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.

 

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Cuba Calling

This is my first time visiting Latin America and I can’t imagine a better place to start with than Cuba.

It is a momentous time for this beautiful Caribbean island – the last fraying thread of the iron curtain snapping with the recent visit from President Obama.

Many people have told us before we flew out that going to Cuba is like traveling back in time to the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1950s, punctuated by decadence, fancy cars, opulent villas and sensuous song and dance all wrapped up in the heady smokes of cigars and the intoxicating burn of well-aged rum.

What we saw in reality is a more sepia version of that romantic notion of Cuba. To me, it is as if the ancient and modern, the opulence and austerity, the spontaneity of music and the curfews on social life are all merging to create a new Cuban identity that is both relevant and timeless at the same time.

We caught a glimpse of this emerging new identity with Chanel fashion house holding their very first Latin American fashion show last week in the Prado Boulevard 300 meters from our hotel. We also saw the first American cruise ship dock in the Havana port after the last one was allowed to sailed in 50 years ago. The old weapons of invasion – missles and economic embargoes have now been replaced by fashion, pop culture, social media and the tourism dollar. And the impact is a lot quicker too.

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Stargazing at the Chanel fashion show – Tilda Swinton

We love the vintage cars – the ‘Old-Timers’ with their repainted and glued on (a million times I think) chrome (more matt now) fenders, their bright colors, the cracked vinyl bench seats that you can’t help but leave sweaty thigh imprints on and the naughty vibrations in the car every time the drivers shift gears. It is not unusual to see cars being fixed on the side of a busy road or a few people trying to push start a car.

You can clearly see the influence of the Spanish colonial masters in their beautiful architecture. Many buildings have high, brightly colored walls, intricate albeit faded frescoes, imposing living spaces, and very tall windows and doors. A lot of the monuments, theatres and religious sanctuaries in Old Havana are kept in surprisingly pristine conditions. However they often stand alongside buildings in precarious state of decay and misery, some with only the front façade of a concrete wall with rusty steel beams jutting out.

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– an amazing restaurant with quality service, ambience and food. Obama and his family dined here recently

The food in Cuba is amazing, and you can find grilled lobster on the menus of most reputable restaurants. Music and singing is very much part of the eating experience with a small band playing in the background in most bars and dining places.

The Cuban people are very friendly and easy going; random people kept coming up to us to ask where we are from and whether they can show us around and give us any information. Initially we were abit suspicious, but after the first day, we realize they were genuinely curious to find out about other cultures and people of different nationalities.

Key museums to visit are the Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Rum. It is definitely interesting to read important documents pertaining to crucial historical events from the local perspective and see first-hand, the crude weapons the militants used in their fight for freedom. I love the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Cuba art is so vibrant in themes, styles and colors and that you feel like you are walking through the pages of a children’s storybook where history, culture and politics are reduced to their basic form that everyone, young and old can understand. The Cubans take their alcohol, notably Rum, or ‘Ron’ in spanish, very seriously. We were treated to a very informative tour of the entire rum making process at the Museum of Ron and ended the tour with a rum tasting session. image.jpeg

The highlight for me on this trip was when we chanced upon a restaurant featuring a music act called the ‘Traditionals of the 50s’. We were blown away by the quality of the band and the singers although they all look like they were at least 60 years old. 91 year old singer Juana Bacallo, famously known as the ‘Black goddess of Cuban music’ came out at the end of the show. Her voice is still strong and commanding, and like a witch doctor, if felt as if she had cast a spell on the captive audience, drawing everyone in through her very presence. The hairs on my arms stood up when she started singing. It was such a privilege and honor to see her perform in person.image.jpeg

It will be interesting to see how much the social, cultural and political fabric of Cuba will change in the next few years. I don’t know how many in the same league as Juana Bacallo will still be around to show the world Cuba’s beauty, strong spirit and resilience.

Zurich just became a little more hip and cool…

… like it was a century ago.

Switzerland has never been known to be a magnet for the creative and literary arts in Europe. Unlike Paris, known for being the pulsating center for the artistic avant-garde, the Scandinavia for their minimalistic Nordic coolness, or Barcelona for its Picasso-Miro-Gaudi eclecticism, Zurich is more known for its staid work ethic and clockwork efficiency.

Tada!

FullSizeRender (31)It came as a surprise to me that 100 years ago, the present little bar/student cafe in the heart of Zurich old town – Cabaret Voltaire, was where the Dada movement, the predecessor of the more famous Surrealism (Salvador Dali) was born.

After World War 1 in the 1920s, neutral Zurich became the natural meeting point for many European artists and a sort of ‘anti’ art emerged – where anything in your day-to-day life can be used as a form of artistic expression. The Dada mandate became a visualized critique of the war led by Germany and nationalistic sentiments.

A series of art shows, talks, city tours and even a costume ball will be conducted throughout Zurich for its centennial celebrations from February to July. A special 165 Days of Feast will culminate in a Dada Benediction with reference to the Holy Catholic Mass at the Cabaret Voltaire. I think it is very fitting that the Mass will give the Dada blessing to Lady Gaga.

Swiss visual-arts maestro

I couldn’t help but snicker at the name Pipilotti. (Isn’t it the name of a Swiss cartoon character?) Besides the ‘Dadaglobe’ exhibition, the Kunsthaus is currently showcasing a retrospective exhibition by the Swiss-born female artist, Pipilotti Rist.

Bizarrely titled ‘Your saliva is my diving suit in the ocean of pain’, it is an entire pitch-black floor space filled with her object assemblages and video sculptures.

I like her audiovisual installation ‘Yoghurt on skin, velvet on TV’ made up of 3 big seashells and handbags with built-in LCD monitors. If you look closely inside the shell, you can see a giant moving eye peering through.

Another interesting one is ‘Little Make-up table with feedback’, with an array of jewelry, make up and knick knack casually thrown on a dressing table. If you look at the mirror, you see a video clip of someone puckering her luscious red-stained lips. It is as if the subject becomes the object, the protagonist seeing how something or some situation is seen from the ‘opposite side of the mirror’ so to speak.

The most arresting installation would have to be the large chandelier above a non-descript dining table, made up of many pairs of underwear with colored lights projected on it called ‘Cape Cod Chandelier’. These 2 art exhibitions at the Zurich Kunsthaus are definitely worth visiting. I don’t want to post up too many photos so you can experience the art in person.

In the spirit of Dadaism and experiencing the visual arts, care to buy a pair of funky spectacle frames along bahnhofstrasse?

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A winter sonata

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageComing from a tropical island with no seasons, I’m always amazed by the bronze, amber and yellow falling autumn leaves, the mysterious swirly fog (well the smog that blows through from Indonesia doesn’t count!), blooming spring flowers and heady lavender scents. The snow capped mountains and wintry landscapes are the most special to me. I can’t help but feel so tiny standing in a vast, white soft field of… Nothing. Everything feels clean, pure and quiet in winter.

Waxing lyrical about an all-inclusive

So, after surviving 4 out of 7 days in an all-inclusive hotel, my conscience got the better of me. Perhaps I’ve been too quick to pass judgment. There must be merit to such hotels if they keep getting fully booked, get raved about on trip advisor and have a minimum of 8.0 rating on major hotel booking sites. (I am trying to justify my lapse of sound decision-making to my husband here)

1.  Value-for-money

You get easy access to food and alcohol from 8am to 11.30pm everyday. The variety is great and the bartenders are generous with the liquor. For a place as touristy as Ibiza, eating out can be a pretty costly affair.

Quantity does not = quality though. I think the chefs at the restaurant tried their best, but when the majority of customers prefer white foods and unhealthy carbs, it’s not surprising to see french fries, pasta and pizza a staple at mealtimes. We hired a car and drove out most days so we ended up paying more for car hire and petrol. 

  2. Access to good (not great) facilities and entertainment

Most beaches in the popular towns are filled with sun lovers and deck beds and umbrellas might be difficult to get. You also pay at least €8 for a deck bed and another €8 for shade. Our hotel has a nice swimming pool, a separate water slide park and a nice private beach for hotel customers only.

There are also arcade games in our lobby but sadly, half of them are usually out of order. Have I already mentioned bingo night and kids’ disco? Day time activities include Aqua Zumba, football matches, darts and kids activities in a kids club for 4-10 year olds. For people who enjoy sharing their precious holiday time with hordes of strangers playing relay games, an all-inclusive will definitely satiate their dystopian appetite for ‘adventure’. You get a certificate at the end of the day for active participation too.  

  3. Family-friendly

I must admit that an all-inclusive must be kids’ paradise. They get to eat chicken nuggets, french fries n ice cream everyday, swim and play with other kids. Then again, I see many families get so comfortable sitting by the pool all day long, they do not venture beyond the wet bar to explore what this beautiful island has to offer. It might be abit of an inconvenience driving through heavy traffic and being out til late at night with kids. Our kids whined a bit but overall, I was glad we were able to spend some quality time, just the four of us, away from other screaming kids and from the free-flow wet bar. Kids this young actually do not need that much stimulation. Give them a small body of water to wade in, a beach ball to throw or buy a cheap local souvenir and they’ll happy as a lark.

Even after stating some positives of such hotels, I still don’t think it’s something we will do in the future. At least we’ve tried and know for sure we are never, ever going to be included in an all-inclusive hotel’s niche market.

No love lost there.

I don’t see us doing cruise ships in our old age either. (famous last words)

Our brand of family fun… 

    
    
   
  
  

Confessions of a Virgin ‘all-inclusive’ tourist

Welcome to Ibiza! We had pretty high expectations before flying here that Alan n I will be eating in gourmet restaurants, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and well-known DJs whilst pumping our fists in the air to catchy techno beats. Oh, with our 2 kids passed out somewhere of course. 

Imagine my culture shock when we stepped onto the huge terrace at our hotel after we checked in. Instead of heart-thumping bass beats, we walked into a Bingo fest! Apparently this is a nightly event!!! The m.c translated all the numbers in Spanish, English n German. That pretty much summed up the demographics of the people that usually do an all-inclusive hotel stay, at least at our hotel. I think the whole of Essex and Liverpool are here and quite a huge number of Germans. You can tell from the number of sun deck chairs reserved at 8.00am with towels when all swim facilities only open at… 11a.m. Did I mention all-you-can-eat buffet and free flow BOOZE? ‘Nuff said!  

    
   
   

 All-inclusive hotels generally refer to hotels that provide all meals and some form of entertainment and sporting activities for kids and adults. 

The hotel’s water theme park and arcade games were a hit with the kids, especially with arcade games that actually work. We enjoyed relaxing under the sun (yes we found 3 unreserved sun deck chairs!!!), going down challenging water slides and the lovely buffet spread at the restaurant. We also loved hanging out by the pool, though there’s not much eye candy to look at. 

One thing I’ve noticed is that the service staff seem like they really really enjoy their work! Be it making 8 complicated cocktails for 1 person, standing behind the big piping hot pan of paella, or clearing tables efficiently, the Spanish locals do so with a sincere smile that I felt deeply. 

It’s only day 1 of our stay in an all-inclusive and we are soooooo ready to strip off our bright colored hotel wristbands, hire a rental car and head to the other parts of the island and the town. Hopefully in the next few days the island of Ibiza and our hotel experience can win us over. Maybe, just maybe, I might even learn how to play Bingo.

   
   

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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Flashback 2012

Belated Happy New Year everyone!

I was looking through my blog archive to see if I’ve made any resolutions for 2012; pity I’ve only found a tongue-in-cheek post about generic resolutions people tend to make.

I do however recall making a secret to-do list last year consisting of one major ‘to-do’ item – have a baby.

Well, in a blink of an eye, a wiggle of my toes, a hard shove of placenta, amniotic fluids and a 2.9kg baby out from ‘down-under’, 2012 has finally come to a close with a big fat ‘Tick’ against my very, very short list.

I feel blest that the whole family has been in good health, we’ve done our fair share of travelling, and Timmy is enjoying more experiences like a typical Swiss kid – learning how to play soccer, going for his weekly ‘moms & kids’ gymnastics (Muki-turnen is what it is called in Switzerland), where mums spend the first half hour moving heavy equipment in the school gymnasium to set up military-like obstacle courses for the children; and learning to ski. We are truly planting firmer roots here and getting a greater sense of home after living in Switzerland for 4 years.

Highlights of 2012:

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First hike of the year in Engelberg and the snow hasn’t quite melted yet
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Easter in Stockholm
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Easter Sunday brunch in Stockholm
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May: Hiking in Cinque terra, Italy
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Gourmet seafood platter in Cinque Terra
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Timmy’s first soccer camp
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Timmy in gymnastics
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June: Copenhagen amusement park – Tivoli
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2 pregnant women in Copenhagen
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May: Coastal town of Dubrovnik in Croatia
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Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Europa Park in the Black Forest region in Germany
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Enjoying summer at Schaffhausen – Rheinfalls with friends
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Timmy turns 4

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Oct: Nathan James is born
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Nov: Halloween
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Dec: Christmas Market in Munich, Germany
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Dec: Christmas Market in front of the monastery in Einseideln
Christmas in Andermatt
Christmas in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Dec: Christmas and New Year in Andermatt
Love, Joy & Peace on earth...
Love, Joy & Peace on earth…

Hansel and Gretel must live here…

or at least the blind witch with the saccharine-sweet candy house in grimm’s fairy tale.

Colmar, a little french town in the alsace region, is just a 1.5hr drive away from Zurich, Switzerland. Last Sunday was wet and cold, and on a whim, we decided to drive to France to have lunch. That’s the beauty of living right smack in the centre of Europe, you don’t need to book a flight to experience a different culture or get cheaper toiletries and groceries from across the border.

We have been to Colmar several times and it never fails to put a smile on our faces when we see the charming little townhouses with its fairytale-like quality. The rainbow colored buildings are more beautiful in winter when the streets come alive with christmas markets and the smell of gluhwein and roasted chestnuts, and at night, the soft glow of the street lights give it a surreal feel and you really feel like you are transported into the medieval ages.

P.S: Colmar is also about 15 mins drive from the closest KFC outlet. (there are NO KFC fast food restaurants in the whole of Switzerland!!!) We were tempted to drive there for take-away but my husband didn’t want his car to smell of greasy chicken.

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how much is that piglet by the window? alsastian cuisine is influenced very much by its german roots and feature many pork dishes like roasted pork knuckles and sausages served with a huge portion of sauerkraut. 20120422-193636.jpgmany memorabilia and serving dishes feature traditional alsastian way of life