Morocco – Jewel of the North

Still thinking about where to go this autumn school holidays? How about stepping back in time and embarking on an adventure in Morocco? 
We traveled with our 2 boys, now 8 and 4 years old, to Marrakech in October last year. We thought the kids are ready for something a bit more exotic and rustic – basically, a place where finding the first-world staple of pommes frites and pasta for a meal would be a mean feat.

And what an amazing hidden jewel Marrakech proved to be.

What to see:

The Medina – which is the largest traditional market square in Morocco, was a real eye-opener for our kids who have never seen a donkey plying the same busy roads as cars and trucks. On weekends, locals would travel far and wide from their villages in the mountains or desert here to catch up with friends, treat themselves to a hearty meal, or simply soak in the thrilling energy of the big city.

Our senses were treated to the constant buzz of animal hooves click-clacking on narrow cobbled stone streets and the friendly banter between stall owners selling their wares and potential customers negotiating prices; the fragrant scent of spices, aromatic oils and soaps, the whiff of piping hot sesame buns and flatted breads sold by women with their young children in tow; the fine warm dust caressing our sandaled feet and the hypnotic pipe tunes of the snake charmers.

The main market square can be liken to the heart of the city, but the fun begins when we start meandering through the narrow veins to the many souks that sell unique artisan wares. One street is flanked by stalls selling leather goods like footwear that looked like elves’ shoes with their pointy tips; another souk sparkled and glowed with starburst streams of light coming from pendant lamps made of pewter and silver. One street sold only olives!

Adventures with kids:

You can’t leave Morocco without seeing it in all its golden glory in a hot air balloon. We woke up at 4.30am and a tour guide drove us from our hotel to the desert in a muscly four-wheel drive. We had a breakfast in a rustic tent before seeing a whole entourage of workers set up the balloon for our ride. 

Even seeing the set up was an adventure in itself. The kids were really happy that the balloon we were going up in is a bright red and yellow color. The desert soon glittered below us as the sun began to rise over the Atlas mountain range. There was nothing to do but enjoy nature’s beauty.

The minimum age for kids to be in the hot air balloon is 3 years old. After the ride, we had lunch in a small desert village and went for a camel ride as part of the tour too.

We made a day trip to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas mountain region, a 70 km drive from Marrakech. It is inhibited by the Berber people who still embrace a traditional way of life. We did a wonderful trek up the mountain to see a waterfall, climbing over slippery and sharp rock surfaces. Do bring your usual Swiss hiking attire and shoes. I hiked in a dress that wasn’t too convenient for climbing over rocks but at least I wore sensible shoes! This was apparently where they filmed the movie ‘The Mummy’ as well. 

Where to stay:

There are many family resorts and all-inclusive hotels but we chose to stay in a lovely riad run by a wonderful French couple called Riad Dar Alfarah. It is only 5 minutes walk from the Medina – the grand traditional market square. Our hosts gave us good tips on how to travel safely and arranged for a driver and tour guide to show us around. On our last night, we were treated to a lovely Moroccan meal with a merry band of musicians and a belly dancing performance.

The intoxicating combination of lamb stew, constant flow of wine and spiced teas, the heady scent of shisha smoke and the nimble belly dancer flitting from one table to another definitely left an indelible mark in my mind.

 

Lisbon – an oxymoron of sorts…

LIsbon city
Lisbon city

This is the first time I’ve visited Portugal, and I must say, I am pleasantly surprised by how interesting the capital is, although I still can’t decide if I like it or love it.

Like the coastal towns of their Spanish neighbors, Portuguese cuisine consists of mainly seafood – but simply boiled and served cold, so you really get to enjoy the pure sweetness of our crustacean friends. It is not unusual for tables at restaurants to be covered with wet tissues, plastic hammer and board, crab crackers and lobster forks. (for an amateur seafood eater, I would highly recommend having a few pieces of first-aid plasters close by, or a useful helpful husband who can peel prawns and crack open crab and lobster shells for you).

Is this a good time to confess that when we visited the Oceanarium on our last day, my stomach was growling so much when I saw all the lovely sea creatures swimming infront of us, all I could think of is yummy delicious seafood! (especially stingray grilled with sambal chilli and fish curry)

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IMG_5428I absolutely love Portugese architecture. The pretty cracked blue and white tiles that cover the walls of several old buildings remind me of the Peranakan shophouses in some parts of Singapore and Malacca in Malaysia, where many Portugese traders came to build their colonial settlements in the 1800s. I would love to live in a  building that is painted fuschia pink or a happy egg yolk yellow.

Lisbon seems like a city of many contradictions. The historical district is a complex and compact maze of winding streets that goes up and down at every turn. It is definitely not a pram, wheelchair or high-heel-friendly city. We would have loved to take a ride on one of their iconic trams, which seem to be only about 5 metres long, but we know it’s impossible to squeeze a pram through the narrow entrance.

There are plenty of wide open spaces, especially along the marina area where you can enjoy long quiet walks, and the major tourist attractions are spread across the city. The many space-age looking museums and massive sculptures showcasing Portugal’s colorful history as a illustrious leader in sea trade are a sharp contrast to the skeletal frames of old clock towers, dilapidated warehouses and office buildings left in shambles, which must have been a bustling enclave of people coming in and out a long time ago.

For a global city which has 3 million residents (Lisbon is the 11th most populous city in the European Union),

it is also awfully quiet.

I’ve just returned from visiting Singapore and appreciate being able to walk around town without being jostled around. The streets are never packed with people or cars, even on a weekend. Our Portugese friend told us most residents hardly stay in the city on weekends, preferring to visit the many coastal towns nearby where they can lay on the sandy beaches all day long.

I was hoping that everywhere I go – left, right and centre, I would bump into the likes of Ronaldo Cristiano. He’s probably in the U.S shooting another Armani underwear ad. Portugese men tend to have a lot of facial hair and are generally quite short. It’s alot more likely to spot the likes of Hugo Almeidas. In general, the locals are a warm, easygoing and helpful bunch of people.

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Bairro Alto (Old town) and tram line
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Coastal town of Cascais

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Oceanarium

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the most famous and popular cafe for egg tarts

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Christmas with our surrogate family

It has been more than 6 years since we last spent Christmas with family because of my husband’s penchant for snowboarding holidays with friends and our move to Switzerland. This year is no different. Friends, especially the ones who are living overseas, have inevitably become our ‘surrogate-family’.

We flew to London for the Christmas weekend and spent a cosy festive holiday with close friends. On Christmas eve, the seven of us went to Wimbledon theatre to catch a pantonmime, Dick Whittington, with special guest appearance from Dame Edna, a famous drag queen from Australia. I was mesmerised by her candy-floss pink hair, shimmery costumes and multi-colored stockings. She made quite the entrance flying down from a furry cage ( i read somewhere it was meant to be a wombat, a tribute to her aussie roots) from the side of the theatre onto the stage. She was meant to be a fairy. Even though we were sitting right on top in the circle seats, we were still blinded by her top-to-toe bling bling.

The story has nothing to do with Christmas of course. It is a simple sketch about a man called Dick Whittington, whose cat managed to rid London of its rat infestation, Dick then marry the daughter of a rich merchant he was working for. It is filled with cheesy pop songs, dance, buffoonery, slapstick cross-dressing, a dwarf, toilet humor and mild sexual innuendo. I heard the special guest star for last year’s Christmas pantonmime was David Hasselhof from ‘Baywatch’, and the year before, ermmm, Pamela Anderson, from ‘Baywatch’ too. Don’t ask me why they were involved in British family-friendly theatre. Times are hard I guess, even for washed-out hollywood stars.

I have never tried roasting a Turkey or preparing a Christmas meal. I really admire the people who have the guts to attempt such a lofty endeavour. The thing with turkey, it’s not something you’ll cook on the other 364 days, so it’s usually a first try for most people, and there is no room for failure. If you screw up, no Tesco/Sainsbury/Marks&Spencer/nearby poultry farm or food delivery service will be able to send you a brand new one, on Christmas Day! And the stress in cooking for 20 guests!!! But our friend made such a succulent, crispy-skinned turkey and lovely roast vegetables, you almost think he’s been doing this in the last 364 days too!

We are back in Switzerland now. The whole of Zurich city has been shrouded in thick fog the past 3 days and it has only started to clear this morning. I am just weaning off my Christmas hangover and post-holiday blues. Well, just in time for another round of merry-making as we wait for 12 of our surrogate family members to fly in from London and New Zealand to count down to the new year with us!