We cleverly planned a 15 hour layover in Istanbul on our way to Tanzania. Breakfast, Blue Mosque, lunch, old town, dinner. Travel Tip – as of October 2017 if you are a United States passport holder you are not allowed into the country of Turkey. We tried looking cute, we tried despondent, we talked to three different people but ultimately spent 15 hours in the airport. They gave us two food vouchers, one for breakfast and one for dinner and you can still drink Turkish coffee, but…..15 hours is a long time in an airport.
Istanbul airport. Our oNLY view of Istanbul.
So this is really just a Travel Tip- no go.
Spices and Incense, Marrakech
Our last stop in Morocco was the clamorous and gaudy medina of Marrakech. Getting lost while trying to find our Hamam made it all the more worthwhile to have buckets of hot and cold water dumped on our heads. Our skin was baby-butt smooth after a young lady scrubbed off half an inch of skin with a scratchy black salt glove.
The Medina quarter (old city)
The touts were intense, the food deliciously flavored with spice and the show unending in the famous square of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Snake charmers, story tellers, musicians, and artisans are found here everyday, all day. You can peruse the food stalls proudly displaying their severed goat heads to tempt your palate.
Jemaa el-Fnaa, the never ending spectacle in the medina quarter
Travel tip- if a lady grabs your arm and starts writing with a henna pen and tells you a ‘free gift’, just run. Unless you want to pay for henna, of course. I call this mark ‘The Tourist Stamp’.
Tourist stamp and white wine
Morocco’s first language is Arabic, the second is French. Cheers to a great adventure, a wonderful country full of curious and friendly people and delicious delectables. Shukraan and au revoir Morocco!
Camel crossing 🙂
We drove our rental car into the desert. Travel tip- buy water, wine and beer in the town of Ouarzazate (literally the Moroccan Hollywood) on your way through because alcohol is almost impossible to find and you’ll be thirsty. Chapstick is a good thing too. Once you get close to the town of Merzouga any hotel will be offering overnight camel treks and even sunset only treks for the less adventurous. The dunes literally start outside the back door and often times there are camels waiting for the next trek right past the hotel pool.
Camels waiting for trekking
Tagine pots ready for dinner in front of Kasbah
Buffett dinners seem to be pretty common so expect tagine, vegetables and olives spread out for all. When it comes to your trek ask specific questions. For example, we asked ‘should we bring water?’. Yes, we’re each supposed to bring a bottle of water. ‘What kind of clothes?’. Warm clothes. It’s hot in the day but very cold at night in the desert. We didn’t think to ask ‘should we bring toilet paper?’ (there wasn’t any) or ‘should we bring a light?’ (luckily we had a headlamp and flashlight).
Our guide Hassan, a master riddle teller
Shadows of our trek into the Sahara
Our group consisted of our guide, Ian and I, a girl from Paris and three Moroccans. When we arrived to camp there was another camp helper who actually lives there. And some cats.
Our camp in the desert
You can sandboard in The Sahara
There were a couple snowboards available to go sandboarding which Ian tried successfully. I used it as a sled. Those dunes were steep!
The Sahara Desert, Erg Chebbi
Happy Camel CampErs
A good time was had by all.
Portrait of a Saharan camel
The Granary, Meknes
Meknes is an hour away from Fez by bus and has a mellowed down vibe. You can visit the royal granary that was built by a sultan to stable and feed 12,000 horses. A short taxi ride away is the partially excavated Roman town of Volubilis, founded by Berbers in the 3rd century BC and grew to be the Roman capital of Mauritania in the 1st century AD.
Mural in House of the Labours of Hurcules, Volubilis
We headed to the coast to enjoy fresh oysters in the quiet village of Oualidia and rented a quad to explore the natural lava caves on the beach. You can buy oysters right in the street from peddlers riding bicycles with baskets of oysters and lemons strapped to the handlebars.
Colorful boat in the lagoon of Oualidia
Next was the larger seaport town of Essaouira with it’s ramparts, medina, long stretches of beaches and lots of wind surfers in the summertime. I thought the water was too cold in November but Ian did some body surfing.
The windy port town of Essaouira
Within the medina, Essaouira
We decided to head inland and rented a car in Marrakesh. A decent deal at $300 for 8 days. Getting out of the city was hectic with the horsedrawn buggies, scooters and drivers in every lane but we made it. A night plus another day of driving got us all the way to the famous fortified village of Ait Ben Haddou. Plenty of movies have been shot here including Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia and parts of Game of Thrones.
Ait Ben Haddou, fortified village and UNESCO Heritage site
Next up- The Sahara Desert!
The Bab Bou Jeloud (the blue gate) of the medina in Fez
It feels like a trip back in time once you walk through one of the dramatic gates of the ancient medina of Fez. The medina is one of the oldest and largest walled cities in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. Within its labyrinth of alleyways you pass donkeys carrying fresh fruit, barrels of spice, and artisans practicing ancient trades.
Deep in the medina of Fez
Musical instruments in Fez
Getting a view overlooking the tanneries is an enlightening experience. Your guide begins by handing you a sprig of fresh mint to hold over your nose to help with the smell. Once you’re on the terrace above he explains how the skins are prepared with pigeon droppings and cow urine. The many vats of colored dyes are all vegetable based and men are waist deep stomping on the skins.
The tannery area of the ancient medina in fez
Make sure you enter the medina with plenty of time because it’s easy to get lost. Also be aware the pressure is high for you to buy something from all the vendors but a smile and repeating ‘non merci’ (no thank you) will get you by.
Tanning skins and cemetery outside the Bab Fettouh gate of the medina in Fez
There are other sites to see outside of the medina, which makes Fez worth a several day visit. Bring your Imodium, patience and a good heart and enjoy a taste of ancient history alive before your eyes.
Donkeys of Fez
The beautiful blue town of Chefchaouen
We landed in Africa after taking the ferry from Tarifa Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. A handy travel tip is to get to the ferry early and get in line to go through Moroccan immigration while on board. If you’re in line early enough you can enjoy the rest of the ride and just show your stamped passport when you arrive in Tangier. We had a quick snack that included avocado milk (not recommended, avocados don’t have teats) then took a comfortable bus to the quaint town of Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains. Also known as The Blue Pearl, this town has winding streets painted in every shade of pale blue that look purple at night.
It’s very easy to get lost in the winding streets that all start to look the same. In the ‘new town’ a short walk downhill you can find some interesting stores selling the freshest chicken, these girls are still clucking!
Live chickens and fresh eggs in Morocco
Moroccans love their tagine, slow cooked meat and vegetables in a pottery dish that is full of flavor and can arrive bubbling hot. We tried several varieties including lamb, beef and chicken. Yum!
The medina of Chefchaouen, about to order some chicken tagine
On ‘The Rock’, Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a British owned territory where you can find lots of fish and chips pubs, limestone caves and even monkeys who live in the steepest points with the best views. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married here as well as Ian’s parents.
View from The Rock of Gibraltar of the border of Spain
To get here you must cross the airstrip which separates Spain from Gibraltar. The picture above is taken from a tunnel carved into The Rock during World War I overlooking the airstrip and border from Spain. It was nice to speak a little English again even if the fish and chips were a bit bland.
Saint Michael’s Cave within the Rock of Gibraltar
We were also glad to discover that our Euros were accepted by the bus driver, cab driver and three different restaurants we visited so there’s no need to exchange currency before heading over. Also, the Queen’s Way Quay was a great spot for a gin and tonic overlooking the marina with it’s huge yachts at sunset.
“Ronda is, indeed, one of those places which stands alone. I know of nothing to which it can be compared.” – Lady Tennyson 1850
The town of Ronda with it’s white walled buildings is perched on a high plateau split by the El Tajo gorge. It’s one of Spain’s oldest towns and was loved by historical romantic travelers such as Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles.
Gorgeous views abound. We had an amazing 15 year anniversary in this romantic town and even tried the ajoblanco (cold almond and garlic soup with strawberry jam). The soup was weird.
Salmon and avocado salad with ajoblanco soup
Plaza de Espana
Seville is the land of fairytale romance. So far it’s my all time favorite city. There are plazas that have gorgeous streets leading off into every direction and each one leads the imagination down a different storybook theme. Couples of all ages are holding hands and public affection is the norm. This is also the land of the passionate flamenco dance.
Flamenco dancer in Plaza de Espana, Seville
El Arenal area of Seville
The beautiful royal palace of The Real Alcazar is worth waiting in line to see. This is the oldest palace still in use in Europe and where part of the fifth season of Game of Thrones was shot.
Gardens in the royal palace of The Alcazar
Beautiful Moorish arches in The Alcazar Palace
‘Baths of Lady Maria de Padilla’ in The Alcazar
There are many peaceful gardens to wander through, fantastic tapas to delight the palate and awe inspiring architecture around every corner. Seville should be on everyone’s ‘Must See’ list for Europe.
Ian in front of the Seville Cathedral, where the remains of Christopher Columbus are said to be ENTOMBED
Court of the Myrtles, The Alhambra
You can’t go to Granada and not see the monumental complex of The Alhambra. The dramatic towers hover over the town, strategically built there in 1237 by Muhammad I al-Ahmar. It changed hands many times over the course of history and remains a beautiful blend of Muslim and Christian art and architecture. Get your tickets to visit the grounds early because they sell out fast.
Inside The Alhambra, near The Court of the Lions
Partal Palace, The Alhambra
We had the amazing luck to stay in an air bnb with this view!
View from our air bnb in Granada
The free and delicious tapas kept coming (you can read about that tradition in my Tapas and Tinto post :)) and the winding uphill streets kept us hungry for more.
Free fried fish and salad tapas in Grenada
An example of tight, medieval streets in Granada
We loved the medieval feel of the historic area and the amazing food found in all the cafes along the river.