Saturday, April 23, 2011

Morocco: Essaouira, Fes and Chefchaouen

By Melissa at 11:28 AM
Our final week in Morocco was spent traveling in three cities. They couldn't be more different, but for the sake of minimizing the number of posts on Morocco, I'm going to combine them into one.

After a really busy first week in Morocco we were glad that the final three cities we chose were more laid back. After our desert tour we took a bus ride to the coast to sleepy Essaouira. There really isn't much to do in Essaouira, but that was the point of going. We again stayed in the medina or old town, which was easy to navigate and a welcome departure from Marakkech. Getting lost wasn't a problem since it was only a 15 minute walk from one side of the medina to the other. We spent some time relaxing on the roof deck of our hotel, which had a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean, and just wandering around town looking at all of the blue doors.

One of the blue doors and many cats in the city
From Essaouira, Morocco

Being that Essaouira is on the coast, there was plenty of fresh fish and seafood available. Outside the medina walls near the port was a row of restaurants that let you pick the fish you wanted from the morning's catch and the chef would grilled it up. Fresh and delicious. Many of the fisherman here still use small boats, which were painted a beautiful blue color and made for great picture taking. The view from the port facing the medina along the ocean was also picturesque and exactly how it was portrayed in all the guide books. You could also wander around on the top of the medina walls that faced the ocean since they were once used for defense and we were able to get some really great pictures from that vantage point. It was nice to be near the ocean again after being in the desert for three days.

Deboning and grilling our fresh fish
From Essaouira, Morocco

Picturesque view of the medina along the ocean
From Essaouira, Morocco

Fisherman boats in front of a citadel
From Essaouira, Morocco

From Essaouira we took a bus back to Marakkech and then boarded a train to Fes. The train ride was supposed to be 8 hours, but of course took 9. We've learned to add an hour to the estimates people (and Lonely Planet) give us on the time it takes to get from one place to another. We sat across from a UNESCO employee who lived in Fes and he loaned me his book on the walking tours that UNESCO had set up, so I thought maybe we would not get as terribly lost in Fes and as we did in Marakkech. I was wrong. When we left our hotel the next day to explore the medina we got hopelessly lost and Brian's GPS was not working so I finally gave into one of the teenage kids that offer to "help" you find your way. This one insisted that he was not a guide (who charge a lot of money) and he was not "mafioso," which I thought was hilarious so I thought we'd take a chance. He took us straight to the tanneries, which was great because we had wanted to go there.

In the medina
From Fes, Morocco

In the tanneries they process camel, cow, goat and sheep hides they get from the slaughter houses in the same manner they have been for the last 900 years. There are large stone vats of a hair stripping substance (pigeon poop) and different dyes that the hides are dipped in by hand after being stripped and cleaned. There are 200+ families who work together and split the profits evenly. You can see them all in action from terraces that overlook the tannery vats. These terraces are of course on the top floor of the stores so you get the guided tour by a shopkeeper/salesman. Our shopkeeper was very nice, informative, less pushy than the other shops, and we actually had something to buy. We had also read in advance that this tannery was a cooperative and the prices were reasonably fair. After a short bargaining session, Brian bought a small camel leather messenger/laptop bag that we had been looking for.

Tanneries
From Fes, Morocco

Our 'non-guide' then showed us to one of the main streets where we could get something to eat and proved that he was not indeed not mafioso as he accepted the $2.00 that I gave him after a short bargaining session and my insistence that I didn't have any more cash on me. He lamented at first that he could only buy one pack of cigarettes with what I gave him, but that seemed fair for about 15 minutes of work. We had read in our guide book that many of the kids offering to help show tourists the way to a particular destination instead lead them endlessly into shops owned by friends or cousins and won't direct them to their desired locations unless they agree to pay exorbitant amounts of money. Luckily we had happened upon one of the nicer kids and apparently I have a good poker face. Keeping your coins and your bills in separate pockets helps too. After that interaction, Brian decided I should be the designated bargainer.

Fes has several sites to see, but all of the active mosques do not allow non-muslims to enter. From what we can gather from our peeks from the outside, the Karaouine mosque and madrasa is stunningly beautiful on the inside. They say the madrasa is the oldest university in the world and pre-dates all of the colleges in Europe. We also visited Fes Jdid, which is a separate medina only 700 years old, to a part called the Mellah, or old jewish quarter. There are less than 100 jews left in in the Mellah, but we had the opportunity to visit a renovated synagogue. Up on a hill outside of the city walls is a collection of ruins called the Merenid tombs. Although not much to look at, the vantage point offers an incredible view of not only the medina and city below, but of the surrounding country side. Fes is situated in valley amongst rolling hills of farmland that reminded us of Northern California.

Karaouine Mosque and Madrasa
From Fes, Morocco

Merenid Tombs
From Fes, Morocco

View of the country side
From Fes, Morocco

A couple of days later we embarked on yet another bus ride to Chefchaouen. This bus ride was also an hour longer than predicted, but it was all worth it as Chefchaouen, located in the Rif mountains, is definitely one of the most beautiful places I've been. It has an odd history, but one that really showcases the rich history of Morocco. It was founded in the mid-15th century by Muslims and Jews exiled from Spain during the Reconquista. They were brought in to fight the Portuguese who were trying to gain land in Morocco. In the 1920's it became part of Spanish Morocco and then part of modern Morocco when they achieved their independence in 1956. It's a quiet mountain town with great hiking and an abundance of hashish. You can't walk more than 50 feet without being offered the drug. An estimated 48 percent of global supply of hashish is grown in the mountains in this region, where they have been growing marijuana for centuries. It gets old after a while, but on the bright side, the young men who hang out in front of the stores are decidedly more mellow than in other cities and usually leave you alone after only a few invitations to come see the shop or eat at their restaurant.

The main draw of the city to the non-hashish smoking set is the blue-hued homes against an amazing natural backdrop of two mountain peaks. The tradition of painting the homes blue apparently came from the Jewish immigrants who lived here and has continued long after their departure. Nearly every corner is a photo opportunity and the town is a magnet for photographers. At the end of our first day here, our camera seemed incredibly inadequate in comparison to the equipment being hauled around by groups of giddy, wanna-be professional photographers.

Blue walls of the medina
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

One of many stairwells
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

A very blue house
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

We also took a short hike up to a church built by the Portuguese for some amazing shots of the town and the valley below. On the way down we watched a goat herder, his herd and his completely ineffective "goat-herding" dog descend from a steep hillside and cross the hiking path into the meadow below. Brian wanted to be right in the middle of the herd to get some good videos. My prior experience with goats told me this was not a good idea, but try to tell that to a guy who was born in New York City. A not-so-pleased mama goat charged at me, but luckily she was just mad that I was standing in between her and the shrub she wanted to eat so she left me alone after I jumped out of the way.

View from outside the city
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

Goats!
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

Yesterday we left Morocco to return to Spain on an epic journey. Transportation in Morocco is not always straightforward. Locals typically travel long distances in what they call grande taxis, which are big, old Mercedes sedans. They hop from one major town to another, so traveling very far distances requires a few steps. Buses, some modern, some decidedly not, now cover some of those routes, but the network is far from complete. In order to get to southern Spain we first took a bus to another town farther north, walked a few blocks to the grande taxi stop, took a grande taxi to the border (Ceuta where the ferries depart is technically part of Spain, but located on the coast of Morocco), walked over the border and went through customs, took a short-distance taxi to the ferry port, then a high-speed ferry to Spain and then another regular taxi to our hotel in the port city of Algeciras. The next day we work up early, took a taxi to the bus station, a bus ride to Seville and another taxi from the bus station in Seville to our hostel in the historic center of town. Phew! But we made it...right in time for four days of rain.

Stay tuned for our next post about all of the towns we're visiting in Andalucia and about how much we love our waterproof shoes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Morocco: From the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert

By Melissa at 10:05 AM
On our last day in Marrakesh, Brian and I woke up early in the morning, had one last delicious breakfast of Moroccan crepes and bread at our riad, and then headed with our bags to the Jemma el Fna square to meet Omar, the Berber guide we had hired to take us on a tour from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara desert. We were going to be traveling in a 4x4 with 4 others, a young married couple from England and two women from Vancouver. Also on the tour, in another 4x4 driven by one of Omar's employees, was a group of six guys, college students, originally from Puerto Rico, but studying in Spain.

Our touring 4x4, Omar (the guide), and some companions
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Driving out of flat, arid plain where Marakkech is located, the landscape changes quite dramatically as you enter the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. They are green and many are planted with the myriad of crops needed to feed the 1.6 million plus residents of Marrakech. Oranges, apricots, dates and wheat are the main crops. There are small towns and settlements periodically dotting the roadside. As we start to climb higher, the landscape again became more barren. The mountain took on an alien looking purplish-brown color, interrupted by patches of purple, red and yellow wildflowers. Many of the houses were made of a mixture of mud and straw instead of the concrete structures we saw closer to Marrakech.

Our guide Omar tells us that we are traveling through the Tichka Valley and eventually up through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass. This road was a major caravan route for salt, slaves, precious metals and spices traveling from Timbuktu, Mali to Marrakech. Along the way we stop to take pictures of Ergram Village, which was founded in the 14th century as a major stopping point for the caravan route. The residents now farm and sell geodes and jewelry on the side of the road to tourists. We stop again to take pictures at the highest point of elevation in the Tichka Pass, at 2,270 meters or 7,448 feet, and then begin to make our way down the winding road into the valley. Across the valley lie the other mountain range, the Anti Atlas mountains. We planned to travel east towards the Sahara, stopping along the way to view a few notable sites.

Tizi n Tichka Pass 
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Ergram Village
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The first major landmark we come across is the Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah. The word kasbah means fortress. The kasbahs in Morocco were built centuries ago by wealthy Arab families to provide protection and to exert control over one of the two major caravan routes that ran through Morocco. This particular kasbah was built in the 11th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has been featured in a number of movies including, Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator. Omar tells us that Morocco has managed to capture quite a bit of the market for Hollywood films that take place in desert areas.

Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah
From Desert Tour, Morocco

At every stop we were amused by the seemingly endless energy of our tour mates in the other 4x4. The cars were air conditioned but we stopped frequently for pictures, water and bathroom breaks. Being out in the sun and heat and being cooped up in a car for hours had made everyone in our car slow down a bit, but not our college buddies. They pulled up to every stop, heads bobbing to the dance music they had blasting, ready to climb whatever hillside was in front of them. We started calling our car the Atlas and their car the Anti Atlas.

A couple of hours later we drove into Ourzazate, which means without sound in Arabic, the home of Atlas Studios. Over 30 movies have been filmed here at least in part including The Man Who Would Be King, The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Body of Lies and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The impact of the movie industry on the town town is quite apparent. The infrastructure in the town is significantly better than any of the surrounding areas. The streets are wider, the sidewalks are in perfect condition, cute street lamps and palm trees line every street. The town has doubled in size since 1982 when the movie studio was constructed and the town has also developed luxury hotels, upscale restaurants and a bigger airport to serve the movie cast and crew when they are shooting on location. Many of the town residents have benefited from the studio as they can make the equivalent of a week's salary in one day working as a crew member or as an extra. In addition to the main studio building the have also built a number of outdoor sets comprised of building facades from various civilizations which is quite an odd sight. By this time we had lost sight of the Anti Atlas group, but it seemed like Omar was communicating with them via phone every so often.

Atlas Studios
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Next stop on our route was the Skoura Oasis, an approximately 6,000 acre oasis about 25 miles from Ourzazate. It's a welcome visual break around in after hours of driving through the mostly flat, pink-tinged dessert that surrounds it. The families who live on the oasis dig irrigation channels to get the water from the underground water source onto their surrounding plots. There are over 30,000 palm trees in the oasis and the residents cultivate olives, almonds, alfalfa, barley, apples, apricots, figs and pomegranates. The irrigation channels resemble small, gurgling streams and we all enjoyed roaming around the oasis for a while.

Next we drove along the Road of the Thousand Kasbahs, resulting from each family from nearby tribes trying to out do the others by building bigger and better kasbahs and each wanting to have a representative to conduct trade along the caravan route. This road leads into the Dades Valley and the Dades Gorge, a beautiful and striking area with pink-toned kasbahs nestled among bright green vegetation surrounding the river in the bottom of the valley, against a backdrop of the steep pink rock formations that form the edges of the valley. We stopped to take pictures of a particularly beautiful rock formation called Monkey Fingers. It was almost sunset as we drove up the Dades Valley towards our hotel and the scene was just stunning. Our hotel was a cute inn on a river, constructed in the traditional way with mud and straw, but quite nice. The Anti Atlas group arrived downstairs for dinner shortly after we did, looking slightly worn down, but only for a minute. Once they started eating, they regained their usual boisterousness.

Dades Valley
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Monkey Fingers
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast of the usual, Moroccan crepes with jam, french bread with butter and tea and headed out to the Toudra Gorge. The Toudra Gorge is a stunning canyon with vertical walls of about 500 feet, only about 50 feet wide with a stream running through it. There is a cool breeze running through the gorge and the river water provided a nice place to cool off your feet. Omar said that many families from the nearby cities and towns come here in the summer when temps can reach over 100 degrees outside of the gorge.

Toudra Gorge
From Desert Tour, Morocco

After the Tourdra Gourge we headed in the direction of Merzouga, Omar's home town and the jumping off point for many excursions into the Sahara. We drove towards the desert where more hotels were located catering to tourists wanting to venture out onto the Erg Chebbi dunes. We drove for a while on a well-maintained two-lane road through a completely flat landscape. The sand changed colors occasionally, varying from pale yellow, to black to a reddish brown.

After about an hour or so we turned off the main road and headed into a large, flat, sandy plain that stretched far into the distance. There was a rough dirt road cutting through the plain, demarcated by white painted stones placed every 15 feet along the sides. Omar chose to drive just adjacent to the main dirt road most of the time since the main road looked quite bumpy from all of the 4x4s and minibuses that ran across it. The whole area was quite rocky and Omar was careful to drive carefully and slow down when we came to major dips in the ground. Omar pointed out some mountains not to far in the distance. Right on the other side was the Algerian border, he said. Morocco and Algeria do not have very good diplomatic relations to put it mildly so the border area has many military outposts and is dotted with land mines from a prior war. Omar then switched on some music sung in Arabic and we slowly made our way across the rocky plain towards some very large sand dunes that were now visible in the distance. It was the perfect backdrop to our surroundings and we all sat quietly pondering the beauty of the desert and the history of Morocco.

A few seconds later our tour mates in the other SUV came speeding past us. There were five of them hanging out of the three passenger windows in the car, waving their shirts above their heads, dance music blaring, while the driver proceeded to do donuts in the sand. Our entire car erupted in laughter, but none of us were in the least bit surprised. They were after all, the Anti Atlas. Omar just shook his head and steered the car to the right so we could drive up a small hill to take pictures of the Erg Chebbi dune and the mock kashbah-style hotels that were constructed at the base of the dune. Our Anti Atlas tour mates soon joined us and took shirtless pictures in front of the dunes while attempting to form a low human pyramid.

Outside of the Erg Chebbi desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Omar told us the legend behind the Erg Chebbi dune, the largest in North Africa. The story goes that the Chebbi family was the first to settle the area were very rich and built a kasbah where you now see the dune. One day, a Friday, a poor woman and her son came to their home to ask them for help, some food or money, but the Chebbi family sent them away with nothing. As good muslims, Omar told us, you are obliged to give help to the needy, especially if you have much to spare. And you are never to refuse helping others on a Friday, the holy day. As punishment for their coldheartedness, God sent a series of sandstorms that occurred every Friday after that day until the entire family was buried underneath the gigantic dunes.

We made our way down to the hotel where our camels and Berber guides were waiting to take us to a camp in the dunes where we would spend the night. I should note that we didn't actually ride camels (two humps), we rode dromedaries (one hump). Apparently, there are no camels in Africa, only dromedaries, but dromedary ride just doesn't have the same ring to it so I'm going to say camel.

Our camels just chillin'
From Desert Tour, Morocco

We rode in a little caravan of camels, meaning each camel was tied to the camel behind it. We were thankfully in a different caravan than our Anti-Atlas tour mates who were somehow still full of energy. I didn't want to be attached by a rope to one of them when they decided to do something that would invariable piss of one of their camels. We were glad to hear their non-stop chatter fade away as their guide led them on a different route to the camp. The rest of the ride was beautiful although a little scary at times when we were crossing along the ridges of the very tall dunes. But camels are of course exceptional sure footed in the sand.

Brian on his camel
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Melissa on her camel
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Camel caravan
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The view from our camp site
From Desert Tour, Morocco

About an hour and a half later we all stumbled off of our camels, our bottoms a little worse for the wear, and got settled in the camp. The abundance of scarab beetles brought back horrifying scenes from the movie The Mummy, but I finally resigned myself to just ignore them. About ten minutes later, the Anti-Atlas group arrived and I noticed in addition to their backpacks they were carrying something else across the front of their camels, but couldn't quite make out what it was until they got closer. Finally, I saw. Oh my god! I said to the rest of the Atlas group, they have snowboards! We all erupted into laughter again. Of course they were going to go sandboarding. It was 90 degrees out, we had been in the car for about 5 hours, plus we had a hour and a half ride on camels, but they were raring to go sandboarding. I was excited that I was going to get to test out how well the video focus on my camera worked with fast moving objects. The Anti-Atlas with their seemingly endless energy took off almost immediately up the dune just behind the camp and after a while we all decided we did not want to miss the sandboarding or the sunset. The dune was probably about a steep 300-foot climb from the camp, but it took forever to get up to the top. We had to stop at least four times because the air was so dry, it felt similar to climbing in the in the Andes, but we were no where near as high. The Anti-Atlas delivered when it came to sandboarding entertainment including a number of spectacular face plants. And of course watching the sunset from the top of a huge sand dune was sublime.

One of the Anti Atlas sandboarding
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Faceplanted
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Just before sunset
From Desert Tour, Morocco

Sunset over the desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

After waiting for what seemed like forever for dinner, we were served a delicious meal of bread, vegetable soup, chicken tagine with vegetables and oranges. They somehow managed to cook a gourmet meal in the middle of the desert somewhere behind the tent. The chicken tagine was delicious, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the tagine wasn't goat because there were some plump looking goats who seemed to live near our tents. I guess they serve the chicken to the tourists and save the yummy animals for themselves. After dinner our Bedouin hosts built a campfire, played drums and told us bad jokes. After a full day and a huge meal, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow of my cot. At this point there could be a million scarab beetles in the tent and I wouldn't have cared. Although I was glad to have my silk sleep sack between me and the camel hair blankets.

We woke up about five hours later to the sound of our hosts banging on the tents and the camels bleating in protest. Apparently they didn't like to get up before sunrise either, especially not to carry a bunch of tourists around the dunes. But watching the sunrise over the dunes was worth hauling our sore butts back onto the camels at 6:30am. That day we made the grueling 8-hour drive all the way back to Marakkech where we went back to the same riad for a much needed shower and a good sleep.

Leaving the desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

The next day we were boarding a bus to the coast for some much needed R&R in Essaouira, a sleepy little beach town on the Atlantic Ocean. Stayed tuned for the next post which covers our final week in Morocco where we travel to Essaouira, Fes and Chefchaouen.

In the Erg Chebbi desert
From Desert Tour, Morocco

More Desert Photos

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Marrakech: Our first stop in Morocco

By Melissa at 6:42 AM
In all the hubbub of planning the first few destinations, Morocco somehow got the short shrift in terms of background reading so we had only a vague idea of what to expect. Our first stop was Marrakech, one of the former imperial cities founded in the mid-11th century. We knew that the walled medina, or old town, where we chose to stay was now mostly home to a mixture of expats and tourists who want the 'authentic' Moroccan experience and poor Moroccans. The wealthier Moroccans left the medina and moved into the Ville Nouvelle, which was founded by the French when they colonized Morocco. Since the 1990s, many expats have converted the nicer homes in the medina into riads, or guest houses. We chose a charming five-room guest house run by a French expat named Nicole. She was our guide to the medina and a wonderful one at that.

While Madrid was a lovely experience, it was great to feel the exhilaration of being somewhere so foreign and not knowing exactly what to expect. We arrived midday and were able to take in the full impact of our surroundings. Only a two-hour flight from Madrid to the medina in Marrakech was a world away. On our ride from the airport to the riad we drove for a while on the modern streets in the Ville Nouvelle before entering the medina through one of the large stone archways. Our little riad was reachable by navigating a series of mostly dirt alleyways. After adroitly avoiding the pedestrians and stopping every once in a while to make sure he could turn the corner, the driver parked the cab to one side of a small plaza and told us we had to go the rest of the way on foot. The streets initially felt uninviting--empty, extremely narrow, old, dirty, cracks filled with puddles from a recent rain storm. But once Nicole sat us down and gave us the city overview, we began to feel more at ease. Poverty in Morocco is quite widespread and the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. But despite being in the midst of such poverty, the medina is almost completely lacking of violent crime. You do have to be wary of pickpockets, as you do most anywhere, but we felt quite safe the entire time and were assured by Nicole, that we could walk anywhere day or night.

Kids playing in the medina
From Marrakech, Morocco

Exploring the medina was quite an experience. We've read, and Nicole reiterated, that we needed to resign ourselves to getting lost and enjoy wandering. She gave us a map, but insisted that we look at it a few times and put it away when we were out. This was going to be a big test of my ability to just let go and relinquish control, something I'm not always good at. Nicole showed us the way to one of the main streets, pointing out the landmarks at each turn that we should look for on the way back and sent us on our way. When we reached one of the main streets I can only describe the scene as pure chaos. Men, women, children, motorbikes, bicycles and donkey carts all surging down a street barely 10 feet wide. The kind chaos you find in third world countries that after a while reveals its rhythm; a little order in the disorder. In Marrakech, speed rules. If you get there first, you have the right of way. Goods from shops on either side spilled out into the street, inserting even more obstacles into the road. The motorbike drivers navigated with amazing skill, though people usually made sure to move to the side as they passed. You imagine that there are more than a few accidents on these streets. And the donkeys, pulling cart loads of vegetables, wood or tools barely even register that you exist so you have to keep an eye out for them too.

One of the many of donkeys
From Marrakech, Morocco

When we reached the main square of the medina, Jemma el Fna, the chaos was amplified with the addition of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carriages carrying tourists. The square is lined with shops selling souvenirs and there are stands selling tall glasses of the most delicious fresh squeezed orange juice I have ever had for $0.50 each. We wandered around awestruck for a while until we found the restaurant Nicole had recommended for lunch and were happy to grab a seat on the open third-floor terrace where we could observe the scene from above. Wow, we thought, this is why we travel!

Jemaa el Fna
From Marrakech, Morocco

After lunch we spent a while wandering around in the souks north of the main square and taking in the amazing explosion of colors around us. I wouldn't even dream of taking black and white photographs in this country, it would be a travesty. After only a few hours we were exhausted so we decided to try and find our way home from the souks instead of going back to the main square. If we could find the right streets it should only be a five minute walk. We of course spent the next hour trying to get back to our riad wandering into many dead end streets. But we finally found our way and happily collapsed for a nap in our room. Given the atmosphere in the medina it is quite a relief that the homes were constructed to orient inwards with few or no external windows. Each home has a door facing the alleyway it is located on and the rooms all face an internal courtyard, open to the sky above. Many of the guest houses have roof decks or pools for further respite from the noise and dust.

Spice and mineral souk
From Marrakech, Morocco

Nicole insisted that after our nap we go back to Jemma el Fna Square to experience it at night because the square takes on a completely different character. We had to go back out for dinner anyway so we hesitantly got ready and braved another excursion into the chaos. The streets were even more packed with people around 7pm as we made our way to the rooftop cafe where Nicole said we could grab a drink (more OJ and Moroccan mint tea) and watch the square be transformed as the sun set.

Jemaa el Fna at sunset
From Marrakech, Morocco

In the area of the square that had during the day been vacant or occupied by taxis trolling around looking for tourists to overcharge, about fifty food stalls were set up over the course of an hour. Each an identical booth consisting of a rectangular metal frame draped in yards of a heavy-duty white, plastic covering. Tables and benches covered with the same fabric were set up in front of each. Piles of raw kebabs, vegetables and seafood were displayed at the front of each booth, all set up in the same manner at each stall. Identically clad young men in white coats stood in front of each stall, yelling claims that they had the best and cheapest food in the square. After randomly deciding on which one we wanted to eat at we sat down for a delicious meal of Moroccan salad, kebabs and grilled veggies. We washed it down with more orange juice.

Jemaa el Fna at night
From Marrakech, Morocco

Food, ready to be cooked, in the square
From Marrakech, Morocco

Enjoying some freshly squeezed orange juice
From Marrakech, Morocco

After dinner we meandered around taking in the full nighttime medina experience. The square is full of street performers--storytellers, snake charmers, magicians, and men carrying monkeys on their shoulders, each with a crowd of people gathering around to see the nights entertainment. Other food stalls were full of apricots, dates, and other dried fruits. It makes you feel as if that this place has been more or less the same for many decades. It's one of the joys of travel--not only can you visit different parts of the world, but sometimes you can go back in time too.

Dried fruits and nuts
From Marrakech, Morocco

More food stalls in the square
From Marrakech, Morocco

Once we managed to get the hang of being lost in the medina we ventured out to a few other amazing places. We visited the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic school that is now a public museum. The courtyard is full of amazing carvings and is a nice, tranquil place to hang out. Next door are two other notable sites, the Marrakech Museum and the Qoubba Almoravid. In addition to the beautiful art and artifacts, the building where the Marrakech Museum is located is quite beautiful itself. The Qoubba Almoravid was constructed in the mid 11th century as a place where Muslims could perform the ritual washing necessary before entering the Ben Youssef Madrasa across the street.

The door of the Marrakech museum
From Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrassa
From Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrassa
From Marrakech, Morocco

After a few hectic but exciting days in Marrakkech we packed up our things, and headed out to the main square early in the morning to meet our guide Omar who we hired to take us and four others on a tour from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert. We'll have pictures and a description of the tour in our next blog post.



More Marrakech Photos

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Madrid and Toledo: Pork, potatoes, beer, repeat.

By Melissa at 3:23 AM
Jamon Serrano, Jamon Iberico, sliced ham, bacon, stewed pork, pork croquettes, we ate it all. Is it possible to eat too much pork? Possibly, but after eating it every day, sometimes three times a day while we were in Madrid, I think my saturation point is quite high. There is really only one way to eat potatoes in Madrid and that's Patatas Bravas, sauteed, cubed potatoes covered in a spicy red sauce. Yummy. Okay so maybe you should also make room on your potato menu for a Tortilla Española (potato fritatta), it's pretty good. The beer seemed to be free flowing at all times of the day and since you always got at least one free plate of tapas with your beer, Brian took to ordering a caña (about a third of a litre draft beer) at lunch and dinner.

Legs of cured ham in the Museo del Jamon, which isn't a museum
From Madrid

In addition to the plethora of pork we encountered, the rest of our week in Madrid was a great way to start to the trip. As in the case with most Mediterranean cultures, the Madrileños really know how to live it up. The atmosphere was relaxed, but not slow and full of food, drink and socializing. Being a night owl, the schedule in Madrid really suited me. Many restaurants don't open until 8 PM for dinner and the streets were quite busy until the early morning hours so we woke up late, stayed up late and took a siesta on most days.One of our favorite foodie sites in the city was the Mercado San Miguel, a beautiful historic building filled with all the fresh seafood, tapas, fruit and vegetables you could possibly dream of.    

Mercado de San Miguel
From Madrid

Tasty fish tapas from the Mercado de San Miguel
From Madrid

Madrid turned out to be quite easy to navigate both on foot and by Metro and most of the main sites were within a ten-minute walk from our hotel. I was expecting something more akin to sprawling Paris, but it was much more compact. It seemed there were little plazas where people hung out around every corner. We strolled through and napped in the Parque del Buen Retiro, a very large and beautifully landscaped park at the edge of the central city.

Plaza Mayor at dusk
From Madrid

A stroll down Retiro Park
From Madrid

We also visited two of the three largest museums, the Prado and the Reina Sofia, both had excellent collections. I think I preferred the Reina Sofia with its modern collection and its main attraction, Guernica by Pablo Picasso, over the Prado with its collection of pre-20th century works. After visiting many other museums and cathedrals in Europe, there are only so many takes on the Adoration of the Magi you can see before they start to lose their luster. The collection of Goya paintings in the Prado is not to be missed though.  We were also lucky to catch a military exercise performed on horse back during our visit to Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Military exercise in the courtyard of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace)
From Madrid

Midway though our time in Madrid we took one day trip to Toledo, which is about a half an hour train ride from Madrid. There has been a settlement in Toledo since before Roman times, but most of the current buildings date from the Middle Ages. After having successfully navigated the similarly labyrinthine streets of Sienna, Italy, I was surprised to find myself completely lost in Toledo almost immediately.  Unlike Sienna, the streets do not all orient towards a main square. But the streets are quite pleasant to stroll on and we eventually found our way to the cathedral where Brian took some forbidden photos of some amazing sculpture and wood carvings in the choir area.   

View of Toledo
From Toledo

Detail from the Cathedral
From Toledo

We arrived by plane in Marrakech, Morocco today and will be in the country for two weeks, making our way from Marrakech to the northern part of the country and back to Spain via ferry. So stay tuned for our posts on Morocco and Spain Part II: Andalucia and Catalonia. 

From Madrid

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