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Week 1 in Morocco

Week 1 in Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Table of Contents

From the Port of Tangier Med to Fes in Week One, 336 kms.  Don’t be fooled by the time according to Google, you need to add one-third more to be anywhere near accurate.

Click to enlarge images

Customs, Culture Shock, and Camping 

 

Day 1: Spain To Morocco; Monday 28 Jan 2019

 

The steps we took to ease into our Moroccan adventure gently can be found below.

We read up about Morocco and what to expect, plus we read numerous forums on Facebook.  The best resource we found, and were pointed to on multiple occasions, was a book we purchased on Amazon called Motorhome Morocco written by Julie and Jason Buckley.  This has been an absolutely invaluable resource and should you decide to venture over to Morocco this is a must buy.

The ferry to Morocco was booked for 1pm and we are told to be available and waiting one hour before.  So at 11.55am our long wait of ten and a half hours begins for a 90 minute crossing, immigration and customs.

Here’s how it unfolded.

After nearly an hour we are told we are waiting in the wrong line. “Yours is over there”!  We proceed over there and after another half an hour, as the line finally starts to move, we are informed that the 1pm ferry is the ‘fast ferry’ which can only take vehicles with a maximum height of 2.8 metres (we’re 3 metres high).

Wouldn’t it have been nice for the ticket seller, who knew we had a motorhome, to give us this information?  The ‘slow’ ferry we need leaves at 4pm!  So, a little annoyed but accepting the situation, we naively continue to wait, expecting our ferry to leave at 4pm (silly us).

The 4pm ferry left at about 6.15pm and arrived around 8.30pm for a 90 minute crossing!   With hot meals and drinks available the ferry appeared pleasant enough and hosted what looks like the world’s smallest duty-free shop.

 

Upon exiting the ferry there is a long drive where one could be forgiven for thinking we’re out of the official zone.  Did we take a wrong turn?  Have we missed customs altogether?  Fear not. The fun is yet to come.

 

Eventually, you come to a lineup of cars, many of them locals, stacked to the gunnels with all manner of goods inside plus bundles of goodies strapped to the roof, some trying to reach the sky.  Here you wait for the customs search. There doesn’t seem to be a system of who goes first to get their car to the front of the queue.  The more aggressive you appear the more likely you can sneak ahead.

 

Horns toot, at what we’re not sure.  One will start and the others soon follow suit. It’s like the male testosterone letting off steam.  We let a couple of cars squeeze in around us before we decide to stake our claim on a piece of tarmac and resist any invaders.

 

People start to unload the goodies from their cars and vans, some even included, literally, the kitchen sink.  Not an inch of space is left unfilled.  It transpires that the locals travel across to Spain to purchase second-hand goods with a view to selling these much needed items in Africa.  Every vehicle is overloaded with suspension maxed out.

 

Men wander around with their car boots open displaying their newly acquired tidbits, waiting expectantly to be processed and are then flagged on.  In most cases the officer digs down through a few layers of goods, peering in with a torch looking for who-knows-what, before either letting the driver go on or directing him up to the X-Ray machine for a full vehicle scan.

 

I wonder if these over-worked customs agents actually find anything needing confiscation?  So far it hasn’t been obvious.

 

Two official looking people with police hats walk around looking at this and that, then refer to their documents. No one is moving very far or very fast.

 

We are lined up across seven lanes and four deep.  If you look hard and long enough you may just see some semblance of order to the chaos around.  The views are entertaining if nothing else.  It’s a game of patience and is certainly no showcase for Moroccan efficiency.

 

By 10.15pm we arrive at the front of the line.  Our documents are taken away for processing.

 

A young good looking policeman indicates he wants to look inside Betsy.  Speaking French, for which we don’t understand, he finally asks in English if we have any weapons.  Alan, always the comedian, suggests ‘just ma femme’ (my wife).  We got a smile out of him.  Next we’re instructed to open the overhead cupboards and revealed some dangerous looking spices and a frying pan that Alan suggested could be dangerous in his wife’s hands.  Again another smile and a lifting of tensions.

 

A quick look inside the bedroom and this young officer realises we are a low risk and leaves us alone.

 

It doesn’t take long before another policeman came knocking on our door with the requisite D16 temporary vehicle import form, our passports and our Green Insurance card in hand.  With no other instructions we assume that’s our ticket out of here.  We gingerly drive forward, hoping to not get into trouble.  We are travelling in convoy with two other motorhomes behind us and are mindful that we have to wait for them.

 

Feeling like we have survived and then escaped the clutches of some foreign country (oh hang on, we have) we then crawl forward at 10.30pm outside the confines and make our way slowly to the money exchange offices that are situated as you leave this zone.  Here we had been foretold is a good place (not quiet though) to spend the night in order to avoid driving in the dark to places unknown on our first night in this foreign land.  Alas, we are not alone.  The car park is filled with motorhomes all having the same idea and we find the last three slots and tuck up for the night.

 

I wonder what treasures await us tomorrow.

Morocco, Here We Come…

Goodies on the Roof

Tidbits Including Kitchen Sink!

Car Boot Jammed Full

Telecom Maroc & A Pick Pocket

Day 2: Martil; Tuesday 29 Jan 2019

We woke to pile driving going on behind us and there was no way further sleep was possible.  We decided to head off about 10am and make our way to the Mediterranean coast, as that’s where the sun is supposed to be.

Having read up ahead of time we were aware that people walk randomly on the road and it didn’t take long before some chap, obviously high as a kite, decided that dancing on the road was important to him as three large motorhomes approached.  The entertainment factor was epic!

Successfully dodging him, we made our way across the high mountains and enjoyed the feast in front of our eyes.  Brightly coloured houses painted blue, yellow, pink, red, or white greeted us nestled amongst the rolling hills.  The roads were surprisingly good and the two lanes for most of the way were plenty wide enough to squeeze past the oddly parked car.

There was livestock galore to pique our interest, from a donkey all loaded up with saddles, to massive storks, which I thought were pelicans they were so large, to cows, sheep and of course dogs.  Zoe informed me she even saw a camel!

The road took us through the small town of Fnidq and then Tetouan before we arrived at our home for the next two nights in Martil.  We stayed at Alboustane, Camping Caravaning, Martil Marruecos, tel 05 39 68 88 22.  GPS coordinates 35.6289 -5.2773.  There is plenty of space for us and the grounds are situated nearby to the township.  The facilities are clean and adequate for our needs.

We took the opportunity to dump the grey and black water before settling into our pitch and plugging into electricity.  Needing electricity is rare for us, as is being in a campground, but with no LPG in Morocco and a desire to stay for a couple of months, we have to conserve every bit of gas we can.

The local cats came out to greet us and were happy to be picked up and cuddled.  They remind me of Turkey and I realise how much I miss having a cat around.

We headed into town to purchase a local SIM card.  Who would have thought that would take all afternoon?

Maroc Telecom was suggested as the best bet, so off we went in search.  Thankfully we had downloaded maps.me before crossing over from Spain so we could find the GPS coordinates and the route to the shop without needing data or the internet.  That made finding the camping ground and the Telecom store easier (GPS 35.6179 – 5.2747).

The language barrier proves to be a challenge as we speak very little French and the man at Telecom spoke nil English.  Thankfully Alan knows a few words and he uses Google Translate for the rest.

Alan and Tommy were at the counter while Helena, Harkin, Zoe and I were seated.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a man walk in and make his way to stand behind Alan and Tommy.  Next thing I see this complete stranger put his hand into Tommy’s pocket!  Quick as a flash, I jumped up to stop him and he casually backed off and walked around to another counter, his plan foiled.  No one in the shop reacted, as though it was a natural occurrence or they didn’t know what was going on, I’m not sure which.  Tommy didn’t lose his wallet this time but it was a close call.  We then realised that having someone watch out for you at a distance is a good strategy to employ.

The SIM card cost us 40 dirham (approx €4) from the Telecom shop and then we had to go down the road to purchase data for 10 dirham (€1) per 1 GB.

We arrived back at the camping ground later in the day, too late to tackle the washing, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Helena and Harkin invited us all over for dinner, wild boar and moose stew they had bought with them from Sweden and we contributed with some pastries purchased at the local bakery.  A most enjoyable evening, treasured times with wonderful friends and great travelling companions.  It was our first time travelling with other motorhomers and it proved to be successful and helped us to feel safe, particularly in such a foreign land.

Our Port of Entry, Tangier

After Purchasing The SIM Card, We Loaded Money Here (the shop on the right)

Tommy & Zoe

Harken & Alan

Ruth & Helena

Day 3: Martil; Wednesday 30 Jan 2019

We woke to slight dampness in the air but that didn’t deter Alan from tackling the washing and gosh how it builds up.  That kept us in Betsy for the day and stationed in the camping ground.  It also allowed me to catch up on some paperwork and have a quiet day in preparation for what was to come.

Chefhaouen – The Blue Town

Day 4: Chefhaouen; 31 Jan 2019 

Heading towards the blue town, otherwise known as Chefchaouen, we meander up through the hills. There are people sitting on the side of the road selling their wares, from onions, strawberries, avocados, pears, carrots and plenty more.  They wave out with large smiles on their face.  We had been told that foreigners are treated like celebrities here so expect to be wave at and ensure you wave back.

The roads are rough with roadworks much of the way and they are needed due to the constant potholes and the edge of the road being broken away.  The speed signs say 60 but get behind a fully leaden old truck and travelling at 30km/hr is an accomplishment.

With a build up of cars behind us we find a spot to pull off and ease the congestion for our sake as much as theirs.  This proves to be an unusual manoeuvre as we learn later on.  Passing lanes are non-existent so the locals take their chance to pass slow vehicles, usually on a blind corner uphill.

We come around the corner to see a truck attempting to pass another truck uphill at 30km/hour.  Not a good idea and he thankfully gave up as there’s plenty of head-on traffic.  How they don’t have a head-on accident is anyone’s guess.  We crawl up at a snail’s pace and the expected arrival time on the GPS seems very optimistic.  We were told to add at least 30% onto stated driving times but from our experience this could easily be another 50%.

Rounding the corner we came across an example of what can happen when driving skills are put to the test.  This had just happened before we arrived as the cones were being distributed.

Parking Moroccan Style!

Betsy does a great job passing uphill. She’s not a high-powered machine by any stretch of the imagination but when the goal is passing another vehicle slugging away at 20 something kilometers per hour she doesn’t need a big run up.  Who would have thought she wasn’t the slowest thing on the road?

The trees high up here in the mountains are in full blossom, well ahead of schedule as though they are encouraging the spring to come early.

The locals are spotted washing their clothes in the river below in the light rain.  Or they are stooped over carrying bales of vegetation on their backs walking beside the road.  Others, mainly men, just stand by the roadside, their purpose unclear at least to the foreign eye.

We arrive into Chefchaouen and follow Tommy and Zoe through the township and out the other side to Camping Azilan (GPS coordinates 35.17579, -5.26701) overlooking the township below.  It’s a fair walk away and steep enough to put the eBikes and riders through their paces.

We are greeted at the camping ground by the resident ginger tomcat, a rooster and chickens.

We park and level up then tuck into a chicken salad for lunch.  The rain is coming down hard so I get the Monopoly cards out and try my luck against Alan (damn he’s getting good, I’ve taught him all my tricks).

The rest of our group decides to take a walk into town while there’s still some daylight as the rain has eased off a little.  It’s quite a walk back uphill so we opt to take Betsy and meet the others in the medina. The name medina means an African walled town and we soon learn that most townships we come across have a walled town centre, their medina.  The drive down was a bit hair raising but no-one seemed to care that we wanted to drive on the road while they were using it as a giant sidewalk.

Tommy & Zoe Lead The Way Into Chefchaouen

The Girls Are Looking At The Sights While The Boys Negotiate A Dinner Venue

Brightly Colourful Trinkets Adorn The Shops

Stunning Artwork

The medina is unique.  Lots of little alleys and paths weave their way through the hillside like a spiders web.  There’s no rhyme or reason as to the layout, no shops are the same size or shape, and some hardly have an opening, rather they appear more cave-like than a shop.

Children run around playing, darting in and out while adults stand around, some shouting in Arabic, at what or to whom isn’t clear.

We meet up with our friends in the square and proceed to check out the many restaurants enticing us in with offers of cheap food, photos of specialty dishes and their Google ratings (gotta love technology).  We decide on a little place called Marisco Twins and are treated to good quality authentic tagines. Alan had a starter of shrimp and avocado salad where the shrimps had turned into rather large deliciously fresh prawns served on a bed of lettuce and cucumber.  His main dish was beef and plum tagine and we both tucked into cream de caramel for dessert.  My entree was a Spanish omelette and for the main I opted for chicken and lemon tagine.  We don’t venture out for dinner often so this was a real treat and the food was delicious. 

Avocado and Prawn Salad

Beef Tagine

Lamb Tagine

Chefchaouen Without the Rain


Day 5: Chechaouen; 1st Feb 2019 

It rained heavily last night and the wind blew hard.  Facing African rain in a motorhome was an experience.

We didn’t want to leave Chefchaouen before we had a real chance to see all the sights it had to offer without the interference of rain and the forecast was promising a break in the weather.  Therefore we decided to hang out for an extra day and relocate to a parking area nearer the medina (GPS coordinate 35.16603, -5.26162) (at 30 MAD compared to 110MAD in the campground).  The money here is called Dirhams, and is written as MAD.  Ten MAD is equivalent to €0.93 and NZ$1.56.  Our parking in the camping ground was €10.20 or NZ$17 for the night including electricity.

This is where we parted with our friends, who are on a tighter timeframe than us and who are in search of finer weather so they headed towards the west coast.  They found it too, 20C compared with our 8C!

Thankfully the expected break in the weather eventuated and by 3pm we were off exploring again.  This township is truly remarkable.  The influx of Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 brought with them the tradition of painting buildings blue.  Five hundred years later this has become famous, known as the ‘blue town’ and is a tourist destination which is possibly the most unique place we have come across on our travels through 25 countries and two continents.

The locals are friendly and were respectful of our tourist status.   We were offered hashish by one fellow, which we politely declined, and were not harassed or bothered by shopkeepers wanting to sell us rugs or take us off the beaten track to see their family shop.  A few asked us where we were from, some knew New Zealand, others looked blankly.  We were freely given unsolicited, helpful information to find our way without asking for or expecting anything in return.  This is a far cry from what we had read about before coming here.  I wonder if this is the city style, as opposed to the countryside towns and time will tell.

We had been given a tip of saying that this isn’t our first time in Morocco, so that we don’t get pestered too much.  So far it seems to be working.

We made our way back to Betsy, buying some eggs, bread and water on our way.  It pays to check out the price of water in particular as it varied from €0.40c per litre to €0.25c per litre.  Whichever way you look at it, the water isn’t expensive.

Arriving back at just before 6pm was perfect timing as the weather started to turn again and it rained constantly through the night, although this time without the howling wind to shake Betsy and us inside her.

Looking Up Towards The Hills Of Chefchaouen From The Square

A Typical Alleway In the Medina

Could You Imagine Checking Into A Hotel Here?

Life In Morocco

Fes (Also Spelt Fez)

Day 6: Fes; 2nd Feb 2019  

According to Google maps we were in for a four-hour drive to Fes today, but Emily, our Garmin GPS had other ideas suggesting it was just a 2.5 hour trip.  However she was clearly not aware of the ‘add 30% to your driving time’ rule and she was way out, Google Maps was right.

We left Chefchoeun at 11am and arrived into Fes at 3.30pm which included a short stop for lunch on the side of the road, a total trip of four and a half hours.  The roads are average and at times reminded me of Bosnian roads where the narrow and crumbling shoulder drops down a foot below the road surface giving a strong incentive to not drive too close to the edge.  I’m glad Alan is driving.

Most of the children just wave to us but some stand on the road with their hand up indicating they want us to stop, basically playing chicken with a 3.5 ton vehicle!  Alan toots the horn as a warning and shows that he has no intention of stopping.

The cars here are a mix of new modern ones and old bangers. Mercedes Benz seem to feature regularly amongst the older ones and we wonder how many original Merc parts are still holding them together.

The crops in the highlands are mainly olive trees, the roadside vendors sell jars of olives in some kind of liquid.  On the flats, the crops are orange trees.

The non-mechanical mode of transport here is the donkey, which not only carries humans side saddle, but their panniers are filled with goodies, sticks or produce.

Flocks of sheep, with newly born lambs, and accompanied by a shepherd brandishing a requisite stick are grazing on the roadside.  The men are dressed in long cotton robes, we later find out are called Jalabas, that oftentimes drag through the mud. They look heavy and not very warm.

Finding a suitable stopping area to pull off for a rest proves challenging so we keep pressing on.

We come across a fully laden truck toppled over on its side in a paddock beside the road.  It’s the second vehicle to be parked in such a manner that we’d seen in just a few days.  Given it was a straight flat piece of road we wonder how it met its demise. Then not far ahead of us we witnessed a very near head-on accident again on a flat straight piece of road. The culprit was traveling directly in front of us and had been swerving in and out of his lane for several kilometres.  Typically Muslims don’t drink so we ruled out alcohol, however, hashish is plentiful and maybe this was a factor?

The offending driver eventually pulled to the side of the road and looking down as we passed I could see he was glued to his mobile phone sitting on his lap.  Ah, that’s the culprit.  Not just a factor in first world countries eh?

Finding the camping ground Diamant Vert** (GPS coordinates 33.98787, -5.0191was easy and the traffic and roads leading into it were kind to us.  The reception area was of first world standards with a solid building, tiled floors, and two (male) receptionists behind the counter.  A restaurant sat alongside in the hope of catering to the campers – a pity about the reviews, however.  After check-in, we found the way to our parking spot nearby a shower and toilet block, which left a bit to be desired in terms of functionality.  The taps were coming off, the hand drier in bits hanging down from the wall and the showers run hot and cold.  The toilets thankfully are of European standard with real toilet paper and included a toilet seat.  Funny how the expected things in life become welcomed and not so expected in a foreign land.  I figured the trick to a successful shower, was to go at 6pm when there is no one else around.

We are relieved to finally be parked up and take a well-earned break over a cuppa tea.  Alan meets the neighbours, a lovely couple from the UK, Karen (Kaz) and Nik and we are invited to join them on a guided tour into the medina tomorrow.   We graciously accept and are looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.

Soon we hear a knock at the door and it’s another English couple, David and Sue, who we were parked beside in Chefchoeun.  They were also accompanying the others into the medina tomorrow and when they heard of a third couple from New Zealand joining them they realised it must be us, so they came over to say hi.

We enjoyed a few glasses of wine together and a warm bowl of pumpkin soup Alan had freshly made for our dinner.  Karen and Nik joined us later for drinks so we could all get acquainted before our medina experience.

** P.S.  We discovered that Diamant Vert closed the day we left and was subject to a legal battle before reopening.  By the time we left Morocco, however, it had reopened.  Check before making your way here or for an alternative camping ground (that didn’t have a very good reputation) try Camping International Fez which is in Camping Contact (sitecode 21394).  (GPS coordinates 33.99982, -4.97150).

Magical Medina in Fes

Day 7: Fes: Sunday 3rd February 2019

Today we headed into the medina of Fes, one of ten UNESCO sites in Morocco.

The medina, dating back to the 9th Century, encloses 89 kilometres of narrow passages, some no more than shoulder-width apart.  It houses 220,000 people and umpteen shops of all descriptions including many that defy description in Western terms.

Donkeys are used to transport goods in and out of the medina just as we would typically use vehicles for transporting goods to and from our businesses and homes.  The donkeys are strong but small animals and appear to just plod along placidly, often also carrying the weight of the rider, sitting sidesaddle with his goods.

Camel and goat heads are hanging in the market, their meat for sale.  Our local guide, Wafi, tells us that the going rate for a camel is €2,800-3,000 so I wonder what price the meat sells for.

During summer, up to 60 degree temperatures are reported in Fes, however, the medina itself with its narrow paths and tall walls stays much cooler.  We enjoyed 18-20C in the sun on our February visit into the medina however with such narrow tall buildings the sun had little opportunity to kiss us or the ground.

The first floors of the medina houses have no windows.  The reason for this is privacy for the women as traditionally it is forbidden to see a woman without her head covered.

The alleyways between the homes are so narrow I’d hate to think how one would get new furniture or move house.  The walls are shored up with timber bracing to stop them from falling inwards.  Although parts of the medina have been rebuilt due to earthquakes and fires, the mainstay buildings dating back from the 9th Century still remain original.

We visited thirteen different places today, nine inside the medina and four outside.  Here’s a list and to read more please click on the link to access our full blog called Fantastic Fes.

1. Royal Palace
2. The Jewish Quarter
3. Al Qarawiyyin University
4. Bou Inania Madrasa (School)
5. Mosques
6. Carpet Weaving and Sales
7. Restaurant Palais Tijani
8. Herboriste Diwan Pharmacy
9. Antiquities Shop
10. Clothing and Weavers Cooperative
11. Chouara Tannery
12. Borg Nord Ruins
13. Ceramic Workshop

If you are going to visit there yourself I highly recommend a Guide.  When people say you will get lost, they really mean it.  The alleyways don’t follow any logical pattern or flow and as great as Google is, there is no such thing as using Google maps here.  I read that even a compass won’t help to find your way back.

I would also recommend visiting the medina with other people for a few reasons.  One, others often see things that you may have missed and can point these out to you.  Two, you get to share the experience and learn about the travel plans of others and pick up on their top tips.  And three, if you’re not in the market to make expensive purchases (eg a new carpet), then maybe someone else will, which takes the pressure and focus away from you.

So if you are interested in finding a professional certified guide (please ensure they are certified as some are imposters), then please contact Wafi, the guide we used.  He charges $400MAD for a couple (€37), for a full day tour.  Below are his details.

Elouafi Hanaf (pronounced Wafi)
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 00212672040156
Works for the Office of Tourism Morocco

Please let him know you found him through Ruth & Alan from New Zealand, cheers.

Stay tuned for week two when we learn how to make Moroccan Beef and Prune Tagine at a private cooking class in a motorhome.

Costs for Week 1

These costs do not include the ferry ride over (€190).

Borg Nord

The Township of Fes

Will We Get Betsy Down Here?

Mosaics Are Beautiful

For more photos and details of Fes, visit our blog Fantastic Fes.

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Oradour-sur-Glane, Why Everyone Should Know This Story

Oradour-sur-Glane, Why Everyone Should Know This Story

by Ruth Murdoch  |  December 2018  | France, Oradour-sur-Glane

Where Is It?

Oradour-sur-Glane is a small settlement in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in west-central France.  It is 23kms northwest from Limoges.

What Happened There?

During World War II, two hundred Waffen SS (pronounced Vaffen SS) the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation committed an act of sheer terror.  They stormed this quiet village and massacred all those people they could find, a total of 642 men, women and children.

They rounded everyone up on the pretence of checking their documentation, a relatively common occurrence.  Therefore, at the time no one seemed overly concerned as they had no reason to suspect what was about to unfold.  They were forced by the officers to the town square (although it’s not a square at all).  Anyone who resisted was immediately shot dead.

The area to the right is where everyone assembled

They then separated the men and teenage boys from the woman and children.  The men were divided and sent to six different barns throughout the village.  In one of the buildings the perpetrators lined up two machine guns in the doorway and proceeded to open fire in a sweeping motion while the men stood facing the back wall.  For anyone who hadn’t died instantly, they then received another bullet to finish the job off.  Similar fates befell the men in the other buildings.  The soldiers were instructed to cover the bodies with straw and oil and burn them.

The women and children were taken to the local church.  Here they were locked in and smoke bombs were set off inside the church.  While the woman and children were screaming and gasping from the thick smoke, some of the SS fired into the mass with machine guns.  The bullet holes in the walls remain today.  The church was then set alight while the soldiers stood outside listening to the screams of those inside and from their position of safety threw grenades into the building.  They waited there watching until the roof of the church collapsed and the sounds inside died away.

Inside the Church a Memorial of WWI Victims Bears The Scars Of Bullet Holes Meant For
The Women & Children

The Church Ceiling Collapsed
Courtesy of Museum Photos

The Church Today

After everyone was dead, the soldiers then set fire to the bodies in an apparent effort to conceal what had happened.  They also put the entire village to the torch and although the buildings are made of stone, the roofs and large parts of the walls collapsed in the ensuing inferno.

Photo Courtesy of the SS

A Tribute To Those Who Perished In The Church 

The following day orders were received to bury the bodies and bits of bodies in a mass grave making identification impossible.  Fewer than ten percent of the victims’ bodies could be identified which made the mourning that much harder for any surviving relatives.

Sadly this was not an isolated incident.  According to the International Military Tribunal all the Nazi armed forces including the Waffen SS, security forces and SS police, reserve troops and the Wehrmacht followed orders involving killing and terrorising civilians, which were later deemed to be war crimes.  There were many horrific events of mass murder documented on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.   What makes Oradour-sur-Glane unique is that the remains of the village have been left virtually undisturbed as a continuous and powerful reminder of how brutal and callous mankind can be to each other.

About The Population

Of the 642 victims, 638 had known ages.  Amongst the deceased were 62 children less than 6 months old and 263 less than 21 years.  Thirty-nine people were aged over 71 years old, eight of these were 81 years plus, with the balance of 340 people aged between 21 and 70 years.

On 10th June 2017, a tribute to those people who were murdered was unveiled.  The purpose behind this gallery is to think of these people as individuals, rather than as a collective group.

The individual portraits, where possible, are displayed on porcelain plaques lining both walls on the corridor as you enter through to the village.  Where photos are missing a name and age is written in the ever-hopeful attempt to find those from absent victims.

Individuals’ Photos Line The Corridor Leading Out To The Village

When Did This Happen?

It was Saturday, 10th June 1944.  Oradour-sur-Glane was especially busy on this day as there was a school vaccination program for the children being carried out here.  Tobacco distribution day also bought people in from the surrounding areas.

 

Why Did It Happen?

Terror was an effective weapon used by the Germans and the Nazis wanted to ensure that this weapon be used on a regular basis.  Encouraged by the recent D-Day landings, the French resistance had taken control of the areas to the west and east of Oradour-sur-Glane, however this village had little resistance activity and effectively became a sitting duck for the SS.

It appears that the events at Oradour-sur-Glane were intended to demonstrate to the population that terror could happen anywhere, anytime and that attempts to disrupt the German war effort would be severely punished.

There were no specific reason given as to exactly why the village was selected or why it was so completely and ruthlessly annihilated, despite several urban myths and earlier theories arising in the following years.

Click on the middle right-hand side of the picture to show more or wait for the slideshow

Urban Myths Put To Rest

Was Oradour-sur-Glane a case of mistaken identity like many claim?  There are rumours saying that the real town the SS were looking for was in fact Oradour-sur-Vayres.  However, that’s all it was, a rumour.  According to the audio commentary at the museum, this fact was never substantiated.  On the contrary, it has been proven that there was no case of mistaken identity after all.

Another myth concerned the reason for the attack which suggested that it was in retaliation for the capture of an SS officer by the resistance (even Wikipedia states this).  However again new information has now put this one to rest.  Yes, there were two incidents of captured SS officers immediately preceding the event, however, one of the men (and his driver) escaped and fled to the nearby town of Limoges, to arrive during the morning of Saturday 10th June.  A second SS officer was captured in the general area and moved to a secret location, however at the time of the incident these two events were unlinked.  The SS themselves used the disappearance of their Officer as later justification for the Oradour massacre.

A third story tells of how the SS shot the men below the knees to prevent them from escaping.  However, the orders of the SS were to kill everyone, so there was no need for inflicting incapacitating injuries and the information at the museum suggests that the SS shot to kill and finished off the survivors before incinerating the bodies.  There was no specific account of wounding, according to official sources that I have been able to verify in the research, despite seeing this recorded in numerous places and blogs.

(September 2019 update) I’ve since read some pages from Robert Hebras’ book (he’s one of the survivors) that reiterates my understanding, the SS shot to kill, not injure. If you want a copy of his book you can buy it in the shop at the village. It’s called The Tragedy, Hour by Hour, Robert Hebras, Survivor from Laudy’s Barn.

An entire family killed

Look at the name Thomas, so many family members gone!

They Were Just Children!

The New Town Rebuilt

On 10th June 1947 President Vincent Auriol presided over the ceremony of laying the “foundation stone” of the new village of Oradour-sur-Glane.  The new town, which took over six years to build, was an exact replica of the old town, except that there was no train station.  The new town sadly entered into a period of mourning that was to last for decades.

The extended mourning period was due in part to the fact that the SS burnt many of the bodies beyond recognition making identification near impossible for grieving relatives from outside Oradour.  Additionally, the fact that no-one was brought to any kind of justice for committing these atrocities helped to fuel the mourning.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s when a new generation inhabited this town did the mourning period officially end.

 

The Silent Treatment

In the Bordeaux War Crime Trials after the war, the relatives and survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane sought justice and expected that those responsible would be tried, sentenced and punished appropriately.  However, the majority of the soldiers, officers and commanders were now dead and many others were in East Germany who refused to extradite them.  Eventually, after eight and a half years, 21 men were brought before the tribunal, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

However, this wasn’t the end of the story due to fourteen of the soldiers being Frenchmen from the province of Alsace, which had been annexed by German at the start of the war.  These soldiers had been forcibly conscripted, e.g. against their will, into the German army and an amnesty on 20th February 1953 freed all such forced conscriptees.  This action so disgusted the locals that politicians, local authorities and local state representatives were not invited to ceremonies organised by the National Association of Victims’ Families and the local council of Oradour-sur-Glane.  All other convicted soldiers were eventually released by 1958.

What isn’t clear from the information made available in the museum is what happened to the six people, one woman and five men who escaped this massacre.  I wonder why none of these people took part in the trial.

Memorial in Cemetery

Children’s Items

Memorial in the New Town

The 1983 Trial In The German Democratic Republic

Lt. Heinz Barth was in command of the 3rd Company of 1st Battalion Der Fuhrer Regiment.  It was thought that all trace of him was lost.  Could it have been that he was wounded and escaped capture by Allied forces?  Accused of taking part in the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, he was condemned in absentia by the Bordeaux military tribunal in 1953.  Later reintegrated into civilian life in East Germany, in the former zone of Soviet occupation, Barth was ‘traced’ in 1982 and put on trial in East Berlin.  Barth did not deny his involvement but claimed to remember almost nothing.

Being the only SS member involved in the Oradour massacre to have been judged, the trial seemed to be a bit of a sham showing the protection given to former SS officers on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

The outcome of the trial was not recorded, however further research suggested he was sentenced to prison and released in 1997.  He died in 2007 at the age of 87.

The Children of Oradour-sur-Glane

Access To The Old Village

The only way into the old village during operational dates is through the superb architecturally designed building that houses the museum, which opened in 1999.  There is disability access to the old town via a lift and the town itself was built on relatively flat land making it easy to get around.  See Opening Times below for more information about access in winter.

Costs

Free entry to the Martyr Village (the name they now give this village).

Entry to the museum including two audio units cost us €19.60.  If you only speak English then it is highly recommended you make the most of the audio guide.  There is a short twelve-minute movie at the end of the museum and the audio provides extensive information not available elsewhere.

It was also thanks to the audio guide that we were able to obtain the answers regarding some of the misconceptions around this event as highlighted earlier.

My only criticism was the lack of closure on certain things.  Apparently, six adults escaped, plus one young boy.  Only one of the women who escaped from the church survived being shot, the other two perished.  There are no accounts for what became of these survivors.  Did they stay in the area, did they ever return, did they go on to live a long life?  It would have been great to have this detail filled in, as I guess we all want to cling onto some happy ending if that was even possible.  Perhaps it wasn’t.

 

Opening Times

From February 1st to 28th February: 9am5pm

From March 1st to 15th May: 9am6pm

From 16th May to 15th September: 9am to 7pm

From 16th September to 31st October: 9am to 6pm

From November 1st to 15th December: 9am5pm

Admittance is up until one hour before closing time.  Believe me, you will want to spend more than an hour here if it is your goal to try to comprehend what went on and to contemplate the many ruined buildings and relics of the lost civilisation here.

Annual closure of the Centre de la Mémoire is from 16th December to 31st January inclusive. During this closed period, the ruins are still accessible between 09:00 to 17:00 via the entrance on the road to Confolens (the D9) opposite the Centre de la Mémoire. The ruins can also be accessed during the dates when the Centre is closed, via the original entrance at the Northern and the Southern ends of the village.

Parking Nearby For Motorhomes

We stayed two nights here, on the first night we parked in the carpark overlooking the old town.  This gave easy and close walking access to the old town.  I’m not sure how busy this place becomes in the height of summer, however there is also an Aire situated 1.3kms further north past the new town.  Here you can find electricity and in the summer months water for a small fee.

Spread The Word

Please help to spread the word about the events of Oradour-sur-Glane by sharing this blog far and wide.  A brief Facebook post reached over 15,500 people in one week and many people had no knowledge of the town or what took place.  That, in my humble opinion, is a real shame.  I believe everyone should know some of the atrocities of war.

If you wish to read further, here’s an excellent link for more information https://www.oradour.info/

Please PIN this far and wide

Introduction To St Petersburg, Russia

Introduction To St Petersburg, Russia

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series St Petersburg Russia
by Ruth Murdoch  |  October 2018  | St Petersburg, Russia

Welcome to St Petersburg, Russia

Have you ever wanted to visit St Petersburg but thought it was too hard, too scary, or that the visa requirements are too onerous.  Then think again.

If you are planning a trip to St Petersburg or are thinking about visiting this wonderful city, you probably have a few questions that I hope I can answer in this series of five blogs about our recent trip (August/September 2018).

Here’s what you can expect to learn by reading these blogs:
✅ What’s the deal with visas
✅ Where did we park our motorhome
✅ What’s the currency and how to exchange money
✅ Are there any health concerns we should know about
✅ How to get the internet
✅ What to see and do
✅ Hiring a Guide
✅ How much it cost us, plus much more…

 

Introduction

From a young age, I remember seeing St Petersburg at night in pictures and thinking that this place has been taken directly from a fairy tale.

I now know that was an underestimation!

Not only were the lights beautiful at night, but during the day the colours of the buildings and the majesty of the architecture blew me away.  Putting into words how to describe this stunning city is difficult so I will allow the pictures to show you later instead.

Welcome to the St. Petersburg Series.  In this string of blogs I will share how to get to St Petersburg, Russia from Helsinki, the Top Tourist Attractions in St Petersburg and in particular a day by day account of what you can visit in three days (based on our experience).

I will also provide a glimpse into the history of St Petersburg from what we gleaned over our short stay.

For more detailed information there is a wealth of knowledge contained in a handy online guide called St Petersburg In Your Pocket.  You can also pick up the physical guide from your hotel, just ask.

Tune into my Summary Blog where I give a wrap up of St Petersburg, why and how to book a guide, some interesting facts and history, links on where to book the ferry, hotel, ballet, and more, plus I share all of the costs for our three-day visit.

Arriving into St Petersburg Russia

We are traveling around Europe in a motorhome and taking this to St Petersburg from Helsinki just wasn’t possible without a considerable amount of planning and documentation.  That’s not to say it can’t be done, and in fact, I hope that after reading this series you will, like us, give this some serious consideration.

On this occasion we took a ferry and booked our passage on the St Peter Line ferry, leaving Helsinki at 7pm on a Wednesday evening at the end of August 2018, which travelled overnight to arrive in St Petersburg the following morning at 9am.  Then we returned on a lovely evening cruise at 7pm Saturday, arriving back into a still sleepy Helsinki on 8am on the Sunday.

For details about costs please see our summary blog.  The added bonus about being on the ferry was that it was like having a night out, with some great entertainment and live music.

72-hour Visa-Free Visit into St Petersburg from Helsinki

The visa-free visit means we didn’t have the hassle of sending our passports away, paying for a visa, and waiting for the passports to be sent somewhere for collection (given we don’t have a home address).  

The criteria for the 72-hour visa-free visit states:

1.  You must enter by ferry (St Peter Line seems to be only one acceptable) or a cruise ship*~.
2.  You must book a “city tour”, which in this case is just the shuttle taking you from the ship to your hotel (and return).  You don’t actually need to go on this as just booking it fulfils the ‘visa-free’ requirements.
3.  You must have a hotel booking, also known as a ‘registration’, and be able to present evidence of this.  I understand that Air BnB bookings are not valid however this needs further confirmation.

* When you take a cruise ship you stay overnight on board.  This would have been expensive and would have made it more difficult to see the wonderful lights of St Petersburg by night.  Therefore we chose to take the ferry and book hotel accommodation in the city centre instead.  This turned out to be the right decision for us.

~There has been talk of allowing visa-free visits for passengers on the Allegro train from Helsinki, but to date, train passengers still need to get a visa.

In past times all visitors were required to also book a guide and were chaperoned during their entire stay.  Many people we spoke with still opted to hire a guide, as did we, for convenience and to glean the most out of the time.

If you are planning a longer trip to Russia, then there are a number of visa considerations.  I could state them all here, or you can download this up-to-date Guide that steps you through the Visa requirements from the UK (plus the US, Australia and NZ) and shows you how to complete the documentation.

If you plan on going further afield after Russia, China perhaps, then here’s the information for UK residents (and US, Australia and NZ residents) to apply for a visa.

Motorhome Parking In Helsinki

If you have a motorhome, you might be wondering what we did with our Betsy.

In order to park her legally and safely we drove her to the only motorhome camping ground, Rastila Camping Helsinki which is a council run camping ground about 30 minutes drive out of Helsinki.  At €17 per night for parking only it was a bit steep although worth every penny to have our home safe and sound upon returning.

Details on this camping ground including how to book can be found in the post about costs.

Public transport directly to the ferry terminal was easy and cheap (€2.80 each) via the Metro Station outside Rastila Camping.

Currency

Russia’s currency is the Ruble (RUB) (dollars) and kopeks (cents).  It is illegal to pay with Euros or Dollars so please don’t expect or ask this of any retailer.

It was easy enough for us to exchange our Euros for Rubles on the ferry, however, this will not give you the best exchange rates or lowest commissions.  You can also find ATMs at most metro stations and exchange your money at the banks and in large hotels (although in my past experience hotels often sting you on exchange rates).

In August 2018 we exchanged €50 for $3,954 RUB and paid a commission of $204 RUB.  The exchange rate was €1 = 79,080 RUB.

Over the course of three days, we found this amount was adequate for our needs.  We used our Mastercard credit card for most attractions and meals, and for every other purchase, other than the street vendors or market stallholders.  However, you may need more because we are not big shoppers or spenders!

Internet

Thankfully my internet provider is FREE Mobile, from France and their services extend to Russia.  Alan’s Italian Vodafone, however, wasn’t so accommodating.

There is always the option of purchasing a local SIM or waiting until you are back on the hotel‘s premises as they provide free internet.

Don’t expect the local eating establishments to offer WiFi, as that’s a rarity.  In order to purchase a local SIM you need to show your registration (hotel booking information) and your passport including the document that would have been inserted into it by the Russian passport control (don’t lose this as it is removed at departure).

Water

We were advised against drinking the local tap water and later found out that it is highly chlorinated due to parasites and contains heavy metals.  Our hotel provided free bottled drinking water every day and also provided filtered water for our drink bottle refilling before we left each morning.  Brushing teeth using the water is fine, just avoid swallowing too much.

Our Expectations

With just three days to see the large city of St Petersburg one has to be cognisant of realistic expectations.  I doubt we would have successfully absorbed all of this city’s gems in three weeks!   I definitely overestimated what we could see and underestimated the time that it takes to see it all! 

Top Attractions

I made a list of the top tourist attractions and then plotted them on a Google Map (below).  Given our limited time, we opted for quality over quantity.  One example of this is the five hours we spent in The Hermitage Museum compared with the two-hour guided tour option.  Even then, five hours wasn’t enough, except for my feet, which thanked me later!

Click on the interactive map below to see the tourist attractions I had planned for us to see.  Then you can compare these to what we actually saw during our three-day stay.

To find the list of destinations, click on the window looking button with an arrow on the far left in the top grey bar.  You can zoom in on the map to see the proximity of every attraction.  That’s how we chose our accommodation, as we didn’t want to spend time walking for miles and miles.

In my post-visit research, I stumbled across a travel guide on Russia, which is very well laid out. I am seldom impressed with guides to the extent I am with this one.  Please, if you are planning a trip to Russia then do yourself a favour and check out this Russian Tour Guide to save you time and money (and potentially a lot of headaches).

Other Blogs in this Series on St Petersburg, Russia

Follow my series of blogs below to find out how we filled in our three days in St Petersburg and more…
Day 1 St Petersburg includes the Ancient Sphinx, Rostral Columns, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Isaakievskaya Square, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Blood 
Day 2 St Petersburg includes The Hermitage Museum, Swan Lake Ballet, and photos of St Petersburg by Night 
Day 3 St Petersburg includes Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Peterhof Gardens, Kronstadt Naval Cathedral
Summary: Hiring a Guide, History and Interesting Facts, and Costs

FEEL FREE TO PIN IT FOR LATER

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

by Ruth Murdoch  |  September 2018  | Tromsø, Norway

When is the Aurora Borealis in Norway?

It is with an air of anticipation, our fingers crossed, and a belief that we have the best luck in the world when it comes to all things weather related, that we head towards Norway in an attempt to fulfill my lifelong dream, to see the Aurora Borealis in person.

We drive into Norway from northern Finland and realise that we really have struck the jackpot by arriving in Norway on a perfect day.  The best part was that we didn’t actually plan for any specific date.  Whilst many said “it’s far too early in the season to see the Northern Lights in September“, other sources (the ones we chose to believe), said they could appear as early as mid-September.  We have a tight window of opportunity due to our need to avoid the winter snows, which can arrive as early as October.  Our motorhome has summer tyres and no chains, therefore, finding ourselves ‘stuck’ in the winter conditions must be avoided at all costs.

So we proceed into Norway leaving the doubters in our dust, hoping to prove them wrong.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Also known as the Northern Lights, or Polar Lights, the magical Aurora Borealis are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights can, in the right circumstances, be seen above and close to the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Southern Lights are the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Northern Lights and given the right conditions, these can be seen in the far south of New Zealand’s South Island.  I never had the pleasure of viewing these in NZ and Norway has always been my first choice of location to experience this natural phenomenon.

Planning our Trip

The entire reason for coming to Norway is to see the Aurora Borealis.  Anything and everything else would be a bonus.  This amazing night-time spectacle has been on my bucket list since before bucket lists were invented.  I’d seen photos of the Aurora Borealis somewhere along my life’s journey and I may have possibly seen a documentary about them, narrated by David Attenborough (who else?) at some point over the years.

Just those words the “Aurora Borealis” still puts butterflies in my tummy with excitement and anticipation.  For many years I couldn’t even get my tongue around the words Aurora Borealis, let alone try to spell it.  Thank goodness it was also known as The Northern Lights, which is much easier to say.  Whenever someone mentioned the words Aurora Borealis I was suitably impressed, thinking they must be highly educated to be able to pronounce such complicated words. And if they could spell them, well, I was uber impressed.  Here’s a little help for your pronunciation practice, should you need it. Aurora (Ah – Raw – Ah) and Borealis (Bore Ree Alice).  Easy eh???

So, is it possible to see the northern lights in September in Norway?

The short answer is “not usually”.

In fact, an Australian lady I recently met on our travels in Finland scoffed at me when I mentioned we were on our way to Norway to see the lights.  She informed me that she and her husband flew to Norway in February (the height of the Aurora season) on a guaranteed Northern Lights tour.  They stayed there for two weeks, braved the snow and below freezing conditions, and ventured out every night on guided tours.  Did she see the elusive lights?  No, no, NO!

Eek, perhaps I’ve over-estimated my expectations to see these elusive creatures in the off-season!

However, we somehow tend to have the luck of the Irish when it comes to these things, and other weather-related matters.

Alan, my husband, found a free app called ‘My Aurora Forecast’, which provides excellent information on the probability of seeing an Aurora, based on a particular location.  The most important factor is something called Kp.

So what is a Kp I hear you ask?

Turning to Google (because I’m not a scientist) for the official answer, here’s what I found.

“The Kp number is a system of measuring aurora strength.  It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

So when looking at the aurora forecast we want to see high numbers, and the higher the better.  Anything above (and including) Kp5 is classed as a geomagnetic storm.

Coming from the German words “Planetarische Kennziffer”, Kp is better known in English as the planetary index.” 

I hope that bit of insight helps.

Arriving into Norway

The date is Monday 17th September 2018 and we have just driven in dark gloomy conditions from northern Finland, to reach Norway.  You can imagine our delight to be bathed in sunshine as we poke our nose into Norway.  It felt like we’d just shed not only northern Finland’s cold winter coat but had also left the rain and an overcast day in our wake.  The autumn colours are once again stunning; the sun is shining on the still waters of the lakes, which reflect the fluffy clouds from the skies above. There is a small stirring deep inside of us that we might have some good days ahead.

 

The Still Water Reflects Fluffy Clouds

Stunning Autumn Colours In Norway

We check the Aurora app and are delighted to see the Kp is showing 4 for tonight!  Wow, 4! that’s awesome.  Not only that but the forecast cloud cover tonight is minimal.  Finding a prime location is the next agenda item.

We head into the township of Tromsø where I spied a ‘Light Tour’ shop and called in to glean some information.  Their Aurora hunting tours cost $1800 NOK per person including dinner cooked on an open fire and hot drinks.  So we decide to keep the €189 x 2 to ourselves and ask for advice on the best places to see the lights.  Knowing it was a bit cheeky we were surprised that the lovely lady happily showed us, on her enlarged wall map, exactly where she rates the best light viewing place around Tromsø.  It’s about a 45-minute drive away and includes, on the way, the perfect stop to watch the autumn sunset.

So we’re off to watch the sunset first and then to find the lights (hopefully).

 

A Rare Perfect Norwegian Sunset

The sunset spot was near Ersfjordbotn (GPS coordinates for those wanting to follow are 69.6966, 18.6327).  We found the perfect elevated rock with a view directly between the two headlands running down to the sea.  Between the tips of the headlands was a small stretch of water and the sun was already sliding down towards the awaiting horizon. 

A lovely Dutch couple, who have made Norway their home, already occupied our chosen rock however they were happy to share.  They informed us that the sun setting on the water exactly in between the two headlands only happens two or three days per year!  Then factor in that those days need to coincide with fine weather and you realise to actually see this happen is a fairly rare occurrence.

Well, someone is looking down on us and smiling because we shared this perfect sunset experience with our new Dutch friends.

A Rare Sight of The Sun Setting Between The Headlands

Next we were off to find our vantage point for the lights, which our app was now indicating are likely to be showing tonight, yay.  Our Dutch friends tell us that they have only seen the lights once so far this season and they too are off to watch them with their friends.

 

The Elusive Aurora Borealis

We pulled into the parking area at Grøtfjord (69.7745, 18.5270), some 18 minutes, or 15.4 kilometres of narrow, lumpy, bumpy, windy roads later.  Arriving unscathed, despite having to reverse to allow a truck to pass us at one point, we parked up and cooked dinner while waiting.

We didn’t have to wait long.  Dinner wasn’t even finished being scoffed when Alan poked his head out of the motorhome and…

Guess what…

“THEY’RE HERE!!!!  RUTH, COME OUT AND SEE, THE LIGHTS ARE HERE!”

YES, to all those non-believers, WE SAW THE AURORA BOREALIS IN SEPTEMBER IN NORWAY! WOOHOO!

My heart jumps into my throat and I hold back tears of joy.  I can’t believe I am here, in Norway, seeing the most amazing scene right before my very eyes.  I’ve waited my whole life for this moment and I watch stunned in awe.  If I was to think back as a child, seeing the Aurora Borealis in Norway – well, words just don’t even start to convey what I’m feeling at this point in time.

To my delight the lights danced mystically around the sky for hours, swaying backwards and forwards, changing colour from light green to darker green, one moment they are streaking upwards, the next they are moving horizontally and low across the sky.  They would fade, then strengthen and swirl around once again.  It was difficult to stop watching in case something spectacular was about to show itself, and it never disappointed.  The night sky was alive and here we are in Norway watching, transfixed by this phenomenon.

Alan had his camera and tripod out immediately and through trial and error found the right settings to get some great shots of the action going on upstairs.  My iPhone could not even start to compete with a good quality camera in capturing Mother Nature at her best.

We continued to stand outside, in the cold 2-degree temperatures, all rugged up, our eyes peeled skyward and mesmerised for hours by this exhibition.  The cold seemed to be secondary to our excitement until we suddenly realise we can’t feel our toes anymore.

Upon reading this, it may seem quite normal that someone can just turn up in Norway and see the lights.  However, there are three things that must coincide for a good viewing experience.  The first is a reasonably high Kp number, preferably 4 or above (the further you are from the poles, the higher the Kp needs to be), the second is a clear night with minimal clouds, and thirdly, darkness, which means sometime around the winter months and away from light pollution as well as late in the evening.  Tonight we were in luck and it was probably a one in a hundred coincidence that it happened for us.  Oh and did I tell you, it’s September!  Lol.

The Aurora Borealis ARE Here, In Norway, In September!

Us Enjoying The Light Show, Check Out The Shooting Star To The Top Left

Even Betsy, Our Motorhome, Gets To Enjoy The Auroras

Click on these to enlarge the photos

Aurora in Finland

Not to rub it in or anything, but we were actually treated to a short sneak preview three nights earlier (Friday 14th September) in Finland!  We couldn’t believe our luck then either.

It was 11.30pm and we were tucked up nice and warm in bed when Alan announces the Aurora app suggested a 33% chance of seeing the Aurora NOW with a Kp score of 4.  Sceptical and not understanding what a Kp of 4 really meant back then, we climbed out of bed, clad ourselves in multiple warm layers of clothing and braved the low single digit temperatures outside.  We looked skyward and couldn’t believe what was right in front of our eyes, the Aurora Borealis, here now, in bright green colours, bopping across the entire sky for our viewing pleasure.  Wow, wow, wow was all that come out of my mouth.

Mesmerised by the beauty of Mother Nature I was leaping out of my skin with joy.  The butterflies in my tummy had taken flight and I was jumping around with them.  This was real, this was the actual Aurora Borealis and I am here, in the flesh watching this show.  I needed to pinch myself.  Being here, watching the magic unfold before my very eyes is everything and more than I expected and hoped for.  This experience heightens every sensory element of ones being.  You feel your feet firmly planted on the soil of this safe and inviting foreign country and feel privileged to be here, you look skyward while Mother Nature is inviting you to her most rehearsed show on earth, your body tingles with joy and you hope with every fibre of your being that it lasts and lasts while you drink in her glory.  It is one of those things that you must just experience in person yourself.  Oh, how fortunate am I?

What’s more is I am in Rovaniemi, Finland, watching this for the first time.  We hadn’t even reached Norway and I had no expectation of seeing the Auroras on this particular evening, but here they were, the Auroras eager to show off and eager to be seen by us.  WHAT A TREAT!

The display of dancing lights however only lasted for a few minutes before fading away.  Half an hour later a second fainter aurora appeared, which showed up well on the camera but was less obvious to the naked eye.

Therefore we were very thankful for the longer display of stunning lights as showed to us in Norway, in September.  Plus thankful that Alan had time to experiment with his camera settings.

Aurora in Finland

Aurora in Finland Taken on iPhone (not recommended)

In Summary

So, when can you see the Aurora Borealis in Norway?  Well, the official word, according to me, is that the Aurora Borealis CAN, in fact, be seen in September and not only in Norway.  Finland can also provide a lovely display.

However, if you want the best chance to see this magical show the main season to view the Aurora Borealis in Norway is from October to March.

So don’t wait any longer, elevate the Aurora Borealis on your bucket list, and make it a priority to book your trip up here to experience this sensational spectacular for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant

by Ruth Murdoch  |  April 2018  | Sicily, Italy

Why would someone dine at a fancy Two Star Michelin Restaurant when they can cook great food themselves?

Reaching deep into my purse and parting with hard earned cash just to fill ones stomach for an evening doesn’t sit well with my financial values. In fact this traveller has avoided such gastronomic pleasures.

That is, until today.

After a hearty recommendation from a wine expert in Marsala, we decided what better time to indulge in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant experience ourselves than when in Italy?  After all, we only live once, right? Although we didn’t need another excuse, we also had a second, Alan’s birthday provided the perfect reason and soon we were booked and looking forward with keen anticipation.

How Do You Get A Michelin Star?

One can only assume that in order to achieve such accolades of not one, but two, Michelin Stars there must have been hours and hours of hard work slaving over a hot stove only to have someone scoff the food within a matter of minutes.  Then there would be the wait for praise or criticism by some apparent food critic that could change your reputation (one way or the other) after a single plateful or two of toiled delights.

It so happens that the Michelin stars are the most coveted food award that a restaurant can achieve. The reviewers are all one hundred percent anonymous and the stars are based only on the quality of food. The ambience, furnishings and the quality of the service are not supposed to make any difference.  Although the exact judging criteria are nearly secret, in order to win two stars the chef will generally have to display unusual creativity, use unique and specially sourced top quality ingredients, and display exceptionally high consistency in their dishes. 

Two Star Michelin Restaurants are supposedly inspected monthly and just one less-than-perfect dish can be enough to drop one or even two stars. Gordon Ramsay is said to have cried when his New York restaurant lost its stars due to inconsistency.

So Is It Really Worthwhile?

Ristorante la Madia

Let me tell you about our first ever experience worldwide dining in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant, let alone an Italian one.

Ristorante la Madia can be found in the most insignificant streets of Licata, a smallish town located on the south coast of Sicily, at the mouth of the Salso River, about midway between Agrigento and Gela.

With just a small nameplate to identify its almost hidden location, we arrived at the frosted glass door of the entrance to Ristorante la Madia at 8.02pm for our 8pm reservation, only to find the door was locked!

What restaurant would lock its doors after the opening time? Were we even in the right place, on the right day, at the right time, or had they just forgotten to unlock the front door?  It seems that our door knocking eventually landed on someone’s ears, and the door is opened by two impeccably uniformed maître d’s.

Welcoming smiles saw us entering the unassuming premises and we notice the door is locked again behind us. This felt like we are entering a private, somehow exclusive, establishment we have been granted temporary access for the evening.  One maître d takes our jackets while the other confirmed our reservation.  I cringed as Alan handed over his leather jacket to expose a very un-ironed shirt underneath (it’s not easy to get creases out when you live in a motorhome and you can’t justify the space or weight that an iron would require).

The Ambience

Having confirmed our reservation, we are led down a short hallway into a sparsely, but classically decorated room.  Two walls have simple light brown timber panelling with a couple of quotes in Italian (of course).  The other two walls are painted a dark grey, almost looking sad and dreary.  I spied an old-fashioned record player with some vinyls (on top was Tracey Chapman) sitting on a ledge, which unfortunately just sits idle all evening.

Clearly, this place is about the food, not the music.

A curiously uninspiring single photo adorned the room.  I ask myself, “who puts up a photo of a couple of bed sheets hanging on a washing line with a cat in the yard?” Even the cobblestones beneath the cat were obviously not staged as they were amassed with weeds growing in what little sand they could find.  If this photo is intended to piqué ones curiosity then it achieved its goal. Perhaps it meant something to the chef?

Looking around, there is just one window that is located behind my seat, enclosing a small courtyard with various ceramics and green plants.

That is the extent of the lavish décor of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  Artistically pretentious this place was not and I just hope the food is of a higher standard than the ambience.

As we settle in for the evening, we ask to sit side by side, only to be politely told ‘no’. Whether our request is lost in translation or not, we didn’t push the point. The seating appeared to be meticulously planned and who are we to upset their careful creation?  Looking around I counted 23 place settings and assumed, incorrectly, that the restaurant was in for a busy night.  Sadly, there were just three couples keeping the staff on their toes this evening.

The Menus

Menus are delivered, in Italian of course.

Our very basic understanding of Italian and even Google Translate cannot help us decipher what was being offered as the words just don’t seem to translate into anything sensible.  With some assistance from the waiter, we settle on a menu heavily weighted towards seafood and look forward to enjoying the evening.

We order sparkling water, which is the easy part whilst I combed through the vino (wine) list.

The most beautiful tall fine steamed wine glasses I have ever seen arrived on our table.  Being tactile, I can’t help but touch and am instantly taken back into my childhood where I could hear Mum say ‘don’t touch, you’ll break it’. The delicate glass is fitting for the fine Chardonnay that soon follows.

On each of the tables sits an odd diamond shaped clay jug decorated with a face and has a fish for the lid. What this is for, we never found out. There was also literally a small rock of pink, almost translucent, salt and a miniature grater.

Cute!

I wondered if this is more for decoration than use, as I would expect the dish to be perfectly seasoned before leaving the kitchen.

An Unexpected Treat

The first dish to arrive is an unexpected treat from the chef.  A kind of pre-starter to our seven courses, because in traditional Italian cooking, and especially in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant as we are learning, the chef must ensure the guests are well fed!

The thin outer buffalo casing is the skim off the cheese with its delicate flavours enticing.  Perched on top sits finely grated herbs, green mint leaves, and a thick tomato jelly type dollop (sorry that’s not an official description).  Inside we are delighted to find a fluffy aerated buffalo mozzarella cheese centre that seems to dissolve like a savoury candyfloss in your mouth, surrounded with a cold, smooth, flavoursome pomodoro zuppa (tomato soup).

If this is any indication of the other food yet to come, then bring it on.

I’m looking forward to an evening filled with intrigue and discovery, and that’s exactly what unfolded.

The Starters

Next to arrive is a variety of two breads – warm crusty wholemeal bread obviously fresh from the oven and breadsticks with the finest Sicilian olive oil.  I had never before laid eyes on such green olive oil.  The waiter pours his precious liquid gold into the small dish sitting patiently beside the bread.

This was no ordinary oil – it is the best money could buy and is treated with the utmost respect.  It appears the waiter has earned the right to possess such an important ingredient in our presence with his fine wrist movements, slow gentle pouring, and slight twist at the end preventing spillage.

Scallop and Prawn Temptation

The next delight to adorn our table is a delicate scallop and prawn temptation that is out of this world in both presentation and taste.

The outer scallop casing appears to be scallop rolled thinly and placed back into the shell to resemble the shape of a traditional scallop shell.  Atop are fine slivers of orange zest that appeared to have been soaking in pure orange fragrance, as the flavours are intense, making this a welcomed original tang away from the usual lemon citrus one would expect to find with seafood.

Now I’m getting into the swing of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant food experience.

Towards the rear of the outer shell casing a delicious light pink sauce peaks through.  Created from the orange scallop roe this dressing is silky smooth and delicately sits on ones tongue to enrich the flavours suitable only for the finest seafood.  Inside the scallop casing rests poached prawns cooked within milliseconds of perfection and sliced lengthwise.  Cooked for one second longer or shorter and the prawns would have been spoiled (or so it seemed).  They are perfect.

Arranged and served upon finely sliced crispy fresh lettuce, the prawns nestle into a circle, hugging each other while the roe dressing intertwines to coat each element and brings together a skilfully balanced creation.

How can this food get any better?

Just you wait…

Each dish is served on a silver platter by two professional waiters and beautifully presented before our expectant eyes.

I watch as a theatrical play appears to unfold before our eyes.  The performers make us believe we are the most important people in their lives at that very moment and they live only to serve.

Rock Octopus

Next is ‘rock octopus’, according to the waiters?  I’d never heard of rock octopus.

Ah, it means octopus in a rock.

Here the octopus is beautifully presented in a foam-like, slightly crunchy, aerated dark pink coloured outer casing which resembles the rocks from where it once may have lived.

Unfortunately for this poor octopus, it poked its head out to a waiting and willing fisherman and wound up on our table for our tasting pleasure.

Within the ‘rock’ and under the octopus is a fragrant and flavoursome sauce concocted from mussels, sea urchins and other oceanic delights.  The octopus has obviously been marinating for some time, as it is perfectly tender.

What a shame to break open and eat this delicious dish as in doing so means destroying the masterful culinary art that has obviously taken hours of design, tasting, testing, and reengineering, to arrive at the final goal of perfection.

A lovely card preceded the following dish that provides the story of Mamma (I presume the chef’s mother) and the Atalunga Tuna.

On one side is a picture of a Mamma and child and the other side holds the story that the chef wants to impart to his diners.

For those of you who can speak or wish to practice your Italian, here are the beautiful Italian words, followed by my close translation below.

Memoria Visiva

 Un po’ tutti siamo cresiuti con la fettina. 

La fettina era l’attenzione della mamma quando le sembravamo magri o ammala ti. 

Era una fettina sottile e tenerisdima, quasi non masticabile, condita solo con un po d’olio e limone.

Un piatto semplice e nutrien te.

Questo piatto di Tonno Alalunga e un omaggio all’amore delle nostre mamme e alla memoria della nostra infanzia.

Per me, il suo simbolo piu forte e il seme del limone: la perfezione imperfetta del gesto domestici… Mai una mamma lo avrebbe tol to, mai una mamma lo avrebbe fat to mancare.

 

Visual Memory

From little, we grew up with the slice.

The slice was the mother’s attention when we looked thin or sick. 

It was a thin slice and tender, almost not chewable, seasoned only with a little oil and lemon. 

A simple and nutritious dish.

This dish of Alalunga Tuna is a tribute to the love of our mothers

and to the memory of our childhood.

For me, its strongest symbol is the lemon seed:

the imperfect perfection of the domestic gesture…

Never a mother would have taken it away, never a mother would have missed it.

Out Of This World Tuna

This thin slice of tuna is the third dish to grace our table.

It was lightly seared on one side, drizzled with oil and the slightest hint of lemon, miniature chives and one perfectly placed lemon seed in the middle. (No this wasn’t a mistake, as both plates had the seed strategically placed in the centre of the tuna).  Sprinkled lovingly with crystals of rock salt this addition provides a delightful crunch and adds more flavour to Mamma’s dish.  Served lukewarm this is a simple but delicious dish and every bite melts in our mouths like it need not be chewed.

By this stage, we are really enjoying ourselves and the flavours of each dish seem to complement the one before.

We wait for the next masterpiece with a sense of anticipation and expectation, as we know we are in the presence of a culinary magician.  What appears before us next does not disappoint.

Outside the Norm

Sicilian food traditionally features a lot of pasta and aubergines but what turns up now is far from traditional.

I guess it is this sort of creativity that is expected in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.

The al dente (harder than we’re used to at home) thin spaghetti is wrapped tightly around what appears to be a whole baby aubergine, stalk intact.  This is topped with a special Italian tomato sauce, miniature basil leaves and finely grated ricotta (I think) cheese.

I open the parcel to reveal that the aubergine has been transformed into a buttery smooth puree that was wonderfully flavoured and perfectly seasoned.  Multo saporito! – “very flavoursome” are the best Italian words I can come up with to describe this dish.

No More Wine!

We ask for another bottle of wine as the beautiful vino that has been accompanying us all night has run dry.

The waiter won’t or can’t allow us to have another Chardonnay.  Again we didn’t know if this is lost in translation or they just didn’t want to sell another expensive bottle of Chardonnay.  The waiter, however, has a half bottle of something he is willing to serve us, which for me, unfortunately, tastes just like a Sauvignon Blanc – the one white wine I actually detest.

Alan, bless him, takes one for the team and devours this all by himself.  For me, it’s sparkling water from here on in.

Given that we still have a few dishes due, it is somewhat of a pity to be denied a decent tipple to accompany them – this is Italian food after all!  

Moving right along…

The name of the menu we are enjoying is called “Illusion” and had been specially created by the chef so that each dish would be a surprise and would be somehow magical.

This was best demonstrated with the next delight.

Steak and Potatoes!

I’m not a big barbeque flavour fan at all, in fact, I would run a mile from that smoky, burnt, charred ash flavour.

To my delight, the coals were nothing more than part of the illusion (thank goodness for good logic and a sense of humour).  Lying before us was steak and potato, but not as ordinary as my label might suggest.

On the first pass, the beef looks raw.

Served just above warm in temperature, this melt-in-your-mouth beef, which appears to have been cooked in sous vide style, lives up to the expectations I have now come to realise is all part and parcel of a two Michelin Star restaurant.

I could get used to this and become an expert in things food (or at least be the taster).

The detail on our plate is impeccable; from the finely sliced square of rock salt on the beef to the tiny specs of ash sitting below the oil and the jacket potato which needs no further flavours for enhancement.

The spud and beef are perfectly complemented.

Wisps of breath over the top of the charcoal and she lights up, (providing one doesn’t blow too hard and decorate the table with ash – Alan!). The glow adds to the theatrical intrigue of a dish simply labelled by the waiter as “BBQ steak”.

There is nothing simple about this divine dish.

Unsurprisingly, I’m getting full now.

Pre Dolce and Dolce

Just two dishes to go… Pre dolce and dolce (before sweet and sweet).

Making room for the next scene, everything is cleared away from our table silently and without fuss by the waiter whose experience shows through his lack of intrusion into our space.

Now for the dessert…

But wait, before the dessert I must sample the Masala, especially as we had recently visited the township down the road and bought a bottle after an enjoyable Marsala tasting session. (Plus, there’s only so much sparkling water one can drink in an evening!)  I just love the glass the Marsala is served in, another favourite!  I grasp it with a full hand underneath and navigate it to my lips!  Yum.  Just as well my hands are no smaller, or the glass any larger.

Mandarin Jelly

The ‘ore dolce’ is first to come to our table, it’s a mandarin jelly bursting with incredibly intense citrus flavours topped with pistachio nuts.  Yum.

This pre-dolce is, I assume, to cleanse the palate before the final act appears on our stage.

Take a good look at the photo and pretend you can move it – then imagine how the wobble moves in front of you.  The bottom appears fixed to the plate while the top dances all around as far as it can reach.  Such fun.

The final dish appears.

Tiramisu!  My Favourite!

Tiramisu!  My all-time favourite Italian dessert for me and for Alan, the Profiteroles.  The Tiramisu, whilst incredibly creamy, was on the strong side for a non-coffee drinker.  I know, I know, I’m in Italy and I don’t drink coffee!  Perhaps that is what kept me awake all night.

Alan’s dessert was past his lips, over the tongue, and down into the depths of his stomach within minutes (if not seconds).  A hazelnut moose on a slightly chewy base garnished with two freshly split juicy raspberries and a single mint leaf on top.  A colourful and divine plate.

We go to bed with full bellies, a smile on our faces and the memory of the best gustatory delights of our trip to Europe so far.  I doubt we could find a better restaurant in all our travels.

If this is what a Two Star Michelin Restaurant is like, I’m in.

We just need to figure out how to make the budget stretch to enjoy more delights like those professionally served at Ristorante la Madia.

 

The Chef

Pino Cuttaia, the creator of this fine theatrical experience greeted us with his presence, post scoffing.  I love it when Chefs do this.

It’s like there’s no place to hide and we can ask questions of him, compliment him, or pick his brains for the recipe.  Just kidding, I doubt he’d give me his recipes in any case.  With his limited English and our limited Italian, the smiles said it all.

Would We Go Again?

So what did we think of our fine dining experience?

I would rather visit one special restaurant a year than ten ordinary restaurants if this is the quality of food on offer.  The entire evening was delightful and I’ll soon be looking for the next excuse, reason, or occasion to find another Two Star Michelin Restaurant…

La Madia is unaware of our review and we paid for our meal in full (in case you were wondering).

La Madia Snc Restaurant – Corso F. Re Capriata, 22 – Licata (Ag) – Tel. (+39) 0922 771443 – [email protected] P.iva 02292500846 Visit their website

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