Madrid

Back in Madrid – May 15, 2017

Last night, we took a walk to the Marrakech Train Station. It was quite airy and had some nice details. Of course, there is a McDonalds inside.

After an easy flight from Marrakech this morning, via Casablanca for an hour, we arrived at our apartment in Madrid, compliments of Air BnB. The location is fabulous and the apartment is absolutely perfect. Manuel, the owner, met us there and gave us the grand tour.

We are near the best restaurants, Prado Museum, parks, shopping and all you could hope for. And, it has a washing machine and an elevator! The pictures say it all. We took a walk to the Plaza España, a block away. The shopping was absolutely the best, but that will be saved for another day. We stopped for a bite of dinner, nothing memorable, but quite tasty and great for people watching. Then, we wandered to the Plaza itself. There were hundreds of people (maybe thousands) strolling, watching dancers, listening to music of all kinds, even Mariachi, and having an ice cream or a coffee at a nearby cafe. The energy was wonderful and we loved the city.

The department store, El Corte Ingles, has a couple of locations near the Plaza. It looked interesting, so we wandered inside. The main floor is a huge book store, to rival anything you have seen before. As you make your way through the various upper floors, there are items of every conceivable (and inconceivable) nature. On the top floor, there are about a dozen restaurants, a fine wine store, bakery, tea store, and so much more. For a Monday night, it was hopping, just like the streets and Plaza downstairs. What a buzz!

It has been a long day, so we walked back to our apartment. The neighborhood also seems to be a haven for prostitutes. We could see a few waiting for clients. The area isn’t seedy, so I guess these are high end hookers! We did a couple loads of laundry, booked a visit to the Prado Museum and will enjoy another day in this remarkable city.

Marrakech and Au Revoir Morocco

Last night after our delicious dinner, we walked the far distance to our hotel. We were just off a major boulevard, Mohammed V, watching the drivers weaving in and out of traffic in the craziest way. We saw near misses with buses and motor scooters that were terrifying. We didn’t see any accidents, but have heard that there are many. We got back to the hotel, finally and collapsed totally into a deep sleep.

In the morning, we had breakfast with some folks in our group who were leaving today. We were then picked up at 9:00 for our Moroccan cooking class in the Medina. Our guide, Karima, a beautiful Arab woman, took us through the Medina to buy the food for our class. We made our way through the catacomb of narrow alleys to her favorite places for chicken, fish and ground meat, as well the vegetables, herbs and fruit.

The first stop was at the chicken kiosk. You have never had fresher chicken, believe me. If you are squeamish, you may want to ignore the next paragraph.

The back of the store was lined with cages of live chickens, some with white feathers, and some with red feathers. Karim said that the red birds take longer to cook because the flesh is tougher, so the butcher picked two nice-sized white chickens. He weighed them while alive and then proceeded to cut their heads off and turn them upside down in a bucket to drain the blood. Their legs were still twitching. He then pulled the skin off of them, cut off their feet and cut the chicken into eight pieces. When we took the bag, it was still warm from the newly killed poultry.

On to the fish market nearby. The fish monger picked out a couple of white fish and cut them into two inch pieces. Now to the meat market, where we got about a kilo of freshly ground beef. The vegetable area was brimming and the owner has the freshest produce, according to Karima. It is delivered daily and most people in the Medina come every day to get the best fruits and vegetables. Some cilantro, parsley, onions, potatoes, Moroccan mint, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet greet and hot red peppers later, we were on our way to Karima’s house.

There were two other couples in our group, one from Melbourne and one from Sydney, Australia. We had the best time with them. The Melbourne couple, were on a ten week honeymoon trip and were Jewish, so they asked about having the fish, rather than chicken and ground meat for the kefta. Normally, only a chicken tagine is made for this class, but having three choices with different seasonings and vegetables turned out to be fabulous. The other couple were a bit older (almost like us), and they were starting in Marrakech on a weeklong biking trip (not like us)!

We started with green mint tea and very thin almond biscotti-like cookies. Then we peeled, chopped, seasoned, combined and created three amazing tagines, plus two salads. The chicken was bathed in spices with preserved lemons, the fish had potatoes and kefta (very small beef meatballs) had different seasonings. One salad was fresh chopped tomato salad and the other a roasted eggplant salad (think warm babaganoush). Both were so delicious. While the tagines were cooking, we went to the rooftop to get a different view of the Medina. The 9th century buildings with solar and satellite dishes! Quite a sight.

Once cooked, in about an hour, we ate with great relish, enjoying the breads and the flavors. By the way, the house was very inconspicuous from the outside, but once inside, it was filled with light and charm. She also has five rooms that are on AirBnB and the house can sleep up to 15. The guests seemed to be mainly young Americans, who wanted a cheaper lodging alternative.

After exchanging email addresses, we will receive all the recipes and hope to keep in touch. We walked through the alleys to the central square, then meandered a bit, where I found a blouse and long lounging dress. I couldn’t leave Morocco without getting something! We taxied to our hotel and once back, Jim realized that he left his jacket at the class, along with the hotel room key. You never saw such a change in our demeanor from enjoying a wonderful meal, to not being sure where his jacket disappeared, not to mention the key. We didn’t have Karima’s email, so we couldn’t contact her directly. After several frantic emails to Viator, the tour company, the morning driver brought Jim’s jacket, along with the room key, to our hotel. Another disaster averted.

The day ended up walking to the new mall about a mile away and having a light meal at the new Chili’s, believe it or not! One quesadilla later, we’re happy. Time for bed, as we have a 7:30 taxi to the airport for our flight back to Madrid. Au revoir Morocco.

Marrakech

Made it to Marrakech – May 13, 2017

Through the very windy (not with wind, but curves) road in the Atlas Mountains, we stopped at a women’s cooperative to see the many Argan oil products and how they are made. There were many lotions, potions, shampoos, sunscreen, and even edible items. We resisted buying anything. Next door was a shop selling Berber jewelry and leather handbags. Both are my weakness, but again, I resisted. Whew!

As we arrived in Marrakech, the landscape and wealth was evident. There was a beautiful golf course, huge homes and lovely gardens. Coming into the central area, there were resorts, a large mall and a downtown with buildings of no more than six stories, the limit in height. Everything is about the same color, a light terra cotta, also as required by law.

We arrived at our hotel to drop off our bags and then went to lunch. This time, no tagine or couscous, but a salad and ravioli. After, we went to the Medina, which is the walled area filled with former residential parts and now, almost all commercial. We wandered through the alleyways to see spice shops, clothing, rugs and more. After a visit to the Palace Bahia of a prime minister from the 1800’s, where he lived with his five wives, we went to the Jewish Quarter. Our local guide took us to a necropolis, or burial area or cemetery. Inside, there were plots with mosaic designs. The ones with the highest elevation, were of higher class and status. Almost all were facing east, toward Mecca. Those that did not, were the plots of non-Muslims, generally Jewish graves.

Jews have lived in Morocco for 2,000 years and they mixed with the Berbers and Muslims very well. Not so much for the Christians being accepted. Once the Arabs came to Morocco, things changed, though. And, as mentioned before, right after WWII, almost all Jews left Morocco. At one time, there were 40,000, but now there are a mere 2,000, mostly in Casablanca. The 400 or so in Marrakech have three synagogues in the Jewish Quarter and one more in a suburb of town.

We sat in a cafe on one of the squares, watching the snake charmers, monkey wranglers and hawkers, bombarding you to buy, touch the snakes or monkeys and trying to make you crazy. We went back to the markets and found a couple of fun things. You have to be careful, though, because the alleys are full of very fast moving motor scooters, the only method of getting around quickly. More Marrakech later.

By the way, we didn’t ride camels, but Dromedaries, with one hump. Camels are in Africa, with two humps. Dromedaries are in Morocco.

Todra Gorge to Ait Ben Habous

From the Todra Gorge, through Quarzazate… – Ait Ben Habous – May 12, 2017

We left Todra Gorge at 9:00, allowing us to sleep in a bit. Next, we traveled to Kalaat M’goum, a medium sized town that is famous for its rose festival. A rose queen is selected and people come from all over to see the shops and buy products made of roses. We didn’t stop in town, because there are flush toilets (yippee) and a cafe for a cappuccino just outside of the town limits. There also was a shop selling the rose products. I bought a pretty bowl and a jar of rose-infused mud face mask. Jim and I will be having a beauty afternoon, no doubt.
On the way out, we stopped at a casbah for a photo op. Casbah means house with towers or a fortified house. They are everywhere. Then, on to the restaurant for lunch in Quarzazate. We had some non-Marrakech options, for a change. We shared a Caesar salad and beef brochettes plate, with roasted vegetables, confetti rice and fries. It was a nice change. Many films are shot in this town, because it is very picturesque.

After lunch, we went to an herbalist shop. The wonderful smells of floral, herbs and oils was intoxicating. The master herbalist told us about the many essential oils, soaps, creams and potions. We got to sample and smell them all. There were mixtures of 35 spices for cooking and a special blend for grilling fish. Of course, I was most interested in those spices.

The herbalist put natural kohl on my eyes and I had a neck massage with an Argan jasmine oil. Jim loved the black soap, which you can find in the medinas and also here at the shop. It is a gel that you put on your body before you shower, then rinse it off. Your skin feels soft and when used on your hair, it is good for dry hair and dandruff. So, we bought some, along with the cooking spices. The suitcase is filling up!

After we stopped at a film location that has been the used for many movies, mainly because there are no electric lines or other vestiges of contemporary life and they have the Atlas Mountains in the background. We arrived to our hotel in Ait ben Habous. Some of our group went to a rug shop, where they bought lots of Berber carpets. The one Canadian couple bought six of them and the other Canadians bought three. We took a nap.

Afterward, nine of our group took a tagine class, where they took cut up vegetables, chicken and spices and created their own tagine, which they ate for dinner. We ordered our own meal, which included a delicious vegetable soup, a Moroccan salad, an entrée of turkey tagine and kefta (basically a hamburger), fries, cooked veggies and ramen noodles. Great fruit for dessert, too.

Before we ate, we took a fairly long walk up a 17th century group of casbahs, shops and markets. At the top is a grain storage building. We hiked up the whole way up to watch the sunset. The wind was totally fierce, almost blowing us off the hill. The views were amazing! Dinner was a welcome, warm time together. We told jokes and finally went to bed at 10:30. It was a good day.

The Sahara and Todra Gorge

Sunrise in the Desert and Todra Gorge – May 11, 2017

After dinner, three men (two possibly Berber) played drums, joined by our guide. They were amazing. However, after our long day of being in the van, we went to bed. Since we didn’t see the sunset on the camels, we met up at 5:00 AM to ride the camels up the sand dunes to see the sunrise.

Our thirteen camels were sitting on the sand, tied together in two groups, waiting for us. I was the second one to mount and he was quite large. They are very tall and I held on for dear life. A half an hour walk and we were at the base of a large sand dune. The wind was blowing gently. We dismounted the camels and walked up the dune to await the sunrise. The full moon was behind us and the sun in front.

The sand is the color of red clay (duh) and very fine. We then returned to our trusty camels, who are very happy to have their heads rubbed before the trip back to the hotel. Other groups were near us on camels, so we had quite a large contingency. At the hotel, we had breakfast and took off for our next stop at the gorge.

We arrived about four hours later to find a lovely hotel with a pool (a very cold one, although the Canadians thought it was divine) and a large room with a balcony overlooking the gardens. The view from the hotel looks at huge red rocks, not unlike Golden, Colorado, near Boulder. Our lunch was a fabulous treat of fresh orange juice and a Berber omelette, or shashouka, because it has poached eggs on top. Yum!

After lunch, we took a long walk in the valley and saw plots of land growing alfalfa. The plots were bordered by a variety of olive trees, date palms, fig, pomegranate and nectarine trees. The owners irrigate the land from perfectly clear streams that are diverted to their plots. We then hiked to a group of abandoned adobe houses facing newer ones across the valley, near the road and electricity. It was a long walk, but great to meet some of the local people.

Time for a swim or a nap. We opted for the nap. At 5:30, we met up to see the Todra Gorge. It has a 300 meter rock face and is an awesome presence. There is a hotel at its base, with a restaurant that was damaged some time ago by giant boulders. Many people were killed or injured. There were rock climbers trying their hand at going up the rock face.

Time to go back for dinner. Good vegetable soup and more tagines, with melon for dessert. Some of the group are teaching our guide to play poker, so I am catching up with the blog.

The Sahara and Camels

Sahara and the Camels – Merzouga – May 10, 2017

We left early from Fes to go through the middle Atlas Mountains. Ifrane is a charming French-inspired wealthy town about an hour or so outside of Fes. It is much cooler than Fes, so many people have summer homes there. In the winter, there is a lot of snow and two ski areas. You could easily think you were in Tuscany with the red tile roofs, beautiful cherry orchards, rows of vegetables and flocks of sheep.

Interestingly, the gas station bathroom stops are very civilized. In the middle of the mountains, there are cafes inside that serve mint tea (very popular in Morocco), cappuccino, croissants and pastries. When we crossed the Middle Atlas, we stopped along the road to see dozens of monkeys, ready to enjoy the peanuts that a local vendor was selling. As you can see, Jim was very popular.

The landscape crossing the high Atlas plateaus reveal mountains with snow on them in the distance, while the ground is dotted with small shrubs, like New Mexico between Santa Fe and Taos. It is dry and brown. We stopped for fruit and bread to add to the meat and cheese we bought in Fes for our picnic lunch.

The picnic venue was a charming palm tree shaded area. We enjoyed our lunch and continued through canyons, which looked just like the Colorado/Arizona southwest. The next few stops took us to a few valleys that are known for delicious dates. With Ramadan coming soon, dates are an essential part of the feasting. Otherwise, the landscape view is pretty desolate, obscured by blowing and drifting sand. Hopefully, by the time we get to the hotel in the desert, the wind will abate, so our camel ride in a couple of hours will be calm.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere to get a bottle of frozen water and a scarf to use as a turban when on the camel ride. The wind picked up even more and the whipped up sand made traversing the road, covered in sand, quite difficult. When we arrived to the hotel in the desert, the camels were waiting for us. Our guide said it may be best to wait a while to see if the wind stops. In the end, we decided that we would wait until early tomorrow, for the sunrise, to go out on our camel ride.

We had a choice to sleep in a tent or a regular room. After checking out the tents, we opted for the room, with a shower and a/c. The younger folk mostly opted for the tents, while the more mature of us, decided to take the rooms. The floors are covered in sand, kind of like the beach, but no ocean! We will have dinner in the hotel, then a shower and bed.

Last Night’s Adventure and Today in Fes…

Last night, we went to a restaurant with a show that included traditional Moroccan music, belly dancers, a fire swallower, magician and group dinner. The place was hidden in an alley, but when we went inside, it was a massive restaurant in the Fes Medina, with incredible mosaic and wood details, plus a rooftop view of the Medina. Several men in our group were called up to dance with the first belly dancer, including Jim, who reluctantly went up to the stage. It was a hoot. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 11:30 pm. Yikes!

By the way, our room here is a suite, not a closet, like the previous one. And no four poster bed, either, thank goodness. We can comfortably seat nine in our living room and we have two air conditioner. It is nuts! We slept well.

After breakfast, we went to the largest Royal Palace in Morocco, one of two here in Fes. It comprises 164 hectares (over 405 acres), but the king never sleeps there. He sleeps in his other, smaller palace in Fes. All the mosaic pieces were placed there one by one, meticulously. Close up, you are in awe of the craftsmanship.

Around the corner is the Andalusian architecture of the Muslim and Jewish quarters. The balconies face the street, which is not typical of Morocco. Normally, Muslim balconies face inward, toward the courtyards, while the Jewish home balconies face the street. However, these mirror each other. There were thousands of Jews in the quarter until after WWII. The poorer people fled to Israel, Paris and Montreal. Many of the professional Jews stayed in Morocco. Of the approximately 5,000 Jews in the country, 90% live in Casablanca. The rest are in Fes, Rabat and Meknes, but not in large numbers.

The Fes Medina is divided into three sections, part from the 9th century, part from the 14th century and the Nouvelle, or 20th century area. 250,000 of the 1.5 million people in Fes, live in the Medina. The university here is the oldest in the world, dating from the 9th century. Maimonides taught mathematics there for five years.

We then went to a ceramics school and factory, where we witnessed the artisans being trained making the greenware (unfired) clay pots, plates and cups. The gray clay is unique to Fes, although there is red and white clay, as well. They train for five years. The mosaic work is amazing to watch. People from all over the world buy the tables, pots and unique items made there.

Fes

Last Night’s Adventure and Today in Fes… – May 9, 2017

Last night, we went to a restaurant with a show that included traditional Moroccan music, belly dancers, a fire swallower, magician and group dinner. The place was hidden in an alley, but when we went inside, it was a massive restaurant in the Fes Medina, with incredible mosaic and wood details, plus a rooftop view of the Medina. Several men in our group were called up to dance with the first belly dancer, including Jim, who reluctantly went up to the stage. It was a hoot. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 11:30 pm. Yikes!

By the way, our room here is a suite, not a closet, like the previous one. And no four poster bed, either, thank goodness. We can comfortably seat nine in our living room and we have two air conditioner. It is nuts! We slept well.

After breakfast, we went to the largest Royal Palace in Morocco, one of two here in Fes. It comprises 164 hectares (over 405 acres), but the king never sleeps there. He sleeps in his other, smaller palace in Fes. All the mosaic pieces were placed there one by one, meticulously. Close up, you are in awe of the craftsmanship.

Around the corner is the Andalusian architecture of the Muslim and Jewish quarters. The balconies face the street, which is not typical of Morocco. Normally, Muslim balconies face inward, toward the courtyards, while the Jewish home balconies face the street. However, these mirror each other. There were thousands of Jews in the quarter until after WWII. The poorer people fled to Israel, Paris and Montreal. Many of the professional Jews stayed in Morocco. Of the approximately 5,000 Jews in the country, 90% live in Casablanca. The rest are in Fes, Rabat and Meknes, but not in large numbers.

The Fes Medina is divided into three sections, part from the 9th century, part from the 14th century and the Nouvelle, or 20th century area. 250,000 of the 1.5 million people in Fes, live in the Medina. The university here is the oldest in the world, dating from the 9th century. Maimonides taught mathematics there for five years.

We then went to a ceramics school and factory, where we witnessed the artisans being trained making the greenware (unfired) clay pots, plates and cups. The gray clay is unique to Fes, although there is red and white clay, as well. They train for five years. The mosaic work is amazing to watch. People from all over the world buy the tables, pots and unique items made there.

More Fes – May 9, 2017

After the ceramics factory, we went to the Medina. It is absolutely huge, 700 acres. There are many gates inside the walled Medina and no vehicles allowed. When you see the pictures, you will understand why. It was started in 900 A.D. There are two main areas, the residential part and the commercial. The residents are of every class and you can determine whether they are rich by looking at their front door. If it is a double door, the smaller one has a door knocker that indicates people want to enter. This door is surrounded by a larger door, with its own knocker that is for the resident and his horse. People with horses were usually the rich families. And, many times, there is a rustic wooden entry next door for the servants to live with their families, yet serve the wealthy family.

There are 9,000 streets, no street names, so we couldn’t figure out how anyone would find you. And forget how you would get furniture or appliances down the alley ways. The commercial areas are divided into specific areas for blacksmiths, fish market, spices, fruit and veggies and the largest leather tannery in Morocco. You could easily get lost there, which was why we had a local guide to lead us and our full time guide at the end of our group to keep us from getting separated and lost.

Of course, the ceramic factory and leather tannery had lots of stuff to sell, which was very interesting. However, I decided that I didn’t need to carry mugs or dishes and as appealing as a beautiful custom leather jacket looked, I probably wouldn’t wear it much in Mexico anyway. We had some disappointed vendors.

After a couple hours of walking, we drove about a half an hour to have lunch at a woman’s cooperative. The women there are in situations that find them pretty destitute, either because they are alone or the subject of divorce. They have no skills and many are illiterate. The cooperative teaches them to read and write Arabic, and maybe some French. They learn to sew and make lovely djlabas (long cover ups) and bake specialty cookies. The lunch was delicious and the women very appreciative.

Finally, we went to a grocery store to get food for a picnic on our way to the sub-Sahara, where we will be tomorrow night. It is a very long day in the van, about 9 hours, including many stops. We will walk up a sand dune to see the sunset before going into our tent hotel and wake up early to see the sunrise. We were told that the weather last week was so warm (about 23C, 73F), that the group slept outside, under a zillion stars. Hopefully, we will have the same opportunity.

Roman Ruins in Volubilas and lots to see in Meknes

A three hour ride from Casablanca in our very spiffy 15 passenger van took us to Volubilas. It is an ancient town, initially inhabited by the Romans, 300-600 A.D. The ruins are amazing and many of the mosaics are still visible. There are stories to go with each of the mosaics, which I can’t recount, but our local guide regaled us with anecdotes. On top of one of the Corinthian columns was a nest with a stork feeding the babies. I think mom flew off to go grocery shopping, leaving dad to do the actual feeding. As we were leaving town, we saw a cell tower with a dozen more stork nests. Wish I could have had that shot!

The town itself has house upon house on two hills that resemble a two-humped camel. The surrounding orchards of olives and fields of wheat and corn are picturesque and shepherds with flocks of sheep or goats, dot the landscape. You could be in Tuscany or Mexico to feel the pastoral vibe. After, we had a meal at a restaurant overlooking more beautiful fields. It was a light meal, since we are going to a big show in Fes tonight, replete with magicians, belly dancers and more food than you can imagine. Now, we are on our way to Meknes. By the way, the weather has been spectacular.

The forty minute drive to Meknes was eye-opening. We drove to the old Jewish quarter, which had between 30,000 and 50,000 Jews in its prime. There were synagogues, schools and stores that sold kosher foods and meats. It is surrounded by a very high wall. Across the road is the new Jewish quarter. New is hyperbole, since it was probably built centuries ago. In 1948, after WWII, almost all Jews left for the new State of Israel or elsewhere. Now, there are a few hundred older Jews and the population is shrinking.

Next we went to the reservoir and attached huge storage rooms that held grain and other food commodities, just in case of a long term invasion and battle. The reservoir has potable water directly from the mountains for the city dwellers, but also was pumped into the adjacent stables that housed as many as 12,000 horses. The ancient design is amazing, in that the vaulted ceilings keep the interior temperature the same all year around. Above the vault was a flat roof, where gardens were planted. The roots of the plants stabilized the building, so there was minimal damage during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In the food storage rooms, the acoustics are so good that concerts are held there.

Next, we went to the Casbah, or fortress. It is being renovated now. Then, we drove around the wall of one of the many palaces for the king, should he want to visit. After all, he can’t stay at a Holiday Inn! These palace grounds comprise 40 hectares of land, allowing him to roam unimpeded. And there are full time staffs to make the palace ready no matter when he comes.

Now, we are off to Fes, for a short rest, shower, ATM visit and then tonight’s special entertainment.