Camel riding on orange dunes pt2

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Camel riding. Well, that would be a first for us, since we hadn’t even ridden a horse before. The camels looked intimidatingly tall, but whatever stories we had heard about their stroppy character left our thoughts as we gazed at the serenity of their eyes.We reluctantly rode our camels and slowly marched towards the orange hills of the desert.

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The first leg of our trip was through a grayish rocky terrain that didn’t seem too impressive. Even if it had been impressive we wouldn’t know about it anyway, as we were trying to figure out how to stay on our camels humps. It didn’t take that long though before everyone was looking comfortably settled on their camels. The tension we felt prior the ride diminished gradually and gave its place to audacity as our concern was now focused on taking the best shots and enjoying the scenery.

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Our small caravan quickly reached the orange sands and we started climbing up and down the small sandy hills. After a while a feeling of discomfort started overwhelming us though as our limps and back started aching due to the ride. Thankfully we made a short break and stood amidst the sand-dunes as our eyes feasted voraciously on the seemingly never-ending desert scenery.

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Finally after a two hour camel ride, we reached our camp. We were told to sit on a waiting area and someone quickly informed us about our lodging. We had booked a separate tent which turned out to be a part of a larger elongated tent separated by a large rug from the other “private tents”, but the bed was extremely comfortable. After hanging around with our party for a while, it started to rain, which came as a surprise, since none of us was expecting to face rain in the Sahara (a few months later it actually snowed in the desert though) and after a while a sandstorm broke out.

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That didn’t last long though and after a while it seemed as if none of this had happened. We were called to supper and we entered another elongated tent, where we all sat down and enjoyed some tajine and mint tea. It was a great way to end a tiresome day but the fun wasn’t over yet. After dinner a band of Bedouins started playing traditional music and some people even started dancing. It was a great thing to watch, but suddenly someone dropped the idea to leave the camp and walk nearby for star gazing.

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Well, we didn’t think much of this idea at first, but we decided to go along and it was a great choice. we laid on the sands gazing at the clearest sky ever, we could see so many stars and for the first time in years the galaxy. After chatting around a bit and enjoying the magnificent Saharan sky, we headed back to camp since we would have to wake up early tomorrow.

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I think we woke up at 5.00 or something like that. we hadn’t slept long enough and we were very tired, but this, the last day of our trip would be the most demanding, since we would have to spend approximately ten hours on the road. However, before riding the bus, we would ride our camels once more. After sorting ourselves up, we found our camels patiently awaiting for us. It was almost pitch black as the sun hadn’t set yet and we were all too tired to talk. Our trek began in total silence and there was something mysterious in the air. Laugh all you want, but I felt as if I was escorting the three magi at that time. The serenity which came along that silence was extremely soul-soothing. I couldn’t give in to that feeling at once though and I tried to talk to Catherine for a while before quitting my attempts and surrender myself to that liberating silence. Nothing seemed to matter, it was just a party of people, camels and thoughts, slowly crossing the Sahara as many more people had been doing for centuries.

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The silence broke as soon as the light began to turn the dark sands to their bright orange colors. We made a stop before the sun set, to view the sun dominating the desert sky and we walked up the hills once more. After a few photo shots we rode our camels again and continued our journey to the meeting point with our tour guide. We enjoyed breakfast and a quick shower and hopped on our bus to Marrakesh. However, during this ride, we had a casualty that would put us into some small trouble, once we would be back in the city…

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Camel riding on orange dunes part 1

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Having enjoying a pretty adequate rest in our room, we woke up the next day, feeling better than ever, eager to reach the desert. We joined our party for breakfast and hopped on on our mini bus to continue our tour towards camels and dunes. Of course, before fulfilling our goal of camel riding we would make some stops along the way to admire the Moroccan countryside.

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Although all we could think about was our imminent encounter with the desert’s most eminent dwellers, there were actually lots of interesting things to marvel at along the way. We made a small stop near Tinghir (I think) in order to admire the view and I recall there were many children approaching us, selling handicrafts made of something that looked like reed leaves depicting camels. Poverty is a serious issue around the area and I’m not sure on what would a proper stance against such a sight would be. We simply bought a small camel a memento of a poverty stricken childhood and took some photos of the valley that laid down bellow our feet.

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Another team of children greeted us on our next stop a small village in Todgha canyon. They were also selling small handicrafts and asking for money, but our guide advised against giving them anything on the grounds that these kids would probably skip school in order to pursue the life of a beggar. After a while most of them stopped following our group and we walked down the valley to the fields where we were given a tour that would complete its course inside a house, where we would watch a display of Berber rugs.

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The fields were quite charming, split in half by a small stream that gave life to all those plants, but most of the flora was typically Mediterranean, so there was not too much that seemed exotic to us, since we, along with other members of our group, hailed from the European south and many of the trees and plants we saw were very familiar to us. What caught our interest was a small plant with purple flowers that is called hashish but unlike the well-known drug is simply a source of a pigment used in dyeing fabric or something. We also learned that the locals were using a time share system in distributing the water, as there were small channels carved all around the tiny valley and petite dams no taller than 50cm in height stopped the water from its route to the neighboring fields until it was the neighbor’s turn to water his field, who, I guess, would remove the small obstacle and place one between his field and the next person’s in line, thus entangling the water to a labyrinth of small channels watering his plants.

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We passed through many old buildings before entering the house where a display of rugs would take place. We were offered tea and witnessed the process that produces the marvelous piece of art Moroccan rugs are. I was a bit familiar with parts of that operation as I had seen old ladies use similar methods in villages around my hometown. After a few of the girls tried their luck in carding and spinning the wool, which seemed like a very hard job, we were introduced to the world of Moroccan carpeting for half an hour or so. I have to say it was a rewarding experience and a very safe one if you consider what has happened to other people who had to face aggressive vendors in Moroccan shouks.

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We walked through the valley, crossing the small stream once more, once again surrounded by small children selling handicrafts or asking for money to buy a foot ball. Once on our bus though we left them behind and made the short ride to the nearby gorge, where the stream had turned into a small river and many tourists locals and foreigners alike gathered around its shores bathing, attempting successfully to cast away the heat of the cruel Moroccan sun. After that visit we also enjoyed lunch – a very decent one compared to the one we had the day before – at a restaurant situated by the river shore, before venturing forth to a long trip to Merzougha and the Sahara.

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Psychedelic hills

The route took as across the regs that precede the orange desert dunes. There were only a few signs of human presence apart from the road while the shape of the Atlas mountains way far in the distance was majestic. We made one more stop at a convenient store in the middle of nowhere to stock up on water (we were told to have three large bottles per person) and we also bought another turban (I had already purchased one in Ait Benhaddou). We were impressed by the bags that we got from the store as they weren’t plastic (we were told that high temperatures make them inefficient and furthermore camels eat them and die as they cannot digest them).

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Finally, the shape of some small orange hills started to form further away, as we approached the place, yet these hills grew larger as we approached them. We weren’t expecting anything like that, I was imagining the desert as a flat sandy area with much smaller hills, but these outskirts of the Sahara resembled a huge sandy wall. We were finally looking at a small portion of a vast area of nothingness that passes through so many countries and stretches up to almost 5 thousand km long crossing the entire North Africa.

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Soon we spotted lots of camels and guides awaiting for tourists. We stopped at a hotel were we could take a quick shower and hanged around for a while. We were told to wear long trousers (I believe that’s to avoid the scratchy camel fur), leave any non essential baggage behind and pack lots of water (check out this list of camel riding tricks). After everyone and everything was set, we marched of to meet our camels…

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Note: After successfully defending my thesis a couple of months ago, I have just finished with the last finishing touches and I’ll be done with this process by the end of the week. That means that I will now have more time at my disposal to run this blog. So, fingers crossed, I’ll finish posting about our trip to Sahara and after that I’ll start posting on our travels to Southeast Asia. In the meantime I’ll probably manage to get ready for this year’s trip.

 

Day one of our Desert tour- part 2, Spending the night at Dades Gorge

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After tasting a rather indifferent lunch we resumed our trip towards our next stop, while enjoying the magnificent scenery the rocky desert offers. The view compensated us for our recent unsavory experience and made me regret that I wasn’t that interested in that part of the Sahara, before this trip. The desert consists of three types of landforms, Ergs, , the typical Sand dune scenery, which are the ones we were mostly keen on visiting and Regs, where gravel is predominant and which we were crossing through at that moment on a speeding air-conditioned mini bus. The third type of desert landscape are the Hamadas, elevated masses of rock like the Atlas mountains, which could be seen far on the horizon.

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On our way out of Ait Benhaddou, we passed in front of a movie studio, which stands as a gentle reminder that many famous movie and tv stars have worked in this place but what surprised us most was the mild raindrops that serenely knocked on our bus. Could we perchance witness a rainfall on the Desert? The scenery kept me company for most of the ride as Catherine took a nap while we were traveling through the grey gravel covered terrain which altered to an orangie- reddish hue that was sprinkled with a few scarce notes of green. Some old wrecked Kasbah’s and a large traditional styled building near a small oasis were interrupting the landscape’s monotony, while an almost dry river bent seemed to make a claim that this arid scenery would not prevail over it so easily.

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Our next stop was Vallée des Roses, an area famous for its rose production as the name suggests, where an annual festival takes place sometime in May (the date depends on the collection of the roses). We only made a brief stop near the small village that lies on this valley, so we don’t really have much to say about the place (I found some info here though). We did make a stop to a small village on the following day though and I kinda feel that there’s not much difference between the two (except from the rose scented air of course). There was a small shop where we bought some water and we visited a gift shop where there was a small exhibit of instruments used for the distillation of rose oil, but we were familiar with the use of rose oil and water for cosmetics and pastries, so we were not that impressed, although the experience will probably satisfy anyone else. My guess is that the May festival must be the highlight of this area, but we were a few months late.

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In the afternoon we made a short stop to enjoy the fantastic view of Dades valley, where  a velvety green foliage shone intensely through the reddish colored rocks rewarding even the most demanding gaze. It kind of reminded us of Meteora (where we constantly concur that we should pay a visit in a few days, but we never do make the short two hour trip to show up there). This view was a great way to end a long day of sightseeing and we rushed back on our minibus for the last leg of our ride for the day. After a while we entered Dades gorge, where our hotel laid and we eagerly rushed into our room hoping that it would be comfortable enough to compensate us for the last sleepless couple of days. Thankfully, the room was great offering a sensational view of the gorge from its little balcony.

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We enjoyed a shower and relaxed on that small veranda for a while, before joining the rest of our party for dinner, which was tasty, but with very small portions (even a five year old kid wouldn’t savor its appetite on that amount of food). Nevertheless, we were tired enough and keen on resting on our room, regaining some strength for tomorrow, the dawn of the day we had been anticipating more eagerly while we were planning this trip. I never dream, but I’m certain that I dreamt of camels and dunes that same evening.

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Day one of our Desert tour- part 1, way to the yellow city of Yunkai

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To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we subscribed to this particular tour as the booking process seemed a bit odd to us and the price was awkwardly cheap compared to the ones offered by other tours. We are glad we didn’t regret it though, as it proved one of the best experiences ever. Before venturing on this trip, we were mostly eager to be in the Sahara, overlooking most of the other stops on the tour’s itinerary, but the scenery straightened up our minds and senses easily to our benefit.

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We chose the tour offered by Marrakech desert trips and – as already stated – it was an excellent choice. After resting for a few hours in the tiny and hellishly hot room of our riad, we got our luggage once more and walked towards the nearby Cafe de France, a meeting point for many such excursions as we came to understand. While waiting there on the square, that was shyly beginning to fill up with vendors several tour guides approached us checking out if we were on their lists, till eventually our guide showed up and gathered most of our group after a while.

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The Berber alphabet among some local artworks

 

We got comfortable to our seats and after a couple of short breaks – for picking up the rest of the group and refueling – Day one was on. Our driver proved to be an awesome and skillful fellow and soon I was left alone admiring the route – as Catherine was falling asleep by my side, after all the – insufficient sleep experience was running for the third day, up to that point.

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It took a while to escape the city that was starting to wake up, as people were preparing to begin their busy day, but as we got outside of Marrakech, the scenery changed and I noticed some open air markets in most of the villages (in some of them the vendors were using their trucks as a shop) and hills that were loaded with prickly pears (a familiar image in Greece as well and possibly in many Mediterranean countries). Many buildings seemed old and they blended harmonically in the scenery but the similarities to Greek landscape became more intense when we started climbing the mountain road, until eventually we made a short stop on our route in order to buy some snacks and water (and allow any smokers to have one).

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Our next stop was on the Tizi Ntichka pass, which is the highest mountain pass in North Africa. The place is considered to be the gateway to the Desert and is offering great views to the barren mountainous landscape. Our next stop was at the main highlight of that day’s itinerary, the village of Aït BenHaddou, a Ksar (fortified village that is) where many old and modern films have been shot. Among them Pasolini’s Oedipus rex, Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nasareth, Scorsese’s last temptation, R. Scott’s Gladiator, Stone’s Alexander etc while most recently the village was a filming location for the series Game of Thrones (as the city of Yunkai).

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The village consists of many Kasbahs (fortified houses) made of clay, most of which are abandoned, as the villagers live opposite the hill where the original dwellings stand in more modern accommodations. A wide but dry river bend separates the old village from the modern settlement (we were told and saw it in a couple of old photos, that a few decades ago, the river was running wide and mighty on its bend, but nowadays just a small stream of melted snow flows down that path in springtime).

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The name of the settlement signifies that the tribe of Aït , descending from the chieftain Haddou dwells on the spot. The Berber tribe that lived there had strong ties to each other and were originally pagan, before converting to Islam, but many of them were also of Jewish faith and there were even a few Christians. Our ascent to the hilltop would be a tricky one as the sun was high on the sky, but we would be refreshed by some short breaks inside the cool Kasbahs, whose construction material acted as some sort of heat repellent. The ceilings were made of some large wooden logs and many dry reeds, while the walls were mostly made of clay and straw. When we got up a flat rooftop of one of the houses, I thought I felt as if my feet were standing on a rocky boat, but it seemed like a solid construction.

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Catherine looked very pretty in her green dress and panama hat. A bit later she looked pretty exhausted and after a while, I even left the group for a few minutes, as I purchased a turban and the kind old vendor offered to help me wear it on my head, Berber and Tuareg style. I guess my appearance caused some laughs to our group, Catherine certainly found it funny and I was very happy to wear something to assist me battling the sunlight. We also visited an artist who used a technique to make drawings, by which he would use his materials to put the shapes on the surface and then introduce the drawing surface to some heat, so that the shapes would finally form the drawing.

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After reaching the hilltop, where the old granary was situated, it was finally time to leave the old village. We made a final stop to a souvenir shop, where we bought some much needed water and sodas, while I acted as a turban model to everyone’s cheer once more and I have to say, it was a very funny experience.

Subsequently, we marched to a restaurant to have lunch and I was mostly eager to taste Tajin for a first time. The place offered the choice to a three course menu for the price of ten euros, which was ok, maybe slightly overpriced compared to other places we visited, but it ain’t a big deal. The food was below average though, but thankfully that experience didn’t discourage us from trying a few more tajin dishes during the following days.

 

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Landing on Morocco

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We were about an hour away from reaching the African continent and we were quite tired as we hadn’t slept on a bed since we left Lisbon, a couple of nights back. Spending a night on the train to Madrid and most of the day walking around the Spanish capital, put on some extra weight on our backs and all we could think about was the bed that awaited in our riad. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses houses that feature an interior courtyard. We were eager to reach ours as we were so tired that it would probably seem like a palace to our eyes once we got there. To our disappointment there was a huge line for passport control once we landed, resulting in us missing the last bus to Jemaa el Fnaa, where our riad was situated. That meant we had to catch a cab, which implied that we had to haggle with the airport taxi drivers.

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Haggling is a thing that Catherine hates – even if it is about clothing, but it is an affair I am mostly keen on delving into whatever the object of trade. However we were tired and a cab was our only realistic option to reach our bed without much hassle, so we started the show with the man in charge for hooking up drivers and passengers. The original offer was twenty euros (200 darahim), but after a while we agreed on fifteen, which taking into account that the time was way passed 1.00 am and there were no bus, seemed like a good choice. We had to threaten that we would rather walk downtown in a rather theatrical manner and start our bargain at the ridiculously low fare of five euros. The price could possibly go a bit lower, but we weren’t interested in gaining an extra euro or two not to mention that if anyone had offered to guide us straight to a place where we could drive all of our fatigue away, we would gladly pay triple the amount.

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Needless to point out that the driver couldn’t leave us outside our riad, since no cars are allowed inside the narrow souks, so we would have to do some walking. We wouldn’t have any time to enjoy the city as we had to catch a bus and take part in an organized tour to the Sahara early in the morning, but we would return to Marrakech after a couple of days. The thing is, we were so close to our accommodation, yet we were tired and disorientated and what’s worse we had no internet access. As we were also carrying our luggage among the crowd, looking lost, we were becoming potential pray for scammers that offer to help confused people to find their way.

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Actually a small group of them followed us for a while and we ended up taking a small break for a refreshment inside a small cafe, as it had been hours since we had tasted a drop of water. In the end we struck a bargain with one of these guys that offered to guide us to our riad for the price of a mere euro. We haven’t formed a clear view on these sort of services yet, but I will disclose my opinion on the matter on a next post, as we had a couple of more similar encounters once we were back in the city a couple of days latter.

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The facilities in our riad were fairly basic, as we booked this place intending to take a short nap, so we couldn’t find any point in spending more money for something more pricey. It was an adequate choice, but we would avoid booking there if we had planned to spend more days in Marrakesh. Finally, we took a long anticipated shower and had a few hours of sleep, before enjoying the main part of our journey, a trip to the desert. Taking into account that we had been on the road for the past couple of days, joining a three day tour without proper rest didn’t really sound like the best of choices, but it proved to be less tiresome a task as we imagined and one of the best choices we made during this trip…

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Nomads’ tajine

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Tajines are a variety of North African dishes, named after the clay pot whereh they are cooked, in which various kinds of meat can be used – or not, thus turning it into a simple yet tasty vegetarian dish (we tried beef, chicken and vegetable, but we also found lamp and meatballs). We had tasted lots of it while in Morocco, some were below average, others were simply not bad, but some proved exceptional choices. My favorite was the one I had at La Cantine des gazelles in Marrakech, a chicken tajine with apricots, plums and almonds.

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The dish I enjoyed most while in Morocco

I tried to emulate that taste, based on recipes I found and adding some more stuff to achieve the final result. The main problem I was faced with is that I don’t own a tajine pot. It wasn’t such a big deal though, as I used a pot to boil the ingredients and a deep, covered braising pan to roast them. So, here it is. For a dish that can easily serve six people, you will need:

  • About a kilo and a half of beef
  • 1 and a half small spoons of cumin
  • 2 small spoons of cinnamon
  • ¼ small spoon of turmeric
  • 1small spoon of ginger
  • salt
  • pepper
  • some olive oil
  • water
  • 2 onions
  • beef stock
  • about six plums
  • 2 large spoons of honey
  • 3 aubergines
  • 5 carrots
  • 4 zucchini
  • 4 potatoes
  • some almonds
  • Patience

We start be cutting the meat to medium sized pieces, before boiling it in low heat for a couple of hours to make it as tender as possible.

After that rather slow, yet easy process, we take the pieces of meat and spray them with cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, salt, pepper and some olive oil and mix it to ensure the spices reach every last piece of it.

Then we heat some olive oil in a large saucepan and when it’s super hot we place the pieces of beef on it for a while and turn it around to make sure it gets a nice color in every side. It won’t take long and once we are done with this step, we add enough water to cover the meat (you can use the dish where you mixed the beef and spices to do that, establishing that more spices will contribute to the final result). That’s it for now, all we have to do is cover the saucepan and boil in medium heat for nearly a couple of hours.

After patiently awaiting for that long, you have to throw in the sauce pan the finely chopped onions, the plums (sliced in halves), the honey and the beef stock and let it boil for a while (five minutes maybe), before throwing in the vegetables. If you don’t have such a large sauce pan (I didn’t) never mind. They will boil in the oven anyways, so it’s not really such a big deal.

You must be equipped with some sort of deep braising pan that has a cover. That is if you don’t own a tajine (I didn’t and I can live without it). Then you throw the content of the saucepan along with the vegetables and almonds in that braising pan, cover, place in the oven and wait for nearly a couple of hours. Enjoy!

We are back!

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Hey there! What a great adventure that was! This year’s project turned out to be tremendous and we had lots of fun, having the opportunity to admire sites in three countries as we moved in airplanes, metro, buses, trains, taxis, even camels. Of course given the limited amount of time at our disposal and the rather large sum of places we wished to visit, some places were left out of our itinerary, but that was expected, albeit sadly. We also had some tough luck regarding our equipment, as Catherine’s phone got a screen crack, her tablet broke and her camera had a minor malfunction that we managed to overcome a few seconds ago and succeeded in moving our photos in a hard drive (MY hard drive, so I guess they are safe from what ever curse has befallen my beloved girl’s electronic devices- and I have to say, I’m very glad I am not a cyborg).

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We encountered many people, hanged out with a few, chatted in some Portuguese in Lisbon, had some laughs with a wannabe gangsta crew on our way to Madrid, even got acquainted with the ambiguous tactics of strangers offering guiding instructions while in Marrakesh and also visited Barcelona after the tragedy on La Rampla, which added a bitter tone to our trip.

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We’ll add detailed descriptions of this year’s journey on the following posts over the next weeks, so, stay tuned…

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