Chefchaouen in September...

After my trip to Marrakech with my Moroccan travel buddies Andrew and Nipon earlier this year, and our over enthusiasm in trying to get to the Blue Pearl – all in one trip, Chef was still on our minds – and that’s even before we left Marrakech airport. In fact, we were probably already planning our return whilst we were on the flight home!

Why Chefchaouen?...well, other than the fact that I want to go everywhere, I sometimes see photos of a place that make me feel inspired, and I want to go see it for myself. Sometimes it’s purely from talking to people, and sometimes I get a place in my head from books I’ve read. I remember the first time I’d heard about this blue city, and from that day on I knew one day I would eventually get there.

Getting to Chefchaouen seemed like it was going to be little mission. We’d already discovered that from our grand plan to visit from Marrakech. There’s no easy or fast way of getting to the city, and there are a few options of where you could fly into…. we looked at flying into Tangier, Fez and even flying to Gibraltar and getting the ferry across. But, we settled on Fez because we all decided that the city looked interesting to capture with our cameras. It has the largest Medina in Morocco, and we thought Marrakech was large and maze like…this felt like it could be a challenge. Our plan was: Fly into Fez – head straight to Chefchaouen for the night – and then head straight back to Fez after sunset We were hoping to add on another day, but flights-wise, we were kinda restricted, so it was going to be a short and sweet trip. We also were hoping to squeeze in a trip into the desert, and thinking about it, I’m glad that didn’t work out, as I think that would have struggled to see everything. I already thought our time was stretched, as I like to take my time, wander and get a feel for my surroundings. I wanted to experience as much as I could in these two cities, and not waste a single moment.

DSC05249.jpg

Once again, Nipon was placed in charge of sorting out our Airbnb, and he didn’t disappoint. Casa La Hiba was perfect. It was once a family home, belonging to the grandmother of our host Mourad, who was such a lovely amiable guy. He even promised us a driver who would pick us up from Fez airport. It’s over a four-hour drive, so that’s a fair bit of intense driving in the heat. And, our driver Taha was the best! He greeted us with the biggest smile which rarely left his face, and proceeded to lead us towards a BMW. The three of us spotted this nodded a knowing look of approval, like we’d struck gold…and then he continued walking to a rather more modest dusty vehicle, which we found rather amusing.

Anyway, Taha was possibly the best driver. He never looked fed up or cross throughout the drive, and it was hot and sticky that day. He took a shine to our banter, jokes and incessant excitable babble, and gives us lots of little facts throughout our journey. Quickly earning our trust, we filled him up with our car snacks and words of English which he seems to enjoy. Turns out Taha is best mates with Mourad, and we joked with him that the two of them seemed like an old married couple, always on the phone to each other. Some of our funniest moments were our car banter. My favourite has to be Taha’s excitement and enthusiasm at pointing out the mountain that apparently resembles a ‘frog jumping’. Nipon and I for the life of us couldn’t see this ‘frog’ what-so-ever, let alone imagine ‘a frog jumping, Andrew seemed to have more of an imagination that us, and the more we couldn’t see the ‘frog’ the more excited Taha became. I really tried ‘using more of my imagination’ like I was repeatedly told to, but nope...I still couldn’t conjure up a ‘frog jumping’. Bless Taha.

Our car ride took us through modern buildings and construction – which is pretty usual, but in between you’ll see glimpses of local life. Sheep in fields, groups of men lazing about in fields or on street pavement talking. Cafés full to bursting with men just sitting in groups or on their own simply just watching the world go by. I love these snippets of daily life. I find them fascinating and so culturally different considering Morocco is just over a couple hours away from the UK.

I’m going to try my hardest not to get carried away about each and every moment of this trip. Although, that’s going to be a hard one to contain. I’d romanticised about Chefchaouen since arriving back from Marrakech. And, our drive, even though it was long, and hot added to the adventure. At the same time, all I wanted to do was to dump my luggage and get out and explore. I wanted to see whether the ‘Blue Pearl’ really lived up to its name.

I couldn’t wait to catch my first sight of the city. The approach to Chefchaouen had us excited, and a little anxious. As we wound our way over the hills listening to Taha telling us about his life, we were a little hesitant with our first views as we saw lots of white, and only a little blue. Assured by Taha that the city ‘is very blue’, we continued driving. Like many places in Morocco, the oldest parts of the city are within the city walls, and just like Marrakech, Chefchaouen has an old town and a new one. It’s not until you walk through one of the gates, and start to discover the city on foot that you see how beautifully blue it really is. And yes, it’s very blue. It’s total sensory overload and it’s like walking into a fairy tale. Everyone seems happy too, it’s definitely a feel-good place.

The sun had just dipped behind the mountains when we arrived into the city, and feeling a little weary from all the days’ travelling, that evening we headed to a rooftop restaurant where we stuffed ourselves on tasty salads of aubergine, tomato, and the most delicious local cheese which was oh-so good. And, then we called it a night, excited for the next day.

And, what a wake up! The first call to prayer echoing across the blue and white rooftops of the city was one of my personal highlights. It brought back the same feelings we had in Marrakech. I laid in bed thinking how incredibly beautiful it sounded, and in that moment, I felt indescribably happy. I was with two friends, and we were going to have a fun day.

DSC05020.jpg

The sun was shining and we enjoyed breakfast on our rooftop – as well as a hunt for the resident rooftop tortoise. I think I could live on Moroccan breakfasts! The bread is so-so delicious, and the pancakes drizzled with honey is better than what you get at home. After breakfast, Mourad told us that if we wanted to get a good view of the city we should take the steps up the hill ‘there’s not many’, he said…I think Mourad underestimated our fitness. The three of us were left short of breath clambering up a steep hillside and coming face to face with a pack of dogs. The view was a pretty one though, so we didn’t mind.

DSC04949.jpg

As this was our only day in the city, we knew we had to make the most of every little street and every little moment. We walked Chaouen’s (yep, that’s what the locals call it) medina from top to bottom, came across so many friendly people, shouted out ‘hola ’ to countless others. I found it interesting that the locals speak Spanish here - not so much French - but that’s because the city is so far North, and there’s a huge Spanish influence from when Jewish inhabitants from Spain fled to Morocco during the Reconquista of Spain. We stopped to ‘ooo’ over the cutest cats, got offered hashish, watched children playfully run through the streets with happy smiles, and yes, we got lost in a sea of blue. And, it’s no exaggeration to say that every alleyway and street is majestic. You’ll find that feeling in awe of your surroundings is an impossibility and it’s near on impossible to take a bad photo. Part of the charm lies in the quaint medina. It’s not large, but it’s full of vendors selling something or other. From antiques to woken blankets, leather slippers to brass teapots. And, the old town is super easy to navigate. It’s car free, and really chilled, and totally different compared to the chaos, humidity and stress of other Moroccan towns. Chaouen offers up a more relaxed pace, it’s a feast for the eyes and soul, has fresh mountain air, and the purest spring water.

We found ourselves a lovely restaurant where we naturally headed up to the rooftop and refuelled our bellies with tagines - Morocco at its most Moroccan! At that given moment, I think we all wished we were staying for another night – the thought of changing our itinerary did cross our minds, we even checked with Mourad to see if we could stay an extra night….however, Taha was waiting for us. He was taking us up to the Spanish Mosque to watch sunset. We thought he was just going to drop us off and let us make our own way up the hillside, but bless him, he wanted to come with us, and so we all took the short hike. From here, you can look out over the mountains and town. It was a blissful moment of a wonderful day…. And, then the four-hour drive to Fez….

DSC06025.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

Stockholm in August…

‘Hei’ Sweden, and ‘Hei’ Stockholm. I fell in love with the adorable way the Swedes all go around saying ‘hei hei’ all the time - I think I annoyed my work colleagues by adopting this cute way of greeting each other on my return :-D.

So, this was my first taste of Sweden, and oh how I loved it. I guess Stockholm was always one of those places I knew I’d eventually get around to visiting, but now I’ve seen it first hand, it’s made me want to explore so much more of Scandinavia. 

D5EB8C12-7DE8-4AB2-A592-9D86815EA862.jpg

You hear ‘Stockholm’ and you might think ‘cold’ and ‘expensive’, and ok you’re not entirely wrong. The city can be chilly even in September and yup, it’s known to get even colder come Winter (it’s Sweden after all), and yes, it’s not the cheapest city in the world. And, while Sweden’s currency, the Krona does tend to make things expensive, many of your day-to-day purchases are not that much more expensive than other European cities. I compared my spending to that in London, and I didn’t think it was a terrible difference. As long as you know this about the city, you can budget accordingly, and hey, you don’t have to eat out every day. Where the city does get expensive though is the shopping. Because, trust me, you’re going to find it hard not to want to buy everything! I learnt on my early days of travelling on holiday that I’d buy things on holiday that when I got home I’d rarely or never wear or look at again, so it’s rare – unless I find something that’s unique and I love – that I go shopping. But, Stockholm...clothes, accessories, beautiful notebooks, pretty much everything made me want to shop! Let’s say I was tempted and very close to purchasing a raincoat! I stopped short when the sun came out and I thought about having to wear two coats back to London!

When you look at some of the shops founded by the Swedish I guess it’s no surprise that the Swedes are at the forefront of fashion and modern design. Some of the best retail brands are born out of Sweden, and it’s not just fashion the city embraces, there’s its food and even its music. 

I’d heard how trendy Stockholm was and not until I arrived did I see this for myself. It’s not just trendy, it’s just ‘so cool’. Everything and everyone. From the minute, I stepped onto the cool clean Arlanda Express train, I thought ‘oh boy, this is soooo nice’. In fact, it’s one of the coolest cities I’ve been to thus far. The Arlanda Express was super quick too – just 20 minutes and I was in the city. I decided to walk to my Airbnb which was about 40 minutes away, and what I felt in those first 40 minutes was how clean the air felt. I felt this sense of freedom, of something comforting and I felt happy. I’ve been to some cities before and my first impression has been ‘hummm, this city feels a little sad’, but that’s not so with Stockholm. It’s got a friendly, happy vibe, and OMG my Airbnb was just the cutest cosiest place I’ve ever stayed in. 

DSC00927.jpg

Before I start to tell you about my favourite places, I also need to add a little something about the people. Other than harping on about how cool and beautiful I think the city is, it’s not just the sights, streets and architecture, the people of Stockholm have got to be THE most attractive looking bunch too. You’d seriously be hard-pressed to find an area lacking in someone who didn’t catch your eye and make you do a double-take. In other words, there is plenty of eye-candy ;-)

So, what did I do in the city?

I walked a lot (that’s pretty normal for me, right?!)
I started off exploring Gramla Stan, the ‘old city’, and the most touristic. It gets busy during the day, so I liked early morning best. It’s also picturesque if Medieval cobblestones and architecture are your thing. You’ve a fair few sightseeing spots to tick off your list here too including the Royal Palace and Nobel Museum. 

And, yes, I was taken in by the hipster vibes on Söldermalm Island, otherwise known as SOFO. An aimless wander here will lead you to discover plenty of fashion boutiques, vintage stores, barbershops, great restaurants. Guaranteed, you’ll find it difficult not to pop into a café that also sells clothes. You’ll find vintage clothing stores with in-house barbers, and even hotels that sell furniture. I love my tea stops and the beauty of Stockholm is that there’s a tea and coffee shop on pretty much every street. Speaking of which, there’s a word you’ll need to familiarise yourself with. ‘Fika’, is the word for the Swedish tradition of drinking coffee, tea or juice with something sweet. Swedes take their ‘Fika’ very seriously, and take it multiple times a day. Sometimes it’s taken quickly, but most times it’s taken more leisurely. I reckon, I could fit right in with this tradition.

The area around Nytorget Park has a great vibe for people-watching, and during the weekend evenings (and I’m guessing throughout the summer evenings too), it’s where all the young people hang out; drinking, socialising, watching live music.

DSC01092.jpg

I’d read about a few cool places eat online, and The Urban Deli was one. Clearly hipster, the restaurant has a sidewalk café and a trendy bar. Breakfast here was tasty too. Here, you’re offered up the chance to make your own sandwich ‘the way you want it’ accompanied by juice, yoghurt and granola, pastries or you can dig into the breakfast buffet). There’s a delicatessen too, so if you can’t face being surrounded by other peoples’ chit-chat, you can load up your bag with goodies and enjoy them back home…although, for the best brunch, my friend Allan (@Chaiwalla) recommended I try out his sister’s café @greasyspooncafe. And, OMG I wish I’d stopped by on my first morning, because it was super cute and super tasty! Thumbs up for the doorstop thick delicious toast with poached eggs, smoked salmon and mushrooms. It was the perfect start for a day of walking and exploring. They even serve up cheeky Bloody Mary’s and the melodies pouring out of the vintage jukebox are not bad too. Hands down, I absolutely recommend you try this place out. I didn’t think my breakfast was too pricey either. It was the same price I’d expect to pay in someone like ‘The Breakfast Club’ or ‘Bills’ in the UK.

I follow some crazy talented individuals on Instagram. I still have moments when I get giddy with excitement when I’ve followed someone for so long, I love their work and they follow me back! Anyway, whilst I was in Stockholm I was honoured that Calle (@locarl) said he would meet me and show me about.  I absolutely love Calle’s work, and the two of us had a lovely time walking around the streets. I couldn’t tell you all the places we covered, but it was great to be shown around the city by a local. I even got to see some of Stockholm’s world-famous subway stations, which are incredible works of art. There are 100 subway stations and 90 of those have some sort of artwork in them, making Stockholm’s subway system one of the longest art exhibitions in the World. While some stations only have sculptures, or the odd mosaic, others are completely decked out in striking murals and paints. It’s quite incredible really, and I know of people who have visited the city just to see the subways. 

Stockholm is a big city, but you’re given space to move around easily. It’s spread out over 14 islands in the archipelago, but it never really feels like you’re moving far between neighbourhoods. And, you’ve that typical Swedish culture of people being friendly and polite which adds to the allure of the city.

I surprised myself by how much I loved wandering around this city. It’s fairly big, but you’re given space to move around easily, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s spread out over 14 islands in the archipelago, but it never really feels like you’re moving far between neighbourhoods. And, you’ve that typical Swedish culture of people being friendly and polite which adds to the allure of the city. It’s a city you could easily spend more than just a week. Where New York is big and loud, Venice is romantic and mysterious, Morocco is a hurly-burly mix of chaos and senses, Stockholm is, well, it’s just cool and on trend.

My first taster of Sweden left me wanting to return to see so much more of this beautiful country and landscape. I would love to capture it in winter when the rooftops, streets and waters are all frosted over with ice and snow. Apart from feeling bitterly cold, I can only imagine it’s pretty magical :-)

Venice in August vs Venice in November

If anyone ever asks me what my favourite city is, I would have to reply with Venice. Venice is one of those cites I will never-ever get tired of, and I fall in love with her a little more every time I visit. Exploring the city’s alleyways and canals is like having a dream, I don’t want to wake up from.

Actually, before I start this post about Venice I need to confess, if truth be told, I personally prefer Venice in winter. It is much more atmospheric and has a mysterious and magical feel in the air. I was in the city last November and the city blew my mind. I remember waking up at 6am, peering out of my hotel window to a foggy mystical morning and literally jumping out of bed, grabbing my camera and running outside. That day I walked about the city happily with my camera from 6am-6pm, a little smile permanently on my face, and I didn’t once feel tired. The mood is more mature in winter, jackets are donned, the water is more crystal than the summer butteryness, and the evenings are cosier. I think the romanticism of Venice in winter is heightened due to an air of elevated secrecy and mischief as people move under the cover of darkness from one calle to another, meeting in whispered voices that seem out of place during the busy summer. 

DSC06147.jpg

November also sees Acqua Alta season. Translated as high water. Early morning or late at night, you’ll hear a siren that let people know that high water will be expected. I didn’t get to witness much of this phenomenon other than seeing tables piled up in St Mark’s Square ready for the rising waters should they arrive, and early one morning I watched a huge puddle forming in the square. I was ready to capture the scene, but the water didn’t amount to much. As with all things, Venetians tend to take it in their stride, and have found ingenious and simple ways of continuing daily life despite the rising tides, like putting up wooden planks and tables for people to walk across, and donning waterproof boots that are sold when the water arrives.

I counted up the times I’ve visited the city (it must be five), and so many memories came flooding back…. The first time was with my mum when we stayed in Lido di Jesolo and we took a day trip to the city. It was like no other place either of us had been, and I admit we were a little nervous we’d get lost and miss our ferry home, then there was the time mum and I took my brother, James. This will always be a memorable trip for the sheer number of giggles we had. It was also the first time I had ever used a digital compact camera. I remember standing in St. Mark’s Square excitedly taking a photo and then being able to delete it and retake another (it’s funny the things you remember so vividly). Then there was the time I was with my friend Zee. We caught the last ferry back from Venice to Lido not realising the buses had stopped in Lido. Boy, that was an adventurous evening sharing a car home with three complete strangers (luckily for us, they were friendly and harmless).