Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seven Days in Marrakech

Arrived to the contrast of the Nouvelle City, outside the walls or Medina of the Old City. Modern, banks and hotels line Mohamed V Avenue. Abdullah met us at the train station and delivers us to Bab Aylen (Bab is Gate) on the east side of the Medina. He then guides us by foot into the Medina about two short blocks to a small alley where we are greeted by Sayid of Riad Shaden. Sayid and Youssef, the managers are always 'service with a smile'. They tell us to 'ask for anything, we can help you'.

In typical Moroccan tradition we are served sweet warm mint tea upon arrival and placed in our tiny room on the first floor of the Riad (Moroccan home with inner courtyard). Breakfast each day is strong coffee and warm milk with an assortment of breads such as corn bread, semolina bread and crepes. We asked for boiled eggs each morning to have some protein with all the carbs.

We've met fellow travelers mostly from Europe, especially Netherlands. Always fun to compare notes and mistakes made.

Our first night out of the Riad we ventured the fifteen minute walk to the city center Jmaa El Fnaa (JEF) but didn't make it. Talk about culture shock! Overwhelming! People in jalaba's, cattle/sheep heads hanging from hooks at the stalls, tiny shops lining the 'street'selling everything from dentures to the ugliest clothing I've ever seen. Image wearing a bathrobe of fleece printed with the John Deere logo in beige! It even said 'John Deere'!! As we approach the square we are harangued by young men competing for our business in the local restaurants. So we didn't make it to the square because one of these buskers managed to seat us at Chez Brahim for our first Moroccan tajines (roasted food served in a clay dish called a tajine). Although we were intimidated by the lack of English-in Morocco it's primarily Arabic or French- we knew what a tajine and poulet were so we ordered accordingly. Big problem for me: all my food allergies. I carried little slips in French with the list of allergins. The waiter read the slip, steered me away from the Vegetable Tajine. Then he proceeded to serve me the first course salad covered with parsley. I pointed out the offending herb and he took it away and brought the tomato salad. Then the tajine; he opens the cover and it's also covered with parsley. Took it away and returns again. Phew....glad I brought my epi-pen! Just in case.

The next day I took a cooking class at our Riad. Sayid took me to the market to buy the ingredients. I chose to make the Briwats for first course and the Pastilla for the main and a milk pudding for dessert. The ingredients were not anything exceptional but for the herb Ras El Hanout (head of the shop), a mixture of 30 herbs. We made three types of Briwats. Vegetable, Cheese and Tuna. The mixtures are folded into strips of filo dough triangles; folded like a flag and pan fried in oil. The Pastilla is a larger sheet of filo dough in buttered layers filled with ground almond paste, egg, onion, spices and chicken and sugar. Edges are buttered and folded under, baked in oven and served with honey and cinnamon on top. Quite sweet for a main couse. But the milk pudding wasn't sweet at all. Sort of a reverse of European cooking where the entree is savory and the dessert is very sweet.

The next day we took our map and got quite lost trying to find the dumpy Museum of Marrakech. Teenage boys will gladly help you find your way and then proceed to fleece you, 'give me 100 durham!” - about $12! Right! They look you right in the eye and demand. I learned to look them right back and say 'NO'! Yata is much nicer, and comes up with some coins. We've gotten better at this each day. The day after we just roamed around with no map and found all kinds of interesting Palaces, Souks (shops) and restaurants. We also try to carry small coins since someone is always begging or selling tissues or some such.

Nearly every night we are drawn to the square JEF. There the tourists and vendors congregate. There are snake charmers and performers. There are stalls that sell mounds of fresh steamed snails, fresh squeezed orange juice (50 cents), grilled meats, vegetable salads, sweet pastries. There were a few stalls that were selling what appeared to be mounds of dark chocolate. Turns out it is a sweet spread of ground spices: cinnamon, clove, cardamon, ginger etc. Then served with warm sweet ginger 'beer'. Some food stalls display the heads of sheep with the brain neatly wrapped in cellophane on top of the head. Yata had dreams about that! After a dinner sampling the various booths we happened upon some musicians singing and playing traditional Moroccan music. Sat and recorded a number of their tunes in between which the leader harassed the crowd into tipping.

Our favorite restaurant has been Un Dejeuner Marrakech. We had two dinner there, both more French than Moroccan but it's nice to have a break from the Morrocan since it doesn't vary that much. We are so accustomed to such variety in our diets. A couple of minor treats have been the sweet clementines that are found in every market for next to nothing and the steamed and roasted chickpeas, litely salted and cuminned (if that is a verb).

We've enjoyed Marrakech but seven days here is more than enough! Five might be just right. Oh, and one excellent must see is Jardin Majorelle, the garden and home of an artist that was restored by Yves St. Laurent. Excellent cactus garden with good placards. It also included a very well done but small Berber Museum. The artist's color sense was wonderful. Royal blue with yellow or gold accents. Pools reflecting the sky and palms...lovely.

Speaking of Berber, we've bought quite a nice selection of Berber silver jewelry to resell. It's easier to travel with than rugs (which I'd love to acquire also) and it's something we don't have easy access to in Western Wisconsin. Jafir our salesman is a Berber from southern Morocco. Nice guy, not so pushy!

We accidentally found the Kozy Bar, recommended by a couple of Dutch women. It's the first place in Morocco we've found that served alcohol.  We didn't have any but we had a great Thai soup and Creamy Ravioli with a fabulous view of the Medina and the Atlas mountains as well as the big nesting storks on nearby roof tops.  

Tomorrow we're off on a three day excursion to the Sahara.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Casablanca: We're not in Cape Town Anymore!

We arrived at the Moroccan International Airport today at Casablanca. No driver appeared as we had hoped. When I called the hotel they told me that the driver had a 'very bad problem with the police', so we were directed to take a taxi and not spend more than 280 Dirham. The driver got 300 out of us. It was a long drive and during the last half hour wound slowly through narrow inner city streets. After being in Cape Town, Casablanca it very scruffy. Everything is dusty and quite a bit of garbage lying around. We finally reached the hotel, a once fairly opulent hotel with the classic Arab tiles, and ornate wood trim and moulding. We were starving so begged the hotel restaurant to open a bit early for lunch. I had my first Moroccan tagine, fish with olives backed in a very flavorful sauce in a clay pot. Quite nice.

Everything appeared clean here but it looks like they don't believe in using bleach. In the well dressed restaurant each table was formerly white linen but now is a dull off-white with assorted stains.
The hotel is Hotel Maamoura.  It has a pretty good Trip Advisor rating.

We took a walk around the neighborhood. It consists of four story buildings with storefronts on the first level and likely apartments above. After about 1pm the street vendors came out and lined the shady side of the street. Each block or half a block was dedicated to a certain type of merchandise. For example you might find a half a block of just baby stores or a whole inner passage that had a dozen lighting stores, mostly all selling the same items. Most people don't know English and of course we don't speak French so it is challenging. I was trying to find needle and thread to do a little repair. I found the sewing needles but no thread. We searched for blocks. We found an inner passage way that was dedicated to large spools of silky thread and fancy embroidered floral appliques...all the thread you'd ever need but not in small spools for an individual seamstress. Weird. I wonder if these large spools were for industrial machines, that's all I can imagine. We also found the date seller where a nice looking gentleman read our body language of 'we'd like some dates but don't know how to ask'. He knew English and directed us to the sweetest most moist variety and told the vendor what we wanted. We also discovered a vendor who make a white nougat taffy that tasted like it was flavored with jasmine tea, this is one of the small reasons we like to travel and experience new cultures.

There is such a huge contrast between Cape Town and Casablanca. Cape Town is modern, extremely clean and visitor friendly.  Casablanca, very dusty, run down and not particularly easy to navigate as an English only traveler. But we are not in Cape Town anymore! Tomorrow we take the train to Marrakech.

12th Feb, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cape Town and Tourists

Being Tourists
We've been hitting all the high spots, the V&A Wharf (similar to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf), the Hop on Hop off Bus Tours. In fact we took the bus half way up that mountain in the background to a beautiful overlook of the city below.  A taxi driver took us on a daylong trip to the Cape Point or Cape of Good Hope.  Along the way we saw the charming little, but endangered African Penguin. Liam has been a great little travel buddy.  He loves attention and just lights right up when you give him a smile.  He 'talks' and coos.....and poos!  Time to take off for a wine tour today to Stellenbosch.  The wine is the most pleasant surprise.  I knew they grew grapes, but had no idea the quality and with a good exchange rate, good prices.  Cheaper than soda and juice!  They're waiting for me, gotta go.