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An Impromptu Day in Brighton

The sound of waves breaking and kids playing on the beach, are probably two of  life's greatest joys.

"Oh shit! ... the tickets!" 
And so started our day-trip to Leeds Castle.
But the title says "Brighton"! Ok, ok, give me a sec.
We visited Leeds Castle a year ago and  we then found out that entry tickets last for a year - a year coming up next Saturday, we decided it was now or never if we wanted to go back.
Only, half way down - or rather round - the M25, I realised that I forgot the tickets...at home!
Laughter, shaking of heads and change of course: Brighton it is! 

We hadn't been to Brighton in years. I mean, it's cool and all, but it's gained a reputation for imitating Ibiza with a cross-over to 80's arcade leftovers, ergo not what comes to mind for a relaxing Sunday. Well, we were pleasantly proven wrong! 

Brighton is cool; that's true. But there is something different about it now, much more sophisticated. 
As we were driving into town, we spotted Pippi Longstrumfen walking down the street to the left, Bangkok Ladyboys Show to the right, then straight into Brighton Football Club supporters, across from the 10th Tattoo Convention and finally into a noisy mini parade of the local moppet club.
That's cool by everybody's standards. 

Left: The Old Pier ruins from i360. Right: A quick drink at the Hilton Terrace, with  a view of the Old Pier ruins.
Walking around...
Apart from the Pavilion and the Pier, Brighton's most famous attractions, there is plenty more to see.
Firstly, we treated ourselves to some Scampi & Chips with plenty of salt & vinegar; had to be done, only make sure you are quick, the seagulls love chips! 
Then we went straight for the sea, sat down and watched the waves break onto the pebbles. Life slows down after a couple of minutes and your senses are indulged to blue skies dotted with humongous white seagulls, waves relentlessly beating on the Pier stilts, kids playing all around and the smell of sea-salt, fish&chips and hot-dogs lingering in the air.

Then we discovered that the Beach Walk - the stretch between the new and old Piers - has been transformed to a vibrant, clean-cut pedestrian zone, to suit everyone's needs.
Smart, upmarket and relaxed beach-bars are scattered all along the Beach Walk, depending on your mood. Ohso Social Beach Bar seemed to be the spot where all the vibrant, young things (yes, I've been watching Downton again) meet up to mingle and enjoy a drink, with a view of the Pier and the sea; while further down the Walk the music turns up louder and louder, bars spot clever names such as the Krakken and you can even lounge and smoke shisha, on the beach; a bit of everything to suit all tastes and budgets.

In-between the beach bars, we spotted art galleries squeezed under the arches.
We even run into Brighton's Fishing Museum, entry is free and it's the perfect spot for kids to explore a whole fishing boat up-close.
We even got to participate in an "active art installation", throwing colourful pebbles on the beach, right next to "Afloat" or the Brighton Doughnut, as it's affectionately known!
This city is so alive!

We kept walking but as the crowds were getting bigger and bigger, waiting for Brighton football-team victory parade, we crossed onto the other side of the street and had a quick cocktail at the Hilton's Waterhouse Bar & Terrace. We were treated to a small cheerful tour of Brighton's moppet club, who made so much noise that I felt we were in Italy! So much fun!  

Left: The deck at BA's i360. Right: simple pleasures, scampi and chips, eat it fast before the seagulls do!

Left: Lounging around the i360 deck. Right: view of the Brighton football team victory parade from the i360 flight - and spot these cool arty rooftops too!
View of the seafront from i360's flight!

British Airways i360...

After our drink at the Hilton, still no parade in sight, even more Brighton football supporters gathering by the sides of the road, we knew it was time to escape the crowds.
"Let's go for a "flight" onto the new British Airways i360".

You can't miss it, it's set up right in front of the old Pier ruins, towering over the elegant Regency Square. 
As we "took off" the ground, we realised that the procession honouring Brighton football team players was finally underway and we got to see it all from up high, we couldn't have timed it better. Close to 3,000 people were following the bus carrying the players, all very orderly but very, very proud.

The views were amazing.
The "flight" takes around 20 minutes, which would have normally been ample time for me to finish my G&T;  oh yes, there is a bar "in-flight" too.
But, I was so busy admiring the English riviera the whole time, running from side to side,  that as we were landing, I had to enlist my husband's help to finish my drink. This never happens!
The coast looks simply amazing from high up. I got a sense of California living, with all of the high blocks of flats on one side and the glistening sea on the other.

Walking away from the beach and into the charming Lanes for dinner.

My gorgeous dinner, such an array of flavours and textures

Dinner at...
My favourite part was finding Plateau, a French bistro in the Lanes.
The food was fresh, tasty and imaginative.

We tried merguez for the first time ever, a salami-type sausage made of spiced lamb, typical of north African countries. Beautiful and strong flavour alongside a vibrant tomato salad, topped with almond pesto. By the way, I tried this almond-tomato pesto on pasta at home and it was such a new flavour!

Wines and ciders are sourced both locally and from France but they are all "fresh", in other words they are not as matured as your average bottle. It is a very acquired taste, not convinced it's the one for me, it felt a bit dry or rather harsh, but I am not one for dry wines anyway, so maybe not the best judge.

But then, everything else faded away as I had the tastiest skate roulade, filled with herby butter, served with caviar. There were so many textures and flavours complementing each other, all on one plate. We loved that place, it made us feel that we had popped over to France for dinner.
The Pier at dusk and right on the beach, the "active art installation" made up of colourful pebbles.

After dinner we strolled along the seafront on our way to the car. Such a difference.
It was 10:30 at night, there was hardly anyone there, the Pier lights were glistening in the dusk and we got the peace and quiet we had come here for. 
We walked down to the beach and sat there listening to the waves for a while, we just couldn't get ourselves in the car after such a lovely day of sunshine, fresh air and open sea!  

Pub In The Park, Marlow

No Summer Party is complete without a jug or rather... pot of Pimms!
The first event of the season! Here comes summer 2017! 
Organised by the talented chef Tom Kerridge, promising to gather foodies and BBC cooking show devotees to the quintessentially English riverside town of Marlow - Pub in the Park was created.
Tickets went on sale about a month and a half ago - they sold out within 2 hours!
I got a WhatsApp group going, just to make sure I bugged my friends enough, to get tickets on time. It worked! Six of us dissented to Marlow last Sunday afternoon to sample gastro-pub dishes by the river, in the sunshine!

Let's talk numbers... Tickets were priced at £40 per person, possibly on the steep side;  
All dishes cost £5 each, which I found sensible. We got around 12 dishes to try amongst the 6 of us, that's another £10 each plus maybe another £15 each for drinks. That's roughly £65 per person. Food for thought...
Plum Cider, for all sweet-tooth piggies, present company included!  
Aloo Chaat...by Atul Kochar, who has recently taken up the Compleate Angler in Marlow and I hear more and more satisfied customers recommending it lately. 

Sunlight in a bite - smocked haddock arancini!

My absolute favourite dish: Smoked Haddock Arancini with Egg yolk & Lemon pickle, by the Hardwick, delicious and creamy!
Most interesting dish: Malted Pork cheek Choux bun with Bacon crunch, by the Hand & Flowers - the choux bun was interesting, although a bit hard to bite into, but once you got past that, the pork cheek was a sweet and smooth surprise!   
Gotta have a curry: Aloo Chaat - a modern version, with fried potato chunks, by Atul Kochar!
Pity that some of the dishes had run out, even as early as the event had started. I wonder how that happened, the event was otherwise so well organised. We had all picked our favourite dishes in the taxi, on the way to the Park and had a plan for each of us to go get our favourites and then re-group and try a bit of everything; so, childish as we are, we were a bit disappointed that we didn't get to try what we had planned...venison chilli, pan-fried fois gras, all very popular and all very...finished!  
Most unexpected dish: Sweet and Spicy Korean Fried Chicken, by Galvin Hop - soft and crispy at the same time, sweet and spicy all in one go...oh yes, that was in the name!

What a clever open fire pit: smashed potatoes, barbecued feta, sea bream...all so smoky and delicious! Only, remember not to lean against it!  
Left: The Big Green Egg. Right: Barbecued duck and lettuce hearts
We got into a tasting session organised by the Big Green Egg, a company that sells interesting BBQs and fire pits designed for open fire cooking. All you had to do was queue up and be patient...sounds simple enough but when there is so much temptation around, time is of the essence!
We sampled duck and barbecued pork but surprise- surprise,  the best dish of them all was barbecued asparagus with grated parmigiana. Sh-moking!
After walking around the different stalls, we camped by the music stage and had the most un-co-ordinated picnic ever: Everybody kept bringing dishes and little local products from the stalls around. Mixing pork scratchings with chilli marmalade and charcoal cheese...hmmm ...washed down with Plum Cider, Mojitos and Espresso Martinis! What were we thinking?

My husband presented me with a block of charcoal cheese. He was so proud that he got me a gift! It could have been worse, he could have got me the Garlic Beer, so pheew!

Left: Goodies from Tom Kerridge's own pub, terrine with asparagus and spicy sausages with white beans.
Our camp-site in the sun and our un-conventional mess of a picnic! Special appearance by the Charcoal Cheese!  
There was live music until 11pm, by the Riffles, which kept us swaying and if you happened to see us reeling at some point, well, we are still proud of it! I would have loved to see Toploader on Saturday or Sophie Ellis Bextor on Friday too, but we got fireworks, so there! 

Marrakech Gardens

Follow me to...Marrakech!

After our fist attempt at navigating the Medina in Marrakech, I was left a bit overpowered. Yet, stubborn as I am, I was determined to get out there and see all of the marvellous and intriguing monuments that make up this city. 

My travels through Asia have taught me that if you are in need of some peace and quiet, head to ticketed monuments, they tend to be more relaxed once you are inside and you get the chance to look around without worrying about acting too obviously as a tourist.

So, once in Marrakech, we started at Bahia Palace.
The first thing to know about the Palace is that it is nothing like the western-style palaces; there is no impressive front and no towering elevations, as a matter of fact, the entrance is a simple gate with a walkway surrounded by orange trees.
Instead, the palace is a labyrinth of rooms built around little courtyards; the "Coeur de la maison" or "heart of the house", perfectly small microcosms of quiet and greenery. In a way the Palace reflects the centuries-old  lifestyle of Morocco. Houses are inward looking, they offer little escapes from the otherwise busy and commercial Medinas.
"Coeur de la Maison"...first courtyard we got to visit in the Palace, a little oasis of orange trees and birds singing.
One of the state rooms in the Palace, impressive fireplace, only to be topped by the intricate ceiling.
Afternoon sun through the Palace's windows...
We waited and waited for people to move on, so we could take this one... while waiting we had all the time in the world to examine the intricate floor, walls and ceiling mosaics...silver linings! 
Gorgeous, colourful Moroccan mosaics around the water fountain in another of the Palace's courtyards.

The Palace left us in a very calm mood, so out in the busy street of the Medina, into a taxi for the new town and onto the very different neighbourhood of Jardin Majorelle.

The new town of Marrakech could almost be a neighbourhood in any Mediterranean city, it did remind me a bit of Athens to be honest. So, we grabbed an ice-cream each and headed for the entrance...we certainly didn't expect the very long queue outside the gardens in Rue Yves Saint Laurent, which seemed to be particularly populated with some very fashion-conscious tourists. For a second I did think that maybe this is a different "Jardin" to the ones we are used to and that we should have dressed up... but then I realised that it was probably a nod to Yves Saint Laurent, hence they all looked ready to attend London Fashion Week, in contrast to the rest of us, trying to look respectable in the afternoon heat!

When I shared this picture on Facebook someone asked if this is a painting... fair question, we did spend a lot of time just staring at the colours, bold and relaxing at the same time - and no, this is not a painting. 

This garden is a sanctuary of all strange and unusual plants that you wouldn't normally expect to see together in one place: cacti of all sizes, colours and shapes, alongside bamboo lined paths and vibrant lilacs, bright yellows, all showing off in the afternoon sun!
This is a creation of Jaqcues Majorelle, a french painter, who moved to Marrakech in the early 1900's and made this plot of land his life's work. Then Yves Saint Laurent bought the Jardin in the 1960's and raised its' popularity, he even lived here in the villa that is now converted to a Berber museum.
I've always thought that you have to be a particular type of person to like cacti... there's something very independent and lonely about them. 
Left: the last afternoon sun-rays playing through the cacti. Right: One of Yves St Laurent's New Year's cards.

Yves Saint Laurent used to create his own collage cards to send to his friends every New Year, the cards were always themed around love. I'm going to leave you with this lovely thought... off for shisha and cocktails in the sunset, over Jamaa El' Fna.

Ouarzazate Kasbah - The Gateway To The Sahara

This is one of my favourite photos of the whole trip to Morocco; Standing in the Kasbah dinning room, listening to stories about Caravans and sailing the Sahara!
Ouarzazate is the last big city you meet before going into the Sahara. That's why caravans have come here for centuries to get supplies, which they would then use to trade with, during their encounters in the desert. 
The Pasha of Ouarzazate, controlled a strategic point on the edge of the Sahara, with links to the Atlas mountains and Marrakech. The Kasbah, his palace, still stands, with its' red mud walls and simple interiors. Only a few of the rooms are decorated though, we were told that even when the Kasbah was in full use only rugs and low furniture would have been used.
The dinning room walls are covered in blue and white tiles, the Pasha's lounge is adorned with a wooden green painted ceiling and the Pasha's first wife's chambers are also decorated with colourful wooden ceilings. The rest of the rooms are left white. Some low passages take you to the Pasha's lounge..."why so low" I asked..."prepares you to bow to the Pasha" I was told!  
Up until a few years ago caravans from South Morocco would be able to travel the Sahara freely, to Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. Sadly, this is no longer possible as Morocco is trying to protect its' borders. Still, this is the stuff movies are made of: nomads of the moving sand, Bedouins and Touaregs - the blue people of the Sahara - extended families living together in oasis, proud of their hospitality and keen to trade. 
The Kasbah stands in the centre of Ouarzazate, a great example of traditional south Moroccan architecture.
A courtyard, in the heart of the Kasbah, loved the colours; pink-reddish walls, changing as the sunlight moved and clear blue skies.

Film studios in the desert? Well yes! Tom Cruiz, Samuel L Jackson, Jake Gyllenhall and so on, have all been here apparently. Our guide just couldn't stop himself from namedropping the whole time we were walking through the Kasbah. He claimed to have worked in many famous movies as an extra, too!
"You know...Alexander the Great was here?" he said to me.
"I wasn't aware that Alexander came all the way to Morocco" said I.
"Yes! Colin Farrell", he quickly said, smirking away. Cheeky. 

Just across from the Kasbah's entrance we spotted the top of a church with a cross, right next to the minaret tower of a mosque. Intrigued? They were props for movie sets! Made out of pre-fabricated material, standing there to confuse visitors since the 80's.

This window looks out of the Kasbah's dinning room.
I stood there looking at the rooftops, thinking that it all looks so familiar; it can't be off course, I've never been here before. And yet!
Well, these very rooftops were used in filming the Prince of Persia movie! Hence the familiar feeling!

What a lovely way to finish off our daytrip from Marrakech. As we were leaving the Kasbah, the heavy gates were closing behind us. Time for our four-hour drive back to Marrakech.  

Beyond Marrakech - High Atlas, Berbers, Nomads and Gladiators

Ait Ben Haddou: A medieval fort on the edge of the Sahara desert: a movie set, a tourist destination or ...sandcastles in Babylon?

We arrived in Marrakech late in the evening, so we couldn't really see much; we could feel the warm breeze though and sat at our balcony under the clear sky full of stars eager to explore this exciting place!
The next morning I run outside to our balcony and whoa...glorious sunshine, palm trees and roses, the hotel pool hiding amongst the palm trees and beyond this colourful summery-looking landscape, the High Atlas - covered in snow, glistening blueish-white in the sunshine. What a contrast! I immediately decided that we must visit the Atlas Mountains!
If you decide to take this day-trip from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, be warned that you'll spend most of your time in the car. It costs around £45 each and includes lunch and entry with a guide at the Ouarzazate Kasbah. It takes four hours to go and four to come back, but it's worth it! Let me tell you why.
Berber Villages

One of the first Berber villages we encountered during our drive onto the Atlas Mountains

Twenty minutes or so after leaving Marrakech, we already reached the first Berber villages. 
The road is uphill, but Marrakech is already at almost 500m altitude above sea level, so the slope isn't that steep initially. The Berbers are the original inhabitants of this area and their language is completely different to Arabic. It's closer to ancient Egyptian and I even recognised some Greek letters in there, too. Hmmm, now I'm intrigued!
The view from our first stop at 1800m on the Atlas Mountains

First stop to stretch our legs was at 1,800m altitude for a mint tea, at a road-side café.
The air up there was so clean and a little bit chilly, but the sunshine cheered everybody up. We had a lovely view of the reddish valley and the villages we had just driven through.
Berber villages are a bit hard to spot as they consist of cubic houses made of local reddish mud, blending perfectly into the sides of the Atlas. All houses are built very close together, so that a traveller's eye will initially think it's one big house (Kasbah). They rarely have a second floor and the only building pointing to the sky is the white-painted mosque minaret.
Tichka Pass

As the climb continues, the road runs alongside Oued Tichka (River Tichka), a river that carries water from the snowed sides of the Atlas all the way to Marrakech. This time of the year, you'd expect it to be full, as the snow starts to melt, but at times it turned to a stream, leaving the riverbed dry and rough-looking. 
Villages were dotted along the side of the river all the way up to Tichka Pass, only, they were on the opposite side of the road, making me think that they still remain untouched by tourism and outside influences.

Tichka Pass is the highest pass on the Atlas Mountains, at 2,200m altitude.

The road becomes windier closer to the top, but it's wide and safe, so nothing to worry about.
The landscape is barren and lonely up there. We stopped right on top of this endless curly road, just on the side, to take in the view. WOW!
It takes a minute for your eyes and brain to co-ordinate and accept that you are now at 2,000 altitude. It looks like one of those Lego structures, perfectly constructed road dotted with white lines, in this harsh and almost other-planet-looking landscape.
After the Pass, the road becomes even more windy, although the villages are now small towns and being Saturday we were caught up in a few market-traffic situations. It was lovely to see life unfolding, you could buy anything in these markets from hens and sheep for keeping, to fruit and veg. We stopped at a local co-operative to taste Argan Oil, it's a local produce mixed in almost everything. I got some almond butter with argan oil, try it on multi-seed toast with honey - delicious! Then, there are also quite a few highway patrols and stop-and-search situations. Don't worry, all tourist vehicles have special permission and you'll get through quickly.
Ait Ben Haddou Ksar 

This is where Gladiator meets Saharan nomads and mud Kasbahs transport you to a biblical-like setting. Ait Ben Haddou is a Unesco heritage site. The Ksar, a fortified city, is built entirely out of mud and natural material like hay and horse hair. It is often used for  shooting Hollywood movies too, the latest being Game of Thrones and a few oldies such as Indiana Jones, Gladiator, the Jewel of the Nile; but forget all that, touch the walls, peek inside the houses and stand on top of the Ksar to look around the Valley, this is what you are here for.
Looking at Ait Ben Haddou from a distance

As we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, we were told that we'd meet some nomads and have the chance to talk to them. Perfect.
What that really meant was talking to this Touareg merchant, who started off with offering us mint tea and narrating some amazingly interesting stories about life in the Sahara; then we had to spend most of the hour trying to politely explain that we didn't drive for 4 hours to come buy jewellery or a rug for 450 euros! As a result we had 20 minutes left for lunch and another 20 to visit Ait Ben Haddou Ksar. Tourist pitfalls - frustrating to say the least!
His stories however, assuming they were true, were fascinating. He spoke of Touareg people, or the blue people of the Sahara, because of their usual blue head attire, still living in oasis in the Sahara. They are renowned for their hospitality and travel in caravans for most of the year to exchange goods with other nomads, then once a year they come to Ouarzazate to sell their goods. He even mentioned that Michael Palin spend three weeks with his family touring the Sahara a few years ago!

A word of advise: no matter how determined you are to avoid the tourist traps, unfortunately the driver will stop at various spots where you'll be politely "enticed" to buy something. When we have our own car, we make it clear to the driver at the beginning that there's a nice tip for him at the end if he doesn't stop at all those nic-nac places. It's a bit harder when you are in a group though. Thankfully, all 5 of us, who were in the tour together, agreed to take our time in the Ksar beyond the allocated 20 minutes and that signalled to our driver that he cannot take the mickey with these pointless "random" stops any more.

Left: the windy streets in the Ksar. Right: our colourful lunch
Behind me: the top of the Ksar and on the right: Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine!

Finally, some lunch. We were shown to the beautiful terrace of L'Oasis D'Or, overlooking the Ksar. We were offered a colourful mixed platter of freshly chopped vegetables, that included beetroot salad and potato salad, followed by a Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine and finally chicken brochettes. What a lovely spot of lunch!
But I just couldn't wait to have a peek inside the Ksar, so off we went!
Crossing over the river that separates the new settlements from the Ksar feels like a passage to a different era, like in Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.
It's very muddy with bright green palm trees popping up everywhere. The Ksar is a sleepy town, with narrow streets and tall houses, remember to look up, some corner houses feature tall towers for protection. Birds nest in their little crevices. The paths spiral up, past shops and houses and there are even two or three hotels in the Ksar, where you can actually stay at.
Half-way up we found the ruins to an old Synagogue! Wait what? Well, it turns out that Jewish people arrived in Morocco centuries ago as merchants and have worked side-by-side with Berbers in this area, so it's only normal that you find Synagogues all across Morocco, if you look a bit closer!

At the top of the Ksar you have to stop and take it all in.

I mean, here we are: standing in a medieval Ksar in Morroco, looking down at the Ounila Valley, over these real-life sandcastles, on the doorstep of the Sahara.
Feeling excited and thankful and all loved up, grateful having my husband here with me to share this moment ... and absolutely convinced that travelling is one of the best ways to give meaning to life, as long as you keep your eyes, mind and heart open!
© Life Love London

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