EXPO Milan 2016

Inside the UK pavilion

Inside the UK pavilion

After hearing many positive and negative things about the EXPO, it finally was my time to go and see for myself. The trains were still completely overbooked but in the end, three friends and I all made it to Milan via different paths. We first checked into our airbnb and then took the tram to get to the second entry (Rosario), so that we wouldn’t have to pay the extra fee they added to the train system to get to the main entry. From the final tram stop, it’s about a 10min walk to get to the EXPO gates, so if you want to be at the EXPO quicker, you should still use the main entrance.

When I walked through the gates, I felt like a child entering Disney World. On the first glance, it really appears like an amusement park, with huge artificial buildings that look like mountains, castles, palaces, snakes, bubbles, gardens and much more. I was impressed with the architectural ideas all these countries had for their pavilions.

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We walked from country to country and at first were worried that we would not make it into any pavilion at all since there were so many people, it was insane. Even on the main road that was bout 1,5km long and 30m wide, you bumped into people all the time, because there were just too many to get out of their way. But we didn’t come here to not enter any of the pavilions, so we started with the US because I heard that it’s a broad one, where many people can walk through at the same time. And really, we were in there after about 10min. Nothing on the inside caught our eye especially and so we just walked to the roof to get a small idea of the whole expo area. Then, we were ready to wait in line a little longer and we chose Kuwait, since it looked pretty interesting with the huge sails and the sand in front of the pavilion. We had to wait for about 2 hours but it was definitely worth it since they made cool installations with water and a nice movie about the sky and the desert with huge screens, that you felt as if you were actually there. There was a similar wonderful movie at the Tunisian pavilion as well. There, we didn’t have to wait at all. In any case, whenever we didn’t feel like waiting in line, we went to the smaller pavilions, where we didn’t have to wait. The smaller pavilions were more about the country itself and not about food and technology but it was nice to see what these places had to offer and talk to people who come from there.

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My favorite pavilion was probably the one of Alitalia and Etihad, since it was so interactive. We could try virtual reality goggles and feel as if we were at Times Square or in a desert. I can see that people want to experience that at home in the future but I hope that it won’t isolate the society even more, when everybody has to wear these goggles to watch TV or play games. I also liked Germany because they showed some very innovative methods for future exhibitions and their roof is really nice (you don’t have to wait to go on the roof and there is a slide for children and grown-ups to slide down). Russia was good because we got to try vodka and a fish dish and only had to wait 30min to get in although the line went around the building. Austria was nice (again, waiting time about 30min with a very long queue). It’s not about how long the queue is, it’s about how much the queue is moving, so watch before you decide not to enter a pavilion that might be really good. Coke was fun too, since it was structured very well, you learned something, it was fun and you got two free drinks.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to the Swiss pavilion (apparently you can sign up for a time slot at the Swiss info point in the morning but we didn’t know about that and just tried the online form that never worked). I also would have liked to see Japan and Kazakhstan but there it even said on a sign that the waiting time would be 5 hours.

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There is delicious local food at every pavilion but if you don’t want to spend so much money and are happy with Italian food, you can have pizza squares at the supermarket of the future for 2Euros.

While you have to pay for food, water on the other hand is for free. That was the most awesome thing. There were big water fountain areas everywhere, so people really don’t need to buy unhealthy sweet drinks. People brought their empty bottles and filled them up and were ready to wait in line at the next pavilion. There was even the choice between sparkling and tap water.

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If you still haven’t had enough of the EXPO at around 10pm, there is a laser show at the tree of life, which is worth watching. We even watched it in the pouring rain. Yes, going to Italy and all, I was expecting some wonderful hot fall weather, but oh well, can’t have everything. I still recommend to go to the EXPO if you have the chance.

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All roads lead to Rome

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In our case the above proverb really applied but actually only from our connection from Switzerland to Milan. As every time I have to go to Milan, something happens that my travel plan becomes more complicated. This time, it was a train crash with two cargo trains that happened in Switzerland and therefore the path I wanted to take was blocked. Due to the long weekend, all the other trains were already overbooked anyways and now even more people had to get on them…I wasn’t sure whether I’d make it to Milan in time to make my connection to Rome, but all I could do was try. In the end, my route via Bern – Brig – Milano Expo worked (although I had to stand in the overcrowded isle of the train from Brig to Milan …) and I met my friends at Porta Garibaldi just in time. They also had to make last minute changes to their travel plans and so 4 people had to take three different routes to get to Milan. Good that these possibilities existed and that we had this 2 hour time cushion.

On the Italian train from Milano to Rome, we had pre booked seats and had a very agreeable journey on a clean and fast train with air-conditioning and wifi. We had bought our tickets during a special offer and had a return trip to Milan for only 24 Euros! We couldn’t say not to that.

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Three and a half hours later, we arrived in Rome, where contrary to Switzerland it wasn’t raining and still over 20° C. Summer had arrived J.

Our connection by metro and bus to the airbnb worked without any problems, too. I didn’t really know what to expect of an airbnb since we did this for the first time. It’s an accommodation you book over a website. It can be anything from a private apartment or house to a dormitory room. This time we had a small room with bunk beds in the basement of a house. Good enough if you only need the room for sleeping and the shower was great!

We had a nice café right around the corner, where we went to have breakfast every day and the baristas enjoyed my attempts in ordering in Italian (I don’t speak Italian at all) since they were not used to tourist in this area and we probably were a nice change to the daily clientele they have. Luckily, Myriam (the one I went to Thailand with and not Australia ;)) knew that the Italian way of eating breakfast is having a coffee and something sweet at the bar, without sitting down at the table and so we avoided the almost 100% price surcharge if we had sat down at a table.

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We took the metro to the Colosseo and were happy to really be in the Rome as we had imagined it. We walked once around it to look for a shorter entrance line but then realized that we’d have to wait in the one, really long line near the arch. The tour guides who wanted to sell us their tours said that the line would take 2 hours but in the end we only waited about half an hour until we had our tickets. It’s a two day pass for the Colosseo and the Forum Romanum for 12 Euros or 8 Euros if you are under 25 and from the European Union.

There were hundreds of tourists but it was worth seeing the ruin of this huge stadium from the insides anyways. Plus, it’s also like a museum with old statues and artefacts. About 1,5 hours later, we met up with our friends (yes, it’s possible to find each other in all the tourists) and then went to look for some lunch. My goal was to eat pizza and gelati at least once every day and I achieved it J. The best ice cream we had was on the side of Basilica di Santa Maria. All the pizzas I had were good but the best dinner all in all probably was the one near the Vatican. In that area are many cute restaurants anyways.

Our days were filled with a lot of walking. Rome is like an open air museum, there is sooooooo much to see and at every corner you find another beautiful church, obelisk, arch, stairway, market or garden. Since there are only two metro lines and we didn’t really figure out the bus plan, we ended up walking everything. It was fun to see all these sights you always see on pictures or on TV in nature.

Pantheon by night

Pantheon by night

To round off our Italian experience, the metro was on a partial strike on the second day. A few Italians had been waiting at the bus stop for 30min already, since the bus might come after all (a few buses were running), so we thought, while we waited for the bus, we could also try to hitchhike into town. After only two minutes, a middle aged guy with a nice car stopped and we had a very agreeable ride to the brim of the city center with a stock broker who turned out to be the age of our parents but looked much younger and was really nice to give us loads of tips about good markets in the city. Have a positive hitchhike experience – check. Now that that was crossed of my bucket list, we could fully concentrate on the clothes market in Sannio Street outside of San Giovanni. If you haggle a little that’s probably the cheapest and biggest market in Rome (at least of the ones we have been to).

Forum Romanum

Forum Romanum

Then, we visited the Forum Romanum. If you want to have a look at everything, you need at least two hours but since the ruins are not marked that clearly, you could just have a look from the fences along the outside and would see pretty much the same things you see on the inside. After walking perceived 10’000 miles we took a taxi to Peter’s Square to meet up with our friends again. It was impressive to see the Peter’s Dome and the huge square in reality. Also, the line to get inside the church was impressive but luckily, we didn’t have to wait since one of my friends knew someone that worked as a Swiss Guard (I hope that’s the correct translation) and he was so kind to bring us inside without having to wait in line. He was also the one who introduced us to the delicious restaurant the night before. It was funny to pass all these guards who speak Swiss German and enter the smallest country in the world, in the middle of Rome. The church is richly decorated and the height of the dome very impressive. Near the front left of the church, there is a stairway down to the tombs of the former popes and then you come back up near the entrance to the big cupola. There are 521 stairs to get to the top and it costs 5 Euros to walk or 7 Euros to take the lift for the first 200 stairs. Although our feet were screaming something else, we decided to walk all the way, that we wouldn’t have to wait in line for the elevator. The first 200 stairs were no problem anyways, since the corridor is quite broad with small steps. It’s probably only the last 150 steps that get really interesting.

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First, you arrive just below the dome from where you can look down on the church floor and all the tourists. I didn’t even notice the people up here before! It’s so high! Good that we were in something like a cave with a fence all the way around us. After that, the corridor gets really narrow. You should visit the cupola before you eat too many gelatis. Plus, the walls are on a slant. The last few meters are steep corkscrew stairs. So, getting to the top is actually an adventure on its own and in the end you get rewarded with a beautiful view over St. Peter’s Square and the city of Rome.

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Of course, we then had to walk back down again and my calves still reproach me for that.

The last day of our four day trip, we wanted to take it easy and just visit the Pantheon and go shopping. Well, when is shopping ever relaxed? Again, we walked a 1000 miles but at least we wouldn’t go home empty handed. Even in the shopping streets there were so many tourists that it had the feeling of a street festival. Apparently, the best time to visit Rome to have good weather and fewer tourists is April but all in all, I was quite happy with our Ascension weekend.

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The journey back was a lot more relaxed since there were no train problems and so I even considered going to the Expo in Milan this year by train again.

City feeling in Porto and surfing in Peniche

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This time, our journey already began in Switzerland. Early in the morning of our first day of spring vacation we Simone and I took the train once across the country fo catch our easy jet flight in Geneva. It was one of the least complicated procedures until I was on the plane that I ever had. For once, I not only worried about the technic of the aircraft but also about the current mental state of the pilot. But despite all the bad news we’ve had during the past year, flying is still much saver than being on the streets and so we landed in Porto without any  troubles.
With the metro, it’s easy to get to the center of town.Our hostel was quite central but the room was so tiny that I wouldn’t recommend it for two people. Since we only had one day in Porto, we strolled down to the wine cellars by the river. We degustated a few port wines from the oldest port wine producer in the Kopke bar. They meant well and filled the big glasses, plus we even received some delicious pralines. The view we had on the streets and the river was a plus as well. Afterwards, we ended up at a weird synchroniced concert with Portuguese folk music and were surprised by a few raindrops.
We had dinner in a small and steep alley and since everything was completly in Portuguese, I didn’t really know what I would receive. But it was ok and plenty of food and for 11€ for two people we were quite happy.
Bookstore that inspired a certain story. Can you guess which one?

Bookstore that inspired a certain story. Can you guess which one?

The next morning, we took the metro to the beach. Unfortunately, it wasn’t  t-shirt weather yet 😦 Actually, the weather the past week in Switzerland had been better.
There was a nice park, a small fort and some surf schools in the water.
In the afternoon, we boarded one of the Rede Expressos buses to Peniche, which worked perfectly. Only when we got out of the bus at our arrival time, we had no idea where we were, since the driver dropped us off at a normal bus stopp. Thanks to two Swiss guys who were on the same bus, we then could hitchhike with the guy who picked them up and drove them to the Surfcastle surfcamp. The office of our camp (Maximum Surfcamp) closed at 7pm already.
From the surfcastle it was only a 2min walk to our camp, where we were welcomed by Simone’s friends whom she met at a surfcamp in Morocco and who now lived in the same appartment with us.

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On Monday morning we had to get our equipment and then got devided into our surf groups. I was a bit dissapointed that I had to go to the whitewater intermediate group yet again but at least I could really work on my turns this week.
The waves are great and we all have lot of fun. I’m surprised how well the wetsuit protects from the cold. Like this we really couls surf in any condition.
In the afternoon, the water is wilder and I have no energy to paddle anymore. When I get hit in hip by my surfboard I decide that it is time to quit for that day. I even need a powernap to be able to function again, my body just isn’t used to so much sport anymore. We have a delicious dinner with a nice view of the bay at Algamar restaurant.
The next day, the water is still wild and so I’m mostly on white water again but the video analysis of us after the course is fun and instructive.
Once we had organized a plate for the oven, nothing was in the way of our delicious selfmade pizza.
In the surfboard factory

In the surfboard factory

On Wednesday, we surfed at a beautiful colored beach with red rocks. The current was quite strong and the waves big, so why did this have to be the first day me and another guy from my group were finally allowed to paddle out to the green water? It took us ages to get past the waves and even once we arrived in the calmer water we only had a short moment to feel proud until we had to start paddling on and keeping up with the current. In the end, I only had the energy to take one wave. By now, every muscle in my body was hurting a lot but the peak of the pain only came the next day and on the fifth day, my body finally started adapting to all this exersise. Because of that, it’s kind of stupid to only attend one week of surfcamp.
After the course on Wednesday, all the surf students were loaded into the vans and the guides drove us around Peniche to show us the beautiful spots this half island has to offer. There are a lot of pretty cliffs and cute fish restaurants. It would be worth it to rent a bycicle and check these places out again.
Afterwards, we had a guided tour in the Fatum surfboard factory, which was pretty interesting.
In the evening, we played one of many rounds of the board game Dog in our appartment.
On Thursday, there suddenly were smaller waves and the current was gone, too. Now it was a lot easier to paddle for unbroken waves.
In the evening we drove to Peniche to have a mouthwatering dinner in the steak house. We all loved our dishes!
On our last day of the surf course we just had one long session since it always started raining again and the wave sets took a long time to come. However, I finally really surfed my first wave…Right in the middle of the green water and in the end I even turned in the right moment to surf on when the wave died at the edge. Woohoo, apparently I had made some progress! I wished I had an ocean at home to keep practicing. In the evening, we even were fit enough to all go out together and dance the night away.
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On Saturday, we made our way to the beach without our teachers and I was happy to be able to catch a few green waves, too. Unfortunately, the find and rain got stronger during the day, that only kite surfers were still on the water and I had my last session without realizing that it would be my last.
On the day I leave, the wheather is still indecisive.
Again, it was no problem to get back to Porto with Rede Expressos, it just took me an hour longer this time because I had to take a detour via Lisbon.
This time I stayed at Oporto Sport Hostel which is right in Rua Catharina and pretty cheap. I can only recommend it.
The next day I started with another delicious breakfast of local pastries and then attended the free walking tour, where I learned a lot about the history of Porto, its foods and drinks.
The guide showed us pretty view points and after the tour I had a much better feel for the city.
I couldn’t stop myself from doing a little shopping but unfortunately, I could hardly buy anything, since I was only travelling with carry on luggage.
For dinner, I went to another tiny Portuguese restaurant which was hidden in an alley. The waitress only spoke Portuguese and I tried to tell her that I wanted a dish with chorizo. She wouldn’t hear any of it and tried to convince me to take alheira (on the tour I learned that this is a breaded sausage with chicken meat, so that the Jews could eat it, too and pretend to be Christians when the Jews weren’t wanted in Portugal.) After the waitress had repeatedly tried to make me understand that this would be the best alheira I would ever eat, I agreed to take it. And oh my God, was this delicious!!! It hopefully won’t be the last one I had.
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Since I read that Oporto airport was open all night, I decided to spend the night there and not have to worry about how to get to the airport early in the morning.
I already went to the departure area at about 10pm, just as the last stores closed its gates. Perhaps I should have waited in the public area a little longer, because there at least Costa Coffee was still open. In the morning, I also realized that there weren’t even any letter boxes on the inside and so I had to hand my post cards to one of the staff who promised to throw them into the mailbox after her shift. Other than that it would be possible to sleep on the wooden chairs if you bring enough warm jackets. It got quite cold. The bathrooms were open, there are some powerplugs and vending machines, so it’s really possible to spend the night. For half of the night I felt like I was alone at the airport except for the cleaning crew (who was friendly and let me sleep) but at around 4am got too cold to lie around and wandered back to the main escalator to find many more people spread out on the benches. The last two hours somehow went by, too and already I was sitting on the plane back to Geneva. Thanks to my new best friends M&M’s I didn’t even have a sugar low on the flight this time and could actually enjoy the view down onto the snow covered mountains.

Castle Neuschwanstein and some tips for any kind of weather

Schloss Neuschwanstein in sunshine

Schloss Neuschwanstein in sunshine

For many, many years I’ve been wanting to see the castle that was the inspiration for the Walt Disney symbol. I’ve heard a lot of things and seen beautiful pictures and therefore had enough time and material to plan a good trip. However, don’t ever make plans without calculating that the weather probably isn’t going to play along. Next time I plan to travel around Easter; stop me!! I remember how last year, we drove along the Great Ocean Road in Australia in fog and rain and then a week later I spent my most freezing night in a tent somewhere north of Canberra. But I was kidding about keeping me from traveling. Perhaps it doesn’t look as picture perfect without sunshine but that doesn’t mean that all the places we saw were less impressive or the people we met less important.

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So, before we left Switzerland, the weather forecast for the area Füssen/ Schwangau, where the castles are located showed rain clouds for the next three days. Therefore, I knew that we probably wouldn’t see the castle in dry weather anyways and thought we might as well go there on the first day and make sure that there would be a tour available for us. On the way there, we even picked up a couple of Swiss female hitchhikers for a while, who wanted to go to Zagreb. I hope they reached their goal soon.

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At Neuschwanstein you can only visit the inside of the castle with a guided tour and you have to purchase the tickets for an exact time at the visitor center at the base of the hill or you buy them beforehand over the internet, where you have to pay an extra order fee.

Even though it was raining and a normal work day for most people, we had to wait in line quite a while. Also, because of the rain, there were no buses running up to the castle and the Marienbrücke (from where you have an awesome view on the castle) was closed because it was dangerous when the grounds were slippery. That sucked but we couldn’t do anything about it.

Schloss Hohenschwangau

Schloss Hohenschwangau

Equipped with our tickets we climbed the steps to castle Hohenschwangau. That was the summer residency of the royal family for many years. Neuschwanstein, which lies a little higher about a 40min walk from Hochschwangau was more like the playground of King Ludwig II. It was being built during 17 years to his special dreamy wishes. He then only lived in it for about 6 months before he died and then the castle already became a museum. So, the story behind it isn’t as romantic as the outside. It really looks like a princess castle out of a Disney movie and is impressive as it towers in the middle of the mountains.

When we started our first tour at 3pm, we were above all glad to be out of the rain for a moment. But it was really worth it to see the insides. Both castles were filled with pomp and expensive things. Especially the bedroom of the king in both castles was very impressive. Not that I could live in such a kitsch room but it was exactly how you imagine the chambers of a real king out of ancient times. It was as if we had entered a parallel universe. After half an hour, the tour was over and then we had 1,5 hours before our tour in Neuschwanstein started. We walked down to the lake, of which I am sure would be very pretty in sunshine. There are a few cafés and a small luxury shopping outlet which was filled with all the Asian tourists.

Schloss Neuschwanstein from up close

Schloss Neuschwanstein from up close

Slowly, we started the hike up to Neuschwanstein. Since there were no buses, it was a real pilgrimage of people up and down the hill. We needed about 30min until we reached the square in front of the castle and were passed by a few horse carriages that were going despite the rain.

Can you spot the Marienbücke?

Can you spot the Marienbücke?

There is a picture platform from where you have a good view on the castle and an impressive glance down into the Pöllatschlucht. Our tour in Neuschwanstein started at 5pm and apparently it was one of the last ones and most people were on their way home already because we were only 6 people on the tour and really could have a close look at all the treasures. This tour only lasted about 20min, since like I said, the castle had never been finished and you only get to visit about five rooms. However, it’s unbelievable how many details there are in these rooms and it’s a pity that such a glamorous throne roomis only used for tourists that walk through it. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the castles. From the window of the top floor, I could make out the Marienbrücke through the fog. There were some people on it that had climbed over the fence just to get a good picture of the castle anyways. We then talked to our guide for about 5min and then also made our way to the exit. When we stepped outside, we couldn’t believe our eyes; it was snowing!!! Plus, the ground was already covered with about 2cm. That must have happened within the last 5min because when I looked out of the window it hadn’t been snowing yet. Now, the walk down was even colder since our clothes were a little wet from the rain before but at least everything looked truly romantic now 🙂

In the snow storm

In the snow storm

We were glad when we finally arrived at our hotel and then chose to have a short walk through the pretty snow and enjoy a good pizza for dinner at il castello in Nesselwang.

The next day, it was as if the weather wanted to play a trick on us, because we were awoken by sunrays. The snow was still there but the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly. The weather forecast had been wrong! Well, better for us I thought, because now we could visit one of the gorges after all. Yet again, luck was not on our side. The Pöllatschlucht was closed due to danger of falling rocks and the Breitachklamm was closed because there might be too much water now. Well, again we needed an alternative program. We chose to walk around one of the lakes. The scenery at Hopfensee was incredible, since the mountain panorama was mirrored in the water. The whole tour took us about two hours and gifted us with a strong sunburn.

With red heads we continued into Füssen to enjoy an Apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce (and have I mentioned all the good Bavarian beer we could drink everywhere?). With new strength we had a closer look at the historic buildings in the city and then walked to the artificial Lechfall.

Hopfensee with mountains

Hopfensee with mountains

Since the day was still young but we had definitely had enough sun, we decided to go to the thermal baths despite the nice weather we had now. Its name is Königliche Kristall-Therme and it indeed was royal. From most windows of the thermal bath you had an amazing view on Neuschwanstein and now with the sunshine it looked even better anyways. There were several basins with saltwater in them and many different saunas. This was the best thermal bath I’ve ever been to next to the Säntispark. The Säntispark is right near my hometown in Abtwil, St.Gallen and has a wave pool, awesome slides and a really nice sauna area. But the Kristaltherme in Füssen was more luxurious for sure. There was a relax room filled with real gemstones and like I said, the view on the castles was awesome.

Castle in Füssen

Castle in Füssen

In the evening it then started to rain again and the next day there was more snow and rain, so there wasn’t really any reason to stick around. Luckily, it’s only two hours from St. Gallen. Perhaps I’ll be able to stop by in one of the gorges one day when we’re on our way to Munich and the weather is better.

Over the Atlas to the Sahara

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

On Thursday morning it took a while until the drivers had ushered us into the right tourist busses in Marrakech. We seemed to have landed in the only group that was mixed with old and young people. A few German and Dutch people and an Italian/Polish couple. Then we were off on a long drive through the Atlas mountains. The highest point we passed was 2200m and there was snow too. It reminded me of pictures I had seen from Nepal. The highest mountain in Morocco is Toubkal with a little over 4000m. There even is a skiing region near Marrakech.

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We stopped a few times after narrow bends (dangereux virages) to take pictures. At one point I saw a truck with a huge dust cloud coming around the next corner. I thought it would be a good idea if we all slowed down a little. Which our driver did in the next moment when he stepped on the emergency break and we were all hanging in our seatbelts (yes, so far all the cars here had seat belts and they made sure you wore them too). For a moment we saw nothing but dust. The truck had passed us but when the dust was gone too we saw that we were about 5cm from the car in front of us. They hadn’t been as lucky and had crashed a huge hole into the car in front of them. We all started breathing again and when we were sure that everything was ok, we drove on. Apparently, we had lucked out with the driver we got again. We drove on to our first castle, Kasbah Ait-Ben-Haddou. The sight of this was awesome. A lot of cute built clay houses. They have to take care of these mud houses all the time that they don’t get destroyed by the weather. Again, a guide imposed his services upon us but at least this time he was friendly and so we learned some things about the castle for 25Dh. However, first we had to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock, which was fun (on our way back, we took the bridge). The houses pretty much had one goal, to keep the cold inside and protect from enemies. Therefore, it was quite chilly and dark in there. I liked them much better from the outside. Many movies like Gladiator and Prince of Persia were shot in this town.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Later, Johannes and I had lunch in the shade of a building and then I walked around the small “modern” village to find an avocado juice. The people here were a lot friendlier and actually wanted to talk to you without getting money from you somehow.

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We drove on to Ouarzazate, the film mekka of Morocco. Unfortunately, the big part of my travel group was not interested in paying the 50 Dh to go visit the film studios. It would have been very interesting to see for example Cleopatra’s film set. Then we spent another few hours driving past a 1000 different kasbahs. I’m not kidding, there were so many. If you like castles, you have to drive through this area and look at all these amazing formations built out of clay.

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Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Here even the normal villages seem more proper than up north. I felt myself relax and think that here I would like to see more off. We continued through the pretty Valley of Roses and then entered the windy curves into the Dades Gorge. Luckily, our driver really seemed to know every bend and everybody in our bus appeared to have a strong stomach. Since we had booked the cheap tourist tour, I also expected that we would stay in a cheap hostel. Therefore, I was surprised when we stopped in front of a nice looking building and then even received a real hotel room with a private bathroom. We were surrounded by the walls of the gorge and always heard the splatter of the river that ran through it. After arriving, everybody was drawn to the warm fireplace in the dining room, where we hungrily waited for our dinner. First there was soup with a typical Moroccan taste, which we had to eat with a big wooden spoon. Then followed a huge pile of couscous with vegetable and chicken with a fresh orange for dessert. Everybody was satisfied and then we finally had time to get to know some people from our group a bit better.

 

Dades Gorge

Dades Gorge

Although there was a heater in our room and I had two thick blankets, I cannot say that I was exactly warm but I slept really well despite that since I wasn’t woken up by a singing muhezin or other noises this time. In the morning, it sounded as if it was raining but it was probably just the river. When I got up, I realized that it actually was raining pretty hard but that didn’t further bother us, while we were eating delicious Berber pancakes for breakfast. Again, we boarded the bus to wind our way back out of the gorge and soon there were blue holes in the sky and the warming sun came out. We drove past great plains, old volcanoes, goats and camels. Unfortunately, the sunshine didn’t last long and so at our first stop in the Todra Gorge, we got soaked with rain. I hoped that the clothes would dry until the evening, when we would spend the night in the Sahara. Before we could actually enter the gorge, we had to watch a demonstration of how they make carpets in a carpet factory. Then we finally went to the gorge across very muddy and slippery paths. The Todra Gorge with its high walls to both sides was an awesome place! I would have loved to stay there longer and in dry weather tried climbing (there was a via ferrata too) but of course then we were in a rush again and had to leave after about 10min.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Then followed a lot more driving with a lunch stop at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. After that we drove to a camel farm in an oasis near Merzouga, the door to the Sahara. Everybody got their own dromedary and it lifted itself up in that funny way. Like a real caravan we rode into the sand dunes. It looked quite funny. The sand dunes looked beautiful, especially in the setting sun. We rode for what seemed like an eternity (about two hours), which was too long for my butt and my legs. I have to say that riding the elephant in Chiang Mai was much more comfortable than riding this dromedary. Plus, I had more confidence into my gentle elephant. These camels here didn’t like it too much when you wanted to pet them. Anyways, Jimmy Hendrix carried me to the Berber tent camp where we would spend the night.

On the high dune

On the high dune

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Firstly, we started climbing the huge dune that was next to the camp. That was hard work because with every step you took, you sank down in the sand again at least half way. But the view was amazing and it was cool to stand on what seemed like an almost vertical hill. I think it will take me years to get rid of every grain of sand that is sticking to my body now.

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We jumped down the dune in kangaroo jumps and then I tried myself at sandboarding for a while before it got too dark. I actually liked that much better than snowboarding, because you couldn’t hurt yourself in the soft sand. Unfortunately, carrying the board up the hill was extremely tiring.

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Luckily, dinner was served soon after that, since I was starving again. There actually was a nice tent with tables and guess what? It was almost warm inside the carpet tent. We had another chicken/vegetable tajine with rice and bread. After dinner, we enjoyed the stars. We could see the milky way, a few really bright stars and I saw two shooting stars but unfortunately it was a little cloudy. It didn’t match the amazing star filled sky that I saw in the Whitsundays. One of the Berber said that for the stars, the best time to come to the desert is August. After a cup of tea with the guides in the kitchen tent, we tried to get some sleep in our colorful 5 bed tent. The cots were rather hard and of course it got freezing again, so I didn’t mind that we had to get up early to ride back to the oasis during the sunrise. That camel ride was beautiful, since it can be extremely silent in the desert. But again, my body was glad when we could get off the saddle back in the oasis 🙂 We had another delicious breakfast with Berber pancakes and marmalade. Everything that has fruit in it here tastes amazing!!

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Then we were off on the looong drive back to Marrakech already. The different landscapes we saw were amazing! There were many green fields with palm trees, canyons and gorges in different colors. Of course we had to get back across the Atlas mountains and believe me, the windy roads on Swiss mountains are nothing compared to here. So many curves next to such steep cliffs and always up the hill and then what it seems, back down into the valley again. A motorcyclists dream. We were thinking about starting a fund for a tunnel. But our driver did a great job and after a lunch and a few toilet breaks, we arrived in Marrakech 12hours later. The plan was to go to Essaouira directly, however we moved this journey to the next day and enjoyed a good meal that wasn’t tajine or couscous and had one of the most needed showers of our lives 🙂

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Marrakech – the never ending street festival

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My trip to Morocco started the night before the flight. Luckily I could sleep at a friends place in Basel because the gates to my EasyJet flight closed the next morning at 6.20am. This was the first time I flew only with carry-on luggage. Luckily they didn’t check the liquids too exactly since I hadn’t put them into a sealed plastic bag yet but luckily they just let me pass.
On the plane I even could sit next to the window because my neighbors arrived last minute and just sat down on the isle seats. Three hours later and with 1h time difference, we landed in Marrakech.
I was surprised how cold it was when I stepped of the plane. When the sun shone it was okay but inside the rooms or under the roofs of the souk it was very cold since nothing had a heater. For the next time I know that for Morocco in winter, you also need warm socks and a winter jacket…
I should have waited until the city to exchange money since the rate was quite bad but I needed money to get to the city center. I took bus 19 which waited in front of the airport for 3DH and got off 20min later at Djemaa el Fna. The square is like I imagined Marrakech. Very busy and the first thing I saw were people playing with a cobra and many stalls where vendors sell freshly made fruit juice. With a cup of mixed fruit juice in my hand I felt like I had really arrived in this totally different place.

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I found the Rainbow Marrakech hostel without a problem thanks to the directions from their webpage. However, the alley that leads to its door I’d much rather not wander alone at night. I already saw myself getting mugged or raped until finally someone opened the door. There, I first received a pot of tea and some cookies. Everybody was really friendly. The hostel is in a typical kitsch Moroccan Riad style.
A little later, I went to explore the souk. Everybody wants to make money off you and you need to haggle when you are interested in something. At first I probably also paid too much. I got a bit lost but at least found delicious olives.
I then wanted to return to have real lunch but then got “kidnapped” by a friendly guy who told me about a Berber holiday that was going on in the tanneries and he wanted to show it to me. I thought “oh how kind” because I wanted to go visit them anyways.

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But when we arrived there, the guy hands me over to someone else who shows me the place where they treat and color leather. He talked a lot and I realized that I got tricked and would have to pay money for this. And of course he then felt like I didn’t give him enough. Then I really wanted to go back to the square but got even more lost. Again someone who was walking the same direction as me offered to show me the way since he was going there anyways. Again I believed that he just wanted to help me on his way to work but suddenly, he also wants money and I was nowhere near the square. I will not trust these people anymore. Finally, after walking for an hour and imagining many more scenarios how I could get killed or be forever lost, I found back to the square and first went to relax on the pretty roof top of my hostel.

Tanneries

Tanneries

I was glad when my friend Hedi arrived (she studied with me but lives in Essaouira at the moment and she is actually the reason why I decided to visit Morocco).
We went out for a late lunch in a restaurant at the square. I had a delicious poulet tajine with lemon and olives. Then we went back to the souk. It was exhausting again but more fun than strolling through them alone. Back on the square we had to watch out that we didn’t accidentally step on a cobra or monkey or got in between fighting men. Marrakech was a bit too much for me. I didn’t feel very safe but at least the hostel was a real place of refugee where everybody was very relaxed. You could always have a cup of tea and a good conversation and the wifi worked perfectly.
Later, we had a delicious dinner in a Moroccan/Mexican restaurant right near the hostel. I had falafel with French fries and a delicious sauce for 25dh.
Although the room was cold and the bunk bed not the most comfortable, sleep was possible with 3 wool blankets.

Park behind the mosque

Park behind the mosque

The next morning I was greeted with sunshine at the outdoor sink on the rooftop. It would be a warmer day.
At 11am I had a massage booked at salon Mains des Fees for 200 Dh instead of 280 Dh. The massage was good but unfortunately also in a cold room.
For lunch we had a Berber pizza for 10dh. Then we set out to explore some of the palaces and the gardens. On our 3,5 hour walk in the sunshine we saw many orange trees and part of the city wall. Then we found an alley where the souvenirs were a bit cheaper and there was a fruit juice vendor that sold avocado, strawberry, banana, date juice (nicely layered into a cup) for 50cents!!! I want one of those everyday please!!
We walked back to the hostel where I showered while the sun was still out since that with the hot water was still tricky and nobody had a hair dryer. Then, we had another delicious and cheap dinner in one of the restaurants.

Fruit juice :)

Fruit juice 🙂

Johannes from Germany finally arrived too. We met a year ago in Perth. I didn’t want to travel to Morocco alone and wrote a few lines on facebook and he replied that he would come too. A proof that facebook does help to keep in touch and meet again!
Djemaa el Fna was even busier at night. Loads of food vendors selling what looks like the same things everywhere and all kinds of other “artists”.
On Wednesday we rose at 7 to board a tourist bus to the Cascade d’Ouzoud for 200 Dh. We drove past rather rough scenery with a few rivers and countless donkeys. Lonely donkeys waiting in the shade of trees, donkeys with people or things or both on their backs and donkeys pulling carts. There also always were Moroccans walking alongside the road or trying to hitchhike. I have to admit that the sight of the villages we drove through saddened me. The houses were all cold looking concrete or clay blocks with wire on the roofs that they all looked like training sites for the army. In other words, it looked like villages at war time. 4 hours later with a stop at a gas station and an argan oil production site we pulled onto another parking lot next to a campsite and had no idea where we were, since our driver wasn’t a very talkative person. By now it was a beautiful warm and cloudless day. Right away two Berber people arrived who wanted to sell us their services as tour guides (because we wouldn’t be able to find the waterfall without them on the 3,5 hour return trip and we wouldn’t see monkeys). Still, we decided to go without the guides. There was a pretty square, probably only created for the tourists and then a concrete path with many souvenir shops and restaurants on each side. At least they weren’t as intrusive here as in Marrakech. After a 5min walk, we heard and then saw the waterfall.

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It was quite impressive, how suddenly big amounts of water fell over a huge clay cliff. We climbed up onto a small viewing platform, where already our first monkey awaited us. He seemed to also enjoy the view. We proceeded down the path, past more souvenir shops and arrived at the bottom of the pretty falls. They were quite a sight! We could have taken a small raft to get closer to the falls but decided against it and instead hiked back up to enjoy our lunch. However, when we took out the food, it attracted a group of cheeky monkeys and so we escaped back to the houses at the top and then had lunch near the path that was populated with more people and less animals. Except for a cute and loyal dog that found new friends in us and then followed us around for the rest of the afternoon. I called him Happy. We then walked to the top of the falls and enjoyed the view and afterwards followed the river upstream a little. Happy always happily wiggling its tail alongside us. We relaxed in the shade of a tree for a while and then went back to the village to enjoy a freshly pressed orange juice for 7 DH. At 3.30pm our group was back at the bus and we started the 3 hour drive to Marrakech. Happy knew that it was time to say goodbye and just trotted away.

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We arrived back in Marrakech exactly at the time when EVERYBODY was on the street. It was a driver’s nightmare but ours seemed to be a pro in not hitting any obstacles. I was amazed how we made it through the tiny alleys with all these people without a crash.

We hurried back to the hostel to drop off our things but then went right back to the market since we were fairly hungry. Hedi had gone back to Essaouira, since she wasn’t interested in doing the desert trip we would start the next day again.
On the food market, everybody wanted to pull us to their tables. We walked past the snail carts but eventually, we also let us pull in somewhere. As it later turned out, this had been the wrong choice. Our Tajine was tiny and cold and the skewers also small and without a sauce. And of course everything was overpriced plus I didn’t really enjoy the hectic atmosphere. However, later two Germans at the hostel told us that they just had a really good dinner experience at food stall Nr. 14 (squeezed between many locals).

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After dinner, we quickly walked through the souk to find some olives, figgs and nuts for our upcoming trip. Buying these was fun since all the colorful shops do look nice and food generally is really cheap.
Back at the hostel we relaxed with other guests on the rooftop and then I even figured out where the shower with the hot water was located 🙂 So from that point of view, I wouldn’t have minded to stay another night. However, other than that I was kind of glad that we would get out of Marrakech the next day. I do like busy places but New York or Kuala Lumpur kind of busy and not places where everybody wants to sell you something, even touches you to get your attention and then gets offended if you don’t buy anything. I’ll miss the delicious fruit juices though. I hope we find them along the way.

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Hamburg and Lüneburg

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This week I read in a Swiss newspaper that Hamburg will be the European city to visit in 2015. I already knew this in 2014 because I went there this fall :).

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When I first got back from my long around-the-world trip, I found it really hard to accept reality. That I was back home and for the first time in at least four years, I did not know when I would be able to travel the next time and where to. Therefore I was really glad that a friend from NZ was currently working in Hamburg and sparked the idea in me to visit him up there. Plus, I killed two birds with one stone because I could finally visit my relatives in the nearby city Lüneburg, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. After that trip up north, I was much more relaxed about returning home, since I realized that no matter where I am, I could always go to an unknown place and do something fun. Just maybe not for 9 months straight.

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I took the ‘Deutsche Bahn’ from Basel to Lüneburg and was really lucky that although they were striking every other day that week, my trains were always unaffected. Lüneburg is an incredibly cute and pretty town with old stone houses, red roofs and restaurants along a river. In some lanes I felt like I was in Harry Potter’s Hogsmade. I climbed the water tower with my aunt and uncle, from where we had a great view and we went to the salt museum, which was very interesting. They also took me on a field trip to East Germany. The old borders are still marked with signs and panels with pictures to remind the awful history during and after WWII. Most impressive however was to speak to my relatives and other people who had actually lived there during that time and had to flee or couldn’t flee. It was better than any history lesson at school or any blockbuster movie.

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From Lüneburg, I took the metro to Hamburg. It seemed to me that Hamburg is a city of many facets. There is the big port where you can watch the huge container ships, the Speicherstadt with the channels that run between the big buildings. The old town with beautiful churches and the town hall, lakes with swans (people from Hamburg love swans, I learned this on the fun Sandman’s free walking tour), famous St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn quarter and my favorite place, the huge botanical garden Planten und Blomen. You already have to love this place because of its funny old German name. Unfortunately, in fall, everything was a bit dry and dying but still, I could imagine how awesome this would be in spring and summer. The kids were still enjoying the awesome playground which made me wish to be younger again too. Perhaps I’ll have to go back there in 2015 after all, or if not in another year, to see the park during summer. Then, they also have a fountain show which is supposed to be really good. Plus, this time, I also missed the fish market and I didn’t see a musical. Two other things for which Hamburg is famous. So you see, there is a lot to visit. I’ll be back for sure.

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