Sunday, May 31, 2009

Saturday Market in Amiens

On my way to Normandy I had a lunch stopover in Amiens. The city is the capital of the Picardie region in the department of Somme about 115 kilometres north of Paris.

I have been on the road for more than 4 hours already. The standard safety advice for motorists driving long distance is to pull over every 2 hours. To my knowledge, not everyone does this really but those massive truckers I believe they go by the rules as they are checked regularly.

There are four items I wanted to see and do in Amiens:

1) Check out the Saturday market
2) Have lunch
3) Walk around town
4) Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral

Parking was relatively easy and cheap. If only parking is as cheap as in the Netherlands! So after finding parking, I strolled a bit, just to gather my bearings. Because the city centre is small it was easy peasy to find my way around. I right away spotted the square with cosy cafes terraces and I already found the café I want to have lunch in but first I need to check out the Saturday market.

I just totally love markets! And I was lucky enough that Amiens has a Saturday market that runs until late in the afternoon.

The Amiens market was not really that smashing. I have been to better ones of course but this market is also fine in my books. All French markets are anyway.

What is it about them that I like? Well, I just love the hustle and bustle in the market places. The gorgeous colours of the fruits and vegetables in season. The whole camaraderie between the sellers and the buyers. The petit cafes and terraces along the streets as well. It’s just so delightful to see and experience all of them in one place.

Oh, I guess it’s time for lunch? See you for lunch in my next entry...

Travel Period: May 2009

Friday, May 29, 2009

Morocco: A Walking Tour in the Ouarzazate Medina

So we decided to take a tour guide for the walking tour in Ouarzazate Medina.

We have been left without a choice anyway since the medina, and well, the whole Ouarzazate town really does not look like its a place where tourists just walk around. There are just not many visitors here and it is definitely not a place for a non-local to be walking around on their own. Other than it is extremely hot, there are really not many places to hang out to pass time.

I need of course a souvenir picture in the medina derbs (means alleyways).

So we began the walking tour with a little history lesson. Back in the old days, Ouarzazate was the crossing point of merchants. It is an important trading point for Africans crossing over to Europe from the sub-Saharan continent.

Our amiable middle-aged tour guide told us that UNESCO built the streets in the medina so visitors can enjoy and partake in the Ouarzazate experience. Before this, the pathways were not fit for walking. It was all muddy. The narrow streets in the medina now are semi-paved, not cemented or asphalted, instead, they made use of local indigenous materials. There is no overlay but a hardened surface made from mud and clay.

I did wonder about the situation when it rains? Puddles of water will probably form making the roads muddy again. Well, it is the desert here so the question I need to ask perhaps is, does it rain here often? Maybe not. At any rate, the roads are walkable. Thank you, UNESCO.

We quite enjoyed this little walking tour. It is definitely a different world here.

Because Ouarzazate is very close to the desert, many Saharan excursions begin here. We would have loved to take part in the Saharan expedition but we needed at least an overnight stay in the desert. Too bad, but we didn’t have enough time. Well, maybe next time then?

The diamond geometrical pattern is a popular design here in Ouarzazate's medina. On the doors, windows and tiles.

There were very few tourists... I felt we were outnumbered by the locals there and to think there were not many there. It makes our Ouarzazate experience purer.

Blondine and I with the tour guide.

Travel Period: April 2009
Destination: Ouarzazare (Drâa-Tafilalet), Morocco

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All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Typically Dutch 006: Pannenkoeken (Dutch Pancakes at Marienwaerdt)

Pancakes! And pancakes the Dutch way! =)

Traditional Dutch pancakes are thicker than French crepes and thinner than the usual Hungry Jack pancakes I grew up with.

Pancake restaurants are actually a HUGE thing in the Netherlands. It is a local thing and it’s where families frequent during weekends. With every ingredient thrown into a bowl and mashed until muggy, no wonder the Dutch Kitchen is ever (never) going to make it to international cuisine stardom, but guess what? Dutch pancakes are a constitution here in its own right!

So, if you are one of those seriously looking at taking a real peek and experiencing Dutch food the “gezellig” way, take my word and look for a pancake restaurant. And outside Amsterdam please because Amsterdam is not the Netherlands.

I had to delete fotos of my recent Marienwaerdt weekend of nature pleasure because I forgot to upload the fotos from my camera to my laptop and I need to make room for my Normandy trip. Arrrrgh! Well, I have already forgiven myself. This is the only surviving foto of my Marienwardt weekend with the Dutchman, our Dutch pancakes. Mine is ham and apple, his is ham and raisins.

Dutch pancakes, unlike its counterparts, are like ice cream. They come in many flavors and with different toppings.

I’ve had ham and apple pancake in Mariendwaerdt while Dutchman had ham and raisin pancake. I saw unique pancake specialities on the menu, some with vegetables, seafood, and even meat like shaorma! I haven’t been brave enough to try them though as I can’t imagine sprinkling powdered sugar on them. I like my pancakes with powdered sugar. Please. Thank you.

These pancake restaurants are usually barns and farm houses converted into convivial restaurants with open terraces, a large playground for the children and in most cases situated near a forest, park or estate. A very typical Dutch family thing is to go for long walks with nature during weekends and ending it with a hearty pancake treat.

In time I have accumulated a few favorites in my list. The row of inviting pancake restaurants in Lage Vuursche near Bilthoven has been on my mind lately, perhaps its time to go back there. The popular pancake restaurant in Rhijnauwen in Bunnik is another favorite choice. Instead of always going by car or bike, why not take the boat trip (romantic idea) from Utrecht Center through the Rhine River to this pancake restaurant? And recently, I have been in Mariendwaerdt in Beesd where they also serve yummy pancakes!

I just remembered now the pancake boat restaurant with the Dutch flag I saw in Germany. Think it was in Bremen or Cologne. A floating or traveling Dutch pancake restaurant. Cool.

Visit Period: May 2009
Destination: Beesd, Geldermalsen (Gelderland), The Netherlands

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Morocco: Visiting Kasbah Taorirt in Ouarzazate

After our traditional Moroccan lunch, the group headed to Kasbah Taorirt. It is the former residence of Pacha Glaoui, the ruler of Marrakesh and the south of Morocco.

Many thanks and special mention to UNESCO for funding the renovation of this Kasbah and for paving the streets in the medina. Entrance to the Kasbah is 20 DH per person and this is exclusive of the tour guide. So the group arranged a tour guide for the Kasbah who will act as our guide, as well as later for the medina walking tour.

I forgot the name of our friendly and very professional guide. He was a bit older and had a lot of knowledge about the town and the kasbah. He was quite good.

With a smirk on his face, he narrated the history of Kasbah Taorirt including the love affairs of the Pacha who had four official wives and several concubines. I guess this is pretty normal here in Morocco, in the Muslim culture, even up to this day, that if you have the power and money, especially the latter, then you indeed have the freedom to have, rather collect, as many wives or mistresses.

Anyway, he continued on that the Pacha announced to his wives that the wife who bears him the first son will become the favourite wife, or in other words, the ‘head wife’. The head wife will be entitled to better benefits in the marriage. She will have her own big, extravagant and ostentatious bedroom, a long entourage of maidservants at her beck and call, and she obviously has the Pacha’s favour.

Now, this is the interesting part: The head wife will also have a special viewing room for festivities happening in the inner courtyard. Women back then are not directly shown to the public so the wives and concubines are literally stowed away like protected objects in rooms.

For example, during festivities, the Pacha together with his officials sits in the open balcony while the wives were kept away in their viewing rooms. These viewing rooms have windows mounted with iron grills. The head wife, in this case, will have her own large private viewing room whilst the 3 other wives share a smaller one. Privileges.

Honestly, I will not last a day being a wife of the Pacha, even if I become the head wife. I am too headstrong and independent and cannot stomach being the subservient half. Goodness, no, thank you!

View from the balcony of the Pacha down to the inner courtyard.

Painting exhibit in the Kasbah.

Left picture is the lovely wooden ceiling, more information below. Right picture is our tour guide (he was quite good) standing on the open vestibule, it is like a chimney or garbage chute that is used to bring food from the kitchen basement up to the rooms by using the simple lever and pulley technology system.

The ceilings in floral and geometrical patterns are lovely even in their bad state. The paint used are henna and other natural ingredients. UNESCO I believe channelled a lot of money into the Kasbah’s renovation but perhaps more money is needed to fully preserve and renovate them to their former glory.

I believe this is the viewing window of the 3 wives. The right picture is one of the restored rooms.

Of course being in Morocco, the Kasbah is not complete without a hammam.

The hammam was quite primitive though and I can only surmise that women were so tiny back then. The entrance doorway to the hammam was so small it can be mistaken as a children’s playhouse. Inside the hammam you can find another hole, albeit tiny. If you slither yourself into it (I cannot imagine I would do that) you can enjoy a much warmer treatment.

OK, I would rather stick to the hammam at Club Med Marrakech!

View from the Kasbah to the medina.

Next: Walking Ouarzazate’s medina.

Travel Period: April 2009
Destination: Ouarzazate (Drâa-Tafilalet), Morocco

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All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Normandy Roadtrip

Hi, I just got back from a lovely long weekend road trip in enchanting Normandy! Foto below is taken at Le Mont St. Michel.

On my last day in the region I got a SMS from the Dutchman and I can’t help but express my sheer amusement.

Sooo typically Dutchman: “Zit je nog in een stoffige Franse dorp of ben je al onderweg?” Translation: Are you still in a dusty --he actually meant stale and decomposing-- French village or are you on the way back?

You know, it’s very hard to convince someone who has seen the world, or rather, every nook and cranny of France in this case.

More fotos and stories to follow soon...

Travel Period: May 2009
Destination: Le Mont St. Michel (Lower Normandy), France

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

At Schiphol Airport: Call Me

In Amsterdam Schiphol Airport while waiting for our flight to London, my companion (my work colleague) got hungry so we searched for a place to eat and we found this bar restaurant that has the coolest gadget.

Hmmm.... I bet... if only the Netherlands HORECA (Hotel, Restaurants & Cafes) alliance would unite and invest on these “Call” buttons to be present on every table, the elusive “Customer Service” perhaps might improve in this little country?

At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (going to London)

Travel Period: April 2009
Schiphol-Rijk, Haarlemmermeer (North Holland), the Netherlands

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ouarzazate, Morocco: Doors to the Desert and our Rooftop Restaurant

I’ve previously written on this blog about our hellish drive on the steep zigzagged Col du Tichka Pass in the High Atlas mountains with our looney ADHD Moroccan driver. Well, you just don’t know the massive relief we felt when we have finally reached our destination for the day—Ouarzazate (pronounced as Oo-war-za-zet).

*sigh* I cannot stress enough what a relief it was!

A traditional shop in clay selling carpets outside the medina.

Ouarzazate, as many Moroccans tell us is the ‘Doors to the desert’. Many African traders from the sub-Saharan continent cross here on their journey to Europe, and like many other important Arabic city, Ouarzazate has its own gorgeous spread of carpets as well.

Ouarzazate bears another nickname as well, ‘The Hollywood of Morocco’. The biggest film studio in the country is located here. We did a quick visit to the Atlas Studio but didn’t go inside. The film studio has a hotel and there were memorabilia and posters of the movies shot in Ouarzazate. Many of them are famous real Hollywood films that I know. Here is a list of films shot in Morocco

For lunch, we went to this al fresco restaurant with a rooftop terrace overlooking Taorirt Kasbah and the medina. This place was really nice. It was made of similar material, mud clay, as the kasbah in front of it. Blondine and I picked a nice table with a nice view.

We were given a menu to choose from and I ordered a chicken couscous. The food here was OK, nothing spectacular really but it went well with us. The desserts they served were typically Moroccan and looking so bright and pretty. Mouth-watering sliced oranges with cinnamon top and some crunchy looking pastry called ‘kaab el ghzal’. It is an almond paste filled pastry shaped as a gazelle’s horn. Yummy I know, but I will pass as I am already full.

Unfortunately, I did not take pictures of the food.

After lunch, we went down and had tea at the garden of the restaurant while waiting for the rest of the team to finish. We’re quite looking forward to the next item on the agenda.

Our first glimpse of Ouarzazate from our moving vehicle.

The cool rooftop restaurant where we had lunch. I forgot to take pictures of our food.

Blondine and I at the rooftop restaurant having our souvenir shots.

Taorirt Kasbah and the medina in front of the restaurant (just outside of the medina) which I believe is the next item on our agenda.

Travel Period: April 2009
Destination: Ouarzazate (Drâa-Tafilalet), Morocco

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All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Zadelstraat in Utrecht

One of my favorite streets in Utrecht Center: Zadelstraat

This street has a very local jive unchanged throughout the folds of time that gives me a really nice feeling when I wander in here.

I’ve come to love this street way back when I found a shop selling dazzling signature shoes (helaas the shop closed!). Since then, I’ve shopped other notable finds here, the latest, well actually this was sometime back, a large hand-made embroidered shawl from India. The owner of the boutique was a friendly and chatty gentleman. He told me he usually goes to exotic tradeshows around the world every couple of months for his boutique supplies.

Zadelstraat offers a great perpendicular panorama of Utrecht’s treasure, the 12th century Dom Tower.

This stretch of a street bids a couple of cafe-restaurants with open-air terraces, gift shops, home and furniture shops, antiques, ateliers, leather shop, specialty boutiques, traditional Dutch drugstore, clothes store for men and women, shoe store and even an organic food shop.

I’ve had many fotos taken of this street but these were taken less than two weeks ago by my Nokia Nav phone when I rushed to buy a birthday gift for my niece (who’s 13 and taller than me!) on a Saturday morning.

Visit Period: May 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fascinating Ksar Ait Benhaddou

Going to Ait Ben Haddhou was another drama we didn’t totally expect. Having read about this UNESCO World Heritage place, I swore to myself -- I MUST VISIT HER.

We were speechless when we saw Ksar Ait Benhaddou for the very first time.

Persuasion powers needed

We first went to Ouarzazate which I will write about in a separate entry later. Had lunch there and spent a couple of hours checking out the kasbah and the medina. The next plan on the agenda was to quickly visit the Film Studio and then we will be on the road to Ait Benhaddou which is about half an hour away. But ADHD driver said we can only visit 1 site as we don’t have enough time left and we must return back to Marrakech before dusk to avoid being caught driving in the dark on the zigzagged Tichka cliffs. Since we are near to a film studio, much to my dismay, we all somewhat agreed to go there. Fine.

When we arrived at the film studio, we were told that we have to wait for half an hour for the tour guide to arrive. Now that gives me ample time to voice out to the group and convince them that since we are pressed with time, and with the so-called ‘time does not exist’ concept in Morocco – never trust them when they say the tour guide will arrive in half an hour because they never come in time, I explicitly suggested to go to Ait Benhaddou instead. Blondine pitched in to make the proposition stronger.

The group finally came to an agreement except that the driver told us, ‘If you have seen a Kasbah (we visited the Kasbah Taourirt in Ouarzazate), you have seen them all!’ The Algerian girl who was adamant in visiting the film studio camped on his side.

‘We’ve come to visit the real Morocco, not some fake film studio.’ the Catalan couple blurted out. The Swiss couple joined in, and I and Blondine pressured the driver – WE MUST GO TO AID BENHADDOU! DARN IT. NOW.

Speechless Ait Benhaddou

Outnumbered, the driver hesitantly got back inside the mini-van and we all drove in silence to Ait Benhaddou while the Algerian girl was sulking like a little kid, heaving deep sighs and clearly showing her disagreement and apathy to the rest of the group. I mean, hello? This is why I hate group tours. This road trip is turning into a real drama, lol. Anyway, everyone ignored her.

Upon arriving at Ait Benhaddou we quickly alighted and driver told us—Half an hour only! We agreed sheepishly but wondered if we can keep the promise. The Algerian girl, as selfish and childish as she is, remained in the mini-van with her French boyfriend, sulking and pouting like a 5-year old. Too bad for her, she missed the highlight of this road trip.

Donkey ride retour costs 20DH while entrance to the kasbah is 10DH.

Six of us walked to the direction of the river not knowing what is waiting for us out there. I have only seen Ait Benhaddou on pictures and honestly I was a bit worried that it might be a disappointment as I have dragged everyone here, lol. But my cares disappeared like bubbles into thin air when we saw the magical Kasbah emerge in front of us. We were speechless....! We literally stopped on our tracks and stood there in awe. WOW.

WOW! We were mesmerized by her ancient beauty!

Now, it would have been charming to ride on top of the donkeys transporting tourists to the other side of the river but we saw the Swiss couple took off their shoes, folded their trousers and started crossing the river barefooted. Oh now, that is a good idea. Why not? So we followed suit.

The entrance to the Ksar is 10DH (€1,00). Most of the town's villagers have migrated to live in a more modern village at the other side of the river; however, ten families still live in the old Ksar village.

Typical Moroccan architecture, high walls, small windows, with geometrical details and sometimes inscriptions. This kasbah now part ruins is all made up of straw and hardened clay.

Ait Benhaddou is a conspicuous exemplar of the southern architecture of Morocco, a traditional pre-Saharan habitat comprised of mud and stone buildings with high walls. Because the Kasbah is made of clay, during rainstorms it constantly incurs damages.

Several films have been shot here including: Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, The Living Daylights, The Man who would be King, Jewel of the Nile, Time Bandits, Alexander, The Mummy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Gladiator, The Sheltering Sky.

The narrow street above reminds me of one of the scenes in the movie, Jesus of Nazareth when Jesus passed by sitting on a donkey. Who know, if the scene was actually filmed on this same street?

Views to the River and the New Town

The view from Ait Benhaddou down to the river and the new town across.

Entering the Kasbah truly brings you back in time, back in the A.D. I was in high spirits exploring the primordial place, climbing the mud steps that are now hard as cement, peering into cracks, sliding into small openings and venturing into narrow alleyways. I don’t think I was not alone in this exploration journey as everyone seemed to have lost track of time.

Time really freezes when you are inside the Kasbah. Did the driver say half an hour? Bwahahaha – he can wait!

We also saw donkeys moving about and the Jesus of Nazareth movie, the scene when Jesus came back to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on top of a small donkey was brought up in front of me, a very vivid image I guess, I had to blink my eyes to bring myself back to reality.

I am such a sucker for villages and anything ancient for that matter. Thus I am immensely elated to have visited the ksar and experienced it.

Our souvenir picture of beautiful Ait-Benhaddou.

Travel Period: April 2009
Destination: Ait-Benhaddou, Ouarzazate (Drâa-Tafilalet), Morocco

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