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Bienvenidos a Mexico!

July 31st, 2008 · 1 Comment

A month after visiting Mexico for the first time in my life – I now live here with Kimberly and Zookie. After arriving in Mexico City and getting partly settled in our new neighborhood, Polanco – we had our first visitors, James and Christina. We did some major exploring of the city sites and had a great time at the Piramides de Teotihuacán, Coyocan and San Angel, and the Centro Historico.

Daniel

For photos, click here:
Piramides, Coyocan/San Angel, Centro Historico

Teotihuacan & Tepotzotlan Coyocan & San Angel Zocalo — Mexico City

Our Neighborhood – Polanco

The easiest way to explain: we live next door to the Louis Vuitton Store. So, in general, this area is high-class Mexico City at its best. Ironically we’re also just a couple blocks off of Lincoln Park (like we were in Chicago). Polanco is full of tree lined streets, high-end boutiques, fancy restaurants overlooking the park, and a serious socialite scene for the elite. One of the best taquerias de Carnitas in the entire city is just across the street (we’ll get to the food later).

We have visitors!

A whopping one day after living in Mexico City (or DF as the locals call it), Kimberly’s brother and his girlfriend, James and Christina, arrived from sunny San Diego to check out the scene with us. We spent the first couple days just getting all of our feet on the ground. In addition to checking out the local eateries in Polanco, we set out to explore the major sites that Mexico City offers. The highlights were definitely the Piramides de Teotihuacán, which involved an adventurous car rental trip from the heart of DF to Teotihuacán, about an hour north of the city. We also really enjoyed the southern DF neighborhoods of Coyocan and San Angel where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived and worked.

Driving in Mexico – Own your Lane!

We quickly learned that all laws and regulations related to motor vehicles are simply “rough” guidelines for how you behave while behind the wheel. For instance, stop signs are only heeded if there is another car in your way (pedestrians do NOT have the right of way). The most important rule to embrace was “owning your lane” – if you drive aggresively enough people will respect your presence on the road. Timid drivers never get anywhere in Mexico City. The last fascinating phenomenon is how Mexicans deal with roundabouts. In most countries roundabouts always have three characteristics:

  1. Cars in the roundabout have the right of way
  2. Roundabouts follow a counter-clockwise direction
  3. The roundabout exists instead of a traffic light

In Mexico these rules are thrown out the window. Basically, whoever is going faster has the right of way. Often times these are the cars on the straightaway, since cars in the roundabout have to slow down. Also, at larger intersections cars treat the roundabout as an obstacle going around whichever way will get them past it the quickest. (It’s quite fun to watch in person!) Finally, many roundabouts are combined with traffic lights – an intersesting concept to say the least…but, because the other two rules are not followed, not having stop lights would lead to complete chaos.

Piramides de Teotihuacán

After learning the ropes of driving in Mexico, the four of us ventured north to the Piramides. They are some of the largest man-made structures on earth. The Sun Temple is the 3rd largest pyramid in the world behind (Cholula and Giza). The entire site is stretched out over 2 miles including the Sun Temple, Moon Temple, and Citadel. We climbed to the top of all three structures — exhausting, but worth it for the amazing view!

Coyocan & San Angel

With more of a bohemian feel, Coyocan and San Angel are chocked full of art fairs, tree lined streets, and a number of Diego Rivera sites. We visited Frida Kahlo’s former home in Coyocan with James and Christina — and made a trip to San Angel the following weekend to see the house where both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived.

Centro Historico

The other must see part of DF is the Centro Historico. Surrounding the main plaza or square known as the Zócalo are some major sites in all of DF. First, there is the stately Palacio Nacional of historical and artististic significance. The original congressional hall is kept in its original state. The second floor contains 9 floor-to-ceiling murals by Diego Rivera that recounts Mexican history. Sitting just a few hundred feet away, as you circle the Zócalo is the Catedral Metropolitana, which has been sinking (literally)over the years due to the soft lake bed beneath and 19M Mexico City residents using water from underground sources. (It’s not that we took pictures crooked — the Catedral really does lean to the left!) Finally the Templo Mayor – a major Aztec temple sits just off the square essentially between the Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional. It’s one of the few remaining Aztec ruins in the city — and was discovered only in 1978 by telephone repairmen.

Normally, this part of the post is where we would tell you about the restaurants in the city — but we have discovered so many that we are going to save them up and write a special post just on food in Mexico City. Stay tuned!

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Marrakech (4/20-22, 2007)

April 23rd, 2007 · No Comments

Place Djemaa el-Fna, souks, restored houses, Royal palaces and tombs…and meals in beautiful riads–all in a days travel in Marrakech!

Kimberly

For photos, click here.

Marrakech

The first place we headed out to was the Place Djemaa el-Fna, literally the “assembly of the dead.” For centuries, this unique gathering place has been the center of Marrakech and the symbol of the city. It received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2001. And today is still full of storytellers, musicians, snake charmers, and other performers. We enjoyed quite a tasty dinner here in the midst of the madness…with the best fresh squeezed orange juice I’ve ever tasted!

We started off the next day visiting the various souks (markets) in the medina: the Souk Haddadine (Blacksmiths), Souk Chouari (Carpenters), Souk Cherratin (Leather)….my favorite, the Souk des Babouches (Slipper Makers)! If only we bought a house already in San Francisco—there were so many things here I wanted to buy. We’ll just have to come back to get that steel hammered table, wooden door from Timbuktu, sconces for the garden…

After restraining myself from making too many purchases, we headed off for more historical sights. We visited the Ben Youssef Medera, a Koranic school founded in the mid 14th century, with incredibly ornate doorways and fine inlay work. Then we went next door to the Musee de Marrakech, the former home of a Moroccan minister of war which holds an interesting collection of Koran manuscripts, coins, ceramics, and textiles. What was most striking was the way they converted the house into the museum – with paintings even inside the hammam!

We also visited the Saadian tombs, once forgotten burial area for one of the past royal families. As the first Arab dynasty since the Idrissids, they marketd the end of Moroccan Berber rule. The united much of the country from Marrakech to Agadir, to Essaouira. The most impressive sultan of this dynasty would be Ahmed “El Mansour”—who maintained a time of wealth and peace for Morocco. His death in 1603 left the country in chaos, with three sons, none of whom could gain authority. Eventually Moulay Ismail and the Alaouites wrestled control of the country – and tried their best to destroy all the Saadians, and their legacy. The recent discovery of these tombs in 1917 was quite a surprise and now the tombs are a national treasure.

Dar Moha
81 rue Dar El Bacha – Medina
+212 (0) 24 38 64 00 / 24 38 62 64
www.darmoha.ma
-Very posh place with tables throughout the palatial house and around the swanky pool. I felt like we were at a private wedding reception. Lunch tasting menu was pretty incredible – albeit fancy and high-class Moroccan food. (Recommended by a friend who is from Morocco)

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Essaouira (4/18-20, 2007)

April 21st, 2007 · No Comments

My favorite city in all of Morocco—I could have spent a week in just Essaouira. Granted, it doesn’t feel as “Moroccan” as other cities, and certainly isn’t as culturally rich as Fes. But it was something in itself. A very comfortable mixture of Moroccan and French Mediterranean influences – this would be a great place to come and shop, sightsee, surf, or just relax and do a lot of nothing!

Kimberly

For photos, click here.

Essouira

We stayed at a great riad, Hotel dar el Qdima and enjoyed our palatial experience. This was just the beginning of our treats! We enjoyed the best food here of anywhere on our trip: pigeon pastilla at Les Alizes (order the day in advance), seafood tagine and the hip Le Patio, and tasty Italian at Sylvestro and Les 3 Portes.

You might recognize Essaouira in our photos because it was where Orson Welles filmed Othello in 1949. The city was also known as Mogador at various points in historyThe city has been influenced by a mixture of cultures: Berber, Carthaginean, Portugese, English, French, and others. The town as it looks today wasn’t built until 1760 by Mohamman II, who decided it would be the ideal place for a naval base. He decided to model the fortifications on the style of European fortresses and had them built by Theodore Cornut, a renowned French architect. Adding to the fun jumble of historical influences, hippies decided to hang out in Essaouria in the 1960s, attracting such stars as Jimi Hendrix.

Today, Essaouria feels very much like a combination of a fishing village, artisan workshop town, and tourist holiday destination. It is also the most approachable of Morrocan cities – hiring a guide here is really a nice-to-have. You can easily explore the medina on your own – and do lots of great shopping for souvenirs!

Hotel Dar el Qdima
+212 (0) 24 47 38 58
4 rue Malek Ben Rahai
www.darqdima.com
-An 18th century house converted into a beautiful Riad, with rooms around an interior patio.

Restaurant Les Alizes
26 Rue Skala
+212 (0)44 47 68 19
-Order the pastilla the day in advance. And don’t eat anything beforehand…I’ve never been given so much food! (and it was only $30 total…incredible!)

Le Patio
28 Bis Rue Moulay Rachid
+212 (0) 24 47 41 66
-Very trendy place…kind of felt like the hip Moroccan spots in Paris. Service was pretty awful though.

Les 3 Portes
34 Rue l’Attarine
+212 68 86 49 63

Silvestro
70 Rue Laalouj
+212 (0)24 47 35 55

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Aremd (4/17, 2007)

April 18th, 2007 · 1 Comment

One of the more interesting destinations was a tiny mountain village where we stayed in gite (a local home that has been converted into a small mountain inn). We trekked up the route used by trekkers ascending the mountain and stayed for the night in a small village where we visited a very local hammam (public bath).

Daniel

For photos, click here.

Morocco: Mountain Gite

At an elevation of 1900m or 6230ft, Armed is nestled underneath the highest mountain in all of Northern Africa – Jebel Toubkal at 4167m. After an 7 hour long road trip from Ait Benhaddou we arrived at the town of Imlil–the further the car could take us. To complete the last leg of our journey, we had to hire a couple mules to haul our luggage up the mountain trails and switchbacks. The rest of us hiked up on foot for another hour and half. The scenery was amazingly pristine once we got out of the busy village of Imlil. Occasionally we would pass simple homes, trickling streams, and local passer-bys.

The town of Armed looked into the valley leading up to Jebel Toubkal. We would be spending the night in a mountain gite; our sleeping quarters would be communal rooms with thick cushions lining the walls and stacks of thick wool blankets (way more than in the Sahara). We got to the gite around midday and had the opportunity to soak in the fantastic views. The men in the group had the option of visiting the town Hammam (a public bath) that night (more below about the brave souls who went). Meanwhile the women stayed at the gite with our family hosts and received henna (traditional ink tatoos).

A real local Hammam experience…
Aremd had one hammam for all its residents. Depending on the the time of day the hammam was open for either men or women. After sunset the hammam was open for men only. So the men in the group walked across the small village into the village hammam. The build consisted of and entryway and three main rooms (cold, warm, and hot). We were greeted by the hammam manager who was excited to see Seb. Apparently he enjoyed giving Seb a really rough massage during Seb’s last visit – so Seb showed us the only way he could defend himself by rapid-fire rat tails with his towel. After the boisterous introduction we were off to the hammam.

First we stripped down to bathing suits and left our clothes in the cold room. Our experience was like an assembly line. Two men who worked in the hammam proceeded to throw buckets of alternating cold & hot water. We waited a few more minutes before we went into the hot room. Here our hammam helpers lathered us up with an olive based soap/gel & gave each of us a body scrub. After another round of water throwing. The helper spent a good five minutes stretching and bending us one by one. You have to imagine a mix of wrestling and yoga. Some of the moves looked something like a full body full-nelson. After each of us were stretched & pulled we received one more round of hot and cold water. We wandered back through the hammam threw on our clothes, and stumbled out into the chill night air. It was one of the most refreshing evening walks.

The women went for their hammam time the following morning. I haven’t been allowed to know the details of their visit, but I understand it involved less clothing and no massaging…

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Ouarzazate & Ait Benhaddou (4/16, 2007)

April 17th, 2007 · No Comments

Morocco has a long history with the American film industry. Many classics and modern blockbusters have been filmed in Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou. Other filming locations include: Erfoud, Marrakech, Essaouira, and Casablanca. Read below for our own adventures on the route of a thousand kasbahs: in Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou…and learn the secret to making a fabulous meal of tagine and couscous.

Daniel

For photos, click here.

Ait Benhaddou

Ouarzazate
Since 1962 (the filming of Lawrence of Arabia) movie makers have been flocking to the film capital of Morocco – Ouarzazate. Afterall how could film makers resist the beautiful desert landscape scattered with palm trees and backed by distant mountains.

Hidden in the surrounding city, away from the sprawling film sets – Seb brought us to a very real place – more so than any film set could create. We spent most of our time in Ouarzazate visiting the Association Horizon des Handicapes. It was founded in 1994 to help people with both physical and mental disabilities by the Moroccan government. It helps these people find a way to integrate into society. We got a personal tour of all the facilities: orthopedic workshop, physiotherapy center, youth center (recently closed due to lack of funding). It wasn’t until halfway through the tour that we realized that our guide was in fact the director of the entire operation. He was very humble and extremely focused on their mission. We also visited the workshops where the handicapped members were learning how to make various handicrafts to help them integrate and fund the association. It was great to see all the hard work help so many grateful people.

If you are interested in giving to the cause you can email (horizondeshandicapes@yahoo.fr) to donate money. Or visit their website to learn more: http://associationhorizon.africa-web.org

Ait Benhaddou
Famous for the fortress-like Kasbah, Ait Benhaddou has been the backdrop for a long list of Hollywood films including: Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, and Gladiator.

Much of the lower part has been privately restored mostly influenced by the filmmakers. However, recent renovations have been overseen by UNESCO and the Moroccan government. We spent some time exploring the rocky hill that the Kasbah sits on. Only 5 families still actually live – it’s clearly just a tourist destination since few people live there who aren’t trying to get money from the droves of tourists that visit everyday.

We stayed for one night in the new village just across the practically dry river bed from the Kasbah. Our accommodations were basic and uninteresting. Luckily, Seb had a friend who entertained us with good food, stories, and some cooking lessons. Hussein aka Hussein Crow – runs a family restaurant (soon to be small hotel) in the new village. He is best described as the most outgoing & energetic Moroccan we encountered on our trip. His family has lived in the same building for generations – he spent a good while explaining the pictures of his father and grandfather that proudly displays in his home. He also claims to be the Moroccan version of Russell Crow because of his continued success as a film extra over the years. We assume, his recent success, has allowed him to expand his home to include a private hamam, rooftop terrace (with views of the Kasbah), and new hotel rooms still under construction. He was very entertaining and extremely passionate about how to properly cook Couscous & Tagine. By this time we had learned that these two dishes make up the backbone of Moroccan cuisine. Here are the recipes that Hussein and his sister taught us.

Couscous, Cooking time: 2hr, 15min
Ingredients:
– Chicken pieces (with bones)
– Olive oil
– Couscous grains
– ½ teaspoon: salt, pepper, cumin
– 1 teaspoon: paprika, ginger, saffron
– Water
– Vegetables: onions, carrots, potato, tomato, zucchini, squash, eggplant, green pepper
Cooking Instructions:
– Coat chicken with olive oil
– Place chicken in pan on medium heat
– Add spices, sliced onion, 2 cups of water
– After 15min, add hard vegetables (carrots & potatoes)
– Drizzle oil and water over couscous, massage through and place in double boiler over Chicken
– Cook for 30 minutes “massage” couscous again
– Cook for 20-25 minutes “massage” couscous again
– Add soft vegetables (tomato, zucchini, squash, eggplant, green pepper)
– Cook for 20-25 minutes “massage” couscous again
– Do not cook for longer than 2hrs 15min
– Serve

Tagine, Cooking time: 1hr, 10min
Ingredients:
– Chicken pieces (with bones)
– Olive oil
– Spices: salt, pepper, paprika, ginger, saffron
– Vegetables: onions, carrots, potato, peas, olives, beans, green pepper, tomato

Cooking Instructions:
– Coat chicken with olive oil
– Add spices: salt, pepper, paprika, ginger, saffron
– Place chicken in pan on medium heat
– After 10min, add water
– Slice onions, add to pan
– Slice other veggies: carrot, potato, peas, olives, beans, green pepper, tomato
– Add a little more water
– Cook for 45 minutes
Serve

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Todra Gorge (4/14-15, 2007)

April 16th, 2007 · No Comments

After all the sightseeing for the past week, we really needed some downtime. So it worked out well that Intrepid had planned for us to spend two days relaxing in the Todra Gorge. Although, we didn’t exactly relax while we were there…we decided to attempt several pretty challenging hikes!

Kimberly

For photos, click here.

Todra Gorge

The gorge itself is a giant trench in the High Atlas mountains. In the middle of complete barren rockiness, a river flows through small towns, creating incredibly fertile land. The contrast of stones and dirt with bright green palmeries was just stunning!

The main hike we did was called the Route des Nomades and was incredible just for the serenity of being so isolated in the rocky desert. There were many moments that felt just like the scenes in Babel – especially when we came up a boy playing his flute on the rocks across the canyon while watching his herd of goats grazing along the mountains. We had a local guide, Redouane, lead just the two of us on this adventure. He knew a Berber family that lives up on the mountain, and the father invited us for tea with him and his grandson. The hospitality of the Moroccans is really just incredible. Here is this man, several hours hike from anything, who is offering several cups of tea to complete strangers (and foreigners nonetheless). Playing with his somewhat timid grandson was probably one of the highlights of our trip. Just the five of us, sitting in this man’s home (which consisted of a tent and some carpets), drinking tea, and making faces to get the little boy to laugh. It was incredible!

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Midelt and Sahara (4/12-13, 2007)

April 13th, 2007 · No Comments

Our trip to Midelt started off an adventure into the lesser traveled parts of Morocco. We hiked to a small mudbrick village, visited a carpet and embroidery workshop to empower Moroccan women, and rode camels in the Sahara.

Kimberly

For photos, click here: Midelt and Sahara.

Midelt Sahara

Midelt

In Midelt, we visited the mudbrick village of Berrem, where relatively few foreigners visit. Still, the children had learned somewhere that tourists often bring candy…and were quick to ask for it!

We also visited the Kasbah Myriam, a carpet and embroidery workshop run by Franciscan nuns with the aim of providing sustainable employment and healthcare to local Berber women. Teenage girls start working here learning embroidery…but also how to read and write. The older women teach the younger women the traditional skills, and the nuns focus on improving their literacy. It is incredible to imagine Myriam moving here 50 years ago from France to try to improve the lives of the women in this community.

The best part of our time in Midelt was staying in an old “castle” the Auberge Jaafar! (Yes, I think he’s the bad guy in Aladdin, right?) The building was this incredible construction alone in the middle of the rugged desert—-set against a mountainous backdrop. And, of course, we enjoyed another feast for dinner. Complete with music and dancing…definitely check out the photos to see some of Dan’s skills!

Auberge Jaafar
Berrem, Midelt
+212 (0) 35 36 02 02

The Sahara

This was the quintessential North African experience…riding a camel through the sand dunes in the Sahara to overnight at a Berber camp in the desert! After a very long drive, we finally arrived at the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes. We packed up overnight bags, put on our turbans, mounted our camels, and headed off into the desert. The scenery was breathtaking, the camel ride was too…in an exhausting kind of way. Let’s just say that riding a camel is not an especially comfortable experience!

We arrived at our campsite in the late afternoon, so I (stupidly) decided to run up the side of a sand dune to get to the top before sunset. I was hacking and coughing for the next two weeks…getting all that sand in your lungs is a bad idea! (And getting to the top of the dunes is harder than it looks…for every step you take, you slide a half step backwards!) But the sunset was beautiful.

That was just the beginning of our desert experience though. We were staying with a Berber family, who graciously cooked us all dinner and even sang Berber lullabyes to us before we went to sleep. (Click below to listen to the video…you’ll have to imagine the incredible desert sky filled with stars, my camera didn’t pick it up so well.)

The next morning, we rose before sunrise to try to catch the changing colors of the sand dunes. I do really think that something is different about the sand in Namibia, because the colors were not nearly as spectacular here. (FYI, if you’re going to visit one set of sand dunes in the world, I’d say go to Namibia…far more spectacular, and littered with far less trash. But, you can’t ride a camel through the desert or sleep in the middle of the dunes…)

And with another uncomfortable camel ride, we were back on the road, onto our next destination!

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Fes (4/10-11, 2007)

April 11th, 2007 · No Comments

If you’re going to visit only one city in Morocco, make it Fes! It’s everything you imagine when you think of Morocco: crowded Bazaars, small passageways, men working in the tanneries, mosques, old tradition…

Kimberly

For photos, click: here.

Fes

We arrived in Fes in the evening, just in time for sunset cocktails at the posh Palais Jamais hotel. The drinks were overpriced, but the view of the entire medina (old city) was incredible…especially as the evening calls to prayer echoed across the city.

After our fancy drinks, we headed off for the real treat of the night…a traditional Moroccan feast at Dar Masmoudi. This place is one of many riads: old houses that have recently been restored and converted into hotels. We would have loved to have stayed here, but just eating dinner in the traditional dining room was incredible. We started with some Pigeon Pastilla (my absolute favorite dish…fowl cooked in a pastry with almonds, eggs, cinnamon, nuts, and powdered sugar…it’s like a desert for dinner!). Then we had several more courses of vegetables, couscous, tagine, and finally dessert and tea. It was wonderful!

The next day we headed off to see the city. We started out at the Royal Palace. We could visit only the main gate, but that was impressive enough. The detail in the mosaic tile, gilded doors, and carved marble was incredible! Then we explored a little around the Mellah, or Jewish ghetto. Morocco has actually been a safe haven for the Jews over the centuries and maintained a large Jewish population until the creation of Israel. Jews started arriving in full force in the country in the mid 15th century during the Spanish inquisition. They were not fully accepted into Moroccan life and very much stayed within their neighborhoods. The Aben Danan Synagogue highlighted this interesting intersection of Jewish and Arabic influences…with mosaic tile décor.

Fes is well known as a city of artisans. So we set off to visit some of their workshops and see them in action. We toured a ceramic factory and saw tagine dishes being thrown and glazed – and mosaic tiles being chipped and organized into intricate patterns. We visited a small brocade workshop…literally just a room tucked away behind a door in the medina where several men were cranking away at large rooms making beautiful fabrics. The definite highlight though was seeing the tanneries! You’ll likely recognize the tanneries in our photos from some vary famous series shown in National Geographic. The sight of men working in these large vats of both lime (to soften the hides) and dyes (to color them) was absolutely incredible!

Wandering around the medina was a feat in itself! We were very happy to have hired a good guide. We definitely would have gotten lost had we been on our own (not to mentioned hassled by all the vendors and “want to be” guides). But the most important reason to hire a guide is that we never would have known where to go on our own! Our guide would literally knock on a wooden door and take us inside to a group of metal workers, fabric weavers, or Fes makers. It was such a treat!

I highly recommend spending a few days in Fes to soak up the incredible sense of history, culture, and Moroccan daily life!

Dar Masmoudi
Tel 212 (0)35 63 56 85
www.darmasmoudi.ma
darmasmoudi@menara.ma
darmasmoudi@yahoo.fr
3 Derb El Meter, Zenjfour, Fes
(near Palais Jamais)

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Meknes & Volubilis (4/10, 2007)

April 10th, 2007 · No Comments

Morocco is an exotic melting pot. The mix of African, Berber, Arabian, and French cultures make for an amazing history. Each city & village we visited on tour had a story to tell and images to share. Overwhelming and dizzying medieval Kasbahs in every city centre contrast the vast array of pristine natural landscapes. Our next stop on our trip was the city of Meknes and the Roman ruins in Volubilis.

Daniel

For photos click here: Meknes and Volubilis

Meknes Volubilis

Meknés
Before exploring the Meknes city centre or medina, we stopped in a local shop for some fresh OJ (highly recommended). We soon realized what fresh really means – and for about 20 cents it was especially delicious. We also sat down in the same one-table shop and were eagerly served some creamy yogurt (we think another French influence) by the shop owner’s young assistant.

During some free time, we encountered another beautiful example of Moroccan gate architecture. Meknes was a vibrant city with an even more vibrant Kasbah. In this case, the medina is home to a sprawling street market that is tightly packed into the alleyways. Seb, smartly led us around the market where we found luscious olive displays, chicken vendors where they literally weighed, killed, and de-feathered your chicken (not for the faint of heart). Sometimes, we needed to be careful about taking photos – so as not to offend people. However, the men working the chicken shop really enjoyed being behind the camera. As we rambled on, we encountered iron work shops, tempting pastry vendors, fruit vendors, and even raw wool sellers. As promised by Seb, we finally found the “camel meat guy”. We paid for a choice cut of meat and watched the camel guy (who, in my opinion, had the best shop set-up in all of the medina) grind and season the meat to perfection. We then took our goods to a nearby shop where the owner runs a public grill – for a small fee he cooked up a lunchtime feast. Within 15 minutes we were packed into a hidden room across the alley from the grill, around a table laid out with tasty camel burgers and hot mint tea.

The market was also proudly local, as most of the business was not done for tourists. Rather we were just some visitors passing through with a fantastic chance to experience their daily routine. Although, there were other tourists wandering around Meknes – many of the people inside the medina were there to do business.

Another random highlight, global brands gone mad…it’s always fun to find brands that you recognize in far away lands. It’s even more entertaining to find “similar” knock-offs in unexpected places – like a local street vendor in Meknes.

Here is a video of the metalworkers in the souk (market).

Volubilis
An ongoing theme throughout our travels has been the vast Roman influence. No big surprise, they were big in Morocco too. This site was highlighted by intact aqueducts, beautiful wild flowers, towering columns, intricate mosaic floors, and tons of Roman olive presses. Volubilis is believed to have been a Roman industrial hub in Africa. The remarkable ruins revealed signs of a complex olive industry that probably explained the importance of Volubilis in Roman times.

To provide some scale, many of the standing columns have become the nesting grounds of storks. Their nests are enormous but only look like small caps atop the soaring columns.

The other noteworthy item was a large carved stone placed at the center of a small room. The carving on the top of the stone is clearly…well, look at our photos and you can decide for yourself. Explanations: The original men’s room sign, or a sign of the hedonistic Roman culture & lifestyle.

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Casablanca & Rabat (4/9, 2007)

April 9th, 2007 · No Comments

This was one of the few trips where we went on an organized tour (Intrepid Tours – Colours of Morocco: www.intrepidtours.com/trips/XSC.) Given the vast number of destinations, it was a very wise decision. We roughed it a little more than we prefer, but the sites and experiences were worth every cold shower & uncomfortable train ride. We began our journey in one of the most well known Moroccan cities, Casablanca — and then onto Rabat.

Daniel

For photos, click here: Casablanca and Rabat

Casablanca, Morocco Rabat, Morocco

Casablanca
The starting point for our Moroccan adventure was not the whitewashed Casablanca that has been immortalized my American films. Casablanca is the modern-day financial & industrial capital of Morocco. The city only had one main tourist site, the Hassan II Mosque – one of the largest mosques in the world. It was built by and dedicated to King Hassan II. The foundation was designed so that the mosque literally towers over the Mediterranean Sea. We only spent a half day touring the massive complex. Some photos highlight the pure extravagance of every detail. The Ceiling is a massive retractable roof that puts most sports domes to shame – every inch is carved and decorated with beautiful colors and relief patterns.

Our guide & group leader, Sebastian, quickly got the party of 12 travelers packed into a van, in route to the train station, and on our way to Rabat. Seb, as we got to know him, was originally from Canada and lived in Vietnam. He was actually heavily involved in launching the Intrepid Tours in Morocco, so many of our destinations were truly personal and unique – much more so than we could have gotten by just following guide books and public knowledge.

Rabat
After stashing our luggage near the Rabat Train Station, we spent the afternoon exploring the “new” and “old” town. As we quickly learned, the French had a huge influence on Morocco culturally and architecturally. Most cities have an ancient center known as the medina where most of the interesting historical buildings and landmarks are found. In Rabat, the train station is located near the nouvelle place complete with wide boulevards (reminiscent of Paris). The towering palm trees lining the main street were perfectly aligned and placed. All planning & design disappear once we set foot in the medina, the streets were a crooked, confusing maze – they developed organically as the town grew in size. Nothing is balanced or anything faintly resembling a grid. Once inside, we discovered narrow, whitewashed alleyways and sunlit gardens. We also eventually found (after at least a ½ hour of getting lost) the Bab er Rouah or “Gate of Wind” – a masterful display of relief work and ornamentation around a functional gate. Behind the gate was a lush garden with views of the medina walls, which were dotted with intricately painted doors. Rabat filled the void where Casablanca left us short.

In order to get to our next destination, Meknes, we had to endure a tough train ride. Our group reassembled at the train station, which was slowly turning into a mob scene. The single train platform was filling up with mostly locals waiting for the train. Seb, repeatedly reminded us that this was a pure free-for-all. As soon as the train arrived we were to pile ourselves into the closest car door. As our train pulled to a stop, we were all tense for the impending chaos. After all, if we missed this train (according to Seb) the next train wasn’t until the next morning. So we frantically threw ourselves into the crowds of passengers. After squeezing ourselves and our luggage onto the car – Seb had to push himself through the packed train cars to make sure everyone had actually gotten on the train! After, another minute he made the count – we were off to Meknes.

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