Sunday, January 11, 2009

Going somewhere? Anywhere?

Well, the festive season is now over and I hope you all had a lovely time.

I was back in Leeds - twice! My first visit was a pre-Christmas trip back to celebrate the Ruby wedding anniversary of some very special people, Rose and Chris. My second visit was for Christmas itself - two visits a week apart almost made me feel like I was commuting. I stayed with my folks over Christmas and it was the usual full-on works of over-indulgence and catching up with friends and family. A nice time was had by all!

After a rather hectic week of socialising, I decided to take myself off for some solitary recuperation. My plan was to spend five days in Marrakech chilling out in a lovely riad and taking in all the colour and spice the city has to offer. This is did!

I stayed in a lovely riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an internal courtyard with a roof terrace. On my first afternoon at the Riad Tizwa, I was able to sit on the terrace relaxing in the warm sunshine with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance and listen to one of my favourite sounds in the world, the call to prayer.

In the evening I wandered down to the Djemaa-El-Fna and watched the square come to life with storytellers, musicians, snake charmers, water sellers, witch doctors, henna artists and food stalls all busy drumming up trade.

The next day, after a wonderful breakfast, I set off with the intention of getting lost. I entered the medina and spent the rest of the day trying to find my way out! On the way, I found lots of fascinating sections...the dyers souk, the spice market, butchers row, the basket weavers and the brass beaters. I also visited the Marrakech Museum and Ben Youssef Medersa which reminded me of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. I couldn't believe that at one time 900 students of Islam slept there!

On my third day, it rained! However, I had already planned to do a Moroccan cookery course, which was fortunate. I met my fellow cooks - three Dutchies and two Spaniards - at the Cafe de France. Our 'masterchef', Gemma (also Dutch!), runs Souk Cuisine, and on meeting us split the group into two teams and set us a challenge. Each team was given a shopping list and purseful of dirhams, Moroccan money. We had two hours to buy all the items on our lists. Gemma took us to her favourite stalls in the medina and, on the way, we learnt a great deal that we would perhaps otherwise have never known about. For example, all the stallholders have nicknames e.g. the man who sells mint is known as Sidi Mint, the man who sells egg sandwiches is known as Sidi Egg and Gemma...well, she's known as Lala Plastic Bag! We also saw whole lambs being placed in sealed underground ovens and smoked over cedarwood, visited a district bakery where locals can take their own items for baking and learnt that as well as kohl used on your eyes acting as an eye liner, it also prevents conjunctivitis and that cumin can help with diarrhoea.

Once our shopping was complete, we then took everything back to Gemma's home...a dar (riad without a garden) tucked away down an alleyway in the medina. There we met Ayesha, who kept a watchful eye on us as we each prepared a traditional dish for a rather splendid Moroccan lunch.

Our menu consisted of:

Moroccan salads - zahlouk (fried aubergine & tomato salad) [my dish!], tomato salad, courgette salad and carrot salad
Fresh sardines
Fish tagine
Almond Cookies
Moroccan wine

The lunch was delicious with great company...the course was due to finish at 3:30 but we eventually left the table around 5pm...and the best washing up! I'd also earned myself a new nickname...Lala Zahlouk!

That was New Year's Eve and I went back to the riad feeling rather full yet knowing I had another Moroccan banquet awaiting me there! It was a lovely evening spent eating yet more salads and tagine accompanied by wine in the riad's candlelit courtyard and among a great group of people! Eventually, I dragged myself to bed and awoke late the next day with the most almighty hangover! Put it this way, I was not the only one sitting on the roof at breakfast with my sunglasses on. The rest of the day was spent at the beautiful Marjorelle Garden, owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent, and then with some of my fellow hangover sufferers sitting in the sunshine at the Grand Cafe de la Poste.

My final day, or so I thought (more on that later!), I visited the El Badi Palace and saw the storks nesting in the ruined walls before heading to Hammam Ziani where I sweated, was scrubbed clean and then pummelled to pieces. It was great! I came away feeling all shiny and new. In the evening, I went to the Dar Moha for dinner with my parents, who had flown in that morning in order to enjoy a ten day break in Marrakech and the seaside town of Essaouira. We had a lovely meal and it was a super way to end my holiday.

The next morning I went to the airport to catch my flight to Bremen in Germany, from where my plan was to get a bus back to Groningen. All appeared fine although it was somewhat hazy and a few of the early morning flights had been delayed but by 9:30am were beginning to shift. I was flying RyanAir and the 9:40am flight to Frankfurt left, a bit later than planned, but took off with no problems. However, there were no other RyanAir planes on the runway and my flight had been due to take off at 9:45am. At noon, my flight and another RyanAir flight to Bristol were called to gate 5, where we were told the flight was cancelled and that we should take the landing cards being handed out and proceed back through immigration where a RyanAir representative would sort out a hotel as the next flights would be departing on Tuesday 6th January (it was Saturday 3rd!). Four hundred people did as instructed only to find there was no RyanAir representative. I joined a queue at the ground crew's office which is where I stood until 4:30pm. I was not far from the front with at least 300 people behind me. No-one told us anything, no refreshments were offered and all that was being offered by the ground crew was assistance to get on alternative flights, as long as we paid for them. At 4:30 pm, the staff shut up shop. They told us there were no more available scheduled flights until after the 12th January and that we should sort ourselves out! To put it mildly, we were not best pleased. People around me were in floods of tears and there were many families and elderly people who were at a loss at what to do as RyanAir were not responding to their phone calls.

I eventually gave up and decided that I could achieve nothing further at the airport so managed to track down my parent's hotel where I was very grateful to be offered a bed for the night and access to the internet. I was able to book myself on a charter flight out on the Tuesday via Agadir back to Amsterdam. It meant I had to miss two days of work but this was the first flight out to my part of Europe that I could get on. The next two days I joined my parents in Essaouira and, as there was nothing else I could do at that point, decided to make the most of my extended holiday by exploring the pretty seaside town and surfer's paradise. On the way there we came across the famous Moroccan tree climbing goats...on closer inspection, however, these creatures had obviously been placed in the trees as they were tied on!

Eventually, I flew home OK on the Tuesday with no delays or further hiccups thanks to Transavia. Although Essaouira was lovely and it was good to spend time with my folks, I could have done without the additional expense (I estimate this to be in the region of 800 euros in terms of additional flights, hotels, taxis and other expenses!). I gather some people who couldn't get on a flight eventually got the train to Tangier, crossed to Spain by ferry and had to take a flight from Malaga! Take note, dear friends, budget airlines are budget prices for a reason - as I have discovered, they do not have to compensate you beyond a direct fare refund and are not ATOL protected. I have to say, I think I've learnt my lesson and will NOT be travelling with RyanAir EVER AGAIN!! That's a promise Mr O'Leary!

Anyway, I'm now back in Groningen where the canals are frozen and many people are having a great time skating along them. Personally, I think they're nuts as I can definitely see great big cracks in some sections!

Happy New Year! Gelukking nieuw jaar! Sana'a saida!