The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

We so nearly left our hotel on New Year’s Eve just before midnight to experience Athens celebrating the start of 2015, but it was cold, and we still had mince pies and we had to get up at 6.30am to try and get back to the airport to pick up our hire car for the rest of our trip. So, staying in the warmth(?) of our hotel room was an easy choice. We’ve seen fireworks before, not over the Acropolis, I grant you, but hey, with tea and mince pies on offer, it was a tough call.

For this trip, we managed to remember our travel kettle. Few European hotels have tea and coffee making facilities and the kettle, teabags and milk save us a load of cash on buying hot drinks and mean we can have our own in bed at night. We steal sugar from hotel dining rooms and cafes where we can. Our piece de resistance for this trip – a trick probably known to more worldly travellers already – is that any old plastic card will do to keep the electricity in the room activated. We got fed up with the heater going off when we went out of the room, meaning we were freezing when we returned. Exchanging the hotel key card for a plastic loyalty card meant the the heater remains on and we return to a toasty, warm room.

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So, fully laden, and in the rain we set off to find that the Metro was running as normal on January 1st even though it was a Bank Holiday (hurray), but that it just didn’t go to the airport (boo), so we had a further walk to find the bus (X95, €5) which started its journey empty and pleasant and ended it’s journey so unbelievably full that we had our rucksacks on our laps and I couldn’t look past mine as I’d knew I’d have a panic attack because the bus was so rammed full of people.

Athens seemed to have cured itself of its traffic problems on New Year’s Day, the only people we saw were making their way home, mostly walking, in that particular manner where it looks like the top half of your body is moving faster than your legs, in a constant stumbling fashion whereby every now and again you have to do a little run to get your legs to catch up. 100% alcohol induced.

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We picked up the hire car at 9am from a bloodshot eyed young man who really must have wanted to still be in bed and headed off in the Peloponese for a 150 mile drive to Gythio on the top edge of the Mani Peninsula in Laconia. It was a spectacular drive, mostly full of snow-topped mountains and endless olive groves. We love it. Keith spoke to the cashier in the petrol station who said that he worked 28 16 hour shifts every month and earned €580 (£450) a month. He said he used to work for a Ducati franchise, but lost his job when it closed down; as did 29 of the 30 vehicle franchises in the area. He was 45 years old, the same age as Keith. We felt sad, fortunate and – for me – cross with myself for how much I moan about my working life. Perspective is necessary at times.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 04

We have to cross the Corinth Canal which connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas via a 6km long dug trench. It is very narrow and very deep. Quite a feat of engineering, but probably quite claustrophobic in a little yacht sailing along the bottom. Keith is hugely impressed by the canal.

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We arrive in Gythio, picked at random from a map of the Peloponnese, as we had an extra two days to fill before going to our work exchange hosts. Turns out it was a good choice. We are staying in the narrowest hotel in Europe (probably). It is only one room plus a corridor wide, which means every room has a balcony and sea view.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 07

The Hotel Aktaion (£29 for double room including breakfast) boasts many facilities, however, we did not see any evidence of music apart from an ancient box on the wall of the room which didn’t work. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit in Reception though (English version, not Greek, for goodness sake).The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 08
It does have this view from the balcony, so we’ll forgive them for the music. We saw a kingfisher on this wall and were very excited about that. That’s all it takes. Being a person easily excited by small things makes for a much more interesting life than for the not easily impressed.

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We like our accidental finding of Gythio. It has an amphitheatre not quite of the scale of Athens, but interesting nevertheless. The amphitheatre is next to some kind of military establishment, which are not permitted to be photographed by law. Our solitary presence at the amphitheatre with a camera caused a man with a gun to come and ‘clarify the situation’. They might want to move themselves or the amphitheatre if they’re going to get the willies every time someone comes to look at it. It’s been there for some time and there is a sign directing people towards it. Maybe no one ever comes to look at it. I like to think we made all that training worthwhile.

No military personnel were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

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There are numerous restaurants, bars and rooms to rent for a probably busy summer season. Not today though; we sit alone in a restaurant – an early treat for Keith’s birthday in a couple of day’s time.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 12

It’s lovely to be out of Athens and to be somewhere with more open countryside and quiet streets. If we hadn’t already decided to move to Portugal, I think we’d be in danger of wanting to live here. Sadly, for my special interest, there are no estate agents in sight, so we’re safe for now. But that one with the roof and windows looks quite nice…

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

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Today was cold, windy and rainy here and there. It was our last day in the city and so visiting the Acropolis had to be done (€12 ticket lasts 4 days and gets you access to several other ancient sites and museums – keep your ticket once you’ve gone in as you will need it to access different areas. Keith failed to do so and we had to pay for another ticket. He went without food for the remainder of the day in order for us to stick to our budget). We never pay for anything cultural, we just look from the outside, so this was a rare event. Even on a freezing and wet day like today there were plenty of people braving the elements to get in the way of every other person’s photo opportunity. Sometimes, its nice to just enjoy stuff without having to take a photo of yourself stood next to it (although we did that a couple of times too). Some people seem to do nothing else but record their present to look at some time in the future. How about just living it now? Must be hellish up there in the summer. All those selfies vying for space.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 03

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Renovation and re-assembling of the buildings has been happening for decades, but more recent technological developments are allowing the buildings to be re-built using identical materials – although they are whiter due to less weathering. We were not sure whether they should be left as they are or turned into perfect replicas, which seems to be the plan. Either way, the sheer skill and scale of the structures in such an imposing setting cannot fail to impress. The views across the city to the port at Piraeus show the size of the place. Shame about all the people though. We should have got up earlier in order to see it on our own. Notice how we skillfully manage to take photographs of buildings which almost always have no other people in them at all, apart from each other.

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It’s mind-blowing to think that these were all carved by hand over 2000 years ago.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 08

It was very windy on top of the Acropolis. I almost lost my hat. Such an event could be described as a Greek Tragedy. I only have one hat, unlike one man with Asperger Syndrome I met who would wear three hats at the same time. He would have no such concerns on a windy day; always prepared.

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Our other wanderings were round the most visceral meat market I have ever been to. It was full of more dead meat than I have ever seen, presented in the most gruesome fashion. I felt quite anxious and overwhelmed by the place, which was not helped by the loud, shouting butchers approaching every passer-by to insist that their whole skinned sheep complete with head including eyeballs was the best. It felt like being in a horror film surrounded by carcasses.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 11

Plenty of other stuff on offer, including a huge range of fish – look at that pile of squid – and vast stacks of smoked sausages of all sizes. I didn’t know that Greek cuisine involved such things, but judging by the multiple stalls and multiple sausages, this is very much the case.

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Why don’t we have markets like this in the UK anymore as a daily event? All we get are poncy over-priced ‘Farmer’s Markets’ rather than the real thing in most towns. This place was busy, noisy and very much a part of everyday life here.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 14

But we didn’t eat any of this stuff. We went for cooked feta with chillis and oil, which is far better than cold feta in my humble opinion. Easy to cook at home – just wrap a block of feta in foil with dash if olive oil and chillis and cook in oven or under grill for 15 mins or so. Mop up with pita bread. You’re welcome.

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Later, we had spit roast chicken and chips for €4.90 for two. Now, this place had the kind of ambience we love: empty and us sat in a corner all on our tod. Lovely. Keith is actually happy. Honest. He did have two Greek coffees in a row earlier so may have been still away with the caffeine fairies at this point. He was just happy that he was allowed to eat anything after losing his Acropolis ticket.

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We’ve very much enjoyed Athens but I’ve had enough now. I’ve realised that about 36 hours in a city is about my capacity and it’s time to leave. It’s nothing personal, Athens; it’s not you, it’s me. It is a more laid-back and easy-going place than I expected; more modern; more friendly. The Acropolis is worth the trip alone, but the rest of the city is certainly an easy place to spend some time with a load of interesting junk shops, art galleries and a billion fridge magnets in the shape of a Greek God. And if you come at the right time of year, you might just be lucky enough to see Santa outside a ‘Love Shop’. So that’s what he does for the rest of the year…Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 17

Mince Pies in Athens

Mince Pies in Athens

 

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We’re on a two week work exchange trip to Greece just after Christmas, spending a couple of days in Athens, a couple of days on the coast and then staying with some people we haven’t met yet to do some work at their home in exchange for bed and food. This is our first go at this type of travel and being the odd couple of sods that we are, we have some trepidation, but we’re up for giving it a shot having made the experience as Keith and Sarah friendly as we can – choosing carefully where we go, what is expected of us and having a car to jump in and drive away quickly if it all gets too much. We’ve got our own teabags; we’ll be fine.

We’ve been away loads lately what with Christmas and all – a bit too much if I’m honest. I’m feeling a bit disorientated and overwhelmed most of the time with not enough time for my brain to process all of the differing environments that we are putting ourselves in. Keith manages to take it all in his stride. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t expect sympathy for my plight as it perhaps looks like we lead an easy and idle life. It’s not quite as it seems, although we do get to do some good stuff. I work every day while I’m away keeping on top of admin and course preparation so it’s not ever entirely a holiday. I should explain that this is only possible due to the way I have constructed my business which means it largely fits within the academic year and means that I have no face to face work in school holidays. This is part of a decade’s worth of planning to move towards this point and this ability to manage my work time in this way. Keith’s redundancy and my PKD only quickened our pace; this was a route we were heading towards anyway. Having regular blocks of time off is the only way I can (half) functionally work. When I am at work, I’m usually in some form of physical or mental distress (migraines, backache, anxiety etc), so the free time in some way compensates. It’s a full-on job standing up in front of people for up to 6 hours at a time; like stand-up comedy but for a whole day. It’s not an ideal state of affairs but it’s the best situation I’ve found during a chequered (to say the least) employment history. I’m not very employable for a number of reasons, most associated with the autism I have latterly come to understand.

I think similar set-ups can be achieved by many people if they put their mind to it. I don’t much believe in luck; more in meticulous planning and long-term strategic thinking. It takes patience, time and a willingness to move slowly towards the desired set-up, rather than expect to get what you want instantly. It also requires that you know exactly what the desired set-up for you looks like. If you don’t have a goal, how do you know when you’ve got there (said someone famous at some point)? I have found Paul McKenna’s books fantastically useful for helping define thoughts about these things. Titter ye not, I’m serious, his stuff has genuinely changed my life for the better.

It’s flipping freezing in Athens. Snow on the hills and an icy chill in the air along with some serious downpours of rain. The hotel doesn’t have any heating as such, only a lukewarm air con unit more accustomed to drying up the sweat of the room’s occupants in the blistering summer heat, not drying out the socks of the room’s occupants sodden feet.

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We’re trying to keep to a budget on this trip. Hence, we have carried all of the left-over Christmas food in our hefty rucksacks (steel toe-capped boots included) in order to save money. This may well be an economically viable thing to do, we have created mince pies with 1293 food miles which is surely environmentally questionable. A box of well-travelled (and slightly crushed) Mr Kipling’s in the cold hotel room it is, then. Spot of Leonard Cohen to wash it down and all is well in the world. We arrived late, stepped out of the Metro from the airport (Line 3, €8 each, extremely and unexpectedly simple to work out) to this:

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Mince Pies in Athens - 04

Pretty cool. The Acropolis is the name of the rock and there are various temples on top of it. I’ve wanted to come to Athens for years and could never work out how it all fitted together with that big rock smack in the centre of the city, and now it all makes sense: there’s this big rock smack in the centre of the city. Keith and I have minimal interest in cultural things and I am more likely to be found in a supermarket wanting to know what local people eat rather than the marvels of 2000 year old construction, but even we are somewhat impressed with Athens. I’m sure Athens is delighted.

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Our hotel is the Best Western Pythargorion which (apart from the lack of significant heater) is a blooming bargainous treat – £22 for a double room including breakfast. Breakfast is perfectly fine and I would like to reassure the world that the Spam industry is alive and well and living in a hotel dining room in Athens. Best thing about breakfast has been watching Japanese people eating strange combinations of food. This morning saw a woman with an omelette, sausage and a pile of dried muesli all together on the same plate. Is that a thing in Japan? Or anywhere?

It’s so cold here that I sat in a restaurant with my gloves on my feet. They look a bit freaky.

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The thing that has struck us both about Athens, which may be obvious to some, is quite how much historical stuff there is here. It is literally everywhere. You can barely turn a corner without coming across piles of stones, excavations, buildings and museums. The place is absolutely full of history spanning several eras, civilisations and millennia. There is so much of it it is easy to be blase about wandering past yet another astonishingly impressive structure, huge in scale and skill.

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The Lego version of Classical Greek building. There’s so much of this stuff, they don’t know where to put it.

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Mince Pies in Athens - 09

I think we were expecting more obvious poverty and deprivation in the light of Greece’s economic problems, but did not witness anything much different than any other major European city on the surface at least, although I’m sure people have undoubtedly been hit hard. The main notable feature of modern Athens is the vast amount of graffiti on almost every available surface, even people’s homes and front doors. I don’t recall seeing anywhere else on this scale. This photo shows a train passing the Agora (ancient marketplace).

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Athens is a huge urban sprawl reaching the sea and to the edge of the mountains with distinct districts like any other city. Green parks and hills are doted about, so there are always places to escape to. We didn’t venture beyond the few central areas and the obvious attractions, partly due to the weather and partly due to not knowing if we would ever find our way back: Greece having the additional complication of an alphabet and therefore street names that are utterly indecipherable to us both. If we got a bus into the suburbs, we may never be seen again.

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Mince Pies in Athens - 12

This is a city with a legendary traffic and parking problem. It didn’t seem any worse than Worthing during the school run.

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Mince Pies in Athens - 14

Again, as in other countries we have visited, we are shamed by Greek people’s ability and willingness to speak English. They can spot our Englishness a mile off and don’t even attempt to speak Greek to us; a damning indictment on expectations that we will have bothered to learn their language. Proudly, I report that I learned to ask for’ two stamps to Great Britain please’ in Greek from my phrase book (I have a phrase book for every country I have ever visited) and after delivering my phrase both Keith and I were visibly shocked when the cashier at the Post Office neither laughed, said: ‘Eh?’ (or it’s Greek equivalent) or replied in English, but instead replied in Greek and gave us the two stamps. Fluent, I tell you. A natural. We were chuffed for quite some time about that minor success.

My kidney disease means that I am frequently in need of a loo due to the large amounts of water I need to drink to help combat the growth of the cysts. I eat a lot of food from M&S because I spend a lot of time in motorway service stations to and from working across the UK. Many now have an M&S (hurray) which means I can eat something other than a Ginster’s and avoid falling asleep whilst driving from the big carb crash that such food gives me. Sadly, the Athens M&S has a food hall but it only sells digestives and marmalade and none of that nice giant couscous and goat’s cheese salad that I really like. Disappointing, but at least the whole place had adequate heating. And a very pleasant loo.

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In between rain showers, we played a little game of statue imitation, Athens being quite the Mecca for such activities, although many of them are missing limbs and Keith wasn’t willing to go that far for the sake of art.

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The great philosophers, including Needham: ‘I think, therefore it’s time for a cup of tea’. And that, sounds like a marvelous idea.

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Morocco: This Post is Brought to You by the Essaouira Tourist Board and Polycystic Kidney Disease

Morocco: This Post is Brought to You by the Essaouira Tourist Board and Polycystic Kidney Disease

Today’s ramble is mainly just an excuse for a few more photos of this extraordinarily photogenic place; there is a photo opp round every corner. The blue sky contrasted with white buildings is so aesthetically satisfying. We only have a camera phone, so quality is not great, but you get the idea.

Despite the business it will bring, not everyone here is so chuffed with the direct Easyjet flights as they feel it will spoil the place even more than tourism has spoiled it already. This is a double edged sword or employment, improved local facilities – this is hugely obvious from the years I have been coming here – tempered with the town being turned into some kind of Moroccan Disneyland of men in fezs and snake charmers (I have never seen a snake charmer in Essaouira – its too cool for that). You can see why local people would take the tourist route, perhaps changing their shop from selling saucepans or couscous to selling spices or slippers, but they may destroy their community in the process. And community is one of the overriding things you notice about this place, and Morocco in general; its all about family and people. Eating, drinking and chatting. The streets are always full, especially at night, when everyone seems to come for a wander. It is a highly social lifestyle. With a risk of appearing idiotically patronising and making sweeping generalisations, my perception is that, one the surface at least, these are a happier lot than we are; less stressed (in a western sense of the world). More about people; less about things.

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We wandered round the port with its boat building yard and numerous blue fishing boats of all sizes. Due to the Atlantic winds, the sea is usually choppy outside the bay of Essaouira and you can often see these boats appearing and disappearing amongst the waves.

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I have always found Morocco a very safe place to be and have never felt in any danger, even late at night. Obviously, there are places not to go at night in any city, but for me, the general absence of alcohol – you can buy it but most Moroccans don’t drink it – makes an evening out far more pleasant than in the UK. The atmosphere is completely different. Plus, as an added bonus, there are no Wetherspoons. Not one.

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Shopping is a slow mooch round shops selling different individual items; one shop only sells bottled water, nothing else. Many shops these days have set prices and shopkeepers appear to have largely abandoned the hard sell tactics of the past. I recall hearing years ago that the government had carried out some research where they found it that 85% of first time visitors to Morocco said they would never return due to the constant badgering. Huge amounts of money was spent on tourism and on TV advertisements explaining that European shoppers just like to be allowed to look. When I first came 13 years ago, the guidebooks would warn of harassment and scams to the point of making you terrified before you arrived. Morocco is nothing like it was, especially in laid-back Essaouira.

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Morocco This Post is Brought to You by - 05
Morocco This Post is Brought to You by - 06

Beyond tagine spices and saffron, the spice shop sell a range of cures for all known ailments, including diabetes, weight loss and kidney stones. I am not convinced that these jars contain anything more than some sticks and dust off the floor, but the older generation particularly, swear by them. On the top shelf is where the black magic lies, should you wish to put a curse in your neighbour for forgetting to put the bins out. Bats and hedgehogs feature in these recipes.

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Oranges are around 12p a kilo. Fresh fruit and vegetables are incredibly cheap – a week’s worth would cost less than £1.

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Late night shopping is every night,although it seems more of an excuse to see and be seen. Snails, pyjamas and live chickens are but a few paces away.

Morocco This Post is Brought to You by - 09
I hear that there’s something called Christmas going on in the western world. From friends posts on Facebook, it sounds stressful. We have escaped this final week to wander around in the winter sun. Christmas shopping? Slippers and tagine spices. Sorted. Here in Morocco, this is Christmas. One stall, selling a few inflatable Santas. That’ll do.

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The photo at the top of this page is of my land. Crazy, eh? It’s near the beach in a little place called Moulay Bouzerktoun, about 20 minutes drive north of Essaouira. It’s known only for windsurfing, kitesurfing and such and has a significant swell in the summer (so they tell me). In Europe, this hectare (2.5 acres) would be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, here it cost less than the price of a second hand car (I don’t even remember how much). You could live on it in a little house, spend your life shifting rocks, counting tortoises and live on very little money. Morocco is full of such opportunities; for the medium brave. We thought about what adventures we could have building a house on the land overlooking the Atlantic; something we’d never be able to afford anywhere much else. We talked about lots of ideas and things, but then we found out that my Polycystic Kidney Disease has caused high blood pressure for the first time in my life (it’s the first thing to cause a problem for most people with PKD). Apart from back pain and almost constant headaches, it’s not affecting me too much so far. A health and fitness regime begins 2 days before Christmas in an attempt to get it under control (weight loss and excerise help lower blood pressure) before I have to give in and tell a Doc who will put me on medication for the rest of my life. I’d like to delay that as long as possible. I may be well for decades, I may not. We just don’t know, but we’re not taking any chances and wasting healthy time thinking we have plenty of it. We weren’t too sure about Moroccan medical facilities and we also remembered that we’re not very brave, so we went home and put an offer in on a little cottage in Portugal that we viewed some time ago. That’s a more sedate kind of adventure that we can handle. With hospitals. And they said Yes.

We have a couple of Help Exchange / Workaway volunteering trips organised for the next few months, but after that, we’ll be being not very adventurous in The Algarve for many years to come.

Morocco: Essaouira Revisited

Morocco: Essaouira Revisited

Morocco Essaouira Revisited - 01

We’re lucky enough to be staying in a beautiful riad owned by Andy and Tim, two Brighton friends who set off on their own Essaouiran adventure. Their house, Dar Sabon is wonderfully managed by Agne as a B&B. €35 a night and worth every penny (cent).

Morocco Essaouira Revisited - 02
Morocco Essaouira Revisited - 03
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You know when you’ve eaten too much when your host says: ‘Haven’t you done well’ on seeing that you’ve scoffed all the breakfast. Put it in front of us and we’ll eat it.

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Today we shopped with old friends. Unis is our slipper man who has kept my entire family and friends in babouches for 13 years. This time the grandtwins get their inaugural pair. Unis’ shop is on the edge of the spice market off the main street.

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We also found my oldest Essaouiran friend, Talib, who I met when he was 17 in 2001. He is now 30. Despite a gap of 5 years since we last met, he welcomes us with open arms and genuine pleasure. Talib has been to England for the first time this year to work on Moroccan markets in Peterborough and Burgess Hill – he was only a few miles up the road from me and I didn’t know. Talib says he liked Primark!

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Like many Moroccans, Talib speaks multiple languages; I have read that they have a particular knack for it. He’s also a fantastic cook and has made me many a tagine. Again, like many Moroccans I’ve met, Talib has a fantastic sense of humour and a really silly, playful nature. People here often seem very willing to have a joke with you. This is especially true if you learn just a few basic words of Arabic and ask people what things are in Arabic. So few people bother, but it is hugely welcomed. I learned the word for bread from a street bread seller and ended up selling bread with him from his barrow. Keith and I have been going to our local Co-op for almost two years and have yet to crack a smile from most of the staff there. And not a diagnosis between them as far as I know.

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I made friends with a very cheeky cat who put his paw in Keith’s tagine and ate a home made jammy dodger. I also made the mistake of drinking mint tea, which has caffeine in it as well as a truckload of sugar. I know this because I drank some the other day. As a person extremely sensitive to caffeine this makes me a particular idiot. A very talkative and panicky one at that.

We wandered around La Skala, the walled, sea facing part of the city where artists and craftspeople sell their stuff.

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Morocco Essaouira Revisited - 11

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Today’s bargain dinner was a delicious sardine stew in a bread loaf: £1.30 – for two of us. Eating well on a budget is so easy here.

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Morocco: Jimi/Sarah Hendrix Woz ‘Ere

Morocco: Jimi/Sarah Hendrix Woz ‘Ere

Morocco Jimi Sarah Hendrix Woz Ere - 01

Yesterday’s post about looking for estate agents was written in jest, however today we found out that Easyjet will be flying direct to Essaouira as of May 2015 and that I own a hectare of land up the coast. This might change everything. I knew that I owned this land of course but had assumed that it had kind of gone along with everything else from my past time here. I had just put it down to experience never having planned to return for these years. Turns out it’s still mine. It has lots of rocks and tortoises on it. And a tree. Keith having done his dry stone walling course could be entertained for months building a wall around the land with all the free rocks and training tortoises. I can fly home to work via Easyjet and we can live on 12p doughnuts. I cannot see one single flaw in this plan. Keith is yet to be convinced.

Today we walked to Diabat, reputed temporary home to Jimi Hendrix in 1968. Diabat is a tiny cluster of houses along the beach from Essaouira with no other, however tenuous, claim to fame, so it milks it well.

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Café Jimi Hendrix

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Hotel Jimi Hendrix

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Aside from a few people, Diabat is home to a number of goats which wander freely and an extremely out of place golf resort featuring manicured greens in the midst of scrubland and mangy dogs.

Goat Jimi Hendrix

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Golf Jimi Hendrix (not really)

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The walk to Diabat from Essaouira is almost entirely along the long sandy beach except for the final section which is over a newly built bridge, which, it has to be said, like the motorway, is not getting quite the usage one might expect.

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The beach here is spectacular and mostly empty apart from the odd camel.

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Morocco Jimi Sarah Hendrix Woz Ere - 09

Away from the town the beach is backed by sand dunes where you can play at being in the Sahara whilst only being a short walk away from orange juice and chips.

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Or alternatively find a tiny tortoise on an epic journey. This (below) has to be one of my favourite photographs of all time.

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No voyage into the ‘desert’ is complete without the obligatory return to civilisation orange juice and chips (blowing the budget at £3.50) at Ocean Vagabond, the original surf café in Essaouira.

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Followed by a 12p doughnut. Street food in Morocco has a strict schedule and rotation according to time of day. There is a limited doughnut window and today we were lucky enough to make it. Otherwise, it would have been a sardine in this photo, which wouldn’t have had quite the same effect.

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Dinner tonight was in local’s joint (as opposed to the many tourist restaurants. One chicken and vegetable tagine, one chicken couscous, bread and water for £4.60. Date nights just got very cheap. The ambience was somewhat lacking, but the food and price made up for it. Total day’s food bill £8.22 for two people. Could easily do it for less, but we don’t need to.

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Our evening ended with a stroll round the town taking weird photos. Another good day in a very special place.

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Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

Morocco: Trying Not To Buy A House in Essaouira (Again)

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Today we leave the peaceful and tiny kitten filled Les Jardins des Lilas set in the midst of the madness that is Marrakech medina to catch a bus to the seaside. The rain is gone. The sun is out, the sky is a particularly Moroccan shade of blue and we’re on our way to Essaouira or ‘Home’ as it was once destined to be (I am building intrigue here, can you tell?).

A final taxi ride to the train station to catch the bus (yep) made me thankful that I hadn’t checked my blood pressure (I need to keep an eye on it due to the kidney disease). Today was not a good day for blood pressure. As a person who experiences a lot of anxiety which relates to things that are not really worth worrying about, it made quite a refreshing change to be actually genuinely terrified about something concrete and real. How do these people not kill each other? The taxi driver seemed to love the constant within a whisker of serious injury life he had. His almost continuous use of the horn and derision of anyone travelling with less speed and more caution delighted him. Must be the mint tea, which is loaded with more sugar than is good for anyone (serious note: Morocco, like many other nations, has a serious diabetes problem).

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The Supratours coach to Essaouira costs 80 dirhams, takes 3 hours and is driven by another candidate for Shittest Driver Of The Year Award. As Keith said: ‘This man has received more phone calls during this journey that I do in a month’. And he wasn’t hands-free, although, bless him, he did try to untangle his headphones whilst overtaking a truck at 120km an hour. Credit where its due. Here he is. Untangling. In the outside lane. Shame you can’t see the truck.

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He subsequently gave up and returned to hands.

Apart from the fear of death, its a great ride west to the coast. The snow capped Atlas mountains run alongside for part of the way (camera on phone couldn’t do it justice) and then the landscape flattens right out.

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Since my last visit, they’ve built a motorway with a toll. What this means is that no one uses it. Completely empty. Pity the poor fella at the toll booth. What does he do all day?

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I have mixed emotions about coming to Essaouira, but as I also have alexithymia (look it up) I don’t know what they are (autism joke). The next bit is a bit of potentially dull and self indulgent back story, so please skip off if you just want to know that if you order jus de pommes in Morocco, you get apple milkshake rather than apple juice and it is bloody lovely. The same applies to jus de bananes but not jus d’orange. They also offer avocado juice but I’ve never been brave enough to see what turns up. Why don’t we do apple milkshake in England? It could catch on.

Anyway, the back story: I first came to Morocco in 2001, a few weeks after the 9/11 bombings, a time when Arabic countries were not the most popular of holiday destinations. I’d been fascinated by Morocco for years and always wanted to go, but money, kids and bravery had got in the way. My sister in law and I got a cheap package deal to Agadir, just used the flight and set off on buses around Morocco for a week. She was a seasoned worldwide traveller; I was a wimp who’d never been further than Torrelmolinos. Sounds perfectly feasible so far, but there is a back story to the back story. During the few months prior to this trip several major things had happened in my life: my mum had died (second parent), my marriage had ended, I’d ended up living in a tent at the age of 33 with my two children and I’d had a bit of a breakdown at the top of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (with hindsight this was undoubtedly the result of the accumulation of previous events) which was due to affect me in many ways for the rest of my life so far (panic attacks, agoraphobia etc.). In short, every piece of certainty in my life had disappeared. These cheery events were to form the basis of my first and last Edinburgh Fringe comedy show in 2013. It was funnier that it sounds (‘The thinking person’s Sarah Millican’ – Three Weeks review). The autism was a distant future discovery waiting to happen.

To cut a very long story short, I came to Morocco (fairly tanked up on Diazepam in order to get on the plane – at this time I needed it to get on a bus, get in a lift or go to the cinema), went to Essaouira, loved it beyond measure, and feeling extremely strongly that due to everything that had happened, I needed a tiny corner of the world that no one could take away from me. I couldn’t afford one closer to home (single parent, renting, working part time in a college), so here it was gonna be. I planned to move here when my kids had grown up. It felt possible, affordable and weirdly, somewhere I felt I could fit (some fabulous bonkers expats end up in Morocco). I brought my brother and his wife over and convinced them that this was a good thing to do, I took out a bank loan (credit was easy in those days) and so between us we bought the house for £16,000 in Essaouira medina that was going to be my home one day.

To cut a long story short again: fast forward lots of wonderful holidays, ongoing problems with the house, higher than expected building costs, more loans, crippling debt, huge stress, ill health, up for sale for 2 years, sold for a pittance, thought we would never get the money out of the country, more crippling debt. The money turned up randomly in bank account over a year after the sale, haven’t been back for 5 years. All too much to face.

So, apple milkshake.

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So, we’re here. This is Essaouira. An ancient fishing port and town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, long since been a hangout for kite and windsurfers due to the almost consistently windy and yet protected nature of the bay. I once went windsurfing here with a friend. We hired our wetsuits, handed to us by a gentleman in the shop and made the long walk across the sand to the sea. Someone took a photo: two people in wetsuits, one with a large ‘M’ on the back, the other with ‘XXXL’. Bastard. It was way too big for me. Honest.

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Inside the medina is a crazy bustle of life, but a laid-back, kind of friendly one (as opposed to the more cut-throat Marrakech version). It’s strange to be back in a place which holds so many emotions and experiences. I’ve changed, but Essaouira hasn’t; and nor has the way I felt about it 13 years ago.

Now, all I need to do is to check that they have a decent dialysis clinic and a requirement for autism training. In English. Then, we’re sorted. I’ve written books you know? Don’t you know who I am? Now where’s that estate agent?

Keith, why are you making that face? Do you have sand in your eye?

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