Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Teed Off

So here's the plan: get up early, have breakfast, plot the day in reverse. What time do we need to be at the airport? How long does the bus to the airport take? What time does the airport bus leave? How long a walk to the bus stop is it? How long does that leave us to Do Stuff?

We actually didn't get up too early, really. Another sugar-heavy breakfast was made even more sugary by the presence of dense and lovely homemade chocolate cake. Limoun was not tormented by any stray insurrection and we sat at the grand table in the middle, since seemingly everyone else from the riad had disappeared early either on excursion or to piss off home I guess.

Oh, hang on, just checked - whirling dervishes are something totally different. The music we'd been treated to in the restaurant was Gnawa music.

We packed our stuff up and went to ask Mohammed what the deal is with checking out. He was fine with us leaving our stuff there, and we didn't even need to pay up yet - despite paying in advance, there is a government mandated tax payable on departure. We told him we'd be back around 2pm or so and buggered off to the bus stop - via a cashpoint which only displayed a blank screen after PIN entry, not useful - for round two of the hop-on-hop-off bus tour, with our 24hr tickets valid until midday.

Back up towards the Ville Nouvelle past the insemination clinic, Cycles Jihad, and the Cyber Parc, the first new stuff of the day came after we went back past the Chesterfield. Having walked back to the Jemaa el-Fna the previous evening there were 12 or so stops of this bus tour we hadn't seen, and without headphones we were reduced to having me read the stuff out from the map in my best fake City Sightseeing voice. "As we proceed down this thoroughfare, one of the widest in Marrakech, visitors to our city often like to pop into the Shell garage for a diet coke on the way to the train station" etc.

Turns out we hadn't missed much on Sunday. We drove down some uninspiring wide roads, saw a fairly impressive train station though no trains, the Theatre Royal, a conference centre, some chain hotels, some parks, the edge of the Jardins de le Menara which would've possibly been worth a visit had it not been crazily hot and with us having no opportunity for a shower or change, and then half hour touring around an area of rich people's houses and posh(-ish) hotels. Again.

Rather than wait for the circuit to complete we jumped off at one of the old city wall gates, being on the edge of the Koutoubia gardens. Across the road and into the gardens we were immediately photobombed and then hassled by Berbers (in great hats). Took a slow wander and sat down for a couple of minutes on the least shady bench we could find, then strolled past the sellers of wooden camels, bracelets, and Adidas wallets to the front of the mosque. The mosques in Marrakech are pretty much the only buildings which reach above 3 storeys, being a 5x1 design which some old fella decided was great and therefore must be used for all mosques in the city.

They are also pretty much the only buildings in Marrakech which don't have a bunch of satellite dishes on top, or mobile phone masts like all the fake palm trees which continued to impress Helen. She took more photos of them than of real vegetation, I think. We were treated to a panorama of satellite dishes from our lunch venue, a cafe balcony back across the square which was yet another entertaining walk. Helen had HORSES! shouted at her by a particularly blunt man, and got scared by a vaguely-too-close encounter with a snake that wasn't being overly charmed or charming. I think I was called Ali Baba another, I dunno, 3 or 4 times and we also had "Fish and chips!" shouted at us, which seems like a slightly worse version of the "Harry Ramsden!" call from Friday and a different kettle of fish/chicken from the "Hey, eat with us, we are better than Nando's!".

Pizza, diet coke, orange juice with cinnamon, virgin mojito and a BIG FUCK OFF ICE CREAM were consumed while we watched the 4 lads doing acrobatics on the ground entertaining the diners though not seemingly having much luck getting any cash for it. Conversation was starting to wane a bit. Was it because we were on the verge of splitting up?

It was about 1pm and really we wanted to get the bus at about 2.30pm. 90 minutes was an awkward amount of time, especially on this hottest of our 4 days. A comedy mis-hearing earlier had made me think Helen was in the mood for buying Big Macs when in fact it was knick-knacks, so we set off to buy some stuff before getting back to the riad. Of the two main drags heading south we'd found the vendors in the western one to be the least trying so headed down that, making a purchase from a non-pushy stallholder of fine kitchenware.

Around the corner and brief encounters with two kittnes whose cuteness cannot be put into words and unfortunately was not pictured, one last Ali Baba and hello, Riad Limoun Amara, time to say goodbye. As we waited for Mohammed to take our cash we snarfed a bit of wifi and saw the flight was delayed, grabbed a tactical piss, and walked our last walk to the Jemaa el-Fna.

Helen's wheely case is more of a magent for attention than even her hair or my ginger face, and is also an added bit of danger to the bike, moped and donkey laden streets. Offers of accomodation and horse transport succesfully dodged we got to the bus stop only 2 minutes or so before the airport bus turned up. So long, Marrakech.

The bus took us pretty much long the exact same route as the hop-on, hop-off tour had this morning except for a diversion to some main bus garage near a huge chunk of the city walls which we hadn't seen before. There was no aircon, a sign told us it was 35 celsius, and an ad told us our return ticket had been worth a good discount on the hop-on, hop-off as well. D'oh!

There was only one other person on the bus, and no others got on. RAK airport is small, with a single terminal and arrivals and departures on the same level. The bus stop dropped us exactly where we'd got on on Friday. By now, Helen was in a really quite poor mood and needed two fag breaks on the 5 yard walk to the terminal entrance. I was trying to gee her up with incessant enthusiasm for the fact we were about to get on a motherfucking plane, but was not having much success.

Handing her a form to fill out allowing us to leave the country didn't do much good either. Morocco requires you give the same information on the way out as the way in, and The Internet had led me to believe the ignorance of most departing passengers would be comparable to those arriving. I steeled myself for delays caused by people in front of us being turned away because they hadn't filled the form out.

Checked in at the desk because there's no online, no mobile boarding pass here. Got our paper BPs and went to the queue into departures, where we experienced delays caused by people in front of us being turned away because they hadn't filled the form out. Though the couple immediately in front of us I felt very sorry for - here was an English couple of pension age, comprising a feisty, in-charge woman and frail, slow man. She was trying to boss him through the procedure and the poor bastard dropped the boarding passes, despite keeping hold of them seemingly his only role; she shooed him out of the way while he stood helpless, unable to bend or even speak faster than 2 words a minute. At the documents check they were informed they needed the forms, but despite a language barrier this steely official did his absolute best to help them. No-one was enjoying this situation and I'm really glad the man gave them a seat, fetched them forms, handed them a pen, etc.

After this check there was security, then passport control, then another police check. Virtually everything was as cursory as the inbound had been thorough. Into the airside area and, hello, shops, hello, duty free, hello, bars selling alcohol. Woohoo! We explored, bought some sweets for our offices, and perched near the expensive bar. Helen was properly down by now, and we sat largely in silence while I blogged. She went to explore, she bought some beer, we ran out of dirhams.

The plane was delayed a bit, but not much. We didn't even try to get into the lounge, as I'd read it was fucking horrible and I also was under the impression it wasn't a proper oneworld alliance lounge, but just one which you can get into with a business class Iberia or BA ticket. I may have been wrong but we'll now never know, and as I type this it occurs to me that the Gatwick lounge was the last hurrah for my dear Cathay Pacific gold card, expiring at the end of this month and impossible to renew. Sigh. I got a lot of good use out of that card, and as of April 1st I have no way of getting into free booze areas when flying BA without actually flying in business or first class. God damn it. :-(

Aaanyway. We played a bit of scrabble, which didn't do much to lighten Helen's mood. I was trying not to try too hard but the going-home-comedown affected and affects her way more than me; as much as she loves flying, she really only loves it when flying away, not when flying home. Me, I just like being in big fuck off metal boxes in the sky. Hell, today me and Mark were discussing flybe flights from London to Inverness which go such preposterous routes as Inverness-Birmingham-Edinburgh-London City. That, to me, sounds like a fucking great way to spend a day.

Alex topped and tailed the trip with yet more good news by SMS while I'm in an airport. Good work fella.

I bought us some more beers on a card with about 20 minutes to go, then at my ill-timed behest we went to the gate too early. Bleh. Managed to find a seat and continue scrabbling, then walked to the plane and... oh. There's a 2yo kid in the row behind us. For fucks sake. Neither of us are big fans of kids at the best of times; locked in big fuck off metal boxes in the sky with them is not even the best of times.

Service was in reverse order to the outbound flight: main box of sandwich and cheese and mousse, then beer, then raisins. Obviously this is because we're flying the route in reverse. I got double food because Helen didn't fancy hers, in fact she really didn't seem to be in the mood for much. My continued attempts to cheer her up carried on failing, but I didn't chase it as much as I might have once done because I know how fucking annoying it can be to be continually asked, are you OK? Are you OK? Is there anything I can do? Are you OK? So we just kept playing Scrabble, and she beat the living shit out of me at it in the second game, after I'd won the first with 'ufo'. What?

Towards the end of the flight things got simultaneously better and worse. Better because Helen managed to source us extra free beer, worse because a group of middle-aged women decided to have a massive pow-wow in the aisle right next to us. They were these upper class ladies discussing at length such things as their high court judge friends' sons, who's anti-semitic and who isn't, how hard it is to learn golf, and how amazing it was that one of their party had actually gone into Marrakech and, wait, hang on, you what? Yes, indeed, it seems these posh women in cheap seats had gone all the fucking way to Marrakech just to play golf but NOT TO ACTUALLY SEE MARRAKECH. Now I can understand going on golfing holidays, but, really, do you go somewhere just to play a course or two and not to actually visit and enjoy the place and surroundings? Really? Not that I should be one to judge someone else's travel habits and preferences, really...

Despite leaving late we landed early, presumably due to some epic tailwind designed to piss Helen off even more by getting us back to the land of 4 celsius quickly. Immediately off the plane I was subjected to a vast, long vent about everything shit from the plane and particularly those bloody women and the revolution was back on. Her solution to avoiding people like that is to bloody well fly bloody easyjet or bloody Ryanair, and I tried to impress upon her my tactic of flying in cabins where it's not even possible to sit next to anyone. We'll see which wins.

A giant queue at the UK border meant we chose to each take a tactical piss in the loos near the Ebola control room. Welcome home. The queue moved fairly quickly, and as I was being seen the woman and her kid next to me were getting some vague interrogation - she had to hand over some papers, and the official asked the lad "what do you call this woman?".

A long walk to the monorail via a fag break, my phone told us the trains were fucked because there'd been delays for ages on the line between Gatwick and East Croydon. Welcome home. Got to the station and there was no Clapham Junction train for a while or so I spunked £1.85 on a diet coke. Welcome home. Down on the platform we learnt that some trains were running so late they were no longer going to stop at Clapham anyway and we had no choice but to wait in the freezing cold for 25 minutes.

Nipped up to the end of the platform to see if we could find a place for a vape, all we found was CCTV - accompanied by a "this is the CCTV room at Gatwick station, ... " announcement just as we got there. Welcome home. Then we saw the big Samaritans billboard while they announced the delays were due to a person being hit by a train. Welcome home.

The schadenforeman was strong. By now I was laughing at basically everything - the cold, the trains, the suicides, the Samaritans, the way it had taken us 90 fucking minutes between landing and getting a train, etc etc. Helen was not quite as impressed but smiling a bit. At Clapham we each had a tight connection, but of course mine was 5 minutes to move either 1 or 3 platforms while she had 7 minutes to peg it with a wheely suitcase along 10 platforms. In the end I actually made it from Gatwick to my flat, once the train had arrived, in less than 40 minutes. Smug Darren is smug. Helen made her service and was home safe about half hour after me.

Country 51, done. 2814 miles in the air. And off out with Helen tomorrow night. :)

Monday, March 02, 2015

Morocco's Modern Life

Woke up on Sunday with a minor hangover. I blame all the hot weather and alcohol, personally. But it was truly minor, and breakfast gave it a solid kicking.

Breakfast for the riad's resident cat Limoun was somewhat less of a pleasant experience. Two strays came in, both looking like they hadn't eaten for months and chomping down the cat food like nobody's business. Limoun gave a vague chase to one of them, and started from a hiding place at another, but didn't really protect his territory or food that much. He did however give Helen oodles of attention, jumping up on the lap and everything.

We left later than we had on Saturday and headed back down towards the ruined palace, where there was a bus stop for the hop-on, hop-off service we'd discovered in our guidebook. I am a sucker for these things as readers of my Greek, South African and Malaysian adventures of 2014 will remember. Really glad they are Helen's cup of tea too. Our plan today was not much more than "head to the stuff that's too far to walk" with a primary focus of going to the Majorelle gardens and the Palmery.

We waited at the stop for a fair while, watching the bustle of the southern medina go by while only suffering the most mediocre, lacklustre hassle from the cab drivers. Of most interest was the virtual fist fight which broke out across the road when multiple taxi drivers almost literally fought over whose fare to the airport one couple were.

The bus came along and I asked for two tickets IN FRENCH, got an answer IN FRENCH, and then responded with some non-random words IN FRENCH. Allez moi! It was 145dh for a not-quite-City Sightseeing open top tour around the main sights of the medina and some gardens, linking up in the modern French bit - ville nouvelle, or Gueliz - with a second loop which goes to that there Palmery and Jardins Majorelle.

Also in the Ville Nouvelle is an English pub called the Chesterfield, and I had made my intentions very clear that I was going to go there and see if I couldn't get a Guinness.

But first the bus tour. Pretty much the first thing which came up was a boring, pedestrianised area which looked like any English town's high street. Could've been in Wycombe or Basingstoke. For fucks sake. After that we were by the main square, the Jemaa el Fna with which we were now well acquainted, but the audio told me that no-one really knows what the name means and it might be "Square of the destroyed mosque" or "Square of death". I like that. It's been there since 1600 and got UNESCO'd up in 2001.

There are several hundred kms of underground canals allowing Marrakech to escape its natural aridity and be full of gardens named after rulers and dignitaries and, er, the Maroc Telecom Cyber Parc where you can, according to the commentary, get a very pronounced "wifi, broadband, or et cetera". It's actually been there since the 1800s but they've given it a really shit name. Helen fell in love with the mobile masts which are disguised as suspiciously perfectly straight palm trees.

The modern bit, as we trundled down Avenue Mohammed V, is pretty modern. You might as well be in a monochrome bit of Paris, especially when you come up to KFC, McDs, etc. We got off the bus at the changeover point and found the Chesterfield for later, stumbled across an e-cig shop useful for emergencies, and cursed my camera's battery dying. There were a bunch of street front cafés around and we chose one that didn't appear to be blokes only. Two sandwiches with chips came, and Helen exercised her French by asking where the toilets were only to get an immediate English reply of "yeah, they're upstairs".

As we left we asked the waiter where the Jardins Majorelle were and he said a 20 minute walk up one road, direct, not left, not right. It was actually about 10 minutes, not very picturesque and the only noteworthy thing being a tourist way over-compensating for being a European in Africa by dressing like Lawrence of Arabia or something. But worse was to come in the gardens as a couple of English lads were wandering around dressed in some kind of north African Islamic pyjamas. Behave yourself lads.

The gardens were great, my enjoyment heightened by the first diet coke I'd managed to source. It's a largely green garden with a fuckton of different cacti, but that's all fantastically offset by the primary colours of vivid blues and yellows and reds of the pots, walkways, and buildings therein. It's also nice and cool because the palm trees are massive.

Inside there is a Berber museum for which we'd paid the supplement and that was well worth it, certainly better value for money than the ancient pulpit steps at the palace. Sadly no photos allowed, but it's a tour through different aspects of Berber culture with each room representing one thing: jewelley, tools and utensils, clothing, religion, etc. I liked the bonkers hats and masculine apparatus, and especially the few exhibits of Berber alphabet which looks much more south American than African.

We sat down by the Yves St Laurent memorial for a bit, actually for longer than we'd wanted because suddenly we were hemmed in by, and I quote, a "massive queue of Germans". After making our escape we waited for the bus while watching a parade of horse-and-cartmanship. The circuit of this second loop was meant to take an hour and go through a really nice route through the Palmery, which is best done by this very bus, or on camel.

The Palmery is a bit shit really. the drive to get there takes ages along big motorways on the edge of the city, and then all you're presented with is a shitload of gated communities for the rich and famous, plus awful theme park-esque things like "Western village" with its sheriff's office and saloon. There are golf courses and big houses and occasional parking areas full of camels and quad bikes, but seriously there is nothing picturesque about the place. The whole thing would honestly have been a bit of a waste of time were it not for the fact that camels are awesome and we parked next to a few and got some OK photos.

On the way back to the ville nouvelle, one of the stops seemed to be purely to allow us all to throw our earphones over the railings to the horde of kids that greeted us.

Back at the centre and it was Chesterfield time. The entrance is kinda hidden as the pub itself is actually on the first floor of a hotel, and once you're inside it's labelled "Bar Anglais". It seemed quite English except for the goddamn lack of Guinness FOR FUCKS SAKE. But we could sit outside by the pool in the shade, so we sat outside near the pool in the shade. Some nuts and popcorn came out and we ate them while shooing away a pigeon - both because we figured we'd annoy the staff if we encouraged it, and because I kept flinching. But then we realised a) the staff were feeding the pigeons b) using iPhone slo-mo camera to capture a pigeon dicking around near our table was awesome.

When Helen and I had turned up we ordered 2 large beers, but while being served Helen had nipped to the loo and the barman had apologised to me that there was only one large beer glass, so we'd have to have one large one small. Expecting therefore to be the only bastard able to drink large beer I was crestfallen when Gavin arrived having been served a fuck-off massive stein of beer. Bah!

Chelsea won the league cup and I spoke at effusive length about the awesomeness of my Pebble smartwatch, but how you have to have your wits around you, recalling a story about Chris texting me "is she fit?" (which I exaggerated into "shagged her yet?" while telling) while on a first date - not with Helen - a while ago. Twat.

Gavin and his missus had a cab booked for later from the square and wanted to eat first, while Helen and I wanted to head back to the hotel, so we all strode along Mohammed V back to Jemaa el Fna as the sun set. It was really really busy and we got a real feel for the transition from the more "safe", Western part that we'd been in as we approached the old medina. The JeF was absolute fucking carnage, busier and crazier than at any point on the previous 2 nights, and we said our goodbyes and battled through the streets back to the riad.

The barber did not offer nor demand I shave. He looked forlorn, knowing I am a lost cause.

Briefly lying down almost turned into a full nap or kip, so I was kicked into action and we went to a restaurant we'd earmarked for lunch on Monday but brought forward. It's only a 5 minute walk from our riad, a place called Dar Es Salaam(?) in which such folk as Winston Churchill, Doris Day and Sean Connery have eaten. Well, now, so have we. We had no reservations so pitched up at 8.02pm - having been led to believe it opens at 8pm.

We were very quickly seated at a table in an already full room, with music in full flow from two awesome guys - one playing a guitaresque instrument and one with rhytmic clappery things who was dancing and rotating his head. Is this a whirling dervish? We haven't looked it up yet. Food and beer was ordered, we plumped for the set menu each and were warned Helen's main would take 40 minutes or so. That's fine.

The starters arrived and filled our table, which could easily have sat 6. We had about 9 different things - spinach, aubergine, some marmaladey stuff, peppers, beans, chickpeas, etc. Everything was lovely, as was the bread we had with it. The band changed, replaced by a group of 3 lads with more instruments and less dancing. Midway through their set the dancers came out, first a plate-of-candles-on-head dancer than a more traditional belly dancer, though a very different performance to the previous night. In this room the diners were largely situated around the edges and the middle had a large-ish podium where the perfromers could show off. The dancers then did work their way around the room, posing for photos but without requiring any money (at least that we could tell). I mean, this was a pretty upmarket place tbh.

The waiter took an awesome photo of me and Helen.

Mains came out, along with a wholly unnecessary apology for how long it took. I had the most succulent falls-off-the-bone lamb tagine with crushed olives in oil, while Helen had a pastilla with vegetables and cheese. They were amazing. The first band came back and everything got a bit participatory, people being given the opporutnity to try on the hat with the whirling bead and fail dismally to move their head properly or clang the clappers right. A group of English girls got involved and afterwards sat down talking about how hilarious it was, while we got a bit shirty about them not understanding the difference between fun and funny. Enough with your "let's laugh at the funny foreigners", you lot.

At some point a text from Chris arrived which lit up on my watch.

Dessert wasn't necessary but we had it anyway, a rice pudding and fruit salad. Patisserie was turned down and we paid and waltzed back to the riad, very slowly, seemingly more full than the previous night. How the fuck did that happen?

Marrakech is great and the end to our second and last full day was fantastic. Felt like we wouldn't really be in the mood to go home the next day.

I was still not single.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Justin Berber

Happy birthday, JB. Apparently.

I slept through the call to prayer on Saturday morning. What a rubbish Muslim I would make. Also I am told there was a cockerel, which I missed too. A bit weird to be on holiday and not wake up and immediately shove on BBC World or CNBC or radio 4 or download a new podcast; and in a room whose privacy levels the NSA and GCHQ would be proud of there was nothing to do except actually get up and do some day seizing.

First, a massively sugary breakfast in the courtyard directly outside our room, and some studious blogging interspersed with a bit of squeeing over the cat, Limoun. And then, some tourism.

Marrakech doesn't really seem to do mornings, as everywhere was relatively empty, calm and quiet compared to the madness of our first evening. We wandered back up to the now empty main square and took a few photos, and despite the sun it was actually a tiny bit chilly - perfect for me, annoying for Helen. We made sure we knew where the booze hole for the evening was and then set off to the souks.

The first two souks were pretty ordinary really. Some fresh produce, which is no use to us, and then some fabrics and stuff which we weren't interested in. But the main souk complex didn't disappoint, this largely covered (with various forms of metal) maze of endless alleys of shop after shop after shop selling leather goods, rugs, food, toys, spices, all kinds of everything. My gut instinct led us somewhere a bit crap at one point, but I made up for it by spotting a tiny artisan courtyard where people were actually making things out of leather there and then, with no hassle from locals, just a working area with residences as well. We weren't really in the mood to buy, just to gawp, and anyway this was on the way to the tanneries.

We were making half decent progress in the correct direction through the maze until, of course, someone gave us directions and then a lad happened to walk the same way as us and made conversation and, hello, he led us to the tanneries, talked a lot about my beard and called me Ali Baba, introduced us to the boss of some of the tanners and promptly disappeared without hanging around waiting for 50dh. OK then...

Boss man taught us some words in Arabic and Berber which we promptly used and then forgot, and walked us around his tannery. Over and over again, he explained how the hide from camels, goats, sheep and cows get shoved in lime and salt for a week, then covered in pigeon shit, then have the hair scraped off, then get plunged in water for a week, and then they're ready to be worked on. Apparently these here Berbers from the Atlas mountains only come down to the city every so often to do this work and sell it. We're on the last day of the big leather festival, before they piss off back to the hills, how lucky! We walked in and around two different tanneries and also got a birds eye view of some others, one of which we were requested not to take photos of because of the strictly religious guy who disapproved of cameras. They were interesting places, nothing like as picturesque as sundry books had led us to believe but also they didn't stink. We had been told about 15 times by now that pigeon shit is "Berber Chanel no.5" and is used because it does the same job but is less dangerous to the skin than ammonia.

Finally we were led into a shop where the most gregarious Berber salesmen in all Morocco sat us down, made his boys fetch us some mint tea, offered me 5000 camels for Helen, and directed us through the most astonishing sales pitch I've ever witnessed. We were shown big floor cushions I want to spell "poofs" with angering the entire gay community, then bag after bag after bag, then a shitload of rugs in various colours and designs featuring patterns representing ice, the high Atlas, the middle Atlas, Berber tattoos, luck, marriage, etc etc. Everything unique, everything much better quality than you'd find in that horrible main square where everything is "China quality", don't you know. Him and his folk have had to come 60-70km down from the mountains! The Arabs don't like them, politically (though personally they get along fine). We Londoners are eternal brothers with the Berber people and there is no obligation to buy anything and, seriously, how many camels for Helen? And I was repeatedly called Ali Baba because of my heroic beard.

We did actually want to buy something, luckily enough, but I felt really guilty his boys had laid out so many rugs when there wasn't a cat in hell's chance we'd buy one. They got put away and we picked a couple of items we did want and then the "democratic pricing" came into effect. More touchy feely, Helen was designated "director of finance" and a written haggle proceeded. He wrote down 1700dh which we misread as 700, so we started at 400dh. Cutting his arm off! 1400! 700? 1200! 1000? OK, 1000. He won't be able to eat but we're such nice people, etc etc.

It was a fair chunk of cash but we'd played into the whole experience and it was fun, and we really did want the things we purchased. But unfortunately the entire thing was soured as we left the shop, the boss of the tanneries magically appeared at exactly the right time and straight out demanded an extra 200dh for the tour he'd given us. No asking if we fancied rewarding him and his workers, just a flat demand for an exact amount of cash. We shoved 100dh his way and told him he was getting no more, and pissed off away back towards the main square.

"Towards the main square" is an interesting concept in Marrakech. We did actually get a bit lost and seemed to reach a very non-touristy area full of roaming youths and football gang graffiti. Refusing to explicitly stop and turn back, I glanced at my phone as if to check a text message and discerned a swift right right, left combo which would get us back on track back towards Jemaa el-Fna. Soon enough we were back in the covered souks with excellent fractured light beams, and a huge congested traffic jam of mopeds and pedestrians and cycles and donkeys. Absolutely crazy and fantastic to try and walk through these narrow alleys, which have been here for hundreds if not thousands of years and have resolutely refused to adapt since the introduction of motorised vehicles.

We totally knew exactly where we were going, and attempted to give off that impression, yet still had random locals shouting "main square, this way" every couple of yards, each pointing in a direction different to the last. No-one was getting our dh this time, we got all the way back just fine thank you very much. The only exception was this guy who tried to direct us to the Jewish quarter. Huh.

At the square we fancied something to eat and drink, so went up to the top floor balcony of a cafe and got some lemon juice plus a cheese sandwich and chips. Very authentic. We could see the Atlas mountains though, which was pretty fucking cool. At this café Helen realised she'd had her e-fag lifted from her bag, or maybe it had just dropped out - either way she didn't have it any more and this was bad. The nicotine cravings were already, ironically enough, stopping her from being able to open the emergency nicotine strip packet and there was some concern that she hadn't brought a spare and might have to get some real fags. Uh-oh.

Back to the hotel, via a vigorous demand from the local barber. Twice now, as he sees us approaching, he's leapt out of his doorway and shouted "SHAVE!" at me. Anyway we went back not just to check on the vape but just to have a break after the morning's madness anyway, and make plans for the afternoon. A recurring theme in our riad is to be serenaded by the night manager's mate practicing acoustic guitar. I'd been sure I'd heard him playing Metallica's Nothing Else Matters but then realised it was probably just the open strings, but now I am sure because he played all the way through to the end of the first verse. It seems to be about the only song he knows, apart from Old McDonald Had A Farm which we'd also had on Friday.

More Scrabble. I won, and was a bad winner. Helen did indeed bring a spare e-cig. Phew.

Now, time to head south. Virtually next door to our riad is a palace called Palais Bahia, a snip at 10dh entry into some really nice gardens with a few stray cats being cute and then a complex of tiled rooms and courtyards with fountains and stuff. Lots of really nice Islamic architecture and design, and vast amounts of photobombing tourists and GOD DAMN IT STOP TAKING PHOTOS WITH IPADS. I hate that.

Back out and heading a little bit further south, we really didn't know until now that there was a touristy area so close to where we were staying. A bunch of restaurants and stuff appeared and then we stumbled almost literally into the metalworking square, which was a proper clang-fest. Back out and around and here's another palace, this time all ruins and birds and cats and sunken gardens and pools. It's a vast(-ish) complex of roofless rooms from a palace built in the late 1500s modeled after something in Granada and it's really quite pretty and peaceful and we were very impressed by the cranes/storks/whatever they were all perched along the tops of the edge walls, as well as the cats wandering around and making rackets.

We wandered in and around each bit - the main complex, the annexe, but not into the museum of photography and visual arts which is somewhat incongruously in the middle of these ruins. We had however paid the extra 10dh to get entry into what we thought was a mosque, but is in fact a little room in which photography is not allowed and which houses a minbar from 900 years ago. A minbar is a stepped pulpit, and it was intricate and lovely and that but not honestly worth doubling the price of entry, certainly not for an infidel like me.

The final corner of the main complex has an upstairs terrace with views over the whole city and the surrounding mountains including them there Atlases again. Fantastic. While up there, I got a text from Gavin who is also in Marrakech with his missus right now - did we fancy meeting them up by the main square this evening? Well, yes, we did.

Left the palace and had a bit of a quiet moan about the girl showing masses of skin - high shorts and a vest on top. Come on, have some respect for local customs and opinion even if you don't share them. Crossed the busy street like a boss, I unwittingly left Helen behind. D'oh! She ran across and we strolled up the street parallel to the main one next to our riad. A brief stop to purchase a camel, we nipped through some side roads to get back to Zitoun el Jdid and popped into the Earth Café 'cos Helen was a bit peckish. A small snack turned out to be a plate so full of potatoes, apples, pastry and other stuff that I ended up having probably more than half of it, washed down with some "yogi tea" which did not taste of bear nor expert zen master. Out the window on this second floor we could see just how awesomely cobbled together the electricity infrastructure of the old town is.

Nipped back to the hotel, being implored yet again to shave, I startled a donkey and Helen laughed her head off at my saying "sorry mate" to it. I can't help being polite! She got changed while we were treated to Nothing Else Matters again, and I found out AFC Wimbledon lost 1-0 away to bloody Hartlepool. Sigh. Loz texted me asking if I wanted some beers and Geoff sent me a photo of a shitload of booze, both taunting me as we had yet to find alcohol in the city - though we were in posession of a flyer for a venue which promised booze and a happy hour from 4.30pm-1am.

Back to the main square, headed to an ATM and stumbled into Gavin and his missus who were just about to brave the souks. Told them where we'd be for drinking and a few minutes later there we were, with wine and local Flag lager on the 3rd floor with a view of the Atlas mountains at sunset. Bliss. The others joined us before we'd even got through our first drinks, let alone the "get one frees" and we sat and yammered on about Marrakech and football and betting and the soundtrack of Imagination (2 songs! Just An Illusion and Music and Lights!) and Kool and the Gang, but early 80s pop-soul-funk gave way to Adele and a desire for booze gave way to hunger.

Down 2 floors to one of the restauranty bits, the price was a bit jarring and having already established that we weren't all hungry we requested the tasting menu for 2, but to share between 4 of us. Oh, and some Casablanca beers.

Out came the food and we all tucked in, to small dishes of about 16 different things - meats, chickpeas, spinach, beans, tomatoes, pickled stuff, olives, just all kinds of loads of things. We all four of us got fairly full... and then the main course arrived. Hurrah! 4 tagines arrived - one full of cous-cous and veg, one just veg, and two with meat in. I think. Just loads of food, no real clue how this was meant to be for only 2 people but nonetheless I volunteered to wolf down everything that the others didn't want.

Belly dancers! I'm always awkward around this stuff, not really finding it particularly sexy and certainly not wanting to join in, have any attention paid to me, etc. Gavin got up and had a slight boogie and the other tables were nothing like as awkward or straight-laced as me. On the second round, a different lass came to our table and placed the big metal plate covered in bottles with lit candles on Helen's head, and she affirmed that it is bastard heavy. A photogapher was following people round and there were notes poking out of the breastwear, so we stayed cheap and took no pics.

Dessert arrived. Bloody hell. I bravely managed a couple of pieces, not sure anyone else tried any. Time to leave while our legs could still carry us, we left and went our own ways - Gav and Ag are staying a distance out of town and had a cab to haggle, something we are really glad we didn't have to do. The streets were much emptier though by no means empty as we stumbled back to the riad, this time the barber was cutting someone's hair so did not insist I shave. I moaned incessantly about feeling so ridiculously full, and we fell asleep sharpish to the sound of Nothing Else Matters.

I have still not been dumped.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When two remain two

Marrakesh is loud.  In numerous ways. The city's medina and main square are super-bustling hives of activity yet back in the riad at night there was more silence than you can shake a shitty stick at. Though right now the resident cat, Limoun, is making a "feed me" racket outside our room and so is my stomach

Hello, breakfast in country 51. This post comes from a parkrun-free Saturday in Morocco with my girlfriend Helen, who is resolute in her determination not to dump me in our long weekend here. That seems to be going well so far

We met up on Thursday evening - not for, like, the first time ever, I don't mean this is a particularly outlandish first date - at Clapham Junction (amidst platform confusion) and considered the holiday to start there and then. Accordingly I started off with the happy note of how nervous I was because of my previous form of having been dumped either on, or on immediate return from, 4 holidays in the past. She teased me about it, which was the right thing to do (bah) and then we went back to mine and drank cava out of half/pint glasses while waiting for Chinese food to arrive and watching episodes of Ancient Aliens series 6, including appearances from David Icke! Hurrah! We know how to holiday..

Friday morning, up and out earlier than I do for work. Got to the station too early to buy discount train tickets and I'd forgotten my watch, for fucks sake. Nipped back while Helen bought tickets and hey presto, a crowded cheapskate express to Clapham Junction for a perfectly timed change to Gatwick, getting there about 1020. Ace. First job: get the motherfucking monorail to the north terminal then a quick e-cig break before going through security and both being singled out for apparently being half metal. Grr

No passport control though. I don't fly from Gatwick enough to really know it like the back of my hand like I do large chunks of Heathrow, especially as the last few times I've used it were for domestic flights. I figure there'll be passport control at the international gates, and we bugger off to the lounge.

I make a vague faff at the desk out of ensuring I use one card for benefits but another for earning miles. My shiny Cathay Pacific card runs out next month, so this is the last opportunity to use it for getting into the lounge and consuming as much free booze and food as we can stuff. I say 'we', this is Helen's first and only opportunity, having never been in a lounge before and using it as an exercise in becoming acquainted with the 'orrible 1% enemy who'll all be shot when her revolution starts

We grab a seat and a bunch of free breakfast. Apparently the chocolate pastries are fucking amazing, and the coffe isn't bad either. I have a giant fruit salad and yoghurt and then, oh fuck it, it's 1100, time to get on the sauce. Beer, gin, cava, bourbon and champagne? Why the fuck not? At around 1200 there is a 5 or 6 person queue for triangled sandwiches. Really

Having not travelled together before, Helen and I are each learning about one another's travel habits. Her revolutionary tendencies are taking a bit of a beating as the lounge is proving to be a particularly ace place to spend time but not money, and I learn that she's paranoid about getting to the gate on time. So we jump up and leave the second the board says "go to gate". She is bouncing with excitement so much so that the tactical piss she requires en route to 570 almost takes place in the gents, but I divert her just in the nick of time.

Boarding is actually taking place as we arrive at the gate. There is no real passport control, which I find odd. We get on BA2666, a 3.5hr flight to Marrakech. Just before take-off I receive good news from Alex by SMS.

I'd snagged us an exit row when checking in on Thursday, only to then realise this often means not having a window to look out of, but this time our fears were assuaged. Helen, queen of Easyjet and Ryanair flights is gobsmacked to learn that we will get a snack, some booze, and some proper-ish food for free as I bang on about the low cost carriers being false economies. We have paid £135 each for return flights with BA and 3 nights in Marrakech including breakfast. If that's not a bargain I don't know what is (I do know what is)

We get "superior" chocolate raisins and honeycomb, then a comedy flight attendant attempting to charge me for my beer and telling Helen the first 3 rows necked all the vodka. When the main food run is done he deliberately misinterprets a request for water as for whisky (but supplies water). Other than that the flight is unremarkable save for the fact I get double food because Helen doesn't want her cheese, crackers, egg mayo bap or mousse. I am too fat a bastard to turn down extra helpings. I play many, many, many levels of Duet on my phone, and we spend a lot of time talking about the next trip we already have booked, the two-for-one voucher busting trip in First Class we're taking in May (vicarious travelers, take not!). This part of the conversation generally involves me explaining what to expect, and her asking if it's free. Everything is free, I repeatedly explain.

Come the end of BA2666 she is disappointed there was only one booze run in a 3hr flight. Her revolutionary tendencies are definitely on hold, at least so far as air travel is concerned. I did say it was hard to go back.

Just prior to landing the Atlas Mountains come into view and they are stunning. Wow. And then, suddenly, we are down at Marrakech Menara RAK. There's no hurry to get off and we saunter across the tarmac into the arrivals building, spotting the disembarkation forms I grab a couple and we fill them out in the queue to immigration.

This does not seem to be a particularly popular thing to do. The queue is massive (I think two other flights landed around the same time) and at one point we are shunted to a different queue toward some other desks. We then proceed to not proceed for the next half a fucking hour. It seems like virtually no-one has filled out the form and has to do it at the desk, but they are not scooted off to the side to let the next person through while doing so. We observe that the officials are asking for addresses of accomodation, looking at boarding passes, etc, so while queuing make sure we have everything ready and at the desk I plonk the lot in front of the guy. He asks if my iPhone is a gift for him and tells me the boarding pass isn't required. I am welcomed to the country and waved through fairly quickly, having filled everything out. Why doesn't everyone do this? I swear we queued up longer for that than I did at the massive Joburg queue on the crazy runs last September.

Helen changed up £40 into dirhams and after a quick vape we got on the virtually empty express shuttle bus to the city. Welcome to country 51, welcome to Africa! The airport is so close to the city that it's actually walkable, though it would not be a pretty walk. Half way we see lots of camels and they are awesome. Traffic gets worse as we approach the final square and we're dropped off exactly where we expect to be.

The initial part of the walk is easy, as we know to cross the main square Jemaa el Fna and then kinda bear right onto Riad Zitoun el Jdid. The attention from the locals offering us cabs, accomodation or directions is not as overwhelming as either of us expected, until we make the cardinal error of turning back because we've not turned and should have. Suddenly EVERYONE knows we're first-timers and lost, not the confident striding visitors we'd hoped to appear as. But we fix our directions and finally reach a bit where it looks kinda right and a guy tells us yes, we're heading the right way. A lad from the taxi rank has not-so-mysteriously decided to walk the same way as us and eventually asks which riad we're after; we tell him, he leads us the 300 or so yards (but 3 turns down identical looking streets) to the front door and gets 50dh for his trouble.

Inside riad Limoun Amara we're greeted by Mohammed who provides us with tea, biscuits, and a map. He tells us how to use the car park as our pivot point, and not to accept directions from people because they will all want 50dh for their trouble. The room is directly off the main courtyard and is not exactly what you would call private, nor does it have much by the way of features. There is a bed and some incense and a bathroom with a particularly awkward door. The little guide pamphlet respectfully requests that we do not bring alcohol back to the room.

Mohammed told us breakfast is from 0830-1000 but if we want it earlier we can. Er, no. Also they can knock up evening meals but best to request early because they need to go out and do the shopping for it. tonight though, we intend to head back to the main square and have a gawp and some nosh up there.

Just after sunset, Jemaa el Fna is super-overwhelming. Helen's hair (and my beard) act as a beacon and maybe it's just perception but we seem to attract way more attention than other tourists wandering around. Maybe our eyes are a bit too wide. Some blokes try to convine me to "have a shufty" at their wares, two fellas shout "seeya later alligator" at us after we ignore them, and one bloke tells me I look like Bruce Willis. We want to eat at one of the places with balconies and go up a horrible spiral stairwell to a French restaurant with seemingly no staff and no-one at all trying to make us eat their food. Strange. We give up and try another, which works fine as a friendly man leads us to a balcony seat and hands us menus in French. Soon a surly waiter takes our orders - we choose tagine - and we watch and listen to the madness below. A call to prayer rings out very very loud.

The food is pretty bloody ordinary to be honest. We're not asked if we have finished, despite a lot of food left on Helen's plate, instead things are unceremoniously removed. We aren't in the mood for dessert but could do with a pint. This is not too easy to find, as we have no internet, have left the guidebook back at the riad, and being very Muslim there aren't many sauce-holes around. We wander a bit vaguely looking for bars or chain hotels, having first SMSed Chris back in the UK to find out where the Chesterfield pub is (it's about 2.5km away, damn it).

Anyway, we're a bit knackered after a long day of stuff and don't really fancy our first attempt at navigating back to the riad to be done pissed and in the full dark. So we buy 6 bottles of water and dodge the hundreds of mopeds on the way back and spend the rest of the evening playing Scrabble, during which I get properly moody because I don't like being competitive against anyone except myself. I am a terrible loser and horrible winner, on the rare occasions I do win. I'm particularly pissed off when I have a rack from which I've made 3 different 7 letter words, but cannot find a place to put it on 3 successive goes (I keep passing). Fuck you, derails/dialers/redials.

The light goes off and we notice just how silent everything is, and make jokes about "arts" sounding a bit like "arse", before drifting off to sleep. Day one done, and I am yet to be dumped.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

That Was The Greek That Was

Well Friday night was a washout. Stayed in my room for a few hours, couldn't be bothered trekking down hills in the rain to anywhere for a Friday night by myself in central Athens so figured I'd just eat in the hotel. Went to the bar and they told me they didn't do food. Had the place to myself for 2 beers worth of time before heading to bed, foodless, and to watch WWE NXT Takeover REvolution which was fucking fantastic.

Slept pretty badly. Probably as a result of dehydration and general lack of calories throughout Friday, but it wasn't helped by being woken up by the shagging couple upstairs at 0430. Tried to drown them out with some BBC R4 which didn't work very well, eventually nodded off for some shitty quality sleep and managed to crawl out of bed to get breakfast at 0915. So much for my plan of a long night's uninterrupted kip followed by an early checkout for lots of Athens viewing but, ah, whatever.

The weather and breakfast were both much better than on Friday. The olives didn't smell so bad and there was more of everything, presumably because I hadn't turned up with only 5 minutes to go. Hadn't taken my bag and wasn't in a hurry, I figured I would have a shower and pack and then go for the 1111 bus. But y'know what? Fuck that bus. I've walked around Venice without a map so I'm pretty sure I can navigate Athens. Bag on my back, up to the Acropolis and down the pedestrianised bit past the man walking his dog while riding a segway (what?) and hey presto, I come out exactly where I want to be, at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. €2 off a surly ticket guy and I'm in, for a wander around some pretty pretty ruined ruins. The sky is blue, it's warm, and the ruins look excellent. I bring out the Hipstamatic filters to see if I can pretend I know how to compose a photo, and get annoyed by photobombers.

Back out via a photo of the arch, I walk through the natural gardens, which is nice enough. There are lots and lots of dogs. I go past some yellow building which looks fairly interesting, but I have no idea what it is and am not of a mind to particularly find out. My spidey sense tells me I'm heading in the right direction for the Panatheniac stadium and after some statue of a bloke on a horse, there it is. It looks magnificent.

Surly ticket seller gives way to surly ticket checker and surly audio guide distributor and I am standing in the world's only stadium made of marble, a place 2400+ years old which holds 60k+ people and was home to quite a lot of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It's amazing. I slowly peel around the side of the track listening to the audio guide, stopping to look at the original royal box, climbing up a bunch of rows but refusing to go up the way way way too steep second tier. It's so much better than the Samaranch egotism of the Barcelona stadium and museum.

The views from every angle are fantastic and you're allowed on the track, but I don't go in just yet, choosing instead to follow the audio tour guide. Past the half way point there is a large door and there isn't just a story, but you go in, through this cave-like tunnel, up to an area where naked women used to dance around flames to try and make sure they'd snag decent fellas, and then up into the changing rooms where there is an exhibition of actual Olympic flame torches from masses of games - Summer and Winter - plus official posters. It is a bit jarring to see the 1936 (Nazi Berlin) and 1948 (London) posters next to each other. I am in awe of the sporting history and getting goosebumps.

Back down through the tunnel I really can imagine what it must have been like - well, of course I can't, but you know what I mean - to have been an athlete stepping out in front of a ravenous crowd of so many people ready to watch the pinnacle of human sporting achievement. There are stories from 1896, where 70,000 people packed in from a city which at the time only had a population of 128,000. Holy shit!

Everything is marble. Some of the architectural members are originals from 2400 years ago. The drainage system is 1800 years old and has never had any work done to it. You can see all of Athens's other major landmarks from the seats - the Acropolis and Parthenon, St George's cathedral, the mountains, etc. I learn that the length of one side of the track is 185 yards, a distance which used to be called a 'stade', and that's why places where sports take place are called stadiums. I learn that the 1900 and 1904 Olympics were both shit so there was a bonus 1906 "intermediate" games, in Athens, to show Paris and St Louis how to do it - followed by the 1908 where we Brits changed the length of the marathon because reasons.

I am totally overwhelmed by how much I enjoy the whole place, and finish the tour by walking a full circuit of the track in lane 4, and wishing there was someone around who could take a photo of me standing on the podium.

It's a shame to leave, but leave I do. I decide it's kinda time to try and get a Guinness, since all this proper tourism is making me quite emotional. Back through the natural gardens I wander up to Syntagma square oppoosite the parliament, figuring a photo of the legislature of the home of democracy is probably the done thing. The guard is being changed by the tomb of the unknown soldier but I cannot be arsed to watch it, especially because it's so much worse than the Moscow version. Sorry, Athens, but it is.

Past the square and all the groups of protestors and hordes of other folk I'm in winging it mode. I stroll through lots of pedestrianised streets, where "pedestrianised" means "also two way for motorbikes", and nearly trip over numerous stray dogs. I'm totally guessing my way towards Monastiraki where I believe the James Joyce Irish pub is. After a while on lots of side streets which appear to constitute the ancient hardware store quarter of Athens I decide to give up and check a map. I am about 10 minutes walk from the pub but have indeed gone slightly wrong.

The walk from where I am to where I want to be takes me past yet more bona fide tourism - the super-bustling fruit, veg and fish markets. They smell incredible. The streets are really fucking busy and I'm really quite enjoying myself. This has to stop, and sure enough does when on one of those streets where its pretty impossible to figure out how traffic ever gets anywhere, I get stuck behind two locals who seem unable to cross the fucking road. Jesus Christ, the cars are going to slowly it would be impossible to get hurt. Just step out! Someone else arrives and does just that, kinda barging the girls out of the way, and I cross in their wake.

All along the walk I'd been prepared to go in the first Guinness vendor I saw, but actually I saw barely any pubs. Maybe bad luck, but I think more likely that drinking is done in districts (unlike England with its "pubs everywhere" philosophy). Just before I reach my destination, another Guinness-pimping boozer looms but since I'm only a couple of doors away I hold firm.

I grab a seat at the bar and order a pint of Guinness and a plate of fish and chips. The drink is divine, and both the fish and the chips are giant hefting great examples of their ilk. I nom the lot down like a bastard and then ask the barman how long it'll take to get to the airport. I suggest it's about an hour, he says 'noo, nothing like it', asks me what time I'm flying, skirts around the point, and convinces me to buy a second pint. It was not difficult.

In my pad I write ATHENS in big letters, with a box next to it, which I tick. I take my metaphors very seriously. I am inordinately happy with all kinds of things, and tell Mike by text - who was kind enough to tell me that this weekend I have won the Internet - that there is yet another decent blog post title on its way. I hope he's satisfied with this one.

My flight is delayed. So is the previous one. Mine is showing anything between 30 and 45 minutes, while the 1430 is now not leaving until 1735. Since I was aiming for the airport at about 1615 anyway, I hatch a plan. The airport does, of course, take about an hour to get to, because I'm right and I know my stuff and that barman shouldn't have doubted me. The tube journey is spent standing because it's busy, and I am wondering why the busking kids choose to use accordions. Second only to fucking bagpipes, the only way they're getting euros out of me is if they promise to fucking stop playing their cunting instruments.

Airports are easy to navigate and before I know it I am in the BA lounge, asking if they can fit me on the delayed flight. Probably not, unless I have a flexible ticket, is the answer. I say I presume the delays are a knock-on from yesterday's London airspace issue and she looks at me like I'm some kind of fucking idiot while telling me that no, it's totally unrelated. Sitting down, I see her print out a boarding pass and wonder if she has managed to get me on the early flight but alas no, she's just telling me the plane has changed and so has my seat. Damn it. For this flight I've had seat 6A, 18A, 21A, 10E, and now 12J. I feel dizzy :-(

And, uh, that's it. I fly in some indeterminate amount of time to Heathrow and that's country 50 done. I need to buy some ouzo, and then bask in my own narcissistic glory. Here, almost certainly, endeth my blog for 2014 and right now I have no travel planned for 2015 until July. It surely can't stay that way for long...

Friday, December 12, 2014

Whoops Acropolis

Blogging is so much easier now I have a keyboard for my iPad. However, it beomes harder again when I lean back on the headboard of this bed only to discover it's not a headboard, but the wall, and as I lean the bed rolls forward away from it. Gah.

Yeah, in - well, on - bed at just gone 3pm Friday. But I have, like, done stuff.

Didn't go to the bar last night after all. Watched a bit of BBC World and then kipped in pitch darkness for fucking ages. Hell(enic) yeah recreational sleep. Woke up about 8am and laid around listening to iPlayer 'til finally getting up just in time to make it down for breakfast. I hadn't remembered ordering a room which came with breakfast but am very glad I did.

Mind you, it was pretty ropey. The room in which it's served is next to the pool - one of the least attractive propositions ever, given the continued grim, bleak, rainy weather. The whole city was covered in fog and cloud. The scrambled eggs were nice, as were the meats and orange juice but Jesus Christ the olives smelt DISGUSTING. Also had a bowl of fruit and yoghurt, which I believe counts as legit tourism.

Having seen the city sightseeing bus leaflet at reception yesterday I figured I'd ask them where the stop was. As it goes they sold me a ticket for the dual tour (there are two routes) and the stop is just up the road, with the bus due to leave in just under 10 minutes. Whoa! Thankfully I'd brought all my stuff with me to breakfast so set off out in the pissing awful rain, trying to keep my feet on the slippery pavements - where there were pavements, that is. They disappear every few yards and occasionally reappear on the other side of the road. Meh.

Got to the stop at the exact same time as the bus. Took a seat downstairs, even though they'd put the covers on upstairs I figured it would still be quite wet up there. Plugged the headphones in and settled back for a tour of Athens.

The tour has mutltiple themes running through it. Athens is full of old shit; they invented democracy and drama; they love sport; every single stop is a fantastic place to get off and do stuff on hot summer days. That last one was rammed home so much I almost stopped enjoying the bleak, off season misery painted on everyone's faces.

There's a funicular railway up a hill, which I might seek out tomorrow. Some excavations during the building of the metro led them to find even more ancient stuff, as if they haven't got enough, and that's pretty cool. Like Crossrail and that. Went past the big hitters - Syntagma square, parliament (complete with protestors opposite), the national gardens, this incredible old panathenaic(?) stadium, tomb of the unknown soldiers - of which I got precisely no photos. Most of the windows downstairs on the tour bus are impossible to see through, and anyway the weather was bleak and etc. I made notes both of what I was learning and where I might want to get off on a subsequent circuit, if the weather gets better.

At one point they mentioned a site where Paul - biblical Paul, that is - proselytized to a tough crowd of philosophers, stoics, and epicureans. Pick your audience, man. And in one part of town they made an explicit "yeah, looks shady, but try not to be scared" point. There was an Irish bar near there. Hmm.

During one long gap between stops they do a bit of spiel about how City Sightseeing is all over the world, you can get a 10% discount on future tours with today's ticket, and then list off some of the exciting amazing places you can do these tours. Their very first example is Blackpool. Later on, Norwich. Um. Really.

At Syntagma Square, second time, we were shunted from one bus onto another so I took the opportunity to sit upstairs in the wet and cold. We went past Hadrian's Arch and they said, um, something in the vicinity took 637 years to build. Bloody hell. And then, after that, we reached the stop where I'd got on, at the Acropolis. The weather hadn't got any better so, fuck it, I'm clearly not going to do any of those other places so I might as well do the one nearest my hotel.

Turns out the whole Acropolis/Parthenon thing is fucking fantastic. €12 to get in and it's this vast site full of ruins and aceness. I had it mostly to myself, only a handful of other hardy resolute fools braving the rain which was coupled with quite an annoying wind, what with being up top of a hoofing great hill. Most people fought with umbrellas, because they're idiots.

As I left the Parthenon to explore the rest of the complex, about 200 people arrived on some tour. I think I photobombed nearly everyone's first two pics. I had to stand and just chill for a bit as they just got to the top of some steps and crowded there so no-one could get past. It wasn't even the place with the best view, nor most room. GET OUT OF MY WAY.

Eventually got past them and then headed down to the Dionysus Theatre. Having now seen it I think Dionysus is Greek for "Dave the Precarious", what with it being totally bonkers steep, flanked by slippery paving and landslips. Took a bunch more photos of old stuff. The rain had actually largely disappeared, but it was still very dark and ominously cloudy. Some statues were made in the 4th C BC. That's pretty fucking old!

Bought a very very cheap bottle of water and wandered back to the main complex towards the exit, during which walk I had my ticket checked by a lass at a gate. By doing this, she seemed to make the stray cat next to her very very angry and demand a lot more attention. Back out and to this other marble bit of ruins just outside the ticket area and a set of stray dogs were following one couple who clearly had a very nice smelling bag. Soon after they disappeared a shitload of dog barking echoed around the area. Suspicious.

Back to the bus stop, well timed for the second tour of the day. My ticket is valid for 48 hours on two routes, one around Athens and one out to Piraeus, the main port. So having done the former I figured I'd do the latter. A group of Australian tourists were getting off my bus and asking for help with getting to some address, by asking repeatedly what area they should put in their GPS. "Athens. Put Athens" "But our GPS won't accept Athens". And to think they were trying to find out how to get to where their hire car is waiting...

The Piraeus tour started off in surprisingly intelligent fashion, wielding the words "vicissitudes" and "capricious" in the first couple of minutes. But that was really the most interesting thing about the tour. We drove along a motorway, passed Olympiakos's stadium and a bunch of 2004 summer olympics venues and about 100 massive strip clubs.

In Piraeus there was an English bar and Irish bar near the main cruise terminal but I chose not to get off. Then regretted it, but, no matter. Piraeus is a giant port with 40km of working coastline, plus a couple of nice (in the summer, etc etc) beach and port resorts on the way back. Also branches of Natwest and RBS. What?

Throughout that second tour the rain had started to really come down again. Back at the Acropolis I was thinking how badly situated my hotel is for going out on the sauce, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that I'm fucking starving, and can't decide which of "Whoops Acropolis" and "Acropolis Now" makes for the better blog post title. Having come back to the hotel to write this and therefore solve the latter problem, I guess it's about time I sought some solids.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Greek mid-winter

Anyone who doesn't think that's the fucking jackpot of champagne-swigging first class blog post titles can stop reading right now.

I stayed in the lounge until about 1130, with a flight time of 1220. I don't really know why I haven't learnt my lesson yet but I still give myself way too much time at the gate - big bird to Joburg notwithstanding - when flying cattle class and/or from airports where boarding announcements aren't made from the lounge.

Flight BA632 LHR-ATH was leaving from gate A12, slap bang in the middle of the main T5 terminal. Right now it's hidden behind a load of building works which means all the passengers are cramped in to an area not really big enough for them. I walked to and straight through it since I was way too early, but I did spot that fast track boarding would be in effect. Trying to be sensible, I rearranged all my explosives and other stuff such that everything I wanted for the flight was in my coat pockets or hands.

Fast track boarding was a fucking joke. They announced it very clearly, slowly, obviously, and then various members of staff got angry, shouting at the hordes of people trying to get on board when they weren't yet allowed. And then some passengers got angry too. For fucks sake. I eventually bowled through and took my seat 19A, window, over the wing.

I forgot how little room you get for stuff in an economy seat. I shouldn't have forgotten - for fucks sake, I've almost flown as many economy miles as fat cat this year, and over 25000 since the last time I was up front. But still I got it wrong. It was trick to stow my pad, phone, USB brick, iPad and headphones as well as the coat and I was all kinds of clumsy and uncomfortable. Then I felt better when the clumsy git with the giant laptop and tablet sat next to me and proceeded to have a loud conversation with the row behind - which mostly involved him turning his head half way and shouting in my fucking ear.

Kept dozing off. Don't really know why. At one point I woke up and my headphones were nowhere to be seen, and I still don't have them now. It's a mystery to me how I can have lost them, but I did, so I opened the provided ones which were fucking awful and broken. No podcasts for me. The plane was heaving full and I was actually, finally, a little bit excited to be going to Athens.

We didn't leave. The first officer made an announcement - they'd found a drawing pin stuck into one of the tyres, so had sent for engineers to change it. This does not appear to be as efficient a manoeuvre as in Formula One and they said it would take 20 minutes. 25 minutes later I'd received a helpful alert from kayak telling me my flight was going to leave late, and the first officer said we'd take another 20 minutes. We eventually left an hour and a quarter late, with my seatmate being called out by the staff for still dicking around with his bag in the aisle as we were on the runway. Sigh.

The doziness wore off and I played a bit of pinball on the iPad, eventually scoring 2 of my highest ever 6 scores on the table I've played more than any other. Go me! And then service started. First, beer and a bag of bird seed. Some people tried to complain about the food, not realising - by which I mean, not listening to them having said - that the proper food was coming separately. I appreciated the announcement that if anyone wanted a drink, just hit call. For some reason my seatmate hit call just as they were serving 2 rows ahead of us. I was quite distressed by the lack of space and constant mouth and elbows all flight. Meh.

At some point there were some nice mountains outside, but the 767 has entertainment on the drop down screens rather than a moving map so I'm fucked if I know what and where they were. The main food was a full meal - pasta bake with bacon and mushrooms, bread roll, cheese and crackers, and a ginger sponge cake. And another beer. The cabin crew member asked me if he could borrow the milk from my tray since I wasn't going to have coffee. Borrow?

I bought some headphones from Duty Free thus making myself the first person I've ever seen buying electronics from the inflight magazine.

Landing was bumpy. Nigh on 80% of the cabin leaped to their feet and started fighting for their bags before the sign went off and consequently ended up standing up queueing to get out for a good 15 minutes. I just sat still. I know we were late, but, really, enough with the hurrying. I overtook half of them anyway on the way to the exit.

I navigated Athens airport like a champ. Stepped out landside - hello, country #50, box ticked - and went straight to the ATM for €120. Turned away and was already facing the signs to the trains - out the door, across the road, holy shit that is some serious rain. Along the pavement, up one floor in the lift, round the corner to two escalators, across a bridge and here's the ticket office. As usual, most people seem to be ignoring the machines so I just waltzed up to the one labeled Metro (not Suburban Railway) and bought a return to the city, down the stairs and onto the almost deserted, freezing cold, wet station platform. This is proper horror movie opening scene torrential rain, really noisy and the station has a roof but is exposed still and everyone else - there are about 10 peope around - looks fucking miserable. I am happier than a pig in shit and can tell I'm grinning.

The metro arrives after 15 minutes and a guy starts talking to me as we get on. He starts off in Greek which draws a blank look, so asks me if I'm English, which I am. I learn he's staying just round the corner from Acropoli metro which, as far as I know, so am I. I spend the first 15 minutes of conversation totally failing to figure out if his accent is Welsh or not. He is German. I'm not doing very well here. We chat, and a couple of English lads ask me for tube advice/directions too. Clearly I look knowledgable.

The metro to Syntagma takes forever and gets really fucking mad crowded. Me and the German change onto the line to Acropoli at which he consults his phone for directions. Despite wearing glasses and having giant fonts, he still has to hold it about 1cm from his eyes. Wow. His hotel is nearer the station to me and because of cobbles and just general geniality I help him with his bags to his hotel and then set off to my own using Google maps as my guide. It takes me straight into a deserted unlit residential area but I am a slae to the blue dot on the blue line and trust it. At one point I go up a very steep road which ends with a much much steeper set of stairs, which makes me wonder why the fuck I chose a hotel with "Hill" in its name.

But, hey presto, there it is, the Acropolis Hill hotel. It seems very quiet. There was no-one in the streets and there is no-one in the bar (yet). I check in and have things explained to me, starting with how to find room 504. Turns out reception, at street level, is on floor 3. So I'm 2 floors above that, and breakfast, on the 1st floor, is two floors below reception. I mean what the fuck. Didn't this lot invent numbers? How have they got this so wrong?

There's a cracking view of the Acropolis and Athens in general from a roof terrace, and a shit view of a wall with graffiti on it from my room's balcony. I believe they also invented democracy round here somewhere and today, with Russell Brand and Nigel Farage on Question Time back home, I mostly feel like apologising to everyone for what we've done. It was never meant to be this way.

Greece is the word

Oh, hello London Heathrow terminal 5, BA galleries lounge. What an excellent place to be on an excellent day. Though obviously it rarely fails to be an excellent day when I'm on the free scran and sauce about to board a plane. This is a bit different though - I'm not just flying somewhere random, I'm about to hit my half century of countries before 2014 finishes. And I'm quite chuffed about that.


I wrote about my supposed quest to reach 50 countries last year. I really wasn't sure I'd make it so soon back then, but this has been a bit of a decent year for travel even without the assistance of any GCERC-style lunacy. And in fact, if plans had gone as they were meant to go I would have been finishing 2014 in country number 51, and that country would have been North Korea, and I would have been in a brewery, and I'm not even joking. But then ebola broke out in various west African nations so Kim decided to close his country's borders to everyone - after I'd already booked flights and a tour, dagnabbit - so I had to scrabble around for an alternative. So this post finds me settling in to a couple of cans of London Pride and some thoroughly disappointing elevenses prior to a flight to Athens in that there Greece.


As it goes I'm really quite ambivalent about the North Korea thing. On the one hand I'm really fucked off about it - it's my absolute number one dream destination to visit and they had best not have some form of populace liberating transition to unity and a removal of their pariah status before I get my mollycoddled guided tour. On the other hand, I would have been out of the country when AFC Wimbledon host Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup and fuck that for a lark. I've missed enough big games and I have not looked forward to a game like this in fucking years. A decent silver lining that.


Aaaaanyway. I haven't been so unprepared for a trip in ages. I left the house at 0840 having started packing at 0825. I washed some clothes at 0030, after I got in from a night out boozing and stuff. I haven't printed out the address of my hotel, any guides on how to use the Athens metro, or in fact anything at all. I have no euros and the only thing I know for certain is that when I get there I shouldn't moon people because the UK government says not to.


I presume that everything will work out just fine because it basically always does. I'm staying in a hotel with Acropolis in its name, near the Acropolis, near Acropolis metro station. If I can't find the Acropolis in Athens then I should have my passport confiscated. Pfft.


So my journey here. Meh. Woke up to an email telling me my flight was an hour late, then another saying it was 45 minutes, then 19 minutes, then on time. I was kinda hoping it would stay an hour late tbh. Left the house way earlier than I do for work and suffered a horrific rush hour bus ride to Kingston followed by a much better one to Hatton Cross. Lots of people confused that the bus was terminating there rather than the central bus station and a bit angry, none of them seemingly aware - or believing the driver - that they will get to their termin much quicker by changing at Hatton Cross for the tube. I spent the whole journey listening to wrestling podcasts (Steve Austin seems to think a JD and coke is a cocktail - really, Steve) and Freakonomics talk lots about fraud in the pet cremation business, which was an odd topic. I also wrote down fucking loads of puns involving the word "Greek" and have come up with what I consider to be the perfect one, which I will unleash on a later post.


At Feltham a lorry went past which had the words LINFORD CHRISTIE emblazoned across the top of the windscreen, as if the driver was called Linford and the passenger Christie. Really?


As usual I was totally well prepared for going through security like a boss. There were virtually no queues but I was hindered by a girl who seemed to have hand luggage WAY too heavy for her to carry or even drag on wheels. Went in a different queue, brief chat with the friendly security guy, through the x-ray, waited for my bag and coat and etc to come out the other side.


Why isn't it coming out the other side? Why is the woman asking whose iPad that is? Why is my bag going down the secondary "this set off alarms" route?


Turns out my bag set off alarms. Oh. I was asked to unzip it and then she delved through the contents, taking stuff out and swabbing it with that magic stick thing and pointing out to me on the monitor that my little carrier bag full of electronics (USB batteries, cables, plugs, etc) was densely packed and looked shifty. But she was fine with it, just had to check the swab and put the bag back through.


BING BING BING BING BING loud noise everyone stares. Me and someone on the next lane simulatenously set off the second stage alarms with the results of that test. Oh. So she pisses off to find a supervisor. He comes along, asks what the deal is, looks happy and genial with a clipboard and then looks at something on the screen and then at me and comes to have a word. The geniality drops from his face a bit. My bag has indeed tested positive for explosives.


This is quite a surprise. I tell them that everything in the bag is mine, tempting as it was to just blame someone else. I tell them I'm flying direct, that I don't work with chemicals, and that I'm travelling for pleasure. And he writes these things down on the form on his clipboard and then says that they'll have to do something else, and away he goes. There is some conflab, after which the first woman comes back with my stuff and says, OK, you're fine to go now. I am somewhat bemused, largely relieved I haven't accidentally brought semtex with me but ever so slightly disappointed I didn't get to experience the full-on "take the guy with the big beard into an interrogation room" experience.