Portugal

20160211_131647000_iOS After an amazing few weeks in Morocco, I decided to take a short flight to Lisbon and spend a few days in Portugal.  Europe in February can be dreary, but Portugal enjoys a temperate climate. So while is was often overcast or rainy, temps were in the 60s.

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I checked in to my hotel on Rossio Square in late afternoon, and immediately went out to walk the neighborhood and head down to the Tagus River, which flows west to the Atlantic Ocean.  The neighborhood around Rossio Square is lively, full of shops, cafes, churches, cobbled streets, and apartments.  The hustle and bustle around Rossio is mostly the locals going to and from work and home, but there is plenty for tourists too.

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20160211_133210000_iOSLisbon is a very walkable city once you know the tips and tricks. If you don’t, you will spend a lot of time huffing and puffing up the steep hills into which the city was built. I was lucky enough to find Pedro at Inside Lisbon, a local company that provides walking tours in Lisbon, and day tours to nearby Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril. I spent my first morning walking Lisbon with Pedro who gave a great overview of the history of Portugal and the city highlights.

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20160212_060735000_iOSI love churches and castles, and Portugal delivered. The Saint Domingos Church (Igreja Sao Domingos) is a macabre church that makes for a strangely jaw dropping first impression. The dim interior is painted a haunting orange, with ruined sections of old fire damaged church jutting out from the walls. The massive stone pillars are scorched from the fire that ravaged the church and there is still a lingering smell of burning in the air.

20160212_051009000_iOSThen there are the streets….every inch of streets, sidewalks, and squares are paved with stones that were hand chipped and installed by artisans.  Most are black and white and many are installed in wavy patterns….which can make for a dizzy walk across a busy square.

20160212_143711000_iOSBy mid afternoon, Pedro had walked me through the main Lisbon neighborhoods: Baixa, Chiado, Alfama, and Bairro Alto. We agreed to meet later that day for another walk – this time to sample the food and wine of Portugal.  Frank and Denise, who hail from Maine, joined us this evening. The outing was full of laughter, great food, and an assortment of fine wines.  Frank and Denise were warm and friendly company for this solo traveler.

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Over the coming days, I would spend a rainy day visiting the Pena Palace and Cabo da Roca (western most point of Europe) near Sintra, and the beaches of Cascais and Estoril.

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Portugal was simple to navigate, with friendly interesting people, great sites, and the starting point for my journey home. Adeus Portugal!20160213_063613000_iOS20160213_062836000_iOS20160213_105514000_iOS20160213_094054000_iOS

Morocco – Marrakech

20160209_041245000_iOSMarrakesh is possibly the most important of Morocco’s four former imperial cities (cities that were built by Moroccan Berber empires). The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, but the actual city was founded in 1062.

20160207_123215000_iOS The Jemaa el Fnaa is one of the best-known squares in Africa and is the center of city activity and trade. It has been described as a bridge between the past and the present, the place where Moroccan tradition encounters modernity.  Today the square attracts people from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. 20160207_113822000_iOSSnake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists, pickpockets, and entertainers in medieval garb still populate the square.

Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco and the image of the city is closely associated with its souks (markets), a honeycomb of intricately connected alleyways comprising a dizzying number of stalls and shops.20160207_114430000_iOS

There is so much to see and do in Marrakech, but the center of activity truly is the Jemma el-Fnaa square. And that is where we spent our first day in Marrakech.  The sheer number of street performers is best watched both up close and from the rooftop cafes around the square.

20160207_101517000_iOSOur riad is in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter in the medina and affords us easy access to all of the cafes, performers, souks, music, mosque, and anything your heart desires in Marrakech.

During our days in Marrakech we visit the Jardin de Majorelle, the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, the Marrakech Museum and sample some of the best Moroccan food on earth!20160209_041152000_iOS20160209_063500000_iOS

On our final night in Marrakech (tomorrow we head to Casablanca for our last day in Morocco), we have another wonderful dinner accompanied by music and a bellydancer.20160209_155016000_iOS20160209_161954000_iOS

 

 

 

One of the reasons I travel the world is to learn about other cultures, beliefs, and traditions. I find it best to do this by living in a place, becoming part of a community.  This is what I did in South Africa while I volunteered at a children’s home. While I couldn’t do this in Morocco, I was still able to better understand Moroccans in general and Muslims in particular because of the efforts of our guide. Aziz arranged for me to meet with a woman (Fatima) who talked to me about the strides women are making in Morocco. While Moroccan women do not have the same status as women in the west, they have come a long way in the last few years.  Fatima is a college educated professional woman. She is slowly educating her two young sons about equality and respect for women.  One willingly helps in the kitchen, while the other still believes it is woman’s work.  Change comes in small steps.

20160209_145738000_iOSAziz also moderated an intense discussion with our group about how Moroccans feel about terrorists (they fear and dislike them) and how westerners sometimes mistrust Muslims.

20160131_100855000_iOSWe spent some time with pre-schoolers learning the Quran in a fun way with women in their Fez neighborhood.  These were smiling happy children, not much different from the children we know and love in our own country.

Our time with the farmer, Mohamed, and his wife and Idris, the djalaba shop owner, and his family allowed us a look inside the family life of average Moroccans, who happen to be Muslims.

20160209_054727000_iOSSo, I leave Morocco with a better understanding of its people, history, customs, and beliefs.  It isn’t perfect.  People sometimes skirt the law. Its healthcare system is lacking. There are still too many poor families.  But it is a warm, funny, exotic, and ancient country with people who make great food, love their children, and strive for a happy life…Inshallah.

Morocco – The Sahara Desert

 

20160204_054601000_iOSThe Sahara – it’s where I had that moment, the one where you say to yourself….I’m here!  Oh my….I’m really here. And I had that moment while sitting atop a camel, on top of a sand dune.  If this is a dream, don’t wake me.

20160203_091152000_iOSOur first stop was at the camp where we would spend our nights in the desert.  I use the term “camp” loosely as our accomodations were more than tents. Furnished with beautiful furniture and rugs, flushing toilets, and showers, they rivaled hotel rooms in the real world.

20160203_105244000_iOSWe drove to another part of the Sahara in our 4 X 4 vehicle and met with a family of nomads. They had been in this particular spot for two weeks and would probably be moving on in another week, once their goats had finished off the nearby vegetation.  The family was comprised of a mother, her children and their spouses, and her grandchildren.  Someone asked if she thought her grandchildren would grow up to choose a different life.  She was surprised by the question….why would they?  This is their destiny. This is their life. Life is about what we know. To most westerners life is a house and a job and family, with the added distractions of modern life.  It’s what we know.  20160203_111828000_iOSTo the nomads life is following the water, the vegetation. It’s their job.  They love their families, but they are accustomed to loss.  There are no doctors or hospitals in the desert. If herbal medicine and prayers do not cure, then they bury their dead.20160203_105840000_iOS

In the desert I saw beautiful and happy children.  A woman showed us how she spins camel hair into wool.  The baby goats squealed in fear at our approach.  Life was as it should be, just different.

Day two in the desert heralds the arrival of the camels! Their fur is coarse and their eyelashes are long and thick, and they do not spit! They were actually very well behaved, sure footed, dromedary.  Our guide dressed in his best royal blue Arabian garb and made sure we had a memorable experience.20160204_052557000_iOS

20160203_153526000_iOSNights in the desert are cold, crisp, lit by stars.  We would be bundled in our thermals and heavy clothes overnight into early morning, then in tee shirts and shorts by afternoon.  Our hosts entertained us at night around a big fire. They drummed while we danced and star gazed. Magical.20160203_090757000_iOS20160203_125506000_iOS20160204_020724000_iOS

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Morocco – Fez

20160202_101749000_iOS20160131_044435000_iOSI had been looking forward to Fez and it did not disappoint.  It was as if we left the 21st century and all preconceived notions of urban design behind as we entered Fez’s Medina. Fez is often considered the world’s most well-preserved medieval city and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.20160131_071155000_iOS

The souks are brimming with color and contrast. The ancient section is a maze of narrow streets filled with bazaars, shops, cafés, donkeys, and people. We were entranced by the vibrant display of age-old urban tradition, and the intensity of life bursting around every corner.20160131_090604000_iOSOur riad is pure Moroccan design and hospitality. We are welcomed with mint tea, cookies, and the smiling face of owner, Abdullah.

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Our guide, Aziz, arranged for us to have dinner with a local family. Idris owns a djalaba shop in the medina and he and his wife, Nadia, have five adult children, all of whom live with them.  Even their married son and his wife are living there until they finish building their little home.  Idris and Nadia are clearly very proud of their children. Two of their children joined us for dinner. Idris’s daughter very shyly explained that she doesn’t date (she is 22).  She is working for a bank and her parents will decide when she may keep company with a man (of whom they approve).  Their son (age 26) does have a girlfriend who lives in France, so they only see each other every few months. In some ways we are all so different, and in others we are the same. We love our children.20160131_153153000_iOS20160131_155127000_iOS

 

 

 

VolubilisVolubilis [Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki] Volubilis was a Roman settlement constructed on what was probably a Carthaginian city, dating from 3rd century BC. Volubilis was a central administrative city for this part of Roman Africa. Volubilis was also administering contacts with the Berber tribes which the Romans never managed to suppress, but who only came as far as to cooperate with the Romans for mutual benefits.
Unlike so many other Roman cities, Volubilis was not abandoned after the Romans lost their foothold in this part of Africa in the 3rd century. Even the Latin language survived for centuries, and as not replaced before the Arabs conquered North Africa in the late 7th century.

20160201_063720000_iOS20160201_061117000_iOS (2)We were amazed by the condition of the mosaic floors in the complex given that they are over 2000 years old and have been exposed to the elements for centuries. And in the middle of this historic site, the pelicans have erected their giant nests precariously at the top of the pillars.

Much of the stonework that was removed from Volubilis was used to build the palace of Moulay Ismail in nearby Meknes. Below is a photo of the stables at the palace in Meknes.

Meknes

20160201_100549000_iOSIsmail’s famous stable housed 12,000 horses under a single roof supported by stone arches. An enormous granary adjoining the stable stored grain at controlled temperatures to enable both the horses and the residents to survive a long siege. It is difficult to convey the size of the stables, but when standing inside it appears as though the arches are three stories high and go on for hundreds of yards.

We leave Fez to journey to the Sahara, but along the way there are some beautiful people and landscapes.20160202_060118000_iOS Until next time….I hope you enjoy these images. 20160202_105028000_iOS20160202_101749000_iOS 20160203_054513000_iOS20160201_043929000_iOS

 

 

 

 

Morocco – Tangier to Rabat

20160127_103046000_iOSWhen I would dream about going to Tangier, it was the Tangier of the 1940s that stoked my imagination.  At the top of Africa, with Gibraltar and Spain on the horizon, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean….Tangier seemed exotic and a world away. But it was the beat generation vibe that I read about in books about authors Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Ginsberg living in the International Zone of Tangier that really framed my impressions of Tangier. Fragments of the Tangier of the 1940s still remain, but it is also a new city in many ways. So I revised my dreamy expectations and enjoyed it nonetheless.

20160127_083127000_iOSAs we entered the city we happened upon an unexpected Fantasia performance – beautifully dressed horses and riders, running in formation while firing ornate guns into the air. It’s a kind of hokey show put on for cruise ship passengers, but it is beautiful and full of pageantry….and we watched from the outside with the locals, so all the more fun. 20160130_055656000_iOS

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A friend of friend connected me to Nick, a young American Muslim who moved with his wife and children to Morocco 2 years ago. Nick was kind enough to spend an evening with us to talk about his perspective on life in Morocco.  He is happy in Tangier and has found ways to adapt to living in a place so different from his home in Delaware. Thank you Nick and best wishes for your continued happiness.

20160127_115108000_iOSNext afternoon, we were off to the Cave of Hercules, west of Tangier on the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that Hercules slept in the cave before his 11th labor. It is also believed that the opening is a mirror image of the shape of the African continent.20160127_115229000_iOS

 

 

 

RABAT

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One week in to my Moroccan adventure and we are joined by a small group (ten) from the states.  They come from Washington, Wisconsin, Arizona, Maine, and DC.20160129_064057000_iOS

Our time in Rabat included a visit to King Mohammed V’s tomb (somber), the medina (lively) and dinner at the beautiful restaurant – Dinarjat (delicious).20160129_065004000_iOS

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Next up…..Fez!

 

Morocco

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Morocco has always beckoned. It’s exotic, warm, and full of contrasts.  Deserts meet mountains, Islam meets Judaism, and life is sometimes on the edge.  I will admit that part of the allure was avoiding a month of Pennsylvania winter weather and spending it somewhere warm. But Morocco proved to be so much more!

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As I touched down in Casablanca, the movie of the same name was running through my head. But the Casablanca of Bogart and Bergman is no more alas.  So after a day of walking the city and visiting its mega mosque, we headed north to the blue washed town of Chefchaouen in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. We checked in to the lovely Riad Darechchaouen where Abdul charmed us with his smiles and humor.

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It was in a tiny restaurant in Chefchaouen that I had my first traditional tagine – a berber dish named for the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. We would try several versions of tagine over the coming weeks, but none will compare to that first experience.

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While in the Rif Mountains we had a chance to meet Mohammed and his wife, who hosted us for a home grown and cooked meal on their farm.  We picked the vegetables and herbs with Mohammed and learned how to make couscous, then feasted on the resulting meal.

20160125_050857000_iOSWe also spent an afternoon visiting nearby Tetouan, where we toured a craft school that is training the next generation in the Moroccan trades of woodworking, ceramics, tile, and plaster carving.20160125_045939000_iOS20160124_043548000_iOS

 

 

 

After several days in Chefchaouen and the Rif, we were off to Tangier.

I should mention now that readers of my South Africa blog will note that my Morocco blog is much more abbreviated. Chalk it up to procrastination and bad time management. I have belatedly figured out it is much easier to recall and write when in the moment. Lesson learned.

Tomorrow: Tangier