Monday, 8 August 2011

9 hours in Kyoto

Japanese capsule hotels have always intrigued me. Who stays in these places? How do you sleep in a space barely bigger than a coffin? And don't you get woken up by the snoring of your neighbours? On my last trip to Kyoto I decided to check out 9 hours - a new capsule hotel with a difference.

As you can see from the video - 9 hours is definitely a uniquely Japanese experience. Virtually everything follows a colour pattern of white, black and a few spots of red - all carefully designed from the shoe lockers to the slippers, pyjamas and tooth brushes. 9 hours even developed its own fragrance for its shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Flat, form and texture - all the objects fit into one of three design categories.

The highlight of course are the capsules or as the hotel refers to them: "sleeping pods". It's all high-tech with sleep control systems designed to make you sleep more comfortably and wake-up with the gradual increase of light. Significant research - I was told - has also gone into designing pillows and mattresses in order to create a cozy space that promotes peaceful sleep.

The traditional market for capsule hotels are businessmen needing an affordable place to stay. 9 hours takes it one step further and creates a stylish place of transit. It also offers the same amenities for women hence the women's only elevators that lead to women only capsule floors to make them feel comfortable, safe and secure.

For those of you who are thinking of visiting Kyoto and maybe staying at 9 hours - definitely try it for the experience. The design is great, the pods are comfy and I slept really well. But anything longer than one night might leave you - as in my case - wanting a few more comforts from a normal hotel room. I missed a comfortable lounge to chill and read. And the lockers on the floors are simply not big enough for overseas travellers with a lot of luggage. Though I must say after a couple of nights in Ms Hashimoto's quaint traditional Japanese B&B smack bang in the old town (which I loved!) 9 hours couldn't have made for a starker contrast. Tradition and high-tech, elaborate rituals and minimalist design - in Japan it's all side by side and that's one of the many reasons why I find this country so fascinating.


Thursday, 4 August 2011

Hau den Lukas - a Hamburg institution

I'm a big fan of Hamburg. I love strolling through the HafenCity with its modern architecture and the old beautiful brick warehouses that give the city a worldly flair, or catching a boat to tour the massive port, eating Fischbrötchen or Sushi or going on a shopping spree.

Now I'm not a big fan of fun-fairs - but if you're out for some roller coaster action, want to enjoy the view from the ferris wheel or nibble roasted almonds or tasty waffles the Hamburger Dom might be an option.

The name sounds a little misleading. I first expected some religious landmark, but it goes back to a group of merchants, craftsmen and jugglers, who in 1337 were granted the right to seek shelter in the cathedral Marien-Dom whenever the weather was particularly bad. At the end of the 19thcentury, the fairground showmen had to move to Heiligengeistfeld, the location of today’s fairground. But the name Hamburger Dom stuck and today the fun-fair runs three times a year.

I found out about this Hamburg icon while co-producing a short multimedia piece during a workshop led by Bombay Flying Club at the Akademie für Publizistik earlier this year.

So, meet H.J.H. Schroeder - the merchant who runs Hau den Lukas - an institution that's been around for over 50 years and something you don't want to miss if you're touring the Hamburger Dom.


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Recipe wanted!

This was the treat that meant Sansibar was nearly always included on our walks: the warmer Schokoladenkuchen mit flüssigem Kern auf Himbeeren und Vanillerahm!

Hot and melting chocolate cake on raspberries and vanilla cream
I've emailed the chef to ask if he would be willing to share the recipe as this dessert does not appear in the various Sansibar cook books. So far I have not received a reply, but I've been experimenting on my own.
Barb's hot and melting chocolate cake on raspberries

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Sylt - an island holiday a train ride away

Who would have thought that you can catch a direct train from Bonn and end up on Germany's most northern island? And given that it's in the middle of winter, I did get a few strange looks from friends about choosing Sylt for an island holiday.

After a week on the island I must say that it's been a great choice. Yes, it's cold, sometimes really cold even under blue skies with glorious sunshine. But long winter walks through almost frozen sand dunes, flying kites on one of the beautiful deserted beaches or strolling through the little historic villages, such as Keitum, makes for a really relaxing time. Oh, and did I mention the island is a foodie paradise too?

We found a great place to rent in the picturesque little village of Rantum, in the south of Sylt. The island is particularly narrow here. You're surrounded by nature reserves and it takes only minutes to walk from the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea) on the eastern side to the wild beaches of the North Sea on the western side. Almost every house in the village boasts a traditional thatched roof, which is very quaint. Being low season it feels like we're the only tourists here. The local shop only opens for a few hours in the morning and they seem very happy to see us every morning when we buy delicious crusty Sylter Brötchen and pick up a newspaper. The shop owner says she loves this time of the year, as summer is too crowded.

Photo: Fieldreports
Rantum is quite a few kilometres away from the über-trendy village of Kampen, where the rich and famous come to party in summer and can pop in to their local Louis Vuitton boutique just in case they need a new beach bag. It is a little surreal wandering around the most expensive addresses in Germany, but at least you're sure to find all you need for cooking up a storm - the gourmet supermarkets are great!

Our little house has bikes, but when we've needed to cover longer distances we've been getting around on the local buses. They come every 30 minutes like clock work. And with a little bit of planning we haven't missed having a car on the island.

And for some reason we've been planning our trips to include a little stop at Sansibar, but I'll tell you about that in my next blog post.


Monday, 24 January 2011

Ouagadougou's best kept secret: Lebanese Manoushe

Now that I have a few days off work I've finally got around to post a recipe that I meant to share from my last trip to Ouagadougou, the vibrant capital of Burkina Faso.

We conducted our journalism workshop at the Hotel Splendide and every day for lunch we whizzed up to Chez Simon just a block away. It's a buzzing little Lebanese food mecca known for its cheap eats and delicious pastries.

I was keen to try their Manoushe, a kind of Lebanese pizza. Their selection of different Manoushe is rather extensive, so I asked Simon for his favourite. He recommended the Manoushe Spéciale. And, dear reader, it was so special I had it every day for two weeks in a row!


  • 250 gr white flour
  • Salt
  • 20 gr yeast
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • Butter
  • 100 gr of Labneh cheese
  • Fresh tomatoes 
  • Black olives
  • Onions
  • Peppermint
  • Olive oil


  1. You should first make the Labneh (creamy yogurt cheese) as it takes a day to drain. It's actually much more straight forward than I would have thought. You make Labneh from plain yogurt by using a cheese cloth to drain the extra water out of it. Just pour the yogurt into the cheese cloth, bring up the sides and tie them together, then place it in a colander with a bowl underneath (keep it in the fridge) and let it drain for a day.
  2. Now, it's time to prepare the dough. Add flour and a tsp of salt into a bowl. Mix in the yeast, then add sugar and a little warm water. Knead the dough, adding flour if necessary. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise for 10 minutes.
  3. Add 2 tbsp of oil and knead into the dough. At this stage the dough should not be wet and not stick to the bowl. If you think it's too dry add a little warm water. Then roll the dough into a ball and leave in a warm place for an hour.
  4. Using a rolling pin flatten out very thin pieces and roll the edges up a bit with your fingers.
  5. Pre-heat oven to 200°C.
  6. Add a small slice of butter in the middle of the dough, so it melts inside the oven.
  7. Wait till the manoushe becomes golden brown. Now add the Labneh and serve with plenty of fresh tomatoes, black olives, fresh peppermint and olive oil.
  8. Enjoy!


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Short stop over in Warsaw

It's grey, cold and raining. A great time of the year to visit Warsaw, I thought sitting in a taxi from the airport on my way into town. And yet, I must say I was immediately taken by the charm of the old houses and the cobbled streets as we got to Warsaw's New Town, a neighbourhood dating from the 15th century, where my hotel was located. I was staying at Le Regina - a boutique hotel housed in the beautiful arcaded 18th century Mokrowski Palace and a great place to unwind. Plus it has fantastic weekend deals and lies smack bang in the historic centre of Warsaw - the Stare Miasto.

My location was perfect for exploring Warsaw's historical monuments - the Royal Castle, St John's Cathedral and the Citadel. It's impressive to see how well the city was rebuilt after the total destruction by the Nazis during World War Two. It really looks and feels like the 17th and 18th century - and yet it's barely 50 years old. Restoration was indeed so successful that UNESCO granted the Old Town World Heritage status in 1980.

Freta 33, New Town, Warsaw
Exploring Stare Miasto, makes you peckish. Ulica Freta, where Marie Curie was born, connects the Old Town with New Town and has a great range of food choices. I checked out Freta 33 - a small arty restaurant which serves moderately priced Mediterranean food. Try the penne with mixed seeds, sun dried tomatoes and spinach for a treat.

And of course I also had to sample Polish cuisine. I went to Restauracja Pod Samsonem a local restaurant just down the road known for its tasty Polish food infused with a Jewish flavour. I had a choice of marinated fish, pierogi and Polish blinis. Loved it! And also the vodka shots, that I hadn't ordered but our enthusiastic waiter was keen to pour down my throat…

But his enthusiasm evaporated quicker than you could down a shot, when he saw the tip I left. Next time I'll definitely have to properly work out the exchange rate between Euros and Polish Zloties before trying to leave a tip. Or maybe Poland will have the Euro by then.


Friday, 22 October 2010

The Moro-Naba ceremony, but no photos please

Friday morning, 6 am.

My iPhone alarm goes off. I'm not an early riser, but my colleague has convinced me that a must-see in Ouagadougou is the Moro-Naba ceremony that takes place every Friday morning at the Moro-Naba Palace. The Moro-Naba is the king of the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso which makes about 40% of the population. It's a traditional ceremony and not something put on for tourists. Importantly, photos during the ceremony are strictly forbidden so that in itself makes me curious.

CC photonka
Still yawning and bleary eyed we set off to find the palace for this intriguing weekly ritual. We were told to leave early as the ceremony starts around 6.30 am. We're the first ones to arrive on the dusty grounds, but soon enough we're joined by several groups of "Nasara" (white) tourists.

Time goes by... 7.00... 7.15... 7.30... but not much happens… without our morning coffee we're starting to become a little impatient. Then, a lone servant saddles up a horse and begins decorating it elaborately. OK now surely it's going to start! Um, no. Back to clock watching and not much happening.

As 8.00 draws closer the crowd begins to draw in. Old Peugots and Mercs begin pulling up and drop off what appears to be important Mossi elders clad in beautiful long robes, red round hats and carrying traditional wooden objects. Some more arrive at full speed on their tuned-up mopeds. They greet each other with great reverence and sit on the ground according to rank: in the first row sit the Moro-Naba's spokesman and his chief ministers and, behind them, other dignitaries in descending order of seniority. Then Moro-Naba appears, dressed in red, the symbol for war. Suddenly we hear a crack as a cannon is fired. Now I'm definitely awake. From where I'm standing I can't quite make out what's happening, but the king's most senior subjects approach His Majesty to pay their respect. The Naba then retires in a mud hut, while his horse is unsaddled and takes off at a brisk trot.

A few minutes later the Moro-Naba reappears, dressed all in white (a sign of peace), and with that, the gathered crowd jumps back on their motorbikes and zooms off to tend to their days' business.

The whole ceremony is over in less than 15 minutes. And the story behind the ceremony? Well as my colleague told me, the Ouahigouya Mossi had stolen the Ouagadougou people's main fetish - an object of special powers. As the king was about to head to war, his ministers persuaded him to hold back while they try to recover the fetish. So this ceremony every Friday is a small celebration of peace. I've also read that the Naba's subjects are subsequently invited to the palace for a drink; millet beer for the animists and a kola nut concoction for the Muslims. Apparently the Moro-Naba then gives audience and hands down his verdict on local disputes and petty crimes. Maybe we should have stayed a bit longer, but like everyone else in the crowd we too had to take off for work and the millet beer can wait until sundown.


Saturday, 9 October 2010

Bienvenue à Bonn

Petites et Grandes Aventures on Canadian breakfast radio - talking about living in Bonn, German reunification and the day's media headlines.


Sunday, 19 September 2010

Fashion, Food, Fun and Flemish - a weekend in Antwerp

Planning a little weekend away from Bonn - a 'mini-break' as Ms Briget Jones might call it, literally one hour before leaving on a Friday afternoon, is a tad ambitious. Last minute flights anywhere fun were too expensive. Then we thought, what about going to London on the choo choo - only 5 hours away and there's always a special offer. Unfortunately the Thalys leg from Cologne to Brussels was booked out. That by the way also ruled out Paris. Copenhagen was also a wild card but quite far to go by train and the sleeper wagons were also booked out. So, deciding we might drive somewhere, we looked at the map and wondered what's possible say within in a two hour radius of Bonn. Alsace-Lorraine is nice, but a bit too far. Maastricht... meh, didn't get us excited. But, what about... Antwerp? Fashion, culture, good food, interesting things to see - it seemed to fit the bill - and my word it did!

I knew that Antwerp is Belgium’s capital of diamond dealers, art lovers and fashion designers. And certainly wearing one's best was our first sight in the city. As we arrived in the late afternoon we first passed many stockinged and traditionally black attired orthodox Jews - probably just coming out of the synagogue on the Sabbath. The most interesting were gentlemen wearing large round fur hats.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Funky word clouds

This is snapshot of Petites et Grandes Aventures created with Wordle a handy little tool for generating “word clouds” from text (or websites) that you provide. You'll see, the clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

I think it's a funky visualisation toy. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes - and just have fun!


Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A new look at King's Daughters

Sometimes it's good to take another look at a project, particularly if you've learned some new tricks.

A little over year ago I visited King's Daughters, an innovative project of the Bicycling Empowerment Network, in Katutura, Windhoek's largest township. In a nutshell they train former prostitutes to become bicycle mechanics.

I was very moved by this encounter and decided to produce an audio slideshow. Although I had a Marantz audio field recorder and a very good microphone, I only had a small point and shoot digital camera - a Canon IXUS 950. However, with good light during the day it produced reasonable images.

Back home I produced my audio slideshow with a programme called Soundslides which is a great way to get into audio slideshows. It's fast, intuitive and very straight forward. All you need to do is produce your soundtrack, import your pictures, arrange the order to suit your story, add some transitions and you're done. Here's how it turned out.

In my eyes Soundslides produces a clean looking result and is a very good way to start off and have fun, but if you want to do something more advanced, the natural progression is to move up to video editing software.

I've now started using Final Cut Pro. It really makes a difference, even with a relatively straightforward audio slideshow. Why didn't I do this sooner? Well, probably because I didn't have a Mac agile enough to run it. But of late I've been using a new MacBook Pro and have an HD video camera. Hopefully a DSLR will follow soon. I have several really good lenses from my old Canon film camera that I want to put back into action. Now, there's no excuses for not producing more multimedia! Here's my new look at King's Daughters produced on Final Cut Pro.

King's Daughters: Tools for a New Life from Barbara Gruber on Vimeo.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Les boules, c'est cool!

Oh la la the Brits have discovered that boules is now becoming the height of cool. Either that or the editors of the G2 section of The Guardian have had a little too much sun. What next? Will Pastis replace Pimms as the Poms' summer drink of choice?

It's funny how a game I've played all my life, is now chic with les rosbifs.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Taking the windy road to Lake Kivu

I've just got back from Rwanda where I was training radio and print journalists in the lead up to the presidential elections that will be held on August 9. (Kigali Wire has produced a good background to the elections).

A weekend break in the training offered the chance to explore Lake Kivu, which forms the western border of Rwanda with the DRC.

From the capital Kigali it's a scenic drive through rural Rwanda heading to Gisenyi. The bus trip itself was one of those, well, one of those trips that I'd rather not repeat. I'm fine with travelling in a cramped mini-bus, and can even handle listening to World Cup top 5 tunes in a loop for three hours. But I do draw the line at several small children throwing up onto you and your luggage… Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills, and while yes it's beautiful, I guess that also means windy roads increase the chances of one being car sick. Oh well, the impressive Virunga mountain range and its seven towering volcanoes did make up for it, and unlike my dear colleague, at least I didn't have to wash vomit out of my hair.

Gisenyi itself is a very little backwater town boasting quiet sandy beaches - something I had not expected in the heart of Africa. I was told it's precisely this low-key charm that lures an eclectic mix of well-to-do Rwandans, expat escapees from the Congo and independent travellers.

Unfortunately the town also has its dark side and is remembered as the location of major massacres during the Rwandan Civil War, the 1994 Genocide and the First and Second Congo Wars. Sharing a border with the DRC certainly hasn't improved Gisenyi's reputation - what frequently comes to mind are the disturbing TV images of the many refugee camps near Goma just over the border.

We decided not to cross into the Congo and stayed at the quaint Paradis Malahide just a few kilometres south of Gisenyi on the shores of the Rubona Peninsula. The lodge offers rustic rooms and bungalows scattered around a lovely garden and a tiny beach.

I particularly enjoyed watching the fishermen set out at sunrise and sunset in their majestic boats working in formations of three. From each fishing boat, long wooden poles that support nets reach out and sway like tentacles - lifting and rising the nets in and out of the water like exotic lake insects.

We also checked out the natural hot springs, which are reported by locals to cure a variety of ailments. I must admit I wasn't tempted to jump in, but then I didn't really have any ailments to cure…

Unfortunately we didn't get to swim, but our guide had warned us: There are certain parts of Lake Kivu, particularly around Gisenyi, where it is very dangerous to swim. The culprits here are not hippos or crocs, but rather volcanic methane gases that are released from the lakebed. In the absence of strong wind, these toxic gases can collect on the surface of the water, and quite a few people have been asphyxiated as a result of so-called limnic eruptions.

These limnic eruptions got me curious. To date, only two have ever been observed: in 1984, 37 people were asphyxiated following an eruption at Lake Monoun in Cameroon. Two years later, a second even deadlier eruption occurred at neighbouring Lake Nyos releasing over 80 million cubic meters of CO2 and killing around 1800 people.

At Lake Kivu scientists are expecting an eruption some day. If an eruption does occur, the exploding underwater methane is likely to push a huge cloud of carbon dioxide above the surface of the lake, as well as triggering a series of tsunamis along the shoreline. Since CO2 is denser than air, it sinks quickly to the ground, pushing breathable air up into the sky. At this point, there is little you can really do to survive, and it's only matter of time before you succumb to CO2, poisoning, suffocation, drowning or a combination of all three. Hmmm great, but it get's even better: according to my Lonely Planet guide, the last thing you will probably smell will be the warm vapours from all the combusting methane, which are somewhat reminiscent of a giant, earthy fart.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Andrew Brown's "Inyenzi" - recommended reading for Rwanda

A few weeks ago during the pre-world cup South Africa hype I read an interesting interview with Andrew Brown, a young author from Cape Town. His first novel "Inyenzi" written in 2000 about love and genocide in Rwanda was a bestseller in South Africa, but never really made it onto the international stage. With a trip scheduled to Kigali I was curious to learn more about my destination and ordered the book in the US.

It's the story of Melchior, a Hutu priest whose devout view of the world falters when he sees Selena, a beautiful young Tutsi, in the seminary grounds. Theirs is a love that is twice forbidden - by the Catholic church and the ethnic animosity between Hutus and Tutsis. Ethnic hatred is on the verge of tearing Rwanda apart. In the eyes of the Hutu extremists, such as Melchior's childhood friend Victor, Selena is nothing but a cockroach - an inyenzi - that must be crushed.

In the chilling events leading up to the killing spree, the fates of the three characters become increasingly intertwined. Every chapter ends with official documents, newspaper articles and press releases from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the case against Victor Busisiwa Muyigenzi, the former head of the communal police for Rweru, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. The cold and blunt court records documenting the tragedy of Rwanda's genocide are a stark backdrop to what is a beautiful love story.

And while this story could have fallen victim to a cliched plot of a B-grade Hollywood romance, Andrew Brown captures with great sensitivity and compassion the innocence of first love, the beauty of Rwanda and the horror of the genocide. The language is moving; gripping the reader page by page and, is disturbingly powerful.

Social Book Club

If this got you curious, leave me a message and I'll put the book in the post to you - but only on condition that you forward it to the next person interested.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Little Perugian Baci or what I'm taking away from #IJF10

Eyjafjallajökull has sent me on an unexpected 1257 km dash against the ash adventure across Germany, the Swiss alps and deep into Italy to attend the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

As expected quite a few international speakers and journalists were unable to attend but I was surprised at the resourcefulness of some participants determined to make it down to Italy. Ande Gregson from Media140 for example drove all the way from London on his R1 Yamaha motorbike (it's red, so it must go fast!), David Sasaki caught one train after another for a day and a half to travel from Austria, while Lisa Zilberpriver changed her original flight Sydney-Bangkok-London-Rome and spent several days flying across the globe via Hong Kong and Doha.

It was a jam-packed five days at the #IJF10 with many interesting insights into the Italian and international media landscape and loads of discussions about the opportunities of new media in our profession.

I'm not a regular conference goer, so I can't give you the pros and cons of this conference versus any other large journalism talk-fest, but I must say I liked the wonderfully organised Italian chaos, the beautiful historic venues spread all throughout the old town, the professional translation, the daily happy hour "Taste of Umbria" and the large jars of Perugian Baci chocolates luring me time and again back into the press centre.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Madagascar: living with cyclones

Earlier this month tropical storm Hubert struck Madagascar's east coast, killing at least 36 people and leaving almost 40,000 people homeless. The worst hit areas are reported to be around Nosy Varika - a tiny and extremely remote town on the south-east coast of Madagascar.

Friday, 5 March 2010

They're big, hairy and really look like us

Staring into the eyes of a mountain gorilla in their natural habitat is a special experience. And it takes on an even greater significance when you think that there are only 700 mountain gorillas remaining in the world today. All of them live in central African nature reserves on the border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Last year I traveled to Uganda to report on refugees in Northern Uganda and the use of mobile phones to fight poverty.

I'd also researched the possibility of tracking mountain gorillas, one of the rarest animals on the planet. But looking at the map I was daunted by the long trip it would take to reach the border with Rwanda and Congo. I only had a couple of days free and permits to enter the park and join a track are very hard to get at short notice.

Still, I was determined to meet these majestic mountain gorillas, described in my guide as one of Africa's most memorable experiences. After persevering with at least a dozen phone calls to various authorities and several trips to the HQ of the Ugandan Wildlife Association in Kampala I managed to get one of the coveted permits, because someone had canceled their trip. With the permit in hand I was able to make a booking for the Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge and organized a driver for the 10-hour journey down to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

So, do you fancy meeting some relatives?

Check out this multimedia mash-up of some of the reports I produced about my trek into the Impenetrable Forest for the Lonely Planet in English and the Deutschlandfunk auf Deutsch. I've also included an audio feature about the luxury 5 star Clouds Mountain Gorilla eco-lodge and how they are working with the local community for sustainable tourism.

Even if you have only a few days in Uganda, I would make sure not to miss it. Tracking the mountain gorillas is one of the most incredible wildlife adventures I've ever experienced.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Meet the Interpretation and Guiding Club

Having recently been in Morocco I'm on my guard when someone approaches me close to a tourist attraction offering some sort of deal or service. I've met my fair share of fake tour guides - usually young teenagers, wanting to take you around the sight and ripping you off at the end of the tour. "Please, just look. One or two pieces. For the pleasure of your eyes," is still my favourite invitation to date.

So, having just arrived in Kyoto (and dropped bags off at Mrs Hashimoto's quaint little ryokan) and then walking up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) to the famous Kiyomizu Temple, it was somewhat unexpected to be approached by a smiling young Japanese girl on the temple's steps. This is after all the land of being reserved and extremely polite.

"Do you want a guide? It's free!"

My North African scepticism kicked in telling me this smelt fishy, like sushi going off in the sun. But, I hadn't even had the chance to even (politely) decline, when five other rather geeky and timid looking teenagers rocked up behind her saying they were also part of the tour.

I thought to myself, "Hello Kitty, this is definitely the ultimate Japanese Tour Temple Scam!"

Mr Aventures wasn't much assistance at this point either.

But within seconds our fears were allayed as the 6 member tour guide team started introducing themselves - this was the real deal.

Yoko, Yui, Yuto, Akihiro, Natsuki and Manami turned out to be members of the Interpretation and Guiding Club of Kansai Gaidai University. They'd come up to Kyoto for the day and all they wanted to do is to practice their English. A few of them already had fairly good conversational English, but for the others, you could immediately see that they were trying very hard to work on their language skills and in their own time.

So off we went to visit Kiyomuzi - the pure water temple.

Our young student guides all clutched colourful note pads and followed the directions of Yoko, their energetic instructor. On Yoko's cue the guides gave a short presentation at each point of cultural or historical significance. Some were very insightful, others were... well, they need a bit more practice - though their enthusiasm made up for any deficiency in delivery.

I must say, I learned a lot about temple rituals. For instance, you have to wash your hands before entering the temple. Not only that, the left hand must be washed first. And I think there was something about the left hand symbolizing worldly matters and the right being more spiritual.

Along the way our young guides patiently explained all the tiny shrines where you can determine your luck in life, health and love - we tried them all! And while the last time around I was given bad fortune, this year is looking surprisingly good.

In the eye of rush hour at Shinjuku station

Every day around 3 million people pass through 新宿駅 - Shinjuku station, making it one of the busiest in the world. The JR, Toei, Odakyu and Keio lines, plus the subway all cross here pouring out every minute more commuters into the labyrinth of Tokyo's underbelly.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Lifting the veil of Marrakech

It's the second time I travelled to Marrakech. Twelve years ago I remember being annoyed by the constant hustling of the souk vendors, trying to drag you into their shops to buy a carpet or some other object you don't need.

This time was very different. The first thing that struck me was the sheer intensity of light. Glorious clear blue skies and warm December temperatures in the "red city" made for a perfect escape from the cold European winter.

It's difficult to say what I liked best: the bustle of the colourful souks; the ritual bargaining; the sensory overload of the Medina; Jemaa el-Fna dressing up for a night out on the town; the palaces, medersas and other jewels of Islamic architecture; the beautiful parks and gardens smelling of orange trees and spring; or, the delicious Moroccan cuisine.

Here, in no particular order, is my Marrakech pick for a short trip to this imperial city:

We stayed in the exquisite Riad Khabia tucked away just behind the royal palace and a stone's throw away from the Palais de la Bahia and the Palais El Badii. The rooms are beautifully decorated and the calm of this Riad is a welcome change to the craze of the medina. There's hardly a better place for a post-souk snooze than the rooftop overlooking Marrakech and admiring the views of the snowy Atlas mountains in the distance. But it's no doubt the hospitality of Dany and Julien that topped off our experience, making us truly feel at home - something I have very rarely experienced.

My other highlights included the Café des Épices on Rahba Lakdima smack bang in the middle of the souk.

The narrow three storey Café des Épices looms over the spice square, and has a great rooftop view. Don't be deterred by the queues to get a table, they dwindle quickly. The staff are super friendly and a veggie & cheese sandwich with a mint tea is exactly what you need to recover strength for your next bargaining duel.

If you'd like a more elegant recovery then head to the Café des Épices big sister Terrace des Épices. This airy and very stylish restaurant on a terrace overlooking the Cherifia Souk serves up light, simple Moroccan fare. The food is delicious and the place is so inviting we wiled away a whole afternoon lazing in the sun.

For a real Morrocan tasting experience we went to Le Tanjia. The food was very tasty and well presented, the decor is sort of 1001 Nights and the belly dancing show surprisingly fun.

My friend Yoko from Japan forwarded me the latest GOOP newsletter with a list of the most "in-the-know spots" of Marrakech. Kasbek was certainly a real discovery. Aussies Cassie and Rebecca sell new and vintage Kaftans with details handmade by local craftsmen. The cloths are beautiful, and after hesitating between bright red & turquoise, light green & orange or black, I decided to get all three...

For culinary shopping we were told to check out the Marrakshi institution Patisserie des Princes for the best petit-fours and Morrocan sweets. You can buy their fresh and deliciously gooey cakes starting at 5 AM.

Finally I would recommend going to a hammam. We went to the Hammam Ziani right by the Palais de la Bahia. It caters exclusively to tourists so it's not the most authentic hammam experience, but steaming up, scrubbing down last year's skin and indulging in a fantastic massage was a great way to start the New Year.

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