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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fez Morocco

After spending a couple of days in Marrakesh, we took an early morning train up to Fez. The train left about 6:30 am and took almost seven hours with about 20-plus stops including Casablanca. Unfortunately, our plan didn't include any time there as it's definitely one of those places I've heard about and would have liked to see. Maybe next time?


Seven hours in a train, especially one in Morocco, could understandably be a bit intimidating. We were wise enough to cough up the cash for first-class seats, which were set in small, semi-private compartments each with six seats. I partially expected it to be like that scene in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Well, it wasn't quite that nice. I think my favorite part was the bathroom where you could watch the ground pass by the bottom of the toilet. Yes, for real. But, they did have a guy who came by regularly with coffee and snacks, which, along with the fabulous views, made it a surprisingly nice trip overall.

After we arrived in Fez, I got to experience the Moroccan three-taxi intercity transport system. This involved taking a "small" (local) taxi from the Fez train station to another taxi station slightly away from the center of town where we got into a larger long-distance taxi. This one took us to the outskirts of Adil's hometown, Sefrou, where we caught another small taxi to his folks' house.

The two local taxi rides were each about ten minutes and the long one was well over 30 minutes. I don't remember what we paid for the long ride, which was in a well-traveled 30+ year-old diesel Mercedes, but it cost surprisingly little. A bonus was that all of the taxi drivers we had, with the exception of one, drove conservatively enough where I didn't fear for my life. Actually, it was a lot less scary than that but I had expected the worst. I still wonder if Adil preemptively said anything to the drivers...

One of the long-distance taxi stations:


We arrived at Adil's family's house and immediately settled in. His mom and dad were super gracious and welcomed our what seemed now like an exceptionally large group. Adil's mom had tea and snacks ready and we spent some time getting to know each other.

After a bit, Adil, Adil's brother, who lives in Italy and also happened to be in town. their sister, and the rest of our pack walked to the old walled Sefrou medina stopping off along the way to get more tea and coffee at an outdoor cafe. I kinda' liked the French-inspired stop-at-a-cafe culture in Morocco!


One of the entrances to the Sefrou medina:


Compared with Marrakesh and Fez, each with around a million people, Sefrou was a village. Adil's hometown feels like a suburb with working families going about their daily activities. I'd imagine lots of folks make the trip into Fez every morning so "their kids can grow up in a family-friendly area" - yeah, just like wherever you're reading this from. Sefrou's probably not on the Marrakesh-Casablanca-Fez-etc. tourist trail, which made it a nice contrast to what we had already experienced.

Around 9 pm in one of the plazas in the Sefrou medina:


When we got back to Adil's house that evening, his mom had prepared a way-to-big and way-too-delicious feast for us. I'm not sure anyone was hungry when we got there and I can assure you that we were all stuffed by bedtime! Ladhidh! (Yummy in Arabic.)

The next morning, after another incredible homemade meal (I could get used to this!), we did the three-taxi trip back to Fez to check out the medina, which seemed every bit as giant as the one in Marrakesh.


Can I just say again how much I loved all the cafes and what a view!


Some of our group with Adil's brother just about to enter through one of the gates:


It was relatively quiet when we went and kinda' felt like a recovery day or something in that people seemed to be taking it easy.


Some local kids hanging out:


Taking advantage of the bright colors for a (not my) family photo.


Another random Fez medina street scene:


If you're like me, you've probably been wondering about the hat. Before the trip, I was curious if I'd see anyone actually wearing a fez in Fez. And, really, what the heck is a fez anyway?

Let's get it out of the way, yes, I did see people wearing fezzes like the man at the bottom of the photo above and on the coppersmith in the photo below.


I learned that the fez served (and may still) as a sort of wearable anti-French nationalist symbol in Morocco. The felt-covered hat, which I read is a "modernized" turban, was being worn mostly by older men. I don't remember seeing any on younger folks although, at a higher-end fez shop we passed, there were three 20-something guys waiting for the fez maker to finish sizing a fez for one of them.

Where is Darren now? Wearing a fez in Fez, of course!


Beyond its namesake hat, Fez is also known as a place where you can buy inexpensive leather goods. There are both processing and manufacturing facilities located inside the medina. These active preparation and dying vats seen from the roof of a leather shop are one of, if not the iconic image of Fez.


A random photo - we briefly followed these three donkeys carrying construction supplies (bricks and bags of cement) through the medina.


A big ole' shukraan (thank you) to Adil, his family, and especially his mom and dad for having us (all!). You and your home were warm and welcoming, the food was beyond delicious, and the experience is something we'll never forget! We can't wait for you to visit Barcelona so we can repay the favor!


A bit of a postscript to this story. Adil's family owns some farmland not far from Sefrou where they grow olives and make olive oil. His mom served some alongside every meal and, like the homemade wine we had while in Cabra del Camp, I couldn't get over how fresh, light, and delicious it was. I was afraid that I was going overboard repeatedly telling her how amazing it was and how much I loved it.

Well, my being impressed with their oil must have made an impression on Adil's mom and dad because, about a week later, when Adil's brother was in Barcelona on his way back to Italy, he gave Diana and me a liter bottle of oil that their mom had sent us. Can. I. Just. Say. How. Amazing. It. Is? Thanks again for making our Moroccan visit to continue back in Barcelona!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Marrakesh Morocco

Back in the late '80s, when I was growing up in Philadelphia, the neighborhood around South Street was the city's avant-guard home. There were record shops (remember them?), "alternative" clothing stores, night clubs where you could hear live music, and a collection of interesting places to eat.

One of those was, and maybe still is, a small restaurant named Marrakesh that serves Moroccan food. I remember the strange experience of eating in a tent-like place with carpeted walls and ceilings and we had to eat everything without utensils. Since then, Morocco's been a bit exotic in my mind; a far-away place with people in thwabs riding camels through the desert looking for oases.

Flash forward maybe 25 years and I'm now living in Barcelona alongside people from pretty much every place in the world - a real melting pot. My best estimate is that my circle here hails from at least 20 countries, if not more. One of those friends grew up in Fes (or Fez), Morocco, and always said that we needed to come with him sometime when he went back to visit his family. Well, guess what!


Adil planned a trip for a group of friends where we'd fly from Barcelona to Marrakesh, spend a couple of days then go on by train to Fes and his home town, Sefrou. Woohoo!

We arrived at our rented apartment around 9 p.m. and immediately walked to the medina to check out the evening action like the folks playing this soda-bottle fishing game, which was exactly NOT what I'd imagined I'd find back in the day in Philadelphia!


It wasn't all like that though. The warren of shops and restaurants is reminiscent of places I've been like Jerusalem's old city and Istanbul.

Diana waiting for our friends to come out of a (very pretty) lamp shop:


Our last stop of the evening was for tea at a place on the edge of the medina. Diana and I with our co-adventurers Adil, Natalia, Martha, Eric, and Heric:


We arrived the prior evening after dark so I was pleasantly surprised in the morning when we looked out from the balcony to see the red city and the Atlas mountains beyond. Snow? In Africa? Where were the sand dunes???


We started our first day with an a great local's-style breakfast followed by a walk through some of the more modern parts of town. At one intersection we crossed, there were some guys with mini horses and camels (finally!!!) for tourists like us to take photos. While our friends were taking their photos, Diana went to see if this camel was alive (he was but I'm still not clear if he was well - maybe I'll have to ask Lena and Toni):


When it was our turn, Diana and I got a few photos but I couldn't resist taking a camel selfie. Just as I was taking the photo, the camel swung its head around towards me as to say "no selfies". Out of the maybe 650 photos I took over the course of the trip, me jumping away is definitely one of the best!


After I recovered from the camel attack, we continued on to the medina. I hadn't realized the night before that the old city was surrounded by a big fortress-like wall. It's funny but the gate where we went in looks a lot like the entrance of a southern-California shopping center maybe out near Palm Springs!


There was a lot more life in the (giant) main plaza during the day - tarot-card readers, people selling food, guys with various types of monkeys(!!!), and even a couple cobra snake charmers! That's more like it! It was as if we were back in Epcot Center's Morocco at Disney World. For some reason, it reminded me of the flamenco show in Sevilla in its ability to match the stereotype I had when imagining a Moroccan bazaar.

Natalia and Diana at Marrakesh's Jemma el-Fnaa plaza:


The winding streets are also much more alive during the day. Shops selling tourist trinkets are mixed in with locals going about their normal lives. The folks buying dried fruits and nuts below remind me of our tourist-infested bi-weekly food-shopping trip at La Boqueria.


It looked like a (local) kids' class trip over at the olive-buying plaza. Imagine! Mommy, I want some olives!!!


The farther we walked, the more actual artisans we saw. This guy was making wooden things on a home-made lathe he operated with both hands and one foot:


This guy was like something out of a living history museum. His tiny store front had maybe ten tiles and he was carving another. If you told me he's been in this same spot for 50 years, I'd believe you.


Diana and I ducked down some tourist-free side streets to explore more of the 'hood. Just like us living in Barcelona, it was refreshing to see real people living in the mix and to come across normal-life scenes like this one:


Another random market scene:


Saw a bunch of guys doing parkour at this fountain on our way back to the apartment:


Dinner that night was at Chez Ali, which is a dinner-and-show place about an hour from Marrakesh. Just like back on South Street, dinner's a multi-course meal eaten with our hands inside a what looks like a big tent...


At various times, a group of musicians would come in and everyone would get up to dance to traditional music...


After we stuffed ourselves, it was outside to watch the action-packed music, acrobatic horse riding, character, and camel show. Adil told us that the staff, costumes, dinner, and show all had parts representing the different regions of Morocco.


It was back to the old city the next morning to see some mosques, palaces, and schools.

Looking for the magic-carpet salesman...Straight Outta Aladdin, yo?


One of the places we visited was the Bahia palace, which was built in the late 19th century. It's a giant complex and the decoration and gardens are beautiful.


The courtyards are a world away from the busy streets outside. Trying to look cool with our host with the most, Adil, and his squeeze Natalia!


Back out in the streets, we stopped at a couple of farmers' markets. Fresh dates, anyone?


One of our favorite stalls of the entire medina was this old guy selling fresh mint and herbs. Rastas need not apply!


Just after lunch, we spotted one of Pepe's cousins trying to hide from the sun. There were lots of donkeys in the markets carrying all sorts of things where vehicles couldn't go. This poor guy was a refuse-removal engineer and probably would have been much happier on the shady side of the street.


Random aside. Just like when we visited Alicia and Paco in Paco's hometown of Soria, seeing the giant storks and their nests on the building tops was quite a surprise. That nest is probably three or four feet across!


Finishing out our stay in Marrakesh with some tea.


Marrakesh was both more and less exotic than I'd imagined. The snake charmers in the market and the camels on the side of the road fit right in. What I didn't expect, but really enjoyed, were the brief glimpses of the locals' lives mixed in with the backpacker-and-tourist hustle and bustle.

Next stop (or 20), the early-morning train to Fes...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The (Travel) Force Is Strong With This One

Poking around my blog, you might guess that my love of travel is genetic and that I come from a long line of explorers. Well, that's really not the case. Actually, many in my family just don't get why I like wandering all over the world. There are a couple of exceptions though, like my aunt and uncle and, now, my niece.

Back in 2010, I was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving when my cousin's daughter, who was in high school at the time, showed some interest in my travels. She asked me where I had been, what I liked, and some ideas of places she might visit one day. Even though she had yet to enter university, she was already thinking about where she'd could do an exchange semester overseas. As I had just come to Philadelphia directly from China, I think I said how impressed I was and that she might consider going there. I probably gave her some other ideas but I don't remember now.

Like all smart people, she's completely ignored my advice and is currently doing an exchange semester in London! By the way, it seems like that conversation was yesterday! I'm old!

When I found out she'd be in England, Diana and I told her she needed to visit during a break. It was an even bigger surprise when my cousin decided to visit her and that they'd do a quick Barcelona trip!


Even though it was for only a couple of days, we squeezed in all the best of Barcelona. The Magic Fountain above and the full Sagrada Familia tour. This was just a couple of days after we went for our private tour with Victor Ochen.


By the way, I was recently corrected that I'm wrong to call my cousin's daughter my niece but saying "my first cousin once removed" is just way too complicated, so you'll have to forgive me as I'll just continue saying niece.

I mentioned above about how my niece is a bit of a travel fan. She did a project in Belgium last year and has been bouncing around Europe for the last couple of months. I was jealous when I recently saw her posts from Croatia! It's good that the force is strong with (someone in) my family (finally)!

Taking in the view from Park Guell:


Between the wedding and several random visits like this one, maybe a third of my family's been, which isn't too bad when you consider it's like a ten-hour flight away. Now, about the rest of them...

At Casa Batllo:


It was a treat to have these guys stay with us. I can't wait to visit my niece when she's living somewhere in a land far, far away (hint, hint). Based on what I've seen, it won't be a long, long time...