31 January 2016

Upcoming Adventure: NORWAY 2016!

Not so long ago I was galavanting around Stockholm. Something about that trip woke up something inside me - a longing for all things Nordic!

I've always been drawn to Nordic things: wooly jumpers, pine forests, icy mountains, solid blue rivers, gigantic fjords, fresh air. Everything about it is enchanting and inspires my soul. It makes me happy, even looking at a picture. My laptop wallpaper is ALWAYS a Nordic theme - winter or summer.

Although I've already visited Norway as a child, I know I have to go back an enjoy it as an adult. I'm so drawn to that place it that I'm sure I can justify arranging a second trip.

So I have. I am making my second trip to Norway - and a grand trip it will be.

Previously when I visited Norway, I was confined to the South - Kristiansand namely - where my family live. Although Kristiansand offers pine forests and fjords, I'm old enough now to chase whole shebang. Unforgivably.

I leave in two weeks, and I will be spending 18 days travelling between Western Norway and the Far North, Svalbard.

I start in Bergen, the gateway to the grand fjords. After spending a few days exploring the cute, winding sidestreets, and reconciling with Scandinavian baking, I make my inland via the fjords.

I will be sailing inland to Flåm, a magical fjord town deep in the mountains. It will be a day's journey, so I will get to taste the spectacle of the fjords in a nutshell.

From Flåm, I take the train back to the city, chugging along icy mountainsides and snowy forests. It's one of the most beautiful rail routes in the world, so my eyeballs will be braced for some unadulterated nature porn.

From Bergen, I make the big leap North, across the Arctic Ocean, to Svalbard.

Svalbard is a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean, on the skirt of the North Pole ice sheet. It's capital, Longyearbyen, is the northernmost settlement in the world! Nobody lives further north, apart from a few scientists and fur trappers, for some of the year.

Svalbard is extreme, but I want extreme. I want to feel cold like no cold I've ever felt before. It might not sound like the kind of ordeal you want out of a 'holiday', but I guess it's not a holiday I'm after, it's the experience.

Svalbard is a still-intact tomb to Soviet industry and fur-trapping. There is a lot of history here. There are Soviet-era murals and buildings that are still standing, as erosion here is so slow. In fact, erosion is so slow on Svalbard, there are rumours that it is illegal to die here because the graveyard is so full!

I will be based in Svalbard for one week - in the hub of Longyearbyen. I haven't made many concrete plans for what to do while I'm in Svalbard. I'm eager to see what opportunities come up when I arrive.

To highlight, here are 8 things I hope to experience out of this trip:

1. Grand Fjords

The one word that is universally synonymous with Norway - fjord. A giant chasm between two mountains, through it running the deepest, darkest, coldest waters - almost what I'd imagine Viking blood to be like! Fjords offer some of the most amazing natural scenes ever seen across the world - there aren't many places like it.

Although there are hundreds of 'capillaries' across Norway, I hope to capture the main highlights of 'Fjordland'.

2. Snow

Hardly an amazing feature, I know. But in England we barely get any substantial snow. In Winter, I want the full-throttle blizzards and hiding indoors with pecan pie and wooly socks. It's never quite like that, though I pretend!

Norway in February means very high chances of snow, and plenty of it. I dream of a Winter Wonderland, and I hope I get to see and savour one.

3. Norwegian Bakery

I've been so intrigued by Scandinavian baking since I was little. I tried a biscuit in Norway when I was little called 'Pepperkake' - like a gingerbread but made with pepper. It tasted so strange but it worked.

This curiosity for Scandi baking unfolded when I took a trip to Sweden at Christmas. Everywhere I looked I saw sweet treats made with exotic, worldly spices like cardamom and saffron. It was sensational, and it had left a heady taste in my mouth. Now I want to see what Norway does differently to Sweden in its baking traditions. A true bakeoff between countries!

4. Polar Express

So maybe not the actual Polar Express, but I really want to take a train ride through Norway's splendid winter scenery. Hopefully they'll be views that I'll never forget. I mean, LOOK.

5. Pine Forests

A bit of a random thing to put on my wish list. It's hard to describe why I love pine/fur trees so much. They just make me so happy and fill me with joy. Maybe it's because they are green all year around. Maybe it is because they are so fluffy, pointy and cute. Or maybe it's because they are so ruggid and deeply green...

I have no idea!

The idea of walking through a pine forest is my utter fantasy of peace and relaxation. When I lived in Wales I lived close to a gigantic (though man-made) pine forest. Walking through it felt like I was in purgatory. Was it the smell? Was it the height? I don't think I know. I'm struggling to justify my obsession to you, and you probably think I'm weird for it. I don't care. I won't stop loving them!

6. Life in the Arctic

Longyearbyen is the further civilisation north - and people don't seem to be leaving anytime soon.

There are plenty of jobs in tourism, mining, fishing and other natural resource industries. People can live a comfortable life here - there's the world's northernmost supermarket, the world's northernmost restaurant and even the world's northernmost burger van! Humans, though not built for it, manage to survive here. I hope to get a flavour of life as an Arctic dweller, whether I get cold feet or not.

7. Polar Action

If the internet is to be believed (and it usually can tbh), there is a lot of adventure to be had on Svalbard. You're spoilt for choice: dog-sledding, snowmobile trips, glacier-walking, ice-breaker sailing. Some trips even claim to stalk the polar bear - there are more polar bears than people on Svalbard - but chance is a fine thing.

8. Northern Lights

The ultimate wish!

The timing to visit Svalbard is perfect - February. The sun has only just risen from a 6-month period of permanent darkness, yet there is still very little light pollution. Being this far north, it is an ideal place to keep an eye out for the elusive and fabulous Northern Lights - though it's wise not to get your hopes up on any hunt for the Northern Lights!

So there we have it. A list of aspirations. As with any trip: things change, drama happens, planes/traines/ferries get missed. Plans can take a nose-dive - and I think that's how it should be.

Who knows where it will take me - though being an amazing country I don't think it could get anything close to worse!

I hope to share the fun with you over the next few weeks!

Thanks for reading!


25 November 2015

Upcoming Adventure: SWEDEN 2015

Hej Hej! It looks like I'm off again!

It hasn't been too long since I returned home from Morocco. The sunkissed skin faded very quickly; it never stays with me! Although I was in Morocco for a just a few weeks, the climate had changed a heck of a lot when I arrived home to England. The trees were toffeed and amber, the streets were strewn with crispy leaves and everybody was draped in fluffy, wooly clothes. Fantastic. Isn't autumn just one of the best things about life?

Autumn has been lovely. I was in the Southern Hemisphere this time last year, so I never had an autumn! I ate lots of hearty food, added cinnamon to everything and had slice after slice of pecan pie followed lots of balmy, breezy walks.

Now it's late November. All of the leaves have now fallen though and the temperature has plummetted very suddenly. The days are so short now. This happens every year yet somehow it feels like a phenomenon each time! I guess it's here: Winter. Better welcome it.

With a trip, naturally.

I have a week free from work, and I figured it would be a huge shame to sit around the house eating pecan pie pretending it's still Autumn (not the worst plan actually.) So I started looking at breaks in Europe. I wanted a in-at-the-deep-end, non-holds-barred Winter experience.

So naturally I looked to Scandinavia.

Even though I see Norway as my spiritual homeland, I've never been to Sweden. Of course I haven't heard a bad word put towards Sweden, so I decided the time to visit would be now!

In culinary terms, this week-long trip is a grand adventure. Here's why:

Because Sweden has such long, drawn-out winters, they're true artisans of pickling and preserving produce. As a result, their cuisine is full of pretty vulgur, pungent flavours at this time of year. Typical staples of Sweden include cured fish, pickled vegetables and soured cheeses. I've always been funny about fish. I kinda like it - far from passionate about it - but I'm too nervous to try new things when it comes to fish and seafood. The smell of a fishmonger's counter scares me away from even looking at what fish are on offer, and the only fish I ever ate growing up was my dad's minging fried kippers, which still haunt my nasal passages to this day.

These foods never make my mouth water, yet somehow I find them so inspiring. I mean look at how elegant and glamorous a plate of salmon gravalax looks (see above). Surely something that looks so good cannot taste vulgar! I do want to see what the fuss is about. If I end up absolutely hating everything, then fair dues,  jury spoken, I tried.

I suppose this is a trip is moreso for the tastebuds than the spirit.

Including the filling of my face with food, here are five highlights I'm wanting to experience while I'm in and around Stockholm:

1. Christmas Markets

It's December - it's going to be very hard not to notice that it's Christmas at this time of year! Being so close to Santa's homeland, Lapland, Sweden makes a big deal out of Christmas every year. Christmas markets selling fresh food, spiced drinks and festive treats. It's a Christmas shopper's paradise, and I hope to find lots of sensationally Scandi' produce to bring home!

2. Scandinavian Bakery

I've always found Swedish - Scandinavian rather - bakery very interesting! It's surprisingly exotic for being part of Europe, and it has some very intriguing roots. Scandinavian baking takes a lot of familiar, comforting flavours like cinnamon and almond, and combines them with unlikely hymns of black pepper and even saffron and cardamom - more typically found in Arabic/Indian cooking. Scandinavia has borrowed such exotic flavours from faraway places and has produced it's own vibrant personality.

I gotta try everything!

3. Stockholm Archipelago

Stockholm is very different to most cities. Not only does it spread out into suburbs, but to the East it spreads across a network of islands in the Baltic Sea - over 1000 of them, individually named. Most are visited by a water taxi, and others can be accessed by public-use rowing boats. This demands to be explored, though I massively doubt I'll get to visit most of them!

4. Palaces and Cathedrals

Stockholm is home to some gorgeous buildings. It cannot be determined whether Sweden has it's own particular architectural style, but it certainly impresses with detail. The Swedish Royal Palace, for example, is adorned with crisp-cut sculptures and cool marble floors. In my experience: if it's breathtaking in photos, it's gotta be something else in real life!

5. Café Culture

While researching this, I was surprised to learn that Swedes are the second biggest consumers of coffee in the world! Of course, Sweden doesn't produce it's own coffee, but like Italy, they have their own special way of blending and infusing coffee that it has it's own character. Not only that, but they drink loads of it. Naturally, café culture is rife, and Stockholm is full of cafés offering a range of atmospheres for every type of coffee-drinker, ranging from the flamboyant and cosy, to the more clinical, minimalist type.

Well I look forward to bringing you a slice of festive Sweden! 

Now I had better go and buy a nice warm coat...

Thanks for reading!


9 October 2015

Over the Range (Atlas Mountains, Morocco)

I was about to make my beeline across the country, through the Sahara Desert.

 The trip would take 4 days, involving bus journeys, long camel drives and camping in the desert. It sounded so romantic and primitive - I couldn't wait for it!

Before touching the desert, I had to get through the Atlas mountains first - a handsomely jagged mountain range that cinches in Morocco's waistline like a basque.

I woke up incredibly early that morning to catch a 6am bus from Place de Foucauld. I was the only person waiting there, and grew increasingly anxious is it got later and later after 6am, and no bus was in sight.

 I stood nervously outside a closed-down café playing with a box of kittens. I don't know whether they belonged to somebody or were just dumped there. They were probably riddled with ticks but they were a very effective stress-reliever!

40 minutes after 6, the bus rocked up. There were a few other tourists on board who I started talking to as we began to make out way out of the city and towards the mountain range.

After a one-hour nap, I woke up in beaming daylight.

The bus had stopped for a refreshment break at a truck stop in the foothills.

As far as highway stops go, this was a pretty nice one. It was peaceful and the air was mountain-fresh.

There was a stand offering freshly-squeezed orange juice for as little as 20p a glass. Fabulous.

 Another hour and we were much higher up into the mountain range. The air grew colder and thinner, but cleaner. After only a few days in dusty Marrakech, my lungs were happy about this change in scenery.

Further along the road, the landscape grew less and less green. We also started to descend in altitude - we were over the highest of the range.

Now it was all downhill to the Sahara.

The road grew flat, and we began to sail through a date plantation - mile after mile of lush, green palm trees armed with delicious, sweet dates.

We stopped to for a refreshment break, and I bought a box of dates from a young boy for less than £1. 

It was like a box of luxury chocolates - eat date as silky and caramelly as the last. The scorching desert heat caramelises these dates, giving them a velvety toffee disposition.

Tanked up on sugar, we set forward.

This was the edge of an oasis - the mountains were far behind - I was now officially in a desert. Scorching, dry desert.

And onwards towards the dunes...

Thanks for reading!


8 October 2015

Pools and Gardens (Marrakech, Morocco)

After a vibrant lunch and a heavy-handed hammam spa, I spent the rest of the day loafing around the palace's grounds.

There was also wi-fi.


The most striking thing about La Mamounia is the detail afforded in it's restoration. Like a lot of design in other Arabic countries, Moroccan design has a thing for symmetry. Every space was arranged like a butterfly's wingspan: curves, patterns and colours, yet what you see on your left is exactly mirror on your right. This very soothing on your eyes for some reason - perhaps because your brain only has to figure out 50% of your surroundings before it gets the idea.

I wandered through to the indoor spa area. It was fit for a queen!

It was completely peaceful. Nobody was here. I stripped down to my trunks and my hammam robe I bought at the market.

I enjoyed a good amount of time lying around here just staring at the walls. This was a very good place to do that.

Extra to the pool area was a mysterious, tiled corridor that led towards a small out-house.

In there was a lonely jacuzzi with plenty of room for me to spread out and bubble away in.

I was not disturbed once in the half hour I spent there.

At this point, I felt like I'd been indoors for long enough. I have a very bad FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) so I decided to wander outside and feel the sun on my cheeks.

I found a gloriously abundant garden complex with a blissfully quiet swimming pool secreted in the midst of it all.

You can tell it's a fancy hotel when there is absolutely nobody in the swimming pool.

I claimed a quiet bed in the corner, stripped down once again and spent the rest of the afternoon dwelling and swimming in peace.

The pools were lines with an iridescent mosaic that transformed the water into a hypnotic, sparkling abyss.

As the sun began to caramelise, I buttoned up my shirt, changed into dry shorts and took a walk through the balmy garden complex.

This was the perfect end to the day at La Mamounia. I somehow felt like I was a million miles away from the buzzing, dusty traffic of Marrakech, even though it all was just over the walls. The gardens were a haven of quiet. All you could hear were peeping birds and murmuring French couples reclined under the orange trees.

La Mamounia grows their own oranges and olives on these grounds.

They even go as far as pressing their own signature olive oil, which I tried at lunch. Tasty stuff.

Once the air cooled and began to bite back, I reported back to the lobby to abuse the Wi-Fi and velvet sofas for a last time.

Then it was back into the city to enjoy my last night in Marrakech, before heading into the Sahara Desert!

Read about that in my next post!

Thanks for reading,