Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sampling the spice of Morocco ….. June 2011

11 – 13 June 2011

With Balvenie all closed up we left her happily sitting in the marina in Ceuta, took a short walk up the road and caught the No 7 local bus the short distance to “la fronteria”, the border with Morocco.  The border crossing was relatively straight forward, several men approached us wanting to “help” us, by offers of providing us with entry forms and taking our passports to clear us in.  We declined all their kind offers of assistance, did they think we came down in the last shower or what????  Our passports are given only ever to someone official looking in uniform, who is located next to several others in uniform, who are generally behind glass screens and have stamps lined up on their desks , then, and only then do we hand over our passports and today was certainly no exception!!!  So we survived the border crossing, pushed through the last gate along with several locals laden with plastic bags full of “western goodies”, and arrived in Morocco, I swear the temperature rose 10 degrees at least!

According to our trusty Lonely Planet (which we have been faithful followers of for 20 years now) we simply needed to catch a grand taxi to the main taxi station in Tetouan then change to another grand taxi to our destination for the day of Chefchaouen high in the Rif Mountains, all straightforward – here we go.

P6120060 We found a taxi for Tetouan quite easily, well actually they probably found us, lets face it we don’t really look like locals. The grand taxis are all old Mercedes, somewhat beaten up, but there are hundreds of them, depending on your route they are painted different colours – we needed a white one – then they leave for your destination once full (I will just add here we are talking their definition of full – not ours!!!).  The same systems apply in hundreds of countries but the choice of vehicle is normally a minivan, here we were thinking a Mercedes was such a good option, so much more comfortable, how naive are we???? 
The negotiations commenced with over 5 taxi representatives firing information at us in a mix of Arabic, French, Spanish and English – our brains in total overdrive .  Quite quickly they realised that we actually wanted to go to Chefchaouen so a deal was offered of a taxi all to ourselves, directly there, and the best price offered was 350 dirhams.  (current street rate around 10dirhams/1 euro, so €35), it’s around 130 km’s so yes, this does seem a pretty good deal.  But once a backpacker, always a backpacker – we are not decadent westerners, we will share with the locals.   So we paid the local rate of 20 dirhams each to Tetouan, much to the disgust of our driver.  Quite soon we were ready to depart, but eek, there are 6 of us – plus driver, that equates to 4 in the back and 2 on the front seat (bucket seat NOT bench seat), and we were off, is it too late to be a decadent westerner?

I would like to say that everything went to plan, and we transferred to our next grand taxi without a hitch - butP6110014 we were in Morocco, and we were feeling very much like we were in fact back in Egypt, nothing and no one are quite what they seem!  Eventually in Tetouan our fellow passengers got out and we slowly unravelled our limbs and blood flowed again!  But now we were as the mercy of our driver  who decided to get one back at us and just deposited us on the street, grumbling all the time that we had not taken his excellent offer.  Had we had a crystal ball we would never have left him!! 

So here we were trying to work out on our Lonely Planet map just “where we were” when an English speaking local offered help. 'Ah yes', he said, 'just up those stairs and you will see the taxis' – we thanked him and off he went in the opposite direction and we went up the stairs.  Mmmm, but no taxis, oh there are more stairs, maybe up there – but no, just a busy market place.  Then guess who just popped up out of nowhere to “help” us again.  At this point we should have just asked him to go away, but we are out of practice and followed him through the busy market lanes into a street that was indeed filled with taxis.  More “help” was given and we agreed a price with the driver of 20 dirhams each, on the understanding that we would pick up more people enroute, seemed about right as it was around the same distance that we had already come, so in we got – so did the “helper” who said he was going there too, definitely dodgey but we certainly never felt unsafe – just like we were being taken for a ride. P6120073 

And we were in fact taken for a ride, about 2 km’s to the correct taxi terminal, where our current taxi driver deposited us - very happy with his 40 dirham fare.  We determined the correct fare to Chefchaouen was 30 dirham and found the next taxi leaving, however the driver would not go until we paid 5€ (50 dirham) to our “helper” for getting us there.  Of course it all started getting a little messy then, this was only about 500 metres from where we had originally been dropped off nearly an hour earlier, but the other passengers were waiting, we don’t like making a scene in a foreign country and our “helper” kept shouting that 5€ was nothing to “people like us”, and here we were trying not to be decadent westerners.  So we paid up and squashed ourselves into the one front seat free, knowing that “people like him” give places like this a very bad name.  Sadly we have met many like him over the years, but we know that they are the exception and we tried to remember this as we sat like sardines very hot and bothered on the winding road to Chefchaouen!!!! 
We arrived in one piece, literally stuck together all hot and sweaty.  We had climbed all the way from Tetouan at sea level, high up into the Rif Mountains where we expected it to be cooler but it seemed even hotter.  It was only 2 evenings previously that we had donned sweatshirts at happy hour, now it was over 40c, phew.  We were in desperate need of refuelling so found a little busy place on the main market place square and joined the locals for excellent rotisseried chicken and rice, the staff were very helpful, the locals friendly, things were looking up.  

Feeling somewhat revitalised we headed up the hill into the medina (old town), a wonderful place with a maze of colourful twisting alleyways, so much fun to wander around – but not when you are looking for your accommodation.  We must have taken a right turn somewhere though as we finally stumbled upon it, the cute little Hotel dar Terrae, (380 dirhams per night - double with bathroom, breakfast and wifi). We checked in, had some refreshing local mint tea then pretended we were still in Spain and had a much deserved siesta!!!  P6120025  

Chefchaouen is a delightful little spot, nestled in a spectacular setting under the 1616m peak of Jebel el-Kelaá.  The medina is traffic free (to be honest you couldn’t actually fit cars down most of the lanes) and although there are a few hardy tourists around it is still a very much lived in town and locals certainly outnumbered us tourists.  The main square, lined with shaded cafes, faces the Kasbar used over the centuries to defend the town against the Berbers and Spaniards, its a compact area with lovely gardens inside, many birds singing in the trees, it all seemed so cool, calm and serene but I imagine with an invasion imminent it would have had a completely different feeling to it. 

It was just too hot to think about attempting the one day hike up to the top of Jebel el-Kelaá so we settled on the much shorter walk out of the old town, across the river, and up the valley to a restored mosque, one of many we could see dotted further up the valley.  We had only walked a short distance but had certainly arrived in rural Morocco very quickly.  As I took in the view Mark got chatting to one of the locals, he offered to show us his thriving marijuana farm close by, an interesting experience we are sure but we thought it best to give that side trip a miss!!! 
We had an enjoyable Moroccan minibreak here, our original  intention had been to go onto Fez for a few nights before returning to Balvenie, but the heat and altitude was knocking us about, and my back had taken a double twisting in the grand taxis so I wasn’t feeling too mobile. Maybe we are just getting old and soft but for now at least we didn’t quite feel like tackling more Moroccan public transport.  Skipper in particular is always telling me he has plenty enough adventure in his life on the high seas without doing it too hard on the land travel as well.

So we decided to return to Balvenie  and will try to get into the marina in Rabat, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco when we are heading for the Canary Islands  in September.  From there we can travel by train to the main spots, and hopefully it may be a little cooler at the end of summer.

So we headed on down the hill to the grand taxi station and negotiated a rate of 400 dirhams all the way back to the boarder and had the whole backseat of the Mercedes taxi all to ourselves, pure bliss, so it seems even true blue backpackers can evolve given time and money!!!  Our driver asked if he could drop a friend in Tetouan enroute which of course we didn’t mind – it actually made us feel a little better not being so extravagant as to have the whole car to ourselves.

P6120089We enjoyed the drive back, the road winds down the valley through olive groves and past many vendors selling colourful terracotta goods displayed along the roadside.  After Tetouan we joined a motorway that ran just inland from the sparkling Mediterranean, it was a toll road with only a handful of other traffic on it, we were back to the frontier in no time.  The boarder crossing was straightforward, the buses run continuously to Ceuta then just the short walk to the marina, all in under 2 hours, this is definitely the recommended option.  For a short taste of Morocco one night would do it, with your own taxi each way, accommodation and  meals you could easily do it for under €140


Friday, 17 June 2011

Where church bells and prayer calls blend ….. June 2011

09 – 14  June 2011

After our disappointing one night stand in Morocco, we successfully navigated our way around the dredger and out of Marina Smir.  The breeze was still from the west so we had another comfortable sail in flat water on the beam the 10 miles up the African coastline before turning into the Straits of Gibraltar and motoring the last 2 miles to Ceuta.

Ceuta and Melilla are 2 Spanish enclaves located on the northern tip of the African Continent, both are harbours on the Med and share their land borders with Morocco.  As Ceuta was so near we decided to stop by and maybe explore Morocco from there.  The marina is not very big and it was packed full with a fleet of leisure fishing boats partaking in a 3 day competition, but the helpful staff found a spot for us and we were tucked up in no time.  The marina sits right under the palm lined promenade, handsome restored buildings line the streets, and a large fort dominates the centre.  It all has a well looked after and cared for feeling to it, with a definite blend of European, African and Arabic cultures.  P6090012 

Ceuta has been a Spanish enclave since 1640, and because of its strategic location guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea,  has a long history of various empires warring over it and many invasions over the centuries. 

The old city walls have been restored and make for an interesting outing, there are even information signs in English telling the gruesome story of a 33 year siege from 1694 that resulted in an outbreak of the plague and famine, resulting in countless deaths.  There is a small museum within the complex that was worth a wander through, I thought it interesting a display of how four different cultures lived here side by side, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews – what interested me was the photographical depiction of these 4 religions…women  in their cultural local dress, but the Christian woman was shown wearing sneakers, jeans and a white shirt – it some how just didn't look quite right alongside the other more colourful religious costumes….but probably quite accurate! 

We felt happy leaving Balvenie here a few days, we had neighbours to keep an eye on her, and calm weather was forecast.  We were only 2 miles from the Moroccan boarder, so it was out with the Lonely Planet and a short sojourn was planned.

For Cruising info for Smir (Morocco) click here and for Ceuta (Spanish enclave) cruising and land excursions in June 2011 click here

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Semi-circumnavigated and Crossing the Straits to Morocco ….. June 2011

heading at the Rock
08 – 10 June 2011

We are now officially semi-circumnavigators. On 08th June 2011 at 11.27am, Balvenie sailed across the line of longitude which signalled exactly 180 degrees completed since leaving Westhaven Marina in Auckland, NZ on 08 May 2004. We are now over half way at last!!!!!

We had left Estepona with a solid westerly of 15 – 20 knots forecast.  It was time for a change of scenery, language, culture, currency, country and even continent.  With a double reefed main and a reefed headsail we zipped along in lovely flat water heading south towards Gibraltar.  With the wind coming off the land it really did make for pleasant but still chilly sailing.  Our plans were to pass “the rock”, and scoot south across the Straits of Gibraltar – just 14 miles of lively water where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea – then we would be back in flat water in the shelter of the African mainland for the last 10 miles down the coast of Morocco, now doesn't that sound like a great day out on the water? 

As we manoeuvred through the parking lot of anchored freighters off Gibraltar the seas were still quite flat, the wind was fairly gusty but we expected that, then as we left the stationery shipping in our wake and headed out into the straits the wind increased steadily as it funnelled through the “Gates of Hercules”.   Unfortunately it shifted slightly to the south as well which put it in front of the beam,.  What followed next could be called a somewhat “sporty sail”, as we peaked with wind gusts of 34 knots, boat speeds of around 8.5 knots and the biggest salt water boat wash we have experienced in a very long while.  passing the rock, 08 June 2011

Added to this were the somewhat busy shipping lanes with huge freighters coming and going, some wind over tide, and the currents around these parts.  It certainly wasn’t a boring crossing and before long we were back into flat water, sure get there faster when you go over 8 knots the whole time!  We headed down the coast of Morocco to Marina Smir.  We had had this marina recommended as a good spot to go out of the EU, it is located in a security monitored environment within a resort complex, but with no local town or real Moroccan flavour. 

We got all the salty sails away, contacted the marina who gave us directions to make sure we left the red buoys to port (its a shallow entrance)  and headed around the breakwater.  Mmmm, there was a dredger operating and the entrance was closed off with lines across it.  Surely the marina office situated no more than 50 metres away knew this.  A small boat came out to us to guide us around it, we told them we needed 2.4m to stay afloat, they didn’t look too confident but told us to follow them in.  Their lack of confidence was well founded as… not for the first time and no doubt not for the last time… we slid to a stately halt, grounded on the silty seabed. Skipper reversed us back out to deeper water and we dropped anchor as advised.  

We would have been happy staying at anchor but anchoring in Moroccan waters is not permitted, so we sat and waited. Smir on the wall, yes thats a camel The tide was coming in, but the tides here are not very big,  it eventually appeared that we were waiting for the dredger to finish so we could go through the deeper water that was currently roped off.  So after 2 1/2 hours we finally tiptoed in with 20cms to spare and docked at the visitors dock.  Of course by now it was late and the office staff really didn’t want to be there any more, no “Welcome to Morocco” from the marina staff here!, just an invoice for 49€ a night to berth!  Once cleared in we moved across to the wall to side tie, no marina staff to assist but we managed ok, we were in Morocco and excited to be here. 

Unfortunately 3 different types of music booming out from the closest quayside restaurants (empty all night), the constant stream of people walking by peering into the boat, and the totally overpriced berthing fee all dulled our excitement of having arrived in Morocco.  We had planned to leave Balvenie here to explore inland, but we weren’t feeling positive about doing so now and had a rethink overnight.  Next morning we changed our plans, checked out, yelled across the bay to stop the dredger blocking the channel before we could leave, dropped our Moroccan courtesy flag, raised our sails and left Moroccan waters.  

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

More miles – more marinas and a trip to Marbella ….. June 2011

P6020034 01 – 06 June 2011

Summer has officially arrived, but it seems someone has forgotten to tell the weather gods.   The temperature has cooled a little and there has been thunder and lightening around, oh well, not much we can do about it.  

The days are passing but nothing much seems to be changing.  We have moved along the coast, first of all to Fuengirola and then onto Estepona where we currently are.  Both trips were around 30 miles, pretty uneventful with light easterlies that teased us into taking the time to set the sails, only to have the wind drop out after a couple of hours.  Our trip here to Estepona was somewhat rolly, and we had stayed in Fuengirola an extra day to give the swell time to settle. 

We caught the bus from Fuengirola to Marbella, Spain’s  waterfront “Golden Mile” destination of choice for the rich and famous.  There is a lovely old town area, compact but cute, full of some upmarket shops and plenty of restaurants.  We didn’t take the bus the additional 6 kilometres out to Puerto Banus, we hear it is Spains most expensive marina and full of some very big “gin palaces”, with some rather glitzy waterfront cafes.  But we have certainly seen enough marinas in the last month so instead explored all the small alleyways and plazas in the old town which didn’t take long, so there was nothing for it but to find a spot for some early afternoon tapas before our bus back again.      

Fuengirola’s waterfront is lined with high-rise apartment blocks and hotels, it is the busiest spot we have seen so far but we still thought it was pretty quiet, considering it is the beginning of June the tourists are few and far between.   

So now we are in Estepona, we can see the “Rock of Gibraltar” just down the road, and this morning it was clear enough to see Morocco too.  Tomorrow we have a nor’wester of 15-20 knots forecast so we shall head down the coast, our final part of the Mediterranean coastline.  If the Straits look a little too lively we might stop in Gib, if we are up to a sporty sail across the straits then it will be onto Morocco – we are ready for a change of scenery and culture.  

For Cruising info for Fuengirola and Estepona valid June 2011 click here

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Day out to Málaga ..... May 2011

P5310009 Malaga Alcazaba
31 May 2011

We decided to do a daytrip into Málaga while we were in Caleta de Velez, and even had enough sense not to go on Monday when the main sites would be closed!

The bus trip took about an hour and a quarter along the coast road - through all the towns, villages and resorts along the way, somewhat slow with all the stops but interesting to see the coastline from land for a change.  It is not all tourist developments, their are many local homes painted white and decorated with local tiles to remind you that you are certainly in Spain.

Málaga is another port city with a very long history, nearly every civilisation that invaded and occupied all the other Mediterranean ports had their turn is Málaga too.  It has quite a Moorish flavour to it, the well preserved Alcazaba  dating from 1057 is perched on the highest point.  We enjoyed walking through the well shaded gardens,  and exploring the chambers and rooms.  There are ongoing restorations and it is all in very good order.  P5310016 

Set into the hillside below the Alcazaba  is a small Roman theatre, guess the Romans were here too!!   Some of the pavement around this area is made of thickened glass, there are obviously many ruins underneath and the glass enables an insight into what lies below.

It was one of the warmest days we have had this season and all this sightseeing takes its toll.  We headed for a cute little outdoor cafe adjacent to the Alcazaba and topped up our fuel tanks with a couple of cool drinks and a tapas tasting menu, excellent.

Time out for tapas
Next up was the Picasso Museum, located in the ancient juderia sector of the old town, sited in the 16th century Palacio de Buenavista, a beautiful building but it should be, it has recently undergone a €66 million restoration!  Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga, although he moved to Northern Spain with his family at a young age.  His family have donated over 200 of his works, spanning his career.  There were two or three that actually looked quite “normal” looking paintings, the rest - well they were definitely what you expect a Picasso to look like.  

The other main attraction was the Cathedral, built during the 16th and 17th centuries it displays mixtures of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, guess that happens when somewhere takes two hundred years to complete, and then they never completed the southern tower.  It is an enormous building and dominates much of the old town.

The bus back to Caleta de Velez went on the motorway, for a while we were worried we were actually on the wrong bus but it was an express and got us back in 45 minutes, it had been an enjoyable day out.  We had seen everything in the area now, it was time to move on – next stop Fuengirola.

Entrance Fees:  Picasso Museum €6     Alcazaba €2.10    Cathedral €6    Buses:  €2.56 pp each way

Friday, 3 June 2011

Back in working order ….. May 2011

24 May – 29 May 2011
P5280005 Our unplanned stop in Marina del Este was only for 3 nights.  The mechanics were fast and efficient and did an excellent job of removing the injectors and injector pump, sending the pump away for servicing, cleaned the injectors, put it all back together and had Olive our Volvo running smoothly in record time.  They were even kind enough to let us use their pool car to drive over the hill to Herradura to make daily raids on the Cash Machine so we could pay them! 

We left Marina del Este early afternoon and headed another 17 miles west, we were expecting to motor as there was no wind forecast, and thought it would be good to give the engine a good run.  However we couldn’t resist sailing when a light easterly filled in, we just poled out both the headsails and had a lovely slow but comfortable trip along to our next marina stop at Caleta de Velez.    
We were pleased to be able to make it here by Saturday as Mark’s cousin Sally and her husband Graham were holidaying from England were and staying with their friends John and Barbara inland from Caleta de Velez and we had planned to rendezvous with them.

It was great to see Sally and Graham and to meet John and Barbara.  John has built and owned wooden boats so he was very interested in looking through Balvenie, and we are always happy to show her off!  We found a great restaurant on the waterfront, jam packed with locals enjoying a long Saturday afternoon lunch.  We joined in for an excellent “Menu del dia”, sat down in the shade - the Mediterranean just metres away and whiled away the afternoon eating, drinking and talking, very Spanish indeed!

P5310014Our visitors headed back to the hills early evening, it had been great to catch up.  After a quick well earned siesta we hit the bars looking for a big screen to watch the final of the European Football Cup.  Barcelona were playing Manchester United and we were absolutely amazed to find that every local was supporting Man U and not Barcelona.  A couple of the locals that could speak some English explained that if we looked at the Barcelona supporters in the stand at Wembley you would be hard pushed to see a Spanish flag anywhere.  They all either flew the Barcelona Club flag or the regional Catalonian flag, they did not see themselves as Spanish.  We found this very interesting, we all have fierce rivalry within regions of our countries, but generally if we are playing away we will support the Kiwi team, from whatever region.

For Cruising info for Marina del Este and Caleta de Velez in May 2011 click here