Tag Archives: Natural Beauty

The Cop Out…

28 Jun

As always, it’s harder to keep up with these writings than I image it to be. So here’s a minor cop out. This I wrote my journalism class, but I think it fits quite well with this blog, so here it is:

Although Marseille, Nice and Cannes may dominate the international publicity concerning southern France, other less traveled roads also exist in this area, ones of untouched natural beauty, reserved only for those willing to put in the work necessary. One of the most pristine of these places can be found about 2 hours east of Marseille, in Hyères, a small port city of about 60,000 people. One particularly pristine pocket of beauty lies surrounded by two small sub-communities on the peninsula extending south of Hyères, known as Giens and Madrague. Although these two community centers hold their respective places in the tourist brochures, I personally wanted something more out of my experience in Hyères. Armed with nothing but a bike, a backpack full of water, and a poorly detailed map that outlined only the main roads on the peninsula, I set out, hoping to find the difficult to access beach called “Plage du Pontillon” that lay somewhere upon the southwestern corner of the peninsula.

The plan was simple, find the one trail outlined on the map that spanned the entire southwest corner of the foot-shaped bottom of the peninsula, and hike it. The execution of that plan? Not so simple. After one hour, with sweat eventually bonding me to my backpack, I had made it to the peninsula, through the community of Giens in the center of the peninsula, and to the southwestern corner of the peninsula. I proceeded to wander around for half an hour more until I finally stumbled across the sign I had been searching for. The yellow, silver and blue rectangle positioned in front of me, however, told me only of what I couldn’t do in the park, while providing absolutely no information concerning trails or routes. With my bike safely secured to the surrounding foliage, it was time to explore on foot. Sweat still bonding man and backpack, huffing with a deep and heavy breath that gave voice to the relentless nature of the voyage thus far, the journey continued for 30 more minutes through the woods. Now two hours in, with the notions of grandeur slowly being replaced with the biting realities of bugs, scratches from twigs, and relentless physical exertion, the thought finally entered my mind- “Why didn’t I just go to the touristy beach and relax like a sane person?” It was at this exact moment that the path split, and out of the fork that veered off to the right, toward the ocean, a middle-aged French couple emerged with a hearty “bonjour!” and smile. “This” I thought to myself, “this is where I need to go.”

After 5 minutes on the new trail, successfully blocking the increasingly harsh realities from my mind, I emerged upon the top of a large rock outcropping. My jaw proceeded to hit its largest possible angle, followed by a faintly audible “oh. my. god.” Seized in a moment of pure bliss, trying in vain to soak in my surroundings, I just stood there, thinking not of the sweat, stings and aches, but only of the clear water, blue skies, and untouched beauty that surrounded me. After that moment, a second wind blew new life into the journey. The only thing on my mind at that moment was to continue looking, hiking, searching for more views of the breathtaking scenery. Unfortunately, a late start to the day put a 2 hour time limit on further adventures, and I was unable to scale the entire length of the trail I had stumbled upon. I beat a hasty retreat back to my bike after a few hours of hiking, soaking in the views, and trying in vain to find the “Plage du Pontillon,” determined to return and complete my originally planned adventure the following week.

(Photos below are from the three trips I took to the this region)

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The following weekend, I returned to the peninsula, starting on the opposite side of the trail and hoping to complete the other half of the circuit. The bike ride to the northwestern end of the trail led me through the second peninsula community, Madrague, one that differed noticeably from my earlier experience riding through Giens. Madrague, unlike the warm and open-space filled art community of Giens that I had visited the week prior, made me feel like an intruder. Situated on the inside of the bay created by the peninsula, Madrague was a much more private community, and the road leading through it was lined on both sides by nothing but walls and gates. “Private Property” signs dominated the landscape, making the neighborhood feel more like a gated community and less like what I had experienced on my first trip. It was disheartening to think that such beautiful landscapes and land could be sold to the highest bidder, and that the beautiful vistas of the coastline could be choked out by fenced-in beaches. Head down and tongue-bit, the path out of the developed area of the peninsula slowly emerged, and my bike was once again chained to the foliage, my feeling of belonging slowly returning to me. Once again navigating the poorly mapped trail system with a severe lack of signs, my meanderings became increasingly vertical in nature. Once again stuck in the forest, battling bugs, trees, and yet another uncomfortable bonding moment with my backpack, I fought my way through, wondering again how such trials and tribulations could lead to worthy rewards. Upon my first emergence on the coastline, my jaw again hit that wide angle. I was convinced that I was in a movie, and that the landscape that lay before me couldn’t possibly exist in real life. These moments continued on my hike, as each new view of the coast was even more beautiful than the one preceding it. The sun seemed brighter, the water clearer, the rock formations more impressive.

I continued to push on down the trail, determined to make it to the ruins of an old World War II fort that I had learned about from the only descriptive sign in the park, conveniently placed at the end point of my previous journey. The ruins I found were somewhat underwhelming, but only until I stumbled upon a long staircase next to what I only could only be described as a giant stone waterslide, leading down to an old small cylindrical building with a dome roof. Stunned by both the surroundings and the complimentary architecture of the structure, I stalled for a while, trying again in vain to soak in my surroundings. After leaving the fort, I finally, after two separate afternoons of trekking, stumbled upon the secluded, beautiful but seaweed plagued “Plage de Pontillon” that had originally spurred my interest in making the hike. After relaxing for a moment on the beach, I made my way back to my bike, intoxicated by a strong feeling of positive closure to my short-lived love affair with the peninsula of Hyères.

Riding back, I wondered what had possessed me to fight though sand-filled 30 mph crosswinds, threatening to blow me into every passing car, and then through the community that presented itself as a private club I was intruding upon. As I reached the community that had earlier disheartened me, however, a wave of clarity splashed across my face, wiping away everything but the no longer ignorable full body exhaustion. These people may have been able to buy an incredible amount of beauty and subsequently shut out rest of the world, but the most beautiful spots on the peninsula still lay beyond the grasp of those who want to hoard it for themselves, and instead is accessible only to those willing to put in the effort necessary to see it. Although I could have utilized the bus routes to reach where I had made it with my bike (although the infrequent nature of most of these routes made such reliance inadvisable), there was no way to see what I had seen without committing to a hike through public land. Everything seemed right with the world once it became evident that the most beautiful things are available not to those with the biggest pocketbooks, but to those willing to work and seek them out. The southern cities of Nice, Cannes and Marseille may always get the most tourists, but even in southern France, the most beautiful and rewarding things require a little more time, effort and care.

Can you Squeeze the Diversity of Morocco into a Week? I Don’t Know, let’s Try!

3 Mar

The feeling course through my veins is one that could only be described as bittersweet. It’s the feeling of coming down, losing the happiness of an experience and sinking into the harsh realities of what is to follow, knowing that it’s going to be anything but easy. It’s a feeling that is all too familiar, and far too double-edged, because the happier you get, the further you can end up falling. The repercussions, however, are stories for another time, another audience, and another blog post. Instead, I want to recount the journey that brought me to this juncture in time.

This past week was our “excursion.” This word has been utilized in so many ways and has become so bland and mundane that it pales to even begin to describe the week-long gauntlet of this program. Our week began in Rabat, with a mis-set alarm, and me waking up 2 minutes before I needed to be at the center. After a hectic run around, and panicked last minute check over my luggage, it was off to the bus 10 minutes late, and making that awkward boarding of the bus that you make when everyone else has already staked out their spot, and you don’t really know what to do or where to sit… grade school all over again. After settling in and starting the journey, I had to say that my expectations of the impending journey were somewhat mixed. I had made a cross-country trip once before, and knew the pros and cons involved. It didn’t much help that the road to Marrakesh was the most boring of the entire trip.  Guess you could say that I just wasn’t expecting the sheer massive amount of sensory overload that waited for me mere hours away.

If the sensory overload of Morocco came rumbling through my mind like a tiger two months ago, then the sensory overload of Marrakesh hit me with the force of a freight train. Stress, that’s the only way to describe those first tense hours. It started with a frightening scene between a group of street kids, and continued through countless directional arguments. But, unlike the Kenitra fiasco, all worked out in the end. After a stressed but successful visit to a few historical sites, we made our way to the main square in Marrakesh, and I had another one of those moments that seems to fit the entire globe into the palm of your hand. It happened once to me while in the Netherlands, stumbling upon the 3 of the only 4 people I knew in the entire city of Amsterdam. This time, I happened upon the two fellow BU compatriots who split from us earlier in the day, at the exact same moment I lost the ones I had spent the day with up until that point. Then, I set out upon my journey to “take in the sounds of Marrakesh,” In the process seeing a snake charmer, being attacked by a monkey, almost losing my partner in the field exercise to a motorbike incident, and walking through areas of the medina that were far from “touristy.” The verdict was not positive for Marrakesh, but I felt that there was something from that negative assessment. Marrakesh was big, and rough. It was also rife with tourism, but I couldn’t help feel that underneath the veneer there was some truly remarkable experience to behold. Maybe it was in the constant dodging of harassment and endless drug offers, or even in overcoming the sheer mass of stress that descended upon me the second I set foot in the city… but one day I will find it. All this, and I only left Rabat 24 hours ago…

Ready? Gauntlet time. Leave Marrakesh at 8am, don’t reach Zagora until 6pm. Go! Long ride yes, but oh. my. god. I thought that I had been able to subsume that passionate desire to ski everything I saw, but the Middle Atlas range quickly proved to me that I was sorely mistaken. The mountains were reminiscent of Cottonwood Canyon Utah, and I quickly found myself wishing I could put off the desert for just one day to spend it in these mountains. I knew that wasn’t possible, so instead I turned up the Arcade Fire and put my head back and daydreamed the ride away. After a day of wishful thinking, we made our way to the “Northwestern Gate to the Sahara,” Zagora, and settled into our Kasbah styled hotel. Zagora was, in a word, amazing. “This is Africa, This is Africa” kept running through my head, and it finally felt like I had made it, this was where the last 4 years of my life came to fruition, I was truly “here,” and the swell of emotion that accompanied it made me feel like a giddy 5 year old all over again. After a walk around the city, and the purchase of the first 2 of my eventual 3 turbans, it began to sink in. Tomorrow, I sleep among the dunes of the Sahara.

The next day started off with my final turban purchase, and the commencement of the dialogues that would dominate the next few days. The shops who would give me an outrageous price, then tell me that they were giving me a “student price” only to have to tell them to go shove it before getting them to a price that was near where the actual cost would be. I also bought a Taureg cross, my first of two, since this one was to be “sacrificed” to the dunes of the Sahara. After watching the jewelry making process, we headed to have lunch with a nomad, “former” nomad, since he now lived a sedentary life. He was an interesting fellow, and the lentils were awesome. He had two wives, led his tribe and represented them for the government, after he had spent his life living amongst the dunes of the Sahara. It was hard to figure him out, but he was definitely a man who just exuded a sense of propriety and royalty, even as he sat in a hut that couldn’t even attempt to pass as “low income housing” in the US. After lunch, it was time to head for the Dunes. The ride through the dunes could only be described as “rough,” as we bounced around in the back of a legitimate land rover, being used for its legitimate purpose instead of overcompensating for some yuppie back in the states. After a fair amount of singing/shouting/getting thrown into one another and into the roof, we made it to camp, with plenty of time to run into the dunes and play in the sand. It’s funny, even at the age of 20, a group of people are still likely to jump around in the sand as if they were still in grade school if provided the chance. And why not? It was the most carefree I have felt in a long while, and you can’t really trade that for anything. After some romping in the dunes, it was time to ride the camels. I can’t say that it would ever become my preferred method of transport, but it was pretty damn cool. Camels have legs that fold about a thousand times, so getting up on one is somewhat akin to a roller coaster ride, only backwards. I must say that the night in the desert only built upon the epic nature of the day. It’s amazing how much can be done with so little. Mix sand with a bunch of college students, a group of Saharan Amiziri people, a few drums and a fire and all of a sudden you just finished the needs for an evening. I think this formula is a testament to how little we truly need to be happy, and how sometimes the best way to spend an evening is lying down on a sand dune (or a field if the dune is unavailable), and just staring at the stars. After a night in the Sahara, being woken up by camel sounds, we made our triumphant and somewhat sandy ride back out of the desert.

After the desert, we made our way to Risani to spend the night. We decided that swimming off the sandy haze that surrounded us would be a good idea, right? Wrong. Although we committed to a 5 min icy plunge into the salty pool of the hotel, it was far from enjoyable. But, far be it from me to pass up a challenge, so I made the plunge, and beat a hasty retreat with my fellow brave compatriots. Fes in the morning.

After an uneventful ride to Fes through Ifrane (Moroccan Switzerland. No Joke), I broke my communication fast and hit an internet café quickly. Our following day in Fes consisted of the basics, touring the medina, seeing people making everything I had been seeing in the souks (markets), and just reveling in the process of “how it’s made.” No epiphanies today, just a mental not that I need to return to Fes. One day was not enough.

After Fes, we made a stop in Volubilis. Nothing to terribly notable here. Beautiful Roman ruins in the Moroccan breadbasket, gorgeous. We got to see the most interesting group of Japanese tourists, which made my morning, but then it was onto our last stop (After lunch in the incredibly picturesque Moulay Idriss). Chefchaouen, here we come.

I can only describe Chefchaouen in two words. The first describes the clientele: Hippy. The second describes the feeling of this place: Cathartic. After an evening there, among the blue streets, drinking tea and talking, the hectic madness of the week past melted away. I was calm. That calm feeling continued, even though getting up at 6am to hike the mountains that Chefchaouen lay within. This hike was easily one of the highlights of a week of highlights. The steep terrain, the sense of accomplishment, the 2 Street Dogs who kept us company throughout our entire hike, and the scenery were indescribable. The entire hike took almost 6 hours of heavy footwork, and we didn’t reach the true summit, but reaching the ridge was amazing enough. That morning will forever etch a place in my memory among the ones I escape to when I need to smile, and I would rank this place right along with the Sahara as a must see. After a morning filled with physical exertion, I rested my way right back to Rabat, after a quick look into the olive oil making process.

In closing, I have to rank this past week among the all-time highlights of my travel experiences. The views, the experiences, the knowledge and the feelings were visceral, and it was a once in a lifetime week that I don’t think I will ever truly replicate again. I just hope Portugal and Spain are listening well… they have a damn hard act to follow.

Shuf!/Shufi! (Look!)