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Evora, Portugal and Merida, Spain

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Tuesday October 18th

Today we leave Portugal, which is a shame, really, because from what little we have seen of the country, it is a splendid place to spend a long time. The people seem to be nice, it’s possible to communicate with average folk in a limited manner, the culture is interesting and appealing, and the cost of living seems to be very reasonable. Communication is an interesting adventure. In many of the countries we have visited, it is pretty much impossible for us to understand the locals in their own language. This has proven to be largely irrelevant in many places, since many people, particularly in service industries, speak English. The percentage of English speaking Portuguese we have encountered is probably a bit below average for all the countries we’ve seen. If I listen to people on the street blathering away to each other, I understand absolutely nothing, but honestly that happens with Spanish as well. But speaking with someone one on one, I can actually make sense of the occasional word. And, luckily, they generally seem to understand Spanish well. Portuguese just sounds really strange to my ears, although I’m getting more used to it.

So, Evora. We took the train from Lisbon to Evora on Sunday. The train, like a more modern, slightly elongated E&N, was sparsely populated. The countryside was just like travelling through southern Spain: small towns, rolling hills covered with olive and cork trees, and occasional herds of cows. Evora itself is an old town enclosed by walls, with the usual more modern suburbs outside. The walls themselves aren’t particularly spectacular, and I wouldn’t count them as one of the main attractions of Evora. There is an old Moorish quarter, as there often seems to be in these Spanish and Portuguese towns (check your history books), but it isn’t as old and tangled others we’ve seen. We enjoyed walking down the narrow streets, past whitewashed houses trimmed with the same mustard yellow, along sidewalks and roads made in the same fashion as in Lisbon, out of small cut rocks pressed into the ground. The profusion of cafes and restaurants suggests that the crowds are usually bigger, as does the surprisingly large number of identical stores identifying themselves either by their awning, “Chinese Store,” or the two red paper lanterns hanging outside. We didn’t wander through the entire town, and yet we still counted at least ten of these stores. Surely the local population doesn’t have such a need for cheap luggage, clothing, headphones, shoes, and Portugal branded hats, t-shirts, mugs, bottle stoppers, fridge magnets ...

Capella of Ossos (Bones), in Evora

Capella of Ossos (Bones), in Evora

On the roof of the Se, in Evora

On the roof of the Se, in Evora

Our hotel, Casa dos Teles, was surprisingly cheap and attractive. For the price of a quad, which was already booked for one of our two nights, we had two nicely decorated doubles, with one separate shared bathroom between them. At 40 Euros a night, this was quite possibly the best deal of the trip so far, excepting the magnificently priced and still hard to believe Premier Inns in England, at 29 pounds. We also had access to a lovely and sunny courtyard, with an orange tree and a patio table and chairs to sit down and eat lunch.

As we had access to a kitchen in Lisbon and took full advantage with some very cheap grocery store dinners, we haven’t had a real opportunity to sample any real local food. Note that I am not counting our snack of “suspiro” in Lisbon. Suspiro, “sigh,” is a delightfully almost too sweet meringue, which at 50 Euro cents was a much better deal than the 2 Euro versions we admired but did not try in Venice. Given that we also had unlimited coffee with our free breakfasts in Lisbon, we also had not yet sampled the local coffee, despite the fact that almost everywhere it is exceptionally well priced at usually less than 70 Euro cents. This turns out to have been a grave mistake, given the fact that we are now leaving Portugal, as we finally had a coffee at the small cafe in the local Pino Doce, a supermarket we finally found about 20 minutes walk from the old town. The cafe was right next to the butcher and fish section, so it was rather odiferous. In fact, the next day when we came back with the kids, Alison had to be encouraged just to venture near this section of the store. However, we had the most delicious and tiny espresso, together with a tast custard tart, for a paltry 75 euro cents. The coffee was extraordinarily powerful but very tasty good. Bring it on! Oh, but wait, we’ve just left the country ...

We are now in Merida, after a four hour bus ride that included a 45 minute stop at a trucker gas station/bar. We have had a brief wander around the town in the late afternoon, and it’s really a shame that we’re leaving tomorrow morning on the 08:20 train to Madrid, destination Toledo. Merida was founded by veteran Roman soldiers after being granted the province of Lusitania by Emperor Augustus Caesar, for exemplary service. Lusitania comprises the modern day Spanish province of Extremadura and an adjoining section of Portugal. The soldiers named their town Augustus Emerita ... hence, Merida. They also built one of the longest Roman bridges in existence, across the local river, so they could communicate with their friends in Sevilla. Pound for pound, Merida has the largest collection of Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula. We saw the magnificent “Temple Diana”, which formed the nucleus of the Roman forum. Interestingly, a local nobleman in the 1600s decided to build his mansion inside the temple. It remained private property until the 1970’s, when it was expropriated by the state. They considered demolishing the mansion to restore the temple to its original state, but luckily left it more or less intact. It’s a similar sort of situation, albeit on a smaller scale, to the Mesquita in Cordoba, with the baroque cathedral incongruously dropped into the middle of the enormous mosque. We then went by the very large and impressive Roman theatre and amphitheatre, although we didn’t go in (8 Euros each) as it was getting close to closing time, and we’ve seen this sort of thing before. It looked pretty super through the bars of the fence, however.

We have just been out for a pre-midnight stroll around our neighbourhood to find Trajan’s arch. We went out without a map, but somehow managed to find it anyways. It is tall, about 14m above ground and 2m below ground, the granite arch remains of a triumphal arch built to honour Emperor Tiberius, but somehow named after Trajan.

Another reason it is a shame we are only here one night is our hostel. It is called Hostal Sedero, but it is not a hostel in the same sense that most of our other hostels have been. In the Spanish tradition, it is really just a very small hotel, with probably 14 rooms. However, it is very nicely built and decorated and is much better priced than most of our hotels so far, at 64 Euros for two doubles. If only all our hotels had been this nice and cheap! We were just reading on a plaque on the outside of the hotel that they received 38000 Euros to put showers in the bathrooms and to improve the interior and exterior decor. Weird. The bathrooms, I will say, are probably the nicest bathrooms we have had so far. With a real shower, with shower doors! Wow! However, it is no wonder the European Union is collapsing, if this is the kind of thing they spend their money on.

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Posted by teamkarim 13:30 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Marrakech, and the sublime Place Jemaa El Fna

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Sunday October 23rd

Marrakech.

Culture shock? Well, we’ve been in many different cultures, and certainly this one is very different. Our memory of Morocco twenty years ago summarises like so ...

We arrive in Tangiers by ferry from Spain. We are immediately set upon by hustlers, mostly young, who start of relatively politely and ultimately progress to swearing and spitting on the ground in front of us when we decline their offers of “guiding.” Unused to this kind of treatment, we band together with a small mixed group of Australians and Americans. Without formalizing a plan, the group immediately heads to the train station to get out of Tangiers as quickly as possible. Arriving at the station, we (Susan, our friend Kim, and I) realize we don’t have any local currency, having assumed in Spain that we would just change some once we arrived in Morocco. Our fellow travellers kindly buy our tickets.

On the train, we are greeted by some pleasant young “university students.” They are well spoken and talkative. Exiting the train station at night in Fes, they suggest we catch a ride in the back of their friend’s pickup truck to a nearby hotel. We pile in, and the truck drives off up a hill, only to be stopped a minute later by a police car, lights flashing. Is this all part of some elaborate scam – make the foreigners pay an exorbitant fine for illegal use of a pickup truck? No. The police chat with the driver, no idea why, and we move on. The hotel is ok, if a bit on the decrepit side. The next day, the entire newly formed group of travellers is out in the new town, looking for a cafe, when somebody asks if we are the Canadians who got into town last night and are staying at this same hotel. How do they know? One of the “students” is waiting for us to help guide us through the medina. He is very helpful, gives us some tidbits of history, leads us to some interesting places where there is nothing to buy, such as the tannery (big vats of smelly stuff for curing leather and various colour dyes) and a carpet manufacturer where young fast-fingered kids are busy working on a loom, as well as a selection of artisan shops, and the traditional carpet store. It ‘s a fun and exciting day. That day we move to the official International Youth Hostel. The hostel guy tells us that our student friend is just a hustler, taking us to specific shops to get his commission. He will arrange a real, official guide for us the next day. The official guide turns out to be a complete hustler himself, taking us past three identical copper craft stores into the fourth store, for no apparent reason. His tour includes no interesting non-profit stops, only stores in which he is clearly hoping we will purchase souvenirs. He helpfully inserts himself into the bargaining process to ensure a quick and profitable sale. His carpet store is far more high pressure and stress inducing than the one we have already visited. So much for the official guide.

Morocco twenty years ago was a fun, exciting, and different place, but it took a lot of energy to be there. Only five days in the country felt more like five weeks. Will today’s Morocco be like the Morocco we remember? Has the new crackdown on “unofficial guides” resulted in a change in the hustling? Will the medina still have that strange, otherworldly sense, twisted narrow streets of shops and stalls full of handmade goods, where simply glancing at an item can result in a harrowing back and forth bargaining, resulting in the purchase of something you didn’t actually want for an excellent price.

This time, our first experience in Marrakech came in the airport. We exited our Easyjet plane onto the tarmac and followed the line of passengers to the terminal, passing two other Easyjets, three Ryanairs, and one Royal Air Maroc. We then joined the passengers of apparently all these planes in one of the ten customs lines, waiting over an hour to finally be processed. In Turkey, the customs man (remember that combover, it was insane) was quite interested in my origin, given my obviously "Turkish" name. In Morocco, just like twenty years ago, the customs man was also interested in my origin. The usual, “Where are you from?” Not to be too obtuse, often a poor idea with officials, I respond, “I was born in England.” “No, no, where are you from? Your father?” “Tanzania,” I offer. For some reason this satisfies him, and he writes “Tanzanie” on the debarkation card I have filled out.

We have done some research on the airport bus, and we know that bus #19 stops just outside the terminal and will take us right into town for 30 Moroccan Dirham each (8DHM to the $CDN, so this is $2.75). We also know that the maximum cab fare that the cabbies are allowed to charge up to 21:00 for a trip into town is 50DHM, but that this goes up to 80DHM after this time. It is 19:50. Serendipitously, a man gives us a city map as we exit the airport. We have a map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but this map is much more detailed. As we walk up to the clearly marked bus stop, a man comes over from the line of fifteen or so cabs and offers to take us into town for 100DHM. We tell him we are taking the bus. No, the bus has stopped, he informs us. We give him the specific information we know about the bus, and he moves off. As we are waiting for the bus, which the sign tells us is due at 20:00, we are approached by no less than five other cabbies, each trying to convince us to go into town with varying levels of politeness and firmness, none for less than 100DHM. None of them are mean or unpleasant, but some are quite insistent and would be difficult to resist if we weren`t reasonably sure of ourselves. They manage to convince about a third of the twenty people waiting for the bus, before the bus comes and we all get on. Surely, getting out of the airport into the city shouldn`t be this difficult. I suppose that exiting any London airport is quite harrowing, but only because there are so many different options, all usually overly expensive, as opposed to being hounded by merciless British cabbies. Can you trust someone who is clearly out to just get you into their cab to actually take you to your hotel, for approximately $12? Probably. But you can also trust that even if they don’t recognize your hotel name or address, they will still take you into town, just not necessarily where you want to go. And you also run the risk that if they need to drive around endlessly trying to find your hotel, you will undoubtedly end up paying significantly more than the originally agreed amount. So, at least on the bus you have more control over the outcome.

We exit the bus when we see the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque, which is the stop just before Place Jemaa El Fna. The Place will be ridiculously busy and it is dark, so we definitely don`t want to get off there. There are crowds of people at the bus stop, and many people walking past. We are on an extremely busy street, both in terms of motorized and pedestrian traffic. As we stand there momentarily, wondering which way to go, a young man asks us if we need a hotel. He gives us a card. We tell him we have a reservation and ask him if he can tell us which way to go. He offers to lead us, but we are familiar with this particular scam and just ask for directions. He looks a little put out, but politely points us down the street. So, we go. On our way, looking for any kind of suggestion as to where we might actually be, we are accosted by several different young men, all offering us hotels, and wondering which hotel we are actually reserved at. This particular scam follows the following sequence: you give the name of the hotel, oh no, it closed last week, or it is full, or there was a fire, so I will show you my hotel; alternatively, I will lead you to your hotel, but I will take a very interesting route, so you have no idea where you are, don`t worry it is just around the next corner, or perhaps the one after that, oh, look here we are at my hotel, you can stay here or find your own hotel, good luck. So, we do our best to be polite and rebuff offers of being guided anywhere, while still trying to find out exactly where we are on the map. The main problem being that if we walk with purpose, we are generally left alone, but as soon as we pull out the map to find out where we are, we are immediately accosted by someone. We have a fairly good idea of where we got off the bus, and we trusted that the first young man who showed us which way to go was accurate, as his directions agreed with our sense of direction. Finally, standing on the corner across from where we believe our street should be, we recognize the name of the hotel in front of us from the map. We actually know where we are, and all we have to do to get to our hotel is cross the road.

Well, this is no easy task, despite the fact that we are experienced travellers in countries where people in cars have absolutely no respect for pedestrians, Croatia and Portugal being notable exceptions, England, Turkey, and Italy being possibly the worst offenders. The Moroccans are possibly even worse. The traffic is crazy, with cars and trucks and scooters and even donkeys racing past and darting this way and that as necessary. Ok, not so much darting from the donkeys. The usual technique remains attaching yourself firmly to the path of a local, or better yet a group of locals, and trusting that, insha’allah, you will make it across the road in one piece. We do. We see the blue sign of our hotel down the street, and we make our way past the stale urine smell on the corner, down our street which actually seems to be a car park, past a couple of begging women sitting on the road, and into the remarkably calm and serene quiet of the Hotel Narjisse.

So, four paragraphs for an experience that should have been summarised “We took a bus from the airport to our hotel,” but in Morocco things can often seem far more intense than that. Getting from the airport to your hotel can be an experience, even if you had just got into the first cab and been happily dropped off at the front door. Walking from your hotel into the medina is an experience, crossing the road, heading down the nearby pedestrian street, dodging the scooters on the pedestrian street, weaving a path through crowds of actual pedestrians, politely declining the beggars, perhaps detouring while some man shows you the rooftop terrace restaurant, then when your face suggests that it might be a bit expensive for your tastes, takes you across the street, half a block down to another, nicer rooftop terrace with exactly the same prices, and suggests that you sit down for dinner, and what time would you like your reservation for tomorrow?

The Place Jemaa El Fna is completely indescribable, although I have used that word so many times on this trip that I am beginning to suspect I’m just not very good at describing places or experiences. UNESCO declared the experience of the square to be a World Heritage, which is quite unusual as this generally applies to monuments, or places. The Place is a huge square, in the middle of the Medina, on the edge of the Souks. Tonight, the Place was absolutely jam packed. In the evening, there is a smoky haze drifting from the middle of the square. This is from the food stalls, perhaps thirty of them, selling typical Moroccan fare. One row sells a full selection of food, including salads, brochettes, tagine (stew), seafood, and desserts. One row sells soup and dates. On row sells snails, steamed in gigantic woks. On the two sides of the food stalls are rows of carts selling either dried fruit or fruit juice. The orange juice is freshly squeezed and 4DHM a glass. That’s fifty cents folks, for a glass of delicious! The rest of the square is occupied by bands of five or ten musicians, rocking out some desert sounding tunes, old men with beards speaking about who knows what to the crowd around them, ladies (and the occasional man dressed like a lady) selling henna designs, children selling phosphorescent toys, men with monkeys, men dressed up in weird colourful outfits, a man with a hawk, a gerbil, a turtle under a hat, and five doves (I have no idea how he parlays this into money), and other strange, weird, and wonderful ways of parting you from your money while providing some sort of goods or service. The Place is a giddy experience, a combination of intoxicating atmosphere, sensory overload, and generous dash of the exotic.

The best one tonight was when we were standing in front of a row of stall, all with gigantic copper pots from which they were pouring tea, together with bowls of some sort of unidentified browny substance. The list of tea flavours (in French) was interesting: cannelle, genebre, others... We are interested, looking, but we have no intention of trying anything as we have just finished dinner. The boy waves at us, and again, so we wander over. He pours us a small glass of tea. It is cinnamon, and spectacular. He gives us a dish of the browny stuff and it is weird, some kind of chocolate based substance, but good. He pours us another glass of tea, and puts a tiny bit of something in it. The tea smells like menthol, very powerful. It is hard to drink because of the intense smell, but the flavour is fine. Alison manages to take a sip, but the Moroccan lady next to us needs to plug her nose when she tries her friend’s. How much for this particular unexpected culinary adventure? 10DHM, or $1.25.

We walked over to the Koutoubia mosque this evening, since it is a local landmark and we hadn’t seen it yet. We passed several cafes along the way, which just like in Turkey and Greece were full of men, with not a single woman to be seen. We found the women, with their young children, sitting in the square in front of the mosque. They were sitting on every available sittable surface, including steps and edges of fountains. A group of perhaps thirty women and children were sitting on steps listening to a group of five young men, sitting on their scooters, playing the same deserty sounding tunes from the Place, including drums and singing. There was clearly no money involved here, the boys were just singing because they wanted to and they could. Although it was busy in the square in front of the mosque, it was much more relaxing than Place. Nobody was encouraging us to part with our money, so it was a nice change of pace. Of course, we followed this brief peaceful sojourn by heading immediately to the Place!

So far our stay in Morocco has been superb. We have dined out for breakfast ($5), lunch ($20), dinner ($13), breakfast ($6), and dinner ($8). We have wandered through the souks and got lost. Sunny has bargained herself yet another new bag and had an unsolicited henna experience (best if she relates these stories herself, suffice it to say that Fatima “Berber” is not on her list of bffs). And Alison and Kas each have a new pair of leather slippers.

Today it rained in the afternoon and evening. Looks like it’s going to rain again tomorrow, but we will actually be spending a good part of tomorrow on the train. We are catching the 9:00 train to Fes, which will, Insha'Allah, arrive at 16:00. We have booked a room for three nights in a “Dar”, just inside the medina. This is a traditional Moroccan house, that has been renovated and turned into a guesthouse. It is a step down from the traditional “Riad,” which are generally fancier and a whole heap more expensive.

Posted by teamkarim 15:14 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

Marrakech, a Sunny view

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Sunny, October 25th

Marrakesh:

imagine walking down a skinny, winding street. now imagine some motos whizzing within inches of you, some of the drivers boys no older than eleven. a fully headscarved lady claiming her name is fatima berber is coming at you, hand outstretched with a syringe inside it (don’t worry, it’s only got henna in it!) men with long white coats and menus in hand try to entice you into their restaurant (“come lady! good food, great prices! you eat up on roof. we have shish kebap, lamb, falafel...”) grubby little children tug at your elbow silently, making their most pathetic faces and gesturing that they want the overpriced apple you just bought. it smells like incense and urine. (those puddles you just accidentally splashed through were water...right?) store owners lining the side of the alleyway who seemed to be waiting for a vulnerable tourist like you gesture into their stores at their wares, competing for your attention. suddenly, while in the act of dodging a moto, you almost get hit by an old man on his bike who, in turn, was dodging the donkey and cart headed right towards you. you hear the sounds of snake charmers (yes, yes you do, not only in movies then, are they?) and the sound of beating drums and you know that you have made it out of the souk and to the main square. but can you really expect the MAIN SQUARE of a city to be less chaotic than the city streets?

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Posted by teamkarim 10:03 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

Fes

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Fes, Thursday October 27th

The medina in Fes is surely one of the closest experiences on earth to being inside a living medieval city. Although there are obvious modern conveniences, such as electricity and flushing toilets, the daily existence and way of life of thousands of people in the medina can hardly be much different from the lives of their ancestors, hundreds of years ago.

As a visitor, there are aspects of life in the medina that seem unbelievable, as if they had been carefully crafted by the local tourist board to impart that medieval verisimilitude. Coming into the medina from one of the main gates, Bab Boujloud, there are several restaurants and cafes, with the usual tables and chairs and Coca Cola awnings. Fair enough, but round the corner and you find yourself going down a small alley, too narrow really to deserve to be called a street, although in fact it is one of the main thoroughfares of the medina. The street is lined with small shops, most no wider than two or three metres and usually no deeper than three metres, although the occasional storefront opens into a large store space. There are several shops in a row, all selling the more or less identical selection of handmade Moroccan slippers, very colourful and touristy. But the next set of shops is not in the least touristy and they are clearly geared towards serving one of the basic everyday needs of the locals – meat products. Think of an animal. I’m thinking of a goat, since small herds of them tend to be gathered along the rail line. Now imagine all of the various parts that make up the goat. Yes, naturally, the usual parts are available, spread out in a nice neat row along the unrefrigerated countertop of the store in front of you. These look like the various animal parts you’d find at Thrifty’s. Now start imagining some of the parts that you’d probably have to look further afield for, if you wanted them. Here we clearly have a collection of legs and associated hooves, for what purpose I can’t conceive, but what about all these other, unrecognisable but clearly animal parts. All of them, hanging from the ceiling, draped over the counter, gathered together in bowls, spread out on newspaper, with the flies in the air and the street cats below the counter looking up hopefully. There are no obvious sources of refrigeration, and hygiene is clearly not high on the list of topics at the local butcher school. OK, perhaps this isn’t necessarily medieval, and such a scene may have been common in western cities not so long ago, but to modern western eyes (and noses) the scene is positively strange. And yet clearly these stores provide meat for the medina locals, families who have been living in the medina for hundreds of years.

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We stopped in at one location that was listed as a spot of interest, having had the same function for hundreds of years. It was essentially a small factory for creating a piece of traditional Moroccan furniture made out of leather, very much like bean bags, but stuffed to make them very firm and used as stools or footstools. The entrance hallway opened onto a small courtyard where, outside one room, there was a large pile of the interior parts of animals. Inside the room, a man had an animal skin stretched out before him, and he was scraping the interior animal goop off the skin. The next room was a showroom, with a large wall of traditional Moroccan slippers, and a French woman with her friends was bargaining for a pair. The next room was a very large storeroom, with hundreds of “poufs,” as Susan calls the stools, a wealth of different designs and colours displayed neatly in rows on the walls, and scattered in large piles throughout the room. At the back of the room, three men were working silently, stitching by hand, creating the poufs. It was easy to imagine that these men were making the poufs in exactly the same fashion as their great great grandfathers, perhaps with a few more modern, tourist-oriented designs thrown in.

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However, turning animal skins into leather is apparently an exercise requiring considerably more effort than a single man scraping animal goop. Our trip to the tannery required us to venture a bit further afield than the main shop-lined streets, and the map that we had ripped from the pages of the Lonely Planet was woefully inadequate. We had seen people wandering around with gigantic, probably detailed maps, however these were being given out by the Tourist Information Office somewhat inconveniently located in the middle of the Ville Nouvelle, several kilometres from the medina. With a bit of good luck, some careful avoidance of some less helpful and slightly more aggressive than usual locals, and some helpful directions from a couple of more helpful locals, we found the tannery. A man invited us up through his shop to the roof, which was an excellent vantage point.

The skins, he explained, are first soaked in ammonia (from urine) and pigeon shit for a couple of days. These were located right below his shop. After, they were soaked in large vats of dye for several days. The dye was renewed every couple of days. For efficiency, only a couple of colours were used at a time. Unfortunately, the colours this week seemed to be variations of brown, rather than the vivid blues and yellows we’ve seen in the slippers. There were men in gumboots and bare feet wandering through the vats, and we saw a couple of men picking up skins and wringing them out. Other than the essentially primitive and basic manufacturing methods, the most striking thing about the process was that it was taking place in exactly the same location as it has, once again, for hundreds of years. Although in this case, it has likely been there literally for thousands of years. But this nasty stinky chemically rich process is located right in the middle of the city. Manufacturing of this sort generally takes place on the outskirts of towns in an industrial area, but in Fes the manufacturing of many items takes place entirely within the city.

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These are a just a couple of specific examples of how to a visitor, Fes feels so completely different, in a very ancient way. Really, the atmosphere, the ambiance of the place is so strange, so totally weird, it’s very different from any other place I’ve ever been to. Even having come from Marrakesh, which is also very old and very foreign, Fes still seems quite different.

Alison:

The things that I noticed most about Fes were the winding roads, which were more like huge sidewalks, with lots of peoples on them, as well as donkeys, horses, and mules carrying stuff to all the shops. There is also lots of meat right up our street, just sitting on the tables, maybe for days. There is a huge camel’s head that we had to pass every time we wanted to go to dinner. The smell of Fes in that place seems to be mostly raw meat. There are lots of stray cats on “meat road” hoping to get scraps from the butchers. All the store owners seem to want you to come into their stores and buy lots. They say, “Looking is free, where are you from?” Lots of the stores sell leather goods, like wallets (both Sunny and I bought some), leather bags, and lots of shoes. Mom bought her two poufs for the living room at home, and I got a free small leather camel at the same time. All the restaurants seem to have the same stuff: couscous, tajine, omelette, soup, and salad. We visited the tannery, where they dye all the leather. First they dunk it in pee and pigeon droppings. Then they move it over to the dye of their choice, take it out, and let it dry. Our hotel is very nice, and it has lots of tiles.

Susan:

Just a sidebar on the subject of walking. During this trip, team Karim has some minor friction with the pace by which we travel along when we’re just walking and sightseeing. It’s hard to find a pace that pleases everyone. Sunny often grumbles that Kas is leading too slowly, although sometimes it’s because we’re trapped behind a slow tour group or other slow walkers, or too quickly. I often walk even more slowly behind with Alison, especially if we have our packs on and it’s hot, cause she gets tired and slows down. Sometimes I’ll call up to Kas to slow down, or speed up. Sometimes Sunny and I like to window shop, which Kas and Alison rarely do, and then they disappear off ahead and we have to catch up. Sometimes we all stop and confer about where to turn or which way our hotel is, and then it’s hard to regain formation and momentum, until Sunny or I will say, “let’s GO” with impatience. We usually try to walk two by two, so we don’t take up the whole sidewalk, because we all know how annoying it is to get past a wide group of people.

Anyway, being in Morocco adds another layer of complexity to the whole “how fast should we go?” problem. In Morocco, walking slowly is a sign to the touts and shopkeepers that you are lost, or indecisive, or perhaps interested in buying something you have seen (and these are all conditions they can help you with, for a price). It’s not exaggerating to say that as soon as you slow down or stop walking, someone will approach you and attempt to engage you in a conversation you probably don’t want to get into. The best strategy if you want to be left alone is to walk quickly and with purpose, and for heaven’s sake, don’t pull out the map under any circumstances. However, with a group of four, little idea where to go, and all sorts of interesting things to look at, it kind of sucks to have to speed through the crowded alleyways as if you were late for something. If, for instance, I am in the anchor position and I want to stop and look at something, I have to shout up to the others to stop, which makes the shopkeeper think that my interest level is way higher than it probably is. Also, the two by two formation often doesn’t work here because the alleyways are so narrow and crowded, and every minute or two a donkey goes by with 12 propane tanks or a huge pile of animal skins strapped onto it, or a man with a giant wooden cart filled with cactus fruit needs to pass you, and you need to squeeze up against the edge of the alley and try to avoid stepping in the puddle of cat urine or the pile of animal entrails or on the blind beggar, while still holding Alison’s hand. It’s a minor miracle, really, that we manage to get anywhere and as an intact group. But it sure is fun.

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Posted by teamkarim 15:32 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

Fes, and the politics of restauranting

sunny 25 °C
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Friday, October 28th

On the train from Fes to Asilah, a town one hour south of Tangier.

Sampling the local cuisine by eating out hasn’t been one of the main foci of our trip, mainly because in any Eurozone country it’s just too damned expensive to eat out much. In many of the countries we’ve visited, it’s amazing that the locals actually manage to eat out at all. However, we’ve been in a few countries where we’ve taken advantage of cheap prices and good food to eat out, and in these cases we seem to have eaten out a lot.

Morocco is definitely one of those countries, and in Fes we enjoyed eating out at our favourite local, La Palma, where we dine every time we’re in Fes. Take a taxi from the Gare (train station) and ask for Bab Boujloud, the most common gate for tourists to enter the medina. As you step through the gigantic arch, blue on one side, the colour of Fes, and green on the other side, the colour of Islam, you are now in the most restaurant dense area of the medina. La Palma is the second establishment on the left, and just opposite it is their arch rival, Les Jeunes. Now, we have a habit of developing instant and perhaps somewhat unnecessary loyalty to eating establishments. In Selçuk, Turkey, you’ll recall, we ate at Mehmet and Ali Baba’s Kebap House three nights in a row, having discarded on the second night the idea of dining in the neighbouring Wallabee House Restaurant. In Istanbul, we dropped in every day for pide and Turkish tea (black, strong, and as sweet as you like) at the Çemberlitaş Cafe. In Marrakech, we ate breakfast every day on the pedestrian street leading to Place Jemaa El Fna at a small cafe, with apparently no name, at which mostly locals seemed to be enjoying their Moroccan pancakes (we found out the name, which I’ve temporarily forgotten, but they are quite similar to Indian chapattis, only generally smothered liberally with miel), mint tea, coffee, avocado milkshakes, and slices of cake. We were invited into this tiny cafe by the very genial, uniformed waiter, who welcomed us in with a wave of his arm and a pleasant smile. I think that part of our loyalty to these places is always the disarmingly wonderful personality of our waiters. This fellow was genuinely welcoming, even though the cafe was clearly not designed for tourists, witness the lack of multilingual menu, prices on a board on the wall all in Arabic. Our second morning, he gave us a big smile, shook my hand, and showed us to our table, as if it had been obvious that we would be back, and he had been expecting us to arrive just about that time. At Mehmet and Ali Baba’s Kebap House, we couldn’t possibly have enjoyed our meals as much without the irrepressibly cheerful and garrulous Mehmet.

In Fes, we were somehow convinced to sit down and enjoy the set menu by our waiter, let’s call him Abdul. Although there were two waiters, it was his job to rush out onto the street (alley) and greet, invite, and cajole potential customers into the restaurant. Although we did see locals in La Palma, clearly their focus was the business of tourists. Abdul could smile, greet, and cajole in at least Arabic, French, English, and Italian, and although I never heard him speak other languages, probably also Spanish and German. The set menu, essentially soup or salad, couscous or tajine, drink, and dessert, along with bread and olives as appies, was clearly labelled at 70 Dirham, but today only, he was able to offer us a special student price (???) of 40 Dirham. Now most of the set menu prices we’ve been used to were 20 Euros (Venice), 15 Euros (Paris), or 10 Euros (Lisbon), but even if you take the Lisbon price, multiply by 1.5 to get $15, and multiple by four people, you’ve arrived at a $60 meal, compared to $12 to buy some bread, cheese, a few veggies, and perhaps even a cheap bottle of wine. But 40 Dirham is only $5, so for $20 total we all get a sit-down meal, and that’s good enough value that it’s hard to refuse. So we sat down. The couscous and tajine are all available with various meats, including chicken, beef, and lamb, but even if we weren’t vegetarians, having seen the meat stores in the medina we’d be rather unlikely to choose these options, so vegetarian couscous it was. The first night, our bill was 150 Dirham, as we ordered a large bottle of water with the meal. The second night, our waiter shook my hand as we came in and showed us cheerfully to our table, outside this time as it wasn’t threatening to rain. The bill was 140 Dirham (three set menus at 40 each, plus Alison’s omelette and fries at 20), as we didn’t order a bottle of water, but he brought us one anyways, plus a bonus bottle of fanta for Alison. The third night, the bill was again 140 Dirham, including the free water, and this time Alison had a bonus fresh orange juice, which the second waiter was sent out to get from a nearby stall.

I mentioned earlier our restaurant’s arch rival across the street, Les Jeunes, or “The Young People,” Sunny tells us. They also had a greeter waiter, older than ours but nonetheless wearing a toque and skinny jeans, but the first night he was unsuccessful at getting us into the restaurant; indeed, his restaurant seemed largely vacant that first night. The second night, as we were approaching the confluence of restaurants (a third restaurant, Le Kasbah, a multi-storey affair, was on a corner opposite the other two restaurants) he greeted us with his menu and tried to convince us to come in, but instead we again decided to eat at La Palma. As we ate, it was fun to watch our greeter and their greeter both rush out and greet potential customers, competing for business. Occasionally, passersby would be besieged by all three greeters. Luckily, their sales techniques were very friendly, devoid of any of the pushy aggression displayed by a small percentage of the shop owners. One Italian couple initially declined all three greeters and wandered past, only to return, be surrounded once again, and finally choose our restaurant. We cheered our waiter’s success.

Our last night, we thought we’d check out the row of five or so restaurants around the corner. They all had a greeter, each with their own technique, but with essentially the same menu, all priced more or less the same for items a la carte, and all with a 70 Dirham set menu. We politely declined the greeters as we wandered down the row, but as we returned in the opposite direction we were pleasantly surprised to be told that we could have a special just for today reduced set menu price of 50 Dirham. As we already had a favourite restaurant, with an even better price, we headed back to La Palma. The betoqued greeter of Les Jeunes gave it one last heroic effort. With his best English and sheepish grin, he greeted us with his menu and “Just one night?”, as he had obviously watched us eat at La Palma the previous two nights. However, our waiters spotted us and quickly came over to tell him off and usher us into our restaurant. We don’t speak much Arabic, but it was easy to guess that they were saying “Oh, nice try, buddy. As if! Get your own customers. These are our people!” I’m pretty sure it’s a friendly, congenial competition, with no hard feeling, however. One night, the Les Jeunes greeter was likely feeling a bit worn out, and he sat down casually at one of the tables in our restaurant without incident.

We enjoyed once again pretty much the same meal we’d been eating for the last two nights. It was plentiful and reasonable, without necessarily being spectacular. Alison tried using her Arabic phrases with our waiter (they are both religious, taught to her by her grandad), and he sat down to write out some useful phrases for her, as well as the numbers one to ten, then had her practice them until she sounded quite authentic. As we headed out of the medina to catch a taxi to the Gare this morning, we passed the three restaurants. The greeters for Le Kasbah and Les Jeunes both waved us goodbye and said “Bon voyage”, very pleasant considering we never ate in their restaurants and obviously were no longer potential customers, and our waiter hopped off his step to come and shake our hands and say goodbye. We miss our favourite waiters, and also their restaurants, and we’ll remember them fondly as one of the best parts of the trip.

Posted by teamkarim 15:43 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

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