October 10, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Africa

On any given trip, my number one priority is to taste a country through its food. My recent visit to Morocco was no different, but this time the whole “tasting the country” thing got taken to a different level – like a “high altitude, eat it straight from the bush” level.


It wasn’t supposed to be a foodie excursion, though. No, not at all. It was just supposed to be a leisurely trek through the red-soiled High Atlas Mountains and a few of its Berber villages. Nothing more. With our guide Sharif – a 40-something-year-old native – in tow, though, we set off into the dusty, shrubbery-powdered landscape, completely unaware that our surprise culinary journey was about to begin.



The weather was cool. Well, cooler – perhaps hovering around 90F instead of a suffocating 120F. Sharif bumbled through the underbrush, leading the way as he plucked leaves off of bushes. “Smell it. This is peppermint.” Then a moment later he’d pass back another twig. “This one is thyme.” Only steps into the trip and we’d already collected enough fragrant herbs to season a steaming tagine of veggies.




Our path became swallowed by bushes and trees as the brush thickened and the landscape sheltered us with welcome shade. With a swipe of the hand, Sharif would masterfully collect blackberries from their bush, rattle a tree to grab hold of a dangling grapevine, and smash a walnut pod to reveal its crunchy inner treasure. He’d pass the goodies on to us with indifference, meanwhile we’d gobble them up as we walked, churning up a dust storm in our wake.




We passed through near-century-year-old Berber villages held together by foundations of melon-sized rocks, and walls of the land’s terracotta-colored earth. And between each town, we filled our traveling tummies with more of the valley’s treats, from juicy figs to miniature green apples and fresh-from-the-shell almonds.



We even made a little friend along the way: A chameleon crawling along a grapevine. Sharif scooped up the reptile like he were a little toy, telling us, as he opened its mouth, that if we gave him a little water, he’d be our friend. A few healthy gulps later and our new lizard buddy was crawling on Jacobo’s white shirt, slowly shifting from a vibrant grapevine green to a lighter, less conspicuous shade.



We ended our walk in the town of Ouirgane, where, almost full from trail snacking, we dined on cous cous, olives and freshly baked slabs of bread. Indeed, the day wasn’t what we’d expected, and certainly wasn’t the foodie version of Morocco that we’d had in mind, but I’m pretty sure that no country has every tasted quite so good.



*Update: Our tour was booked through Linaya Transport. They can be reached at 00 212 524 33 03 99 (apparently they’re in the process of getting their website up and running).

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September 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Africa

Some places you can go guidebook-free, completely clueless, leaving the course of your journey entirely to chance. For the most part, Morocco is not one of those places. And since I’m sure you are all ready to hop on the next flight to one of Africa’s northernmost nations, I thought I’d hook you up with the Moroccan 411.


What to wear (ladies)
I hemmed and hawed over, well, my hemline, unsure of the wardrobe etiquette I should be following. My friends (who, albeit, went during considerably cooler months) told me they’d covered up, and our riad host suggested that it was advisable too. So that’s what I did. In 120-degree heat. And I was seriously the ONLY one. I’m not saying that I would have done it differently, but literally 99% of the boatloads of female tourists (not to mention many of the locals) were in sleeveless tops and above-the-knee shorts and skirts. The right and the wrong of this is subject matter for a different post, or perhaps an entirely different forum, but my final take-away was this: In the big cities (Marrakech, Fes, etc) I would have felt comfortable wearing a knee-length dress or pants, and a short-sleeve shirt, bringing a shawl for good measure. In the countryside, however, I think it was a smart call to rock the full-length gear, simply because fewer tourists pass through those parts.


Guides and such
I don’t usually opt for guides – I like to have my list of spots to check out, and then leave the rest to the travel gods. And in Marrakech, this was pretty much totally doable. Our riad hosts pointed us in the right direction, warning us about the main plaza and how we should stay away from people with monkeys and snakes (um, duh?), or those that try to give you henna tattoos against your will. We put on our game face and tackled that city like pros.



But Fes was a different ball of Moroccan wax. With some 9,000 alleys in the old quarter (proper streets and thoroughfares are nonexistent), it’s essentially a spider web, and you’re the fly. And guess who are the spiders? The “tour guides” (put in quotes because who knows which ones are legit or not), who will prey on you until you succumb to your inevitable lost-ness.


My suggestion is that, if you know you will want a guide (like in Fes, for example), do research beforehand and book a reputable one. I think we would have felt a lot more comfortable if we had someone pre-arranged and didn’t have to deal with any shady selling tactics.


Drinks and tea
Morocco was, how do I put this? Crazy HOT. So frequent beverage stops were needed in order to compose ourselves and cool off. With the aid of our list — cross-checked between guidebooks, online reviews and our riad hosts — we found a few spots in Marrakech worth returning to. We loved Cafe Arabe, a swankily refurbished 16th century merchant’s inn, with sweet views of the souk district below. On the rooftop terrace, I snacked on Moroccan pastries while sipping on an Italian caffe shakerato (one girl can only drink so many mint teas). Then, on our final night — and after days of me battling food poisoning — we headed to Terrasse des Epices to cool off under their misters while detoxing on dishes from their light fusion menu.



Picture taking
It turns out that many Moroccans aren’t so keen on having their pictures taken by strangers – not up close, not from afar, not in the background, and mostly not all. Fortunately, a friend of mine gave me the heads-up before I went, so I made sure to be extra sensitive when snapping shots (before taking the below picture, I actually asked our Fes tour guide if it was OK). The bummer is that I didn’t take many remotely close-up photos of people, but I’m glad that I knew in advance so as to avoid offending anyone.



Have you been to Morocco? Do you agree with these tips? Any tips you’d like to share?

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September 7, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Africa

We stepped out of a cab into Marrakech’s old quarter, where a teenage boy plopped our suitcases into a cart that bounced in and out of puddle-filled potholes. Trailing behind him, we weaved our way through a narrow bamboo-mat-shaded street, dodging people, unforgiving motorcycles, and tables overflowing with tomatoes, oranges and disc-shaped bread. Meanwhile the locals, exhausted from Ramadan fasting, sat dazed alongside our path, some with their heads hidden under wet wash clothes, fending off the heat. It was an unpredictable medley of exotic sights, sounds, smells and sensations.

And then there was silence.



Disappearing into an alley off the main market (the one with the kitties, sleeping lady and wandering glue-sniffer), we suddenly dropped out of sight behind a nondescript black door. We crossed over from the chaos of the outside world and into a mini and unexpected paradise: our riad, Riad al Massarah.


Riad al Massarah

Sigh, the riad – what a concept! Moroccan riads are homes, or, in many cases, were homes. Imagine a traditional two- or three-story house as we know it, but turned inside out, with the garden in a center courtyard, and all the windows facing inward toward the open-air hallways. The outside world disappears and home becomes a private, secluded getaway.


Dar Bensouda


The riad concept is said to date back to Roman times, apparently an adaptation of the ancient Roman villa, which was used for wealthy families. Facing inward — with virtually few, if any, exterior windows — they allow not only for privacy, but also for relief from Morocco’s often not-so-pleasant heat (on our trip, that magic number reached 120F/50C).


Dar Cherifa


In recent decades, it has become popular to renovate the often dilapidated structures, turning them into restaurants and small hotels. The trend not only ensures the preservation of the palatial homes, but provides visitors the opportunity to stay within the tightly packed old quarters (called the medina) of cities like Marrakech and Fez, while seeing what hides behind the secretive city walls – and all for a reasonable price.



But, more than anything, for a bleary-eyed traveler like myself, the riads provided a sanctuary. They were a haven to map out my impending Moroccan adventure — one that started in the chaotic streets of Marrakech, took shape over pastries and mint tea in a quiet courtyard, and then came to life as we set off to explore the big city and beyond.


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August 29, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Africa

Kitties rule in Marrakech. They bumble around in alleyways, wait patiently under butcher counters, and cat nap soundly on doorsteps, always indifferent to the chaos around them.


Such was the case with these little guys, who became part of our daily routine during our recent trip to Morocco.



Indeed, every morning, we’d walk down the alley of our riad (the hotel-like house where we stayed), coming across certain inevitable sights before ever reaching the main chicken-selling, vegetable-hawking, meat-cutting thoroughfare. There was the same snoozing lady, nestled beneath an awning and buried under swathes of colorful fabric; a glue-sniffing fella (yes, you read that right), who’d consistently sway his way between walls, eventually ducking out of sight into a awkwardly short door (no joke, this happened everyday); and then these kitties, reliably cuddling on a cement perch behind the safety of iron beams. I’m not a cat person, but seriously? Stupidly cute, right?




You would think that Marrakech must be litter-box deep in a cat population out of control, when, in fact, the excessive kitties actually keep a potential rodent population under control (or so told us someone from the riad staff). So, what might initially seem like a nuisance – a country in desperate need of a Bob Barker-style fix-your-kitty campaign – is actually killing two birds…err mice?….with one, um, stone. Make that feline. No wait, make that lots of felines. Anyway, I don’t know about you guys, but I’ll take loads of cats over rats any day.



Stray animals aside, I’m fresh off my trip to Morocco, which was fresh off my trip to the US, which means that now I’m countless iced cafés away from fully catching up. I hope to bring you all a more thorough update on my travels next week. Until then, I don’t know, be sure to “have your pets spayed or neutered.” Or not.

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