Friday, January 1, 2016

Bonus Post

As promised in a previous post of this trip, here is a slideshow of the souk in Fes.  We hope that by watching this you can get some idea of the myriad sights and sounds and smells, the hustle and bustle of this uber-market.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bonjour Marrakech; Adieu Morocco

Monday, Dec 28

On Saturday afternoon we arrived in Marrakech - our final stop on this journey.

We are staying at the Hotel Selman, an over-the-top hotel and show horse facility about 15 minutes from the city center. This property was built to reflect the combination of Moroccan and French styles, including large crystal chandeliers, ornate tile-work on the walls and floors, beautiful carpets, etc.  The rooms even come with a Hermes leather covered minibar! This certainly rivals any place we have stayed in; the closest would be the Oberoi in Udaipur, India.



We got to the room about 5:15 and the group dinner was set for 7:30. After the long day of bus-riding over the High Atlas Mountains, we had the brilliant idea to relax in our room and get room service instead. As we were deciding what to order, our doorbell rang; it was a hotel person delivering a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries! Of course, these would complement the plate of cookies and fruit that was already there when we arrived.

Wendy had a Moroccan salad, which consisted of a number of mezzes in a segmented bowl. Wayne went for something more American: a triple-decker club sandwich with chicken and poached egg (sans tomates of course), with French Fries. Both were divine. A side note about mezzes in Morocco.  They include some different dishes from what we experienced in Turkey or Israel/Palestine.  For one, pureed pumpkin is a regular component of Moroccan salad; we had never experienced it elsewhere.  Another new component was "foie"--never appeared in our mezzes before.

For dessert we shared tart raspberry sorbet garnished with a tuille cookie, raspberries, lingonberries, and pistachio pieces.

So we were done eating by 7:15 (before the rest of the group even sat down!). We did a little blogging and had a long, quiet, warm night's sleep. And on Sunday morning we were treated to a fabulous sunrise from our balcony patio.

A word about the weather. As we've said before, this is supposed to be the rainy season. But we have not had one drop of precip. For the first week, the daytime temps were in the 70s; since we headed to Erfoud, it has mostly been upper 50s and lower 60s (max). Nighttime temps have been in the 40s. And of course, the desert was quite frosty.  We have discovered that Marrakech is a lot like San Fransisco in the sense that it can be warm (to hot) when in the sun, and across the street it is very chilly in the shade. But, as always, Wendy had us packed for any eventuality, so we have been properly dressed every day.

Sunday, Dec 28
We started a long day of sightseeing and shopping (emphasis on the shopping) at the Bahia Palace, which is located in the medina of Marrakech along the northern edge of the district Mellah or Jewish quarter. Bahia was the favorite wife of the one of the Grand Viziers who lived here; it means "beautiful", and should not be confused with Bahai or the Bahai faith. Obviously, when it says "...favorite wife.." you can assume that polygamy was a normal practice at the time. Hicham explained the main reason why that was the custom: there were often inter-tribal conflicts (e.g. wars), which meant that many men were killed. Thus there was an imbalance between the number of men and women in the society. To rectify this, men took several wives so that there would be no unmarried women; remember - an unmarried woman would bring shame upon her and her family.

As in many of the other buildings we've toured, it is covered with ornate stucco work, beautiful painted wooden ceilings, highly decorated Islamic verses and words on the walls, fancy iron grillwork, and intricate tile patterns on the walls and floors. In the middle is a peaceful garden which contains orange trees.

We then walked over to the Herboristerie Bab Agnaou. This is billed as an herb store and pharmacy. Our group was led by the master herbalist into a room which was lined with hundreds of colorful jars containing herbs, spices, dyes, and who know what else; none of which were labeled.

One in our group asked if he knew what was in each jar. "Of course, that is my job" he replied.  He then went through an entertaining spiel in which he described the uses for such things as argan oil (very popular, and the only place the trees are grown in the world is Morocco!), rass al hanout (a traditional Moroccan spice mixture), saffron, rose and orange oils, various creams, and even a powder he described as "Moroccan Viagra". For each he went around and let us smell the item or dabbed it on wrists and hands as appropriate. You will notice that the door to exit is behind him, so there was no escape. It was like being trapped in a Bath and Body Works store for 45 minutes.

After he was done, he then handed out plastic bags (the same ones we've seen littering the landscape!!!) and, almost like an auctioneer, went back through each item and said "Who wants a box of this?", "Who wants a jar of this. Buy 2 get 1 free", as he walked around and put the products into our outstretched arms It was almost like Halloween in reverse, as we (well....the women) held out their sacks and he "gave" them the goodies. "Don't worry about the price; we will tell you your total when we're done!"  Hoo boy...what a salesman! Yes...we filled our bag.

Next, it was time to eat again! We drove to the Restaurant Dar Moha Almadina , where the dining room was in a huge garden with a central pool and netting high above to let in the natural light.


It also let in the natural cold, so they thoughtfully put those outdoor gas heaters around our tables. They started by serving 18 mini-tagines of cold Moroccan salads (two each of nine types). These included a wonderful spinach mixture, pink marinated onions and sweet raisins (tres bien!), eggplant, beans, pumpkin mash, etc. So beautiful and so tasty. Plus we each got a small glass of  carrot orange gazpacho

And of course the great pita-like bread for spreading and sopping. Next came the mains. A plate of beef sausage links and baby lamb chops, the requisite vegetable tagine, and chicken quarters over saffron rice.  

Dessert was a smaller version of the Moroccan Peach Melba we had a few days ago (really...when was that?), but this time the fruit was sour apples. And they were indeed sour, though quite good. 

We discovered afterwards that the official name of this dessert is "pastilla.".

Next: the group was divided into parties of 3 or 4, and each was assigned a local guide to take them through the Marrakech souk. It was both similar to and different from the one in Fes. Yes, it was pretty crowded, and very colorful, and had a lot of different alleys and pathways, but this one did not include (or at least we did not see) any grocery items (meats, vegetables, etc.). It was all goods. And here we saw a number of shops selling tassels and others selling filigree lamps and fixtures. We even saw women grinding the argan nuts into a paste, which is later processed to separate out the oil.

Our guide knew we wanted to look for a) a piece of art work, b) jewelry, c) a place where we could don traditional clothes for a photo op.  And did he ever deliver! He took us to a "gallery" where we found a painting that was unique and truly captured the Moroccan people (and the sand of the desert), and works well with our global folk art collection.

Then we went to a jeweler who dealt in silver pieces of Jewish,and Tuareg design. Wendy was successful in her quest. Then our guide took us to Maison Du Caftan, "Moroccan's Kaftan House". We explained to him that we had no intention of buying anything; we just wanted a place where we could put on clothes for photos. He assured us over and over that it was totally ok to do so here. So here we are in our best solemn Moroccans pose. Note that even Moroccan women put one slippered foot forward!

Other members of our group were also there, some doing the same thing, others actually buying jalabas!

Then we headed toward the central square. This square is filled with a lot of vendors selling snack foods, which here are dates, nuts, orange segments, etc. Really healthy stuff (though we were advised not to try any). But it is very strange; there were dozens of vendors with basically the same display of the same foods. How does one decide?

There was also family entertainment: music, dancers, balloon and bubble-maker sellers, but the must see things are the snake charmers and monkey handlers. Hicham had told us that the snake charmers have been known to put a snake around your shoulders and then ask for an exorbitant amount for money to remove it!  And we were told that under no circumstances were we to touch the monkeys or let the handler put it on our shoulders. We have traveled enough to not even consider doing such a thing. But we did get close enough to take some photos with said snakes and monkey:

Then, back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. We went with four of our group to the Italian restaurant in the La Mamounia hotel; it is supposed to be one of the top 5 restaurants in the city. And we can attest that it is. Not only the food, but the service. For example: three of us ordered a primi patti. But rather than having our mates sit there watch while we ate ours, they were brought small complementary rice croquettes!  Never saw such a thing in a restaurant before. The two of us shared fettuccini with langostines:

Next, Wayne had medallions de bouef avec aioli et pommes de terre and Wendy had sea bream en papillote.

OMG!  We missed getting a picture of the fish!!!!!!!!

 For dessert, Wendy had a mixed fruit plate with gold leaf garnish (!)...

...Wayne took a pass......that is until they brought out a plate with chocolate mousse logs, some kind of chewy chocolate cookie, and fruit gelees. Well....two out of three isn't bad!  YUM!

On our cab ride home, our driver was pulled over at a security checkpoint and had to leave the car to speak with the gendarmes. Then at our hotel, all the cars entering were inspected (trunk, under-carriage mirror sweeps) before they could enter. Not sure what that was all about, but slightly unnerving.

Monday, Dec 28
Our final day of the tour: the Gardens of Marrakech.

We started at the Menara Gardens, which date back to the 12th century, and is home to an extensive olive grove. From the terrace atop the central tower, you have a clear view of the city's main Minaret in the Central Square.


Then we walked a few blocks and hopped onto horse-drawn carriages!

These took us down the main boulevard and then to our next stop, the Jardin Majorelle. It was designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. Later, it was purchased and enhanced (especially the vivid accent colors) by Yves St. Laurent.

It also contains an excellent museum of Berber artifacts and a first-class gift shop from which we bought a Moroccan cookbook. Once home, we will attempt to recreate some of the delicious dishes we've had. You're all invited!

Then, once again, back to the hotel for "lunch at our leisure". We have been here two days and only seen the hotel in the dark, so we finally got a chance to explore a little. Lunch was outside at the pavilion, a garden area with fountains, rose bushes, and sculptured foliage. As we sat waiting for our food, five beautiful Arabian horses were pasturing and prancing directly behind us.

They started us with a basket of assorted breads, spicy green olives, and a bowl of Moroccan olive oil. Wendy had an artistically arranged Salade Nicoise, while Wayne had a Caesar Salad with prawns.

 For dessert, pistachio ice cream with the same garnishes as in our room service dessert!

It all tasted especially good sitting in the garden in the sunshine.

We spent the rest of the day blogging with Wendy enjoying a hammam (traditional bath--see Turkey blog), though this one was less luxurious, more vigorously scrubbed (more dust in Morocco, I guess) and the attendant spoke entirely in French.  Then, we headed off to the farewell dinner.  You can guess the menu--though we had chicken pastillla for the first time (kind of like a Moroccan empanada--delicious) and enjoyed gnawa music again--this time punctuated by a dancer's twirling fez tassle.  Don't try this at home!

And.....c'est finis!  It's time to head back to the real world and real winter.

Over the past 12 days we have seen, heard, smelled, and tasted many things. Through Hisham's tutelage we have learned so much of the history and culture of this vibrant, unique land. We thank him and his logistics side-kick, Youenis, for everything they did to ensure our experience was memorable and magical.  We also thank all of our new traveling buddies for the friendships and experiences we shared along the way.  We didn't know what to expect before this journey and, for many reasons, it has rapidly moved to the top of the list in enriching our lives.

Thanks for being with us on this wonderful trip.  Not sure where we are headed next, but we'll let you know!

Love, happy and healthy new year, and safe travels,


Monday, December 28, 2015

On the Road Again

 Saturday, Dec 26 

We are in a series of four hotels in four days, which means a lot of time on the bus.

We left the desert and Erfoud for our two day road trek to Marrakech. Our guide explained that they have explored flying to Marrakech-- but all roads (rather, flights) lead through Casablanca (as we discovered in Turkey, where all flights go through Istanbul . The cost is prohibitive and, by flying, you miss the spectacular scenery (particularly, the Dramamine- or ginger-required High Atlas Mountain pass between Ourzazate and Marrakech).  Our guide mentioned that his wife refuses to take that ride! So, we took a deep breath and the proper precautions. And off we went.

As we pulled out, we saw again hundreds of plastic grocery-type bags dotting the otherwise fascinating landscape. We have seen this in the outskirts of each big city and in the “suburban” areas. Hicham explained that the people do not understand that these are not biodegradable like their normal garbage, and so are careless about throwing them out. This is a big problem and truly a black eye for the country.

Some context about Berber culture. Hicham had explained that Morocco is an Arab-ized (not an Arabic) country. That is because it was first settled by Berber tribes, of which there were many, each with distinctly different looks, cultures, costuming, languages, and histories-- all imparted by oral tradition. Part of that tradition was tattoos and Hicham explained how-- to this day-- many Berbers still differentiate from one another with tattoos. In fact, his mother was a Berber and had these facial tattoos. As different and new groups of people moved into the areas occupied by the Berbers, many took on certain aspects of those cultures, including their religious practices. But they still retained their Berber roots. For example, in the Berber Museum that we visited on Christmas Day, Hicham pointed out the exhibit of Berber Jews. To this day, that group is known for their intricate silver jewelry. As an aside, to the point of Moroccans of different faiths and backgrounds living side by side, just last week the current king's sister accepted an award in New York (from KIVUNIM) for Morocco's protection of the Jews during WWII.  Back to Berber culture, in 1999, the King decided the Berber alphabet (called Tifinagh; resembles and sounds like Egyptian) should be modernized (it's nice to be king!),...
...and now Berber, alongside Arabic and French, are required subjects starting in grade school. English is taught as an elective at the high school level and, indeed, Hicham 's wife teaches English.
This ride (and the one to Marrakech on Saturday) was punctuated by beautiful and varied scenery. The colors of the mountains ranged from grays and browns and sometimes greens (vegetation) and reds, to black in the distance. Some were tree covered, but mostly it was scrub and scree. There were many instances of solitary buildings, or groups of a few, and some small towns (with the requisite mosque/minaret), and thousands of Kasbahs. It looked like all were made of adobe or cinder block, and many had clay roofs. Here is a typical view:

We went through El-KelaĆ¢ M’Gouna, a town famous for its annual rose festival and rose water manufacturing operations (thanks to the gazillions of roses that grow in its valley). There was another town famous for goat cheese. The ride was also punctuated by French lunches. We like tagine and couscous, but we truly appreciate that we haven't been forced to eat those particular dishes 24/7 over the past week.
We arrived in Ourzazate Friday afternoon. The city is pronounced “ware-za-zaht”, but to us it sounds like “Where’s it at?”. Apparently, our chi-chi hotel, the Berbere Palace, is the lodging of choice for directors, production crews, and casts of the many, many movies and television shows filmed on location here, including “Homeland”. We looked far and wide, but had no celebrity sightings. We did, however, enjoy all the film memorabilia in the lobby and here are the photo op results to prove it.

Ourzazate is also renowned for its solar energy innovations. Indeed, the King is arriving on Sunday (and staying in the same hotel!) to inspect the progress being made in that regard. Apparently, Ourzazate is currently the largest supplier of solar energy to all of Africa and aspires to deliver solar energy to Europe within the next few years. In fact, as we headed out of town, we saw several convoys of police and military vehicles and supply trucks, all heading in to prepare for the king’s visit. He will fly in on his personal jet.

Much of today’s drive followed the Oued Draa, which means Draa River, though “riverbed” would be more accurate as it was dried up in many places. This, and other dry oueds are a stark indicator of the severe drought in the country. Hicham again mentioned that normally the mountains would be snow covered this time of the year. We could not imagine driving this road in ice and snow!!!

Our first stop on Saturday morning was the Kasbah of Taourit-- a 17th century Kasbah that is the largest in the country. Our charming guide, Mohammed (he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans under his jalaba)…

… led us through 20 different rooms in this well preserved structure. He pointed out artistic/archaeological Christian, Judaic, and Islamic design elements throughout the building, including the natural-dyed ceilings and carved stucco. He impressed us with all of his factoids and endearing sense of humor. Among those factoids-- there are 99 ways of referring to Allah in Arabic. Who knew?
He also shared that he is often hired by film makers as an extra and also as a special effects consultant!

Our next stop was a beautiful overlook -- the  Ait Ben Haddou village and its fortified 12th century Kasbah, with the requisite tscotchke sellers. We did buy some water colors here and had our first snake charmer sighting.


Then more scenic driving until we stopped for lunch in the restaurant at Ksar Ighnda, featuring French food and amazing Andalusian gardens. (By the way: ksar is another word meaning “castle or palace”.)  This was one of the best lunches so far. We were first served a beautiful plate with a small glass of chilled gazpacho, and a nice slice of leek and herb quiche over a bed of lettuce.


After this, many of us expected to see dessert come out, but NO!, this was just the first course!

Next was the main: skewers of beef, chicken, and veggies, a cup of veggies, and mashed potatoes.


Finally, was a dainty sponge cake topped with ice cream and a hamsa-hand silhouette in cinnamon! And a picture with the chef.


As we were finishing dessert, Hicham came by offering Dramamine to anyone who wanted it for the next section of the drive! Yikes!!!!

The High Atlas Pass ride truly was harrowing, but the scenery was spectacular. It reminded us of the drive in New Zealand (though that had much more lush scenery), and similar mountain switchbacks in California, Hawaii, etc. 


And with that, we're minutes away from Marrakech. So we started the ride at about 3,700 feet above sea level, went up to 7,000 (though the mountains themselves reach 13,000 in some areas), and now back down to 457 feet.  This has been a fabulous trip so far, but we hear that the hotel we’re staying at is tres magnifique and that the town holds many wonderful sights for us to experience. That report coming soon.