Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Morocco

My Top 10 from 2015

2015 was a pretty epic year of traveling for me. I’ve just switched over to my new 2016 calendar and I counted all the days I was out of Saudi traveling last year. It was 109. 109!!!! How is that even possible? Since the last time I checked I work a full-time gig as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia. But apparently I was on the go a lot. I visited 16 countries over the last year, 11 of them new for me, and I thought I would share my top 10 favourite memories from the last year. Enjoy!!

1. Cyprus

Way back in February I took a trip to Cyprus and my kiwi sidekick and I rented a car and drove around the quaint island. I have 2 favourite memories from this trip. The first was the a day we spend driving in the hills between Limassol and Paphos. The  day was cold and dreary and we visited a local winery and then made our way to a small village that was devastated and deserted by an earthquake in 1969. As we arrived in the village a torrential downpour started which only added to the creepiness of our visit, and we got soaked walking around taking photos. The village is on the way to a town called Lemona. The other great memory I have from that trip was the time a stranger gave us his BMW to drive for an afternoon. You can read about that travel tale here.

Creepy right?!

2. Norway

Two words. Lofoten Islands. Quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. They are picturesque and have this kinda of awestruck beauty that isolated and desolate places have. Every which way you turn your head was a postcard perfect view. The gagged snow covered peaks drop dramatically into the arctic sea and I would go back in a second. I think an Atheist would have a hard time believing there isn’t a higher power of some sort after visiting this island chain. See for yourself…..

3. Sweden

The whole of Scandinavia is awesome, and travel there is pretty easy. It would be a real shame if you went to Sweden and didn’t visit the Ice Hotel, even if only for the day! The Ice Hotel is an artistic marvel in that every year the design and decor is completely different. Different artists take part every year so the theme rooms change, which you have to admit is pretty cool. It is pricey, but well worth the stay. You can sleep in one of the actual ice rooms, or stay in a heated cabin like we did. Oh, and if you go make sure to do the tasting menu at the restaurant there- it is phenomenal. Maybe you’ll luck out and the Northern Lights will come out like they did for us!!

4. Finland

Dog sledding in Lapland has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was bloody cold, but so worth it.

5. Maldives

This view……I dream about it often. This is one of the most relaxed vacations I have ever had. Ever. It was hard to decide between spa, pool, eat, nap, read, repeat. This is also the place where I attempted to overcome my fear of the water and tried scuba diving.

6. Bahrain

So VIP culture is huge in the Middles East. You rarely see anything VIP in North America unless it’s in a mocking nature, but over in these parts everything is VIP. VIP movie theaters, hospitals, parking spots, entrances. It’s all a little over the top. That is until you catch a ride over the causeway to Bahrain in a vehicle with diplomatic plates and get to cross via the VIP lanes. Yep. And funfact….they have tea boys who come right up to you car to serve you tea, while you wait in line to cross the border.

7. Morocco

I blogged at great length about how difficult it was traveling in Morocco, but one the best things we did while there was take a cooking class thru Souk Cuisine. This class included a shopping trip to buy the needed ingredients in the Medina and was a great way to learn about local ingredients whilst mixing with the locals. Even though Morocco was sometimes very challenging the food was ALWAYS delicious. I would pretty much recommend doing a cooking class or food tour whenever you travel. I’m doing one later this month in Spain and can’t wait!!

8. Bali Indonesia

At the end of August I took part in a retreat on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Bali with 17 other ladies from all over the world. My time there was so needed and really came at a time when I needed to slow down and work through some things on my own. The location was beautiful, as were the many lovely ladies I met. This was a time of much needed R&R and reflection, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful friendships that were formed from my time in Bali.

9. Oktoberfest Germany

Even though I ended up with a GI bug from hell, Oktoberfest was a seriously fun time (while it lasted.) I mean what’s not to love about a group of traditionally costumed and hugely intoxicated people smashing beer steins together while singing traditional German songs at the top of ones lungs. It was a good time, and YOLO you really only do live once so you should go.

10. Sparkling Hills Spa in British Columbia Canada

Last month I took my mom to this spa about an hour from where she lives. This is a place people have been raving about since it opened a few years back and I was keen to see what all the hype was about! The hotel is pretty much the luxury accommodations in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and known for its spa, saunas and heated outdoor infinity pools. The views from the rooms are amazing, as are the 7 saunas and the indoor floating pool with classical music playing under the water. Well worth the visit, and it was a great mother-daughter retreat.

So really that wraps up 2015. It was a pretty great year. I’m really excited to see what is in store for 2016. I’m excited for the new faces I will meet, the new sights I will see, and the changes that will take place inside of me.  I found this quote that sums up my thoughts about the upcoming year perfectly, and my hopes for both you and I…..

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, for all of us, and my wish for myself.

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t prefect, whatever it is; art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman

Morocco……The Dirty Truth….

Firstly, this blog post contains adult language and is meant for…..you guessed it….adults. I don’t swear on this blog very often, however; swear words are needed to get my point across. Oh, and you’ve been warned. This is a doozy of a post.

I wanted to love Morocco. I really did. But truth be told this was the first vacation ever, that I wasn’t at all disappointed to be flying away. As I’ve already written it wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t. But when it wasn’t good it was really bad, and draining, and frustrating, and I’m surprised I didn’t actually punch someone in the face. Almost all the bad encounters we had took place in the Medina of Marrakech. I imagine if we hadn’t been 2 very western looking girls we might’ve had a different experience. I’m sure if we had’ve had a man with us many of these situation wouldn’t of happened. I should probably preface this post with the fact that the majority of the places I travel to, I’m used to standing out. I have blond hair. This tends to get a lot of stares in the Middle East. Same as when I traveled in India. And Bangladesh. And Southeast Asia. Until Morocco, my western looks usually only drew stares, and occasionally a “Hello“, or “photo photo!!” But generally, nothing more than that.

Morocco was another story. The first night we went out in Marrakech we got a lot of cat calling. Mostly “hey beautiful” and “beautiful asses” was what was yelled after us. Granted I agree that I do have a beautiful ass, but generally strangers don’t make a habit of yelling this. There were a few wedding proposals, but that first night we had no idea what was in store for us. On day 2 we were walking in an alleyway when 3 young boys approached us- they were between the ages of 8-11 by guess. One of them had a water balloon and they surrounded us. The next thing we know they are pointing at our breasts, literally fingers like a centimeter from our chests and then the kid with the water balloon puts part of it in his mouth and starts sucking it like a teet. No joke. My jaw fell open and I was speechless, which for those of you who know me doesn’t happen often. They trailed us for a few minutes all the while pointing at our chests while the one little shit sucked away on the balloon. Afterwards, all we could really do was look at each other and say “well, that just happened.

From here it only got worse. We ventured to the main square called Djemaa El-Fna. As I’ve previously reported this place is a complete cluster, and a people-watchers dream. The food stalls are delicious and super cheap. But that cheapness comes with a steep price that you pay by being publicly shamed and belittled by the men acting as touts for the food stalls. The food is sooooo good. And yet it’s such an off-putting experience to get it. Every time we went- which was a bunch of times, because of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had, we had some sort of shit happen. Let me paint the scene for you. There are aisles of food stalls, and literally as soon as you start walking towards them these food touts are already eyeing you up. And they start yelling at you immediately. And oddly, they’re all talking in uber fake Australian accents, which we never could figure out why this was a plausible tactic. So they see you coming. And they’re yelling at you to get your attention, and several of them start jogging over and they surround you and start shoving menus in your face. And you’re overwhelmed. Mostly because you’re hungry and just want to be left the hell alone. We ate at the same food stalls- the ones frequented by locals and not tourists as it’s a no-brainer that they had the best food. So we would try and ignore the aggressive touts and make our way to where we actually wanted to be going. At first politely trying to say “no thanks” or “we know where we’re going” and then these overly eager food touts would literally tell us to “Fuck off then” or “Go fuck yourself” or my personal favourite was to call us fat and tell us to “Take off.” I’m really curious about how this works to bring in business, or helps Morocco’s poor economy with bringing in tourist money. If you have any insight into this I would very much love to know. Once we overcame the shock of repeatedly being told to “Go fuck ourselves” we would order our food and sit back and watch the mayhem. It should be noted that the actual people who worked in the food stalls were lovely. They remembered us every time we came back, and were never rude to us. The other reason I was so bothered by these encounters is that these touts use intimidation tactics. They will literally swarm a woman on her own, and we even witnessed them going up to young guys and literally putting their hands on their chests to try and get them to eat at whatever stall they worked for.

This same tactic was used by people who worked in shops. Many times while walking thru the Medina our path would be blocked by men trying to get us to go into their store. We would try and step around them and they would side step to block us again. Sometimes they would actually touch us- grabbing our wrists to drag us into the shop, or they would try and push us in. When we weren’t especially receptive to this it wasn’t uncommon for them the tell us to “Fuck off.” Harsh. And when is it ever appropriate to grab a woman’s wrist to physically try and man-handle her into a store? Our second last day in Marrakech a guy grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me into his store and I started screaming at him “Don’t touch me.” I had completely had enough at that point.

The other thing about Morocco is that everyone, and I do mean everyone knows where you are going at all times. They will try and tell you that you are going the wrong way- “I’m sorry sir, do you even know where we’re heading?” And they always know whether that place that you are going, you know the one you haven’t yet told them, whether it is open or closed. Often they will claim it is closed. Don’t listen to them. Walk up the street and find out for yourself. It is so annoying. If by chance they actually ask you where you are headed, just keep walking. Or tell them “your mamma’s house” and keep walking. Cause if you stop I guarantee they will tell you that you are going the wrong way, and ever so kindly try the show you the way. Except that they way they will take you will only end with you being led to the tanneries. We learned this the hard way. Twice. It’s very obvious that if someone shows up with tourists to the tanneries they get a cut of whatever the tourist buys. Luckily, you can smell the tanneries before you actually get there, so you’ll quickly clue in if that isn’t your desired destination.

Obviously it wasn’t all bad, and we did meet some very kind and friendly people. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to Marrakech or Morocco. I’m just saying that if you are a woman and you look at all western you should be aware of the shitstorm that will likely follow you everywhere. I’m also writing this because you never know- someone from Morocco might read this and say “these don’t seem like great tactics, maybe we shouldn’t bully and shame the very people who we are relying on to help our economy.” I’ve been torn about how to describe my time in Morocco because it really pisses me off to think if only we had a man with us many of these things wouldn’t have happened. NEWSFLASH Morocco– woman travel solo, or in pairs and its 2015. We shouldn’t need to have a man with us just so we don’t get harassed. Oh, and also just as a general rule…when you tell someone to “Go fuck themselves” this is not conducive to business. Nor does it make me stop and think “on second thought maybe I do want to look in that store after all.

I’ll end with the fact that Morocco was beautiful, the food was excellent, and as much as I wanted to like it, when people ask me how my trip there was I’m conflicted as to what to say. So I say exactly this: it was a hard country to travel in. The hardest I’ve been to. And yet, I feel like I have unfinished business with it. I’ve traveled to 40 countries now, and this was the first time that I’ve left a country feeling like this. So Morocco, we might just meet again in the future, and if we do could you lay off the “F” word pretty please.

Did you have a similar experience traveling in Morocco? Have you ever traveled somewhere that you thought you would love, but didn’t?

Moroccan Food

A person can’t talk about Morocco without talking about the food. Moroccan food is spectacular. I seriously don’t think we had a bad meal. How often can you say that on a 2 week trip?! Often once you sit down at a restaurant complimentary olives are served, and lucky for me, my Yankee sidekick hates olives. So yay, more olives for me. We would start most meals with Moroccan salads. They consist mostly of cooked vegetables perfectly seasoned. I’m talking pureed eggplant with garlic, paprika, and cumin so it tastes super smoky, or sauteed zucchini with Moroccan seasoning, or a flavourful beet salad, or boiled and marinated carrot salad. Yumm right?! We would then usually share a tajine with couscous. For dessert there were delicious choices of pie, pastries, Moroccan cookies with almonds, or a simple plate of orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. Also before or after meals mint tea was served, which is probably the most popular drink in Morocco. It’s delicious- I always have mine sweet (with sugar) but you have the option of no sugar also.

Tajines are traditionally from North Africa, and there are many different varieties that often resemble a stew. The tajine pot is ceramic with a wide bowl like base, and a funnel type of lid. Historically they were cooked on charcoal, but present day they go on the stove-top. The tajines we tasted typically were lamb, beef, or chicken although there are vegetarian options available. Often they combined both the savoury flavours of the meat and paired it with sweet flavours of either mango, lemons, prunes, or almonds. Tajines are super tender- the meat often pulls away from the bone, and they are meant to be paired with either bread or couscous. The lemon chicken tajine was always good, as were the beef with vegetabes ones- it reminded me of a wintertime stew. Moral of this food story- you can NEVER go wrong with a tajine.

On the off chance that we were tajined-out (is that even a thing?) we would head to the main square in Marrakech (Djemma El-Fna) to eat the street food sold at the stalls there. It was so very good, and so very cheap, but the verbal assaults one had to endure to get this delicious food came at a cost. My next post will be about the negative side of Morocco, but for now we’re talking about delicious food. There is a soup called Harira soup that is super good and seeing as it was Ramada people would break their fast with this soup and a hard boiled egg. It’s similar to what we in the west think of as minestrone soup, and it’s a tasty treat. Also super cheap. The other thing that we tried many, many times, and that I have serious cravings for,  were these petite sandwiches. The one that I fell in love with took half a pita bread and mixed together cooked potato, a boiled egg, soft cheese, oil, salt and pepper and chilli powder. So easy, and literally the best sandwich I’ve ever had. We must’ve eaten at the square at least 5 or 6 evenings, as Harira soup and the petite sandwiches were so good. If you go- get your sandwiches from stall # 66. All the locals eat there, and everyone knows if the locals eat there the food will be dang good.

The soup stall

Aggressive food touts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my second last day in Morocco my Yankee side kick and I took a cooking class in Marrakech. We decided on Souk Cuisine because in addition to the cooking class we actually spent part of the morning buying the ingredients in the Medina and visiting a spice market. The class was taught by Gemma who is an ex-pat from Holland who has lived in Marrakech for the last many years. We met in the main square- there ended up being us and then 2 other couples on the tour. We were given shopping lists and bags, and led into the Medina in hunt of the ingredients. This was a great way to leisurely take in the markets, as well as be able to take some great photographs as we strolled past jars of olives and preserved lemons, past fresh local produce, and butchers selling fresh meat. We even had to arrange for fresh chicken- and I mean pick a chicken for the butcher to kill and pluck. This was hard for me- I’m not proud of this fact, but I like to be completely ignorant of where my food comes from. This was a little too real. From here we got a tour of the local spice market. Moroccan cooking uses a lot of saffron, paprika, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After we picked up all the ingredients needed for the cooking class we headed to a nearby house to start the cooking portion. In addition to Gemma we also had 2 Moroccan ladies assisting with the food prep. The menu changes, but for our class we prepared Moroccan salad with fresh tomatoes, zucchini salad, carrot salad with almonds and raisins, eggplant salad, a sardine appetizer, chicken tajine with carrots and chickpeas, and for dessert Moroccan sugar cookies. Since I have zero domestic skills  I was given the simple tasks- you know the ones you would give to a child. Yep. The real cooking was left to those with more experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part way thru the class my sidekick and I were left with the task of taking the sardine dish to the local communal bakery where it could be baked at high temperatures. There are communal bakeries in every neighbourhood where local women bring their daily  bread as well as other dishes to be baked for a small fee. We dropped off the dish and went back 30 minutes later to collect it. The men working there were naturally quite taken with us, wanting to show us how the oven worked, how deep it was, and the main baker posed for photos. Fun fact: the oven was super deep- he would shove in this long piece of wood and pull out like 20 loafs of bread. It was a really fun experience, and one that we wouldn’t have had were it not for this class. After the cooking was finished it was time to taste our creations, perfectly paired with chilled Moroccan white wine. It was a lovely afternoon. I would highly recommend a cooking class if you’re planning on traveling to Morocco.

Have you taken a cooking class while traveling? Did you recreate the recipes once you got back home?

 

 

Moroccan Hammam

You’ve never truly solidified a friendship until you’ve been scrubbed raw by a Moroccan lady while wearing only your underwear with your best mate. That is the mark of a true friendship. Let me set the scene for you……one of the riads that we were staying at asked us if we wanted to visit a local hammam and since I have never had a true hammam experience I was like sure why not?! So off we go to the Moroccan spa. We walk in and the place is quite nice, and we are given robes to wear, and led up to lounge on the rooftop terrace. Which in theory sounds relaxing, but it’s like 35C and we’re just basically sweating our asses off in one size too small terry-cloth robes. As it turned out the hammam was on the roof, so we’re led into this cement room with benches, and asked to lay down. Next thing you know buckets of hot water are being thrown on us. And when I say thrown I really mean thrown. Now the benches are covered in plastic. And as you can imagine plastic when it gets wet is super slippery. Like slip-n-slide slippery.

So we’re being doused with buckets of water, and I’m not especially a huge fan of getting my face wet. And also for some silly reason I didn’t even think to take off my mascara so now I’m topless with my best friend with 2 Moroccan women and I literally look like a crying Panda bear. It was a real special moment, rest assured. So after we’re adequately soaked we’re covered in argan oil and left to lounge in the humid hammam for a bit. So we’re chatting a little bit and the whole time my brain is thinking “stare into her eyes, DON’T look at her boobs. Oh shit you looked. Eye contact. Maintain eye contact.” Sorry J- I accidentally might have looked. My bad.

So the ladies come back in and tell us to turn over. This in and of itself was a major feat, as you can imagine a plastic bench is slippery when wet, but it’s slippery as heck when you’re covered in oil. I was imagining myself attempting to turn over, but actually propelling myself off the bench and landing on the hammam floor, at the feet of a strange Moroccan lady and then looking up at her like a crying Panda. Thankfully, this did not happen. More buckets of water were thrown at us, and then came the really fun part. The scrubbing. I’m quite certain I’ve never been cleaner once this lady was done. Basically your skin is scrubbed raw and all the old grey dead skin is left. It’s pretty gross. And they scrub everywhere. Including my feet, which trust me really needed it after days spent walking in sandals on the dusty Marrakech streets. But here’s the thing. My feet are super ticklish. As in I might accidentally kick you in the head kinda ticklish. Oh, and I giggle the entire time my feet are being touched. So now I’m resembling a half naked giggling Panda. Oh, the levels of humiliation…..

After the scrubbing, more water is thrown at us, and then they braided our hair. Which was a nice touch. Then we were helped into our robes and escorted to our massages. Correction. Couples massage. Yep, same room as my bestie. At this point I’m expecting the day to wrap up with a group shower. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.

Have you been to a hammam? Ever had a similar experience??

Chefchaouen Morocco

After stopping off at Volubilis we drove another 3 hrs to Chefchaouen a small city in the north of Morocco in the Rif mountains. Chefchaouen is famous for being the “Blue City” of Morocco. If you’ve ever drooled over photos of Morocco many of them were likely taken here. The city originates from the late 1400s. It grew in size as Jewish and Muslim refugees arrived from Granada, and remained relatively isolated until the 1920s when it was occupied by Spanish troops to form part of Spanish Morocco. Chefchaouen was reportedly painted blue back in the 1930’s by Jewish refugees who lived there. The city was then returned to Morocco when Morocco won independence in 1956.

The city is extremely photogenic, which makes it a prime tourist stop. It has a Spanish flare about it paying homage to the early inhabitants of the city, which only adds to its appeal. Our entire trip to Morocco centered around visiting Chefchaouen, and the city did not disappoint. We spent 2 relaxing nights here at Casa Perleta. If you go I think you should stay here. The staff were lovely, and it’s located near one of the main entrances to the Medina which means you won’t have to schlep your luggage very far. The only down side was that there was a megaphone from the mosque next door pointed right at our window- don’t let that deter you from staying here though, because as with most Muslim countries there’s always a mosque with a megaphone near by.

Casa Perleta terrace views

Casa Perleta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two nights was enough time to explore Chefchaouen. Our main goal was to take as many photos of blue houses, doors, door knockers, and blue windows as we could. As I’ve already mentioned ever corner you turn looks like it should be  a postcard. When you get tired of taking photos (is that even possible?) there’s other things to do as well. There are restaurants and cafes to sit at with great views of the main square. The old men of Chefchaouen love to sit around and chit chat around the old square. And they are super cute to watch. Coincidentally people of this village often wear these cloak like garments that are a cross between a housecoat, and a muumuu with a pointed hood. Personally I thought everyone looked a bit like a magician, or like an older Harry Potter character except that most of these outfits were either white, tan, or yellow.

 

 

 

 

 

How cute are these guys??

See- slightly wizzard-ish

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent some time at the Kasbah Museum which is housed in an old walled fortress from the early 18th century. None of the signs in the museum are in English (Spanish and French and likely Arabic if memory serves me)- but it’s still worth going because the gardens are beautiful, and the views from the tower are panoramic. Also if you’re a bit of a paparazzi like me they’re great for getting pictures of unsuspecting locals dressed as wizzards going about their day. I know I should feel a little bad about taking photos without permission but I’ve had my photo taken literally hundreds of times all over India and Bangladesh, and much of the Middle East. So fair’s fair right?!

Spanish Mosque from the Kasbah

Looks like a postcard right?!

After you’ve finished taking panoramic shots and sneaky photos of the elderly villagers you should make the short hike to the Spanish Mosque. Don’t go mid-day as it’s far too hot in the summer months. We went in the early morning, but it would be spectacular at sunset. I also wouldn’t go alone as a woman, as the only other people we saw on the path were men, and one of them I inadvertently made eye contact with while he was peeing. To be fair, I didn’t realize he was peeing until we made eye contact, we shared a really weird moment. So anyways, the mosque overlooks the town on an opposite hill about 2km from the edge of the Medina once you’ve crossed the river. It took us about 30min to get to the top at a moderate pace with a few stop-offs for photos. There were some stray dogs along the way- one of them decided to be our guide and luckily also our guard as he scared off a rather aggressive dog we crossed paths with at the top. The mosque itself was built by the Spanish in the 1920’s when they occupied the city- it reportedly was never used by the local Muslims. The doors were locked when we visited. It’s well worth the walk up because the photos of the city with the different shades of blue against the opposite hill is impressive.

Views from the Spanish Mosque

Our guide and guard dog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Colourful blue doors....

Colourful blue doors….

From here we had a driver take us 4hrs to Rabat where we caught the train back to Marrakesh for the better part of a week. Next in the Morocco series- the Moroccan hammam experience.

 

Volubilis Morocco

On route to Volubilis

On route to Volubilis

I have come to learn that Roman ruins look like…..you guessed it…..Roman ruins the world over. Sites that I have visited in Syria look similar to sites I visited in Jordan while still similar to sites in Cyprus and also to sites in Morocco. Romans had their building styles down. Seriously. So on route to the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen we stopped off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis. Volubilis is located about 90min west of Fez. We hired a driver to take us to Chefchaouen and had decided to make a stop-off to see these Roman sites.

Volubilis is only partially excavated, and is in varying states of ruin, literally in the middle of an agriculture field surrounded by a small town. They are reportedly the best preserved site in Morocco which was why we were keen to see it. The area was developed in the 3rd century BC and expanded under Roman rule in the 1st century AD. It is estimated that the 40 hectare site housed some 20 000 people at its peak. In the 2nd and 3rd century the basilica, arch, and baths were added and the area was known for its fertile soil and subsequent olive groves. By the end of the 3rd century the site fell to local Berber tribes and the area was abandoned by the Romans. It would remain abandoned for another 700 years before becoming an Islamic settlement in the 8th century. By the 11th century it was abandoned again. In the mid-18th century the ruins were damaged in an earthquake.

We arrived at the site mid-morning, and as it was the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan the site was empty. I don’t remember how much the entrance fee was but as with all tourists sites in Morocco it was very cheap compared to what you would pay anywhere else. There are guides available at the entrance but we decided to wander on our own. You will need at least 60-90 minutes to do it justice, and wear decent shoes as the paths are rocky. Also bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat if visiting in the summer months because there is like zero shade and you will be sweating your ass off.

Volubilis is known for its well preserved mosaics and the remains of the Capitol, Basilica and the Triumph Arch. The mosaics are roped off, but otherwise you can freely roam through the rest of the site. The Basilica has reconstructed columns where if you time your visit with stork nesting season you’ll be able to see the storks perched on the tops of the columns. I like the Triumph Arch the best personally. The mosaics were slightly confusing. In the House of the Acrobat there is one of a guy riding a horse (although it looks more like a donkey to me) backwards that was confusing. Also the guy looks naked. I feel like riding a horse backwards while naked is a recipe for disaster. According to my Lonely Planet it is meant to depict an athlete who received a trophy for dismounting his horse and then jumping back on while the horse was moving. Those crazy Romans!!!

The view towards the Capital

See the nesting storks??

 

 

 

 

 

Archway of the Basilica

The view of the Basilica ruins

 

 

 

 

 

Horse vs donkey??

Me at the Triumph Arch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main road from the Triumph Arch is called the Decumanus Maximus and is lined with the ruins of houses on either side. The House of Ephebus and the House of the Knight contain mosaics that are fairly well maintained, but the best preserved mosaics are found in the House of Venus. They are the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, and Diana Bathing. The story behind the mosaic of Diana Bathing was that a hunter named Acteon saw Diana bathing and she punished him by turning him into a stag. Well played Diana, well played.

Very ornate ruins of a column

House of the Columns

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Bathing

The ruins amongst the fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you find yourself in the northwestern part of Morocco you should make a stop at Volubilis. The green colour of the fields surrounding this archeological site make for great photos, and it’s not every day that you get to see a mosaic from the 2nd or 3rd century of a questionably naked guy riding a horse backwards. Trust me.

Fez Morocco

Fez is the second largest city in Morocco (Casablanca is the largest) and up until the mid 1920’s it was Morocco’s capital (Rabat is the current capital.) Fez is considered to have the largest Medina in the world. It has over 9000 maze-like streets and alleyways. The Medina was founded in the 9th century and the entire area is a UNESCO site. Similarly to Marrakech the city is broken into the old and new parts.

We took a 1st class train from Marrakech to Fez which takes about 8hrs. Moroccan trains are nice. They have AC, the bathrooms aren’t awful (although like Indian trains they just open onto the tracks), and they have a roaming food cart. We shared a 6 person berth and both had window seats. Not a bad way to travel. Personally, I love the motion of travel. I love to watch the scenery, and the world go by as I listen to music or just contemplate life. The train made it’s way northwest from Marrakech towards the coastal areas of Casablanca and Rabat before cutting east towards Meknes and ending in Fez. The city itself was much larger than I had originally expected. We booked a riad on the outskirts of the Medina called Riad Jamai and it was lovely. It you are planning a trip to Fez this is a great place to stay as it’s easy to get to by car, and the staff are super helpful. They have a lovely rooftop terrace which is a great way to take in the sunset while sipping a glass of wine while listening to the call to prayer chime in from all the surrounding mosques. This really is a magical experience. We decided to eat dinner here both nights, and they were 2 of the best meals we had.

First class berth

Moroccan rail travel

 

 

 

 

 

Riad Jamai

Riad Jamai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fez sunset

Sunset over the Medina

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had been forewarned about wandering the Medina at night by many of the locals we met. Petty-crime is the most common complaint. The Medina is so large that it’s rather intimidating, and this seemed like sound advice so we didn’t venture out at night. The following day we hired a guide who took us around Fez for an entire day. With a guide you can easily see everything you want to see in a day- but wear comfortable shoes because you will put on a lot of miles doing it. Fez is also not a flat city, so be prepared for some steep hills and to climb some stairs as you explore. We started off the day by exiting the Medina via the Bab Boujloud gate (otherwise known as the “Blue Gate” although it’s blue on one side and green on the other) and hailing a taxi to take us the the Jewish quarter otherwise known as a mellah. Prior to the exodus to Israel it’s estimated that between 250 000-350 000 Jewish people lived in Morocco, making it the largest Jewish population in a Muslim country- today, it’s estimated that around 2500 remain, mostly residing in Casablanca. We visited the Jewish cemetery and drove past what remains of some Jewish houses which stand in contrast to the Muslim homes as they have open second floor balconies. From here we walked over to the King’s Palace with its ornate golden doors and then visited the Batha Museum which is housed in a 19th century summer palace with beautiful gardens. We then walked back into the Medina winding our way past bakery stalls, butchers, and vegetable sellers. The market was a bustle of activity, as it was day before Ramadan would start and people were stocking up for festivities for that night.

It’s blue on the other side I swear…

Jewish cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

The King’s Palace

Gardens at the Batha Museum

 

 

 

From here we took another taxi to Merenid Tombs dating from the 13th to 15th century. These tombs offer spectacular views of the Medina below. Little is known of these tombs, but they are believed to possibly have housed royalty. From here we visited the Fassi ceramic and pottery co-operative and got a tour about how Moroccan pottery is made. Of course there’s no way to get out of there without buying something, because everything is super beautiful. I bought a lovely oven safe plate- which really is rather silly because I neither cook, nor do I live somewhere currently that has an oven. But it is very pretty so c’est la vie. We were then dropped back in the Medina and our guide dropped us off for lunch before we started touring again. Next on the itinerary was Kairaouine Mosque and University. The university is thought to be the oldest university in the world. It was opened in 859 and in 1963 it was included in Morocco’s state university system. As non-Muslims we were only allowed to sneak views (and photos) thru the doorways.

View of Fez Medina

Merenid Tombs

 

 

 

 

 

Old city wall

Public gardens in the new town

 

 

 

 

 

Pottery making

Beautiful Fassi Pottery

From here we did a little shopping. Then we ended up at the tanneries. Locals all over Morocco love the tanneries, in that no matter where you are going someone will suggest or try and lead you to the tanneries. Obviously the locals get compensated for anything you might buy. So off to the tanneries we go, because according to my bible (the Lonely Planet) Fez leather is some of the finest leather in the world. And I was itching for a new jacket. You can really smell the tanneries before you see them. They are gag-worthy. Luckily, they give you a fresh sprig of mint which only slightly masks the smell but did prevent me from vomiting in my mouth. I’ve read that for photographic purposes it’s best to go to the tanneries in the morning when the colour is most vibrant, but we went in the afternoon, and the pictures were great. So after we’d been told the whole leather spiel the pressure was on for us to buy something. And buy something we did. We both bought lovely leather/Berber carpet bags, and I bought a soft black leather crop jacket. I’m very much looking forward to being able to wear it in the cooler months. From here we wandered back towards our riad while stopping off at Nejjarine Fountain a very ornately restored fountain.

Fez tanneries

Colourful dye

 

 

 

 

 

Berber carpets

Najjarine Fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up our 2 nights in Fez. Of course there is much more to explore and we could have spend much more time here, but for us this was a perfect amount. From here we headed towards the famous blue city of Chefchaouen with a stop-off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis.

Have you been to Fez? What did you think?

Marrakech Morocco

This might be a long winded post. Sorry in advance! Marrakesh is a busy, bustling city with a population of nearly 1 million. Almost. It’s Morocco’s 4th largest city and it was the most important Imperial (historical) city. We spent 2 nights here at the beginning of our trip, and nearly a week at the end with an overnight break to the Atlas Mountains. The city itself is broken up into the new and old parts. The old part has the Medina and the majority of the historical buildings, the new part has lovely gardens and trendy upscale hotels. We stayed in the old town for most of our time. Moroccans speak Arabic or French typically. Some people speak English, but often not enough to communicate in great detail. Lucky for me I speak just enough Arabic to make people clap with excitement. Unfortunately they could understand my basic formal Arabic while I was left clueless trying to understand Moroccan Arabic. Sign language would become our language of choice.

The accommodations in Morocco are unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed. There are many, many “riads” which are Moroccan houses or palaces with a garden, and most have a pool or a fountain. They are breathtaking. And surprisingly not too expensive. Like $50-60US for 2 people a night for a nice place. One of the things I loved in Morocco was that attention is paid to every detail. You will find yourself taking photos of light fixtures, and railings, and doors, and doorknobs. It’s a little absurd really. Can you imaging if you saw tourists in Canada taking photos of bathroom sinks, the lights, and your front door?? Well, that was basically how we were in Morocco. Everything is ridiculously ornate. Good luck not taking a photo of multiple peoples front doors!

Could you resist a photo?

Could you resist a photo?

A riad pool

A riad pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A gorgeous riad

A gorgeous riad

Another door photo...

Another door photo…

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at 3 different riads in Marrakech. The medina is pretty large and the alleys are quite confusing, and also poorly lit in some areas. Often to find the place initially you have to be led there. Unless you don’t mind wandering with your luggage in 100F heat. We spent our days exploring the many old buildings, shopping in the medina, eating delicious Moroccan tajines and sipping cold beer on rooftop bars. Most of our trip was during Ramadan and this did require some adjustment on our part. Not all places were open in the daytime to eat. Most shops were open during the day and then around 6pm most of them would close up so people could break-fast with their families. Alleyways would look very desolate as it was mostly only the tourists out wandering.

There is a lot to see in Marrakech, but I’ll just highlight my favourites for you. You should definitely check out Dar Si Said. It’s part museum part 19th century home, but the courtyard and garden area, and the upstairs rooms are spectacular. Bahia Palace is quite similar but with WAY more tourists, so Dar Si Said is the place to see. Maison Tiskiwin is a cool museum that showcases North African crafts and culture. It always surprises me how similar textile patterns around the world are. In this case Berber patterns look visually similar to patterns in Guatemala and similar still to patterns in Bhutan. Another museum that I especially liked was the Maison de la Photographie which houses a collection of old photos from the early to mid 19th century as well as showcasing new work. Well worth a visit. Ali ben Youssef Medersa was founded in the 14th century and was once the largest Koran school in North Africa. It is impressive, and you can tour the uppers floors where students would have lived. The last thing that I recommend is to head on over to New Town and check out the Jardin Majorelle otherwise known as the Yves Saint Laurent memorial gardens. They are amazing. Seriously. So colourful, with fountains and sitting areas. And since you’re already there you should check out the Berber Art Museum which talks of Berber history and culture as well as showcasing tradition jewelery and clothing.

Dar Si Said courtyard

Dar Si Said courtyard

Dar Si Said

Dar Si Said

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ali bin Youssef Medersa

Ali bin Youssef Medersa

Inside the Medersa

Inside the Medersa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jardin Majorelle

Jardin Majorelle

Beautiful colours

Beautiful colours

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marrakech Medina takes up a 19km area and is full of old riads, shops, galleries and restaurants. All of the above places with the exception of the gardens are in the Medina. The main square called Djemaa El-Fna is a site to behold and not for the weak of heart. The action really gets going closer to sunset and into the evening. It’s full of pushy henna artists, snake charmers, monkey trainers, souvenier stalls, food stalls, and people dressed in traditional clothing. It’s a very happening place, but it’s difficult to walk around with out getting hassled. Regardless, it’s beautiful at sunset and there are cafes surrounding portions of the square to sit back and watch the entertainment unfold. I’ll write more about the numerous unpleasant experiences we had here in a later post.

The main square

The main square

Snake charmers. Gross.

Snake charmers. Gross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a side trip to the Atlas Mountains during our time in Marrakech. The Atlas Mountains stretch across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Just over an hour away from Marrakech they make an easy day-trip or a quick retreat from the city. We booked one night at L’Oliveraie de Marigha and it was lovely. We relaxed poolside surrounded by gorgeous views. Since it was low-season we basically had the place to ourselves. Literally. There was only one other guest. The staff were great, and if I ever find myself back in Morocco I would stay here again for sure.

The Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains

Relaxing poolside

Relaxing poolside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s the low-down on what to see and do in Marrakech. Next up….the Imperial city of Fez…..

Morocco

Flying into Morocco

Flying into Morocco

Mid-June I spent 2 weeks exploring Morocco with my Yankee best mate. We spent a decent chunk of time in Marrakesh, as well as spending some time in Fez, Chefchaouen, and the Atlas Mountains. I’d long wanted to visit Morocco, as I’ve always loved anything vaguely resembling a Moroccan pattern, and the food, but I’m kinda at a loss for words to describe my feelings on it. The food was amazing, and it was a very beautiful and ornate country, but we had some of the worst run-ins I’ve ever had as a traveler. And that’s saying a lot as most of the countries I’ve traveled to are developing countries. In an attempt not to sound super shitty about our time there I’m going to break up my blog posts about each place we went, and leave all the dirty details for the last post. That way I can describe all the lovely positive things we saw and experiences we had, before I tell you of the numerous unpleasant, rude and offensive things that happened. I’ve got 2 versions of Morocco and first I’ll share the good one. Happy reading……

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