Published: August 17th 2012August 16th 2012
Hi Family and Friends! I hope you are all well.
I thought I'd start a travel blog to keep everyone up to date with what I've been up to on my year off from the rat race.
Its been about two months since I left Sydney and I've been on the go at a fairly rapid pace since then (I need a holiday!). Here is a quick summary of the past nine weeks...
First stop was London for three weeks where Caroline, James, Max and Tilly put me up at their place in Fulham. It was a nice way to ease myself into my travels. There was lots of catching up with old friends, flatmates, workmates and travel buddies, and of course lots of time spent with Caro, James and the littlies which was lovely (thanks again Riddells!).
Next stop was Barcelona for a week where I had Spanish lessons in the morning and re-explored the city (and shopped...the rebajas de verano were amazing!) in the afternoons. I felt I was doing quite well with my Spanish but as soon as my classes finished I headed to Portugal and Morocco so didn't get much Spanish practice...not the smartest planning in hindsight. I'm hoping it will all come flooding back when I finally get to Peru next week.
Following my week in Barcelona, I hopped on a very clean and fast train to Madrid (only 2 hours...there should be more trains like this in the world), where I joined an Intrepid tour "Madrid to Marrakech" which was two weeks travelling from Madrid, west to Salamanca, Coimbra, south to Lisbon and the Algarve and then over to Morocco for a week. Those of you on facebook have possibly seen my thousands of photos (so I won't repost here).
This tour was fantastic and I made some wonderful new friends. One of the highlights was Lisbon where we did a five hour walking tour (urbanadventures.com) which was brilliant. We covered several neighbourhoods, including some out-of-the way areas where there were no tourists, we also stopped along the way to taste test local pastries, cheese, marmalade (quince paste), green wine and seafood. Unfortunately we only had one full day in Lisbon which was not long enough. We headed out to Sintra that afternoon which was well worth the trip although we didn't have anywhere near enough time to explore.
The other stand-out place we visited was Chefchaoeun in Morocco. It was a colourful, relaxed little town nestled in the Rif Mountains. The blue doors and houses set against the mountainous background was very picturesque. This was also the first place we were able to get our hands on some really tasty salads which was a relief after all the bread and pastries we ate in Spain and Portugal.
The day we drove from Chefchaoeun to Fes was 47 degrees and we were winding our way through the mountains in a black minivan where the airconditioning was trying but failing so it must have still been 37 degrees in the van. Needless to say we were all a little green around the gills during this journey with the bends and the heat. Those at the back of the van were not getting any air and were being bumped around the most, but those up the front had to deal with witnessing some ambitious overtaking on bends and crests and seeing trucks heading straight for us so it was a bit of a catch 22 really...
Fes was quite a contrast to Chefchaouen. It was big, dirty and busy in the medina. Steel-capped boots would have been beneficial with all the horse, donkey and trolley traffic in the narrow alleyways. If you didn't react in a split second you were in danger of being run over. The medina was certainly a shock to the senses...sometimes good, sometimes bad. The tannery was the most offensive, the Berber pharmacy the sweetest smelling with all of its lotions and potions.
After Chef and Fes I felt Marrakech was a bit of a disappointment, but that may have been because it was 47 degrees and after a week of this heat we were all slowing down and desperately wanting some cooler weather. It was also Ramadan so during the day guides were waning and the squares were empty. I think visiting in Spring or Autumn may be a better option!
After the two week tour I headed back to London for another week to spend a bit more time with the Riddells, get all my washing done ;-), and I was also hanging about so I could be in London for the start of the Olympic Games. There was a terrific vibe around the city.
Next stop - New York City.
I spent a bit of time here in 2005 so felt I knew the city pretty well so this time I decided to do a bit more exploring outside of Manhattan. I spent a day in Brooklyn, taste testing different kinds of pizza and ice cream. We drove down through Bensonhurt (Saturday Night Fever territory) and continued all the way down to Coney Island which I always imagined as an ageing, dilapidated fun park from all the books that I've read that are set down that way. What I found was a clean, bright, recently re-planked(?) boardwalk and an okay looking beach. Quite a surprise.
The next day I went out to Long Island to have a sticky beak around the Hamptons and Sag Harbour. It was a grey day so the beaches were empty which was a shame, but it was good to see the enormous houses and the well-manicured streets. The little towns were very picturesque with their leafy streets, wooden buildings and Old Glory hanging from every second structure.
Back in Manhattan I revisited all my favourite art galleries and museums, shopped, walked every street on the island at least twice (thats what it felt like anyway), took in a few shows, went to a Yankees game, took a photography course in Central Park, ate soul food and enjoyed a jazz show in Harlem, and all the other touristy things one does whilst in NYC. The High Line park on the former elevated railroad is a great addition since my last visit with interesting views over Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.
To take the hassel out of organising transport and accommodation in Washington, Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes and Boston, I joined another tour which ended up being seven days of a lot of driving and then a bit of frantic sightseeing each day. Again, I made some lovely new friends, but the tour was not as well organised as other ones I've done (this was a G Adventures tour...I'll stick to my tried and tested Intrepid in future). I'll definitely need to go back to Washington and Boston to enjoy these cities at a slower pace. There was so much to see and do and we didn't even scratch the surface. It didn't help that there was a huge storm in Boston which curtailed our exploring. Thankfully, before the rain came, we did fit in a student-led tour of Harvard, and later walked part of the Freedom Trail with an 8th grade History Teacher (her summer job), both of which were very interesting and enjoyable.
Perhaps the most farcical episode during this tour was our "self-guided tour" of Gettysburg (I wish I could remember what Bill Bryson said about this). Our "leader" purchased a CD to put on in the car while he drove around the battlefields, supposedly passing certain sites in time for commentary on the significance of each site. The problem was our driver took a wrong turn almost immediately therefore making the commentary completely out of sync with our location. This went on for at least an hour with attempts to get back to the starting point and starting the CD over and over again. It was excruciating. In the end we gave up and went into town to find some lunch.
I've been back in New York since Saturday night and have been filling in a few sightseeing gaps and doing a bit more shopping before heading off to Miami on Saturday.
Apologies...so much for a quick summary...going forward I'll try to post more often and more succinctly.
Comments and feedback welcome :-)