Day one of our Desert tour- part 2, Spending the night at Dades Gorge

IMG_7979

After tasting a rather indifferent lunch we resumed our trip towards our next stop, while enjoying the magnificent scenery the rocky desert offers. The view compensated us for our recent unsavory experience and made me regret that I wasn’t that interested in that part of the Sahara, before this trip. The desert consists of three types of landforms, Ergs, , the typical Sand dune scenery, which are the ones we were mostly keen on visiting and Regs, where gravel is predominant and which we were crossing through at that moment on a speeding air-conditioned mini bus. The third type of desert landscape are the Hamadas, elevated masses of rock like the Atlas mountains, which could be seen far on the horizon.

IMG_7942.JPG

IMG_7946.JPG

On our way out of Ait Benhaddou, we passed in front of a movie studio, which stands as a gentle reminder that many famous movie and tv stars have worked in this place but what surprised us most was the mild raindrops that serenely knocked on our bus. Could we perchance witness a rainfall on the Desert? The scenery kept me company for most of the ride as Catherine took a nap while we were traveling through the grey gravel covered terrain which altered to an orangie- reddish hue that was sprinkled with a few scarce notes of green. Some old wrecked Kasbah’s and a large traditional styled building near a small oasis were interrupting the landscape’s monotony, while an almost dry river bent seemed to make a claim that this arid scenery would not prevail over it so easily.

IMG_7921.JPG

Our next stop was Vallée des Roses, an area famous for its rose production as the name suggests, where an annual festival takes place sometime in May (the date depends on the collection of the roses). We only made a brief stop near the small village that lies on this valley, so we don’t really have much to say about the place (I found some info here though). We did make a stop to a small village on the following day though and I kinda feel that there’s not much difference between the two (except from the rose scented air of course). There was a small shop where we bought some water and we visited a gift shop where there was a small exhibit of instruments used for the distillation of rose oil, but we were familiar with the use of rose oil and water for cosmetics and pastries, so we were not that impressed, although the experience will probably satisfy anyone else. My guess is that the May festival must be the highlight of this area, but we were a few months late.

IMG_7962.JPG

In the afternoon we made a short stop to enjoy the fantastic view of Dades valley, where  a velvety green foliage shone intensely through the reddish colored rocks rewarding even the most demanding gaze. It kind of reminded us of Meteora (where we constantly concur that we should pay a visit in a few days, but we never do make the short two hour trip to show up there). This view was a great way to end a long day of sightseeing and we rushed back on our minibus for the last leg of our ride for the day. After a while we entered Dades gorge, where our hotel laid and we eagerly rushed into our room hoping that it would be comfortable enough to compensate us for the last sleepless couple of days. Thankfully, the room was great offering a sensational view of the gorge from its little balcony.

IMG_8020.JPG

We enjoyed a shower and relaxed on that small veranda for a while, before joining the rest of our party for dinner, which was tasty, but with very small portions (even a five year old kid wouldn’t savor its appetite on that amount of food). Nevertheless, we were tired enough and keen on resting on our room, regaining some strength for tomorrow, the dawn of the day we had been anticipating more eagerly while we were planning this trip. I never dream, but I’m certain that I dreamt of camels and dunes that same evening.

IMG_8014.JPG

IMG_7923.JPG

IMG_7935.JPG

IMG_7938.JPG

IMG_7955.JPG

IMG_7970.JPG

IMG_7983.JPG

Advertisements

Day one of our Desert tour- part 1, way to the yellow city of Yunkai

IMG_7861.JPG

To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we subscribed to this particular tour as the booking process seemed a bit odd to us and the price was awkwardly cheap compared to the ones offered by other tours. We are glad we didn’t regret it though, as it proved one of the best experiences ever. Before venturing on this trip, we were mostly eager to be in the Sahara, overlooking most of the other stops on the tour’s itinerary, but the scenery straightened up our minds and senses easily to our benefit.

IMG_7840.JPG

We chose the tour offered by Marrakech desert trips and – as already stated – it was an excellent choice. After resting for a few hours in the tiny and hellishly hot room of our riad, we got our luggage once more and walked towards the nearby Cafe de France, a meeting point for many such excursions as we came to understand. While waiting there on the square, that was shyly beginning to fill up with vendors several tour guides approached us checking out if we were on their lists, till eventually our guide showed up and gathered most of our group after a while.

IMG_7875

The Berber alphabet among some local artworks

 

We got comfortable to our seats and after a couple of short breaks – for picking up the rest of the group and refueling – Day one was on. Our driver proved to be an awesome and skillful fellow and soon I was left alone admiring the route – as Catherine was falling asleep by my side, after all the – insufficient sleep experience was running for the third day, up to that point.

IMG_7743.JPG

It took a while to escape the city that was starting to wake up, as people were preparing to begin their busy day, but as we got outside of Marrakech, the scenery changed and I noticed some open air markets in most of the villages (in some of them the vendors were using their trucks as a shop) and hills that were loaded with prickly pears (a familiar image in Greece as well and possibly in many Mediterranean countries). Many buildings seemed old and they blended harmonically in the scenery but the similarities to Greek landscape became more intense when we started climbing the mountain road, until eventually we made a short stop on our route in order to buy some snacks and water (and allow any smokers to have one).

IMG_7801.JPG

Our next stop was on the Tizi Ntichka pass, which is the highest mountain pass in North Africa. The place is considered to be the gateway to the Desert and is offering great views to the barren mountainous landscape. Our next stop was at the main highlight of that day’s itinerary, the village of Aït BenHaddou, a Ksar (fortified village that is) where many old and modern films have been shot. Among them Pasolini’s Oedipus rex, Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nasareth, Scorsese’s last temptation, R. Scott’s Gladiator, Stone’s Alexander etc while most recently the village was a filming location for the series Game of Thrones (as the city of Yunkai).

IMG_7887.JPG

The village consists of many Kasbahs (fortified houses) made of clay, most of which are abandoned, as the villagers live opposite the hill where the original dwellings stand in more modern accommodations. A wide but dry river bend separates the old village from the modern settlement (we were told and saw it in a couple of old photos, that a few decades ago, the river was running wide and mighty on its bend, but nowadays just a small stream of melted snow flows down that path in springtime).

IMG_7900.JPG

The name of the settlement signifies that the tribe of Aït , descending from the chieftain Haddou dwells on the spot. The Berber tribe that lived there had strong ties to each other and were originally pagan, before converting to Islam, but many of them were also of Jewish faith and there were even a few Christians. Our ascent to the hilltop would be a tricky one as the sun was high on the sky, but we would be refreshed by some short breaks inside the cool Kasbahs, whose construction material acted as some sort of heat repellent. The ceilings were made of some large wooden logs and many dry reeds, while the walls were mostly made of clay and straw. When we got up a flat rooftop of one of the houses, I thought I felt as if my feet were standing on a rocky boat, but it seemed like a solid construction.

IMG_7880.JPG

 

Catherine looked very pretty in her green dress and panama hat. A bit later she looked pretty exhausted and after a while, I even left the group for a few minutes, as I purchased a turban and the kind old vendor offered to help me wear it on my head, Berber and Tuareg style. I guess my appearance caused some laughs to our group, Catherine certainly found it funny and I was very happy to wear something to assist me battling the sunlight. We also visited an artist who used a technique to make drawings, by which he would use his materials to put the shapes on the surface and then introduce the drawing surface to some heat, so that the shapes would finally form the drawing.

IMG_7895.JPG

After reaching the hilltop, where the old granary was situated, it was finally time to leave the old village. We made a final stop to a souvenir shop, where we bought some much needed water and sodas, while I acted as a turban model to everyone’s cheer once more and I have to say, it was a very funny experience.

Subsequently, we marched to a restaurant to have lunch and I was mostly eager to taste Tajin for a first time. The place offered the choice to a three course menu for the price of ten euros, which was ok, maybe slightly overpriced compared to other places we visited, but it ain’t a big deal. The food was below average though, but thankfully that experience didn’t discourage us from trying a few more tajin dishes during the following days.

 

IMG_7870.JPG

IMG_7756.JPG

 

IMG_7763.JPG

IMG_7770.JPG

IMG_7777.JPG

IMG_7804.JPG

IMG_7825.JPG

IMG_7853.JPG

IMG_7886.JPG

IMG_7887.JPG

IMG_7904.JPG

IMG_7921.JPG

Landing on Morocco

IMG_7842.JPG

We were about an hour away from reaching the African continent and we were quite tired as we hadn’t slept on a bed since we left Lisbon, a couple of nights back. Spending a night on the train to Madrid and most of the day walking around the Spanish capital, put on some extra weight on our backs and all we could think about was the bed that awaited in our riad. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses houses that feature an interior courtyard. We were eager to reach ours as we were so tired that it would probably seem like a palace to our eyes once we got there. To our disappointment there was a huge line for passport control once we landed, resulting in us missing the last bus to Jemaa el Fnaa, where our riad was situated. That meant we had to catch a cab, which implied that we had to haggle with the airport taxi drivers.

IMG_8351.JPG

Haggling is a thing that Catherine hates – even if it is about clothing, but it is an affair I am mostly keen on delving into whatever the object of trade. However we were tired and a cab was our only realistic option to reach our bed without much hassle, so we started the show with the man in charge for hooking up drivers and passengers. The original offer was twenty euros (200 darahim), but after a while we agreed on fifteen, which taking into account that the time was way passed 1.00 am and there were no bus, seemed like a good choice. We had to threaten that we would rather walk downtown in a rather theatrical manner and start our bargain at the ridiculously low fare of five euros. The price could possibly go a bit lower, but we weren’t interested in gaining an extra euro or two not to mention that if anyone had offered to guide us straight to a place where we could drive all of our fatigue away, we would gladly pay triple the amount.

IMG_7882.JPG

Needless to point out that the driver couldn’t leave us outside our riad, since no cars are allowed inside the narrow souks, so we would have to do some walking. We wouldn’t have any time to enjoy the city as we had to catch a bus and take part in an organized tour to the Sahara early in the morning, but we would return to Marrakech after a couple of days. The thing is, we were so close to our accommodation, yet we were tired and disorientated and what’s worse we had no internet access. As we were also carrying our luggage among the crowd, looking lost, we were becoming potential pray for scammers that offer to help confused people to find their way.

IMG_8526.JPG

Actually a small group of them followed us for a while and we ended up taking a small break for a refreshment inside a small cafe, as it had been hours since we had tasted a drop of water. In the end we struck a bargain with one of these guys that offered to guide us to our riad for the price of a mere euro. We haven’t formed a clear view on these sort of services yet, but I will disclose my opinion on the matter on a next post, as we had a couple of more similar encounters once we were back in the city a couple of days latter.

IMG_7979.JPG

The facilities in our riad were fairly basic, as we booked this place intending to take a short nap, so we couldn’t find any point in spending more money for something more pricey. It was an adequate choice, but we would avoid booking there if we had planned to spend more days in Marrakesh. Finally, we took a long anticipated shower and had a few hours of sleep, before enjoying the main part of our journey, a trip to the desert. Taking into account that we had been on the road for the past couple of days, joining a three day tour without proper rest didn’t really sound like the best of choices, but it proved to be less tiresome a task as we imagined and one of the best choices we made during this trip…

IMG_8220.JPG

IMG_8146.JPG

IMG_8168.JPG

IMG_7889.JPG

IMG_8201.JPG

IMG_8260.JPG

Nomads’ tajine

IMG_8331.JPG

Tajines are a variety of North African dishes, named after the clay pot whereh they are cooked, in which various kinds of meat can be used – or not, thus turning it into a simple yet tasty vegetarian dish (we tried beef, chicken and vegetable, but we also found lamp and meatballs). We had tasted lots of it while in Morocco, some were below average, others were simply not bad, but some proved exceptional choices. My favorite was the one I had at La Cantine des gazelles in Marrakech, a chicken tajine with apricots, plums and almonds.

IMG_8534.JPG

The dish I enjoyed most while in Morocco

I tried to emulate that taste, based on recipes I found and adding some more stuff to achieve the final result. The main problem I was faced with is that I don’t own a tajine pot. It wasn’t such a big deal though, as I used a pot to boil the ingredients and a deep, covered braising pan to roast them. So, here it is. For a dish that can easily serve six people, you will need:

  • About a kilo and a half of beef
  • 1 and a half small spoons of cumin
  • 2 small spoons of cinnamon
  • ¼ small spoon of turmeric
  • 1small spoon of ginger
  • salt
  • pepper
  • some olive oil
  • water
  • 2 onions
  • beef stock
  • about six plums
  • 2 large spoons of honey
  • 3 aubergines
  • 5 carrots
  • 4 zucchini
  • 4 potatoes
  • some almonds
  • Patience

We start be cutting the meat to medium sized pieces, before boiling it in low heat for a couple of hours to make it as tender as possible.

After that rather slow, yet easy process, we take the pieces of meat and spray them with cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, salt, pepper and some olive oil and mix it to ensure the spices reach every last piece of it.

Then we heat some olive oil in a large saucepan and when it’s super hot we place the pieces of beef on it for a while and turn it around to make sure it gets a nice color in every side. It won’t take long and once we are done with this step, we add enough water to cover the meat (you can use the dish where you mixed the beef and spices to do that, establishing that more spices will contribute to the final result). That’s it for now, all we have to do is cover the saucepan and boil in medium heat for nearly a couple of hours.

After patiently awaiting for that long, you have to throw in the sauce pan the finely chopped onions, the plums (sliced in halves), the honey and the beef stock and let it boil for a while (five minutes maybe), before throwing in the vegetables. If you don’t have such a large sauce pan (I didn’t) never mind. They will boil in the oven anyways, so it’s not really such a big deal.

You must be equipped with some sort of deep braising pan that has a cover. That is if you don’t own a tajine (I didn’t and I can live without it). Then you throw the content of the saucepan along with the vegetables and almonds in that braising pan, cover, place in the oven and wait for nearly a couple of hours. Enjoy!

We are back!

IMG_7542.JPG

Hey there! What a great adventure that was! This year’s project turned out to be tremendous and we had lots of fun, having the opportunity to admire sites in three countries as we moved in airplanes, metro, buses, trains, taxis, even camels. Of course given the limited amount of time at our disposal and the rather large sum of places we wished to visit, some places were left out of our itinerary, but that was expected, albeit sadly. We also had some tough luck regarding our equipment, as Catherine’s phone got a screen crack, her tablet broke and her camera had a minor malfunction that we managed to overcome a few seconds ago and succeeded in moving our photos in a hard drive (MY hard drive, so I guess they are safe from what ever curse has befallen my beloved girl’s electronic devices- and I have to say, I’m very glad I am not a cyborg).

IMG_8390.JPG

We encountered many people, hanged out with a few, chatted in some Portuguese in Lisbon, had some laughs with a wannabe gangsta crew on our way to Madrid, even got acquainted with the ambiguous tactics of strangers offering guiding instructions while in Marrakesh and also visited Barcelona after the tragedy on La Rampla, which added a bitter tone to our trip.

IMG_8684

We’ll add detailed descriptions of this year’s journey on the following posts over the next weeks, so, stay tuned…

IMG_7370.JPG

IMG_7889.JPG

Focusing on our forthcoming journey to Morocco

Djemaa el Fna

…Stepping foot on Marrakesh will be a first one for us, since it will mark our initial footsteps on the African continent. Celebrations of this fact will have to be put on hold though, as we’ll have to find a way to our hotel near Jemaa el Fnaa square. Bus 19 is the cheapest option at a cost of 30 MAD per person (here’s a helpful map of the route, that someone uploaded), while a petit taxi that would probably cost 70 MAD (+50%) is the convenient alternative. Since we are arriving rather late, we won’t have much time at our disposal and our tendency to explore will have to be confined within the limits of the central plaza. Furthermore, we are leaving for a short excursion outside Marrakesh early in the morning, therefore we should definitely get some rest (Since these excursions are following a rather strict schedule, there is nothing to plan, so we’ll omit the details regarding that part of the trip. We’ll gladly share our thoughts and experience once we return though).

800px-Souks_Marrakech_098.JPG

Once we are back to Marrakesh, we are having a full day in our hands, in order to do some exploration taking advantage of the fact that we are staying at such a central location. For this trip Morocco is Catherine’s eagerly anticipated destination (mine is Portugal if anyone cares) and we’ll try to make the best of it during the few days spent there. Our exploration of Marrakesh will be centered around Jemaa el Fna and the nearby souks, the city spot where everything takes place and we are bound to make a circular route centered on this plaza.
El Badi Palace from Wall 2011

Our first visit will be on the El Badi palace ruins, which will cost a mere 20MAD entrance fee and will offer us the chance to maybe spend a couple of hours admiring the ruins of this 16th century Saadian palace. It seems that the place may be a bit deserted, while some storks are taking advantage of it, nesting and that might provide us with some decent photos.

 Maroc Marrakech Saadiens Luc Viatour 2

Our next stop will be the nearby Saadian tombs (1 euro entrance fee) where we’ll try and enjoy a small visit (word has it that the place can get discouragingly crowdy), before carrying on our tour to Bab Agnaou, one of the nearly twenty gates to the city, which was built in the 12th century and getting a closer view at Koutoubia mosque (as close as non Muslims can approach that is).
Carpets in Marrakech

Later, we are moving north of Jemaa el fna, towards Bahia palace (1euro fee), where we’ll have a look at the complex of gardens, courtyards and houses that a 19th century Grand Vizier had built. The compound seems that will provide us with a taste of a blend between Moroccan and Islamic architecture and possibly with some unforgettable memories, yet not so great as the ones we are expecting from the next site we intend to visit, which is …
Majorelle Garden

…Majorelle garden, a villa and garden built by French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 20’s, who seems to have constructed quite a home for himself. He has produced such a great performance on this labor, that the predominant shade of cobalt blue that is dominant throughout the place is called after him. Anyways, Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge bought the place in the 80’s and Saint-Laurent’s ashes were scattered in the garden (I guess we’ll have to take care of our looks, no one wants the ghost of a fashion designer haunting him or her), while there are plans to establish a museum dedicated to the designer’s life and work on this spot in September. So, we’ll have a walk around the place (map) and keep up with our visit in the city returning to the central square, eager to experience everything we can get our minds onto during our stay in the city, before eventually getting back to Spain for the last leg of our trip.

(It is evident that we do not own any of the photos on this post, they are all originating from wikipedia. We’ll post our own once we return from our trip)

Regrettably, crappy customer support is spelled Ibis hotels…

namban.jpg

Well, that was a disappointment, but we will certainly not linger on this wasting more time. Long story short, we have taken care of our needs on accommodation regarding our trip in August, with one disappointing exception. While trying to book a room to our much esteemed Ibis hotels, we never got a confirmation and when we asked them for one, we were informed that they had taken care of our request for a cancellation! So far, they haven’t even replied to our e-mails, so we’ll cut our loses and book somewhere else. Needless to say, they will probably never see us again.

IMG_6806.JPG

So, the final form of our itinerary regarding our accommodation shapes as follows:

  • Days 1 to 3 We stay in Lisbon, for a total of 80 euro
  • Day 4, as told in a previous post, we catch a night train to Madrid
  • Day 5, We’ll be staying in Marrakesh, 15   cost
  • Days 6 and 7 we are taking a tour to the Atlas mountains and the desert, an excursion that will amount to 180
  • Days 8 and 9, we were going to stay at an Ibis, at a cost of 72 , but we’ll stay somewhere else for 30
  • Days 10 and 11, were also intended to be spent in an Ibis at Barcelona, instead, after their lousy customer service, we are staying in a hotel at the center for 110

Total cost of accommodation comes to 415 .

IMG_6807.JPG

Apart from that, our plants are happily growing strong and we’ve already tasted our first aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. I’m also making some progress in my Portuguese and I’m currently trying to translate extracts of Fernão Mendes Pinto‘s book Peregrinação. It intrigued me greatly that this man was a traveler at a time when voyages were not as easy as in our time. The stories he shared with his contemporaries seems that were too outrageous for them to believe and his was scorned by them as a fabulist (Liar, liar! Pantaloons on fire!). They even made a joke about his name. You see in Portuguese mentes stands for lie, so they would ask: “Fernão, mentes?” (Fernão, are you lying?) and consequently they would respond: “Minto!” (I am lying) instead of Pinto.

IMG_6809.JPG

Apart from that, Catherine is working all day, while I’m taking advantage of my limited free time to finally begin working on some pet projects. An hour ago, I started studying some ancient Greek texts in order to detect some info regarding ancient physics. There are some more things to be done, regarding our trip, but the hard part is over.

IMG_6810.JPG

IMG_6811.JPG