earth he manages to twist perception.

I love the replica of Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio and just want to go into it to explore more. An artists studio is a little insight into their world and their mind and this is a great example with ideas strewn over every surface.

The café does a pretty mean chocolate brownie too if you’re feeling peckish!


For more details on the Scottich Galleries and the latest exhibitions click here.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Two Days in: Chester – Shopping, Heritage & Playing Polo

Roman soldiers walk the streets of Chester

Chester was never somewhere particularly on my travel radar until I heard about JF Polo Academy and decided to book a polo lesson. It was inevitable that once I had booked my polo lesson that I would have to spend the weekend in Chester but what did I do with my two days in Chester.

The key reason for my visit was my polo lesson at JF Polo Academy whose all-purpose built facilities sits just outside of Chester in the glorious Cheshire countryside. I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and started it by learning how to do some basic polo mallet manoeuvres on the wooden horse.

Polo on a wooden horse in Chester at JF Polo Academy

Once I could successfully handle the mallet, my reins and perform basic forehand and backhand I was let loose on my polo pony! The ponies here are a delight to ride – they are really responsive so with a twitch of the reins or slight squeeze of the leg they do exactly what you want.

going for a polo shot at JF Polo Academy in Chester

Cantering with a mallet then trying to hit a ball on the ground is decidedly harder (and more tiring) than it looks but it’s great fun and having a patient instructor also helps. While my hit ratio was low/ poor at canter I seemed more successful at good shots while trotting!

They give lessons to complete novice to advanced riders and it’s great fun so certainly recommended. If you fancy seeing the experts playing polo in Chester then why not head to the Roodee Challenge Polo Weekend held annually at Chester Racecourse. Alternatively head to Chester Racecourse for a more common form of horse sport - horse racing!

Polo pony at JF Polo Academy

After a morning playing polo you will need something good for lunch. We headed to the StickyWalnut on the outskirts of the city. The food here was really good although portions were a touch small for my liking! Table water included fresh mint for a refreshing twist and the artisan breads were delicious. For dessert lovers they have a great selection with a close call between crème brulee and the chocolate ganache with cherries and cassis sorbet.

Chester is a walled city and you are able to walk along the old walls so spend the afternoon walking along them exploring. These walls were built by the Romans between 70 and 80 AD and you can walk the 2 mile circumference of them if you’re feeling fit taking in the towers and gates on the way.

Roman Walls at Chester

After all this exercise head to Hickory’s Smokehouse an authentic American smokehouse selling American cuisine such as rack of ribs, Buffalo chicken wings and popcorn. They also do some pretty mean cocktails if you fancy a late one!

Chester is home to a fantastic variety of shops ranging from standard high street ones to more individual ones so it’s a great place to enjoy a wander and with shopping centres like Grosvenor in the centre and Cheshire Oaks a short drive away you could easily enter shopping heaven!

Walk down to the River Dee for a relaxing riverside lunch and you then hire a boat or alternatively take a boat tour to relax for the rest of the afternoon. Then visit the stunning cathedral to wind up your weekend.

Boat rides on the River Dee, Chester

This might be my perfect two days in Chester but what would you do?

Find out more here or leave a comment with your recommendations.