The Dutch Experience

RM’s company used to recruit pretty heavily in the Netherlands, and one of RM’s best friends from work and his girlfriend invited us to visit them in Holland for a weekend trip. D’s parents live in the town of Haarlem, 45 minutes outside of Amsterdam, an upscale village close to the sea. We stayed with them for most of the weekend, and made it our mission to have the most Dutch weekend possible (with some help and supervision from our very Dutch friends).
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View of AM’s old office taking off from London City

After landing, we went straight to the Jopen brewpub in Haarlem, which has delightful craft beers, fried Dutch snacks like bitteballen and cheese, and a relaxed vibe. After a few drinks, we headed to BD’s parents’ house and staying up late chatting and eating cheese. After a late start the next day and a big Dutch breakfast spread (spreads, cheese, meat, butter and bread–all from a Dutch breakfast box), we left for a drive in the countryside in the family classic 1979 woody Jeep Wagoner. Perfect beach car, with a big bench seat in the back. Just out of town we started to see the flower fields, massive stretches of purple and red and yellow flowers with an overpowering scent. We’d never seen anything like it before.
After some arm twisting of AM, we decided to visit Kukenhof, a large and very famous Dutch garden. The parking lot was packed with tour buses and cars, and we began to have second thoughts. Those thoughts turned out to be unwarranted. While the garden was super busy, the garden was huge and the flowers were beautiful, endless rows of tulips, daffodils, and more tulips. We walked, had herring sandwiches, and took in the beautiful day. The most unique part of the garden is its large greenhouse, with hundreds upon hundreds of tulip varieties brought in by Dutch flower companies. The Netherlands sells around 60% of the worlds flower bulbs, and every year the 100 royally endorsed flower companies bring their latest creations to the Kukenhof to wow potential buyers.
When we got home, we mounted up on BD’s family’s bikes and cycled into a national park by the coast with rolling sand dunes, little lakes, wild horses and wild cows. After about an hour, we reached a coastal area known for its beach clubs, most of which are taken down during the winter and put back up in time for early summer with different themes. We whiled away an hour drinking Sol, eating fried Dutch snacks, and looking out at the sea before heading home. Our Haarlem day ended with another bike ride into town to sample some of the local ice cream at Luciano’s (really delicious–they show a clip of them making the ice cream while you wait in the long line to be served) before heading to Jopen for another round of Dutch beer snacks for dinner.
Cheese, tulips, beer, herring–what more was there to do? It was a glorious day, and we headed in to Amsterdam to make the most of it. Westerpark made for a perfect place for a walk, and we strolled along its promenade amongst what seemed like the whole city out reading and sunbathing. We stopped for coffee outside a little old warehouse right on the canal, with some delectable drinks and very rich cakes (RM’s was pretty much pure caramel) before walking through the train station to try some Dutch sausage (our mission was to eat every Dutch snack known to man–we came close). We took a short ferry across the massive canal to the north of town to go to the new, up-and-coming north side. As we went, BD pointed us to the many places he had been clubbing including an old petrol holding tank, a hatch into an underground basement, and a few innocuous seeming bars.
The north side has a interesting modern museum building, and also a tower with an observation deck that is well worth visiting. We took the €12.50 per person plunge, and were shot up the elevator to the “Lookout Experience.” For some reason Dutch people love to use the word experience (boat experience, Heineken experience, and more). The views over the city were lovely, with panoramas out over the industrial section, the churches of the centre, the train station with its “AMSTERDAM” roof, and the new modern buildings in the northwest.
After a bottle of white wine at the restaurant, we walked around the city, taking in the lovely canals and many large tulip planters scattered throughout. It’s a lovely city, with a ton of hipster design shops, restaurants, and cafes–and of course the ubiquitous coffee shops and the red light district.
We had a large Indonesian dinner called a rijkstaffel, with 25 different small dishes brought out, before heading back to the apartment to sleep before our 7 AM flight back.
-RM

Oslo (Again, this time just AM)

My best friend from Wellesley, MS, moved to Norway about a year ago. Her hubby is Norwegian, and they’ve lived in a couple of places in Norway in their first year of marriage. I went up to visit them at their house in Oslo April armed with a backpack full of essential (and hard to find in Norway) English goodies:

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(Not pictured: 3 blocks of cheddar and 2 bottles of Bailey’s) 

Unfortunately–as suspected by many–I’m not the most responsible solo traveler. After arriving too late to check into my Friday night flight (and a few tears later), I finally jetted up North on Saturday morning to hang with MS, JA, and Oggie the Doggy.

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Take two. 

We spent Saturday driving through the countryside, taking a walk, and hanging out in their cozy house.

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Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

Sunday kicked off with Norwegian breakfast (my favourite!!), a walk through town, and waffles and Brunost (a sweet brown cheese) on the porch. It was sunny and beautiful, and MS and I sat outside, watched the clouds roll through the valley, and even got the change to FaceTime with our newly engaged friend EW.

These are the kind of weekends that make me feel so lucky to be living in London and only a plane ride away from people I love.

-AM

Madeira, Portugal

Madeira was an impulse buy for a weekend trip, a 3 hour flight to a speck of an island off the coast of Morocco. The landing itself was an event with the plane making a 180 degree hairpin turn before touching down on a runway perched on massive stilts in the sea. The island is surrounded by cliffs—its beauty is wild, of towering volcanic mountains and little towns in the valleys below.

We stayed in a hamlet called Jardim Do Mar, set on a large plateau at the base of the cliffs, with concrete breakers to protect against the Atlantic swell. It’s got cobbled streets to narrow for cars set with flower patterns of white amongst black rocks, and a couple of restaurants serving dishes from the sea. Our favourite spot was Joe’s bar, which serves up fried seafood, 1.5 euro beers, and a laid back island vibe—the first night we had no cash, and the owner asked us to come back and pay the next day. We found that kind of hospitality everywhere. People were very friendly, and no one was in a rush for anything. Our evenings at Jardim Do Mar were mainly spent walking by the sea or in Joe’s little garden drinking wine.

With only one full day on the island, we spent Saturday driving around the island, up its winding mountain roads and through its many tunnels. We had sunshine on the coast and saw snow up on the second highest peak—it’s an island of several climates. We drove north across the spine of mountains that defines the island, over winding roads hugging drops deep into the valleys. It was incredibly lush, with sweeping vistas that made you forget it was an island.

We stopped for a quick hike in the UNESCO protected Laurisilva forest, with trees that date back 800 years in a Jurassic Park landscape, before pressing on to the north coast.

The island is one of water, with babbling streams and levada irrigation channels that crisscross the island. After a cheeky stop at the Veu de Noiva, a waterfall that flows directly into the sea, we headed on to Quinta de Furao, an upscale hotel and restaurant with a beautiful view out to the sea.

We had a delightful lunch with dry Madeiran wine, stopped for a tropical fruit dessert at a fruit stand on the side of the road (passion fruit and a weird, delightful green fruit) and then drove up to Pico Ruivo with the hopes of breaking the cloud layer to see its famed views. We drove higher and higher, and the visibility got worse and worse. We saw cars pass us coming the other way with little snowmen on their hoods, and we quickly realised why it was so busy—there was no view above the clouds, but there was snow up top, in what must be a reasonably rare occurrence on a tropical island.

We drove back down to the sunshine and warmth, stopping at a crowded platform that rests over the highest cliff in Europe, a 1,000 foot drop down into the sea.

The highlight of the trip was a dinner we had in Prazeres, the town that sits above Jardim Do Mar, at at Restaurante Manjerico. It only takes bookings ahead of time, and AM facebook messaged them in the hopes they’d be open. They were, and we were welcomed by the sweatshirt wearing proprietor who runs the place with his wife. We sat in a big room downstairs, chatting with him about Brexit and the Portugese diaspora in the UK. The meal was to die for, with a cheese and scallop platter to start with, and more food than we could possibly eat for the main course. It was potatoes, rice, marinated roasts, and vegetables—Portugese comfort food at its finest. A boisterous group of locals soon joined, with a feast for kings. We hadn’t asked the price before sitting down and were quite worried when the bill came. With wine and all, it came to 33 Euros—pretty unbelievable.

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Before we knew it we were having our last walk down by the water and boarding a flight home with a couple bottle.

-RM

Budapest, Hungry (Again)

RM had a week of training in Budapest, and so we decided to make a weekend of it with another couple. It was a quick trip—just a couple days—but it reminded us why we loved the city so much, with great cheap food, lively nightlife, and a hipster design scene. Budapest is a sprawling old imperial city, with imposing architecture and the beautiful Danube cutting through the middle, separating the grandness of the Buda side with its palace from the denser Pest across the river.

Much of the weekend was spent visiting some of the places we loved from the last time we were there. We were surprised to see Paloma, a pretty courtyard filled with independent artists’ shops, still thriving, with mainly the same stores that had been there two years before. Our favourite was still a little family run booth that sells pewter and stone jewellery. Fiser, where we bought AM a handbag a long time ago, was still up and running, making bags of all shapes, styles and colours to order.

Saturday night was one of our livelier ones in a while, kicking off with dinner and Hungarian wine (we do love Hungarian wine!) at Macesz Huszar, a classy Jewish style restaurant in the old Jewish quarter. From there, to Szimpla Kert, one of Budapest’s several ruin bars, a sprawling series of rooms in a ruined old building. There’s dancing on the main floor and a few other bars scattered around, with a crowd of young Budapestians mixed in with a big dose of tourists. We had a few beers and met up with some other Newtons before heading to Club Tesla, a huge club with a mainly Hungarian crowd.

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One of the best parts of Budapest is just walking the city and taking it in. The seat of parliament is a stunning, huge Gothic Revival building set on the river with a large plaza out front. Two Soldiers march in lockstep out front in a circle around a towering flagpole. Crossing the river takes you over the famed chain link bridge, flanked by enormous bronze lions, to the imperial palace set on a hill above the city. When we needed a coffee to start our day we stopped in Auguszt Curkraszda, a bakery with delightful, rich cakes set as in an old imperial style cafe. To end the trip we took a long stroll up to the tall statue of a lady on the highest part of a hill that dominates the city—it was a long hike up trails still slicked with ice, but well worth the view.

-RM

La Clusaz, French Alps

RM’s work hosts a ski trip every year which is something the whole company looks forward too.We missed it last year and were determined not to this year, even if RM didn’t know how to ski and AM hadn’t snowboarded for 14 years. And so we boarded the flight to Geneva after work on Friday with 100 other coworkers and friends and made our way to La Clusaz in the French Alps.

The town was a beautiful little ski village set in a deep valley surrounded by towering mountains. Ski lifts crisscross the mountains, and a multitude of chalet bars scatter themselves across the slopes. Though the snow turned icy by the end of the weekend, the weather was beautiful, with clear skies and a winter chill in the air. The company rented two hotels, one of which had an open bar (risky at best), lukewarm hot tub, sauna, and pool.

By day, we skied and snowboarded all over the mountains. RM had a lesson to begin the weekend, with the primary instruction being “go down that hill” and “don’t go straight down.” We stuck to blues and greens, though RM found that greens were the right speed. Soon we lost count of the number of falls, some more spectacular than others. By the end of the weekend, greens were no problem. While AM did some steep, crowded blues, RM often hiked down to get to events at the bars on the slopes. The annual scavenger hunt, in fancy dress (what British event doesn’t have costumes?), was fun, with our team dressed in Super Mario attire. As some pretty weak skiers, we mainly stuck to the easy slopes.

Nights were filled with dinner, British drinking games (oddly less active than American ones), and all-you-can drink cocktails. We learned the joys of French Alpine cooking, including raclette, where a wedge of hard cheese is put next to a heating element to melt. Some favourite drinking games include “Mr. President,” where everyone puts their finger to their ear and says “get down Mr. President”—the last one to do so is tackled—and another involving numbers and repetition. We never managed to make it that late, which was probably a good thing.

We finished the trip with one last ride up the mountains, some runs down the nicer greens, and a beer atop the mountain.

Seven Sisters Cliffs, England

Our more-than-just-a-friend-more-like-family friend MS came to visit and we used it as an excuse to take a trip to Seven Sisters Country Park and see the beautiful white cliffs. The cliffs are the longest stretch of chalk cliffs around the channel, but are quickly eroding into the sea. Cash especially loved the trip because we let him run around on the beach–a rare treat for a city slicker pup.

On the way home we stopped in Brighton which was mostly strange. The main attractions are a boardwalk which RM and MS convinced me looks the same as every boardwalk ever (how am I to know? I’ve never seen one!). A couple of blocks away was the the King’s summer palace–an Indian inspired building built for King George and designed by John Nash in the early 19th century.

-AM

Fes (Morocco Part 4)

After dropping our car, we headed into the ancient city of Fes. One of the women from the family who owns our riad came and met us where a taxi dropped us outside the medina, and soon we were inside Dar Faracha Fes, a beautifully restored riad in the old city run by a French family. The alley ending in our riad was just wider than a shoulders width, hard to walk through with our bags–they say that Fes is the oldest, most labyrinthine medina in Morroco.
Fes passed as a whirlwind. Though not as busy as Marrakech (though this is certainly a point of reference issue), the main souks are packed with people in the early evening hours, and constant calls come from behind warning you to step aside for a horse, donkey, or handcart barrelling through. Fes is known as Morocco’s most holy city, and is where Moulay Idriss is buried, the man who brought Islam to Morocco. Holy places dominate the city, with mosques at every turn and several stunning medersas. It has the feel of an intact medieval city.
By now AM had honed her bargaining prowess (RM decided to let her take it over), and buying some keepsakes in the souk were a highlight of the trip. One shop hidden away in the tannery area (tough to navigate with tens of hustlers asking you to go into a tannery) was a allegedly famous cushion cover shop from Rough Guides called Chez Hamidou. We spent some time looking through colourful cushion covers before the owner, Mohammed, asked us if we wanted tea–things were serious now! He told us of his troop of 5 or so men riding donkeys, scouring the mountains for  cushion covers to sell in his shop, and of the rich ladies from the US who would come and buy 17, 18, 20 at a time to take home to their beach houses. We selected some we liked, and soon the negotiations started (this is good, handmade, Berber wool! You have such great taste! You have picked the nicest ones–others I sell for 60, 70 dirham, but these are much nicer!). He starts at 550, and we go for 120. He immediately says “you’re crazy!,” a tried and true Moroccan negotiating tactic. We mix and match, wheel and deal. Do you want 6 or 7 cushion covers, for your mom and your mom? He starts putting his stock away and ignoring us. There are jokes about how much like a Berber AM is at negotiating (another staple). He traps us a couple times when we get to 275, and sells us one we didn’t actually want (our internal family signalling could use some work). He starts packing them up, and he’s got us. We get to 350 for the two we want, colourful on the front and subdued and red on the back. Perfect. We all walk away happy, though wesuspect we overpaid by 20% or so.
Negotiating a lantern proved easier, and we got away for 200 dirhams for a beautiful handmade piece from good metal. The piece de resistance, however, waited for ourlast day RM had been eyeing the copper frying pans in the metalworkers square, Place Seffarine, just outside the Karouine Mosque, the biggest of the mosques in the medina. Every day, metalworkers hammer out copper pots and pans in the square, shiny and beautiful copper pieces. The clanging has a satisfying ring to it, and from the first day RM was in love with the frying pans (some quick research uncovered the fact that we needed to buy a tin lined one to avoid copper poisoning). We made a first attempt on our second day, but 500 dirhams was way too much. Weshopped around, discounting the lighter ones, before settling on one in a shop on the corner. Soon, negotiations started. 700! 200! The jokes were flying. AM negotiated with the guy on the right, and the metalworker in the centre laughing. He was the boss, and held the final say. The man on the left laughed along to, though his role was unclear throughout. AM rose slowly, and the price came down quickly to 450. Soon we were at 400. The pan gets hung back up–he can’t go below 400. You negotiate like a Berber! Than give me the Berber price! A man appears from behind us, and is handed the pan. This guy wants to buy it, and says it’s worth 500! He was speaking Spanish! And he said 400! How much are you paying this guy, anyways. Even Hamid, the metalworker, laughs at how badly the stunt was pulled off. Hamid clangs away, and the negotiation continues. We wait, we banter. Hamid points at AM and give me the thumbs up–yes, I have chosen my wife well. 350 and sold. We have Hamid put his mark on the pan (he uses it to match lids to bottoms), and another vendor does the same. It’s thick, heavy, and shiny.
Fes itself is a pretty incredible city. We went into two Medersas, the Al Attarine and the Bou Inania. RM preferred the former, for its unbelievable tile work and the closeness in the main courtyard. It was a moving place to be, especially when the call to prayer sounded. There was intricate and well preserved cedar carving around the ceiling, and the tiles were placed in patterns and cut in shapes that seemed impossible. They were both in the same style as the Ben Youssef in Marrakech, with woodcutters, tile workers, stone masons, plaster (or concrete) masons, and metalworkers all coming together to make a beautiful monument to Islamic learning.
Eating, of course, was a big part of the Fes adventure. Our Riad served us a very nice dinner on our first night, and each evening we snacked on sweets and bread from the souks (the Fassi doughnuts and puffy, crepe-like bread were highlights), but the main event each day was lunch. The first day we ate at the Ruined Garden, a tapas place in a ruined building with–you guessed it–a garden inside. The second day we had a classy lunch at Riad Hatim deep in the northern part of the medina. It was pastilla, a Fassi-specialty pigeon pie with cinnamon on top and flaky crust, and a great lamb tagine with a rich sauce. For starters it was a series of small plates of Moroccan salad, different vegetables with spices and some lentils. The riad itself was even more beautiful than ours, with a colourful, woodcut hand painted ceiling and some impressive mason work in the interior. Our favourite food of the whole lot turned out to be little moon pie like cakes with almond paste filling sold by street vendors for 2 dirhams a pop. A low point was getting scammed out of 20 dirhams for tea at Judaica shop whose vendor pushed it on us and then asked that we pay before we left (he also said that he wouldn’t be open the next day–lies!). Perhaps the biggest jolt was our walk through the souk next to Place R’cif where our riad was located, where alongside the live chickens, turkeys, vegetables, fish and sweets were two camel heads hanging at a butchers shop.
We visited the wood museum, beautifully restored and with some interesting pieces like musical instruments and Arabic inscriptions, with a great patio up top to see out on the city. The famed tanneries were a highlight of the visit, as we went into one of the shops and viewed the leather workers from above, as they moved animal hides into and out of giant vats. The first vat, a limestone mixture, is for removing fur; the second, a mixture of pigeon droppings, is for softening; and the third, for colouring (our guide, who we ended up paying 50 dirhams–though 20 probably would have done the job–told us they were natural, with red as poppy, green as mint, blue as indigo, and yellow as saffron, but the guidebook said otherwise). The process was mesmerizing to watch. A stroll through the well manicured gardens in the southwest of the city was a must, as was a look at the famed Blue Gate. The two main souk streets, running east-west from the Blue Gate to the Karouine, were jammed with vendors hawking their wares and people, tourists and locals alike.
-RM

The Desert & Middle Atlas: Erg Chebbi & Sidi Hamza (Morocco Part 3)

We hit the road after Dades gorge and headed towards Merzouga to see Erg Chebbi–the only sand dunes in Morocco. The landscape, as usual, was quite beautiful, and changed to become much more desert like as we drove. There was a huge ancient underground irrigation system as we got close to Merzouga, with large humps rising out of the dirt. Though no longer in use, it was impressive to behold from the road. At we were driving, we saw a very loud “CANAL ICI” painted on the side of a structure going into one of the humps, and naturally we stopped. We haggled with the older women who ran the place on the price of the canal tour, and settled on 50 dirhams. The canal was impressive. It’s a person-high tunnel running just underneath the ground’s surface, meant to transport water from the oasis to the fields. It was pitch dark inside, save for the light filtering through from the holes above.
We drove on across the desert, passing through bustling frontier towns whose streets were filled with people walking, bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, and donkeys. We passed by a camel or two along the unpopulated stretches of road.
Soon we began the approach to Merzouga, and orange-pink mountains appeared in the distance. As we got closer, we realised that the mountains were in fact the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi, part of the Sahara. We turned off into the hard packed ground of the desert leading to the dunes, following a trail to the Auberge du Sud. The dunes were striking against the blue sky, seeming more a painting than a real landscape. The Auberge is set right at the foot of the dunes, which towered above us, the sand orange. After a tea and some bread and olives, we mounted our camels along with the rest of our group to head into the dunes.
Camels are peculiar creatures, making wookie like noises and hilarious facial expressions. They’re also quite stubborn creatures, and hate getting down or up. After some wrangling, the whole group was mounted up, and a guide (on foot) walked us into the desert. Soon all we could see were the mountains of sand around us, pink and orange and yellow, curving beautifully into the sky. Our camels’ noises and the clop of their hooves against the ground were punctuated by the whir of ATVs in the distance and our guides’ chatter. The ride on the camels began to get a little uncomfortable, but after an hour we were at our desert camp.
Our guide told us to head up the dune to watch the sunset, so we did, soon realising that climbing up a sand dune is not as easy as it looked. The sand itself is incredibly fine, and we fell back a step for every two we took forward. We summited the dune just as the sunset reached its most beautiful, illuminating the dunes in soft purple hues. The sunset over the mountains in the distance was breathtaking.
We headed back down (one of our loud tourist compatriots slid down the dune on her butt–not recommended), and soon found ourselves drinking tea by the fire while chatting with some Australians and New Zealanders who had joined us. After some soup and a Tajine, our group sat around the fire and listened to our guides play the drums. They were clearly making up words in Berber, but it was a great time, finished off by a round of songs from each nationality present (there were Japanese, Chinese, Taiwaneses, Aussies, Kiwis, and French all there). We looked up at the starry starry sky for a bit, and then headed to our rug-bedecked tent to sleep. We awoke to watch the sun rise over the dunes, and soon found ourselves back on our camels, headed back to pick up our car.
The road to our next destination was surprisingly well surface and went straight through the desert. soon the desert gave way to the Ziz valley, with red rock walls rising from a large canyon floor. The canyon is known for its palmeries, and a dense palm forest ran for miles and miles along the canyon floor–yet another scene from Morocco we had never seen anywhere else. The green against the red was striking. We got pulled over for a brief moment at one of the many police checkpoints along the road. The officer asked if we liked Morocco. Obviously, we did. He said have a great trip and happy new year, and we were on our way.
The landscape soon changed from the red canyon to a yellow grey green flanked by towering, snow capped mountains, and we soon saw a turnoff for Zaouit Sidi Hamza, the mountain village where we were to spend our night. The turn off we had planned to take wasn’t for another 10-20 kilometres, but after a brief consultation of our GPS we decided to chance it. The road was well paved, and ran into a beautiful, wide plain that turned into a valley in the distance.
We drove into a smaller town which, with its mud houses and livestock, could have been from a thousand years ago, and the road suddenly turned to dirt. Continue on in our FWD Fiesta, or turn back? After a brief scouting trip on foot, we determined to push ahead. The road ended up being pretty bad, and we had to ford some low water crossings, navigate a little mud, and avoid some gigantic holes–but the scenery, with a beautiful valley rising up above the terraced farmland of the valley floor, was unbeatable.
We passed a few villagers who gave us emphatic ‘salaam m’alaikum’ greetings, forded a stream, and after about an hour’s hard driving, finished the 10 or so kilometres to get to Sidi Hamza. The drive ended in a dramatic, opposite lock charge up a muddy hill to the paved road into town, which we could have taken the whole way if we had just followed our initial plan.
After arriving to the village, we saw a spray painted sign for our lodging, the Auberge Palacio Sidi Hamza, which we had chosen because it seemed just about the most remote lodging that booking.com had to offer. We got out of the car, and asked in the small market about the Auberge–we got some strange looks, but one of the villagers took off on a donkey. We decided to continue on, with the now-paved village road quickly turning back into dirt. We followed another sign, but were soon lost in the labyrinth of village streets. Driving around was complicated by our constant encounters with donkeys in the road.
We hit a dead end, and asked one of the village men. He promptly offered to take us there, and hopped in the car with us. We turned around with another a dozen or so people looking on, and within a minute or so Mustafa, one of the people who was a caretaker while we stayed, ran down from the hill, alerted by the donkey rider from before. He got in, and after a bumpy ride we were at the Auberge, in a position overlooking the valley.
Sidi Hamza and the neighbouring Tazrouft are old Berber villages, mainly of mud construction, that seem largely untouched by the passage of time. Besides the couple of cars that we saw, the cell phones, and the electric cables, the village seems as it probably was a few hundred years ago. Mud houses are clustered together throughout the village, livestock is everywhere (goats, chickens, donkeys, and cows were the main ones), and the people were quite friendly. The twin villages sit in a broad valley, with the Jbel Ayachi range to the north (the second highest peak in Morocco), with the mountains towering up on either side, and the pink minaret of the town mosque as the main landmark. Tazrouft, where the auberge rests, is a village of 280 families.
Our time in Tazrouft was one that we‘ll surely remember forever–as perhaps the most remote and hospitable place we‘ll ever visit. After arriving, we had the obligatory welcome tea outside the front gate of the auberge, looking out over the town and the mountains, sitting with Mustafa and his friend who joined us.
The owner, whose car broke down and couldn’t join us, called every hour or so to ensure that we were well taken care of and to discuss the plans for the evening (“this is real Morocco, not one of those tourist places–this is authentic Berber Morocco”). Mustafa soon took us on a walk to the old ksar of Tazrouft on the other side of town, an ancient but still lived in set of homes built one on top of each other on a hillside, set amongst a big plot of terraced farmland. A maze of paths ran under and through the ksar. We passed a picturesque stream and livestock, with Mustafa greeting everyone he saw. We saw the inside of a water powered cornmeal mill, powered by the irrigation channels running in to town, flowing strong from the snow melt off the mountain. The terraces are watered from irrigation channel, with each family’s plot getting an equal amount of water. The system appears mostly unchanged from a thousand years ago.
After walking back to the auberge, we settled in as yet another man from the village came to cook for us. His French was quite good, and that combined with RM’s terrible French allowed some small conversation about the village. After some time by the wood fired stove in our room, we went into the chilly dining area of the auberge for a Moroccan meal. We looked through the guest register, and found that we were the first tourists to come to the village for a month and a half, and that since records started 8 months ago only 20 or so people had come. It was insisted that wesit and listen to some Berber music by the owner (though clearly Mustafa wasn’t that interested), and soon two more villagers arrived. Hand held drums were broken out, and one brought a violin, played with the violin standing on his leg. The music was almost impossible to describe, a poem overplayed on the shrieking violin with the drums seemingly out of sync. The two musicians took it very seriously, while the other two on the drums were joking the whole time. Our hosts tried to get RM to play the violin on his knee, but we all just ended up in laughter at his atempt. Tea was broken out, and we listened for what seemed like a couple hours.
We slept under a layer of blankets a foot thick, as our mud walled room wasn’t quite enough to keep out the mountain chill. When we awoke, we had a simple Moroccan breakfast of bread, jam, butter, and hard boiled eggs, and then set out on a walk into the village. We hugged the mountains to the north, and walked up a stream surrounded by terraced farmland, passing a man out drying mud bricks. The day was perfect, and we wandered in the riverbed. We soon climbed a small peak and watched the village–kids playing football, some men building a house, donkeys ferrying goods.
One last snack of bread, butter, and tea later, we were off to our next destination. We drove on a paved regional road out of town, and the landscape soon opened up into a much broader plain.
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One last beautiful view of Sidi Hamza on the way out of town.

The road to Midelt had yet more great scenery, and after an abortive attempt to find an embroidery cooperative in town we pushed on towards Fes. In the famed cedar forests as we crossed the Middle Atlas, we ran into the Barbary monkeys being fed by tourists. We passed through a high mountain road, where people had pulled over to rent sleds and sled down hills in the snow.
The road was in good shape, and we quickly realised that we were set to arrive in Fes a couple hours earlier than planned. The guidebook referenced a women’s cooperative that makes textiles in a town called Zouait d’Ifrane, and we decided to drive there. The road wound up the side of a mountain, with views completely different to those we‘d seen elsewhere–green hills and big plots of farmland rolling into the distance.
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The land north of the Atlas Mountains was much more lush.

The towns we passed through were oddly western in style. The road, as we could have expected, became poor very quickly, with gaping potholes in the asphalt and some areas not paved at all. The drive slowed to a crawl. After a couple encounters with some sheep herds and donkeys, we finally got to the town, about an hour later than planned. We talked to a women outside the coop, and she showed us some of the things they made on the big looms sitting on the concrete floor. The stuff they made was beautiful, though unfortunately they didn’t have too much stock. After a brief glimpse of the waterfall above the town, we drove on, arriving to the Fes airport about 45 minutes late to drop the car. We left the car with two guys outside the airport (hopefully they’re the right ones!), and hopped a bus into Fes.
-RM

The High Atlas & Southern Oasis Route: Tizi n’Tichka, Ait Benhaddou, and Dades & Todra Gorges (Morocco Part 2)

We were sad to leave Riad Aguaviva, but it was time to go. After a hearty breakfast and a long discussion with our rental car person (we rented through our riad, which turned out to be quite easy), we set off through the medina gates. Just as we pulled out, one of the guys who worked at the riad pulled alongside us on a motorbike and offered to show us the way out of the city. With that, we were off into the crazy world that is Moroccan driving.
After getting used to the chaos that is driving in Morocco (who needs lanes, anyways?), the first thing we noticed is how many police officers there were. Three at each roundabout outside the city, random checkpoints every 10 or 20 miles, and police randomly pulled in along the road. Luckily we didn’t get caught in any of Morocco’s legendary speed traps.
The landscape quickly gave way from city to a sort of open, desert like scene punctuated by palm trees with some agriculture alongside the road. Dirty little towns lined the streets, each with an assortment of half-constructed buildings, mud buildings, larger well kept houses, and everything in between. Towns typically had a few small bodegas and perhaps some tourist shops, and nothing else. After about an hour of flat driving on good roads, we began our ascent through the Tizi n’Tichka pass over the Atlas. The scenery went from rolling foothills to snowy mountains very quickly, and we soon learned that road surfaces in Morocco can change rapidly without warning. At some points in the pass the road was brand new with three lanes (though we often were going into oncoming traffic trying to pass across all three), while at others it was pocked with enormous potholes. Switchbacks were constant, which made for an interesting drive. Once over the pass (2260m) we descended into flat land punctuated by mesas, always with the mountains in the background. Beautiful, indeed.
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Mesa Mesa

Every once in a while we’d see a town that seemed to have no purpose all all, half constructed to be big, beautiful homes but with no one living there. Some towns had streetlights with pretty ironwork, with nothing along the sidewalk but abandoned buildings or the desert. Others were a row of concrete buildings along the street, with a few small shops open along a dirt strip aside the street. Each town, reliably, was bustling with activity–kids playing football, welders out welding steel on the street, brightly dressed women carrying sacks of wood on their backs. Each town had at least one minaret rising above the buildings, some simple and some ornately carved.
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Random gate–nothing else for miles

After coming down off the pass, we began to enter the “Land of 1,000 Kasbahs.” Villages of red, pink, and grey concrete were mixed in with the ancient ruins of the kasbahs, old mud buildings with four towers that housed Berber families, few still inhabited. The larger complexes are called ksars, and seem to rise up seamlessly from the red earth. The most famous and best preserved of these is Ait Benhaddou, which has seen its fair share of movie sets (this whole area is known as the Hollywood of Morocco, for the Atlas Film Corporation that is still filming in the area). Ait Benhaddou is pretty spectacular. The buildings date from about 1,000 years ago–though no one really knows–and it is a large ksar set into the hillside.
We started by climbing to the top of the hill to get the view of the oasis, and then stopped for tea at a small shop with great views over the kasbahs and the oasis below (at 10 dirhams a cup, the price was great too!).
The buildings themselves each have four pronounced towers surrounding a central courtyard, with designs in the mud that are slowly washing away. There are six families still living in the old ksar–the rest have moved across the river to the newer town–and a guide who waylaid us in one of the kasbahs told us that in olden times the first floor was for grain, the second for sleeping, and the third for the guardians of the kasbahs. Walking around felt like we had been transported back to ancient times. After our kasbah jaunt (hint–it’s 10 dirhams per person to enter, and I recommend exploring on your own–we were charged an additional 10 for the “guide”), we headed down into the riverbed for the views to the front of the ksar. One stop for some road snacks later, and we were on our way out of the valley back to the main road, pausing for one last look at the village before continuing on.
From here, the landscape on the way to Ourzazate was a bit of a wasteland, with flat rocky expanse extending for miles until reaching the mountains and the mesas in the distance. Ourzazate is a much bigger town then expected, another of the towns built by the French in the French style, with larger avenues and nice streetlights, oddly out of place against the other towns we had seen. It was built as an administrative city, with no significance historically–new kasbahs were built, but they looked oddly new compared to the others we had seen. Interestingly, a lot of the architecture wherever we went seemed to mimic the ancient style. From Ourzazate, we continued on to Skoura, a giant oasis of palms in the middle of the barren landscape. Just as the sun started to set, we pulled in to our lodging for the night, the Kasbah Amidril, which we later learned was a reasonably large tourist attraction and is on the new 50 dirham note. It’s a 18th century kasbah with three or four adjoining fortifications. We watched the sun set over the oasis from the ramparts, drinking tea and eating dates while talking with our host. After a nice Tajine with a date-Apple smoothie for dessert, we went to bed. The room itself was Spartan but had a hot shower–and for a mud walled castle, it was pretty nice.
After breakfast the next morning, we bought a big box of dates from our host (yum!) before setting off for the Dades Gorge, one of the two major gorges that attract tourists along the southern oasis route. The drive passed numerous ksars in differing states of repair, and soon we reached the mouth of the gorge. As we drove up, the rock quickly changed to a deep, deep red–and the ksars seemed to rise out of the earth, alongside the ever present red, grey and pink villages with their minarets.
As our drive continued, we passed the impressive and unusual rock formation called the ‘monkey fingers.’ On the way back through the gorge we stopped for tea and took in the view.
We pushed through the gorge and on to even more beautiful sights.
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The rock became yellower, and after some more driving we reached the Cafe Timidizzine (sp?), which the guide book told us had ‘stupendous’ views of the valley. Stupendous indeed! From our perch on the rocks we could see deep into the gorge, and gazed down upon the green river flanked by the huge switchbacks we had just driven up. After tea, we drove on higher into the hills, passing more villages and some great views of the mountains before turning around and heading back.
Our next destination was the Todra Gorge,where we would stay for the night. The gorge itself is a narrow passage flanked by cliffs a hundred meters tall. We parked our car, and after assessing that we had just enough daylight left for a two hour hike the guidebook recommended, we set off. A steep ascent out of the gorge led to a saddle, and we explored peak next to the trail with sweeping views of the red yellow rocks leading back towards the gorge. The patterns in the rock, with diagonal layers, were striking.
A choice faced us: go back the way we came, or push on. We chose to push on, and passed by a Berber sheep herding family’s tent before beginning a descent towards town. The views were beautiful, and as dusk began to set the call to prayer echoed across the valley. We realised that it was a race to get to town before darkness fell, and we made it back to the gorge in the nick of time after crossing the river on a small footbridge and walking through some irrigated fields. A walk through the gorge in the dark brought us back to our car.
After settling in to our lodging, we decided to do something bold for dinner–instead of eating where we slept, we looked in the guidebook and read that the Auberge Le Festival up the road had a great chef. With that, we hopped in the car and began driving in the dark. It wasn’t that the drive was particularly dangerous, but the road was narrow and the knowledge that the gorge was just off to one side kept our speed well down. We drove and drove, and just before RM gave up hope we saw the sign for the Auberge. We parked, crossed the gorge on a path, and headed up to the lights in the darkness. Out of nowhere a man with a flashlight appeared, and after an awkward silence we asked “could we have dinner?” The man replied, with a heavy French accent, that “normally we only have dinner for our guests, but since it is not that busy you may eat here. Head up the hill–if the cooks say no, tell them that the owner sent you.” We climbed the hill and entered the building, which we were surprised to find was beautiful inside, a cross between a French ski lodge and a Moroccan riad. It was a three course set menu, traditional Moroccan food with fresh produce from the garden. The food was the best we’d had, a meatball Tajine with great herbs and a lemon and herb chickpea side. For dessert, it was chocolate mousse and fresh oranges. Just as we finished, we spoke some with the owner, who was just sitting down for dinner himself. He’d owned the place for 18 years. He offered us some of the wine he had just opened for himself, a delightfully light red. It was an unforgettable dinner experience.
The next morning, we had breakfast on the terrace of our lodging (the Auberge Cavaliers, a steal at £13 a night), chatted with one of the men who worked their about his Berber horses, and then hit the road. We decided to explore up the valley to Tamtattouchte before heading to Merzouga.
-RM

Marrakech (Morroco Part 1)

Even though we vowed to never do it again, we booked an early morning flight out of Stansted to Marrakech, and after a short nights sleep at an airport hotel we were off. Our Riad (a house with a garden in the middle–it’s a type of Moroccan hotel) had a driver pick us up at the airport, and we got our first taste of white knuckle, no lane discipline, honking, swerving Morrocan driving. Oddly, the route from the airport is lined with police officers, a theme we see almost everywhere (most large roundabouts in Marrakech have three). The red walls of the medina greeted us, and soon we were inside, jostling with donkeys, motorcycles, and bicycles to get to our Riad. We pull up, and our Riad’s caretaker meets us on the street, walking us the remaining hundred feet to the entrance. The smell of the Medina–welding, motor oil, donkeys, spices, hot food, and more hits us immediately. We walk down a quiet (at least for the medina) street, and take a sharp left into a sunken alley that sits under another house. We start to worry–is this really the right place? We get to a black doorway with no sign, he knocks, and we enter.
To call Riad Aguaviva an urban oasis doesn’t quite capture it. It’s like a zen palace amidst this crazy, heaving city that is the medina. We walk in, and there’s soft music playing with the smell of rose petals in the air. All of the furnishings are ornately carved, and the doors are solid wood with patterns in them. Morrocan designs ring the courtyard, which has a pool and palm trees in the middle. After leaving our things in our room (perhaps the nicest we’ll ever stay in, with beautiful wood carving and hand wrought brass fixtures), we are brought to the lounge area and drink tea with our hosts as they explain to us our plan for the first day. They warn us about the simple things–ignore people offering to guide you places, bargain hard in the souks (markets), and don’t listen to people when they tell you a way is closed, with that, a hand drawn map, and a short walk to our first turn direction, we’re off on our own.

 

 

The medina is true chaos. The streets wind and curve in a massive jumble, making it impossible not to get lost. The streets are filled with throngs of people, and motorcycles and bicycles fly past just a little too fast. Each market stall has aggressive salesmen hawking shirts, scarves, leather, lanterns, and ceramic–show interest, and next comes a very hard sell. We took our hosts’ advice, and soon got used to the tumult. We were lost almost immediately, but our Ulmon Maps2Go app came to the rescue. After a few loops through the iron workers souk (they’re divided by type), we got our bearings and made it to the Jemaa al Fna, the main square, with tens of loud orange juice vendors, snake charmers, and monkeys (the guide says that they’re part of a smuggling ring of some sort). After a forgettable couscous lunch at Cafe Toukbal, we get some cash from an ATM (almost everywhere only takes cash) and head to Patisserie de les Princes, and buy a small box of delectable, nutty mini pastries.

The next stop is the Bahia palace. It is there that we learn that there are two Marrakeches–the chaos and smell and endless noise of the medina, and the blissful tranquility of the many walled Riad’s and gardens. The Bahia palace, built for a king, is nothing from the outside–simply another alley off a street in the medina. The inside, however, is courtyard after courtyard of gardens and beautiful carvings and geometric tile designs. The colours are the ones we will soon see in other places–brilliant blue, green, black, and yellow, all in tile that could only have been laid by master artisans. It’s all about the detail–most walls are plain, but the ceilings are works of art and the moulding is carved with beautiful Arabic script.

The Saadian tombs are the same–big red nondescript walls punctuated by tombs with the most intricate artwork. The style is nothing short of breathtaking.

 

After seeing those two important landmarks, we began making our way back to the main square. We passed the Koutoubia Mosque, with a minaret that is said to be the most beautiful in Africa. We found it majestic in its size and simplicity, but it couldn’t compare in beauty to what we had seen earlier. RM picked up a big chunk of cactus fruit from a street vendor for 5 dirhams (so many seeds), and then we made it to the 3rd floor terrace of Cafe du France overlooking the Jemaa al Fna just in time for sunset and the eerie call to prayer. The call to prayer, which happens five times a day no matter how remote the village, is echoed from minaret to minaret throughout the city. Performers and music stops out of respect. Our vantage point was perfect to see and hear it all.

 

We wound our way back through the souk, and did some scarf shopping on the way. Some intense haggling with a shopkeeper got a beautiful scarf for the price of 250 dirhams, or half of where we started the bargaining, though we later learned from our host that we should have paid 180.We finished the evening with a very romantic three course meal at our Riad before calling it a day.

 

 

The second day started with a sumptuous breakfast of a doughy, savoury pastry, crepes, fruit salad, fresh squeezed orange juice, and toast on the Riad’s rooftop terrace before our mandatory sit down with our hosts to discuss plans for the day. Our first stop was the Majorelle Gardens, where we arrived after a haggled taxi journey. The gardens are where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes are buried, and were a beautiful, peaceful campus of bamboo, palm trees, cacti, and unique buildings. Amongst the plants are pots of the most brilliant blue we’d ever seen. The garden’s centre piece is the blue house that sits at one end, accented with yellow and green. The house is striking, and, along with the rest of the atmosphere, was something special.

 

 

Getting a cab at the garden (or anywhere in Marrakech for that matter) is an adventure of its own–most rides cost 20-25 dirhams (2-2.5$), but cab drivers will always start at 50-60 dirhams for tourists. Also, there are over 1,500 riads in the city, and it’s impossible for drivers to know them all (this resulted in us taking a cab from one side of the city to the other with a very verbose driver/amateur Berber musician–without getting any closer to our destination). At one point we witnessed a taxi versus mule cart showdown in the medina. The mule won.
We embarked on our next route through the city, provided by our hosts. We started at the Ben Youssef Medersa, which used to be a religious school attached to the mosque. Like most beautiful buildings in Marrakech, it was nothing, but inside was spectacular. Colourful tile mosaics sit below endless repeating wall carvings punctuated by Arabic script. Carvings in cedar ring the main courtyard, which is dominated by two opposing, enormous doors. As they say in the West Wing, schools should be palaces–and this one certainly is.

 

 

From the Medersa, it was off into the bustle of the medina again, this time with a mission–find some slippers for RM. Finding slippers may seem an easy task, but in fact it is not. There are several varieties and varying qualities at many different price points. After some aggressive sales tactics and a lot of soul searching, we finally find a place with the right ones–but negotiation gets us nowhere near our hosts recommended price point of 100 dirhams. We leave empty handed after getting an earful from the merchant.

 

 

We wind our way past endless merchants urging us to look in their shops, drinking in the wild colours and thousand smells of the soul, and eventually find ourselves at the spice market. Spices in Morocco are sold out of big baskets, and are quite colourful–in the market they are a distinct sight. We found a spot on the third floor at Cafe des Epices (cafe of spices), and looked out over the square, filled with vendors hawking their wares and some women with mortar and pestle grinding spice. After a tea and some delightful harira soup, we moved on to Patisserie du Prince (we just couldn’t get enough!) before taking a gander at the Jewish quarter, an impoverished area where all of the Jews of the city used to live. The Jewish population is dramatically smaller now, and there are only a few left still living there. It was one of the few areas of Marrakech devoid of tourists, and it was odd to feel how closed off from the rest of the city it is. Right next door was the jewellery souk, which made for an odd contrast.

 

 

We finished our day with a couple of our host’s recommendations, and went to 144, an unmarked and vast antique shop with some of the most beautiful wares we were to see in the city.
After, we  had a sweet Moroccan tea on the rooftop of the Dar Cherifa, the oldest riad in the city. It’s quite grand inside, and is a sort of artist commune/nice restaurant/tea house. Just after it started to get dark, the call to prayer sounded–eerie indeed. We finished the evening with a dinner overlooking the Jemma al Fna at the Argana Cafe, with RM having the delectable  rabbit tajine (if we haven’t discussed tajines yet, it’s a ceramic container with meat, spices, and vegetables slow cooked over some coals).
-RM