Europe to Africa

4 May 2014, Sunday

Boarding the Tarifa-bound train was a breeze. No strategic whispering on how to get to the luggage compartment first before other travellers…HAHA. I even had 2 seats.  At every stop, the train staff would go around checking tickets of every new passenger. Never seen him without a smile. It was a therapeutic ride through the quieter villages. I enjoyed the caffeine boost I had in the F&B carriage (to cool down the nerves).  It was a precious me-time for each of us, I believe, as we would have another travel partner in Morocco. Our guide and driver, Said or whoever the agency sends to us.

Nearing Algeciras station, other passengers were all by the door eager to alight. 11am sharp. RENFE trains are always on time. I was prepared with the information we needed to get from the train station to Port of Algeciras which is about 20 minutes away. The streets and the landmarks we will pass by.  We must reach the port as fast as possible, as we had to collect our ferry tickets and board the complimentary bus at noon to Port of Tarifa.

Knoalgeciraswing how hopeless (at times) we are at directions, we decided approach a woman in hijab. She doesn’t speak much English.  Thankfully, she was taking the same route right up to Tangiers back to her hometown. Alhamdulillah! One thing for sure, she walked amazingly fast with her luggage. I had to catch up with her and keep a lookout for Nihla who was behind me.

I am glad we booked the ferry tickets online from FRS.  The ticket costs EU35 per adult.  We collected the tickets with our new friend (sadly, I forgot her name and no photos taken).

We waited for the bus and we had cualgeciras3rious Moroccans asking if we were Emiratis (as our luggages had Emirates tag!).  Our new friend told us not to board until we ensure the luggage compartment is finally locked and closed by the driver.

The journey was longer than expected. It took more than half an hour and I was worried if we could board the ferry on time at 1pm.  But again, it wasn’t our fault. They won’t leave their passengers, right? All kinds of thoughts in my head.

Alighted from the bus, rushed to the port. It was a long queue, filled with tourists from all over the world! It was a relief after the immigration. Rushed in the huge ferry to dump our luggage where you could see many cars parked, all ready for their adventure across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Thought we could finally sit ferryin peace in the ferry. But NOOOO. We had to queue up in the ferry to get a card that tourists must fill up. Sat down for probably another 10 mins, and guess what our half an hr ferry ride was over. No time to chill or even take photos. Our friend signalled to us to collect our luggage.

Naively, I imagined the ferry terminal to be like Singapore’s ferry terminal i.e. straight to the immigration hall.  I was in for a shock when I saw the steep slope up to the terminal. I wish I had an extra hand to snap a picture. Struggled but successfully managed to drag my luggage. Our friend did not leave us even for a minute. She was always on the lookout for us. Once we exited, we hugged and asked if we knew anyone here. She was worried we were alone. At about the same time she asked, I saw a man holding up my name. I assured her that our agent will be driving us to our hotel.

Alhamdulillah.

*credits to Nihla for all the photos in this post

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A mother’s love at Ronda

3 May 2014, Saturday

Being away for just 10 days and knowing I won’t be home for another 2 weeks, makes me miss home terribly.  Anxiety kicks in as I was nearinbarakag to the unfamiliar zones (Ronda and Morocco). It started the moment we exited from Ronda train station. The road was empty and quiet, worryingly too quiet. No cabs. One of the train employees told us we need to call for one. I was about to make a phone call until one cab drove in to drop his passenger.

This always happen to me. Cabs would magically appear when you frantically tried calling for a cab. He was kind enough to help us with the luggage, up a tiny cobbled slope (again) to Baraka B&B. baraka1

We were warmly welcomed by a cheery “Welcome Sumarni!”. Anahid had such an infectious smile and laughter. She walked us up to our room and gave us some tips.When she saw us still in the room half an hour later, “Girls, why are you still here? You should be going out. Go explore!” Immediately, I was reminded of my mum.

Baraka B&B is within walking distance to all sights. But the hopeless map-reader me got lost again. For normal people (I’m odd), I’m sure it would be an easy task.

ronda1

We explored the town – El Tajo Gorge, Puento Nuevo Bridge and Plaza de Toros. The view of the white villages and vast greenery was breathtaking for this city girl. How I wish there were halal cafes and restaurants overlooking the valley.

ronda2

Ronda has an unexplainable historic charm especially in the old town. Probably this was what attracted Anahid to leave her hometown in Lebanon and reside here. We had enough walking and needed this 1 night to slow down our pace before we go back to full gear the following day to Morocco.

4 May 2014, Sunday

Anahid sat down with us at breakfast of toast and coffee. In that short hour, we shared a lot about her past career as a PR trainer, her children and grandchildren in the US and about life.  She said how in life at times, we need to listen and follow what our hearts say, like what she did. She fell in love with Ronda, bought this house and converted it to Baraka B&B. She never regretted one bit. Through this B&B, she meets travellers around the world. Anahid is such an inspiration. I hope, I will have such an inspiring story to tell my children and grandchildren.

It was harder than I thought to say goodbye to her. We hugged and kissed like we had known each other for long. It’s unfortunate that I do not have a photo of this wonderful woman, as our camera was accidentally in video mode! Till we meet in the future Mama Anahid.

ronda3

Morocco here we come!

Bye Granada (for now)

3 May 2014, Saturday

I stayed up a little later than usual.  Staring at the Alhambra, the white washed houses and the tiny streets of Albaicin/Albayzin.  Some streets were brightly lit, I could see people strolling down the slopes. Trying to process as many images as I could of this lovely town in my head. Praying I will never forget these sights.

The truth is, I couldn’t sleep. Somehow missing home and the familiar laughter and bickering. And one thought has been in my mind even while planning for this trip…our upcoming journey from Ronda to Algeciras to Tarifa to Tangiers. Taxi-Train-Coach-Ferry. Praying it will be one smooth journey.

Antonio took time to share with us his journey to Morocco many years ago.  “You will love it!” he assured me. It was hard to say goodbye to a friend and the lovely home I am so familiar with. Felt heaviness in my heart.

We are heading to Ronda today, a place I’ve never been to.  Adventure awaits. Excited. Nervous.

I’ll be back, Granada.

Granada, I’m in Love.

2 May 2014, Friday

The cold Spring wind brushing against my cheeks somehow reminded me of Madinah, Saudi Arabia.  Calming and comforting as I sat at the terrace of Fenicia at Solar Montes Claros.  It’s my last night here in Granada, a place I wish I could call a holiday home.  Two nights before I stayed in Saba Room which Antonio, my host, welcomed me and said “Are you ready to return to your room?” Stayed at that room 4 years ago. How can I not feel at home? Its furnishings still look familiar.  Familiarity is usually comforting for me.

solarmontesclaros

Earlier today, my prayers all these years were granted to perform Friday prayers at Mezquita Mayor de Granada. To be given the opportunity to listen to the unique azan (call to prayer) and khutbah in Spanish and Arabic was simply breathtaking.  Nihla and I prayed at the first saf. After prayers, as I stood up, I thought I saw Zaruq, my Spanish friend whom I’ve met few years ago, at the men’s section.  I looked for him outside but didn’t see him.  Such a pity.  So I just texted him.

mezquita-granadaAt the mosque’s garden, a man told us we could join the feast, usually held after the Friday prayers.  This was a great opportunity to mingle with local Muslims and tourists!  We decided to and was welcomed by Hanna, who was excited to know that we are Singaporeans.  We sat with Maryam, a Pakistani studying in University of Granada. I wish I was young enough to join the uni.  We were treated to Lamb Cous Cous, poached pears with yoghurt and mint lemon tea. Yummy! Aggghhh…Salivating just at the thought of it.  The view from the Mezquita is amazing with lesser crowd than at Mirador St Nicolas.

mezquita1We were so blessed to have met a beautiful Spanish Muslim bride.

We left the function room and saw Hanna and her children outside. We decided to chat with Hanna before we took our leave. Hanna is a talented lady.  She does her own prints on bags, apparels and scarves.  I can’t wait for her to open her Etsy store!

I told her I know someone from here but didn’t manage to see him.  When I mentioned Zaruq, she said “That’s my half brother!” What a small world! At about the same time, Zaruq replied to my WhatsApp.  We said our goodbye to Hanna and promise to keep in touch via Facebook (till now!).  And perhaps, we will meet in Singapore/Malaysia. Check out Zaruq’s Al Andalus Experience website, Facebook and Instagram. A great option if you wish to travel in a big group.  Learn the real history from the experts!

friendsGranada’s Muslim community is amazing, full of warmth and truly hospitable. Teteria Restaurant Albaicin is located just steps away from our home. We wanted to get a litre of mineral water which they didn’t have. So the thirsty us had to walk down the slope to get our aqua stock.  When we walked back, the staff at the Teteria, asked if we’ve bought our Aqua. So everytime we pass by the restaurant, we will just wave.  While walking in Plaza Nueva after Fridhalal-pastryay prayers, we met one of the staff at the traffic light and he waved at us like old friends.  Even the waitress at Teteria Restaurant Generalife in Plaza Nueva, would sweetly say Hi to us. A pity we didn’t take a photo together.

I even got a discount for my brownies from a halal pastry shop, Papas Elvira. When I asked if I could take a photo, she said “Please do. You are always welcome. This is yours too.”  Truly touched by how they value and honour fellow Muslims.

Entering Munira’s leather boutique, we were welcomed by her staff, I believed was Fauziah.  She remembered us praying beside her during Friday prayers.The perks of going during non Singapore school holidays, you tend to be the only Singaporeans in town and people recognise you.  Anyway, that boutique is a must go. Wish Granada was my last destination so I can get my hands on one of the beautiful handcrafted leather bags!  I bought one namecard holder (which I carelessly lost it here in Singapore…sob sob)

I keep falling in love with Granada and the locals.  I promised myself I will visit again. You must have sensed my love for Granada, judging from my few entries on this city.

A tourist in Granada

Granada.

Heart flutters at the mention of it. (ignore me)

30 April 2014, Wednesday

The day I have been counting down to!  Our driver fetched us from the train station (10 Euros, booked with Solar Montes Claros). Driving through the narrow streets, uphill and downhill…brought so many fond memories with my best friend. She’s leaving for Australia a week after I come back…sadness.

alhambra21 May 2014, Thursday

Being in Granada without visiting the Alhambra is like being in Paris without seeing the Eiffel. I remembered passing by one of the Tourist Information counters and hearing a tourist sheepishly begging “You know what I want…the Alhambra tickets…please” The staff replied “You know we’ve sold all tickets sir. I am so sorry.”

alhambra1

We booked 2 months in advance and yet the morning slot is fully taken. So we had to go in the afternoon. I personally prefer it to be in the morning so that you can spend more time and avoid the afternoon sun especially in summer. Once you have decided on your date, please book the tickets via Ticket Master. Take note of your Nasrid Palace entry time and don’t miss the half hour window given.

Pack a spare memory card for your camera. The Alhambra and its surroundings is a gigantic photo studio. I always wonder how other tourists managed to snap photos without being photobombed. Mine always ended up with people’s backs in the background.

Like anywhere else, read up on the history of Alhambra before visiting. Coming in with knowledge, you would see Alhambra in a different light. If you need an expert, check out Al Andalus Experience. Otherwise, get the audio guide at the counter before entering. Take your time, don’t rush and get immersed in the historic trail.

Anyway, we went to Alhambra through the backdoor. It was easier than my first hike there. To go to town from the Alhambra, just walked down the hill. Easy! But ok we got lost on our way back home from Plaza Nueva. Thinking we could figure out the shortcut route. Nay! But if you are tired, you can always hop on their reliable mini buses 31 and 35 (1.20 Euros)

alhambra

If you love cooking, get their very affordable yet high grade saffron from spice shops located near the Granada cathedral. You can find shops selling Arab/Moroccan lamps, ceramic serveware and many others in Alcaiceria (Arab Market). If you are a shopaholic and need boutiques, yes there are H&M, Zara and such in Gran Via de Colon.

Be lost, explore  🙂 Just don’t lose your cool!

Cordoba, Andalusia

Madrid28 April 2014, Monday

Even before the start of my trip, I was counting down to the day I will be in Andalusia.  Yearning for peace and quiet time. Had enough of concrete jungle back at home. People watching at Madrid station whilst the sun rays glared through the windows, was simply comforting in the cold Spring morning.

The moment we reached Cordoba station, we went to Tourist Information counter to purchase our bus tickets to Medina Al Zahra (Az Zahra).  mezquita

Our hotel, Las Casas de la Judeira, was just a 10-minute taxi ride from the station. The hotel is a charming place with huge rooms by European standard. Rates are pretty high in spring, almost double than what I paid for in winter.

It would be an incomplete stay without visiting the Mezquita, our first historical site visit. Do get your tickets at the automated ticket machine if the queue at the ticketing counter is long. Second visit is more intriguing though I miss the fresh looking oranges in the courtyard which were not in season.

I love the view from Roman Bridge, crossing the Guadalquivir river. To better understand the history of Cordoba, visit Torre de la Calahorra Museum.  Give yourself some time to be lost in the streets of Cordoba.  You will definitely find hidden gems like small museums and quaint cafes.

29 April 2014, Tuesday

medina1

On our second day, we woke up early to catch our bus to Medina Al Zahra.  That is one historical site which many travelers forget to visit or group tours conveniently omit from the itinerary.  Arrive early at the bus stop. There was a lady who was last in queue and did not get to board the bus.

Purchase the museum tickets on site. You will first be treated to an impressive documentary on Medina Al Zahra.  Walk through the exhibits and then a bus will take you to the site few minutes away.  Travel back in time and imagine yourself in the once thriving Islamic city as you explore the site.

I walked alone as Nihla and I lost each other from the beginning.  It was an emotional walk for me. A distant memory and a could-have-been thoughts.  Horses galloping entering the royal grounds. Sound of azan (call to prayer) from the city’s mosque. Hustling and bustling in the souq. And reminiscing the first time I was there with my bestie.

Keep track of time so you won’t miss the ride home!

*Bring a light jacket for Madrid and Barcelona in Spring.  Andalusia is hot (could be uncomfortable) and sunny in Spring but with cool mornings.

*There are quite a number of halal restaurants. We went to El Sultan (Moroccan cuisine) and Laor Kebab (Turkish, Indian & Pakistani cuisine).

Madrid

26 April 2014, Saturday

We flew in to Madrid from Barcelona via Vueling.  Unlike Barcelona’s airport, there isn’t any direct bus to the city area. Be sure to check the estimated fare at the taxi counter.

As much as I am a city girl, I still could not adapt to Madrid’s crowd. The moment we entered Puerta del Sol, my travel partner was taken aback at how busier it was than Barcelona.  Our apartment was conveniently located opposite the square and 2 mins from Plaza Mayor.

sol

27 April 2014, Sunday

The next morning we took the Metro down to Bernabeu Stadium. Santiago Bernabeu station was exceptionally quiet with no station officers except us and 2 Korean guys who were in the same train as us.  While exiting the ticket gantry, I notice a group of local teenagers. Nihla has not exited from the gantry.

The girls approached me requesting me to sign a petition. I firmly declined. But in a split second, more girls came nearer to me. I felt something was not quite right. It was when one of the Korean man who was about to exit from the station, shouted at the girls “Get away from the lady, you thief! You stole my money yesterday!” It was then that I realise that one of them was trying to find my bag. Thankful for the cold spring. I had my sling bag under my jacket. Alhamdulillah. Saved yet again. Only God knows how thankful we were.

I prefer my visit to Camp Nou Stadium 4 years ago.  But who would leave Bernabeu Stadium (19 Euros) without any souvenirs from their official shop.  It’s a must visit for Madrid fans.

bernabeu

Palacio Real (10 Euros / 16 Euros with other exhibitions) – It was my second visit so I didn’t enjoy it 🙂 But it’s definitely a touristy thing to do.

Retiro Park is the place to wind down and avoid the city’s crowd.  Bring your own snacks and drinks for a simple picnic! There are cafes and restaurants in the park. We spent 2 hours strolling in the park.

retiro parkSuch a pity that we didn’t have time to travel down to Toledo. So near yet so far.  Next time perhaps? Be sure to have your Hot Chocolate and churros!

churros

Barcelona

24 April 2014, Thursday

I promised myself to revisit this city, as my stay 4 years ago was too short.  What I love about Barcelona is it is so tourist-friendly:

  • Aerobus: brings you to the city from Barcelona’s airport.  It costs 5.90 Euros per trip or 10.20 Euros for a return trip.  Ensure you keep the receipt.
  • Bus Turistic: we bought the tickets from the tourist information counter at the airport. You can switch lines depending on your destination. Plan your route ahead! I highly recommend this.
  • Walking city: Walk down La Rambla from one end to the other gets you to Catalunya and the port. That is if you have the energy to walk to all destinations.

Coming from all-year-summer Singapore, I was pleasantly surprised that Spring in Barcelona was like Australia’s winter! It took me a while to get used to 10 to 16 degrees especially with strong winds in the morning and evening. All I had was my thin Adidas jacket.

Our humble apartment was smacked in Placa Catalunya. We immediately stocked up on fluid at El Corte Ingles. The plan to walk through at night did not happen as we both dozed off on the couch. What a 14-hr flight does to you.

Spain 201425 April 2014, Friday

We explored places I have not visited like Montjuic and Port Vell.  Parc Guell was kind of disappointing as there was a lot of waiting. They impose an entrance fee now and you have to select a time band, depending on availability to view the monumental site. Book online if you must go!

Heedless to warnings online especially on Trip Advisor, we decided to explore Raval. Though deep in my heart, I didn’t feel too good about it.  It seems like a harmless street away from La Rambla. When I walked in, I felt nervous. I said my prayers.

It’s a stark contrast from the lively main street. We passed by a few men who seemed homeless. I forgot about that fear when I met this friendly couple at a flea market. Gorgeous clay accessories! Go check out http://handmay2.blogspot.sg/

barca

While walking back, a suspicious looking man approached us in a language I could not figure. I brushed him off and we walked on.  My travel partner, Nihla, turned back and nervously said “He’s coming back for us!” If I could run, I would but I tried to compose myself (though God knows how nervous I was). This time he touched my back and I angrily stared at him. Thankfully, we were in front of a Muslim shop. We hurriedly went in and could see that the strange man took a step in and went out again, rather indecisive.

We pretended to look around but in a few minutes we left and hastened our pace. The moment we stepped on the main heart of the city, we were so relieved! Lesson learnt: follow your instinct and trust Trip Advisor!

Connection

30 April 2014, Wednesday

Sitting at the terrace of Solar Montes Claros on the 7th day of a 22-day trip.  Finally inspired to write in this little pink notebook.  There’s something magical about this place that just connects to my soul.  It must be the Alhambra standing strong against the perfect sky He painted.

alhambra-viewI have been sitting out here for hours in the freezing night.  Soaking in this precious moment, breathing in every single fresh cold air.

Solar Montes Claros, the same beautiful place I stayed 4 years ago.  Antonio was so welcoming and invited me to “my room”, the Saba.  It’s the only room in this B&B which is a duplex, with TV, kitchen and most importantly, with an awesome  view of the Alhambra. Solar Montes Claros is a hidden gem but I have to warn you…it’s a tough climb up the slopes and stairs to your room.

I have always felt connected with Granada, as though it’s my second home.  Never at once I felt like I am in a foreign land.  Never mind I got lost in some of the narrow streets, but never did I feel afraid.  Must be the people whom I met at the restaurants and shops who would wave at me the next time I see them.  Like long lost friends reconnected.  And I indeed made some great friends here.

Barcelona and Madrid have their individual charms but they don’t actually managed to tug the strings of my heart. Will write more about the trip soon..catching up on my sleep!