Thursday, October 30, 2008

The first few days in Morocco

Photos from top: olive trees; inlay work at masoleum; Chellah ruins; chicken tagine. Left: Hassan mosque

Coming to you from an internet cafe in the charming little town of Chefchaoen. Here is what I have typed from my laptop and had to seek out internet connections.

Day 1 – Arriving in Morocco: Casablanca to Rabat

We've made it! While there was little sleep to be had sitting behind a crying child, we,and our baggage, have arrived in one piece in Casablanca. I am taking this journey with my mother, Jane, and aunt, Peggy and as I was previously fairly certain, I am the youngest member of this tour group by a generation.

After getting the bags, meeting our local guide, and exchanging dollars for dirhams at the airport, we loaded up the bus. There a was a local man waiting curbside with a Britney Spears t-shirt on. Nice. But there really is quite a mix of western dress and the traditional khaftans and even the more devout Muslims with head coverings.

Our first stop was a modern mosque, completed in the 1990s, that is the largest mosque in the world that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. That is, after you pay your dirhams to Allah. About $18 USD. I figured it was worth it, as when else are you going to get to go in a mosque like this? Peggy & I decided to do the tour that allows you inside. The Hassan II Mosque will hold 20,000 praying men, with space for an additional 5,000 women in the hanging mezzanines. (Muslim women are not allowed on the main floor.... I can't quite figure out why non-Muslim women are allowed.....)Didn't really have time for the full official tour because we had to get back to the bus, but it's an impressive place.

From there, to a hotel in town that we'll be staying at the last day of the trip. A chance for a snack and bathrooms before the 1.5 hour drive to Rabat. A relatively fancy hotel. Stunning French pastries (I had a fruit tarte with a pastry cream filling), and my first taste of authentic Moroccan mint tea. A strong mint essence, with a touch of sweetness. Even though this is my first, I get the feeling it may be the standard against which other teas are measured. Delicious.

Kinda slept on the drive to Rabat. Lunch was at at touristy seaside place. Prix fix and a preplanned meal for us, starting with a pureed seafood soup with saffron, giving it a beautiful deep orange color. Not real memorable otherwise. Unfortunately, the whitefish presented to us for the main dish was overcooked (really, a seafood place?!!?). We were told it was related to seabass, but it was more like halibut or swordfish steak. Came with Uncle Ben's-esqe rice, and a melange of sauteed carrots and squash ribbons. A really weird spumoni for dessert. 

Then on to the hotel – the Villa Mandarine, about 15 minutes from downtown in a residential area. Goregous. Colorful, over abundant gardens, and it IS October. And I haven't even walked around the whole place yet! A formal welcome dinner for the group was held at the hotel. Started with a salad course – a modern rectangular plate with small offerings of 6 different things: 1) roast beets w/cumin and boiled calamari; 2) something baba ganoush-like; 3) steamed potatoes w/ golden raisins; 4) baby squash (the waiter said “courgettes” but it looked like okra to me) w/ a lightly creamy mixture that none of us could figure out, but the best thing on the plate!; 5) steamed cauliflower florets w/ harissa; 6) baby greens, which was the one thing we shouldn't eat on the plate. All were tasty, and a really nice presentation. Then the main. A chicken tagine, served in the tagine. Stunning. They lifted the lids, and the steam just poured out. It was a drumstick and thigh, with onions, purpley olives, and a bit of preserved lemon. The chicken was so tender, it truly fell off the bone. A side of real couscous, not the box stuff. Looked great, tasted great! Could have used a little more of the lemon.... the dish was so hot, that the olive pits almost burned your mouth. For dessert, they served a trio of cookies, fresh orange slices w/ cinnamon, and mint tea. The cookies were all different types, but all had almond paste in them; kinda so-so, especially after that French fruit tarte earlier in the day! The tea was a bit oversweetened, but I know there will be tons more of that to come!

Day 2 Rabat

Woke up to overcast skies, wind, and a bit of drizzle. After breakfast at the hotel (croissants, yogurt, cheese), we departed to see the Royal Palace. The king, Hassan, is young by royal standards (45), western educated, and apparently popular. He wasn't in residence (the fountains outside are working when he is), but while tour groups have been allowed inside in the past, we were not today. Winds picking up, we headed back to the bus.

Then off to Chellah, the 7th or 8th century BC Roman or Phoenician ruins. What was probably once a bustling city of about 1000 is down to some walls and pillars, but you can get the sense of what was, and it was probably spectacular for its time. Still visible are the remains of the amplitheater, baths, and market. Old arches and garden paths still preside. Several cats line the walkways, and were somewhat talkative to the tourists. At the end of out tour, the rain was starting to pick up. We went across the river to the town of Salé, and parked in an area known for its pottery and crafts. Had some time to walk around in the drizzle, and see what kinds of things are available. Saw some nice quality embroidered kaftans.

Lunch was at a place called La Peniche, on the Sale side of the river. It's on a boat, and as yesterday, our preplanned meal wasn't stellar, though better than the previous. Started with a seafood stuffed crepe, which looked really nice. But I've never had a crepe with glass noodles in it before.... The main dish was white fish, with white sauce, a timbale of rice, q quiche-like thing of carrots and squash (a theme...), and a roasted tomato half with diced, baked eggplant that was quite good. And a much better spumoni for dessert.

We had the option of being dropped off downtown, or returning to the hotel. After some mechanical issues w the bus, it just seemed easier to back to Villa Mandarine. We opted for dinner here, and it did not disappoint, the food or the company! The menu was all in French, and out of 6 of us, no one spoke it, so we muddled through it. They started us with a chilled yogurt cucumber offering, similar to a raita. I ordered a lamb dish, which I thought would be more stew like, but instead, it was baby lamp chops, with mashed potatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, and fava beans in a light tomato cream sauce. Delicious. The chops were juicy and tender. And again, another beautiful presentation. This dish was certainly of French influence, rather than Moroccan, but no complaints. For dessert, we ordered the sampler plate with chocolate souffle, crème brulee, banana in phyllo.... and a goat cheese plate, with 4 different aged goat cheeses with fig jam. Mmmm. Wish I knew which cheeses they were, I am guessing all French. Two rubbed w veg ash, one soft ripened like a Brie, one kinda chalky, all lightly tangy, not too goaty, and delicious! A nice way to end the meal!

Day 3 – Ouezzane to Chefchaouen

Most of the day was not a good one. I am sick. At least I am not the only one though, and I'll spare any further details. We left Rabat and the beautiful Villa Mandarine, and headed north. About 30 miles out of town, we stopped at a private ethnographic museum. Beautiful collections of weaving & textiles, old saddles, metal work, etc. Unfortunately, really nothing was labeled with any information as to the origin of the pieces, and what little info there was, was in French. I certainly would have enjoyed it more if had been feeling better. Back to the bus, and a little further down the road, the driver stopped at a roadside fruit stand, and got us oranges and bananas. They also had big pomegranates, though a very light pinkish color, not the deep maroon I am used to. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to eat one. The banana was the first thing I ate all day.

We continued down the road (I pretty much slept), and got deeper into the countryside and rolling hills. You could see young men with their flocks of sheep along the sides. Then the olive trees popped up. We stopped at a bend in the road, and got out to take some pictures. Onwards to a modern gas station for lunch; lamb tagines with vegetables, which the reports on were very good. We backtracked to the town of Ouezzane, and what began as a not terribly trecherous climb up a village street became a little more challenging when we reached the point where they were digging up the entire walkway for pipes or something. The workers waved us on through, as we plodded through the dirt and rocks. One of our group remarked “Imagine the liability in New York!”. Indeed. V arious little storefronts lined the ways – shoes, clothing, kaftans, djeballas (think Obi Wan Kenobi's robe), trinkets, At the top of the passageway, were several craftsmen – kids spinning thread into these braided plakets, weavers making cloth. Tom, the guide, had pictures he had taken of some of the craftsmen on a previous trip, so he gave them to his past subjects. Some of the kids whose pictures he had taken before were tickled to get the photos. I got a picture of them with big full grins.

It was interesting to see the workers, as some of them were in a space the size of a small closet. But they seem content, and happy with their lives. From here, onto Chefchaoen, which seems to be a charming little town, even if it is known for its prevalent kif -- like hashish -- supply.

This cafe computer is taking waaaaaay too long to download photos, going on 5 min for 4 pics.....