Category Archives: TRAVEL

TRAVEL – Morocco on my mind

In 1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash tickled our imagination with lyrical exotic images of Morocco – of cobras in the square and striped djellebas we can wear – in their song Marrakesh Express. Forty years later, my friend travel writer, Tan Chung Lee adds to the pictures in our head. Photos also by Chung Lee.

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Berber man beside his house in Alt Benhaddou

The image of a colourful and lively Djemaa el-Fna (pronounced Jamaa’ Elfnaa) sprang to mind the moment I heard the animated drums and singing. It couldn’t be anywhere else.

I had just arrived by train in Marrakesh from Casablanca and had been dropped off by a ‘petit taxi’ at a road curb close to the square to make my way to my riad (traditional Moroccan house converted into a hotel) in the medina. What a welcome after a five-hour flight from Istanbul followed by a three-hour train ride.

Soon after checking in, I hurried out again, to what must be the liveliest square in all of Morocco. There was a heady carnival atmosphere at Djemaa-el-Fna where it seemed as if an entire circus had come to town.

There was a cacophony of music everywhere – from flutes, pipes, tambour, drums and even the bells of water sellers, clad in red costumes and broad-rimmed hats, hawking brass cups of water poured out of a goat-skin bag to passers-by.

The loudest and most stirring music of all came from the Gnaoua spiritual music troops, beating on drums and clicking the kirkbat, which are oversized metal castanets.

Spectators were huddled in groups, entranced by non-stop entertainment provided by snake charmers in one spot, story-tellers in another, dancing ‘lady-boys’ clad in women’s costumes shaking their bon-bons in a far corner and the antics of Barbary apes perched on the shoulders of their roaming owners. Berber women sitting on stools offering henna tattoos dotted the square.

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While the entertainers were strutting their stuff, in another part of the square, amid billowing clouds of smoke, was the waft of barbecued food coming from a jumble of stalls, selling an amazing variety of dishes – from snails and soup to deep-fried fish and kebabs.

 

The irresistible Square

I first had a freshly squeezed orange juice, at one of the many orange and grapefruit stalls that occupy the square all day, unlike the food stalls that only roll in at dusk. Then I tried a small bowl of snails, as an appetizer, for 5 dirhams, before wandering around the square to soak in the ambience.

It was quite intoxicating. What amazed me was how, every time I aimed my camera to snap a photo of some performing group, one of its members would instantly appear to ask for money. I gave a couple of dirhams each time. Later, I was told I was lucky to have escaped with such a small amount. Many tourists have, apparently, been aggressively hassled to give more, sometimes as much as 100 dirhams.

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Lady boys entertaining in Djemaa el-Fna

Over the next couple of nights, I would go up to the rooftop terrace of Argana, one of several cafes surrounding the square, for a panoramic ringside view of the action on Djemaa el-Fna and shoot pictures without the subjects of my attention even being aware!

For a true feel of the atmosphere, do eat at least once at one of its food stalls. I tried fish, freshly fried on the spot, choosing to dine at a popular stall with a long queue of people waiting for an empty table or for their takeaway orders. The fish came with a plate of grilled eggplant, mashed to a pulp – a bit like Baba Ganoush – and drizzled with olive oil, and another of mashed tomatoes, both mopped up with bread. The entire tasty meal cost only 24 dirhams (S$4.80).

The action at Djemaa el-Fna does not wind down till well past midnight, when exhausted performers begin to disperse and the food vendors, with steadily diminishing supplies, start to pack up. The quickly emptying square goes into slumber till late afternoon the following day when the clamour returns.

The rest of Marrakesh is just as much of a hubbub; indeed, you will spend hardly a dull moment here. Its old walled city – the medina, with its twisting alleyways – is a delight to explore. This is where you will find colourful souks (markets), selling everything from perfumes and spices to leather bags, shoes and ceramics, and beautiful courtyard homes, many of which have been converted into riads.

Souks and palaces

You might have to dodge donkey carts, bicycles, motorbikes and persistent shopkeepers but a wander through these souks offer a taste of the real Marrakesh, where the sights, sounds and smells of the city come alive.

Tucked amid the souks and houses are some enchanting gems – hammams (old-fashioned Turkish-style baths offering spa and massage treatments; quiet gardens and the organic Earth Café, where you can buy bottles of fabulous olive oil and the prized argan oil processed from the café’s own farms.

Built by the Arabs and dating back to the 9th century, the 16-sq-km medina also contains two palaces, of which the 19th century Bahia Palace is the more spectacular. In contrast, the nearby 16th century El-Badi Palace is bare; only its size alludes to a past grandeur.

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Artisan in Marrakesh souk

Close to the palaces is the former Jewish quarter, the Mellah, where you can wander in the old jewelry souk, now occupied by spice vendors, and admire the tall houses in its winding alleys. Its synagogue with a courtyard marked by the Star of David is still patronized by a small Jewish community.

From YSL chic to the majestic Atlas Mountains

Beyond the medina lies Ville Nouvelle, the modern face of Marrakesh with its stylish shops, restaurants and bars. It was here where I was looking for an epicerie to buy some wines for my trip to the mountains that I stumbled on Majorelle Gardens, a favourite among French tourists, for the magnificent gardens created by French couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his friend, Pierre Berge, who fell in love with the city and are perhaps the first to have kicked off the Marrakesh mania among current travelers.

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Majorelle Gardens

Marrakesh lies in central Morocco and there is plenty to do within this area. The variety is astonishing too – from the high Atlas mountains, just a 90-minute-drive away, and rock-cut gorges and palm oases, accessible in half a day, to the majestic red sand dunes of the Sahara at Erg Chebbi, reached at the end of a long day.

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Desert town of Merzouga

Keen to do some trekking and inspired by evocative images of Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, I chose to travel to Imlil, using it as a base for forays into the area. Geographically close to Marrakesh, it is a world apart with snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and hilltop villages.

Apart from the breathtaking scenery, Imlil offers a glimpse of typical village farming life in Morocco, where goats are herded across pastures and fields are tended bywomen, almost all of whom are veiled and in long robes, as this is one of the most conservative parts of the country.

Where are the men? I asked my guide, Mohammed, as we passed a couple of women, who had just collected a huge pile of grass each and were struggling to place it on their backs, to carry home to feed the animals. “I think they need help.” He laughed. “They work with tourists, as guides, only women work in the villages.” He gave each of them a hand and put the load on their shoulders.

Summer in Morocco is hot but in the mountains, it is cool and pleasant. At night, the temperature dips even more and it was a delight to dine on the open-air terrace of my guesthouse, surrounded by views of snow-capped peaks, while the plaintive bleat of goats, herded into the third-storey pens of the local houses, after a day in the pastures, punctured the tranquility.

Ancient Kasbahs and gorgeous gorges

Kasbahs have long been part of the Moroccan landscape. Some Kasbahs were the fortified homes of wealthy families while others were citadels, housing entire village populations. Virtually all of them occupy a strategic position, on hilltops, for defence purposes, and enclosed within high walls.

While many of the Kasbahs have fallen into ruin because of age, some are still in quite pristine condition. On the other side of the Atlas Mountains, on the route known as the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs, I travelled in a shared ‘grand taxi’ along the tortuous but spectacular Tizi n ‘Tichka road to one of Morocco’s most picturesque Kasbahs, the iconic mud-brick Ait Benhaddou.

This fortified city from the 11th century sits on a hill along the Ouarzazate River, on the old caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. Like its high mountains, yawning canyons and red sand dunes, Kasbahs like Ait Benhaddou, which add a splash of colour and charm to an otherwise desolate landscape, conjure up images of romance. Little wonder, it is a favourite among Hollywood producers for use as the backdrop for epic films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and the most recent, The Gladiator.

Home to an entire village at one time, the Kasbah is now inhabited by less than a dozen families, a few of whom resourcefully allow visitors to tour their three-storey houses and point out props used in various films in return for a small tip.

End your trip in Casablanca (where I started mine). More a city of commerce, Casablanca is less atmospheric than many places in Morocco, but it has a cosmopolitan vibe and many attractive art-deco buildings.

Movie buffs must visit Rick’s Café, opened in 2004, the brainchild of an American diplomat, inspired by the famous Casablanca film. The spirit of the movie is unmistakable in its interior, which faithfully captures the scenes fans will remember, although the movie was shot in Hollywood.

Still, as you nurse a drink while listening to the resident pianist playing As Time Goes By, it is easy to imagine yourself in the Casablanca of the 1940s.

Travel Tips

Getting around

The best way is by sharing a ‘grand taxi’ (usually a Mercedes) with five others. There is no fixed schedule unlike the buses’ you just turn up at the stand for long-distance taxis. You pay for your seat and wait for five other passengers to show up. How long you have to wait depends on the destination and the time of day. Taxis fill up more quickly in the morning and when it is headed to a popular town. To save on waiting time and more comfort, you can pay for more seats or share the cost with other passengers. There were times when I waited only 10 minutes and only once did I have to wait for two hours.

Dining

Morocco’s most famous dish is the tajine, which is actually the name of the inverted funnel-shaped clay vessel used for cooking. There is lamb, chicken, beef, fish and even vegetable tajines to choose from. They are delicious, cooked with a variety of spices and over an open fire for hours. Pair a tajine with a Moroccan wine, which is of good quality.

Speaking of wines, they are only served in licensed restaurants although many unlicensed ones allow you to bring your own wine, without any corkage levied. To buy wines, you should seek out an epicerie (a general grocery store) in Ville Nouvelle.

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TRAVEL – Around the world in 14 months

My friend Betty Lee returned in August this year after a backpacking jaunt from Singapore through Europe, the Americas,  Antarctica and Australia. We were schoolfriends but while I’ve been hammering at my keyboard from the time she left in June last year, she has gone up and down mountains, made many new friends, and swam topless in an Austrian lake. Woohoo!

Seriously though, she’s our poster girl for the oldies-but-goldies as she prepares to gallivant some more at 61. And she now weighs 45kg, the weight she was at 16. How I hate her!!  So, Betty, I asked, what made you go traipsing off into the great blue yonder without a camera?

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Dining somewhere on the French Riviera
  • How much preparation did you do before embarking on your round the world backpacking trip? Route planning, fitness, financial etc?

It took me one full year to do my sums and summon enough guts to resign from my banking job.  Reason for leaving – travel round the world while I still have it, physically and mentally.  From then on, there was no stopping me pursuing a dream of travelling far and wide on a budget.  As I’m fortunate to have invested prudently, financially and physically, there wasn’t much preparation.  It was more building the courage to let go of security in terms of a regular income and comfort zone.

  • What made you take off on such a daunting backpacking trip?

I am someone who enjoys setting milestones for myself and believe in doing things at least once.  After age 50, I told myself I’ve got to do the full marathon.  I trained myself and completed the Standard Chartered Marathon in December 2003 at age 51.  When I was nearing 60, a solo RTW trip was compelling.  It would be no mean feat as I’ve been an avid traveller throughout my working life, having saved hard for a well-earned vacation since age 21.  In 2010, I met a Brazilian Japanese lady in her 50’s in Paris. She bemoaned the fact that she had a couple more years to retirement.  I was puzzled and inquired on Brazil’s retirement age. She enlightened me that Brazilians retire after 40 years of service, regardless of start age.  I thought that was very logical, let’s say, graduates starting work at 25 retire at age 65, and so on.  I worked out that I’ve crossed the threshold and deserve my quality life.  That’s why I took the plunge at 59 and handed in my resignation.

  • Were there any worries?

Definitely – tons!! But the Vipassana Meditation course I took helped me to overcome obstacles e.g. make a firm decision and go with the flow.  It is pointless to be overly concerned over a matter that is beyond my control. Like all other travellers, topmost concerns were getting confirmed transportation and accommodation, knowing I had a bus ticket to reach the next destination and that there is a bed waiting for me.  As I was travelling “green”, my mode of transport was basically land and sea viz. buses, trains and ferries – no planes, unless deemed necessary.  Albeit, some budget airfares are much cheaper than land transport, but I saw more on the road than up there in the clouds. And of course, the currencies – which of my cards would work at local ATMs, how much should I withdraw so that I don’t have too much left over when I venture onward to another country.  In Europe, it was much easier but since I was travelling in the eastern bloc, I did face problems as the countries in the Balkans were not EURO-centric.  I was in Bulgaria for 3 weeks and had too much cash left.  As I didn’t want to miss my bus out to Croatia, I had no time to switch the Lev to EUR as the neighbouring countries of Bulgaria did not want the Lev, since it was the weakest currency.  After 4 months on the road, I was only able to convert Lev to Sterling pounds in London, suffering a loss of 30% in the foreign exchange.

  • What was the most memorable destination/s and why? Did you encounter any sticky situations?

Tough question to answer as I found every country impressive.  That said, I can name a few:

*Pergamon (Turkey) – stayed in an old house at the foot of Pergamon.  It had a vine covered patio where breakfast was served.  I splurged on this guesthouse which cost me USD50 per night.  Pergamon was not on my original route in Turkey but a visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin before Turkey inspired me to take a detour to see this ancient city.

*Bulgaria, an impoverished country – it was like travelling back in time, riding on buses through villages and farms to reach another town.  Old fashioned farms with muscle and time – horsedrawn carts, ploughs and sheep, chickens, sooty children running out of ramshackle houses – I felt like I was caught in a time warp.  However, the boneshaker bus I was in had a wi-fi sign above the front windscreen!  An overnight stay in Rila Monastery up in the Rila mountains (south Bulgaria, near Greek border) was creepy but the smell of pine and sonorous chanting of monks are still in my mind.  From Rila I bussed down to the little wine town of Melnik – source of Churchill’s red wines.  In Melnik, the locals use old fashioned water pumps. I was about to trek to the mountain, but a fruit seller encouraged to taste the water.  With much reluctance, I cupped the water in my hands and drank it.  It was so refreshing that from then I drank from water fountains in the towns of Bulgaria.  It was potable and my stomach didn’t complain.  Bulgaria was not on my travel list but on the advice of a young German student whom I met in Bucharest (Romania), I made my way there.  And based on a book which I picked up in Cappadocia (Turkey), I followed the route that the author took.

*Cote d’Azur (France) experiencing a drive along the scenic cliffside roads hugging the French Riviera coast – I do understand why the rich and famous retire in the French Riviera!  It’s the ultimate in gracious living.

*Antarctica – what a continent, white and penguinned.  I was amazed by the various spectrums of white and how the daylight dances on the humongous icebergs, gorgeous shades of blue and white.  And the silence – silence broken only by wind or birds flapping in the sky.  It was a surreal feeling of being at the end of the world.

*Bolivia – the most indigenous country in South America.  I was drawn by the ethnic wear, in the markets, villages and towns.

*Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina) – it’s on everyone’s itinerary and I almost missed it! Travelled 24 hours across Argentina from west to east and back again and I must admit I didn’t regret it.  It deserves being one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.  The many falls were out of this world, simply mind-blowing.

*Purmamarca (North Argentina) – the most colourful mountain I’ve ever seen in my life.  I was travelling to Argentina from Chile, crossing the Andes. The bus had to drop a few passengers at a little village at the base of Purmamarca.  I just couldn’t believe my eyes – the mountain was bathed in vibrant shades of purple, lilac, maroon, orange, yellow, green, grey.  When I arrived at my destination, I bought a bus ticket back to this village the next day.  Stayed there for two nights and trekked 2-3 times a day, morning, mid-day and evening as the colours changed with the light of the day.  Unbelievably gorgeous and unplanned.

Finally, I must add that staying and spending time with relatives and friends in Lausanne (Switzerland), Hildesheim (Germany), Loreto (Italy), Vienna and Carinthian Lakes (South of the Alps) Ossiachersee & Woerthersee – only domestic tourists (Austria), Sandnes (Norway), Sunderland, Cambridge & London (England), Philadelphia, Atlanta & San Antonio (USA) and Juiz de Fora (Brazil), Sydney, Melbourne and Raleigh (Australia) were just as memorable.  My visits were relaxing as I was not constrained by time.  The Carinthian Lakes were memorable, not only because I didn’t come across any foreign visitors, but it was bliss swimming topless – I stood out like a sore thumb with my bikini top on, so I followed suit later on and, boy, it was liberating.

  • Why did you travel without a camera or phone? In an age when everyone else is instagramming and face booking their most mundane activity you have no photos to share of this once-in-a-lifetime journey…

Hey, hey, travelling without a camera is liberation in itself.  When everyone was snapping away, I was focused on enjoying that precious moment, the moment of seeing a rainbow appearing before my very eyes, or a setting sun which disappeared within a minute behind the horizon.  Why waste such precious moments. I’ve also noted that when I have a camera in hand, I become trigger happy – ouch.  Why have so many travel albums gathering dust?  As I personally find it so boring when people show me their travel albums (give me a break!), I don’t wish to bore them with mine.  And to top it all, I’m not one who flips through past travel albums to recollect the moment. Due to reasons mentioned, I stopped carrying a camera since 2002.

As it was a RTW trip with a 12kg backpack on my back, shopping was a no-no.  For example, I had to grit my teeth when walking through the colourful bazaars in Istanbul. I had to be practical as anything that adds weight to a backpack (maxed at 13kg, at least for mini me, 1.56m, 46kg) will make my walk to bus terminals and hostels a torture.  Thus, no souvenirs for myself or friends. Packing was also easier.  However, in my last stop in Bolivia and Peru, I did do all my shopping.

  • Now, with foresight, what advice do you have for someone contemplating a similar expedition? Carry cash, traveller’s cheques or card? How to purchase tickets, book accommodation, stay safe, decide where to go? What to carry in the backpack?

Cash for emergencies should be hidden away.  I brought 2 credit cards (one Master and one Visa, 2 bank cards (one with Cirrus and another with Plus as ATM machines in different continents or countries either operate with one or the other provider).

As I’m a light traveller, I packed a bare minimum and would advise others to do the same :  3 undies, 2 bras, 2 bikinis (double up as undies), 3 light tops, 2 long-sleeves, 2 pairs shorts, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair longs, 1 sundress (for dinners) and 1 hand towel (remember, I’m small), a pair of slippers (for toilets), a pair of Teva sandals (for trekking) and a pair of runners (for walking/trekking).

  • Has travelling solo changed you in any way, or what have you gained from the experience? Did it in any way affect your view of life? Or what did you bring back with you?

I’ve learnt to be humble and tolerant – I’ve come across young-adult travellers who are overconfident and think they’re know-alls. They talk down to travellers out of their age group.  I keep quiet and don’t let it bother me, just listen to their hot air.  Personally, I find travellers above 30’s quieter and more knowledgeable and definitely, more humble.

Go with the flow attitude, no hangups on what’s going to happen next – just do it – like wakeboarding sand dunes in Huacachina (Peru).  I didn’t know what I was in for when I booked a jeep ride in the sand dunes.  They were all young adults and I was the oldest.  We went across the sand dunes and stopped at some stages for wakeboarding.  Naturally, they started with low sand dune, eventually progressing to steep ones.  I realised that if I didn’t slide down, I would have to walk a long distance to reach the jeep which was at the bottom of the sand dune.  Thus, I closed my eyes and with heart in mouth, slid down a 25-storey high sand dune. No sound came out of my mouth but one of my jeepmates, a young lady half my age screamed from start to finish.

Less is more – as I’ve lived >400 days out of a backpack, I find that I can live with less – I’ve stopped shopping!

Don’t sweat the small stuff – live the present.

  • Where next?

Iberia (Spain, Portugal), Morocco, and possibly the dark continent of Africa – will keep you posted.

FOOD – Five fabulous spices

I’m back from Penang where I had a good time with my girlfriends even though we split up and did different things. The problem I now have is deciding what to post because Penang is so delightful for – R&R (one friend was permanently parked on a deckchair by the beach or pool); good food (be belly smart, dress in loose clothes); and friendly locals.

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To start, let’s look at something small – Chinese five-spice powder. The helpful proprietor of a restaurant we dined in recommended the Pok Oy Thong brand – the best in Penang and probably the region. We scoured the Pulau Tikus market and checked a grocer or two. One market stallholder advised us to go to the source – an old Chinese medical hall (Kedai Ubat Cina Pok Oy Thong, 365B Lebuh Chulia).

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Five-spice powder varies in ingredients, but most use more than five spices. The Pok Oy Thong version contains finely ground cinnamon, aniseed, star anise, lime peel, cloves, coriander seeds, nutmeg, rice and pepper. Apparently, the number five relates to the elements – earth, water, wood, metal and fire, indicating how spices are good for the constitution. And also to the five flavours – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty – that are present in any five-spice powder. Potent and appetizing, it’s an inexpensive way to enliven everything from roasts to stews.

The fragrance hit me from five shops away. Be led by your nose to the Pok Oy Thong shop and buy extra packs for friends (who will be very thankful). The price as at end October 2013 is RM4. This photo from http://greenheart-ch.blogspot.sg/2010/06/penang-pok-oy-thong-5-spice-powder.html is obviously older but the packaging has not changed. The manicured man at the shop gives it a six-month shelf life, but bottled and refrigerated, it will likely keep longer.

So, now you have your five-spice powder, try making one of Penang’s famous Nonya dishes – Loh Bak aka Ngoh Hiang in Singapore – meat rolls that are surefire winners as cocktail finger food or dinner side dish. Some years ago, my friend Marina’s good friend, Penangite Queenie Khoo, cooked a few dishes for us, including Loh Bak. The main difference between the Penang and Singapore five-spice meat roll is mince in the Singapore version and meat strips and egg in Penang Loh Bak. Here is Queenie’s recipe (photo by Bernard Koh).

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LOH BAK

1 kg meat (pork or chicken), cut into strips or shredded

10 water chestnuts, diced

6 garlic cloves, chopped

You’ll also need:

Light soya sauce, cornflour, salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder, coriander leaves, spring onion, egg, beancurd skin.

 

Optional extras:

Pickled radish, chilli sauce and sesame seeds

Method

  1. Marinate meat in 7 tablespoons cornflour, mixed with ½ cup water, 5 teaspoons light soya sauce, pinch of salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder and garlic.
  2. Cover in a bowl and refrigerate overnight.
  3. When ready to fry, add water chestnuts, chopped coriander leaves, spring onion and beaten egg.
  4. Roll up in beancurd skin. Seal with cornflour mixed with water.
  5. Deep-fry and serve immediately.
  6. Garnish with pickled radish and chilli sauce. Toast sesame seeds and sprinkle over Loh Bak and chilli sauce.

TRAVEL – Malta teasers

Way off the beaten track? A challenge to reach? Dangerous even? My friend, intrepid travel writer, Tan Chung Lee will get there.

Bitten by the travel bug early in life, the galloping grandma is still traversing the globe in search of adventure and to discover yet another corner of the world she hasn’t visited.  Compared to Rwanda and Inner Mongolia, Malta seems tame, but like many of Chung Lee’s choice destinations, it is rich in history and scenic splendour. 

Text and photos by Tan Chung Lee

 

Malta one of Mdina's mediaeval churches ed
One of Mdina’s mediaeval churches

 

For an island archipelago that is small – 300 square km or less than half the size of Singapore – Malta is mighty in many other ways.

It is safe, steeped in history and cultural heritage, boasts breath-taking natural beauty – on land, water and even underwater – a whole host of stunning architectural attractions, great Mediterranean cuisine focused on fresh seafood and herbs and winning wines to boot. Above all, its friendly people and leisurely pace of life all add up to make for a relaxing and rewarding holiday.

Malta stunning view of the Xlendi seaside resort in Gozo ed
Stunning view of the Xlendi seaside resort in Gozo

Situated smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has had a chequered history – all due to its strategic position which made it a prized possession for various powers. The Arabs, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Knights of St John, French and British all left their mark – in the language, cuisine, architecture, cultural make up and even physical appearance of the Maltese. The result is an island with a charm all of its own.

Even before the empire builders arrived, Malta was home to an ancient civilisation dating back to 3000 BC which left behind enormous Neolithic temples scattered across the archipelago, seven of which are World Heritage Sites.

There are, in all, three islands – Malta itself, the smaller, more pristine Gozo and sandwiched between them, tiny Comino.

Malta Azure Window on Gozo's Dwejra coast and reflections in the Blue Grotto ed
Azure Window on Gozo’s Dwejra coast and reflections in the Blue Grotto

The main island of Malta boasts spectacular architecture. It is antiquated in every way – from its massive forts, exquisite palaces and imposing churches to sprawling gardens, watch towers and aqueducts left behind mainly by the Knights of St John of Crusader fame who ruled Malta for 250 years.

Its walled capital city of Valletta and its gorgeous surroundings are best seen on a boat cruise around its appropriately named Grand Harbour or from the waterfront promenade of its neighbouring town, Sliema.  A stroll through Valletta’s steep and narrow streets flanked by handsome Italianate buildings is equally delightful.

Gozo dazzles with its unspoilt natural beauty, especially along its coastline, from the Azure Window carved out of a rocky headland to its Inland Sea, a lagoon connected to the ocean through a tunnel. It’s an island that is a magnet for hikers with its many picturesque trails and it has many attractive bays offering good swimming, diving and snorkelling.

The least developed island of Comino with only four inhabitants and one hotel draws hordes of day trippers lured by the crystal clear waters of its Blue Lagoon.

Religion plays an important part in Maltese life. It was in Malta that the apostle St Paul was believed to have been shipwrecked in AD 60 and it was thanks to him that the islanders, then under the Romans, were converted to Christianity. And wherever you go throughout the archipelago, you will see elegant Baroque church domes dominating the skyline, creating a picture-postcard effect that will be etched in your mind long after your vacation is over.

Malta boat from tunnel of Dwejra's Inland Sea in Gozo ed
Boat from tunnel of Dwejra’s Inland Sea in Gozo

Getting there

Malta is well served from most European cities, especially in summer, the peak tourist season when charter flights abound. From Singapore, the shortest routing to Malta is on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

Getting around

There is an extensive public bus network on Malta and Gozo serving most towns. Fares are cheap. Malta also has a water taxi service and frequent ferries connect Malta, Gozo and Comino.

When to go

With mild winters, Malta is a year-round destination. Summer can, however, be hot and crowded with accommodation prices peaking, although it is ‘festa’ time in many towns with celebrations of their patron saint. Spring is best for hiking when the countryside is a carpet of wild flowers in bloom and the temperature is in the pleasant lower range of 20 degrees Celsius. Autumn is also a good season as water temperatures are still warm enough for swimming and snorkelling.

TRAVEL – Bacchanalian break

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Hwee Hwee Laurence reports from south-west France:

October is the time for les vendanges or grape harvest.  The wine of this southwest region of France is classified under the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) Cahors and is a dark- red, almost black wine.  The vineyards of AOC Cahors are found around the city of Cahors and along the banks of the River Lot. Grape harvest is always an important and festive time and when we hear, in the distance, the familiar whrr-whrr-whrring of the grape-harvest machine, we always pray for good weather for the farmers to complete their harvest.

The vineyard behind our house belongs to the family Grialou of the Domaine du Buis.  This is a totally family-owned and -worked farm which also rears cows.  When the Grialou family is here trimming or inspecting the vines, I always make it a point to bake a cake and invite them for a cup of tea.

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Domaine du Buis harvests its grapes by machine.  Of course, it is not as romantic as harvesting by hand, but nevertheless very impressive.   Usually, the vines are trimmed for one last time before the harvest to get rid of excess leaves and to leave the bunches of grapes hanging clear.  At harvest-time, the machine passes over each row of vines and literally sucks up the grapes.   The grapes (juice and all) are then emptied into a truck and brought back to the domaine to be processed.  After the harvest, our garden and the land around always smells strongly of wine due to the crushed grapes and spilt grape juice.

There are many other domaines within walking distance of our house but the one I like best is Château la Gineste.  The owners, Ghislaine and Gérard Dega, are very friendly people who allow me complete freedom to bring my Singapore or overseas visitors to oohh and aaahh over their beautifully-kept château and vineyards, and of course, to indulge in a session of wine-tasting. Their vineyards are pesticide-free and grapes for their best wine (Grand Secret) are hand-harvested.  The majority of their wines are aged for about sixteen months in oak barrels.  Hand-harvesting is a family affair – sometimes relatives come from far and wide to help.  Workers laugh and chat while harvesting, and look forward to the truck (to collect the grapes) bringing them some sustenance of dried sausage and baguettes.

After the harvest, October continues to be a busy month for the wine-producers, with grapes to be pressed and juice stored for fermentation.  After things have quietened down, the  domaines often host a feast for family and friends, rather like Thanksgiving in America.

As I look out of my window, the now-silent vineyards are slowing turning gold.  Soon the leaves will drop, making a nice rustling sound as they are blown by the wind, and the bare but sturdy vines will remind me that, before long, winter will be upon us.

TRAVEL – Unspoilt Uzbekistan

I have friends who travel to places most of us only read about. I’ll be introducing them in my blog because for unadventurous folks like me, it’s an opportunity to go on a magic carpet ride to distant lands like Timbuktu (no kidding!).

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track, let my Singaporean gal-pals lead you to fabulous places they’ve visited on their own madcap getaways or for work trips.

For instance, my friend, well-known chef and cookbook author, Devagi Sanmugam was in Uzbekistan a couple of months ago.  Bet you’re trying to figure out where it is as Devagi was when she was invited by the World Association of Chefs, under the Train the Trainer’s program to teach Asian cuisine to chefs there.

Devagi says,

“Part of the trip was sponsored by the Association of Cooks of Uzbekistan and International Centre of Uzbek Culinary Art.  I was there for 10 days and I taught the following cuisines:  Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and also Street Foods of Asia.  I also went to the Uzbekistan Airways Catering centre to train the chefs there and eventually, I also developed a number of recipes for the first class passengers of Uzbekistan Airways.”

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Devagi (centre) in the colourful traditional Uzbek outfit

 

UZBEKISTAN, WHERE?

 

Uzbekistan is in Central Europe and South of Russia. It was formerly part of the Soviet Union. The immediate neighbouring countries are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  Uzbekistan was part of the Silk Road and famous personalities whom I have read about in my History lessons example Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great have been here.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country making it difficult to access to the open sea and the surrounding countries have to access to the sea too!  There are only two rivers,  and quite a large part of the country is desert. Apparently, the summers are intensely hot, and winter can be as cold as -20°C.  I was there at the end of autumn, and it was still hot – about 35°C.

Their main industries are liquefied gas, gold, cotton, fruit,vegetables and poultry farming, and textile manufacturing.

VISAS & CURRENCY

 

Before you get your air tickets, apply for a Visa. It is about USD65 for a 15-day visa, and it takes about 2 days to process.  It is not as easy as one would think – you must go and pay for a Visa at HSBC bank, take the receipt with you to the embassy and then wait for about 10 minutes for a visa. When you enter the country, you must fill up 2 forms and declare how much in foreign currency you are bringing in.  The customs will retain one of the forms, and when you are leaving the country you will have to fill up another form and hand it over along with Form 2. Basically, they need to know how much money is entering and leaving their country!

You cannot change your Singapore dollars to Uzbekistan Som in Singapore or Malaysia.  You will have to change Singapore dollars to US dollars and change it to Uzbekistan currency when you arrive.  You get a 35-40 percent better rate if you change the currency at some “black market” shops – grocer, baker, or anyone except an authorized money changer.  Anyone in Uzbekistan will tell you where the nearest black market currency exchange person is!  At the time, I was there I got 1,724.52 Uzbekistan Som for SGD1!!  Can you imagine how much money I had to carry around for changing SGD300?!

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Market stall with enamel ware

 

 MUST-SEES & MUST-BUYS

Uzbekistan has many famous monuments, museums, naturally spectacular and beautiful landscapes, tombs, mosques with beautiful minarets, palaces, ski resorts,  and other places of interest.  Those who enjoy mountain trekking will love Uzbekistan – there are many trekking expeditions, camel riding, camping out in deserts etc. There are also winter activities like snowboarding and paragliding if you go during winter

The tour guides have many entertaining and fascinating stories.  I found transport and food cheap too.  The streets of Tashkent are extremely clean and green!  I also found the area safe; there are always policemen around!  The people are friendly and full of warm hospitality and helpful even if many of them don’t speak English.

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Plov being cooked

 

The best part of my trip to any country is a visit to the local market! I think a visit to the market can give you a glimpse of the roots of a community and their customs and the memories of places I visited are preserved.  I visited the famous Chorsu (Eski Juva) Bazaar in Tashkent. I enjoyed the smell, the colours, the noises and everything in the market; it was a treat to the senses. People were selling their products on makeshift tables or wooden boxes; from vans and even on prams!  Many displayed their products on the ground.

This bazaar is supposed to be the oldest and biggest in not only Uzbekistan but also in the whole of Central Asia.  I was told by my guide that the market was founded in the 2nd century B.C.  The bazaar area has seven towering domes under which are the activities of the busy market. More than 60 over types of spices and herbs were on sale, and the smell of spices just enveloped me as I walked into the market.  There was the fruit market where some of the local farmers were selling grapes, pomegranates, apples, unusually large watermelons and honey dew melons, large peaches, apricots, prunes, persimmons, yellow figs and many other fruits. I found these fruits about sixty percent cheaper than those sold in Singapore.  I spent about 6 hours in the market, and it was not enough and I did not see all!

I found many fascinating things to get in Tashkent.  But then luckily for me my luggage was already heavy with presents from the host; therefore, I was not tempted to buy everything I fancied.  Most of the souvenirs are hand made by women in the deeper parts of Uzbekistan like Samarkand and Bukhara.  Making ceramics is an ancient art in Uzbekistan.  I came across so many designs and shapes, and what is particularly interesting are the kosa eating bowls.  These hand-made bowls look like peacock feathers. Uzbek jewellery pieces can be worn as well as used as a decorative ornament –some of it is so chunky that you can frame it up. There are very delicate wooden boxes to purchase.  There are of course carpets and more carpets as well as tapestries and wall hangings.  Do not forget to bring home some traditional Uzbek bread, Non.

EXOTIC FOODS
Uzbek cuisine is highly traditional, and recipes that may be hundreds of years old are still used.  For example, the national dish is Plov (we call it pilau or pilaf), and it is served at weddings and any other celebrations. People still cook it with mutton fat!  The rice is cooked with yellow and orange carrot, pea, quince, meat, dried apricots, pumpkin and many other vegetables.  It is a tradition for men to cook the plov, and it is usually cooked in a deep cast-iron pot (kazan).  Bread is relished like it is sacred. The most common bread is non, a round bread, and it is available everywhere.  The breads are baked in clay ovens called thandir (it is like the Indian clay oven tandoor). The non is  fluffy, light and and addictive. It’s got a glossy crust and an open, airy crumb and when it’s piping hot, it’s delicious without butter or anything.  Some savoury snacks like the Samsa is actually another form of the Indian samosa; Manti is a steamed mutton or beef dumpling that resembles a Chinese steamed dumpling; Lagman is a thick soup with hand-made noodles.  There are also some Korean, Indian and European restaurants.

WHAT TOURISTS WANT

Uzbekistan is a terrific place for people to travel to.  However, personally I think there should be more English speaking tour guides; more non-Uzbek cuisine restaurants and Uzbek restaurants should offer healthier food (less oil/fat and more vegetable options); perhaps offer Uzbek bread making course (I am sure everyone who visits Uzbekistan would want to learn how to make those yummy breads); create tours to fruits orchards; offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation in traditional homes.