A quick travel guide to Sardinia, Italy

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One of my favourite places in Italy, if not Europe is the beautiful island of Sardinia. The first time I visited Sardinia was back in the early 2000's, when we went there for a beach holiday with my family. I was around 15 years old and what I remember to this day was the beautiful white sand beaches with crystal clear turquoise water - and also the excitement of ordering "drinks" (aka juice) at the hotel bar with my sisters. Ever since I have been drawn to Sardinia and its beautiful beaches, people and interesting culture.

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Sardinia is a large island that lies to the west of Rome, and can be accessed either by plane or ferry. The island is directly south of the French island of Corsica. There are multiple daily direct flights to Sardinias biggest airports Cagliari and Olbia from Rome, Milan and other Italian cities.

Olbia lies in the northern part of the island and is home to the jet-set area called Costa Smeralda. This is a popular spot for Italian celebrities and its main town Porto Cervo is home to many luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. Some of the most beautiful beaches in Sardinia lie on the Costa Smeralda area.

In the southern part of Sardinia lies its capital city Cagliari, a city of 155 thousand inhabitants. The city is beautiful but also quite rough at places, having been quite heavily bombed in 1943 during WW2, fortunately since then new apartment blocks have been built and the city is whole again. Cagliari is an interesting city to visit, you can take a walk around the harbor on Via Roma or dive into the cobblestone streets just behind. There are many great restaurants (I can recommend Luigi Pomata for out of this world tuna), and you can easily spend a day or two exploring the city and enjoying shopping and delicious food.

Cagliari views

Cagliari views

Beautiful but rough houses in Cagliari

Beautiful but rough houses in Cagliari

However, the best part of Sardinia is it’s beaches and smaller towns that are scattered along the coast. The island has nearly 2000km of coastline and its beaches often top lists of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Last summer I spent time in Castiadas - a rural area in the south of the island. My family has a house there, so I will most certainly write more about this areain the future. It takes around one hour to drive by car from Cagliari to Castiadas and on the way there you can enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and the Mediterranean.

Cala su Figu

Cala su Figu

Cala Sinzias

Cala Sinzias

From Castiadas we did several trips to nearby beaches of which the best ones are Cala Sinzias and Cala Sa Figu. Cala Sinzias is a wide beach with many restaurants offering Ombrellino packages (sun-loungers and a shade) if you want a totally relaxed day on the beach. Cala sa Figu is a natural, smaller beach with no restaurants or other amenities - in turn you get a beautiful beach surrounded by cliffs where you can enjoy your day away from everything else (even cell-phone reception did not seem to work here).

Castiadas

Castiadas

Sunset in Castiadas

Sunset in Castiadas

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Other things to do?

When visiting Sardinia make sure to taste some local wines - white wine made of Vermentino grapes are some of my absolute favorites as well as the red Cannonau wines. There are many wine producers on the island and you can make a day trip visiting a winery. We visited Cantine Argiolas, about an hour drive from Cagliari and I can really recommend it! The wines were amazing and the winery in itself was interesting to visit.

Il caffe

Il caffe

Sardinia has its own culture, that is different from that of Italy. The Sardinians have their own language (they also speak Italian of course) which is quite different from Italian. They also have a lot of specialty produce: cheese made of goat or sheep milk (make sure to try some Pecorino), pasta Malloreddus (small gnocchi-type pasta made of wheat)and lots of local sweet pastries.

Citrus trees

Citrus trees

If you are staying in the south of Sardinia, I recommend taking a day trip to the mountains. We visited the town of Burcei, which was quite rural and definitely not touristy. We happened to witness a tournament of a very confusing looking game, where four people (+ two judges) stand opposite of each other and shout different words very quickly. After some googling we figured out that it was in fact Morra, a a hand game that dates back thousands of years to ancient Roman and Greek times. We enjoyed watching it although we had no clue what they were in fact shouting.

Morra

Morra

A catholic church in Burcei

A catholic church in Burcei

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The road to Burcei goes through the mountains and the views were spectacular. However, I would suggest doing this trip during a weekday: we did it on a saturday and witnessed several motorcycles driving very dangerously on the steep roads. Unfortunately as we were going back, we had to stop to make way for a helicopter that was landing on the road: a motorcyclist had gotten into an accident and had to be airlifted to the hospital (luckily, we heard that he was going to make it) . We learned from locals also waiting for the road to clear that this was unfortunately very common, this is a popular spot for motorcyclists to drive on during saturdays.

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But, on to happier thoughts! Sardinia is really a wonderful place to visit, and I feel that it often gets overlooked as there are many other more famous islands in the Mediterranean. If you ever have a chance of visiting I cannot recommend it enough.

Sunrise on the way to Cagliari

Sunrise on the way to Cagliari

5 little things to do in Cape Town (when you’re short on time)

It’s been a busy spring with little time to go on, think or write about travel. Luckily that changed recently, with a work trip to Cape Town, South Africa. I had been once before, three years ago, to this magical city and was so happy to get the chance to visit again.

Last time I had been both to Robben Island – the prison island where Nelson Mandela was held for decades – and Boulder’s Beach – home of many cute penguins. Both of those visits are worthwhile but require at least half a day. This time I didn’t have the luxury of time and could only spare a few hours in an afternoon here and a lunch break there to explore the city between a very intense work schedule. Central Cape Town is easy to walk around in, particularly during the day, but for longer trips or in the night, Uber was a great way to get around – reliable, safe, great service and so cheap!

Below are five tips on things to see and do in Cape Town when you are short on time.

1. Table Mountain National Park

Time required: minimum 1.5-2h for cable car journey and some time to walk around the national park (much more, unfortunately, if you get stuck in a queue to get the cable car up)

The ever-present and imposing Table Mountain is impossible to miss, wherever you are in the city. When you see it, you can understand why it has been named one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. This time I decided to go all the way up by cable car, to see how the city looks from above. Queues to the cable car can be quite epic and take up much of your time, but I can tell you that 4pm on Sunday afternoon (before the rush of sunset seekers) was perfect – I bought my ticket (R270 return, c. £13) at the till and walked directly in to the rotating cable car (which means you don’t need to fight for a spot on a specific side, as you’ll see all on the way up). Once up, there are marked routes to take you around the Table Mountain National Park, and you can choose your length from 15-30 minute routes to longer ones that can take up to 1.5h. The cable car does not run on very windy days or when it’s bad weather, but I was also lucky in that the clouds from the morning had disappeared and it was completely still up on the mountain. Such a serene view and experience.

Extra tip: if you have time, hike up the mountain (3 hours or so) and take the cable car down.

Views of Lion’s Head and the Central Business District of Cape Town from the cable car.

Views of Lion’s Head and the Central Business District of Cape Town from the cable car.

Above the clouds, overlooking Camps Bay and Bakoven from Table Mountain National Park.

Above the clouds, overlooking Camps Bay and Bakoven from Table Mountain National Park.

Views towards the Cape Peninsula.

Views towards the Cape Peninsula.

2. Walking tour of Bo-Kaap

Time required: 2h for tour

I have started to love doing free walking tours (pay what you can/want) in cities I visit, as the tour guides are usually locals trying to make some extra money and can tell stories of the city in a more frank and genuine way than perhaps guides on pricier tours. Cape Town Free Walking Tours has three different tours to choose from, starting three times a day, in the centre of the city, on the history of the city, apartheid specifically and then Bo-Kaap, which is the one I went for. Bo-Kaap is also known as the Cape Malay quarters, where Dutch colonisers first brought their slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is a key place for Islam within South Africa as a whole, and during the walking tour we also heard interesting stories of how the area has played a role in Cape Town’s history through the ages. To the outside eye, what’s most striking about Bo-Kaap though, are the colourful houses – each painted a bright yellow, green, purple, pink or something else. The reason for the colours is still not entirely clear, but apparently it previously helped people find the right craftsman, e.g. the carpenter in the green house. Nowadays, the colours attract South Africa’s film/advertising industry and, unfortunately, a wave of rich people who want to move in as the area has become sought-after, contributing to gentrification.

Extra tip: if you have time, stay for lunch at the local stalwart Biesmiellah, which apparently serves up the best Cape Malay curry in all of South Africa (sadly it was closed when I visited). Or if you return back into the centre, recommend eating at Addis in Cape for some delicious Ethiopian food.

Bo-Kaap and the money shot. Former cover pic of Lonely Planet’s Cape Town guide.

Bo-Kaap and the money shot. Former cover pic of Lonely Planet’s Cape Town guide.

Fighting for heritage preservation and against gentrification.

Fighting for heritage preservation and against gentrification.

The beautiful colours of Bo-Kaap, with Signal Hill in the background.

The beautiful colours of Bo-Kaap, with Signal Hill in the background.

3. Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

Time required: minimum 1h to walk through the museum and stop and admire some of the art work

In London, I’ve always enjoyed browsing the Tate Modern, so when I heard about the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MACMA), I was excited to see a place dedicated to modern art from the African continent and its diaspora. This museum (entry R190, c. £8) is housed in a completely new, funky building by the V&A Waterfront, with a roof terrace on top with views of… Table Mountain! Spread over several floors, the exhibitions showcased African science fiction, commentary on the state of our world and visions of the beginning of time. Great for an afternoon art stroll!

Extra tip: if you want a quick bite to eat, grab a healthy, tasty and filling lunch bowl, salad or wrap from nearby Now Now (all around R60, c. £3).

Roof terrace at MACMA with Table Mountain views.

Roof terrace at MACMA with Table Mountain views.

Willie Bester - Poverty Driven (‘seemingly functional chair holds the discomfort of a society that has not quite reached its goals of democracy’)

Willie Bester - Poverty Driven (‘seemingly functional chair holds the discomfort of a society that has not quite reached its goals of democracy’)

Gerald Machona - Live Long and Prosper

Gerald Machona - Live Long and Prosper

4. Constantia vineyards

Time required: minimum 2h to get there from central Cape Town and back with time for wine-tasting

Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape area is known for its wine production, and the abundance of wine is clear whichever restaurant you sit down in and order a wine from – it resembles more a bowl than a glass! I didn’t have time to visit Stellenbosch or Franschoek, the real ‘wine country’, so settled for Constantia on the eastern slopes of the Table Mountain, a historic wine-making area close to central Cape Town. There’s many vineyards to choose from, and if you are sold on a particular one, it’s worth calling ahead to book the wine tasting. I wanted to visit Groot Constantia, the oldest winery, or Beau Constantia, which apparently has a great restaurant, but both were closed due to a public holiday. I ended up visiting Constantia Glen, which was a lovely spot for wine tasting and a light lunch in green, hilly landscapes. I’m no wine expert, but having a tasting of four wines for R80 (c. £4) tasted very good ;)

Extra tip: if you have time, get a ticket for the hop-on/hop-off red double-decker bus that can take you from central Cape Town to a Wine Tour and then continue around the mountains to return to Cape Town the scenic route via beautiful Camps Bay, where you could hop off for a sunset drink.

Vineyard views.

Vineyard views.

Constantia Glen has been producing wines continuously since the late 1990s, while the broader Constantia region has a wine-producing history dating back to 1685.

Constantia Glen has been producing wines continuously since the late 1990s, while the broader Constantia region has a wine-producing history dating back to 1685.

Idyllic spot for afternoon wine.

Idyllic spot for afternoon wine.

5. V&A Waterfront

Time required: as little or as long as you want

No Cape Town trip is complete without a visit to the V&A Waterfront, the massive complex of restaurants, shops and entertainment arranged around canals and a sea front. It’s beautiful, although pricey, but a great place to while away the time. This time I also discovered the Watershed – a new warehouse-style building housing a range of South African clothing, jewellery and homeware designers. I fell in love with almost everything in there, and had I had more time (and money) I would’ve probably bought a lot more. Instead I settled with a couple of shirts, one from my favourite South African clothing shop Mungo & Jemima (ladies, check it out).

Extra tip: if you have time, enjoy lunch or dinner by the V&A Waterfront. Inside Victoria Mall, Tasha’s had nice food at a good price, while Willoughby’s & Co was a lot pricier and despite being inside a central court in the mall, one of the best sushi restaurants in Cape Town. For a waterside meal with sunset views and great seafood, there’s a lot to choose from, but I heard Baia is the place to go.

Boardwalk at the V&A Waterfront.

Boardwalk at the V&A Waterfront.

Cape Town’s recent drought is visible everywhere with reminders of the importance of water conservation.

Cape Town’s recent drought is visible everywhere with reminders of the importance of water conservation.

Never tired of looking at the beautiful Table Mountain.

Never tired of looking at the beautiful Table Mountain.

Next time, I hope to visit Cape Town with more time, because this is a city with so much to give!

Nyepi, The day of silence in Bali

Imagine a day of silence: no electricity, no candles, no loud talking, no-one in the streets or on the beaches, no internet connection, no sounds from cars or scooters and the airport being shut down. Living in Finland, I imagine this to be utopia - no-one would close down the airport or shut down electricity and internet, that would be madness. However, during our trip to Bali we experienced just this.

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We happened to be on Bali on Nyepi, also called “Day of Silence”. Nyepi is a public holiday, based on the Balinese calendar. It is the marking of the new year and it occurs every year in March or April. This year Nyepi was on March 7th, and I’m quite happy we got to experience it.

Nyepi is historically a day of silence, fasting and meditation. However, we understood that the younger generation of Balinese do not necessarily do fasting or meditation anymore. Bali is a very spiritual island and religion can be seen anywhere from the temples to the traditional clothing worn by the Balinese to the daily offerings. The days leading up to Nyepi are full of many different religious rituals and processions. We stayed in Canggu during Nyepi, and witnessed the local people walking down to the beach two days before Nyepi, wearing colorful clothing and doing offerings. Around this time everything in Bali circles around Nyepi and the streets are decorated with high bamboo poles that have been carefully decorated and below each is a small altar.

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The day before Nyepi we could already feel that the town was getting deserted, most restaurants and stores were either already closed ore closed at 1pm. We drove around town with our scooter and saw the Balinese getting ready for the evenings celebrations. The evening before Nyepi is also the evening of the Ngurupk parade when Ogoh-Ogohs are paraded around. The Ogoh-Ogohs are huge statues that each village builds by themselves in the village temples during the weeks and months leading up to Nyepi. The statues are very ornate and also look pretty grotesque as they represent demons. The evening before Nyepi the statues are paraded accompanied by Gamelan bands playing traditional music and many villagers joining in on the parade. After the parade the statues are burned in a sort of cleansing ritual in order to welcome the new year.

Preparing the ogoh-ogoh on the day of the parade

Preparing the ogoh-ogoh on the day of the parade

Ogoh Ogoh parade

Ogoh Ogoh parade

The actual day of Nyepi starts at 6am and stretches for 24 hours until the the next morning, During this time everyone, including tourists are to stay inside reflecting without any disturbances. In many places electricity and wifi connection is shut off, all of the telcom operators turn off mobile internet, no lights are allowed during the night, noises are to be kept to a minimum, you are not allowed to go out on the streets and even the airport is shut down. Basically the whole island shuts down for 24 hours. The streets are guarded by a group of village men who make sure that the rules are followed and that no-one enters the streets. The only exception to the shutdown is hospitals and emergency vehicles in life-threatening situations and women giving birth.

We spent Nyepi in a Villa in Canggu. We were lucky in the way that we actually did have electricity and wifi the whole day. It was apparently depending on the internet provider because our friend who lived very close by did not have internet access during Nyepi. We had heard that Nyepi would be magically silent but this year it was pouring rain from morning till evening and so we mainly listened to the rain. For us Finns it did remind us of summers in cottages in the Finnish countryside. Often there its quiet (and raining :)) without much to do. We were also looking forward to a starry night as the night sky would be lit only by stars and no light pollution from the streets - unfortunately it was so cloudy that we did not see this.

the view on Nyepi

the view on Nyepi

All in all, I’m happy we stayed on Bali during Nyepi as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a complete shut down of the island. However, I also understand why some people want to escape Nyepi and travel to neighboring islands such as Lombok, Gili islands or Java for a few days.

Discovering Kuta, Lombok

This is a post I started writing while actually in Kuta, but due to bad WiFi I was not able to upload any pictures and that’s why this is now being posted from Bali :)

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Hello from Kuta, Lombok! We arrived on Sunday in Lombok and have spent a few days in this small town that is popular with travelers, especially surfers. The town has nothing in common with Kuta in Bali - known also for surfing but mostly for clubs and nightlife. Kuta in Lombok is a sleepy town that is near empty during the days (at least now in rainy season) my guess is most are out catching waves or not in Kuta at all. We have not tried surfing here, we are complete beginners and only just tried it out last week in Canggu. 

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Kuta lies in southern Lombok (Lombok is an island next to Bali), and we took a flight here directly from Bali as the airport lies about 25 minutes by car from Kuta. Another option is to take a speedboat from Padang Bai in Bali via the Gili Islands to northern Lombok and then take a ride for about two hours down to the south. The last option is local ferry that is cheap but also very local meaning possibly not as safe as the other options. However it feels like no option is 100% safe around here so it’s better to just choose whichever route fits you best and not worry too much. That’s not something that comes naturally to me (not worrying) but here I am trying my best :-) 

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What have we done here if not surfing? We have scooted around the beaches in the area and found some really nice places. The closest beach is Tanjuang Aan, a beautiful beach also popular with the locals. We visited it on Sunday afternoon and it was full of locals enjoying their day off. There are lots of Warungs (small restaurants) on the beach offering sun loungers and shade if you want to  spend some time in or out of the sun. We had a coconut and went swimming, the water was pretty clear and as this is a beach that is cleaned regularly by the local businesses there was not so much trash. There is a really good road to this beach from Kuta, with only the last bit being gravel. the only downside to the beach is the number of kids selling bracelets, keychains and other things. It’s pretty hard to say no because who wouldn’t want to help kids but also it’s a problem because the kids should be in school instead, and not on the beach selling things. 

Tanjuang Aan

Tanjuang Aan

Tanjuang Aan

Tanjuang Aan

Another beach we visited was Tampah Bay and this was even better as the beach was clean, and there were no one selling anything - I actually don’t know what kind of deal they have made but it was a definitive selling point for Tampah.  The water was cool and refreshing and the views were beautiful. 

Driving to Tampah bay

Driving to Tampah bay

Tampah bay

Tampah bay

Kuta is still a very underdeveloped destination and I kind of wish it would stay that way. There are many big hotel developments going on right now so in a few years time the vibe will have changed. This will be good for the businesses as many locals are hoping for more tourists bringing more money and work. However it is a shame to spoil such a beautiful place and hopefully they will do it in a sustainable way. There are also many property developments going on in the Kuta area, which were well advertised. I believe they are hoping to make Lombok into the next Bali. At the airport there are already some international flights landing and we could see another runway being built as we landed.

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Right now central Kuta is basically one road that leads down to Kuta beach. On this road, and smaller alleys leading from it you find most hotels and restaurants. It is a mix of local places and modern, cool places with very instagrammable decor. Some of our favorites were Bush Radio, Kenza’s, Milk Espresso and Nuggets corner.

Rooftop at Milk Espresso

Rooftop at Milk Espresso

One of the main roads in Kuta

One of the main roads in Kuta

It is also worth noting that Lombok is a predominantly Muslim island that is also called the island of a thousand mosques. There were mosques everywhere and we did wake up every night at around 4am to the prayer calls. 

Overall I loved the beautiful nature of Lombok, especially the Kuta area with green hills and beautiful beaches and would love to come back. 

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Remote working in Canggu, Bali

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Last Friday we packed our things and got on a plane for Bali. I still can’t believe we’re finally here! We have now spent a week in Canggu, working and taking in the Bali life. We will spend one month on Bali and Lombok , and this time we are working half of the time and taking a vacation for 2 weeks. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but will make our plans as we go.

During the last few years I have worked remotely from Thailand, Italy, Spain our summer cottage in Finland and now Bali so I will share some tips on what to think about and what has worked best for me.

1.       Pick a place/area with good internet connection, if you plan to do some actual work. This is very important as nothing gets you more frustrated than trying to do work with a bad connection. Right now we are staying in a Villa that is specifically marketed towards digital nomads and they have a wifi router in every room. Canggu is also an area in Bali that is known to have good internet speed and is actually no.1 on the nomadlist . The nomadlist is a good source of information when deciding where to go for your remote work. Another tip is to get a local prepaid simcard with data. This allows you to always have internet on you and it is also a good backup if the wifi signal for some reason shuts down, as sometimes can happen in the middle of that VERY important Skype meeting. Here in Bali we got Telkomsel simcards, 9GB for 30 days cost 110k, which is about 8 euros.

2.       Find accommodation with like-minded people or a villa/apartment of your own. Here in Canggu it’s very common to be working so it was no problem to find accommodation that specializes in the needs of digital nomads. We are staying in a Villa on the Batu Bolong side of Canggu, that has four rooms with private bathrooms and large common areas. We are paying aprrox. 35 euros/day which I think is very good value for money. The kitchen is very well stocked with everything you might need for cooking (although we usually just cook breakfast) as well as a fridge with filtered drinkable water and even ice cubes, which are a hit in the +30 degrees celcius weather. We booked our accommodation on Airbnb, which I find is best for finding spaces where you can feel like you are in a home and not in a hotel. Living in a hotel environment gets tiring and we have enjoyed having a calm place for ourselves. This villa is ran by an Australian couple who got tired of working and wanted to have a place to live a healthy, happy life. They have built the villa in 2018, so everything is fresh, new and working. The villa has a pool and some areas for lounging in the sun and as a big plus it also as an outdoor gym.

Pool views at our villa

Pool views at our villa

3.       Take it easy the first few days and don’t sweat it if it at first feels a little bit hard – either getting into the rhythm of working from elsewhere or adjusting to the time zone. For me it takes at least a few days to get adjusted and get into the right mood. However, you will find that if the surroundings are good enough it is in the end very easy to work. You just open your laptop and start working.

Batu Bolong beach

Batu Bolong beach

Smoothie bowls in Canggu (This one at Milk&Madu)

Smoothie bowls in Canggu (This one at Milk&Madu)

First indonesian lunch of the trip : Gado Gado

First indonesian lunch of the trip : Gado Gado

4.       Try to enjoy the place you are in the best you can. Even though you are working you are also far away from home visiting someplace exciting. This week we have had coconuts at sunset almost every day, made delicious long breakfast in our kitchen, eaten lots of local fruit and just scooted around the area. Finally we have spent time with a good friend that lives here and even made some new friends.

RIce field views in the rainy season

RIce field views in the rainy season

Now its time for me to get up and get ready for brunch, I will write more later!

 

Al-Andalus: a photo journey through Muslim Spain

You wouldn’t think it given the ugly media attention and populist conversation in recent years, but Europe has had a fascinating and prominent Islamic past. Most parts of the Iberian peninsula, Spain and Portugal, were under Muslim rule at some point or other between 711 and 1492. The Al-Andalus period saw much conflict and new borders drawn, but also advances in science and learning between Christians and Muslims.

Having travelled 10 days in Morocco before stepping into Andalucia, you can’t help but notice the North African (or Moorish, as they are sometimes called) influences in southern Spain, from art and architecture to place names and culture. During my recent four-day trip to Seville, with quick stops in Córdoba and Granada, I also learnt that everything that looks North African, is not necessarily so. Even after the Christian Reconquista, Spanish rulers employed Muslim carpenters and builders to replicate the Moorish style. Because it looked cool.

Imagine if we replaced intolerance and closed-mindedness with a little curiosity and wonder of the beauty and things we can learn from one another. The below pictures show some of the Al-Andalus heritage in Andalucia. You’ll find some tips for visiting the main historic sites featured here at the end of this post.

Seville

A Marrakech riad or sevillan courtyard? the tiles give it away as spain.

A Marrakech riad or sevillan courtyard? the tiles give it away as spain.

Rio Guadalquivir, running through Seville, takes its name from the Arabic al-wadi al-kabir, meaning ‘the great river’.

Rio Guadalquivir, running through Seville, takes its name from the Arabic al-wadi al-kabir, meaning ‘the great river’.

torre del oro (the tower of gold) was built by the Almohad caliphate in the 13th century.

torre del oro (the tower of gold) was built by the Almohad caliphate in the 13th century.

la giralda, the bell tower of the expansive seville cathedral, was originally built as the minaret of the great mosque of seville - catholics added the pointy renaissance-style top to the tower after the Reconquista.

la giralda, the bell tower of the expansive seville cathedral, was originally built as the minaret of the great mosque of seville - catholics added the pointy renaissance-style top to the tower after the Reconquista.

christian and muslim details at Puerta del Perdón, door of forgiveness, which used to be part of the mosque and is now one of seville cathedral’s 15 doors.

christian and muslim details at Puerta del Perdón, door of forgiveness, which used to be part of the mosque and is now one of seville cathedral’s 15 doors.

the alcazar of seville, taking its name from the Arabic al-qsar, ‘the castle’, is built on the site of a former basilica, destroyed by the moors in 712 to make way for a military fortress and palace. after the Reconquista and an earthquake that destroyed most of the original fortress, only this wall in the patio de la Monteria remains as a reminder of the Muslim period.

the alcazar of seville, taking its name from the Arabic al-qsar, ‘the castle’, is built on the site of a former basilica, destroyed by the moors in 712 to make way for a military fortress and palace. after the Reconquista and an earthquake that destroyed most of the original fortress, only this wall in the patio de la Monteria remains as a reminder of the Muslim period.

Spanish rulers liked the style of the former residents so much that they employed muslim artisans to build a palace on the site of the historic Alcazar, the mix of Islamic and western style, displayed above, now known as mudejar (from Arabic ‘allowed to remain’)

Spanish rulers liked the style of the former residents so much that they employed muslim artisans to build a palace on the site of the historic Alcazar, the mix of Islamic and western style, displayed above, now known as mudejar (from Arabic ‘allowed to remain’)

the iconic patio de las doncellas in the mudejar palace was built for king peter of castile; the sunken garden depicted paradise where oranges grew at head height and you could easily pick them without effort. the top floor was built later in renaissance style.

the iconic patio de las doncellas in the mudejar palace was built for king peter of castile; the sunken garden depicted paradise where oranges grew at head height and you could easily pick them without effort. the top floor was built later in renaissance style.

amid the Islamic art and architecture, the Spanish rulers wanted to insert reminders that it was a Christian palace and not a muslim one - this was done by adding the coat of arms of castile and leon into wall mosaics and floor tiles.

amid the Islamic art and architecture, the Spanish rulers wanted to insert reminders that it was a Christian palace and not a muslim one - this was done by adding the coat of arms of castile and leon into wall mosaics and floor tiles.

the word ‘allah’ is written on windows in the mudejar palace, on request of Spanish rulers who liked the way it looked in Arabic script

the word ‘allah’ is written on windows in the mudejar palace, on request of Spanish rulers who liked the way it looked in Arabic script

mesmerising detail in the salon de embajadores, hall of ambassadors, in the mudejar palace, also featured on game of thrones.

mesmerising detail in the salon de embajadores, hall of ambassadors, in the mudejar palace, also featured on game of thrones.

Córdoba

the mezquita of Cordoba is one of the most impressive buildings I've ever visited. started as the great mosque of Cordoba, the building has been expanded several times and now houses the splendid cathedral of our lady of assumption in the middle.

the mezquita of Cordoba is one of the most impressive buildings I've ever visited. started as the great mosque of Cordoba, the building has been expanded several times and now houses the splendid cathedral of our lady of assumption in the middle.

the 856 columns seem like they go on and on, once said to look like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria. the architecture of the mezquita may have taken inspiration from both the great mosque of Damascus and the dome of the rock in Jerusalem.

the 856 columns seem like they go on and on, once said to look like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria. the architecture of the mezquita may have taken inspiration from both the great mosque of Damascus and the dome of the rock in Jerusalem.

the mihrab, indicating the direction of mecca. most of the interior walls of the mezquita now play host to one of its 35 chapels.

the mihrab, indicating the direction of mecca. most of the interior walls of the mezquita now play host to one of its 35 chapels.

as in seville, the former minaret in Cordoba got a new addition on the top after the reconquista, turning it into a bell tower.

as in seville, the former minaret in Cordoba got a new addition on the top after the reconquista, turning it into a bell tower.

a beautiful exterior wall of the mezquita.

a beautiful exterior wall of the mezquita.

sign post to a hammam, or Arabic bath.

sign post to a hammam, or Arabic bath.

spain or morocco? still hard to tell, if it wasn’t for the tour ads.

spain or morocco? still hard to tell, if it wasn’t for the tour ads.

Granada

the historic Alhambra citadel, after the Arabic al-hamra, ‘the red one’, was originally built as a small fortress on roman ruins in 889.

the historic Alhambra citadel, after the Arabic al-hamra, ‘the red one’, was originally built as a small fortress on roman ruins in 889.

Puerta de la justicia is the original entrance gate to the Alhambra, a grand display of Moorish architecture.

Puerta de la justicia is the original entrance gate to the Alhambra, a grand display of Moorish architecture.

views from above Puerta de la justicia towards the sierra Nevada mountains.

views from above Puerta de la justicia towards the sierra Nevada mountains.

Puerta del vino is one of the oldest constructions at the Alhambra.

Puerta del vino is one of the oldest constructions at the Alhambra.

views of the alcazaba, from the Arabic al-qasbah meaning ‘walled fortification’ in a city, and beyond.

views of the alcazaba, from the Arabic al-qasbah meaning ‘walled fortification’ in a city, and beyond.

Tips for visiting

  • The Alcazar in Seville can get very busy, so try to book ahead online for a morning slot that’s a little quieter. We tried twice to enter without a prior booking, and not only were the queues crazy-long in December/January (meant to be the low season) but also only meant for people with tickets (at least at the times we tried). We ended up booking ourselves on a pricier guided tour (a basic ticket is 11,50€), as we were inflexible with our time on the last day. The guided tour was worth it though, as without we wouldn’t have learnt all the intriguing bits of history and understood what we were looking at.

  • The Mezquita in Cordoba had long queues but not unbearable in early January, and we found it wasn’t necessary to book ahead. You first queued for the 10€ ticket (an additional 2€ if you want to go in the bell tower), and then with the ticket to enter the building. While others waited to get to the till, we noticed there was a very short queue for the nearby ticket machines – much quicker.

  • The Alhambra in Granada is famously hard to get in to. Not because it’s overly expensive (a day ticket is 14€), but because there is a limited number of tickets available per day, so advance online booking is pretty much always necessary. Our visit to Alhambra was very unplanned, so we did not get tickets, but luckily there’s a relatively large area in the citadel where you can wander around freely and get a feel for the history of the place. The entrance to the free area is at the Puerta de la Justicia.

Marrakech: the good, the bad, the takeaways

How to begin to explain Marrakech? That’s the question I’ve been grappling with for a month now. It’s intense. Mesmerising and awe-inspiring. Annoying and tiring. Unexpected and completely expected at the same time. Love it or not, it leaves an impression for sure.

My lasting impression of Marrakech, while there is a lot to love about the city, is.. I’m not a big fan. I thought my opinion went against the grain seeing how often the city is called hip, cool and a must-visit. But coming back from my travels and speaking to others who had been there, I realised I’m not alone. Before going, many of those who had been said ‘let me know what you think of it’. Little did I know that they were really holding off their real opinion until I had had a chance to form mine.

One week is a very short time to judge a city, but in Marrakech-time, it almost felt like less is more. My lasting impression might have been more positive if we had only stayed a (long) weekend, which I think the city is great for. Perhaps trying to fit together four people’s expectations of a holiday around Christmas time, which usually means slowing down after a busy year, also did not help.

So, in the only fair way I thought I could summarise my Marrakech trip, I decided to write my top 3 of the good, the bad and the takeaways to inform others thinking to visit the Moroccan red city.

the colour of marrakech

the colour of marrakech

view from place des ferblantiers in the mellah (jewish quarter) with koutoubia mosque, the city’s highest structure, in the background

view from place des ferblantiers in the mellah (jewish quarter) with koutoubia mosque, the city’s highest structure, in the background

The good

1. The cityscape. Marrakech is a dream for anyone who loves architecture, urban life and culture. There are so many corners to turn and narrow streets to traverse in the medina that you can’t help but marvel at every other ornate door, tiled riad courtyard or buzzing market that opens up in front of your eyes. I had just bought my first compact system camera before the trip and was very snap-happy, practising my photographing skills with all the vibrant colours and exciting architectural details. My initial apprehensions of having my camera out of my bag disappeared quickly, as walking around the souks felt safer and more hassle-free than expected during the day. Asking for permission when taking pictures of shops and people helped with this.

2. The food. You can’t really go wrong with Moroccan food, and Marrakech got it right. Everything I ate (except the slimy tangia I tried at one of the Jemaa el-Fna night food stalls, and surprisingly a kefta sandwich at the popular Le Jardin restaurant) tasted good. We wanted our Christmas Eve dinner to feel special, and it exceeded all expectations – we ate at a fairly new restaurant in the Gueliz area called Idil. It was stylish and reasonably priced, included a tastefully done, though not typically Moroccan, bellydance show, had excellent service and the best mechoui (slow-roasted lamb – a festive dish that usually requires minimum two people to order) I’ve ever tasted. Four hours passed by without a notice. When you get tired of the tagines, brochettes and harira (my new favourite soup), or the medina hustle, other great places to try in Gueliz are Barometre (for cocktails and artsy food), Mona’s Kitchen (for home-made Lebanese), Le Loft (for a French vibe) and Catanzaro (popular Italian place with Moroccan-flavoured pizzas).

3. The Amal Centre. I’ve already mentioned the food, but the cooking class we took at the Amal Centre in Targa deserves special mention. For just 350Dhs per person, you get to support a great non-profit, spend a dreamy 4 hours learning the tips and tricks of Moroccan cooking, having mint tea under a big tree and at the end eating a tasty meal prepared by yourself at a big communal table in the garden. Everyone else made tagines, while my partner and I made a chicken pastilla (shredded chicken with roasted, crushed almonds and cinnamon inside a filo pastry covered with powder sugar = amazing). Ours was the most complicated to make and definitely worth it – it seemed the trainers were also happy to show how to make something that required more steps, and a Frenchman in the group helped himself to three or four servings of our pastilla!

What’s special about Amal is that it’s a non-profit centre doing important work to train and empower disadvantaged women by teaching them new skills in cooking and helping them get jobs in the restaurant industry. During tea time, we heard a little bit more about their inspiring work – since it started in 2012, Amal has trained over 280 women, with some 40 new women coming in every 6 months for training. Around 80% of those who have graduated are now employed, some with their own businesses. There’s also an Amal restaurant in Gueliz and they have set up a cafe for women with Down’s Syndrome and one for blind-deaf women, ensuring they also have a dignified opportunity to earn money and show their capabilities. The cooking classes are one of the few ways Amal can grow organically and sustainably, and I whole-heartedly recommend supporting them by taking part in the cooking class.

morning in the Marrakech souks

morning in the Marrakech souks

handicrafts at place des epices

handicrafts at place des epices

tasty, tasty olives

tasty, tasty olives

I made this! pastilla at the amal centre

I made this! pastilla at the amal centre

the lovely women of amal - Fatima Zahra talks about their work while our chef fatiha prepares traditional Mint tea aka berber whisky

the lovely women of amal - Fatima Zahra talks about their work while our chef fatiha prepares traditional Mint tea aka berber whisky

The bad

1. The tourists. It’s ironic to count this as the first negative, having been a tourist myself in Marrakech and a part of the problem. But perhaps the city has become too popular for its own good and lost some of its charm along the way. In a city of less than 1 million, hotel nights in Marrakech increased 10% year-on-year to 6.3 million in January-September 2018, according to the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism. The stampede of holidaymakers has made the old medina feel crowded, filled it with lots of similar handicraft shops that were exciting to explore at first but in the end made browsing the souks a bit repetitive, and raised prices of shopping and dining to something much more expensive than expected (and beyond the price levels a local Marrakchi may easily afford).

2. The feeling of being scammed. Tourism is a key lifeline for the city and the source of many people’s income. Yet under- and unemployment is a huge challenge across Morocco, particularly for those who live in urban areas, are young and/or female - this has contributed to both poverty and some quite ugly tactics. It felt like you had to be constantly on alert for scams and rip-offs, particularly around Jemaa El-Fna but anywhere on the street really. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Africa and have never witnessed such active, and at times uncomfortably aggressive, begging as in Marrakech. The sad part is that often they were young children, following around in souks late in the night without parents around. Unfortunately, giving a little money is not going to solve their problems, and had we given to everyone asking, we had been quickly out of cash.

Of course, this does not represent the majority of people, just an unfortunately (common, it seems) experience for someone visiting Marrakech. We did also meet some wonderfully friendly Moroccans and were shown their famous hospitality, for example by being offered free harira soup and mint tea from a small local eatery.

3. The pollution. Coming from London, I’m used to bad air quality and spent my first year here coughing and sneezing black snot, so I was surprised coming to Marrakech and finding the same thing so pronounced there. It’s not unusual for a developing city to have lots of old, fuming cars and traffic jams, but the air pollution was surprisingly bad just outside the medina gates where taxis, buses and other vehicles congregated. Inside the narrow streets of the souk was a tiny bit better, but not much, as mini-cars, scooters and motorcycles drove at high speeds, so you’d have to duck into shops every other minute not to get hit (which I did once), leaving plumes of grey smoke behind. Coming into Marrakech, you could also see the city covered by a smog dome. Not so hip and cool.

four-lane medina

four-lane medina

chaotic, touristy, unforgettable jemaa el-fna - its expansiveness is hard to capture in one picture

chaotic, touristy, unforgettable jemaa el-fna - its expansiveness is hard to capture in one picture

inside the night food market at jemaa el-fna - harira soup at stall 75 was delicious, for the most popular seafood head to stall 14

inside the night food market at jemaa el-fna - harira soup at stall 75 was delicious, for the most popular seafood head to stall 14

The takeaways

1. Go without an agenda. Marrakech is a city to experience, rather than to sightsee in. I tried hard to come up with things to do for almost a week there, but there are few that are must-see, and most of those are free. One of the key places I did want to see was the Ben Youssef Madrasa, but it has been closed for renovation for a year or two now. We then decided to go visit the Saadian Tombs, highlighted as a top sight according to the Lonely Planet guidebook. Definitely not worth paying 70Dhs to get into a small courtyard and finding an hour-long queue to a little door in the wall, which we thought led to an inside museum, only to figure out at the last minute that there was just a little fence to take a picture of the tombs in 30 seconds and then walk away. After wasting an afternoon there, we did not go queue up for Bahia Palace, the only sight I regret not seeing in the end.

So, just go with flow, stroll around to enjoy the architecture and sample good food. The only advice I have going against this is to make sure you book your restaurant table. Unless you go very early or to a very local eatery/Jemaa el-Fna night market, do book ahead as you might otherwise get disappointed.

2. Make time for relaxing. Visiting a hammam is a great way to get a proper scrub-down/clean-up and feel your tired feet soften in its warm comforts. Finding gardens and rooftops is a sport in itself, but worth it to get away from the hustle and bustle for a while. Jardin Majorelle is pretty and large, but be prepared to huddle with the masses there too. In the medina, Le Jardin Secret was a very welcome oasis (although it also charges an entrance), while Cafe Arabe and Kosy Bar were great for afternoon drinks with a view over the rooftops of Marrakech.

3. Explore beyond the city. When you stay a longer time in Marrakech, make sure to plan in some getaways. If you can leave for three days, cross the Atlas Mountains and visit the Sahara – I’ve heard it’s amazing but unfortunately didn’t get a chance to go this time. We did rent a car for two days though.

The first day I wanted to find something off the beaten path to escape the tourists, and we ended up driving to Amizmiz, about two hours away from Marrakech towards the Atlas mountains. We were probably the only foreigners there, walking around the weekly Tuesday market where everyday objects, spices and food were bought and sold among Berbers from nearby towns and villages. The plan was to continue to Ouirgane for lunch, but the road there was - to my mind hilariously, to my mother’s terrifyingly - bad. We drove for hours sneaking up the mountains to have spectacular views, but given we wanted to reach Marrakech before dark, had to turn back down early. We did find a glass of cold rose wine in the middle of the mountains, so all is well that ends well.

The second day we drove to Essaouira, three hours from Marrakech by the coast. We passed by a number of argan oil cooperatives and a couple of trees of goats (yes), as this is the only region in the world where the liquid gold, argan, grows. There’s loads of advice online about how to spot real argan, which cooperatives are trustworthy and how much you’re meant to pay for 100ml, but I can’t say I still know the answer. Essaouira was a lovely contrast to Marrakech – it had the same kinds of shops but the souk was much calmer, the fresh sea breeze and the white-washed buildings gave it a much more relaxed vibe. We walked around and enjoyed a seafood lunch overlooking the forts and the Atlantic Ocean, agreeing that Essaouira would’ve been a nice place to stay more than a day!

le jardin secret

le jardin secret

jardin Majorelle with a peek of the famous Majorelle blue

jardin Majorelle with a peek of the famous Majorelle blue

Saadian tombs - there, you’ve seen it

Saadian tombs - there, you’ve seen it

atlas views and a spot for rose, Kasbah angour hotel in tahannout

atlas views and a spot for rose, Kasbah angour hotel in tahannout

goats casually climbing an argan tree

goats casually climbing an argan tree

peaceful essaouira

peaceful essaouira

In summary, I think Marrakech is worth a visit in your lifetime, but Morocco is a fascinating country with lots more to see :) If you’ve visited the city, curious to hear in the comments what your impression was!

 

Where oranges grow in December

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I’m used to spending the end of December decorating a Christmas tree, playing boardgames and stuffing my face in dark and cold Finland. This year was different, marked by orange trees decorated by nature’s own fruit, being out and about every day under the Moroccan and Spanish winter sun, and… Still stuffing my face with local delicacies - we can’t lose all traditions, can we?!

My parents said ‘no thanks’ to the winter solstice in the north and decided to spend Christmas in Marrakech. My partner and I followed suit, but decided to extend the holiday and make a little roadtrip out of it by the end. My next posts will go through some of the places we visited in more detail, but thought I’d share the itinerary here first.

Exploring Morocco

Our starting point was Marrakech, where we spent nearly a week and combined it with a couple of day trips by rental car, first to the Atlas Mountains, and then to the lovely seaside town of Essaouira. After six nights in bustling, busy Marrakech, we were very ready to continue our journey. In hindsight, a couple of days in Marrakech would have been fine, as there’s so much more to see beyond the obvious tourist hub.

where's SANTA? AT JEMAA EL-FNA, MARRAKECH

where's SANTA? AT JEMAA EL-FNA, MARRAKECH

We took a midday train to Casablanca – my first train ride in Africa! It was kind of what I had expected, an old train with suitably old school compartments of eight seats in second class (where we were), with a long corridor on one side lined with big windows. I sat at the edge of the compartment to have a good view of the scenery, which to my disappointment though was a bit monotone with rocks, shrubs and occasional hills.

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SOMEWHERE BETWEEN MARRAKECH AND CASABLANCA

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN MARRAKECH AND CASABLANCA

The journey took about 2.5 hours and I tried my hardest to hold my bladder, but in the end succumbed to testing the train toilet. Quelle surprise! I’m always wary of train toilets – most of the ones I’ve seen in UK look and smell disgusting – but this one was relatively clean with toilet paper and all. As I closed the toilet door behind me and moved closer to the seat, I realised quickly why it didn’t smell. instead of a flush, there was a long hole straight down to the moving tracks below! Enough about that though..

We had a very quick change of train in Casablanca to continue our journey to Tangier. This train, however, felt like another world. Morocco introduced its first high-speed trains - Al Boraq - in November 2018, running only on the Casablanca-Tangier rail tracks for now. Brand new, clean, air-conditioned, comfortable seats (two on each side), a stylish curving staircase up to the second floor cafe – this was the fanciest train I’d ever been on. And combined with much more exciting views of green rolling hills, lakes and peeks into the capital city Rabat through the train window, a very enjoyable 2h ride going up to 318 km/h.

VIEW FROM THE TRACKS, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN CASABLANCA AND TANGIER

VIEW FROM THE TRACKS, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN CASABLANCA AND TANGIER

Coming out of Tangier train station, I felt like we had stepped into a Southern European coastal city with white high rises by palm tree-lined boulevards on one side and a glimmering sea on the other. The contrast to Marrakech’s red, low buildings and crazy hustle was stark. We spent two nights in Tangier and also made a day trip by shared taxi to Tetouan.

OUTSIDE TANGIER TRAIN STATION

OUTSIDE TANGIER TRAIN STATION

A long-/high-winded departure

Leaving Tangier was all but smooth. We started walking to the port in the city centre around 9am, but halfway there found out that our 11am high-speed FRS ferry to Tarifa in Spain had been cancelled, alongside all the others of the day, due to high winds. We bumped into a German couple, ten years our juniors, who were as lost trying to figure out how to get to Europe instead. We found a travel agency open that told us to go to Tanger Med port, 40km outside Tangier, to catch a bigger ferry at midday to Algeciras in Spain.

After scrambling together our last dirhams to get a taxi to the train station, finding an ATM to get more money, figuring out where the bus to the bigger port left, learning that the bus ride would take 1h 40 minutes and only leave in 30 minutes (meaning we’d miss the midday boat), having a Spanish couple tag along to us as well, discovering a less than official minibus going to the port immediately and all of us squeezing on it with our luggage, speeding through the mountainous Mediterranean seaside in just one hour… we made it to the port at 11.30am. Only to find a massive queue for check-in to the ferry. We weren’t the only ones stranded in Morocco.

Long story short, we got ourselves on a 3pm ferry, the worst sea journey of my life, and many others’. One guy coming out of the ferry told us ‘good luck’ as we were heading in, and as soon as we had sat down, personnel handed out plastic bags for puking. The ride only took one hour but during that time we went up and down and side to side. The deck was closed due to safety concerns and I had to keep my eyes closed and focus on some mindfulness and focused breathing to survive without throwing up. One woman had a panic attack and was running back and forth in the ferry corridor and had to be ‘tamed’ by four people who finally got her in a wheelchair and wheeled her away. It was a horror show.

Andalucían adventures

Once we got to Algeciras, the Spanish port authorities decided to have a siesta and hundreds of ill and angry ferry passengers waited for nearly 30 minutes for the border officers to show up and check passports. By this time we had missed our two connecting trains to Sevilla, and had frantically tried to find some car shares with BlaBlaCar to get to our final destination of the day (it was Sunday so the travel options were very limited). Once we got out of passport check our luck turned though and we found a bus waiting outside, heading our way and leaving on the minute!

In the end we arrived in Sevilla at 8pm, half an hour before our scheduled train. What a relief when we finally got there, greeted again by orange trees on near-empty, peaceful streets. We stayed four nights in the city, including New Years Eve (not too far from where Sara had spontaneously decided to go on holiday!).

TAPAS BAR IN SEVILLA

TAPAS BAR IN SEVILLA

Of course we didn’t stay put for the whole time. We rented a car one day and headed to Cordoba to see the famed Mezquita. The night before we had also considered visiting Granada and the Alhambra, but looking at the map figured it’s too far away and we’d leave it to the next time. Once in Cordoba, having seen the sight and had our tapas lunch, we thought, why not Granada too? It was a loooong day of driving but worth it!

COURTYARD OF THE MEZQUITA IN CORDOBA

COURTYARD OF THE MEZQUITA IN CORDOBA

The sun shone every day during our trip, except that moody day leaving Tangier for Spain, and our last day in Sevilla. Reminding us that it’s time to leave the orange trees behind and go home.

Escaping winter in Andalucia

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Christmas holidays this year took a surprising turn when I found myself on a spontaneous trip to Andalucía, Spain. I have never been a very spontaneous type, I enjoy planning and view it as part of travelling and thus I have felt that I’m missing out on part of the trip if it happens spontaneously. However this time it was a very welcome change of scenery from snow and -5 degrees Celsius in Helsinki to sun and around 15 degrees Celsius in Spain. We booked our flight tickets less than a week before departure and at this point our itinerary was totally unplanned. A few days before departure we had locked down the first four nights and we decided to keep the rest or the trip open. It was not high season so there seemed to be plenty of accommodation available.

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Our final itinerary came out to be Mijas Pueblo -> Marbella -> Ronda -> Benalmadena Pueblo -> home. We started off by staying two nights in Mijas Pueblo, which is a town up on the Mijas mountain, about 20km west of Malaga. Mijas is a bigger area, consisting of both Mijas town – which is down by the coast as well as Mijas Pueblo, which is the “old town” up on the mountain. Mijas is a beautiful town, all painted in white and is a popular tourist destination for day trips. Luckily the town has managed to stay quite original and does not feel too touristy. We spent our time walking around and eating tapas, we also took the car to drive around the surroundings and visited Playa Capobino which was a beautiful beach.

After few days, it was time to move on to Marbella. Marbella has the reputation of being a jet-set destination with beach clubs and luxury. After spending a few days in Marbella, I can say that although this is absolutely true, I can also see the appeal it has. The area of Marbella consists of Marbella center, which is a smaller city and from there it stretches on to the west, until you reach Puerto Banus – a jet set harbor. The are in between Marbella center and Puerto Banus is called the golden mile and there is a beach boardwalk that can be walked between these two. We stayed in a hotel that was situated in a residential area, a few kilometers up in the mountains. The area was called Sierra Blanca, and I couldn’t believe how luxurious it was. The houses were huge with big walls equipped with security cameras around them. Cars were luxury cars and the whole area was very clean and tidy. It felt like a different world to the rest of Andalucía. During this time we took some beach walks and enjoyed the sceneries and did some people watching.

Sunset on the golden mile, Marbella

Sunset on the golden mile, Marbella

The pretty hotel we stayed at in Marbella

The pretty hotel we stayed at in Marbella

Morning walk in Sierra Blanca, Marbella

Morning walk in Sierra Blanca, Marbella

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From Marbella we left for the mountains, more specifically the city of Ronda. Ronda is situated in the Sierra de las Nieves National Park 739 meters above sea level. It dates back to the sixth century BC and has been the home of many settlers ever since. Ronda is most famous for a bridge called Puente Romano which is built in the middle of the city between to canyons. We stayed in a hotel a little outside of Ronda and spent an afternoon strolling around the city and found an amazing tapas place that I can really recommend visiting called Bar El Lechuguita. In Ronda the scenery was very different than that of the coast, it was not as green – the mountains were white stone and the atmosphere was less touristic than on the coast. It was also interesting to see how the temperature changed drastically as we drove up to the mountains. On the coast it was around 18 degrees celcius at best and really warm in the sun – when we got to Ronda it was 13 degrees and quite felt like winter. This meant that after 24 hours in Ronda we were quite ready to continue back to the coast and warmer temperatures.

Driving up to Ronda

Driving up to Ronda

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Ronda

Ronda

Lookout point in Ronda

Lookout point in Ronda

At this point we had two nights left of our trip and new years eve was coming up, as we were flying home on January 1st. We decided that we should stay somewhere close to Malaga, and preferably a hotel in a city that was warm as the three previous nights had been very cold. We found a nice and affordable hotel in Benalmadena Pueblo, which is the “old” town of Benalmadena about 20km from Malaga Airport. Benalmadena Pueblo is a very cute little town with old whitewashed houses, very popular among British tourists. We had two lovely days, walked down the hill all the way to the beach (about 40 mins of walk) – no restaurants were open by the beach this time of the year but the views and the sea was beautiful. For new years eve we found ourselves stranded in Benalmadena Pueblo as only a handful of restaurants were open and all of the open ones were fully booked. Finally we drove down to the city of Benalmadena and found a nice Indian restaurant where we had a surprisingly good new years dinner. We ended the night by watching fireworks on the coast from one of the lookout-points in the town.

Waiting for the new year in Benalmadena Pueblo

Waiting for the new year in Benalmadena Pueblo

New years eve in Benalmadena Pueblo

New years eve in Benalmadena Pueblo

Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by Andalucia – and it seems there is so much more to see that we did not have the opportunity to see this time. Andalucia is beautiful with rolling hills, beaches, mountains and a lot of outdoor activities. It is also one of the sunniest and warmest regions in Europe during the winter months which makes it an excellent place to escape the dreary, cold and dark winter months in northern Europe.

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One and three quarters around the globe

Five new countries, 19 new cities, an epic road trip in Europe, my first African rail journeys and many more experiences richer – 2018 was a full-on travel year for me, both for work and pleasure. Only April kept me put, and even then my travel feet were itching so much I had to book a trip for May to ensure I was getting off the British isles for a while.

By the end of the year, I started to have a nagging feeling however. A ‘morkkis’, as we say in Finnish after a drink-fuelled night. Not a physical, but a moral, hangover. The road trip alone covered almost 6,500km from London to Finland and back around the Baltic Sea. But what really gave me morkkis was the many flights I had taken throughout the year. So many, in fact, that I decided to do a little more number-crunching. Here’s the result:

  • 26 flights

  • 20 different airports

  • 14 different airlines

  • 69,921 km flown (yup, that’s nearly 1.75 times around the globe!)

  • 10.52 tonnes CO2 emitted

  • £79.12 cost to offset CO2 emissions

I used ClimateCare’s Carbon Calculator to reach the final three numbers. The negative environmental impacts of air travel (and tourism in general) have definitely been more prominently featured in newspapers in 2018, reminding us that even one long-distance flight a year nullifies any benefits you create through recycling and other individual, positive environmental actions.

Luckily, offsetting CO2 emissions from my work-related flights, which take up the majority, are paid for by my work. That leaves me with a bill of less than £20 to offset the CO2 emissions I’ve created through holiday flights, which I’m by no means proud of. But while I’m not fully sold on the effectiveness of these offsetting measures (perhaps more on that in another post), it’s a small price to pay for continuing to see the world and compensating her for my travels.

FLYING OVER THE EXPANSIVE SAHARA 2018

FLYING OVER THE EXPANSIVE SAHARA 2018

Ever the curious person, I decided to do another check – the WWF Footprint Calculator. My carbon footprint is a disappointing 148% of my share, and three times the size of the global average. Unsurprisingly, travel (including the flights for pleasure mentioned earlier) takes up 58% of my carbon footprint. As I had read in the news, it doesn’t matter if you eat less meat or use energy-saving lightbulbs or buy less stuff, if you take a couple of flights you are screwed (read: basically a bad person).

It’s depressing to realise that something I love to do – travelling, often above the clouds – is so bad for the planet. I did do a lot more road and rail travel last year than ever before, and have grown to appreciate the changing scenery on the ground. But I can’t see myself cutting air travel completely, which is what seems to be needed if I want to have a more sustainable carbon footprint. I will try to fly less this year though (2018 was a bit insane so I think this is achievable!), as well as find out what more I can do to offset and compensate for my air travel (and report back!).

Here’s to a greener 2019.

Paradise found in Siquijor, Philippines

I thought I’d continue my blogging career by writing about some of my favorite travel destinations. In the spring of 2016 I visited the Philippines as part of longer southeast Asian travels. We started by flying into Cebu City, took a ferry to Bohol where we spent a few weeks and finally continued by another ferry to the island of Siquijor. Bohol was a beautiful island as well, but it was in Siquijor that we felt like we found a certain kind of peace.

The island itself is quite small and unknown, and it lies south of the more popular islands of Bohol and Cebu. Siquijor is very beautiful with white sand beaches and dense jungle, and it is not very developed as a tourist destination so it has a relaxed atmosphere. Siquijor is known as the Island of Fire, and it is also know for having many traditional faith healers and also black magic.

As soon as we arrived at the island a we shopped around the scooter rentals - and quickly we were off scooting to the south side of the island. The roads were near-empty and the driving culture was very laid back so it was a pleasure to drive around.

DRIVING AROUND THE EMPTY ROADS

DRIVING AROUND THE EMPTY ROADS

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We found a beautiful beachfront hotel for a very reasonable price called Belles beach bar and accommodation. At this point we were so used to living without any luxuries so we decided not to pay for AC although there was one in the room – we just did not buy access to the remote. Now thinking about it I would splurge the extra 8 euros/day for AC but at that time we felt like it was not really necessary (we paid 12 eur/ night for our room with sea view). Belles was run by a friendly couple and on the premises was also their daughter and a couple of chickens running around. The vibe was very relaxed and friendly, and they also offered a good breakfast.

VIEWS FROM BELLES BEACH BAR

VIEWS FROM BELLES BEACH BAR

We spent closer to two weeks on Siquijor, mostly cruising around on our scooter and visiting different beaches and small towns. There was one spot in particular that we visited many times; a waterfall called Cambugahay Falls. It’s a waterfall with different levels in which you can swim, and the best part was a big tarzan-like rope/swing from which you could jump into the cooling waterfall. This quickly became our favorite activity and I think we visited that place at least four times. The waterfall is also close to a small town where we found a wonderful restaurant called El Monte serving delicious fresh fish.

Another tip is to visit Salagdoong Beach, which is a more developed beach with restaurants. Here you can go cliff jumping straight into clean, turqoise water. There are two spots to jump off, one is 6 meters high - the other 10 meters.

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We also went diving, which was really beautiful - a coral reef which was pretty shallow (about 10m deep) where we saw turtles and hundreds of colorful fish. The diving was done off a typical Philipino boat, and the dive sites were quite close to the shore so it was overall a very pleasant and easy dive trip.

We found a nice restaurant close to Belles that was built completely of wood called Baha Bar, which I can recommend visiting - it was a bit pricey compared to local prices but the atmosphere and food was great.

Baha Bar

Baha Bar

Siquijor is a beautiful place with really friendly locals which I really do recommend to visit if you want a laid back and peaceful Filipino holiday - I can’t wait to return some day!

SAN JUAN, SIQUIJOR

SAN JUAN, SIQUIJOR

SUNSET BY THE LOCAL FOOD MARKET

SUNSET BY THE LOCAL FOOD MARKET

Quick facts about Siquijor:

  • How to get there? The easiest way is to fly into Cebu island or Dumaguete island and then hop on a ferry to Siquijor.

  • When to go? Best time to go is in the dry season from November to May. The rainy season starts in June and last until November. September and October are usually the months with risk for typhoons.

  • Why go? Beautiful beaches, laid-back lifestyle and kind locals.

  • Budget? Siquijor is an affordable destination, and everything is paid in cash. .There are three ATM:s on the island and they do not always work so it is best to have cash when arriving.

 

Quick guide to: Zanzibar (Unguja)

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, actually made up of two main islands: Unguja and Pemba. If you’re dreaming of, or already at the stage of planning, a trip to Unguja, the island most people visit when going to Zanzibar, then this quick guide will give you a lowdown of key things to consider.

Why go (in case anyone needs convincing)

If you think of gently swaying palm trees on white sandy beaches in front of clear turquoise waters as the rain/slush/wind hits against your window, then Zanzibar is your place to be. The beaches are many, unique and bound to excite. But wait, there’s more!

  • Cities and culture: Zanzibar has at various points in time been an important trading hub for spices and, more soberly, for slaves, a part of the Portuguese empire and the sultanate of Oman, a British protectorate and an independent state created through a revolution. All the history remains on display in the island capital Zanzibar City and its historic old centre Stone Town, where winding alleyways and colourful markets meet colonial architecture and great restaurants.

  • Food: you’ll find some of the best and freshest seafood in Zanzibar, while the mix of African, Arabic and Indian influences makes for some delicious dishes.

  • Nature: see how spices like clove, turmeric, and peppers grow, drink water straight from a coconut dropped in front of you a few seconds earlier and explore caves, cliffs and nature reserves. You might also spot the endemic Zanzibar red colobus monkey.

  • Activities: whether snorkelling and diving or wind surfing and quad biking, there’s bound to be activities that interest everyone.

  • Beaches: did I mention the beaches?!

LUNCH WITH A VIEW IN STONE TOWN

LUNCH WITH A VIEW IN STONE TOWN

When to go

Roughly speaking, anytime is good to go to Zanzibar.

  • If you like snorkelling and/or diving – and Zanzibar has some amazing spots of coral reefs and tropical fish – avoid the rainy season from April to May (or the smaller rains in November) as the waters can get muddy.

  • If you like lying on the beach and going for a dip in the sea, aim for December to February when the island is at it’s sweatiest and hottest.

  • If you like wandering around town and in nature, go in June to October when it’s a little cooler and drier.

  • If you like African music and movies, make sure to soak in the atmosphere at Sauti Za Busara (sound of wisdom) music festival in February or the Zanzibar International Film Festival in July each year.

SAUTI ZA BUSARA 2011

SAUTI ZA BUSARA 2011

How to get there

There are two ways to get to Zanzibar (unless you’re a really good swimmer): flight and ferry.

  • Flights arrive at Abeid Amani Karume International Airport near Zanzibar City, named after Zanzibar’s first president, and after unification with Tanganyika in 1964, Tanzania’s first vice-president. You’ll then have to catch a taxi or local minibus (daladala) from the airport into town.

  • Ferries arrive directly in the centre of Zanzibar City. I used them often as it was a convenient way to get to the islands from Dar es Salaam in just a couple of hours. The fast ferries are modern and relatively affordable, especially as flights into Dar es Salaam may be cheaper than into Zanzibar (and it’s a nice city to visit as well, despite what guidebooks often say).

Also note you’re likely going to need a visa to enter Zanzibar, depending on what passport you hold. It’s common (and at the time of writing it still seems possible) to get a visa on arrival, but do check before you travel, and get it from a Tanzanian embassy/consulate if you want to be on the safe side. If you’re coming via Dar es Salaam (or flying in from elsewhere in Tanzania having already entered the country), your passport will be re-checked in Zanzibar. A yellow fever certificate can also be handy to have.

ARRIVING BY FERRY IN ZANZIBAR CITY

ARRIVING BY FERRY IN ZANZIBAR CITY

Where to stay

While you could settle in one place for your entire visit, even if only going for a week it’s worth combining several places to get the most of the island. Unguja is small and you can easily get around by taxi and local minibus (daladala).

  • Most travellers’ starting point is Stone Town. You can get lost in its alleyways for hours, discover beautiful buildings, and shop at artisan workshops and markets. Make sure to stay at least one night to also experience the Forodhani night food market by the sea. Stone Town is also a good base for going on spice tours (a touristic, but worthwhile, staple!) and excursions to a turtle island or nature reserve.

  • Then to the beaches, the reason most people come to Zanzibar. There’s loads of variety so where you want to go depends on your plans. Generally speaking, the north of Unguja is the most touristy, spilling a little into the western tip of the island, while the east and south are generally more laid-back and quiet, with stronger tides. Here are some top picks:

    • Nungwi: arguably the most popular place to go, with a wide range of accommodation, eating/drinking and activities to choose from. It’s busy and happening, so if you’re looking for a place to relax this may not be it. Beaches on the western side of the tip are arranged in coves while a longer beach can be found on the eastern side of the tip.

    • Kendwa: next to Nungwi to the west, here is where you’ll find a white, long sandy beach fringed with palm trees. It’s also got a good range of places to sleep and eat and drink, but is more laid-back than Nungwi. Once a month though it transforms into party central as full moon parties are held here.

    • Matemwe: a personal favourite on the eastern side, a tranquil little village with a beach that seems to go on and on. Options are more limited and the tides are dramatic, but it’s a perfect place for relaxation. Wake up early to catch the sunrise and take a day trip to Mnemba Atoll for some snorkelling in a local little dhow boat.

    • Jambiani: similar to Matemwe, Jambiani is on the eastern side, with a long white sandy beach and laid-back atmosphere. The tides are marked as well, so spend your time learning about seaweed farming while you wait for the sea to come back closer to shore.

    • Paje: if you’re into water sports and a more active holiday, Paje is a good place to start, in the southern part of Unguja. It’s also got a more varied range of sleeping and eating establishments, and you’ll likely meet a lot of other travellers if you’re craving company.

ALLEYWAY IN STONE TOWN

ALLEYWAY IN STONE TOWN

FORODHANI GARDENS IN STONE TOWN

FORODHANI GARDENS IN STONE TOWN

COVE IN NUNGWI

COVE IN NUNGWI

BEACH BAR IN NUNGWI

BEACH BAR IN NUNGWI

SUNSET IN KENDWA

SUNSET IN KENDWA

QUIET DAY IN MATEMWE

QUIET DAY IN MATEMWE

Need to know

  • Zanzibar is the birthplace of Swahili, and naturally the main language spoken on the islands. Before arriving, it’s worth spending a little time practising the greetings, thanks/no thanks, and numbers (if you like haggling - there will be lots of it!)

  • The majority of Zanzibaris are Muslim, so respect local customs and dress modestly whenever you’re not on the beach. Yes it’s a hot place but you’ll only sweat marginally more if you wear something that covers your shoulders and knees.

  • Cash is king so make sure to have enough on you, especially when leaving Stone Town. New US dollars, printed after 2013 in denominations of 50 and 100, will give you the best exchange rate into Tanzanian shillings once you arrive.

  • Tanzania, and by extension Zanzibar, is a low-income country. Don’t expect everything to always work and embrace the possibility that your phone battery may die during a power cut (or make your way to the nearest restaurant with a generator).

  • Clove exports are Zanzibar’s main income, but as with any commodities earnings go up and down. Tourism is a growing sector. Look for locally-owned hotels, restaurants and tours to ensure more of the profit goes back to the Zanzibari economy.

Karibu Zanzibar (welcome to Zanzibar)!

 

From bedtime reading to reality

Maps and travel brochures were my kind of bedtime read when I was a kid, but I’ve been lucky to get to explore the world outside of books as well since a young age.

I guess the travel bug really hit me at 19. After finishing high school, a friend and I both quit our jobs at the same ice cream cafe in Helsinki in the height of summer (much to the owner’s annoyance) and went interrailing in Southern Europe. Saving money for the trip, planning it and the adventures we had made me love travel – the anticipation and the experience – even more. By 20, I packed my bags and moved to London and have been an ‘ulkosuomalainen’ (Finnish person living abroad) for more than a decade now.

For the past six years I’ve travelled a lot for work, and wouldn’t stay put on holidays either. Add to that the fact that I love writing, and a travel blog may not seem like such a far-fetched idea. I crave and need a creative outlet, but finding the time and drive amid the hectic everyday is often difficult. So what better way to do this than to co-blog with Sara, spurring each other on as we share our passion for travel and the world around us. Like her, I’ll be writing about many different things related to travel, but two topics in particular will probably come across in my posts.

Africa has always fascinated me more than any other continent. Funnily enough, I think it started with Disney’s The Lion King. Seeing all the natural beauty and wildlife against one of the most iconic opening songs of any movie, and of course Mufasa’s death, evoked some strong emotions in me. Through my studies my interest in Africa grew (beyond the safari images) and after graduating I applied for jobs in various countries on the continent. I like to think Tanzania chose me and that’s where I set off at 23 for what became a transformative 10 months, not knowing anyone and leaving Europe behind for the first time.

Cities are another big interest of mine. It’s the diversity and unexpectedness that intrigues me and attracted me to London in the first place. The mix of cultures, people and ideas. The jumble of ancient architecture, modern design and urban art. Opportunities to get lost and find hidden gems of shops, cafes and city life. There’s another side to my interest in cities though, and that’s urban development. Digging a little deeper to understand the history, culture, politics and economics that have shaped and are shaping a place and its people.

LONDON 2018

LONDON 2018

Travel philosophy

Travelling has always been something I’ve enjoyed. The feeling of leaving everyday life behind and experiencing something new is unbeatable. Travel has been a priority for me for as long as I can remember and there are many things I’m willing to offer for the chance of travel. However, having a full-time job makes it harder to find time and ways to travel. It’s quite the paradox that before, during my studies I had time but not money – now I have (more) money but not time.

KO LANTA 2016

KO LANTA 2016

The solution for me is to combine remote work and travel, thus being able to travel for extended periods of time when still fulfilling my duties at work. I’m quite lucky to have found a position where I’m allowed to work remotely – whether it be from the home office or a beach in Thailand.

My first taste of this kind of travel was a few years back when my partner and I spent six months travelling southeast Asia. I took time off from work and he worked remotely for a few days a week. We had a strict budget and mostly wanted to experience something different than our normal, day to day life in Finland. This turned out to be one of the best times of my life. It also sparked an interest to try and find ways to do this more often, as travelling for longer periods of time makes me relaxed and happy. Since then we have spent one month working remotely from Ko Lanta in Thailand, and next February we will be working from Bali, Indonesia.

I also enjoy other types of travel – whether it be shorter weekend trips closer to home or visiting bigger cities. However, since I live far up north in Finland where its rather cold and dark during the winter months I find myself longing for warmer and sunnier locations and thus my destinations are (when possible) tropical.

By writing this blog I hope to get a creative outlet for my travel dreams and experiences. I’ll be writing together with Nina on many aspects of travel ranging from personal travel stories, travel tips and ideas to thoughts on the inevitable social and environmental impacts of travel.

PHILIPPINES 2016

PHILIPPINES 2016