Farewell and the International Camino Packing Champions!

Before I get to the farewell I want to share with you a little about our night in the Albergue.  The Roncesvalles one is the largest I have stayed in on the camino and for that alone it is worth the experience. There are hundreds of beds in a recently fitted out 3 storey dorm.  Last year I had been privileged to be placed beside the Korean national snoring champion you may recall – I survived the night without actually holding the pillow over his head and committing murder!  This year the same person may not have been so lucky!  I was in peak condition.

This year our Korean bunk mates surpassed all expectations by not snoring at all.  However they had another far more annoying expertise.  They commenced packing with torchlights at approximately 4.30am in the morning and you can imagine we were not pleased when 6am came around and they were still packing!!!!!  I was on the lower bunk and was targeted by their torches and tussling to the extreme.   At some point (and I admit to swearing under my breath and probably over it)  I cried “please turn the light on, take your gear and go!” Actually Ill admit it was a little more demanding than this.   Michelle also chirped in telling them the same. Thankfully they turned the light on BUT they continued packing!!!!!   Clearly missing the point of why the light was to come on.  Michelle also let out cries of exasperation and the guys a cubicle over were swearing in Polish I am sure.  In fact I think the Canadians down the end were crying in despair.  The Irish were writing songs.  Stories will pass from generation to generation down the camino about these girls.  I have dubbed these girls not the Korean National Packing champions but, and I truly believe this, they would have to take the international title for Camino Morning Packers –  for taking the longest to pack your bag in an albergue or hostel in the morning.    Have they no shame?  Even the French early risers pack their bags the night before, the Germans never unpack theirs even if they talk loudly as they leave, even the loud annoying people from anywhere in the world (including the Aussies who have drunk too much) don’t start at 4.30 and go for 2 hours.  The Byron bay resort managers that complained about a few whispers when we returned from the bluesfest one night would have keeled over in shock.  My beloved can never again complain about any tardiness I may have exhibited in my camino packing rituals!  Michelle swears she is going back to camping!  I have a few time delay shots to share.  If these packs are in the bunk next to you – take the bed at your own risk!

Well after all this we were awake as you can imagine.  I had to catch a bus a 9.10 am and we went to have our last breakfast together.  Okay, it wasn’t really breakfast, it was coffee and bread!   So we had coffee.  I sent my pack on to Jesus and Maria  in Pamplona and waited for the bus.  Too hard to carry a big pack and wander the city looking for my next nights sleep.  After the snorters and grunters and the international camino packing champions I needed some peace!

I farewelled Michelle and watched her wander off down the camino feeling quite sad and yet so happy that we had started this together.  I took some photos of buildings and people and went back up for another coffee finding it a little too cold to stand out at the bus stop.  I kept wondering how and where we would see each other again.



On the bus a 78 year old Canadian and his nephew sat next to me for a chat.  He was walking bits and pieces of the camino and shared his whole life story in the hours or so it took to get to Pamplona.  Even off the track there are some characters.  I walked them to their preferred hostel using google maps whereupon I bid them farewell as I went to wander the old city and find somewhere close to Jesus and Maria so I didn’t have to carry my pack too far.  I in no way wanted to return to Australia with new injuries now!

I went looking for the bar near the cathedral that my beloved and I had found some great food at last year.  It was closed but as luck would have it a brand new albergue had opened just opposite it.  I went in and asked for a private room but the lady talked me out of it.  50 euros! It’s too expensive and it’s very quiet today she told me.  So I took a bottom bunk in an upstairs dorm for 18 euros with no one else in it.  I had a rest and wrote some blogs and worked out I could change my flight and catch a train the same day if I stayed here two nights instead of trying to spend a night in Barcelona.  I emailed Michelle and told her what I was doing  and headed out to investigate the city.  Again last year I was in too much pain to fully appreciate this beautiful old city.  After ducking into the cathedral opposite, I visited a book fair, Zapaderia Street (shoe street) and discovered a great restaurant around the corner from the albergue with a view over the whole city. I then went back to the dorm and was so disappointed to see someone’s pack in the cubicle next to mine.  But then I looked closely and it was very familiar.

Michelle had done it again almost 50 kms since I had left her that morning!  Lucky she had saved her knees coming down the Pyrenees.  She is an absolute marvel!  We headed out for some food and a look around again.  I could see Michelle was exhausted but I was so pleased to see her.  Everyone else from the Pyrenees wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow.  So we had one nights sleep without any annoyance from snorers snorters or packing champions.  Next morning we had the lady downstairs book us a massage with a specialist camino therapist for the afternoon – I hadn’t done the 50kms but I had done the Pyrenees again.  We went for a wander and booked a reflexology also for the morning.  We ended the day eating Pinxos with a Portuguese friend Michelle had met last year.  He also brought along some Spanish friends and their Spanish water dogs and we ended the day watching the sunset over Pamplona.

Next morning I had a taxi booked for 5.45 so I was up early.  Wouldn’t you know it – a pack of snorers had moved in both sides last night.    I carried my pack downstairs and fidgeted a bit but I couldn’t work out how those girls could fill two hours with the fidgeting bit when it’s already packed.    This time Michelle and I said goodbye for certain and I caught the train to Barcelona ready to head back to Copenhagen to my dear son and to catch up with Mr Wong who was going to pop over from London.

What a great time in Spain again – physical challenges, seeing good friends and meeting knew ones – and don’t forget the mental challenges of sleeping in dorms with friends from all over the world!

Buen Camino!

Just call me Mary – again! St Jean to Roncesvalles – part 2

I failed to mention a very important event in part 1 of this post, I have had a reconfirmation of the difficulties my name causes with many Europeans.   The concept of two vowels with two sounds actually is quite a challenge for some.  When we went to visit the lady who takes bags over the mountain she wanted to know my name so she could write it on the tag.  Simple enough you may say, writing it was another challenge! – it took quite some time before I eventually said  ” Just call me Mary !”  

So the day continued with us going up up up after our brief sojourn at the mountain refuge with its circling vultures.  Maybe they have had some luck there in the past – who knows – we were not going to be their dinner tonight!  Michelle went on for a while and we passed the water fountain where everyone has to have a photo – henceforth so did we.  

By this time we had a little rain on and off and it was quite cold if we stopped for too long.  Shortly after here was the sign for Navarra – we were now in Spain.  No visa checks, no passports, barely noticeable except now every 50 metres were numbered posts which I don’t recall seeing last year and were no doubt for the benefit of rescue workers when things weren’t going so good for the pilgrims.   

I clearly recall this track in the wet last year!

We were able to see the steep drops beside the tracks clearly and the heavily treed risky areas that may prove treacherous for pilgrims when the whether is bad.  I caught up to Michelle and had another short break with shoes off in memory of the Mexican camino Angel last year.  (You know the guy who appeared everywhere with shoes off every hour swearing you can walk forever).  It was a little too cold to stay for long and while we rested a young gentleman from Greenland stopped briefly and looked at us and told us where he was from before engaging in an awkward silence for a couple of minutes.  He may have been catching his breath and needing a rest but we both occupied the only rocks in the vicinity.  After a few moments too long of awkward silence he turned and headed off up the road.    Not everyone on the Camino is good for a chat!

Michelle went on first as we headed to the last steep incline and the highest point of the pass at 1400m.  I eventually passed a full size refuge which had been crowded with pilgrims whence my beloved and I had passed last year.  Today it was empty with only a few belongings inside providing a glimpse into the past and the thousands of those who had gone before.  
After a while I lost sight of Michelle and slowly but surely made my way up the mountain amidst sleet and threatening downpours to find her sitting under the last great monument of the Pyrenees – I seem to recall finding my beloved at this exact spot last year.  Both had no doubt had time for a nap and a cup of tea (in this case with a touch of Scotch) and both feeling refreshed when I arrived. 

I had a couple of minutes breath catching – and we observed an Italian mother on a bike with her young son ready for the steep descent to Roncesvalles.  It was a little difficult to imagine how she had arrived at the top looking so relaxed after peddling her not so lightweight son up the hill.  Maybe she did maybe she didn’t.  I have noticed bikers (and hikers) getting dropped off at different points along the way.  We will never know.  But as we descended on the right side track quite a few bike riders came zooming passed and she was one of them with son in tow.  Likely he is a future daredevil or Ferrari driver!

I recalled the steep descent was closed last year and I had a need to take care of my knees and, after the West Highland Way, Michelle was happy to take the less steep route and give her knee some protection also.  I was feeling a little guilty for slowing her down but she assured me I was keeping a good pace and she was not at all bothered by my lack of speed!  (Well it saved her knees for some later challenges anyway!  Only a very good friend could be that patient me thinks and I will be forever grateful!)

When we eventually reached the bottom a downpour hit again as we headed along the flat into the back of Roncesvalles.  I was so thrilled to be arriving feeling how I imagine others did every day on the camino and I was so lucky to have Michelle as a companion.  We snared a cubicle with two Korean ladies so there was a bit of a language barrier and not a lot of chit chat.  I had a shower and hit the tens machine before heading out for a bit of a survey of the eating venues.  I had suggested we look into things rather than buy the tickets at the checkin point as we had been disappointed last year (with the wine refill not the company).  Anyway we managed a bite to eat in one bar and a drink in the other before heading back for a rest before the pilgrim welcoming mass.  

As expected the mass was crowded and I felt somewhat faint and had to leave before it had finished.  It was unexpectedly hot inside and I realised I had not drank enough water during the later part of the day.  Anyway I headed upstairs to the only real hotel in the town to discover we could eat there and, more importantly I could pay with a credit card.  I owed Michelle some money and we were due to part ways in the morning and I had forgotten the scarcity of ATMS over this side of the Pyrenees!  Whilst I was sitting on the steps outside the mass Michelle also snuck out!  Apparently we did not go unnoticed as there were not too many people around with such light hair it seems.  

We had a nice meal (by local standards) and went to bed reasonably early after such an exhausting day.  I was so glad to have made the trip the second time and, thanks to Michelle’s willingness to walk with me,  I now know how other “normal” people must feel after a day on the Camino.  Tired, muscle ache and a real sense of achievement.  I think I had all those and more last year – the more being excruciating agony after removing my boots in Roncesvalles.  So glad I was in such great company – we had some great laughs and were lucky to have such great weather to catch the views!   I will be sad to jump on the bus on the morrow! Buenos noches!

Like a stroll in the park – Orisson to Roncesvalles – Part 1

Like a stroll in the park for some that is.  While we were eating dinner last night there had been some rain and thunder and,  just as the resident comedian and chef at St Jean had predicted, it was not before we had reached Orisson.  This rain had created the beautiful rainbow yesterday so we went to sleep on full stomachs literally sleeping above the clouds. 

Today we awoke early because of fear of more storms and wanting to have plenty of time to get to Roncesvalles.  As it turned out the synchronised snoring snorting and grunting meant that we were not overly refreshed as we started off but the sun was shining, the birds were singing and again we started up the mountain with smiles on our faces.  Very different to last year whence my beloved and I could barely see 10 metres in front of us, and if I recall correctly, it rained for most of our journey down which of course limited the opportunity for breaks and definitely restricted photography.  This year the views were spectacular.  

Photos of last year

This year 

I’m not sure that these photos give a true indication of how steep some sections are but there was ample opportunity over the next 18km to enjoy some spectacular scenery and actually see the animals whose bells had rung out the whole way last year and had left us mystified as to what they were. 

As you might imagine I strolled along with happy thoughts feeling so lucky to be able to return to the Pyrenees –  knowing how inexpensive the accommodation is and knowing that transport is free (if you exclude any pharmaceutical products and medical interventions required for an injury or two) I was feeling so pleased that my legs were working and my preventative strapping had ensured my feet were actually pain free!  Can you believe it?  After all that pain last year I was actually enjoying the view and apart from being a little slower than others (but not the slugs and snails this time) I was finally feeling how others must have felt going over the mountain into Spain.

It wasn’t all roses mind you.  As we steadily ascended the next 700 metres we would occasionally feel a misguided sense of relief as the path plateaued and even descended at times.  With each step the freshness turned to chill and it wasn’t long before we stopped to put our warmer layers on and I even found my hands too cold for the poles and pulled my gloves onto my hands.  A stark contrast to yesterday when I found myself overheating on the ascent in the sunshine.   We were still on a sealed road when we saw ahead the van that sold hot drinks and snacks.  Whilst he was out of the wind it must have been near freezing where he was located as we didn’t feel sitting there was ideal and Michelle suggested we head further up and find somewhere else to take a break.

 Just off the road a couple of km’s on, and somewhat further up the mountain, was an emergency shelter with some logs outside and we decided this was the ideal place to take a real break and eat our ham and cheese rolls.   Michelle pulled out an avocado and we sat warily as the vultures started circling.  I had just finished telling Michelle that, according to some stories on the Internet, there was a lady who had fallen in the Pyrenees and the vultures had picked her to the bone before rescue workers could reach her!  Needless to say we were not overly impressed with this unnecessary attention!  Thankfully they decided we were far too alive to tackle and headed off to find some other more tasty prey!

A Walk in the Clouds – St Jean to Orisson 7.7km 2hrs walk time ascent 665 m

As luck would have it our first day began without rain – it wasn’t exactly clear sky and sunshine but it wasn’t too bad given that the weather reports suggested thunder and 100 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms.  Our resident comedian and chef informed us that there would be no rain until after we arrived at Orisson.  He wasn’t a German yoda but I had a feeling he knew what he was talking about.  After all he lived at the foot of the pass. We took a few shots of the buildings and of other people taking photos of the buildings, had a bite to eat, and headed down the road to Santiago with smiles on our faces and the cool morning air on our skin.  None of this getting up at 4.30am for our day to begin, clearly that is one of the reasons we became friends in the first place!  We had had a surprisingly good nights sleep in the albergue although I was a little anxious about what the day would bring and Michelle was also a little concerned that her encouragement for me hiking after a stress fracture and a ruptured pf Might result in problems. I assured her Iwas fine and I could always catch a taxi if things went pear shaped.  There was always plan B (until we went off road and passed the point of no return that is) We both had a desire to beat the rain so aimed to be up early and consequently at 7am we were out the gates of St Jean and heading up the hill in a line of pilgrims “on the road again”.

Being the experienced hiker that I am (snicker snicker) I sent on my main pack of course because my feet were being put to the test again and there was no need to prove anything.  The pack was full of Spanish language books and spare shoes and it needed a forklift to raise it into the back of the truck (not really but it was apparently 16 kg when I weighed it in the pilgrims office. Although I later discovered it was actually only 14.9kg). Anyway I wanted to enjoy this hike and not feel like I’d walked through the gates of hell once we went through the wall at the bottom of the street and started going up.  My day pack weighs as much as many peoples packs anyway as I carry emergency everything in case a blizzard comes over and we are forced to find shelter in a mountain refuge for a month (or in case I need to tape my foot or file a torn nail)!  Always comes in handy when someone is injured or something.  Michelle by contrast carries a tent, a cooker and everything but the kitchen sink and probably comes in at 7kg.  Actually Michelle also took a couple of spare jumpers for me as my day pack was clearly too small once I put the chocolate and fruit in! 

So off we went down the hill and out the gate and even before we crossed the road and started the ascent the first thing we came across was a donkey camping ground!  So that must have been where Anthony and Marten (you know the Frenchman with the nice ass) stayed last year!  The memories came flooding back.  

Photo of Anthony and Marten

Thank heavens my memories focussed on the amazing experience that is the Camino and not the pain and torture I had felt in leaving town dosed up on Imodium and feeling like I was carrying a bag of lead across a path that thousands had gone over the ages to reach the wonderful land of Espagna. The Romans had done it and even Napoleon himself had done it I am led to believe ! Surely I could do it again.

The strange thing was that although it was almost a year to the day since I had trod this path last year with my beloved, it felt like only yesterday.  Maybe because hiking with Michelle made it feel so familiar.  I could see that I was a little slower than Michelle but you will all be pleased to know that I was actually faster than the slugs and snails this year.  And when we left Hunto I was literally zooming up that hill.  That was the particular hill whereupon my beloved chastised me for not moving when I had indeed been lifting one foot after the other for some minutes.  It’s seems back then my movement had been so slow that it was not visible to the naked eye!  This year things were different.  Those slugs had no chance!

I encouraged Michelle to go on every now and then as I was concerned I was holding her back but she was enjoying the view and we were both taking plenty of photos as we meandered our way up the first 8km with steepest gradient of 20.3% according to my trusty app.  (My american friend s may need to convert that one).  I was a little sad that many of the friends my beloved and I had met last year were not going to be around the corner.   I was also a little sad that my beloved was 10000 miles away and not able to share this adventure.  On the other hand I was so thrilled to be with Michelle as she started the first few days of her next adventure and I was thrilled to be walking without pain!  (I had taped my knees and was wearing runners compression socks and ankle supports from the outset which helped immensely).

We made it to Orisson in around 3 hours including our breaks (this was only 2 hours walking and significantly faster than last year) and waited a while for our beds.  Three hours may not seem much but this stretch to Orisson is a good warm up for the next day and the little Albergue on the mountain is such a pleasant way to start the Camino.  Today was especially good weather. So much so that I actually heated up a little too much over the last couple of 100 metres. But the crisp mountain air cooled us down quickly when we arrived and we settled into the dorm and dropped down for a bite to eat before an afternoon nap.  We were thrilled that we were allocated a dorm of 6 women as the men are known to be champion snorers – remember the Korean national snoring champion last year?  He was no where in sight – thank heavens! 

While Michelle was sitting out admiring the view I thought I’d have the first nap.  It was at this point I discovered that amongst our companions was both a snorter and a grunter – Both having afternoon naps at the same time.  Tonight was going to be interesting! I was sick last year and drugged myself up that night and slept for nine hours straight.  Not sure how this was going to work now that I was in peak condition!  

After a nice chicken roast We had the mandatory introductions and met some nice people and, this will sound odd, I felt a little sad there were only two Americans there (and Michelle was one of them.). Last year we met some of the nicest people at Orisson and they were mostly Americans!  

After dinner and just before bed, a beautiful rainbow appeared outside our window.  When we went back outside it had doubled and a few others came out with cameras in hand to witness the spectacle.  Tomorrow would be a nice day! 

If you are reading this and you were in our dorm that night, and you didn’t hear anyone snoring, grunting or snorting that night – ponder that thought!

Winter is coming – at least it felt like it back up the top of the Pyrenees!

I know I know, you thought I’d hurt my foot didn’t you?  I did I did – but does that mean I have to sit at home and live life through the television or a book?  No of course not (although I have come to like Game of Thrones immensely).  I had undertaken all the rehab I was told, I had been swimming every day for a couple of months, I had purchased every podiatrist invention possible (and more) to ensure my foot could handle a few kilometres up and down a hill.  

With that in mind, and knowing that Michelle had headed back to Spain in order to hike from Saint Jean to Pamplona because she had missed that section last year, I thought I might suggest to her that I had a personal interest in the first two days of that section also.  You see last year I had been quite unwell in the weeks leading up to our Camino.  I had also suffered a gastro bug on the first two days out of Saint Jean and had seemingly tortured myself by taking the necessary drugs and then dragging my pack up and over the Pyrenees at the start in order to meet the deadlines only I had given myself.  I, for some reason, wanted to know what it felt like for a normal person in good health to undertake the crossing from France into Spain across the Pyerenees.  I wanted to feel a sense of achievement in arriving at Roncesvalles after walking from France, and not be so overwhelmed with pain that walking to the shower was near torture.  

So here I sit in the front lounge of the hostel in Pamplona with a magnificent view of the Cathedral out the window beside me.  This hostel wasn’t even here last year and it’s the perfect place to catch up my blogging and reflect on an amazing few days. This is how the story goes….

Michelle you may remember is a super hiker.  Yes that’s right, this is the lady who hiked back a few k’s to help carry a friends pack one day after reaching her destination and dumping her own stuff – among other amazing feats this is the lady who also broke the 50km barrier to catch us up near Santiago, I did not want to hold her back over an area that some say is the hardest part of the Camino, but I so wanted to go back to the beginning and enjoy the experience, do it properly.  As luck would have it Michelle was happy to have my company as she set out again and was as excited as I was at the thought of heading out together.  So we bought bus tickets in San Sebastián and headed to Bayonne to catch the train up to Saint Jean Pied de Port.  Woo hoo – back to the camino and more importantly, back to the Pyrenees.

Passing through Bayonne brought some memories to us both – for me they were memories of the start of a gastro bug and my husband breaking our selfish stick;  for Michelle however the memories were tugging at her heartstrings and reminding her of the dashing Frenchman who had once lived there.  Either way we both were pleased to move on to Saint Jean Pied de Porte.  

Initially our arrival frustrated us as we had just missed the Pilgrim office and had nowhere to leave our packs.  We settled on the little cafe opposite and enjoyed a beautiful salad and slice while we googled and booked a bed in an Alburge (or however the French spell hostel).  
We took turns at ducking down to see if it was opened until a knowledgeable local suggested we open the door as others had been leaving their packs.  Oops – bad move – Mr Hostelier may have just been in the midst of a marital row, he told us to look at the door – “if it is closed you don’t come in – when it is open you come in!” With that he chased us down the corridor without any information on exactly when it would open.  Unfortunately we had already paid online — clearly not always the best choice – but you never know when you are going to miss out on a bed.  

After wandering around town we returned to find the door open – at this point a very friendly wife and husband greeted us and showed us to a lovely clean room with a beautiful view over the village and the Pyrenees.  Same man – different time.  As it turned out he was not the main receptionist.  He was the chef and the resident comedian of all things! The Moroccon lemon chicken was delicious.  We had spent an hour or so plotting our next move had he still been grumpy on our eventual checkin.  Proof that first impressions are not always right.  We had a great nights sleep and prepared ourselves for the first 8km and 800m up the mountain.  Buen camino!

Hablar espanol o no hablar espanol? Este es la pregunta!

What can I say?  I apologise.  I was supposed to keep blogging as I kept travelling. Forgive me –  I became immersed in the travel experience and failed in my promise to blog.  I am back now.   No te preocupa!   Have I learned how to speak Spanish? Well if I keep practising I’m sure I am going to find myself fluent eventually.  For now I am pleased with my ability to communicate at a higher level than last year but it has been a hard slog.  

Where have I been and what have I done? 

I have left my beloved on guard at home and flown to Copenhagen to visit son number 1 as he undertakes a university exchange program. 

Then I left son number 1 and flew to Valencia in Spain to undertake a two week language course and immerse myself in Spanish culture. And immerse myself I did! I stayed at the college dormitory above the school and found out how poorly the young are fed. (And how uncomfortable the Spanish dorm beds are!) They offered bread, sugar cereals and coffee for breakfast and the same old limited vegetable servings in the evening. I purchased some muesli form a health food store for breakfast and, as a treat I took myself off to a paella class and had the best experience of my time in Valencia. I also managed a bus trip out to the lakes and the area where the rice grows. I learnt that chicken rabbit and snails are the traditional meats in the paella and that only the poor throw the seafood into the mix. It’s odd to think of rice growing in Spain and yet paella is not odd at all. 


I also did some site seeing with a nice Dutch lady and had a beautiful tapas meal with another Dutch lady – it seemed that Valencia was a Mecca for those from holland and at times I thought it would have been useful to learn Dutch as well!   There were 4 in our class the first week and I was the only non-Dutch student.  It was nice none the less to learn a little from those from another country even though I was in Spain.  The diversity of people was the appeal of the Camino last year and that is probably what had dragged me back.

After graduating with my two week language certificate I headed to Madrid and waited for our friend Michelle to arrive after  she had been  hiking the West Highland Way in Scotland and visiting another Camino friend in the Czech Republic. For my first two days I jumped on the sightseeing buses and saw a flamenco ballet and also visited a bull fight.  Before you get too concerned about my judgment here I will say it was definitely a disturbing experience and if I could have left early I would have but once you are jammed into a bullfighting stadium it’s no easy task to hop over the masses on the same row. Especially when three of the most famous bull fighters are up against each other.   As it turned out I learned how passionate the Spaniards are about these bullfights – shouting out “Muy bien, Muy bien!”  in support of the fighter and “OLE OLE OLE” when the bullfighter lanced the neck of the bull – distressing for me and I had to remind myself I was witnessing a cultural norm that has been undertaken for centuries.  It seems the bullfight would equate to our Footy Season, at least for the older people in Madrid – gladiator type voyeurism to the extreme!  I had arrived in the middle of the frenzy.

It was called the corridor of rejoneses where the bullfighters are on horseback and the horsemanship and the horses were truly  unbelievable.  It was apparently the traditional way the royalty started bullfighting and when the poor people took it up they had no money for horses and hence fought on foot.  

I was mesmerised by the dances the horses were undertaking as they bounced around the stadium and the ballet like performance of the fighters.  I flinched more than once when the Bulls horns were a little too close to the horses.  I could not in all good conscience see how the bulls had a hope in hell of winning the fight and I was equally worried for the horses ridden by the bullfighters and I left there a little shaken learning that it is not if the bull dies that determines the winner, but rather how the bull dies.  Another disturbing fact I later discovered was what happened when the white handkerchief was waved after a fight.  I seems the fighter has impressed everyone so much he gets one of the Bulls ears. Not sure what happens with those now – soup? Trophy cabinet?

I then decided on a more sedate evening and went to a flamenco ballet which was admittedly more flamenco than ballet but quite an enjoyable evening after the trauma of the night before.

When Michelle arrived we had a whirlwind trip of Toledo and the Prado and hightailed it out of Madrid.  Sometimes more than a day or two in a big city is too much!  We checked in to a hostel and did some serious bar hopping in San Sebastián, which is a rather appealing surf city in the north of Spain known for its pinchos bars. Pinchos are tapas for the Basque people – most of which are served on bread (the pinchos not the basque people).  Here again being either vegetarian or gluten free would be a problem as most pinchos are some form of meat or fish served on bread.  Hence the bar hopping was really an opportunity to eat every different type of pincho on offer – as long as it didn’t frighten us!   

It seems there’s always a statue looking down on us.

Buenos noches! 

The Long Way Home – Paris and Beccles and London

In ten minutes we commence our descent into Sydney Airport. We have travelled a long way since leaving home in May. Not just in distance but in personal achievement. In doing things together. In celebrating being alive. I commenced this blog entry in London and wrote some more in Dubai then some more somewhere over the ocean in between Madagascar and Sri Lanka. Its almost unimaginable thinking of the distances we have travelled and knowing it will all be over in a matter of hours.

I am not heading straight home to Brisbane on the next flight with my husband. My sister is in Sydney and will be undertaking further tests to determine whether her diagnosis will be motor neurone disease. During our travels news from home has often brought me to tears whilst walking and even in the middle of the night. Friends losing loved ones and being given terrible medical news for themselves. My father being resuscitated and rushed to hospital before being sent home (again). My sister's news was probably the most difficult for me to cope with. The first diagnosis she was given was Parkinson's. The next doctor thought that was not necessarily the case. Now we all hope it is Parkinson's. She is only 48 years old. Life is short and life is challenging.

I am tired, I am still proud to have walked 800 kilometres. My foot still hurts. Beloved husband thinks I might have done some serious damage. I have made an appointment with the GP for tomorrow. I suspect I may have injured my foot a little more than average as it hasn't really healed in the month since finishing the Camino – not that I've given it much of a chance!

Husband is thrilled to be heading home – he's tired – I think exhaustion has finally overtaken the thrill of travel. (Plus he wants to go diving!)

So what did we do the last couple of days? We headed to gay Paris as mentioned in the previous blog. We had two nights in the Latin Quarter there and managed to scale the Eiffel tower.

Well we didn't really scale it, we went up in the lifts but we couldn't help but walk down a few flights of steps – after all we'd walked 800 kilometres already!

We had a lovely sunset cruise down the Seine and caught a glimpse of why Parisians love to flock to the river in summer.


We also love the way Parisians can recharge their cars as they park.


Husband enjoyed the subway and pretended he was Marilyn Munroe

During the day we also hitched a lift with a Frenchman up the Champs Elysees – I have to say my feet appreciated the break and the young man was a wealth of information as we slowly meandered our way through the traffic and passed the sights to the Arc de Triomphe.


On arrival at this end of town we discovered “The Lido”. We had our first weekend away together to Paris twenty five years ago and had one of the best nights we remembered at the Lido – needless to say we grabbed a couple of tickets for that night to catch a bit of glamour on our visit. We headed back to the hotel and dressed up a bit for a change.

Sorry no photos of the show allowed.

The next day we headed back to London and stayed at one of the few hotels close to Liverpool st as we heard there was to be a tube strike and we had a very important visit to make out near the East Coast.

We stayed at the Montcalm The Brewery and have to say it was the most beautiful place we had stayed in in London. We were greeted by a doorman in bowler hat and had to have a photo with him. Given that we arrived with backpacks we were probably as much a novelty to him as he was to us!

After dumping our packs we headed out for a brief look around this end of the city and stumbled across the tower of London and Tower Bridge before heading back to the pub on the corner of our hotel which was called the Jugged Hare – later that night I would try a Jugged Hare Bomb which I managed to eat a little of before feeling a little too disturbed by the thought of it.

Mr Wong popped over and joined us for afternoon tea in the lounge of the Montcalm where we enjoyed a few sandwiches and some ginger beer before being confronted with the most delicious Macaroons you could imagine. I have to admit these few delights have resulted in an undeniable addiction. I see them everywhere. If there was a dealer on the corner I would buy them daily. I will seek knowledge of a supplier in Brisvegas if any are known. Perhaps I will have to buy them by mailorder or have them smuggled into the country… The mind is ticking. I have yet to have tried one in Brisbane that was as moorish as those at the Montcalm!


When the morning arrived we bid farewell to the Montcalm (a hotel we would highly recommend to others) – sadly we had a couple of troubles with the air con throughout the night so sleep was not as good as it should have been. We chose not to have maintenance visit at 2 in the morning as that might have been more disruptive than having the window open to the street was. They had tried their best before we nodded off to sleep already.

Anyway the tube strike had become a reality so next morning we headed off to Liverpool St Station with our packs on our backs and boarded the train for Beccles. For those in the know its a beautiful little English village in Suffolk. Our dear friend Helen (in Brisbane) hails from the UK and we were thrilled to be welcomed by her wonderful parents who have visited us in Australia for many a barbeque or luncheon over the years. Unfortunately ill health had thwarted more recent plans for them to come to Oz so we were thrilled to be able to catch up with them on their home turf. We also managed to meet Helen's brother Simon and his beloved Danielle whilst simultaneously enjoying a browse through their second hand shop and vintage clothing store. We were whisked away for lunch at a grand garden and visited Southwark pier and lighthouse before heading to dinner at a traditional seaside restaurant (with a lovely Australian chef would you believe!).


We had the best nights sleep in weeks before being pampered with a cooked breakfast and dropped back at the station to catch our train for our last night in London before heading home. What a wonderful whirlwind trip that was!

As you can imagine, we couldn't spend the last night in London doing nothing could we? So we headed down through Soho and caught award winning show “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night” at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. It was lovely to catch a West End show – the actors were great – the set was quite magnificent and, I had read the book so it was a novel way of seeing it presented. Whilst the West End has a wonderful atmosphere with people out on the streets enjoying the summer nights we are also very lucky to have such equally talented people in Australian theatre which is why I probably enjoy it so much wherever it is!


The next day we had arranged a late checkout so we slept in (a bit) and headed down to Harrods (as you do) for a quick visit before our departure that evening. As luck would have it we stumbled across the Oyster Bar almost as soon as we entered. A lovely Spanish couple moved seats so we could sit together – I enjoyed a chat in Spanish again (well sort of). We enjoyed a dozen oysters and a couple of glasses of pink champagne as cheers to our last day of travel – it was a lovely way to spend the morning!


Mr Wong popped over with our excess luggage which he had kindly stored since Malta and he escorted us to Pizza and Paddington Station before bidding farewell to us at the door of the Heathrow Express.

What an absolutely wonderful adventure we have had – physical and mental challenges – visiting distant corners of the world – seeing old friends, meeting so many new friends and having experiences a few years ago would have been unimaginable.

Thank you for taking this journey with us! Adios until the next adventure!


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Barcelona, Malta and back to London

Gaudie everywhere!

It seems forever since we finished our camino. We (I) thought if we had spent all the money to get over here (Europe) we may as well make the most of it as the chances of heading back in the near future are pretty slim. Anyway budget required we continue for the most part as backpackers with a brief sojourn in Malta for rest and recovery at a resort where we will meet our good friend Mr Wong who has migrated to old Blighty from Australia.

Following our quick trip to Portugal and Morocco, a couple of days in Barcelona seemed important. Rumour had it that it is a beautiful city and, I had a friend there I had met in Australia when she and her husband were on their honeymoon last year. We had since also met Jorge and Lola on the Camino and looked forward to some more fun and laughter with them.

How did our Barcelona visit go?

We arrived in Barcelona on a beautiful evening and headed to our hostel “Casa Gracia” via taxi. The lifts were a bit dodgy but the double room was fantastic (equal to a suite in any 3 star hotel) and there was a talented duet singing in the bar downstairs.


We decided to do a free walking tour the first morning to get our bearings and try and contact our friends throughout the day. I had sent both a couple of messages and heard nothing back so we enjoyed a few hours walking around the old city being shown interesting areas where Game of Thrones was filmed (not that we have seen it) and historic areas such as where the Spanish Inquisition took place (glad I wasn't around then let me tell you). We finished the tour with a burrito and a margarita and a few new friends from the tour. We walked along the beachfront having an interesting stroll just people watching and ended up catching the tour bus back to our hostel thinking we'd use the ticket again the next day after we checked out of our room.

Filming of Game of thrones and sad site of rememberance
Looking up to the balcony where the Spanish Inquisition took place
Barcelona Beach

Fortunately that night Jorge checked his emails (he was on holiday and wasnt watching them all day) so we managed a meetup with Jorge and Lola who were leaving for the South of Spain the next day. It was another fun meetup – they invited us to their apartment down near the beach and yet again we had a few good laughs and hopefully encouraged them to visit oz sometime. If for no other reason than for some more Flamenco lessons!

Our wonderful Friends Jorge and Lola

I tried again to contact Ximena my other friend and decided to visit her facebook page where I was disturbed to see some strange notices in Spanish that I didn't quite understand. I used google translate and was shocked to find that Ximena had been the victim of a fatal accident – this was only months after returning from her honeymoon in Australia. This explained why she had not responded to my last few messages. I was quite devastated and struggled with comprehending how someone so young and beautiful could have met such an early end. Maybe it was a strong reminder of losing our own loved ones and close friends before their time – it hit quite hard. All I could do was send my condolences to her family and her husband over a facebook message. It reminded me again of how lucky we were to have each day and how important it is to not take a moment for granted. We left Barcelona with me feeling particularly sad and at the same time looking forward to seeing Mr Wong's smiling face – determined to enjoy Malta – making sure we live while we can!

Well Mr Wong's face was at the same time dealing with some rather displeasing news – or as we have come to laugh about – first world problems! He had booked the resort where we were all to stay months earlier (before us) as a package with flights through a UK travel company called Low Cost Holidays (take note everyone). Only days before our holiday they notified him that the resort was overbooked and he would have to stay elsewhere even though we (my beloved and I) were still committed to staying at the Dolmen. Enroute to the airport he (Mr Wong) discovered they had booked the other resort for the wrong dates, hence there was an urgent need to contact Low Cost Holidays again!

At the airport Mr Wong's first flight decided to wait for a couple of passengers who were lost in the airport. Eventually they unloaded the hold and removed the lost passengers' luggage moments before they finally arrived. For reasons beyond comprehension they then reloaded their luggage and allowed them to board before setting off even later for Vienna. In Vienna Mr Wong had to run for the connecting flight to Malta as low cost holidays had not factored in the often encountered delays – nor the length of the airport! This flight boarded at the other end of the airport (some ten kilometres away or near enough). During his rush to get to the Malta flight Mr Wong managed to twist his ankle. When he finally arrived in Malta his luggage had missed the plane and he was nursing a swollen ankle. Whilst waiting to fill in his lost luggage form (inside the baggage area behind many others), his hotel transfer departed no doub assuming Mr Wong had missed the plane. Mr Wong then had to pay extra for a taxi from the airport to the new hotel which was quite a distance from ours.

In the morning the hotel boutique stocked only tourist clothing with Maltese holiday motifs all over them. Mr Wong managed to find an orange and white striped polo (with only a small Maltese cross on the pocket) and some red Hawaiian patterned board shorts along with some thongs advertising Malta all over them. That was as good as it gets. He was ready for the beach sin goggles, suncream, towel etc – all missing in his luggage!

Around a half hour after Mr Wong left the airport in his taxi we arrived and our transfer greeted us and immediately took us to the resort we had booked. We checked in and went straight to our room feeling hot hot hot and needing some airconditioning. Sadly our air did not seem to work. Nor did the inroom internet they had advertised and which we finally looked forward to after forking out the big bucks. My beloved called downstairs and the not so lovely man on reception said he would get maintenance to look at the air in morning. He also said their were too many people using the internet and that's why the wifi didnt work. At 2.30am? Que? (FYI The air con improved only marginally for the rest of our stay and this was only after we complained again and again – it was certainly not climate control as advertised – fan control at most – frankly many of the 5 euro hostels had better facilities!)

Well that was night one in Malta. Day one actually was beautiful. Mr Wong limped over the hill to the hotel we were in and we all attended the private beach in front – watching a young bride and groom paraglide past along with various other interesting people taking off on jet skis etc Husband and Mr Wong organised some diving for the next day and we basically enjoyed a few hours swimming eating and wandering around St Pauls Bay – there was a Festa that night and plenty of fire works. It was hot but we were pleased to know my beloved the “Master diver” was going to be diving with Mr Wong for free when the lovely Spanish girl gave MrWong his dive refresher. I was going to relax by the water and see about hiring a car. I also made contact with my Aunts Cousin and organised a rendezvous to visit the cave my Aunt had lived in as a child.


Mr Wong's luggage finally arrived on day 2 and Reno (the cousin) very kindly took us up to the caves where my aunt had grown up. Its hard to imagine the contrast between life in Malta during and after the war to life in Australia now. The caves had dirt floors and limited natural light but out the front was a beautiful view out to St Pauls Bay and the ocean beyond. The minute Reno walked into our resort I knew it was him as he looked more like my Aunty Maria than her own brothers! I am proud to be related to such a cool cave woman (married to my mums brother) and have a new appreciation for her father and his decision to take the family across the world to find opportunity and a new life. My grandmother had done the same taking a boat from Ireland when she was only sixteen.

The Medna

On a different note Mr Wong's dive refresher aggravated the already twisted ankle (clearly hiking over the hill between resorts didnt help either). So he had to give diving a miss for the rest of the trip. This meant we made use of the hire car and visited the Mdina – a beautiful old walled city in the centre of the island and we caught the ferry across to Gozo and unintentionally visited the inland sea and the Blue window. These are magnificent natural sites not to be missed on a visit to Malta. I also visited the Capital Valetta one day when Mr Wong's ankle was so swollen it needed a rest. I am going to put myself out on a limb here, it was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. I have to say it was spectacular. The shear size of its outer walls are a sight to behold and both the city and the Mdina have been painstakingly cleaned and are undergoing works that highlight their grandeur. After the Medina in Marrakesh the Maltese city and Mdina were a real treat.

For the uninformed Malta has a history that mixes Arab occupation with French, Italian and finally British. Thus the name M'dina comes from the Arab world. There is also a strong similarity to the British way of life. In fact there were so many Brits there enjoying the summer – we were wondering if anyone was still at home! The Queen apparently spent a good deal of her time there as a princess when her husband was in the navy and Malta apparenlty has a special place in her heart. On a different note there is also evidence of prehistoric life and a questionable ancient relic sat smack bang in the middle of the Dolmen resort – Questionable due to the lighting, plumbing and general maintenance around it.

So after 8 nights in Malta ( and the not so impressive Dolmen resort) we finally headed back to London last Saturday. We had time to hike through Hyde Park (the tube was undergoing maintenance at our stop), seaat dance to The Commitments (the musical) on Saturday night and visit speakers corner and Camden Town on Sunday before a quick trip to Paris.



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Marrakech express back to Spain

Marrakesh Train Station
I bought some Moroccan pastries to take with us – may have overdone it!

In order to ensure the adventure continued we decided to catch the Marrakech express backwards to Tangier rather than waiting around airports for delayed flights. Whilst waiting at the train station we eventually figured out it too was delayed. Not easy to figure out when noone (and I mean no-one) speaks english and we dont speak Arabic. The station was hot and when we eventually boarded the train the inside too was hot. Eventually the air started to kick in and it actually wasn’t too bad. The nice man at the ticket counter had suggested we could buy two adult tickets and two childrens tickets to ensure we had a whole sleeper cabin to ourselves for the journey. They provided sheets and pillows so it was almost a pleasure to zip through the country (nothing like the Chinese or Egyptian trains of our early travelling years). We awoke quite early and managed to see a fair bit of the Northern area on Morocco on our way, passing beaches on the Atlantic as well as the rural areas of Morocco.

How they separate first class sleeper from economy!

Once we hit Tangier there was general chaos again at the train station with what appeared to be hundreds of taxis fighting for a couple of hundred passengers. We negotiated a fare and went straight to the port via the city and jumped on the next ferry to Spain.



Leaving Tangier
Spain in the mist

It was a smooth ride across the opening to the Mediterranean and we spent a lovely day in Tarifa – a Spanish mecca for surfers and world renowned destination for Kite Surfing. Tarifa is the Southerly most point in Spain and actually would be quite appealling for a longer stay but we were now on a time limit.


We bought tickets for a bus to Seville that afternoon and headed to the beach to wait and for a swim and a feed in one of the bars. We ended up having a great afternoon with a couple of lovely ladies and a fellow who happened to be the organisers of the world Kite Surfing Championships. We really would have liked to stay a bit longer.


We headed up to catch the 4pm bus to Seville only to be told we had missed it! Yep we had no idea what time it was anywhere anymore – it changed in Portugal, then in Morocco on the way in and then on the Sunday after the end of Ramadan they put daylight savings on – now in Spain it had changed again. No wonder my body had no idea when to sleep and when to wake! Many had warned us against Seville as it would be too hot. I have to say it was probably the nicest place we had been to in Spain so far and I was so pleased we went – it was hot but it was a beautiful mix of old and new – I would love to go back some time in April or May. We arrived at 8.30 and raced out to catch a Flamenco show and hit the sack somewhere around 1am. Unfortunately our schedule did not permit the much hoped for Flamenco lessons but the show was so impressive I am sure that husband has recorded the moves required and will impress me with some tap dancing at home that will make Michael Flately look like an amateur!

Rather than race out early the next morning we wandered around the city for the morning and caught the afternoon AVE train to Barcelona and marvelled at the speeds being shown up on the monitor. (And yes the temperature was still up there too). It was as we were packing to get out of the hostel that I realised the Camino credentials were no longer in my bag. These were the passports we had had stamped at every stop along the way. Panic rose in my stomach. They were nowhere to be found. We headed out to a cafe and I emailed Marrakesh and Lisbon. Thank heavens for technology. The lady in Marrakesh found them as they had slipped behind a chair. Lets hope the mail in Morrocco is reliable!

Back to this high speed train. That train was a great way to speed through the countryside and see Castles, hilltop ruins, villages, cities and windmills. We watched the speed monitor and saw it hit 296km per hour a few times. The conductor said (and I quote) “It only goes up to 300km”. Yep, “only” 300km per hour. Imagine that – Brisbane to Sydney in 2 – 3 hours on the ground.

So there you go – the weather was hot and the train was fast! Now we have two days in Barcelona before heading to Malta to meet Mr Wong and catch up with my Aunts relatives and see the cave she lived in. I know sometimes I shock you but this is a true story – my Aunt is a cave woman and my Uncle always bragged about marrying a cave woman. That should be a treat to see. Rumour has it from home that there is also a fiesta on while we are there too – lets see how that rumour goes!

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Still Wandering – Onward to Portugal Morocco




It would be easy to assume that an 800km Camino can fit within the 30 or 40 days that some of the guidebooks suggest. After all – some people do it in 20 or even less and quite a number of our friends certainly did it in those time limits. But, after reading a few accounts of the journey and recognising the endless possibillities for injury, illness, weather and fiestas, we decided to give ourselves a few spare weeks so that we could cope with these intangibles along the way – and visit a fiesta or two (provided they weren’t just rumours!)

As a result the 48 days we actually took included about 6 rest days that coincided with the odd fiesta and allowed me in particular to actually complete the walk. I am confident husband could have proven to be quite a speed demon had I not slowed him down – although he did suffer a few aches and pains, he never had a serious injury at all and not even one blister! Had my beloved husband not been by my side I am not sure how I would have finished either – remember the two backpacks he carried? – although I do think I may have taken it a little easier for the first week heading into Pamplona – you remember don’t you? In empathy with slaves….

Anyway whilst still feeling the glow of success, and knowing we now had a bit of time up our sleeves before our actual holiday in Malta began, we headed off to Portugal for a couple of days and selected Porto as our first stop. Sadly the hostel we picked was full when we arrived and we had to book into a more expensive hotel. Sad for a moment that is, the hotel was called the AS 1829 and just happened to be absolutely superb – claw foot bath in the corner of the living area, air con with soundproof windows that opened out to let us see the action, right on the main strip just up from the river. The girls at the hostel were so sorry for us because we had to pay double! Sad I was not! Claw foot bath, view of the action, 2 mins to the river front. Sometimes not planning has its benefits.




Porto was a lovely place to visit although it was very busy. Because we only had a short time we thought we’d do the tourist bus that came with a visit and tasting at a Port cave. Only trouble was we had one day and had to catch the train at 4.30 – the only English tour was at 3.30pm. The lovely lady at the front counter snuck us in to the port cave to tag along behind a private tour in Spanish. We felt a little out of place but trotted along behind pretending we were one of them. All was well until the tour guide wanted to take a group photo. One of the participants hid behind us – we thought she was a ring in too! Anyway there’s a whole bunch of Spanish people out there somewhere with a lovely group photo with two Port tasting Crashers smiling in the crowd!


They like to eat rabbit around here and we saw this cage at the front of a restaurant! Surely not….. but then I think it is. Not dissimilar to the lobster tanks really – except it was a very cute rabbit!

We then hit a high speed train and headed to Lisbon or Lisboa for those in the know (Melissa) and spent two nights in the Heritage Hotel there. Lisbon again is a beautiful city with plenty of history. We only really had one full day so we headed straight for St Georges Castle and meandered back through the city catching a tram and a couple of taxis and walking of course! (What’s new?)


My plotting and scheming to get to Morocco was almost a failure until I realised we could fly direct from Lisbon and then head back to Spain from Morocco. We would have had two nights and two full days in Lisbon but the flight was early afternoon. Two nights isn’t too bad in this part of the world as the cities come alive at night because its so darn hot during the day. We headed to the airport at lunchtime and after checking in and clearing customs we relaxed in the coffee shop waiting for our flight. About half hour before the departure time we decided to head for the gate only to discover we hadn’t actually passed through passport clearance – even though we’d shown our passports to numerous important people. The line up was huge and we panicked that we would miss our flight. “Don’t worry” said the attendant “the flight to Marrakesh is delayed”. Well five hours later we finally boarded the flight! Would have been a nice day in Lisbon too.


I had booked a cheap Riad in Marrakesh (a sort of private home with a rooftop terrace and beautiful centre courtyard with spa pool and garden) and emailed them to arrange a pickup. I was glad I could contact them and rearrange a pickup time. Thank heavens for that as finding a Riad in the Medina was almost impossible. Even though someone was handing out sim cards at the airport with free calls and data for the first week. Google maps has no idea what’s going on in Marrakesh – and some of the streets must be 1000 years old. The Riad made me feel like I was in an episode of I dream of Jeanie – or in a harem in an old hollywood movie! A medina is actually an old city and includes hundreds of riads along with the souks, mosques and all sorts of businesses and homes for the locals. Its also where the Kasbah is – I understand it is the walled fortress that probably was home to someone important in years past. We didnt really want to go visiting all the old buildings as it was the people and the current way of life that was of more interest to us. As it turned out it was the end of Ramadan the day we arrived and the first two nights we were there was when they all came out to party and during the day many of the souks and shops were closed.

We managed to catch a few street performers which included snake charmers, local musicians, african dancers and general chaos. The constant “look here” “what price you want” etc etc was not overly relaxing but we did take a ride in a horse and cart around the old city wall and managed to eat some fantastic food.


Highlights for me would probably be the hammam and participating in the cooking class at the Maison Arabe cooking school – I couldnt take my sister Ellen whom I am sure would have felt right at home in the Masterchef setup, so my beloved husband agreed to participate and he excelled in Tagine of Chicken and Lemon (with extra chilli of course). Cant wait to try it again at home!

The hammam is an interesting concept. It is a traditional steam bath where you are heated and scrubbed to within a millimetre of the end of your skin! You actually come out feeling quite cool and relaxed. All when the temperature outside is in the high 40’s! In fact on our last day we were told it was over 50 degrees celcius! I felt somewhat unwell from the heat and husband was extremely tired. Lets just say we were a little hot. Thank heavens we didn’t have to walk 20kms and the lovely ladies in the Riad Zouini let us stay until we were ready to catch our train the last night.

In order to ensure the adventure continued we decided to catch the Marrakech express backwards to Tangier! Stay tuned for the next episode….


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