Monday, 9 April 2012

Marrkesh - squares, souks and surviving

During my recent time off work I spent four days in Marrakesh, Morroco. It was booked reasonably last minute and I have to say I did very little research beforehand. I'd been to Egypt before so was perfectly prepared for the attention I would get for being young, female and very blonde. Having spent a summer in Ghana I knew how to barter confidently and expected the Moroccans to try and rip me off. But actually, although this prior knowledge helped, nothing really prepared me for Marrakesh!

We took the bus from the airport to Djemaa el-Fna in Medina (known as "big square" - if you look like you are lost the locals will shout "big square" at you and expect a tip to point you back towards Djemaa el-Fna. Realistically you should never need directing back to the big square as the largest minaret in the Marrakesh skyline is that of the Koutoubia Mosque, which is visible across the city and located right next to Djemaa el-Fna.)

Djemaa el-Fna

One of the things that became apparent when trying to find our hotel was that addresses are approximate locations, one road may have more than one name, and even with an exact address very few streets actually have name signs to tell you which street they are. It's probably a good idea to get a taxi from the airport if you are visiting for the first time. The airport is only bout 6 miles out of the city and a fixed price can be agreed with the driver prior to the journey.

We returned to Djemaa el-Fna the next morning to begin exploring and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The open area of the square is full of snake charmers, monkey handlers, dancers and henna painters all keen to lure you in. The henna ladies will try to draw on your hand, the snake charmers put a snake around your neck and you may even find a monkey jumping onto your shoulder. There's no mention of money and it's easy to get lured in, especally on your first visit to the square. Of course they all expect money and will ask for crazy amounts and follow you across the square if they don't think you have paid them enough. However it's all part of the Marrakesh experience and the atmosphere is second to none.

Caught by the snake charmers

The snake charmers got us on our first visit to the square and tried to charge us the equivalent of £8 each for the experience and for taking this photo, and we're pretty certain Tim's snake was dead!! Just remember very few prices in Marrakesh are fixed and you can barter with the street traders as much as anyone else. They will do their best to make you feel guilty and will always try and push prices up but walking away and ignoring them once you've parted with as much cash as you are willing does eventually work and they'll just move onto some other tourists.

After escaping the square entertainment it's advisable to take a minute with one of the orange juice vendors. Freshly squeezed orange juice is 4 dirhams (about 30p) and is to die for. You'll need it before heading into the souks (markets).

The souks are like rabbit warrens filled with little market stalls. We found the easiest way to approach them was to just follow them through until we'd had enough, find an exit then reorientate ourselves by spotting the Koutoubia minaret. It's virtually impossible to keep track of where you are in the souks and that's all part of the fun. They are roughly organised into sections so you'll find several stalls selling the same thing clustered together. Spice square is well worth a look for the mounds of colourful spices, but custom regulations make buying any spices to take home pretty difficult. There are no fixed prices in the souks and I made a decision not to buy anything the first day. Instead I looked at what was available and decided what I would like to take home with me.

The souks from above - complete with satellite dishes!

In terms of prices the general rule in the souks is to ask a price, start bartering at a third of the asking price and don't pay more than half. Use the fact that there are many similar stalls to your advantage - the traders know you can walk away and get the same thing elsewhere. Traders will try every trick in the book to get you to pay more, usually stating their goods are better quality than the identical ones on the next stall. Be willing to walk away from a sale which is just not going in your favour - remember you can find an identical product just round the corner.

If the souks are really too much for you then visit the Centre Artisanal in Kasbah (just down the road from the Saadian tombs - also well worth a visit). Here you will find the same goods as in the souks at fixed prices. You're more likely to be sure of the quality but you can get identical products in the souks for cheaper. However the air-conditioned building, with toilets and noone pestering you can be a tempting place to buy anyway. Discerning shoppers will use the prices here, find what they want to buy then go back to the souks to barter a better price. Using the Centre Artisanal prices as the top price you are willing to pay, it's far easier to be confident when haggling in the souks. And if your bartering fails, you can just return to the Centre Artisanal to buy!

Marrakesh can be hard work but it's hard not to fall in love with the place once you get used to it. Having been traumatised on my first visit to the square, four days later I really didn't want to leave.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Getting away

One of the big problems with working for a small, short staffed team within the NHS is that taking annual leave is always difficult. That's how I ended up with 3 weeks off in March. Usually I spend my holidays diving but a change in circumstances I ended up with 3 weeks and no plans.

I decided to take a series of short breaks and in doing so was reminded of something: the UK has some seriously beautiful places. It's easy to jet off abroad and notice beautiful things but it's much harder to notice them when they are just on your doorstep. More on the individual places later but first a few pictures that prove my point.

Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Cave on the beach at Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Beach at Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Sunset over Windemere East Shore, Lake District, England

Reflections on Thirlmere, Lake District, England

Reflections on Thirlmere, Lake District, England

Just beautiful.
And all taken in March!

Monday, 19 December 2011


Sometimes in life we meet people with whom we don't have to make an effort. Such people are rare and their friendships special. I feel honoured to have met several people who fit into this category and I consider them my best friends.

This time last year I lost one of these special people. He hadn't been my friend that long in the grand scheme of things, I'd only known him about 18 months. And yet Mike had a way of making you feel like you'd known him forever. He was one of the most laid back people I have ever met and it didn't take much to make him happy; a bottle of Brother's cider, his iPhone, cycling, his "ladies" (by which I mean his bikes) and, once he moved to the Cayman Islands, scuba diving. One of my few regrets is that I never got to dive with him.

Mike's death hit me hard. He was four weeks older than me and my first close friend to die. In fact Mike's death hit everyone hard. As the news spread nearly 300 friends left tributes to him on Facebook. So many of them had never met each other and yet they shared similar memories. He wasn't one to change the way he was around different people. Mike was just Mike and everyone loved him for that.

Writing this feels a little surreal, partly because it's still hard to believe Mike isn't still in the Cayman Islands enjoying himself and partly because Mike would be the first person to tell me to stop being such a girl. So, in the spirit of optimism that Mike was well known for, yesterday, on the year anniversary of his death, I was reminiscing about the good times and the little things that made a normal guy so special. Here are some of my memories.

The first time I met Mike I was fairly certain I'd never see him again. If he'd have been any other person I probably wouldn't have. Mike and I met soon after we both moved to Oxford and went for drinks. Unfortunately this meet up didn't go as planned - I had food poisoning and passed out in the pub toilets, leaving him to come last in the pub quiz. Mike being Mike took all this in his stride, called a taxi and took me home to my housemates before walking home himself. It was a strange start to a good friendship but on that day I realised that Mike was special.

From that day on we did a lot together. He taught me how to drive in snow when about three inches fell whilst we were out for curry one night. He taught me how to use my iPhone. He introduced me to one of my favourite films. We laughed together over How I Met Your Mother. None of it sounds that special I know but somehow he had a way of making it so. It's easy to think that the only reason my memories are so fond is because Mike is no longer here, but you only need to read his Facebook wall, or the comments following a blog post written by some of his Cayman friends immediately after his death to know that that's not true. Mike was quite simply one of the good guys. I mean just look at that grin...

Miss you Red Hoody Guy!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Being British

Over the May bank holiday my best friend (who also happens to be my ex-boyfriend and ex-housemate and a lovely Welshman) came back from spending six months living and working in New York. Unfortunately for those of us who like spending time with him he was only staying for 10 days before returning to NYC for the foreseeable future. That said, guess where the majority of my holidays will be being spent from now on! (More on my recent holiday there another time.)

Anyway, back to the point. Ina was visiting Oxford and I for four whole days and, having become a little concerned he was becoming a little too Americanised, I planned a truly Bristish experience. The first day he arrived I booked a table at The Trout, a lovely little pub in Wolvercote on the bank of the Thames for a traditional Sunday lunch. I had Lemon and Thyme Roast Chicken with Apricot Stuffing whilst Ina went for Pork with Crackling. It was rather nice to find a Sunday lunch menu that served the full variety of typical meats. The menu offered a choice of roast chicken, pork, lamb, beef or salmon. We celebrated the beautiful weather of the bank holiday weekend with a jug of Pimms. You really can't get more British than that! The food was lovely and the afternoon was made all the more British by an afternoon constitutional afterwards down the Thames Path, which was great until we finished our walk a good 2 miles from where we had parked the car and had a less pleasant walk going to retrieve it!

The next day we hired a rowing boat from the little hire place behind The Head of the River and went for an hour rowing on the Thames through the grounds of Christ Church College and past the University boat houses.

This hard work was rewarded with a lovely cider in the garden of The Head of the River. And yes I even like my cider pink!

This was all followed by a picnic in the grounds of Christ Church where we lay in the sun on my new shiny picnic blanket and indulged on a variety of exciting foods and cloudy lemonade in plastic cups.
You really can't beat lying in a meadow, even if it is in the middle of Oxford City Centre.

Day three was spent in Burford, a little town in the Cotswold just north of Oxford. Burford (and indeed the rest of the Cotswolds) is famous for cream teas and this was the main purpose of our visit. However it seemed a waste to not enjoy some of the countryside whilst we were there so we went walking down bridle paths and across fields before returning to the town for our treat.

For our afternoon tea we visited Huffkins Tea Rooms on the main street. One of the first things that struck me was they had a whole menu devoted to Afternoon Teas and Ice Cream Sundaes. This really was my kind of place.

Having chosen a cream tea for two we were soon tucking into scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam accompanied by their special blend tea, served in a teapot with a hot water jug, milk jug and sugar cubes. This may not seem much to the average Brit but for Ina who lives in New York where you can't get even a decent cup of tea made with a teabag this must have been bliss.

I've got to say I enjoyed being truly British for the weekend and appreciating what Oxford and the surround countryside has to offer. I plan to do much more of it this summer.

I love being British.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Summer has come early

So, it's Easter weekend but it appears the weather is a little confused and thinks it's August bank holday instead. For the past week or so the temperatures in Oxford have been well over 20 degrees. Therefore lunches on pharmacy hill outside the hosptial have become common place and summer dresses and sandals are making an appearance. (Luckily, I already had my summer wardrobe ready and waiting thanks to a recent trip to Mexico.)

Unfortunately I have to work two days of this bank holiday weekend (one down, one to go) however today I have a full day off work. One of the joys of living in Oxford is that by travelling a mile or two out of the city centre you find yourself in rolling countryside. Today I plan to find some countryside, maybe a nice country pub with a beer garden, ideally on the banks of the river. Or maybe I'll just end up sunbathing in a friend's garden with a nice bottle of cider... who knows! The best thing about British bank holiday weekends is that you're allowed (and expected) to be lazy and do whatever you want. Oh and it's also St George's Day so I'm guessing there'll be lots of drinking and celebrations wherever I go.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Gino's Spaghetti House

It only seems right that the place that finally prompted me to blog again should take pride of place as my first real post.

My housemate Yen and I have become accustomed to impromptu dinners at random restaurants either when we're too tired/don't have the ingredients to cook or, on days like today, where we simply want something to do on a glorious spring evening. 

We walked past Gino's Spaghetti House last week whilst on our way to see the replay of the National Theatre's Frankinstein to the Phoenix Picture House in Jericho (more on that later.) We'd already eaten but commented on how great it smelled as we walked past, and vowed to return.

The weather is glorious in Oxford at the moment and having returned from a long day at work it seemed such a shame to waste the evening so I met up with Yen in town with the plan of wandering and dinner. Having spent half an hour chatting in the beachwear section in Debenhams (don't ask!) we went in search of somewhere to eat and remembered the little Italian we had discovered last week.

The place was virtually empty so we did a quick Google search just to make sure it didn't have horrendous reviews and were pleasantly surprised at its four star rating. We decided to risk it! The little restaurant reminded me of one I had previously visited in Bologna, Italy with its indoor ivy and a quirkily painted map of Italy on the ceiling. We were greeted by a super polite waiter who showed us to a little table by the window and presented us with menus. The first thing we noticed was that the prices were very reasonable (as cheap if not cheaper as the chain Italians on George Street.) Fifteen minutes later I was tucking into the "Chef's Special" pizza, which was listed in the menu as 'everything the chef can get his hands on' and made all the more special by the chef coming out of the kitchen to look at me before he prepared the pizza. He judged well with his ham, olive, mushroom and pineapple concoction! I also treated myself to a glass of the house red which gave me ample opportunity to explain to Yen what 'legs' on wine were, something I'd learnt at a wine tasting course a few weeks back. Yen had the Spaghetti Annamaria which combined creamy and tomato sauces with hot chilli. She seemed to enjoy it! Having left a good quarter of my pizza (which was delicious but far too much) I asked the waiter to pass on my compliments to the chef as I didn't want him to think I didn't enjoy his specially picked out ingredients. The waiter proceeded to clear our table and take the dishes to the hatch of the kitchen where he said fairly loudly (presumably so we, as well as the chef, could hear) "Compliments to the chef!" Wasn't quite what I was expecting but perfectly in line with the quirkiness of the restaurant.

The bill came to less than £20 between us, the service was impeccable and the food delicious. Needless to say we'll be returning to Gino's.

Well hello

Recently, when browsing the internet looking for things to do and places to go in Oxford, I have realised that there are just not enough people blogging about the good, the bad and the downright ugly here.

I have stumbled across some real gems of places by pure chance and think more people should visit them.

I intend to write more about Oxford (and other places I visit) than pharmacy and my cats. However I find it hard not to talk about pharmacy and my cats so you'll just have to bear with me.

Ju xx