Sunday, 12 April 2015

Chefchaouen - dreaming in blue

There is a place in the foothills of the Rif mountains of northern Morocco that has enchanted independent travellers for decades. It is Chefchaouen, locally called simply Chaouen, a small town with houses painted blue and the verdant hills all around it.

I arrived in Chefchaouen on a Tuesday afternoon after a four-and-a-half bus journey from Fez (it costs 75 dirhams, which is around 7€): it was the end of March, and the weather was miserable. With three nights booked at Riad Baraka, I hoped that it would get better, so that I could enjoy my stay properly, and perhaps do a little hiking in the mountains as well. Since it was raining hard, I spent the first night in the hostel, warming up against the electric stove and chatting with the other guests, as if we were on a ski holiday. It was a nice evening: we were all travelling alone in Morocco, we came from many different countries and had previous experiences of independent travel.

A cat in the streets of Chefchaouen

It was during that first evening of rain that I learned about the history of the town. Chefchaouen was founded by Berbers of the Ghomara tribe, and it was later resettled by the Moriscos and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The entrance to the city was forbidden to all foreigners, and especially to Christians, until 1920. The few travellers who managed to enter back then found Jews still speaking 15th-century Andalucian Spanish. The houses were painted blue in the 1930s by the Jewish inhabitants of the town, who have since left for Israel or other parts of the world.

A street in the medina

In Chefchaouen the men all wear the djellaba with the hood on, as if they were Moroccan wizards, and some of the women wear a traditional costume that includes a straw hat.

A man with a djellaba


A wall in the medina of Chefchaouen
Luckily, the following morning the rain had stopped, even though it was still chilly and cloudy. In spite of relying mostly on tourism, I found Chefchaouen to be authentic and charming. The choice of food to try seemed to be more varied here than in other parts of Morocco, including Fez and Marrakesh. I tried anchovy tagine, home-made yogurt, squid, sardines, and of course the harira soup that you're offered at the beginning of most Moroccan meals. A dinner at Bab Ssour - a very friendly, cheap and traditional restaurant we found hidden in a corner of the medina - only cost me 65 dirhams (6€).

Selling fruit in the medina of Marrakesh

In the main square of the town, Place Uta el-Hammam there is a Kasbah that you can visit for a few dirhams, with great views of the hills from the top of the tower and a good exhibition on history, traditions and customs in the area. I also hiked to the Spanish Mosque, which is worth not so much for the building itself, but for the views.

View of Chefchaouen while hiking to the Spanish mosque

On the way to the mosque you pass by Ras-el Maa, a small waterfall where women do the laundry and locals come to take a walk. The hills, when they are surrounded by clouds, give a rather mysterious aura to the place. At times, I thought I was in a Central American small town.

A view of Chefchaoen and its hills

Once we arrived to the top of the hill,  where the Spanish mosque stands, we found a relaxed atmosphere , and sat there for a while, observing the women who were looking after sheep and goats.

Grazing sheep in Chefchaouen
People come to Chefchaouen to relax, to learn about Moroccan culture, or to hike. Most likely, you will not find annoying tourists who shout or behave in inappropriate ways. Even though Chefchaouen is in the middle of an area which is famous for the production of kief and for the easy access to marijuana, I found that the kind of people that make their way to Chafchaoen do not care too much about it. I didn't meet anybody who wanted to get stoned all the time, or that was really interested in touring the illegal plantations.  
The rooftop of Riad Baraka
The medina of Chefchaouen is small, clean and not at all smelly. What a change from the aggressiveness of the medina in Fez with its smells and its touts! Nobody will bother you here, except the occasional man who unconvincingly tries to sell you hashish or lead you to your riad. It is a relaxing experience if compared to a walk in the medina in Fez or Marrakesh. A few days in this town will introduce you to the culture of northern Morocco, with its mish-mash of Andalusian and Berber influences.

A door in the medina
A corner of the medina
Selling dry fruits in the medina

When strolling around town, among blue doors and colourful pots with plants of all kinds, prepare for an array of pleasant surprises. During my wandering through the narrow streets I found  a local art gallery, a hole in the wall selling samosa-like pastries for 5 dirhams (0,40 €) and an improvised market stall (in the picture below).

An improvised market stall in Chefchaouen
An art gallery in the medina of Chefchaouen

I did take a hike on Thursday. Together with other 5 guests from the riad, we made our way to Parc National de Talassemtane, about half an hour away with a grand taxi. The return trip cost us 400€ (€37,50), the six of us squeezed in an old Mercedes. There are several possibilities here: either you make your way to God's Bridge, or to Oued El Kelaa waterfall. We chose the latter, two hours and a half away. The hike was overall I bit more difficult than we expected: it had rained a lot, and because you have to cross the river several times by jumping on some rocks, it was impossible not to get wet.

The canyon in Parc National de Talassemtane

The landscape, with canyons, clear bodies of water, and wooden huts with refreshments, reminded me of my hike in the Samaria Gorge in Crete. On the way to the waterfall we encountered very few people, most of them Moroccans. At the end of the hike, we finally found the waterfall. It is a beautiful sight, in peaceful surroundings, and we were the only one exploring the area.

Oued El Kelaa waterfall
We were told that there was going to be food, but probably because it was not high season, we found the bar unprepared. We managed to order a few fried eggs, served without cutlery, a pot of tea and some biscuits.

We quickly made our way back to the entrance of the park and we found a local restaurant, where we ate a delicious kefta tagine and a plate full of grilled sardines. This was one of the best meals I had in Morocco, and not only because I was hungry.

My three days in Chefchaouen ended with warmer weather and finally some real sun.

View from the Kasbah


Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was born in Istanbul, in the neighbourhood of Beşiktaş to be precise. In his memoir "Istanbul: Memories of a City", he describes the city with its variegated reality and complex history, both honestly and passionately.

Yet, the Istanbul Pamuk writes about is not exactly the city we know today, modern and colourful, cosmopolitan and full of life. It is the city  he grew up in, one that looks back with nostalgia at its glorious past, which is no longer the capital of an empire but wished it still was. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the author uses Istanbul to talk about himself, and that the city becomes a double for the writer. It is undeniably true that the Istanbul of sultans and harems is long gone, but the city the author remembers, with decrepit wooden houses, pastry shops he visited as a child hand in hand with his mother, and dilapidated streets is not entirely a thing of the past. You can glimpse it now and then, if you happen to get lost or wander some of its more modest neighbourhoods, for example Fatih. Once inhabited by the middle-class of the city, the area around Eminönü is now prevalently a dilapidated neighbourhood that has been taken over by immigrants from other parts of the country.
View of Istanbul from the boat
This books helped me get in touch with Istanbul, understand its long history, and appreciate the apparent decay of some of its neighbourhoods and the shining newness of others. By reading this memoir you'll make the acquaintance of sultans and paşas, Western writers fascinated by the city, and the characteristic yalis. I understood something about these wooden houses on the shores of the Bosphorous only because I read this book. It is not apparent, by walking through the streets of the city or by taking a boat tour, how much of the city heritage was lost due to fires, decay and careless demolitions, for instance.

Istanbul panorama

Pamuk lingers on the memory of opulent Ottoman palaces falling to pieces, then he tries to explain how Ottoman minds used to think, through a quirky encyclopaedia of the city written by a certain Reşat Ekrem Koçu, explaining how the author freely inserted stories, personal opinions, anecdotes and even his sexual preferences into a publication that was inspired by Western encyclopedias but had a distinctive Turkish flavour. 
A wooden house in Sultanahmet

Pamuk's slow, descriptive style and his penchant for sad tones might be a bit hard to digest at first, but I think that this book is a great introduction to a complex city that has had a million lives since it was founded more than 2,500 years ago.

Galata Bridge

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What I love about Southern Europe

It's not a mystery that I love southern Europe. With this post, I just want to share the reasons why, and post some more pictures of four really special countries that have a place in my heart: Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Among the countries in Southern Europe that I haven't visited, Croatia, Montenegro and Malta are at the top of my list, and I might be able to visit some of them this year.


The blinding white of the marble of the temples and of the whitewashed houses in the islands are set against the blue sky of the even bluer sea: Greece is a country in white and blue, like its flag. And then of course how not to mention its incredible history, among the reasons that make Greece one of my favourite European countries? In Greece you're constantly walking in places whose history goes so far back that they are shrouded in legend: Knossos and the minotaur, the Acropolis and the first philosophers, but also the fascinating history of Atlantis, who many historians believe to be the enchanting island of Santorini. 

The Parthenon

This soldier in his strange attire, mounting the guard in front of the Parliament building in Athens, must have been very hot, given that there were almost 40° that day. One thing that I love about Greece is that at times it feels very familiar - Greece is Italy's "cousin" after all, as Greek people have told me endless times - and at other times it feels unfamiliar, almost exotic: the different alphabet and that incomprehensible but beautiful language, the culture that mixes Western and Ottoman, and the distinctive food.

Changing of the guard in Athens

It's really impossible not to fall in love with the relaxed pace of life of this Mediterranean country, especially in the islands: those whitewashed houses with colourful doors and stone pathways, the pots of flowers on display and the cats languidly brushing against them, everything there seems to be made to please the eye.

The beautiful village of Oia in Santorini


The mudejar architecture of Andalucía, the loudness of young people eating tapas in a bar while sipping their clara or a vermut, the vitality of its cities with cutting-edge contemporary art, I love this country so much that I decided to move here from Italy last July. I've visited Madrid and Toledo in the centre, Andalucía in the south, Barcelona and several towns in Catalonia, not to mention Zaragoza halfway between there and Madrid, but there is a lot more to see.  

The Alcázar in Seville, Andalucia

On my list of places that I still haven't visited in Spain but that are on my list I can mention Granada, Valencia, the Basque Country and Costa Brava. I'm sure that each one will have its own cultural richness, its own signature food, and magnificent landscapes to be enjoyed during sunny days.

Detail of the cathedral in Tarragona

The endless struggle between those whose love Barcelona and those who prefer Madrid will never end. Both cities have plenty to offer, they are beautiful, with plenty of sightseeing and renowned museums, with thousands of bars and little restaurants to try. What's more, even though we are speaking of bit cities, people are friendly, food is good, and the atmosphere is laid back.

View of Barcelona from Tibidabo


Being such a variegated country, with snow-capped mountains, great beaches, cities full of art and enchanting villages, even a person who spent most of her life in Italy has a lot to discover. Every new area explored has its own cuisine, its own history and traditions, its own dialect and regional pride. My favourite region is perhaps Tuscany: the countryside around Siena and the gracious dome in Florence, and the simplicity but richness of its cuisine are just two reasons that make me love this region of Italy.  Whenever I am in Tuscany - I have been four times I think - I have the feeling that everything is heart-felt, made with great care and expertise, not to mention imbued with history.

Statue of Garibaldi in Pisa

The north of Italy, foggy and cold in the winter, with elegant towns such as Verona or Mantova, not to mention the peaceful beauty of the lakes (Lake Maggiore is maybe my favourite), sets a harsh contrast to the chaos of the south, passionate, loud and enticing as it is. It almost seems impossible that the Amalfi Coast and Sicily are in the same country as Lake Como!  

The countryside near Padua
In Italian culture it is important to savour one's meals with friends or family, and to simply relax without getting too stressed. And of course art runs in our veins: I just love the amount of art and culture that I can absorb during a trip to a random Italian town.

Vatican Museums, Rome


A bit cranky, relegated to the last bit of land before the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is too often skipped in European itineraries, but it's a really beautiful country. Overwhelmed by the awareness of a great past and an uncertain present, Portugal has saudade written all over it. By simply walking the streets of Lisbon or by reading the poems of Pessoa, you actually perceive this feeling of longing and irreparable loss, felt in the melancholy of the fado.

An old tram in Porto
It is a pleasure to sit outside, enjoy the sun and order a plate of sardines or bacalhao, while having a chat with the friendly locals. Portugal is cheap, beautiful,  and what's more important still not overtly touristic. Here you don't have to bother about touts or being ripped off, but you can enjoy the authenticity of the place you're visting, the good weather, and the port wine of course!

Lisboa and its famous bridge

A street in Alfama, Lisbon

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Porto - the charm of a "crumbling" town

I must confess that my first impression of Porto was not that good: it was raining and cold, and for being eight in the evening the town looked pretty dead... and dilapidated. Moreover, the street where my hostel was located seemed to be abandoned, how could my cool hostel  - rated one of the best in the whole country - be there?
"Dilapidated" is an adjective that fits perfectly for Porto: the town centre is full of crumbling houses, but that's what makes Porto charming. As I learned during my stay there, the town is in such a state not because of poorness, but because wealthy people have chosen to move out of the historical town centre to more chic neighbourhoods, leaving centuries old townhouses in decay.  
Some of the decaying houses of Porto

Plenty of construction works in the historical centre means that something is being done to restore and use these beautiful old houses with colourful iron balconies and red-tiled roofs. Soon they won't be just dusty skeletons with broken glasses, but something more, hopefully a reminder of the history of the town. 

A windowsill in the centre of Porto

In the historical centre of Porto
The best place to experience the charm of Porto is Ribeira, the area along the river Douro with breathtaking views of the famous iron bridge Dom Luis I. I took a walk along the bridge to take pictures of the colourful houses, and then I explored a little bit of Vila Nova de Gaia, the town on the other side of the river, where the famous port wine is made. Even in the fog and with a cloudy sky, it was a very atmospheric walk in a part of the town where the time seems to have stopped.
Porto and the famous bridge Luis

View of Porto from the bridge Dom Luis I

Porto is full of churches whose outside walls are decorated in azulejos, these white-and-blue ceramic tiles that I learned to recognize during my travels through Portugal, Spain and Morocco. In Portugal they are such a distinctive architectural element that you can find them even in train stations - such as Sao Bento in Porto - or in tea houses.
Igreja do Carmo

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

"Porto is an adventure in colours", writes José Saramago in his travelogue Journey to Portugal, and it is true: the colours of the houses in Porto left me speechless. Even the most humble houses have ceramic tiles, intricate and colourful iron railings, and perfectly-fitting windowpanes.

Colourful houses in Porto

A place that I didn't want to miss in Porto was Livraria Lello, one of the most famous bookshops in world. It is really beautiful inside, with an art deco staircase leading to a second floor, and a cosy café where you can sip a cup of coffee while reading something. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, so I can show you only how it looks from the outside. To be honest, the shop attendants yelling at the customers not to take photos annoyed me a little: nobody wants to spend time looking at books in such a tense atmosphere.

Livraria Lello

The sun finally came out the last day I was in town. Porto looked liked like a completely different town now: without the gloomy skies, the colours of Porto came out in all their glory. I walked on my steps, retracing the spots that had a great potential for nice pictures: the iron bridge and the riverfront in both Ribeira and Vila Nova da Gaia, not to mention the esplanade near the cathedral.  Porto is the kind of town that does not have a lot of sights to visit, but that charms with its views, its colours and with the warmth of its people. It may feel gloomy at times, as if the town had seen better days and is now mostly left to itself, but I think that's what makes it special.

View of Porto with the sun

View of Porto

Backstreets of Porto

View of Porto from the Bridge Dom Luis I

View from Vila Nova da Gaia
Eating a francesinha by the riverside, and of course not being able to finish it, was another thing I was able to enjoy in the sunshine during my last day in Porto. This huge sandwich with many different kinds of meat, melted cheese, a beer sauce and French fries is typical of Porto: not exactly a light meal, but one that you can enjoy after a long morning through the streets of Porto, climbing staircases and going uphill only to go down again.

Not finishing my francesinha. Problems of being in Porto

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sintra - A Thousand and One Fairytales

As you may have gathered by now, I have a sweet spot for places that seem to be trapped inside a fairy-tale. The most common day trip from Lisbon is undoubtedly to the town of Sintra, where I took my dose of fairy-tale dreams during my recent stay in Portugal. Easily reachable by train from the capital in half an hour, Sintra has been for centuries the privileged residence of kings and queens. Because of its beautiful natural surroundings, it offers nice walks in the wilderness, but also charming stone-paved streets where you can soak in a distinctive Portuguese atmosphere. The reason why Sintra is so famous, though, are the castles and palaces that make Cinderella and Snow White look like real tales.

Palacio da Pena on a sunny winter day

From Rossio train station in Lisbon, a 4.10€ return ticket took me to this magical land of moss-covered trees and mysterious woods. The centre of Sintra is within a pleasant 10-minute walk from the train station. Here there are small restaurants, souvenir shops and B&Bs. Lord Byron raved about this small town, and this is why you will find streets and restaurants bearing his name.
A peculiar stone staircase called after Lord Byron
I immediately recognized the Palacio Nacional de Sintra from the pictures I had seen in guidebooks and travel blogs. With its funny conical chimneys, it does not look particularly charming from the outside, but rather a bit clumsy. The combined ticket (Palacio Nacional de Sintra + Palacio da Pena) does not come cheap: 19€. "Whatever", I thought, "you gotta do what you gotta do".
Palacio Nacional de Sintra seen from the outside
The interior of the palace positively impressed me with its distinctive style. I have visited countless royal palaces in my travels, including Versailles and Schönbrunn, but this one had something unique. Maybe it is not as luxurious as others, but it had its own style. Its blue-green mosaic decorations on the walls, the bizarre objects on display (like these decorative hens!) and the vague Moorish style certainly caught my attention. This area was the siege of power since the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus, which controlled most of the Iberian peninsula, but this particular palace dates back to the 15 and 16th century.

Hens as knick-knacks

Interior of Palacio Nacional de Sintra

In spite of the bizarre and underwhelming look from the outside, Palacio Nacional de Sintra is elegant inside. The famous Sala dos Brasões is full of coat of arms on the ceiling and of beautiful azulejos on the walls. I had never seen a room decorated like this in all of my travels!

Sala dos Brasoes in Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Once visited the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, I hopped on a touristic bus that in a few minutes left me near Palacio da Pena. There aren't many other options to reach it, I'm afraid, unless you're up for an exhausting uphill trek. The bus costs 5€ and it's hop-on-hop-off, so you can use it several times, and you can also stop in Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). Palacio da Pena is one of the most eccentric palaces I have ever seen, a sort of Iberian Disneysland that reminds me of another uber-famous 19th-century Romantic castle: Ludwig of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.  Palacio da Pena is located on top of a hill, and it incorporates Medieval and Islamic elements. It was used by the Portuguese royal family until they were forced into exile in 1910. The bizarre colour juxtapositions - blue and yellow, grey and red - make it look like a mish-mash of different inharmonious elements, and honestly it is a bit kitsch.

Palacio da Pena

Palacio da Pena from the outside

Inside it, I found it less interesting than Palacio Nacional de Sintra, but I really loved the central courtyard. Needless to say, it was decorated with beautiful azulejos.

The beautiful courtyard in Palacio da Pena

What you cannot miss - and I hope you'll have a sunny day like mine - are the views: the woods on one side and the plain with countless small towns on the other side. There are gardens to explore inside Palacio da Pena if you have plenty of time in your hands. As for me, I was starving, so I headed down to town for a hearty meal of bacalhau com natas, a real Portuguese treat.
View from Palacio da Pena
A last palace was left to explore, before heading back to Lisbon: Quinta da Regaleira, which was a real surprise. The suggestion to visit it came from the staff at my hostel in Lisbon, Sunset Destination Lisbon. I can never thank them enough for this and many other tips. In spite of being the least famous and the least expensive of the palaces I visited in Sintra (6€), Quinta da Regaleira was by far the most beautiful. You can literally spend hours exploring the park and you'll never get bored. It is Gothic and romantic in style, with paths and views studied to leave an impression on the visitor.

A corner of the gardens of Quinta da Regaleira 

It is located in the historical centre of the town, so unlike the Palacio da Pena for which you have to take a bus, it is easy and quick to reach it. Pinnacles, gargoyles and elaborate neo-Gothic decorations are among the elements of the actual mansion, but the real star are the gardens. Lakes, extravagant grottos, fountains and statues decorate it in ways that are never banal.

Quinta da Regaleria

Quinta da Regaleira - still autumn

The famous "inverted tower", or initiative well, has obvious alchemic connotations. It is an upside-down tower, going deep into the earth instead of trying to reach the sky.

The initiative well
You can actually walk down the tower, and then follow some dark and humid tunnels until you find yourself on the other side of an artificial waterfall.

Seeing a waterfall from behind

Everything here is just perfect, like in the fairytales. Just have a look at this view of the Moorish Castle and of the surrounding hills, for example. I spent about one hour and a half exploring the paths of Quinta da Regaleira, and came out of the estate when  the sun was beginning to set. 
The view of Castelo dos Mouros from Quinta da Regaleira
What I liked the most about Sintra was, however, the atmosphere: the trees (in December it was still autumn), the winding roads and the elegant houses. In Sintra one of the most pleasant experiences is just walking around, smelling the fresh air and letting yourself be charmed.

Along the street in Sintra
Sintra, along the street

A house in Sintra. In the background, you can see Palaco Nacional de Sintra

A stone-paved streets in the back streets of Sintra

Did you like Sintra? Would you let be charmed too?
01 09 10