Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The road back to Casablanca & beyond

We left Essaouira, and backtrack slightly to one of the argan oil cooperatives that we didn't have time to get to on our drive into town. As we enter, we are greeting by singing Berber women, and our guide Amina begins to explain the processes. Extracting the oil (for either cosmetic or culinary uses) is a very labor-intensive, and fairly primitive process. One woman cracks the nut on a rock, another removes the outer shell, exposing the seed, another begins grinding the seeds with a mortar & pestle-type device (she toasts the seeds first if producing oil for culinary uses; untoasted only for cosmetic), and another collects the paste that is formed from the grinding. About 50 women are part of the co-op (argan oil production is purely women's work), and Amina says they enjoy the work, hang out, etc. Some in our group do question the methods of extraction. Surely there is something more mechanized that would result in greater yields, but she says no, this is the only way.

Moroccans have been using argan for centuries, and here at the co-op they have all different kinds of products to purchase (what a surprise!). Amina explains how in cosmetics, it's used to keep the skin smooth & elastic, takes away wrinkles, etc. Foodwise, they have both the oil, and a nut butter thing called amlou, which is the oil, ground almonds, & honey; we get a taste & it's delicious on its own, but is usually used in desserts.

Returning to the bus, we head up the coast to Safi, a town known for its pottery. We stop first at a museum of pottery, and then to the pottery market where we can wander for a few. You can see the kilns just up the hill from where we are. Continuing up the coast, the landscape is interesting. Rolling green hills, with innumerable low stone walls.... they're go on and on, as far as you can see! The walls mostly made small quadrants, or I am guessing pens for the animals, but they weren't very high. I wonder how many generations they have been there.... On to a seaside town called Oualidia, where we have lunch at hotel called L'hippocampe, or Seahorse. We sit on the patio overlooking the water, and are treated to a nice meal of soup (I think it was some sort of pureed lentils in a fish broth), a whole grilled fish (dorado) drizzled with basil oil, and a pretty good flan for dessert. Don't know why, but I was fascinated with the fishbones!

Onward to Casablanca.... the area just past (and before) where we had lunch is a rich agricultural area, including the mining of sea salt, which you can see the pools from the road. (I was on the wrong side of the bus, and couldn't get a picture, but I thought it was neat!) There were mounds of salt, that I'd say were the size of 4 tractor trailers put together. Now I know where my sea salt that I found in the souks comes from! We make it to our hotel, the impressive Golden Tulip Farah, a luxurious accommodation, especially after our last place. Jen, Susan, Louise, Peggy, Mom and I decide to have our last meal of the trip at the onsite Moroccan restaurant. Kefta, kebobs, lamb & veggie couscous, and some nice pastries for dessert. A good meal to end the trip!

The bus leaves for the airport at 8 am. Casablanca seems like a total maze of streets and traffic, and 45 minutes later, we're at the airport. Getting through security is surprisingly easy, though they don't board people in a orderly fashion, like back of the plane first. It takes almost an hour to get on and seated. Once we take off for NYC, a very a pro pro meal of beef couscous & sauted veg. Not one of the more satisfactory meals on the trip, but heading home is a good thing. It's been a great trip with fun people, but my own bed calls!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Sunset in Essaouira

Monday, we left the Palais Salam and Taroudant behind, we head west to the coast and Essouaria. We go through the city of Agadir, which holds very little appeal from what we could see, but is a big beach & casino vacation spot for Europeans. Up the coast a bit more, through more argan tree/goat territory, and we reach the seaside town of Essouaria for lunch. I've got the name of it someplace, and while it certainly caters to the tourists, it was good food. All fried (but not greasy) -- calamari, sole, red snapper, and something else I know don't remember. Then to the hotel, the Hotel des Iles, right on the water and by the entrance to the medina.

As they say, location, location, location, and hate to say it, but that's all this place has going for it. Things have been a small comedy of errors. They didn't have a room for our guide, because they overbooked; they couldn't find our room key when we came back from a walk, and it turns out they gave it to another duo in our group, but it seems that ALL the keys open ALL the room doors. Great. The light above my bed didn't work, and while the wiring is clearing coming out of the wall, the bulb was dead. They came and replaced it, but then it turns out something else was wrong with it and they couldn't fix it til morning. Dinner was a huge buffet for us and the other tour bus of Israelis, a few other Americans here too. The buffet wasn't exactly stellar, with a lot of raw veggies that we cannot eat, some poorly cooked fish, and flavorless chicken. The pomme frits were the hit of the night, though actually, the desserts were good too.

We had the opportunity to walk around the medina for a bit before dinner. It does have a nice relaxed feel, and not the pressures to buy stuff like in the big cities. Old hippie, surfer town, fairly tranquil. My mother WAS offered 1000 camels, plus a cat named Mimi for me....

Tuesday, we took a quick drive over to a woodworking studio, which is one of the main crafts they are known for here. It was incredible to see the inlay work they do, I've never know how it was done! I think almost all of us walked out of there with some treasures. We had the rest of the day on our own. Wandered around the medina a bit more, and ate some very good thin crust pizza for lunch, a nice change of pace!

I've take too many cat photos! These were at one of the street-side shops.

We had our farewell dinner just inside the medina, at a place called Dar Loubane, which is owned by a French woman. On the heels of our great meal at the Riad Maryam, this too was one of our better meals (and the portions were just right!). We sat out on the courtyard, with portable heaters in the wings. We started with wine, olives, eggplant, tomato sauce, calamari w/ tomatoes, a nice pastilla, and a trio of tagines: lamb with apricots, beef with eggplant, and a firm white fish with caramelized onions & raisins. Monkfish kabobs appeared, as well as rice & sauteed squash. Dessert was a trio of chocolate mouse, different Moroccan cookies, and a creamy white sauce, sort of like melted ice cream. Back to the hotel for another night of seagulls squawking all through the night....

In & Around Taroudant

My one group photo, taken on my camera by Harvey, at the delightful Riad Maryam.

After getting a better look at our hotel in the daylight, we took off to the far side of town (really, maybe 1.5 miles away, tops) for the open air market. We had time to wander by ourselves through the used clothes, and then the more interesting produce (seeing the items we had seen growing along the road yesterday), spices, and the livestock. We then went inside the kasbah, and into the souk. After some wandering around, we visited two antique shops apparently run by the same people. I am getting tired of being herded to certain shops (where our local guide probably gets some sort of commission), where the men working there hover non-stop, trying to make a sale with their promises of “we have good price.” Twice today, the guy tried to put a necklace on me that my mother tried on, and both times I quickly backed off, and said No. I know it's their way, but I take it as an invasion of personal space!

Finding the place for lunch at first was a bit dubious, as we were walking through some back alleys to find what turned out to be the incredibly lovely Riad Maryam, named for the proprietor's daughter, who was our server. It was a beautiful courtyard, with a long table set up for us. And when they say lunch is the main meal of the day here, they're not kidding. It all begin with a pureed vegetable soup with fish stock (I think) in it. Then sauted young zucchini with a light tomato sauce. Then came the baby eggplant. Then a big mixed vegetable plate (all cooked), with carrots, cauliflower, beets, potatoes, green beans, and I think parsnips. Then a chicken kabob for each. Then a fava bean & green pea salad. Then a salad of cuke, tomatoes, and what was probably green bell peppers, or an extremely mild green chile. Then kefta kabob for each. At this point, we were all fairly full, but suspicious, because they hadn't removed our dinner plates yet. Then they brought out the tagines, and at that point, we told them we simply couldn't eat any more. I HOPE we did not insult them by refusing their main course, but everything up to that point was delicious, but it was a crazy amount of food! So we asked them to bring dessert, expecting fruit or a cookie. Maryam brings out this gorgeous layered dessert; Our guide called it a jowhara, meaning “jewel”, and that is was! (Looking at my book on Moroccan foods, I am pretty sure this fantastic thing is called a keneffa.) It was like traditional French crepes, flash fried, so they were crispy, layered with a light pastry cream with cinnamon, honey, peanuts and almonds in between the multitude of layers. It looked beautiful, and tasted even better! A superb treat, and their hospitality was wonderful.

Back to the hotel for a bit, and then we took carriage rides around the kasbah. I got to be one of the lucky ones and sit with the driver. Fortunately (or not) my driver was young, 32 to be exact, and rather handsome. But he was definitely interested in meeting me later for coffee or tea, and showing me the town. Very persistent! And even though I said I was traveling with my mother and aunt, he kept saying how beautiful I was and how he would wait for me after the group's dinner. Blah, blah, blah. Very persistent though...He asked if I had a boyfriend, and I said yes. I was prepared to tell him my boyfriend's name was Charlie, and just leave out the fact that he has 4 legs and a furry tail! This town seems to be the place for men, as the hotel porter, Abdul from Mali, whom I was talking to about Obama, asked me if I had a boyfriend.

My, cough, knight in shining armour:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Through the Anti-Atlas Mountains

Photos: Goats in the argan trees; argan nuts, with the fabulous Moroccan tangerines!

So, we've been through the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas, and today we got the Anti-Atlas. Creative with the names, no? We left Zagora – thankfully not on camel – and headed back west, stopping for some photo ops along the way. The first hour is fairly flat, driving along the palm oases, and then it gets more hilly as we get into the Anti Atlas. Very pretty, fairly uneventful drive. We were supposed to stop at a weaving cooperative, but for some reason, they will not see us, and we're all a bit unsure as to why, so we continue down the road, looking for a place for lunch. We find a small restaurant in the middle of saffron country, and they are also of course happy to sell the saffron. The guy says “it's the real thing, the best quality,” and I tend to believe him. Outstanding price on a large quantity of the stuff, and they made a good lunch too – meatballs with a light tomato & saffron sauce.

As we head further west towards our destination of Taroudant, we come into the region were the argan trees grow. The oil from argan nuts has been used for centuries in Morocco for both cosmetic and culinary purposes. Some is exported to Europe, while the US seems to be still just learning about it. For culinary uses, it has a nice light smell, not unlike toasted sesame oil. While I haven't yet tried it (I did smell it) yet, apparently it makes for wonderful salad dressing. What also makes argan unusual is its method of preparation. The nuts are eaten by goats, who climb up in the trees for them, and their digestive systems breakdown an outer coat on the nut, which are then collected from their dung, and pressed for the oil. That's right. We're eating nuts that have passed through the goat. Anyway, it was really quite a sight to see the goats IN the trees!

The remainder of the drive was through a rich agricultural valley that reminded me of the Mesilla Valley in the Las Cruces area. Argan & olive trees, banana trees in green houses, melons, winter squash, tons of citrus, and other things that we couldn't really identify from the bus. Very pretty region though. So into Taroudant, which is a city that is mostly behind the thick walls of the ancient kasbah. One section of the wall serves as the backdrop for our hotel, the Palais Salam, which is an old palace that has been converted; there are tons of little courtyards, pools on two levels, very quaint. Dinner was at their restaurant, soup and a fairly good chicken tagine with onions and preserved lemons.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Zagora & the Sahara

That's me on the camel in the back!

The day started with a drive along the palm tree oases about 20 minutes from here to a town called Tinfou, where the sand dunes begin. There are still mountain formations, though they trail off a bit more down the road, and I imagine that's where the fun really begins! There are signs all around which say “Timbuktu – 52” meaning 52 days by camel! Uhhhh, not this time around! Anyway, the winds have deposited sand in these large dunes off the main road. The Toureg people (dark skinned nomadic Africans from the Sahara) occupy the area with their camels (occupy for the tourists.....), and of course, for a price, you can ride one.

So, ride the camels we did! We each got our own camel, they tied a few together, and then the Toureg guides lead them through the sand, and up and down the dunes. They have carpeted tents set up for the tourists who come to spend the night, as well as modern amenities as motorcycles. These people are obviously accustomed to tourists, as they spoke basic English, and were happy to take your picture of you on your camel with your camera, and happily took your money for the fabric they wove around your head into a turban. (I actually have become quite fond of my royal blue fabric, I just have no idea how to recreate the desert turban look!) We would lurch along, and then stop for some picture taking, and then pitch forward as the camel headed down the dunes. The saddle on top of the camel isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, and it took a second to get your land legs back once you got off, but great fun! It was a good 30 – 40 minute ride, and thoroughly entertaining! When else are you going to ride a camel in the Moroccan Sahara?!?? It was a treat!

From there, we headed back up the road to a town called Tamegroute, which oddly enough, is known for its Islamic library. It used to have upwards of 40,000 volumes, and scholars came from all around to study the books on math, astronomy, philosophy, Koranic verse, and other sciences. Adjacent are pottery makers, who do ceramics with a green glaze made from natural manganese, mined from a nearby region. We had a tour of their rustic studios, and of course had buying opportunities. Lunch was back in Zagora at a small riad (cooked carrots and a beef pot roast tagine), and then to an antique & rug store, operated by men in traditional Toureg dress (blue kaftans & turbans), though they didn't look like it ethnically speaking. As in, I think the dress was for the tourists. Some time to rest in the late afternoon, and dinner at the hotel of kefta, (instant) rice, and veggies.

Marrakech to Zagora: The High Atlas Mountains

We leave Marrakech and it's famous Djemma (plaza) of food vendors, entertainers, snake charmers, and mopeds for a quieter countryside drive. Early fog gives away to blue skies with some high clouds. It is a beautiful drive up to the snow-covered peaks through hairpin turns and a multitude of scenic views.

I wish knew more about the geology of the region, because rocks and mountains changed at every seeming bend in the road. It started out with terraced hillsides with deep stream-carved valleys below. We saw a whole range of snowy tops, with the sun glistening off the mountain sides. The highest peak is called Tizi-n-Tichka pass, which at 7400 feet, is the highest pass in Morocco. The landscape then became very much like our American southwest, some looking like the reddish-oranagey Grand Canyon, other areas looking like southern New Mexico's Robledos with their more muted tones. There was one mountain that was a light sage green, and it appeared to be that shade not just from its vegetation, but from whatever minerals were in that hillside. We saw very angular, cubic looking hillsides and mountains, many at odd angles, having been thrust up by plate tetonic movements eons ago. All different, all gorgeous.

We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate, which is known as the Hollywood of Moroccco, as there are at least 3 movie studio sets & soundstages there. Movies like Kundun, Gladiator, The Mummy, and Babel have all been filmed around this region. Brad Pitt was known to walk around town. Lunch was at a place owned by a Greek, called Dimitri's, and it was filled with photos of movie stars of the years gone by. A nice spinach soup and chicken tagine. Another 2 hours down the road to Zagora, which is the beginning of the Sahara.

Our hotel is a sprawling place, with the rooms built around a center courtyard and pools. We arrived just as the sun had set, and navigating some of the dark passageways to find our rooms was amusing. The lights were not on, and once we figured out there were light switches in the halls, that made it a bit easier. This place though has a bit of an abandoned feel. Not out of neglect, but for the size of the place, there's just not many people here besides us. Dinner was soup and another chicken tagine, with wine in honor of Tom's wife's birthday and their anniversary.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008



We are estatic, and it's been fun to see the reactions of the Moroccans. Yesterday (Tuesday), as we were walking around the medina, people would shout out Obama's name. Today, I have been wearing my Obama/Biden button on my shirt (it's been on my purse until now, but sort of hidden), and SO MANY people, from the hotel workers, to the shop keepers, to the people sitting in the medina, have all smiled and their eyes light up. I've had numerous requests for the button, or if I had extras, and I wish I did! The Moroccans are very excited for change, not just for how it will effect their country but also for Americans. They understand that the direction our country has taken in the past eight years is not the will of the American people; they know the goodwill this country has undertaken in the past, and look for that to return, and not to continue the wars that Bush has gotten us into. It's been gratifying to support a positive change, and to be able to hold your head high while walking the Marrakech streets.

Computer problems..... the flash drive where I have been writing my posts and downloading my pictures to is now not being recognized by the laptop. Don't really have a clue as to what's wrong with it, but I have two posts on there, that I now can't get on here.

In short, we had the most wonderful experience in Fes. We were invited to the home of our guide, Abdesalem, as his wife, Aicha, and family prepared a traditional meal for us. We had pastilla, also known as pigeon pie, though this was made (as it is commonly) with chicken. It's phyllo dough, with cooked chicken, mixed with ground almonds & walnuts, cinnamon, cloves, a touch of sugar; it is one of your traditional sweet & savory Moroccan dishes, particularly known as a specialty of Fes. This was FANTASTIC. It had the sweet & savoriness, crispness from the phyllo, tender chicken, I really can't say enough about it! They also made a traditional couscous (which we've only had once until now) with lamb and vegetables. It too had some sweet & savory elements with the tender lamb and golden raisins, and it too was terrific. We were seated at three tables in their living room and hallway, and they made 3 of each of these dishes for each of the tables, and they have a tiny kitchen!

The food & hospitality we received was absolutely fantastic; it is by far the best meal we have had while we've been here. My special thanks to Zahra, one of Abdesalem's daughter-in-laws, who lived in the US for a couple of years. I sat next to her during dinner, and she answered my questions about the food. It was a great evening, and all of us thank them for it!

And a quick recap since leaving Fes:
Monday morning was cloudy and a bit rainy leaving Fes. We headed south for the Middle Atlas mountains, and the drive south. About an hour south of Fes, we stopped in a small town that was built in the late 1920s for French expatriots; it's even modeled after an alpine village. And true to form, it snowed a bit! Continuing down the road, we made a quick stop to see the Barbary apes, who, though wild, are fairly tame for the tourists. Also known as a type of macaque, they were rather entertaining! After cedar forests and more rain, we had a very late lunch at a roadside gas station, that served very good tagine and kefta (like a grilled meatball). Onto a small town with a tourist hotel for one night. Tuesday morning, we continued the drive into Marrakech, and arrived in time for lunch just off the main plaza in the medina, called the Djemma. We then got to tour the medina, which is vastly different from Fes. Basically, think medieval vs. modern. It's very easy to get around without a guide here; people are friendly, and I've had no sense of personal danger like pickpockets that I've felt in other countries; it's comfortable.

(The Djemma al Fna; the stands with the roofs are juice and dried fruit stands. As the day wears on, the grilled meat vendors roll into place, filling up the plaza.)

I didn't sleep super-well last night, I think in anticipation of the election results. We turned on the tv at 6:30 am (1:30 am EST), and after a couple of commercials on CNN, saw the results we wanted! There was much rejoicing at breakfast, and we SHOULD have had mimosas! We went to some beautiful private gardens, a couple of museums, an herbalist shop where we all got the hard sell (it worked!), and then we were turned loose for lunch & time to ourselves. Mom and I went back into the medina, wandering through the different souks as the locals called out Obama's name. And not to be forgotten, the snake charmers sit on the plaza, waiting for tourists.

Monday, November 3, 2008


We're leaving Fes this morning for the Middle Atlas Mountains. I think tonight will essentially be in the middle of nowhere, and I doubt I will have internet access. Tues & Wed nights we will be in Merrakech -- in time to watch the election returns, although CNN Europe has been rather repetitive in its coverage the last couple days.

I still have to write about yesterdays sights, and the day was capped off by the BEST meal we have had so far!

My fingers are crossed for Obama!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day 6 -- Fes

Pics: olives, silk thread merchant, tannery baths

It's 4:45 am. Do you know where your mosque is? Both Mom and I were awake at this hour, as the call to prayer droned on and on. With no offense to anyone, it sounded like a dying cow. Our guide had previously explained to us that the first call to prayer of the day (5 total) is the longest, because they are trying to get people up. Also, the first call is somehow related to sunrise, but in this part of the world, at this time of year, sunrise isn't until around 6:30 am.... So we have early morning prayer calls to look forward to for the next 2 day. Goody.

When we intentionally got up around 7 am, it was rather a disappointment to see that it was raining, and that clouds & fog completely covered the hillside. You could barely see the hotel's swimming pool which is directly below us. A couple hours later, as we set off for the medina, it wasn't much better. We went first to the gates of the Royal Palace; quite an impressive set of engraved brass doors and mosaic tile work. From there, it was into the medina itself, which is closed to cars. Not so much that they're not allowed, they simply wouldn't fit. The structure of the medina hasn't changed much since it was originally constructed around the 9th century. It's a medieval labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, accessible by foot and donkey, and not much else. Labyrinth may be a bit of an understatement. Most of the walkways aren't much more than 8 feet wide, and many of them around 4 feet wide. Roof tops overlap with one another, making a view of the sky near impossible. But even if you could see it, it probably wouldn't give you much clue to what direction you were going in. You need a guide. (Or as my Fodor's book says: pay a small child a little bit to escort you out.) And with a group of 18 people, our guide, who grew up in these quarters, also hired a guide to bring up the rear, a very wise move.

So it's raining, mid 50s, and we descend into the maze. Each area of the medina specializes in something. We hoofed it through: the vegetable stands, meat & fish, desserts like halvah, shoes, silk thread, cloth, kaftans & djeballas, brass, silver, ceramics, woodworking, leather tanning, weaving.... saw the mosque, the building that holds the tomb of a long-deceased emperor, a museum of old enthographic artifacts, rug co-op, weaving workshop, tannery, all while dodging raindrops, donkeys full of wares, and donkey dung. As if the donkey dung didn't smell good enough in the rain, you know you are approaching the tanning areas, because the smell of somewhat rotting flesh nearly overwhelms you. Would have loved more time to wander a bit, look more at some of the wares, etc. Definitely opportunities for buying things, and local entrepreneurs who can spot the tourists coming from down a dark passage way, sporting their umbrellas (useful today, though I haven't caved in yet), Fes hats (the red felt ones like what Shriners wear), and trinkets galore. I am sure there are some great areas of the souk that we didn't see.... I saw some spices, but not tons... our guide says in Marrakech we will have some free time in the medina, but that may not be the case here.

Lunch was at a touristy spot in the depths of the maze; totally looks like a hole in the wall from the outside, but the inside was quite elaborately decorated with mosaics, wooden carved arches, and fabric draped ceilings. The meal consisted of plates of cooked veggies, and these were some of the better we've had – beets, carrots with a bit of clove, eggplant/ baba ganoush, potatoes; good bread too, but we asked for olive oil, and what came had something else mixed in with it, and I couldn't identify it. Dinner was back at the hotel, and we were served a Western meal – potato soup (like a vichyssoise), veal with a mushroom sauce (kinda chewy), potatoes, and cauliflower florets w peas & carrots. While not stellar, a nice change from not stellar tagines. The dessert though was lovely – an apple tart tatin, with a raspberry sauce. Not the chocolate cake I was suddenly craving, but you could taste the butter in the crust. :)