Cinque Terre I

Phew, well this blog post is about two months later than I had planned! London has well and truly swept me away these past few months: incredible trips to Amsterdam, Rome and Norway (blog posts to come), SATs, a new job for the new year, house hunting, writing moderations, report writing and planning the Year 6 Musical. I am officially in countdown mode though – just five more weeks (or 23.5 days) of teaching, and I will be on six blissful weeks of holidays.   I’m going back to Easter half term today though, with our delightful trip to Italy…

I came to Europe with a small but succinct list of ‘non-negotiables’ – places that I had to visit before returning home. I was in no way limited to these places only, but I would work towards making them happen.

I have been lucky enough to visit two already, with a third planned for summer. Cinque Terre was one of them, and I was thrilled to spend five days in this gorgeous part of the world the week after Easter. The trip was planned over coffees in a quaint café in Warsaw, as we escaped the rain and entered many searches into Sky Scanner. Return flights to Genoa for £30 were quickly booked and dreams of sun, pasta and all of the limoncello followed.

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We flew Stansted to Genoa and practically leapt off the plane – the sun was shining and we were in t-shirts! Getting to Cinque Terre via train was relatively simple, with the ticket machines all having an English option. Note, that you do need to catch a shuttle bus from Genoa airport to a main train station – it took us a little while to work this out, and we ended up sprinting from said bus to the platform after booking tickets before realising the extra step was needed. The whole journey included three trains and took about four hours in total (this is me guesstimating – it was all in my phone, which was lost on a mountain in Norway – a blog post in itself!).

We based ourselves in Riomaggiore, the most southern Cinque Terre village. We stayed in a very reasonable Airbnb that was along the main street and a short walk from the train station. Riomaggiore was the perfect base for exploring the region and gave us access to all of the walks, trains and boats needed to travel between the five towns.

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After our first bowl of pasta (trofie and pesto for me – a dish the region is known for – and the first of many!), we settled in and prepared for our first day exploring the trails.

One year.

When I was growing up my Mum had this quote on the wall of her office:

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have

And take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,

You must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for you to stand upon

Or, you will be taught how to fly.

I have learnt how to fly this year. And these little wings? I built them myself.

Throughout the past year I’ve felt moments of overwhelming joy. I’ve trekked through the Sahara, watched shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, dipped my toes in the Mediterranean and sipped mulled wine at a Christmas market in Prague. You’ve probably seen it all on Instagram. Real talk…I’ve also felt deep sadness and the most crippling self-doubt I’ve ever experienced. I’ve caught the bus to work fighting back tears. I’ve spent a night questioning every choice I’ve made and wondering if I should just book a flight home. I’ve got sick (really sick) and not had a doctor to go to because I wasn’t registered with one. Unsurprisingly, these didn’t make my highlights reel. However, it’s been important to remind myself in these situations that I can never know true joy without experiencing true sadness to compare it to.

Professionally, I have been truly challenged, which has, in turn, challenged me personally. It’s uncanny how closely the lessons I’ve learnt in a professional context have mirrored those I needed to learn in my personal life. I am, by nature, a people pleaser and I avoid conflict whenever I can. These experiences have taught me to find my voice and stand up for myself. They’ve also taught me that sometimes it’s ok to people please – it can be an asset when I want it to be. I’ve confirmed what I already knew: that my greatest gift is my ability to see the positive. My little gratitude journal sure has got a workout in the past 12 months.

Day to day, I know I’m not saving lives, but I am helping to shape them. This has been so important to remember in a system that sees children as numbers not people. Out of everything I hoped to get out of this experience, a genuine appreciation for our education system in Australia is not something I imagined. How lucky am I to (one day) be returning to a system that I am now truly passionate about, that values my skills and trusts my contribution? How lucky are we that our curriculum supports and fosters a sense of individuality, creativity, innovation, collaboration and independent thinking?

And I am even luckier that the UK system has taught me so much. About differentiation, about using data effectively, about mastery, about creativity in literacy, about the importance of grammar. No seriously, I am ready for my university degree in punctuation and grammar.

Before I moved to the UK I told people I wanted a challenge and to get out of my comfort zone. Ha. I never imagined that I would be hurtled so far out of what I knew and understood to be true that it would sometimes be hard to imagine ever feeling comfort again. But I did and I have. I am sure there will be many more lessons to learn and I am ready (although maybe they could be a little kinder this year, please).

And in the perfect celebration of my 12 months in London, I will not be in London at all, instead gallivanting around Amsterdam. Check out my Instagram @gemabroad for the highlights, of which I am sure there will be many.

Finally, a little note – endless thanks to those wonderful people who gave me something solid to stand on throughout the past year. You know who you are.

Afternoon tea at Claridge’s

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I am one very lucky girl. Recently, I enjoyed the most divine afternoon tea at Claridge’s as a birthday present from one of my gorgeous friends. It was my first experience of a traditional afternoon tea in London and I think it will be a hard one to beat.

What I wasn’t expecting was the incredible interior of the hotel; it was both spring and Easter themed with an impressive central feature of daffodils, greenery and the cutest little bunnies (I just wish I had a picture of it!). I am already planning a return visit in December, as I imagine their Christmas display is extraordinary.

The attention to detail at Claridge’s was outstanding: the soft piano and double bass playing in the corner, the art deco design and fine china, the thoughtful service and mouth-watering spread combined to create a memorable afternoon. At one point, we were asked if we were celebrating anything special. Not long after, an extra cake with Happy Birthday and candle was brought to our table.

Now, I am more of a coffee than tea girl, so I can’t comment much on our beverages other than to say they were lovely. I am, however, VERY into food and it was absolutely stunning. You can find a link to the afternoon tea menu here.

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I can’t begin to describe how much I enjoyed every delicious morsel. The sandwiches, heavy on butter in the most wonderful way, were my favourite part of the tea. All of the ingredients are locally sourced and the bread made in-house. It was hard to select a stand out but I loved the smoked salmon with brown shrimp butter & rock samphire on rye bread.  We were encouraged by our delightful server to get seconds (and thirds) on anything we wished – something we took advantage of numerous times! The remainder of the tea continued in a similar fashion – the scones were gorgeously warm and fresh and the sweet pastries rich and decadent. Anything we couldn’t finish was packed for us to take home.

One criticism I have read of many afternoon teas in London is that guests are often hurried out in order to make way for the next setting. Claridge’s couldn’t have been more different – we were encouraged to make the most of our stay and ended up spending over three hours in the dining room. We did have a later booking (5pm) so that may be something to consider if you want to linger over tea.

Every moment of our afternoon tea at Claridge’s was incredibly generous, from the servings of each dish, to the service, to the amount of time we spent there. It really was a magical experience and something very special to mark my first birthday celebrated in London.

Return to Fez, Morocco

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I almost feel this post is a little redundant, given I have already written about Fez. However, we returned to Fez before flying out of Morocco and enjoyed the most delightful spa day, so I decided it was worth sharing. Plus, I’ve included a few extra details of our itinerary in case you are planning a visit to Morocco anytime soon.

Two of the girls we were travelling with had visited Marrakesh earlier in the year and said a hammam was a must do experience. Thus, a day at Palais Amani was booked. We chose the ‘Unwind Package’ and enjoyed a massage and traditional hammam with body scrub. We were lucky to have the wisdom of the girls who had been before, as a hammam can be quite a strange and hilarious experience!

A hammam is the Moroccan version of a Turkish bath, similar to a steam room or sauna. Ours also involved a body scrub, where you could literally feel the layers of skin being stripped off (in a good, somewhat painful kind of way!). We started in the steam room, enjoying the most delicious lemon drink before the scrub down. The experience takes place in a series of very dark, steamy rooms and the women speak little English, so just go with it. It’s also likely any clothing you do wear – we had bikinis – will be taken off during the scrub. No need for modesty here! In all seriousness though, it was such a lovely afternoon and we had plenty of giggles together before, during and after the event.

I’d recommend extending your afternoon and enjoying lunch in the gorgeous grounds of the Palais Amani. Whilst dining, we met the British owner and his Moroccan wife who shared some of the history and the process of creating the Riad.

Now gleaming and scrubbed to within an inch of our life, we returned to our Riad (Riad Braya) for showers before heading the airport. Morocco was my first taste of travel from the UK and it whet my appetite for the many adventures to come!

Morocco notes

Itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrive in Fez

Day 2 – Explore Fez

Day 3 – Depart for desert tour

Day 4 – Desert tour

Day 5 – Desert tour/return to Fez in the evening

Day 6 – Travel to Chefchaouen

Day 7 – Chefchaouen/return to Fez in the evening

Day 8 – Spa day and depart

*Note, we didn’t go to Marrakesh, as two people travelling with us had already been. You could easily fly into Marrakesh, begin the desert tour there and then finish the tour in Fez to see both cities.

Time of year:  May – perfect weather-wise. It wasn’t too hot but I got to wear all of the dresses that had been packed away since I had arrived in London. Apart from a small storm one night, the rain stayed away also.

Flights: Ryanair

Getting around:  For the majority of our stay we relied on pre-booked transfers or cars organised through our hotel. We did catch a taxi to get to and from Palais Amani, which wasn’t too difficult (although we got some help from a lovely local on the return trip). In Fez, most Riads and larger restaurants will send someone to pick you up and walk you to your destination, which was very helpful in the winding streets of the medina.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen has to be one of the most instagram-able cities in the world. Set in the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco, it is more commonly known as ‘the blue city’. The brilliantly blue walls are said to have been introduced by Jewish refugees in the 1930s, who considered blue to symbolize the sky and heaven. Nowadays, it is thought that the blue walls also serve to repel mosquitoes (this is the explanation we first heard for the vibrant walls of the medina).

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Chefchaouen has a vibe unique to the rest of Morocco. Authentic, artsy and unequivocally laidback, I simply adored our stay here. Getting there, however, proved to be somewhat stressful. With the size of our group, it was cheapest (and definitely most convenient) to hire a care for the drive from Fez. What we weren’t expecting was our driver to stop midway through the journey and insist that he needed to pray for the next hour. We wound up in a coffee shop somewhere near a main road, hoping he would return. Luckily, a coffee and wifi at least allowed us to ‘check in’ and call for help if necessary. It was all good fun in the end but a little unnerving in a foreign country.

We stayed at Dar Zambra, a perfectly located hotel in the medina. As with the majority of Morocco, be prepared to wander the crooked streets with suitcases in tow and pack accordingly. Spoilt with another gorgeous rooftop, sunset drinks were once again enjoyed.

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The one thing I would recommend doing in Chefchaouen is getting lost. Its position on a hill makes it much easier to wander the narrow streets and eventually find your way back to where you started. Unlike Fez, the locals were happy to let us be and I felt very safe walking around in a group both day and night. We spent the majority of our full day here exploring hidden passages and alleys, soaking up the sun in the main square and loading up on spices from the most gorgeous shop near our hotel.

The food we tried was nothing special but the charismatic and generous restaurateurs more than made up for it. As many of the restaurants do not sell alcohol, we were sent with one of the owner’s friends to a bar to buy clandestine red, which we enjoyed with our dinner – yet another story we still giggle at!

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I cannot recommend a visit to Chefchaouen enough. It has a personality all of its own and it was most definitely, for me, the highlight of our stay in Morocco (plus, so many gorgeous profile picture possibilities!).

The Sahara Desert, Morocco

4WDriving into the Sahara Desert with Mambo No. 5 pumping on the stereo is a Moroccan moment I will never forget. Crazy surreal. Hilarious too.

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Our tour into the Sahara Desert was magical. Three days of stunning views, passionate guides and a whole lot of car time – definitely worth it. We organised the tour through Best Travel Morocco and they couldn’t have been more helpful. After asking if he had any music, our driver arranged to bypass a small town and have a USB passed through the window. Somewhat shady to begin with but this resulted in many memorable moments (Mambo No. 5 being just one of them!).

Our first night was spent in the shadows of the Atlas Mountains. The owner of Best Travel Morocco, Ahmed, arrived and we enjoyed yet more tagine, stories and some awkward traditional dancing attempts. We explored more of the area the next morning, a ride on the 4WD rooftop included, before heading deeper into the desert.

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Now, riding a camel through the Sahara Desert sounds just perfect. In reality it is an incredibly uncomfortable 120 minutes (I felt every one of them!). Arriving at our camp for the night and experiencing sunset from the top of the dunes made it all worth it though. And sunrise the following day was equally stunning. The camp itself was just what we needed – comfortable, warm and a toilet that worked most of the time.

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Another jaunty ride back to the village of Merzouga and we were on the road again, returning to Fez with big smiles and far too many failed attempts at jumping photos.  IMG_6843

Fez, Morocco

I arrived in London in late April. By mid-May I was travelling through another continent. And it took less than four hours to fly there. Mind officially blown.

Morocco took me by surprise; it wasn’t somewhere that had ever crossed my travel radar before but a suggestion from a close friend in London saw me booking flights before you could say ‘Ryanair’. Blessed with said super-organised friend and her equally travel savvy housemate, I was lucky enough to mostly just show up and suggest places to eat. The rest had been done for me.

We arrived in Fez and headed straight to our stunning Riad, Riad Said. A pre-booked transfer organised through our hotel was definitely a plus. The Riad was simply gorgeous – just as I’d imagined with stunning tiles, ornate designs and an open roof in the foyer area. We settled in for rooftop drinks and enjoyed our first tagine before bed.

I was somewhat reluctant to wander the medina in a solo group of five women, so we organised a guide through our Riad for the following morning. This is something I would highly recommend, even if it is just to get your bearings and avoid getting lost in the labyrinth of small streets! Yes, it did include a visit to a rug shop and scarf store, however, we never felt pressured to buy and they were exceptionally beautiful. We were, in contrast, all too happy to buy up big at the Moroccan Oil shop. I also loved exploring the tannery – it was incredible to watch this traditional process take place from the viewing platforms.

We finished our first day exploring with a late lunch at The Ruined Garden, a gorgeous café that kept popping up when I read about places to dine in Fez. Here we were treated to a spread of kefta, b’stilla, dips and fresh salads. Sitting outside in the dappled sunlight with freshly squeezed juices and mint tea, it was my favourite meal of the trip.

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We farewelled Fez early the next morning, beginning a 9 hour drive to the Sahara desert (luckily I was travelling with four people yet to be introduced to Serial).