The Hague (Den Haag) is a 1 hour train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal train station. Today is the Spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and as we coast through the Dutch countryside Spring is certainly in the air.
A green town … and springtime colour welcomes us to The Hague’s most famous building, the Peace Palace.
Exterior of the Peace Palace. The winning design actually had two towers, but was adjusted to meet the budget.
Built with more than a million dollars from the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Peace Palace was built to house the Permanent Court of Arbitration which had been created as a means to prevent future wars.
Designed by competition winner Louise Cordonnier in the Neo-Renaissance style, it officially opened in 1913… just a year before the worst war in history erupted across Europe.
It remains in active use, now managed by the United Nations and also home to the International Court of Justice. Our tour guide takes us through history, architecture, and world politics in under an hour – impressive! This is a beautiful building, and one still in active use (although Carnegie et al would hope for a day when its function is no longer required).
A 360 Degree Painting
The Hague is a beachside town, although it’s too long to walk today when the ocean water is likely too cool for all but the most brass of monkeys to swim in.
Instead, Luke has offered us a 19th century seaside experience that will blow our 21st century minds. So we enter a small, round building at Zeestraat 65, walk down a corridor past a few nondescript paintings, and then step up into…
Before there were motion pictures, there were these: paintings wrapped around a room, 14 metres high and 120 metres (360 feet) long. The advent of film saw Panoramas, and the circular buildings crafted to house them, drop in popularity. A century later, it makes these all the more remarkable.
And the Mesdag Panorama, painted by Hendrik Mesdag, is an excellent example, showing the seaside from the Signpost sand dune in 1881 – just before a large and ‘modern’ pier turned the fishing village into a holiday resort for the regions wealthiest citizens.
Close up section of the Mesdag Panorama – can you see where the painting ends and the sand diorama begins?
It captures the artist’s favourite spot at a pivotal moment in the industrialisation of his country. And for us, we are confronted with this painting in the round, naturally lit from a skylight that also adds mood lighting every time a cloud passes over.
I can’t resist buying a print from the giftshop; but can you see any souvenirs that even go close to capturing inside that dome?
Before MC Hammer, there was MC …
If it’s experiential artwork you want, says Luke as he walks us through the main square after lunch, then you’re going to love the next place.
He’s taking us to the former Queen Mother’s residence, the Lange Voorhout Palace, now a museum dedicated to the surrealist graphic artist MC Escher.
Here we have a chance to see some of his most famous works…
Look familiar? Stop: Escher Time!
Now THAT’S a self-portrait. Almost worthy of Van Gogh, don’t you think?
Some of his earliest geometric works blown up to the size of rooms! And, on the top floor (after several rooms that fill us in on Dutch royal family history as well) there’s a chance for all of us to place ourselves inside some of the most famous illusions.
Can you see yourself here?
There’s also a chance to appreciate the chandeliers by another Dutch artist Hans van Bentem. Yesterday we were admiring the intriguing art of Vincent van Gogh – today we learn that Dutch art didn’t stop experimenting after his death.
There are skulls and globes and plenty of others – we thought the dove of peace was fitting!
And then, we’re on the train back to Amsterdam. The city buzzes, but we have one eye on the upcoming weekend exploring yet another European gem: Copenhagen.
Amsterdam Centraal Train Station – easy airport access
The tulips I like best are your tulips in the dark.
We deal with immigration on the boat, so as soon as we arrive we’re onto our day in Tangier.
For a settlement that pre-dates the Roman Empire, Tangier is a modern, vibrant city. In fact, the population here grew by almost twenty times during the twentieth century, and its economy (as its reputation as a spy town during the Cold War) is maximised by its proximity to Europe.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
We’re here to explore the older parts of the city, however.
Rock the Casbah
The Casbah (or Kasba) is connected to the former Sultan’s palace, and creates a protected zone at the highest point of the town.
Crowded entrance – we’re definitely going to Rock this Casbah!
As Westerners, here is the first place (at least, since we left Japan) where we have felt out of place. That’s in no way reflective of the locals here, who are particularly welcoming; it’s just recognition that the culture here, from architecture to religion, is more heavily influenced by the Middle East than it is by Western Europe.
English is very much a minority first language here. Even beyond the official languages of Arabic (more specifically, Darija – or colloquial – Arabic) and Berber, Morocco’s history includes governing by both France and Spain and therefore education in either French or Spanish. Compensating for this is the importance of tourism to the Tangier economy. Despite the uncertainty, here once again we found that English is today’s lingua franca and will generally suffice (when combined with patience, respect, and a smile) in most locations you’re likely to see as a traveller.
Whether it’s the welcoming disposition of the locals, or that importance of tourism, wandering through the Kasba feels safe and spacious. There is time and opportunity to breathe in the new sights and sounds that make this an experience.
We duck through an opening on the other side of the Kasba, and find this!
That’s the Strait of Gibraltar – you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance on the left
Of course, it makes sense that if we can see Africa from Europe then we would be able to stand on African soil and look over the Europe so easily.
Still, this is a breathtaking view – being able to witness two continents at once.
As I said: Breathtaking.
Off to Market
Tangier is a popular daytrip from Tarifa, and a key stop is the markets. Everything from spices to leather-goods can be found here – and while the prices aren’t ridiculously cheap, there are plenty of bargains to be had for those willing to haggle as aggressively as the merchants.
Better still (at least for those daytrippers) is that almost every shop here will take Euros.
Our tip for market haggling?
Come in at 10% (yes, 10%!) of the price they suggest.
Recognise that this is natural, and part of doing business – you’re not being rude.
Never, ever regret a purchase. You are unlikely to find the lowest price the merchant will accept, but you will still do very well. Be happy with your price or don’t buy it, and if you buy it then forever be happy with your price!
For those of us who aren’t returning to Europe tonight, there’s even more opportunity to get horribly lost in these markets. Feel like refreshment? You’re unlikely to find a beer (easily) in this Muslim nation, but the hot mint tea is a must!
And then there are abundant opportunities to enjoy the local Moroccan spices as part of your evening meal.
And olives! Wow are there abundant opportunities for olives!
Cave of Hercules
Saturday offers us a roadtrip day, as we head by car from Tangier along the 3.5 hours of coast road to Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.
But our first stop is just out of town, where the ocean empties into a cave through an opening exactly the shape of Africa!
The Cave of Hercules – in mythology, the location where Hercules rested when his 12 labours were completed – is certainly large enough to contain his enormous strength.
With the tide rising, there’s opportunity (having followed necessary precautions) to swim here or jump from the ledge that forms part of the famous silhouette. In fact, the hardest part of the stop is finding a moment to photograph the cut-out cave so that Africa is obvious but the many other tourists are not!
Once we’re back in the car, there’s no need to rush – and plenty of reasons to stop and take in the water views. The nearby hills of Europe are gone – replaced with a seeming infinite ocean, North America not even imaginable beyond it.
Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca. Photo by David Stanley, CC License
Play it Again, Sam
Casablanca may be the African city most famous in the west, but for all the wrong reasons. While the film Casablanca is legendary, the tale of Rick’s Café Américain and its love triangle (mirrored by the political triumvirate of neutral USA, independent France, and Nazi Germany) bears no relation to the modern city of 3.5 million people.
Chief among today’s things to do in Casablanca Morocco is the Hassan II Mosque. The tallest building in Morocco and one of the largest Mosques in the world, a guided tour inside (and in English) is an opportunity to better appreciate and respect Islam. Sadly, the tour references but doesn’t show us the glass floor out over the ocean – this mosque was built largely over land reclaimed from the sea; 25,000 worshippers can here appreciate the Qur’anic verse “the throne of Allah was built on water”.
There are plenty more souks to visit – if markets are your thing, head over to the Habbous District of town for even more shopping. You’ll find us enjoying yet another Moroccan tea in the Square of Mohammed V where the traditional flavours of modern Morocco blend with the historical colonial buildings.
No doubt, three days is only just enough to taste Morocco – and barely to scratch the top end of Africa. Based on what we’ve seen here, however?
This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Want to go? Need to know!
How quick is the ferry between Europe and Africa? With FRS (http://www.frs.es) it takes literally no time at all! (Which is to say, you arrive in Tangier at the same time you leave Tarifa, given the 1 hour time difference.)
The cave isn’t exactly Africa, but it’s pretty close. Africa also looks a little like the human skull – is that a coincidence for the continent that was the birthplace of humanity?
‘Play it again, Sam’ is the most famous line Humphrey Bogart never said, a misremembering collective audiences have popularised through the 70 years since Casablanca was released. Perhaps the greatest movie of all time, Bogart’s final speech is now about 70% cliché – but the original source of all those incredible sentiments and sentences!
Had a chance to practice your French in Casablanca? You’ll need it this week…
Have any fabulous Moroccan memories? Share them for all our readers in our comments below, or over on our Facebook page.
There is a small corner of Europe that will be forever England. We’re not talking about the Western Front – we’re talking about Gibraltar, a rock jutting off from Spain into the Mediterranean that entered English hands three centuries ago and shows no signs of ever becoming anything other than a sunny outcrop of the Empire.
All things going to plan, flying to Gibraltar from London would be an incident free flight. But here, there are so many things that can go wrong. You see, Gibraltar is so small that the only way to fit in an airport runway…
… is to have it cut across the main road!
If you’ve ever been tempted to accelerate when you see a rail crossing closing ahead of you, spare a thought for the motorists who – several times, every day – have to give way to an airport runway.
See the two ‘roads’ that cross in the middle of this photo? Yeah – one of those is the airport runway, and the other one is Gibraltar’s main street! Photo by David Jones , CC License
Beyond its historic value, and unless you love overpriced Marmite and brown sauce, there’s little reason to spend time on the Rock of Gibraltar itself. So we’re fairly quickly crossing the border into Spain, on our way to the Kitesurfing capital of the world: Tarifa.
We’re staying at La Casa Amarilla, avoiding the many hostels on the road into town and basing ourselves in the middle of the ‘old town’.
How old? Ruins of Roman settlement in the area exist nearby, while the town takes its name from Tarif ibn Malik the eighth century general of the Umayyad Caliphate that conquered north Africa and much of the Iberian peninsula.
Control of the town changed hands between several Muslim-ruled principalities prior to the thirteenth century, when the Catholic Sancho IV of Castile reclaimed the region. Any walk through the old town will take in the ‘Puerta de Jerez’ (the last remaining medieval gate) and end at the dominant waterfront feature – the combination of a thousand-year-old Guzman castle and the el Bueno Tower added shortly after the Catholics retook control.
Of course, only Sancho IV receives a statue.
The most Southern point in Europe
From here, let’s walk along the beachfront, and then out along the rocky outcrop. Pause for a moment – you are standing in a key space of world geography. If the world did have four corners, this point right here would likely be one of them.
Look to the left – that’s the Mediterranean Sea, which borders so many empires of history from Egypt to Greece to Rome and Carthage.
Look to the right – that’s the Atlantic Ocean, stretching out to the New World.
Look down – you are now standing on Europe’s most southerly point, the very bottom of a continent that expands up into the Arctic circle.
Now look up – those hills you can see, across the water, little more than a literal stone’s throw away? That’s Africa.
We shot a really short video to take it all in:
In the foreground, a monument to Christopher Columbus – the explorer who sailed with Spanish money. In the background – Africa.
Giddy Up, Up and Away
Turning north now, putting our back to Africa (sort of – Tarifa is actually further south than Tunis and Algiers!), we can see the full length of Los Lances. Off in the distance, you can see the rotating arms of wind turbines scattered across the hills – the country of Don Quixote has invested heavily in chasing 21st Century windmills.
It’s the same wind that delivers Tarifa its biggest drawcard – and from here, we can’t help but observe the dozens of kitesurfers learning on the sand and taking to the waves. They’re all in search of the exhilaration that standard surfing (with its short wave length) fails to match.
Aventura Ecuestre offers a two-hour beach horse ride along Los Lances, and up into the hills of the neighbouring nature reserve. The route is designed to provide beginner (or lapsed) horse-riders with confidence on their steed … and more experienced riders an opportunity to gallop with a guide at a much higher speed! Is anybody in our group daring enough to let their horse take greater control? We’re not game, but we hear there’s nothing quite like breathing in the salty sea air at a full gallop.
With the surf culture and a position between the famous Spanish strips of the Costa de la Luz and Costa del Sol, Tarifa has an electric nightlife best described as backpacker-red-wine-chic.
There’s plenty of tapas to choose from for dinner. We know from past experience that your plates of tapas MUST outnumber your bottles of Spanish red wine.
Seafood Paella at El Puerto Restaurante is also a wise option.
Thanks to that previous lesson, I’m going to avoid the tempranillo! But pass me another glass of monastrell if you don’t mind; and do try the sherry, because it originates in nearby Jerez and in these parts is anything but your grandmother’s drink!
Just remember – we’re staying in the big yellow building.
La Casa Amarilla – it translates as The Yellow House.
Want to go? Need to know!
You can catch public transport (buses) from Gibraltar to Tarifa – look for “La Linea de la Concepción” routes. La Linea is the Spanish side of the Gibraltar border – there are several, hour-long bus trips from La Linea to Tarifa each day; if those times don’t suit, you may be able to change buses at Algeciras.
If you do want to experience kitesurfing in Tarifa, the world’s kitesurfing capital, you’ll have plenty of choice! Our best suggestion is talking to other travellers you meet in the town about their experiences, but if you’re looking for a website that isn’t Google or TripAdvisor, you can start here.
Like to master the local wines? The most famous Spanish grapes are tempranillo, often sold under a “Qualified designation of origin” like Rioja. If cerveza (Spanish beer) is more to your taste, try Estrella… or just order una cerveza por favor and drink what gets served.
Just don’t call it una servicios – that’s a polite way of saying toilet.
Which did you prefer – Gibraltar or Tarifa? Do you have a favourite Spanish wine? Share it for all our readers in our comments below, or over on our Facebook page.
[Chris writes: It was always going to be tough going up against Jacob’s Perfect Day in London in our informal London competition. I’ve taken the tactical decision to throw not just one of my perfect days in London into the ring – I’m throwing them all in.]
Day One: Epicurean London
The first perfect day in London focuses exclusively on the relatively recent and somewhat surprising revelation – the food in England doesn’t suck!
The Poms have, for years, endured as the world, and the French in particular, snorted and stuck their noses up at even the accidental placement of the word ‘England” in the vicinity of the word “cuisine”. Said the French President, Jacques Chirac;
“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad”.
France has moved on from Chirac, but I suspect he still speaks for many of us when we contemplate English food. And how wrong we all are.
One only has to look at the constellation of British chefs and cooks dominating the television, the bookstore, the supermarket ailes, and your stomach, to know that this attitude towards British food cannot last long, if indeed it is an opinion still held at all. From Heston to Gordon to Jamie to Nigella to Rick to Antonio to Delia, there is no shortage of chefs promoting new cuisine in the country, and there are truly exciting places in Britain where artisanal isn’t a word artlessly tacked on by a hipster in marketing – it truly is.
We start our morning at one of those places, and my favourite place in London. We’re going to Borough Market.
Borough Market has been in operation, in some form or another, since the 13th Century, and possibly earlier. It recently earned a blue plaque as “London’s Oldest Fruit and Veg Market”.
Today, it is spread over several blocks, showcasing fresh and preserved produce made by individuals who make things the old-fashioned way.
It is hard to believe how varied and exciting the produce is at Borough. From specialist cheese producers, to rare breed pig farmers, to the one guy who smokes his own salmon and scallops up near the Scottish border, you’ll not only find the ingredients of your dreams but usually be talking to the person who made them.
There’s lots to eat and drink, so don’t muck about.
First – go to the Monmouth coffee stand and get in the queue when you arrive at Borough. Even if it looks quite long now, it will get longer still at the day progresses.
Once you’ve grabbed your coffee fix, head over to the Jubilee Market to look at food producers selling everything from jams and preserves, to spices, to handmade dips and dukkah, and their own family recipe for salami and smallgoods. Circle back into Green Market for bread, pastry, and don’t forget to grab an empanada before you go.
It Is Always Time For Tea
Tea and the English will, possibly forevermore, be inextricably linked.
Can you believe that, each evening when The EastEnders finishes (a popular soap on television), the surge in electricity is so great that the company must actively manage the electricity supply, even gathering in electricity supply from France.
What is causing this massive electricity surge? Says the BBC;
No other country in the world switches on some many kettles in so short a time.
Each evening around 7 PM, 1.75 million kettles are switched on.
Thomas Twining, fighting a brave rearguard action against the overwhelming popularity of coffee houses, bought this coffee house back in 1706. In the early part of the 18th Century, tea began to rise in popularity and soon sales of tea from this store eclipsed the coffee business and Twinings was set on the path to tea-time domination.
Here you can buy the regular Twinings tea brands as well as shop from the Loose Lea Tea bar and individual teas for those famous Twinings compartments.
On to Marylebone for Brunch and Cheese
The Providores in Marylebone is one of those places you hear about in whispers and backchannels, because no-one wants to let the secret out – but this place is just too good. You only have to visit The Providores on a weekend for brunch to see the size of the queue and feel the crushing disappoint at forgetting to have booked.
An airy, modern cafe cum restaurant, there are two parts to The Providores – the Tapa Room downstairs, which is a busy free-for-all, and the quieter, slightly more formal dining room upstairs.
Both serve an increbile, eclectic ‘fusion’ menu that showcases the irreverence on the Kiwis and the cosmopolitan spirit of London. Current dishes on the lunch menu is a Smoked Dutch eel with butternut squash star anise puree, edamame, blood orange and macadamia nut salad and Sri Lankan spiced beef short-rib with pearl barley, raisins, almonds, mango chutney and coconut.
Remember to book your place.
Once satisfied, head out onto the Marylebone High Street and wander a bit further up towards Regents Park. You’ll smell our next destination before you see it, and depending on your palate you may love it or may find it slightly offputting.
The first time I entered the Cheese Room at La Fromagerie, I couldn’t quite take it all in. I was found standing in a corner of the room, gazing fondly at a block of Parmesan and inhaling deeply the potent scent of what I think was called ‘Stinking Bishop’.
With cheeses from Buffalo, Cow, Goat, and Sheep, and from all across England, the United Kingdom, and Europe, there just has to be a cheese here that you will find mind-blowing. Brie, Camembert, Aged Cheddar, Pecorino, Ricotta – breathe deeply and you’ll be entranced just like I was.
And before you leave this little slice of food paradise, pop into Patisserie Valerie for a raspberry tart fix.
Yes – that threw me the first time I read about it too. It is hard to determine whether choosing to sample this particular variety of ice cream goes one the ‘have-to-try-it-once’ list or on the ‘are’you-blooming-crazy’ list.
If you were up for it, we’d head to the Icecreamists shop in Covent Garden and have a red hot go. If it isn’t really your cup of tea (and let’s be honest, that’s probably 99% of you) then we’ll head to another Icecream treasure of London – unconventional too, though not in the same way.
Freggo, located just away from the ridiculous hustle and bustle of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, is an icecreamery par-excellence. You really will not be able to think of icecream the same way once you try their Malbec and Berries icecream in combination with a dark chocolate icecream. Yes, that’s wine in icecream and it works. Don’t miss this.
Come the Raw Prawn at Harrods
How are we doing for time? Quick – get in that tube!
Harrods, house of all things gaudy and excessive, happens to also have a very fine Food Hall. If you can get past the crowds and the over the top memorials and the purveyors of perfume, you’ll find yourself in something very closely resembling a playground for grownups.
Ok – it will be overpriced. But just sit yourself down at that counter and stuff yourself with jamon freshly carved from the bone with a razor-sharp knife by a smiling gentleman in an apron and enjoy it. You only live once.
More Tea, and a moment to regather
By now we’re feeling the afternoon dip hit hard, so it’s time for the citrus pep of a cup of Lady Grey and maybe a moment to catch our breath. At Claridge’s Afternoon Tea, they serve the ‘quintessential’ English afternoon tea, and having been practising the art for over 150 years, we’re sure to enjoy the full experience. As Spencer Tracey once said;
I’d rather go to Claridge’s than to heaven.
The Grand Finale, by the Master of Illusion
As if we have any room left in us by now. But we must, we must find some – a hollow leg perhaps. For tonight we dine at Heston’s.
Dinner, his restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, is Heston Blumenthal’s first entry into the London market. With The Fat Duck solidly booked out months in advance, Dinner is our best chance to sample the cooking that has earned the self-taught chef three Michelin stars and to trade the Best Restaurant in the World title with Noma and El Bulli, depending on who you ask.
The restaurant’s dishes are based on Heston’s deep research into historical cooking in English culture, and the dish at Dinner is the Meat Fruit. To all appearances, a mandarin, inside is a special surprise and I won’t be the one to spoil it for you. See if you can guess.
Day Two: Museum London
Not really a foodie? I hear you. Perhaps history and culture is more your thing?
One of the benefits of being an Empire is being able to amass, legitimately or otherwise, enormous collections of historical artefacts and trophies from across the world. England, being a particularly potent Empire, has quite the collection.
Start at the British Museum. Of course, everyone else is starting there too, and there will be a big rush to get inside to the Rosetta Stone first. You can join the rush or head on upstairs to the Egyptian collection instead, and find your inner Indiana Jones amongst the mummies and hieroglyphs.
Next, head to the London Museum. This place is little mentioned by most ‘travel experts’ and yet it tells a definitive story of the history of London, from ancient times through the Blitz, and to the heady days of Beatlemania and beyond, in entertaining and creative ways.
This titan of the art world, made from an old powerplant and solidly sitting across the Thames from the grand dome of St Paul’s, is a temple to modern and contemporary art and will have you up to speed on all your Modernisms and Post-Modernisms and Post-Modern-Pre-Minimalisms in no time at all.
Just near the Tate is the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.There are tours available, but why not come back when there is a play on. Standing tickets near the front of the stage as cheap as chips, although you will be exposed should the weather turn inclement, which in London is ‘frequently’.
Finally, and it is a bit out of the way, but how could you miss the Museum of Natural History. For any adult who, as a kid, fantasised about becoming an archaeologist (so, all of you) this is the Aladdin’s Cave, the Nirvana, the Mecca of dinosaur-nerdery.
After we have all the fresh air we need, we’ll make our way to the Petersham Nursery. Not only a nursery full of beautiful flowers like you can only grow in England’s mild and gentle climes, there’s also an amazing restaurant attached. If the restaurant isn’t open, head up to the Petersham Hotel for afternoon tea overlooking the upstream Thames.
There’s an exotic greenhouse there full of endless varieties of butterflies, and the photos you take will be beautiful.
Day Four: Get way out of Town
Your perfect day in London may actually be a day trip out of the city. There are plenty of coach tours to places like Bath, Warwick Castle, Stonehenge, and other little satellites around this city, but why not go self-guided. We’ll have a better time.
One possibility is Canterbury, which is only an hour by train and will fulfil all your fantasies about how a medieval English town may have looked and felt.
Another option, if eclectic and alternative if your thing, is Brighton. Full of people who look at the world a little differently, Brighton also contains perhaps the most incredible palace in all of England, if by incredible we mean ‘absolutely-completely-over-the-top’. Playboy George, Prince of Wales, turned the Royal Pavilion into the most fashionable seaside retreat for high-society members of the time, and it has the the most extravagant chinoiserie interiors ever executed in the British Isles.
Brighton Pier will satiate your need to have a traditional English carnival pier experience, and if the stars align and the planets tilt and the world turns upside down, you may just might just may be able to go for a swim and not freeze to death.