Saturday, April 23, 2011

Le Rouge Rousillon - Provence, Southern France

Another impressive Provencal village that deserves a visit is Rousillon which is about 10 km from Gordes and 48km from Avignon. Rousillon is a smaller village than Gordes with a population of 1280. What is most unique about Rousillon is the ochre soil that has given it a unique splendor. From a distant, this village on a hill top looks fiery in blazing hues of red.

In those days when commercial paint was unknown, to brighten their houses, dwellers of Rousillon drew from the palette of the old ochre quarry next door. Splashing the walls of their houses in shades of reds, browns, yellows, oranges and pinks; merging one into the other perfectly, matching the lush green pine, vivid blue sky and awesome red cliff. It’s just picturesque! 

It takes me to be here to understand why this part of France had been the home of great Post-Impressionist artists like Van Gogh, Cezzane, and Gaugin to name a few. My favorite Van Gogh’s paintings seemed alive in front of my eyes right here in Provence!  After visiting Rousillon, we passed St Remy the home of my favorite post Impressionist artist, Vincent Van Gogh but due to time constraint we were not able to stop by but I am determined to be back one day.
Rousillon from the other end
Small shops adorned the little lanes in Rousillon
Deposits of ochre
Shops selling home made linen and bottles of ochre in all shades
Part of the village on the ochre cliff
A small boutique in the village
Ochre Cliff
Splash of ochre on the walls
The red rock

La belle Gordes - Provence, Southern France

Gordes on a sunny day
About 38 km from Avignon, there is a charming old village by the name of Gordes. The best way to go to the village is to take a guided tour or you can drive there. It is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France but over the centuries, the population has shrunk to about 2130 inhabitants. Like most other villages in Southern France, Gordes perched on a hill as part of their strategy in those days…to be able to see the enemy when attacked. 

Gordes after a rainy day
A 12th century Renaissance style castle was built in the middle of the village, while all the stone houses clung tightly to the base of the cliffs. To preserve the unique architectural design and to maintain the village the way it has been, no fencing is allowed, the streets are paved with stones and only stone walls could be built. We were told that no nails were used to build the houses in Gordes. The shades of Gordes change according to the weather and regardless whatever the seasons you choose to come, Gordes remains a perfect picture for a postcard. Behind the village there are small roads leading to the valleys and forest of Plateau de Vaucluse and another picturesque spot, the Abbaye de Sénanque is 4 km away isolated in a little valley. Gordes is a popular summer residence for painters, movie stars and famous people.
From the other side of the hill, we watched the beautiful Gordes at sunset
Medieval house on the way to Gordes

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pourquoi es-tu si belle, Provence? – Southern France

Lavender up the highland
It means...Why are you so beautiful, Provence? The question that I asked myself repeatedly. It is a place where the phase of life allows you to sip your coffee while watching the world passes by. Some people say living in Provence through out the year could be boring but having visited here in both seasons of summer and autumn, I have no complaints. I would say this region remains charming all through out the year. With several activities and events going on in summer, Provence is bustling with tourists but approaching autumn everything slows down.

Avignon is a small town but complete with all the needed facilities for tourism, making it a good base to tour Provence. From Paris the high speed TGV swifts us to Avignon in 2 hours 15 minutes. With such efficient service, all the hassle of a long drive from Paris to Avignon (742km) is cut short. June and July are the best months to visit Provence with the lavender fields in its full bloom.

There are several group and private tours available from Avignon if driving is not for you. We took a whole day lavender tour up the mountain, visited the lavender town, Sault, Lavendar Museum and Gordes. The road up the mountain is very narrow and we’re glad we did not drive. But as soon as we reached the higher grounds, the purplish sea of lavender became visible and the beauty is indescribable. The moment we got out of our vehicle the sweet scent of lavender surrounded every space we crossed and the air we breathed.

Here is the place to shop for these sweet aromatic stuffs. Amazingly, it takes loads (about a ton) of lavender to produce 5-10kg of high quality lavender essence. Made by the locals with high quality standards but no brand attached to it…the price is reasonable. Apart from the lavender, they also produce vegetable based soap with citrus, lavender, olive and lily scent.
Lavender field
My favorite souvenir from Sault.
 Spray the lavender essence on it and your clothes smell heaven

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Leaning Tower of Pisa - Pisa, Italy

The world famous - Leaning Tower of Pisa
We visited Pisa as a day trip from Riomaggiore. It could also be easily done from Florence (Firenze). Both from Firenze or Riomaggiore takes slightly over an hour and are equally convenient. Now here’s what happened when you take the early morning train on a Sunday and not many people around at Riomaggiore train station. I scratched me head in bewilderment...not a word of English…we looked at each other with a consensus...let’s guess! We pushed the buttons and it asked for 79 Euro for 4 tickets…wowww that’s expensive but never mind we wanted to see this great monument...Pisa. 

We boarded the train and comfortably took a forty wink until the train master came to check our ticket. Confidently, we presented our ticket and pointing to our group indicating the ticket was meant for all of us. He looked at us with a puzzle and spoke Italian and we innocently looked at him and responded in English. He went away and soon came with another officer who spoke little English. He told us to follow him when we arrive in Pisa station and that was as much as he could say. I thought that was fine, there must be some problem with the ticket but at least we have not boarded the train without a ticket. 

In Pisa, we were brought to the office to meet a lady officer who spoke fluent English and she explained we had bought the wrong ticket which was for 4 weeks instead of 4 person. She said, we had paid way too much for the trip but the money could not be refunded. She told us that she would help us to get on our return train for free.  We promised we will meet her again at 1pm. 

Buses number 3 and 4 run from Pisa Centrale to the tower but we opted to walk to get the feel of Pisa town and perhaps find some interesting places to take pictures. It is about 15 to 20 minutes walk in between the buildings, no map required and we just followed the crowd. It was 10.30am and the area around the tower was flooded with people.  Everyone is so engrossed photographing themselves with the world famous Leaning Tower of Pisa and some make great effort to climb the tower for a small fee, which is interesting if you have the time and energy. I am perfectly happy to have a chance to view this tilting tower and watch the crowd with all sorts of poses.

21/3 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2DL

The living and dining area
The flight from Paris to Edinburgh was slightly delayed and we arrived almost midnight. But we were glad that we had made prior arrangement with Susan, the owner, to deliver the apartment keys to our hotel in London about a week ago. So it was a long journey from London to Amsterdam then to Paris and finally the last leg of our journey, Edinburgh.

Hanover apartment is a self-catering apartment right in the center of the town and everything is just a few steps away. The location is very convenient that there is no need for public transportation.  All shopping stores on Princess Street, George Street and Queens Street is easily accessible on foot.  Mark and Spencer is less than 100 meters from the apartment and we run back and forth to do grocery shopping.  The apartment is immaculately clean and the one we rented has a reading room with a view of the Edinburgh castle. Although the owner stays in London, the caretaker in Edinburgh is available all the time in case of emergency. I highly recommend this apartment for its location, service and the quality of the interior. http://www.21hanoverstreet.co.uk/
The living room
The kitchen
The kitchen 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Mesmerizing Cinque Terre II - Riomaggiore

The view from Pamela's terrace

 I have not written enough about this box of flaking crayons, Cinque Terre. For many reasons this intriguing Italian beauty is always on my mind. I have never heard of Cinque Terre until I saw some jaw dropping images of this place on my friend’s screensaver. I asked her but she didn’t know…I guessed it’s some where in Italy and started my search until one day I found the exact pictures! It was barely a month when I canceled my bookings in Lake Grada and diverted all attention to
Cinque Terre. So much decision to be done in a short time!

Some of the apartment owners turned me down because they were fully booked but at last I
 got a favorable reply from Claudio. I was worried about my booking in Riomaggiore. Everything was done via private email and I scrambled high and low in the internet looking for information or review about this apartment. It seemed, I was renting from an individual owner, no encrypted website, no credit card information required…no deposit required although I offered to pay some. My only choice was to trust Claudio’s (the agent) words that my booking was confirmed. 
A view of Riomaggiore from the harbour
From Milan, I called Claudio but there was no answer. The train ride from Milan Centrale to Riomaggiore was about 4 hours and we had to change train in Le Spezia. How I wish there’s a high speed train to the region. Finally we did arrive in Riomaggiore! We called the landlady, Pamela, and she told us to meet her at the end of the tunnel from the train station. Dragging our luggage through the tunnel, I felt glad that mine was manageable.

Pamela is a serious woman who does not speak much to us…probably due to language barrier. In fact it was hard to comprehend her English. She quickly led us to an apartment in one of the narrow tower, we coun
ted…a whooping 89 steps…we were breathless :). Not giving us even a chance to take a deep breath, she explained how the front door works, not to lock it, use the key, pull the string…everything was just too much!! Her articulation was incomprehensible and I let the others listened to her attentively. No pun intended, but the only time she was crystal clear, was when she 
quoted the rent in Euros!

Another view from Pam's apartment

After a short rest we decided to go for a walk around the village to buy some groceries. It was getting dark by the time we returned and we had problem to unlock the door. We had to call her, and from the top of the tower, she perked out of her window and shouted in a harsh voice… "No locking…you sleep outside tonight!" Wow I thought those words were mean to say to your guests. But we just ignored her words because her sweet smiling Mom was waving to us from another window. The old lady must have understood our quandary and her daughter's temperament pretty well. Pam was still babbling when she opened the door but I chose to overlook and not let her ruined the beauty of Cinque Terre!

At the edge of this quaint fishing village

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Top Six Souvenirs From Morocco

Leather shop at Fes Tanneries
I am very careful about shopping in Morocco. There are too much haggling in the souks and streets and you really have to bargain to get the best price. Some people say, begin slashing to half the original price and the negotiation between two parties continues until the equilibrium price is achieved. I some how lack that skill! You have to be careful with some street vendors, if you bargain too much and decided not to buy their goods, they can be aggressive. 

These suggested souvenirs are unique to the country and here is my pick for Morocco: 
Leather Goods in Fes

Leather goods are cheap in Morocco but you have to be meticulous on the quality. One of us bought a leather handbag in Fes and it smells awful….like you’re carrying a cow with you everywhere! You really have to check the leather because some may have gone through poor tanning process. Other leather stuff we bought were fine, especially the pouffe. Flatten it and fill it up when you arrive home. They are really nice souvenirs and comfortable to sit on. The famous Bobouche (Moroccan slippers) are nice gifts; colorful, comfortable and light to carry. Leather belts, wallets, book covers and jackets are among the popular items but be ready to bargain. 

It is a nice souvenir to take home especially if you are a serious cook at home. You can do lots of experimentation with this cooking tool which is unique to Morocco. They are made from heavy clay and great for slow cooking. They come in various sizes, designs and colors but you have to check with the vendor if they are fit for cooking. Some tagines are just for decorative purposes. The disadvantage of this item is that it is heavy, bulky and fragile unless you want to hand carry them.

Found in South East Morocco, the Argan trees survive in chronic drought and poor soil. Argan oil or famously known as Green Gold of Morocco is unique, expensive and rarest oil in the world. It is rich in vitamin E, antioxidant and Omega which gives it a regenerative effect on dry skin, acne, eczema and wrinkles. It claims to have anti cancer properties, stabilizes the cholesterol and reduces hypertension. The Argan products come in the form of edible oil, soap and body cream. I like the Argan spread; a mix of Argan, honey and almond which give a nutty flavor and extremely yummy. These products make excellent gifts and it is not difficult to pack the cream and spread in your baggage but carrying the oil is not practical. By the way you can buy pure Argan oil in Malaysia at RM 75 for 15ml….that is expensive! 

Moroccan jewelleries are produced by Moroccan artisans to reflect their native arts and culture. Each community in Morocco has their own styles, designs and colors that are blended together to produce these distinct personal adornments. Colorful beads, elaborate necklaces and dangling ear rings are common items…it is just a matter of personal taste and preference. They are simple gifts that do not take much space.

The Moroccan artisans also produce beautiful decorative items made from silver, copper and camel bones. Truly, it demonstrates the skillful artisan artwork which has been passed from one generation to another. They come in the form of vases, decorative plates and bowls, lamp shades and other ornaments. Depending on the size of the items, some can be bulky but the smaller ones (like the plate) is a perfect gift. We actually bought one for a friend’s wedding.

We visited the fossil factory in Rissani not too far from the mountain area where the rock quarry is situated. In my simplest understanding of the fossils is that million years ago the animals died and they are buried in some kind of sediments and overtime it changes into rocks. If you pour water on the rock some of these fossils are exposed. The rocks are then cut to make wash basins, marbles tables and several small objects such as pendants, bracelets, amulets, ash trays, plates and cups. The visible fossils could be shark’s teeth, squids, snails, sea lilies and desert rose. They are magnificent and unique souvenirs and the small items should not be a burden to carry

Camel Trekking in Sahara II

Morning has broken
After dinner, a Dutch lady asked the Berber… “Where’s the toilet?” And the instant response was… “It’s everywhere!” OMG…Now I am thinking, if Adeline Loh wrote, “Peeing in the Bush” then I ought to be writing, “Peeing in the Sand” LOL! We smiled at each other; all eyes were on the Dutch lady as she confidently shone her torchlight and disappeared in the dark for serious business :). My heart pounded…I have never done this before! 
Time for entertainment

It must have been easy for these Berbers for they have lived on this endless sea of sand all their lives. The night moved on with everyone encircling the campfire, listening to the Berbers chanting to the beats of the drum. The Dutch tourists performed the song, Ya Mustafa in Dutch and they were such a sport….that was hilarious and entertaining. The guy from US next to me commented, “I have never seen so many stars in my life” pointing his finger to the sky. Nodding my head, I responded, “So do I!” The canvas of countless glittering stars above us was like a huge endless canopy! It was mesmerizing!

We were weary; our guide, Ali escorted us to our tent. I asked him if there are snakes and scorpions around and with a firm tone he replied, “Never a snake comes to Berber tent…never…never.” I have been reading too much about the deadly desert snakes and scorpions. After attending to the call of Mother Nature we were all ready to retreat on our bed laid on the golden sand.

My camel at rest
At about 2am I was awoken by the howling wind blowing onto our tent. The wind was whistling and everyone was sleeping like a log. I blinked my eyes on the little bamboo branches above me….praying and hoping it was not the desert storm! From a distance, I could hear the camels snorting and voices conversing in Arabic...it must be the Berbers checking on the camels and making security rounds near the tents. I don't know when did I fall asleep again but by five everyone had woken up and busy getting ready for fajar. We wanted to climb the dunes before the sun burns the sand. 

I peeked out of the tent...and surely morning has broken! The vast pink dunes lay perfectly in front of us.  Eagerly, we started to climb the 150 meters dunes and every few steps forward would slide us back...it looks easy but not until you try it.

Morning light on the dunes
Our tent from a distance
So picturesque
Took this picture from my camel's back
Every group is getting ready to trek
Ali Baba's group - so named by Ali :)

Morning has broken

Morning has broken, like the first morning 
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning 
Praise for the springing, fresh from the word 
Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven 
Like the first dew fall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden 
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning 
Born of the one light, Eden saw play 
Praise with elation, praise every morning 
God's recreation of the new day

Sung by Cat Stevens