Casablanca Airport – Take Note!

The young French student in the Passport Control queue at Casablanca airport just ahead of me asked for the time. When I said 11:40am, he simply shook his head. I sighed. My flight had started boarding five minutes ago and I had been waiting in this queue for a ½ hour…there were still 25 people in front of me to be screened…very, very slowly. “Dis ees a very stressful airport,” the student said with a strong Toulouse accent, obviously having experienced this before. *You ain’t kiddin’* I thought.
After leaving the cruise ship at 8:40am, it had taken me and two colleagues, Naomi and Mike, 1 hour to get through the port immigration. Our taxi driver was an affable young man named Adbul who transported us to a large barn-like structure which housed the Port’s Immigration Police. He, helpfully, insisted on filling out our three immigration forms himself. One question caused much confusion; which city our British passports were issued from. UKPA (UK Passport Agency!) wasn’t a place he had heard of. “What city is UKPA?” he asked at least three times. I told him that PA meant Passport Agency. “But where is the Passport Agency?” he retorted starting to look a bit irritated. We had to insist (many times) that we didn’t know where this place was. Eventually…he was appeased!
Finally our passports were stamped by the person behind the window (we were all very keen to get a Moroccan stamp so this was a joyous occasion) and we were ready to continue but then discovered we had to have our luggage screened. Back to the car to retrieve our bags, we then went inside and waited for Abdul to find an inspector. Twenty five minutes later, he returned and instructed us ‘not to smile’ when our bags were inspected. We were worried. He then said not to pay them anything either (!). This really had us worried. Finally, a gentleman dressed in Berber clothing appeared. We proffered our luggage and our duly grim expressions must have impressed him. He hurriedly scratched a mark with chalk on our luggage. We were free to go.
But the journey to the airport was fraught as well. Many cutbacks and short cuts to avoid the construction of the new tramway were to no avail. Finally, after driving about 45 minutes, and only 4 miles from the airport, we ended up in grid-lock. After another 15 minutes, the knot seemed to loosen and off we went again.
Arriving at the clean, modern looking airport, and with 2 hours before departure, we felt quite relieved and relaxed. I noted that the parking lot and the departures area was full of people and Abdul explained that it was a Muslim holiday this week and most were arriving from or going to Mecca. It didn’t take long to find the check –in area and the lines looked reasonably short. But in Morocco, queues obviously mean nothing. One or two people with several passports in their fists, pushed up to the front of the line. Then, an additional six or seven family members appeared out of nowhere and deftly moved around us. Grrrr! It was no better for the people in the other queue. A young man wearing a skullcap was checking in a huge plaid plastic carrier and for some unknown reason was repacking bag after bag of…vegetables! I anticipated a rabbit or goat jumping out at any moment. This process took an unbelievable 10 minutes.
After checking in, and enduring the interminable passport control, security was a relatively easy process and we boarded the plane almost immediately. Unbelievably, it had taken us just under four hours to get from port to plane!

ISLAND DISCOVERY – GRAN CANARIA

Many years ago I visited the south of the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa. I tried to catch some rays on the Playa del Ingles but was driven inside by the strong trade winds. I also remember the vast sand dunes of Mas Palomas which seemed strangely out of place on an island known for its flora. As Mas Palomas is as barren as the Sahara, I imagine a camel back safari would be the ‘must do’ excursion for this unusual location.
Today I had the opportunity to visit the Northern-most part of the Island, which boasts a huge crater 200,000 years old and a tropical coastline where there is a dearth of bananas growing (but, sadly, no sandy beaches). Fascinatingly, the climate in the north is very similar to California where I grew up. Every day of the year it is either sunny or cloudy, with almost no rain and a mild temperature. All vegetation grows in the north of Gran Canaria and only because the evening dew, caused by the cool Atlantic water, allows enough moisture for plants to grow. The local people swarm to the mountains (the highest being 6,400 ft.) when it snows. It may only happen one day out of the year so they all go to experience ‘nice’ weather.
The first stop on our tour was the Casa de Colon (House of Christopher Columbus). Interesting for the artefacts but, particularly for the information on Columbus, as so little is known of his early life. The refurbishment of this house has created a wonderful space with a courtyard, full of greenery, which is charming. There were also two enormous colourful parrots showing off and preening for the crowd.
After leaving the city of Las Palmas, we headed towards our first volcano, the Caldera Bandama. One person by the name of Augustin, an 84 year old monk, lives and farms at the bottom of this ancient caldera. He is completely alone and no one else is allowed to live on this land as it is now protected. Someday soon, I will go down and interview him. Time for me to bone up on my Spanish!
Our group then headed for Tejde, the ancient volcano that erupted a couple of thousand years ago and created an enormous valley. In recent centuries the bottom of this valley was filled with water but has since evaporated. Normally at this elevation, there would be mist covering everything from our vantage point but we are fortunate; it was clear enough to see down to the coast. The rock formations were tremendous.
Next was lunch at El Refugio Restaurant by a stone cross which marks the geographic top of the island. We were served traditional Gran Canarian fare of potatoes, fish and chicken with the oregano seasoned tomatoes being the most flavourful thing on the menu. Probably all fresh vegetables benefit from being grown in lava infused soil.
There were huge amounts of information about the flora of this part of the island on the tour. The huge dragon trees in Teror were fabulous but my favourite place was the garden of Marchesa de Arucas, a member of the island’s aristocracy. We saw everything from huge Ficus to Avocado trees, Bougainvillea to Bird of Paradise and much more. A colourful end to a great day on Gran Canaria.

Its nice to see you, to see you 'NICE'!

The sound of waves pummelling the white sand beach of this French coastal town made a lasting impression on my recent visit. The clear water of the Mediterranean is a gorgeous striking turquoise blue colour where the sun strokes its surface and many tourists, sun-seekers and celebrities are drawn to this coast. UK tourists, with the bonus of regular Easy Jet flights from London and regional airports, find it a very tempting spot during the summer months. Nice was historically, Italy, and part of the Savoy region before being sold off to France. The vibe is quite laid back here, as you would expect from a coastal community, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the local population display a ‘sunny’ nature.
Castle Hill is a piece of land that juts out between the port and the old town and affords wonderful views of Nice and the Bay of Angels. After a short climb to the top, there is a lovely park plus a small café, El Castillo, but otherwise, only ruins of the medieval citadel which was completely destroyed by Louis XIV of France. If you don’t fancy a walk, there is an elevator that operates between 10:00 – 17:00 taking you down to the Main Boulevard. Be aware that there will be a canon shot at noon every single day. It scared the be-Jesus out of me when it went off!
The street market along the promenade (one street removed from the main strand which runs along the shore) sells beautiful produce from the surrounding countryside. The size of bell peppers and carrots and leeks is truly amazing. Stands are with filled with honey, sun dried tomatoes as well as olives, olive oils and tapenades and fragrant flowers as well. We tried Socca, a delicious moist chick pea flat bread/pizza only made in Nice and kept warm on an oil drum made into an oven. Wandering further into the old walled city we happened upon a lovely fish market, very close to the main cathedral. Here the streets shrink in size though the buildings are several stories high. This is where you will find art galleries, African restaurants and lovely boutiques. A shopper’s dream.
I should mention that if you need to use the toilet, you may do so in a local café but only after buying an espresso or other drink. In a busy premises next to the town square, I was shouted at by a waitress and the bartender when I made my way through to the facilities in the back. I explained that my fried was buying an espresso (true!) but it was to no avail. I had to order a drink myself.
On a previous trip to Nice I had a rental car and drove about 20kms into the mountains to visit the medieval walled town and beauty spot of Saint Paul de Vence. Perched on a high cliff, it is utterly picturesque and affords amazing views of the coastline. This is the place to fulfil your shopping fix and also visit many unique arts and crafts shops and galleries.
A word of warning, On a sun soaked coast like this, when the crowds descend and flock to the shore, it is then very difficult to hail taxis. So keep a local taxi firm number on you.