Tasty tagines and mobbed medinas - a Moroccan medley

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Jan 27th, 2009, 06:08 AM
  #21
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Nov. 10-11 - Fes: the Not-So-Good Stuff

Fes, and especially its medina, had been near the top of my must-see list for Morocco. I wanted to wander the alleyways of the oldest and most revered of the country’s imperial cities, and see for myself the multi-colored basins that figure in all those photographs of the tanneries. While I was on a tour, and we would have a guide, it was an Intrepid tour, in my experience a company not given to planning shopping opportunities - over four previous trips I could count them on the fingers of one hand.

Some background: I’m not a shopper, and I really have enough stuff in my house. Perhaps I’ve done too much traveling over the last few years, but I have seen more than enough demonstrations of pot-throwing, glass-blowing, carpet-weaving, other weaving, paper making, etc. etc. I could probably give the spiel for some of them. I already have a carpet, bought in Turkey (and a photo of the silk one I regret not buying in Kashgar), and scarves and wall-hangings from Asia, I don’t need more.

I was really, really disappointed with the day. Aside from a lengthy lunch, we spent what felt like the whole day trailing from one demo-and-shop to another. Probably I should have quit after lunch and gone off on my own, but by that time I was thoroughly lost, and it didn’t really occur to me that the afternoon would be more of the same - it was listed on the schedule as free time. I expected the guide to orient us and set us free. How naïve...

The carpet shop was really the last straw - the “spokesman” for the “women’s co-operative” didn’t even give a good talk. At this point several of us complained to Abdel, the Intrepid leader, but he just got defensive and claimed it was impossible to get a guide to Fes who didn’t include shopping ops.

In addition, we had communication problems. The Fes guide would mention that it was “possible” to see certain things, like the synagogues and a museum, but not ask us if we “wanted” to see them. When some of us asked, late in the day, when we would visit the synagogues, we were told we should have done that in the morning. We did go back and visit one synagogue, but again I felt that Abdel’s loyalties lay with the guide rather than with the tour members.

I never did get to wander around the medina on my own, and promenading around with the group just didn’t have the same feel - my attention was more with the group than what was around me. I did find out just how narrow the alleys were, and how crowded, and see a number of the donkeys, shod with rubber from old tires to give them grip, that are the only method of transport other than feet.

And we did visit a tannery. Despite lots of warnings, I didn’t find the smell overpowering - perhaps the wind was in the wrong (or right) direction. Although working there must be a trial, the dying vats were a fascinating sight. And the day’s final demo-and-shop, at a place specializing in herbs, spices and traditional remedies, was quite interesting.

My opinion of Abdel didn’t improve that evening. We were on our own for dinner, and normally an Intrepid leader would either invite the group to join him or her at a particular restaurant, or at least make suggestions for where to eat. Abdel’s suggestion was that we eat at the riad again. Only after I consulted Lonely Planet, and a group of us got ready to head out to the Ville Nouvelle, did he suddenly become helpful, strongly suggesting a different restaurant and seeing us into taxis. The food at the Café-Restaurant Al Moussafir turned out to be edible, and reasonably priced (150 dirhams for two courses and wine), but in no way exciting. We finished the evening in the bar at the Sofitel, about which the best I can say is that it has a good view.
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Jan 27th, 2009, 09:17 AM
  #22
 
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Well, an interesting conundrum. I've had a few guides like that in my day. Not any more. I can't think why.

But thursday, I'd be interested to know where you think YOU went wrong in this situation. What should you have done, in retrospect? Because in a way your dilemma was as much to do with you, the group dynamics, your understandable urge to be a 'good guy' versus your feeling of frustration. 'Cos if you turn rancid, then, of course, you're marked as the evil witch from then on - either by your fellow punters - or by the tour guide. Insult one tour guide - you insult them all. Then you get the worst room.

It's a no win - unless you're prepared to be a selfish sod and just say, 'I'm off - see you all later.' That's what I do. I don't care about the bloody group dynamics. lol.
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Jan 27th, 2009, 09:43 AM
  #23
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dogster - oh, in retrospect, I should have bailed on the Fes tour after lunch - as I said I was surprised to find we were continuing with the demo-and-shop stuff. (We did the tanneries right before lunch.) I don't think it would have been a problem with group dynamics, more a hard time insisting that the guide give me some indication of where I was in the very large labyrinth of the medina. (I carry a mini-compass, so I suppose I could have oriented myself eventually.) Further thought suggests that the best place to bail would have been the ENTRY to the medina, but I was still giving the guide the benefit of the doubt at that point.

I don't have an especial problem with Abdel, he's certainly not the worst leader I've had, although this experience did leave me with a preference for non-local leaders.
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Jan 27th, 2009, 11:38 AM
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And in a way, it's what you bought. The guide's clear assumption is that you will just like all the other wide-eyed innocents he deals with day in day out - not realizing that in the midst of his group is a woman who had 'been around the block' travel-wise. I have the same problem. If you buy a tour you get a tour - not an individual package. That's the deal, eh?

No matter - on with the story.
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Jan 27th, 2009, 12:59 PM
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"If you buy a tour you get a tour - not an individual package. That's the deal, eh? " - oh, absolutely, and I switch to "group-mode" when I'm with a group. Problem here was that when I book an Intrepid tour I expect NOT to get stuck with demo-and-shop. But this was my first non-Asian tour with them. Trip I'm planning right now is a one month stroll through eastern France, entirely solo.
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Jan 27th, 2009, 03:18 PM
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Dogster makes a good point in assessing what went 'wrong' or right with a trip. I put a lot of energy into planning my trips, but somehow something new and unforseen (that I may or may not like) always pops up. Nothing is guaranteed. There are annoyances and benefits that I get from both being in a group and traveling privately.
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Jan 28th, 2009, 05:35 AM
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Hmm, looks like I go the dates wrong - Fes wasthe nights of Nov. 11 and 12.

Nov. 13th - Through the mountains to Midelt

Just seeing mountains in the distance can lift my spirits, so things really looked up for me as we spent the day driving through the Middle Atlas mountains. The scenery was wonderful, although perhaps not what first comes to mind when thinking of Morocco, featuring as it did cedar forests and snow-covered heights that felt more Alpine than African.

Ifrane, where we sat outside in the sunshine with our morning coffee, looked particularly European, even Swiss - very clean and home to an English-language university for rich kids. I could have skipped the next stop, where all we saw was a pair of elaborately decked-out horses for hire, and some sad looking Barbary apes picking over the garbage, but I enjoyed the small town where we ate lunch. One short and dusty main street held several cafes, a few food stalls - one or two on barrows - and a number of trucks. The top of one truck was a corral for live sheep, just down the street a butcher’s shop displayed the carcasses stripped of skin but with the heads still attached, and I lunched on lamb keftas - no place for a squeamish carnivore.

After more gorgeous scenery we arrived at Midelt, and the very fake-looking Kasbah Asmaa, our hotel. Our room came with a heater and a radiator, both welcome, as it got pretty chilly after dark. The hotel was 3 kms outside town, but it didn’t seem that we were missing too much in Midelt. We spent some time there after a visit to an embroidery workshop run by Franciscan nuns, mostly in search of an Internet café. After dinner at the hotel, those of us who repaired to the bar instead of going immediately to bed discovered that closing time was shortly after 10:00. Maybe things are livelier in spring and fall.
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Jan 28th, 2009, 01:41 PM
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Very good

I am taking it all in !!!

Waiting to hear about Ziz Gorge , Er- Rachidia, and Erfoud !

Thanks for continuing to post



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Feb 2nd, 2009, 05:44 AM
  #29
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Sorry for the hiatus. Wednesday night I clicked "buy" on tickets for April in France (and no alcohol involved, dogster!), and am now spending time on itinerary and hotels.

Nov. 14 - Dune day

We spent the morning among more magnificent mountain scenery - the strata lines were quite remarkable and looked like plough lines or terraces from a distance. Most everyone else on the bus seemed to be asleep, but I asked for a few photo stops regardless. We were following the Ziz river gorge, a watery life-line in an increasingly arid area, and began to see palmeraies, where irrigation allowed for agriculture. Vivid green vegetation stood out against the dull beige of the dry ground, and the flat roofs of the mud-brick houses were covered with drying dates.

Both our coffee and lunch stops (at Er-Rachidia, I think) were fly-ridden, but had good toilets. I had been keen to try harira soup, a Moroccan specialty, but found the version at this lunch rather uninteresting, although I enjoyed the brochettes that followed. After lunch we continued south, out of the mountains and across progressively drier territory, on our way to the Sahara.

I had given quite a bit of thought to this part of the tour. I have the same problem with deserts I have with boat trips - exciting in prospect but boring in execution. I remembered looking forward to a bus ride across the formidable Taklamaklan in western China - and finding the six hours it took felt much longer. Riding the rails across the Gobi wasn’t any better. Still, with the Sahara so close I had to at least take a look. But, not, I felt, spend a night in a desert camp in November - I had spend a couple of freezing nights in a yurt in Mongolia, and didn’t want a repetition. So I opted for the “Comfort” tour and a night in a hotel.

We turned off the paved road south of Erfoud and started across the edge of the desert - dry ground with a blackish crust, broken by wheels and by camel feet to show yellow-brown dirt underneath. Pink hills in the distance rimmed the flat expanse. It took 40 bouncy minutes to travel 14 kilometers - and reach a lake! Apparently there had been heavy rain in the recent past, and the water hadn’t evaporated yet. It added a whole other dimension to photos of the sandy dunes.

The Hotel Yasmina had no power outlets, and no power during the day (a generator ran at night), but was in all other ways an improvement over a camp. It even had a swimming pool, and a few hardy souls from our group actually swam in it, despite the decidedly cold water.

Before setting off on our sunset camel ride we were served mint tea with sultanas and nuts. I had debated skipping the ride as the only other time I had ridden a camel, in China, had been painful, as the pole holding the stirrups had dug into my thighs. This time, however, with no stirrups and therefore no pole, I quite enjoyed swaying above the sands. I did not enjoy climbing the dunes, as my boots weren’t getting traction in the sand and I needed help from the guide. But the sunset was beautiful.
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Feb 4th, 2009, 06:04 AM
  #30
 
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Thank you for posting your report and great photos. Your photos brought back great memories from our trip a couple of years ago. I'm on my way to work so will have to see the rest of the photos later. Morocco has such great color and intrigue that now--seeing your photos-- I want to go again! I enlarged and framed some of our photos from there to remind us daily of this beautiful country. www.pbase.com/pattyroth
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Feb 4th, 2009, 06:57 AM
  #31
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Lovely pix, patty - thanks. I didn't get to Chefchaouen, but I visited Essaouira after the tour finished and loved it.
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Feb 4th, 2009, 07:00 AM
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Nov. 15 - On to Todra Gorge

The Saharan sunset had been pretty enough that I actually got up at 6:30 to see the dawn, and didn’t regret it. The dunes flushed pink as the sun rose, and were nicely reflected in the still waters of the temporary lake. After a rather meager breakfast we retraced our bumpy path along the edge of the desert, before taking a sealed road west through hot and rather boring high country nearly as arid as the Sahara.

We ate lunch at Tinejdad, putting in our food orders at a roadside café before visiting the rather dusty Oasis Museum (www.elkhorbat.com/en.museum.htm), displaying artifacts from Berber life in three traditional houses. I liked the houses, but the principal effect of the displays was to convince me that I was very glad I hadn’t been born a Berber! It looked like a very hard life.

Back at the packed café we discovered why we had stopped there first: our food arrived after a short wait, but a nearby table of Americans left in a huff when theirs took longer. I had had a starvation attack on the bus (I have borderline hypoglaecemia, and carry protein bars for such emergencies) so I tucked into both a cheese omelet and chicken brochettes. I was already starting to get a little tired of menus that offered couscous, tagine or brochettes, and little else. But the brochettes were usually good.

When we reached Tinerhir, our home for the next two nights, we had another shopping op, this time at a place helping handicapped children. Behind a posh façade a series of sad rooms were used to teach metalwork and needlework.

After checking into the comfortable Kenzi Sargho we set off for the high point of the day - Todra Gorge. Although we only saw it as the light started to fade, it more than lived up to my expectations. A crystal clear river ran through the gorge - had, presumably, carved it, although the rock walls loomed high enough overhead to make that seem fanciful. It reminded me of the Virgin River Gorge in Zion National park, and the Iron Gates in the Samaria Gorge in Crete, but here a paved road ran alongside the river.

This was home territory for Abdel, our leader, and we stopped for coffee at his nephew’s place, rather than the “foreign” operation across the river, and ate dinner at a nearby hotel where his brother was a waiter. The inordinately long wait for food (I suspect we were eating too early) was balanced by an impromptu drumming group, including Abdel, that formed after dinner. I could have spent the rest of the evening enjoying the high-energy beat of the drums, but most of the group wanted to leave. Instead my roommate and I wound up in the Kenzi Sargho’s bar watching soccer!
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Feb 5th, 2009, 02:22 AM
  #33
 
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Had been saving this report for when I had more time, thanks for writing it up in so much detail. Very interesting read.
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Feb 5th, 2009, 07:20 PM
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Great reading. Thanks so much for writing.
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Feb 6th, 2009, 02:23 PM
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Nov. 16 - Coming Clean

I could have spent the free morning in Tinerhir on an organized hike - a strenuous one round the gorge, or a tamer one through the palmeraies - but I had woken in the middle of the night with cramp, and seemed to have pulled a muscle in fixing it. So instead I set off with my roommate to explore the town.

Lonely Planet dismisses Tinerhir as a “bustling mining town”, but I enjoyed the chance to see a less touristy place, and the break from the group. We wandered down through the market, which was mostly given over to shoes and clothes, and back up through the woodworking district, before agreeing to enter one of the two Maison Berbere souvenir shops. The mines here produce silver, the staple of Berber jewelry, and I bought a small - and eminently portable - silver Hand of Fatima pendent for a friend. These are said to bring good luck, and I felt that she was way overdue for some.

We recovered from the bargaining session over coffee on the main drag, where a guy at the next table asked to borrow my Lonely Planet so he could check the listing for his hotel. (It wasn’t very complementary!) Unfortunately, the place I had in mind for lunch was closed, and we were followed for some distance by the owner of the unsavory looking place next door, eager for our custom. Instead we gorged on thick and filling veggie soup and more brochettes at the Hotel Oasis.

The afternoon was given over to the hammam. The men reported that their side of the bathhouse was largely empty, but the women’s side was packed with females from toddler up to grandmother. It seems that while the men socialize in cafes, the women socialize while bathing.

I had experienced (I hesitate a little to say enjoyed) a Turkish bath before, but my two companions were novices. We all stripped down to bikini bottoms (or rolled down one-piece bathing suits) and joined the throng. The locals had brought everything with them - a small stool, soap, the harsh mitt used for cleansing, and towels, and bathed themselves. Our admission fees covered our supplies, and the attentions of the attendants, one an immensely fat (and strong) woman with breasts hanging to her knees.

We started in the hot room - hot enough to fog my glasses if I had kept them on - where we poured water over ourselves, and lathered up with a soft brown soap in a plastic baggie. After a five minute wait to let the soap sink in we rinsed off, and moved to the warm room and a meeting with the mitts. I was once again amazed at the amount of dirt that rolls off apparently clean skin when scrubbed this way. And by the amount of water the attendants threw over us. After a brief, soapy, massage, still more buckets of water finished the job. We staggered into the changing room to dry and dress and face the suddenly cold outside world.
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Feb 6th, 2009, 04:27 PM
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Keep it coming
I am here reading .
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Feb 9th, 2009, 05:38 AM
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You're torturing us thursday - we're dying to read more!!
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Feb 9th, 2009, 08:49 AM
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Sorry Leslie - problem with neighbor, photos and weekend intervened.

Nov. 17 - Dades Gorge

I hoped to spend this morning in a 4WD heading for Dades Gorge off-road, but Abdel was firm that the route was currently impassable. Instead, a fairly short morning drive took us to the best hotel of the trip, the Xaluca. at Boumalne du Dades, but we stopped just long enough to drop our packs and book an afternoon massage, before leaving for the gorge.

If I had to pick one of the gorges, I’d opt for Todra, which is narrower and steeper and more spectacular, but Dades was impressive enough, and the drive up longer and more interesting. I didn’t think much of the kasbahs touted by the guidebooks, at least not the ones seen from the road, but I marveled at the mountain sheep and goats, happily grazing half-way up impossibly steep cliffs.

After all-too-short a time in the gorge itself we settled in on the roof of a hotel to wait for lunch, meanwhile watching some crazy cyclists laboring up a steep road and round many hairpin bends to reach the start of the gorge. After a brief rest they headed down again, while we enjoyed the food - I had the best chicken brochettes yet, tasting as if they had been marinated in yoghurt and spices.

I spent the first part of the afternoon on the Internet, wrestling with the fiendish French-Arabic keyboard. Abdel had mentioned that the group might spend the last day in Essaouria, as a day trip from Marrakesh. I was headed to Essaouria anyway, after the tour, and it occurred to me that in that case I might as well stay there and skip the last night in Marrakesh. So I emailed my riad to see if it had space.

You might think I had spent enough time getting wet the day before, but no. I showered when I got up, as usual. Then the massage proved more oily (and less expert) than I had expected, which required a second shower. And since I love jacuzzis I spent even more time actually immersed in water, before taking the third shower of the day. I have probably never been so clean!
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Feb 9th, 2009, 09:17 AM
  #39
 
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Excuse me for interrupting your wonderful narrative but I'm wondering --
Sounds like you enjoyed the food. Maybe it got repetative but all-in-all you had no problems? Did you eat everything - uncooked veggies & fruit, etc.?
I had issues with my stomach in Egypt and then again in Peru recently (which may not have been from food in either case). Consequently I'm now feeling cautious about what I'll eat away from home. Paranoid might be the word but it's not fun to be side-lined on a trip.
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Feb 9th, 2009, 01:00 PM
  #40
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Leslie - interruptions are no problems - it's nice to know someone is still reading this screed!

I used my Asian precautions when it came to water in Morocco - bottled water for teeth as well as drinking, and caution WRT ice - only in posher hotels. But I don't remember skipping salads. However, I don't seem to get stomach problems very easily, and YMMV.

I did wind up finding the food monotonous, but that may have been the places the tour took us. Tagines, couscous and brochettes showed up for lunch and dinner.
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