Archive for August, 2008

August 16th 2008

Posted under Morocco

The real Casablanca is nothing like the movie. The movie wasn’t even filmed there, in fact; it was filmed in Hollywood and based on a hotel in Tangier. Casablanca is Morocco’s most cosmopolitan and industrial city. A taxi driver proudly informed us, “Casablanca is not for tourists. Casablanca is for business.” We arrived by train from Marrakech, a comfortable three-hour ride through the desolate Sahara Desert; and, upon reading that Casablanca’s restaurants serve up excellent seafood, we splurged on fruits des mer and another impressive bottle of Moroccan red wine at a French Provencal place near our hotel.

The French have left a lasting mark on Casablanca and much of Morocco in the form of language, architecture and infrastructure. After their native Moroccan Arabic, the locals speak fluent French, passable Spanish and bits of English. Our “functional French” seems to be better understood (or at least better tolerated) in Morocco than in France. Casablanca’s Art Deco facades, wide boulevards, public parks, sidewalk cafes, and efficient railway system are all French additions from the early 1900s when Casablanca was declared a French Protectorate.

There is a noticeable difference between the people in Casablanca and the people in Marrakech, particularly in the interactions between the sexes. More women, especially in the 20-30 age range, wear Western clothing and men and women socialize more freely in public. That said, there are still plenty of cafes frequented by locals at which women are unwelcome or too intimidated to patronize alone. While the medina hums with old Arabic traditions and lifestyles, the increasing opportunities and affluence in the port city are a catalyst for modernism.

The crown jewel of Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, set on a rocky outcrop of coastline. Completed in 1993, the world’s third largest mosque (after Mecca and Medina) is a decadent display of Arab-Islamic art and architecture, incorporating modern amenities such as a central heating system for warming the marble floors in winter, a retractable roof, and a laser beam that points toward Mecca at night. At 200 meters in height, its minaret is the tallest religious minaret in the world.

The only way for non-Muslims to see the inside of the mosque is through the pricey guided tour but when we gazed upon its stunning marble exterior, we knew it would be worth the price of admission. I am fascinated (obsessed, my husband might say) by Islam and I was pleased with the explanations and demonstrations offered by our English-speaking guide. Our tour began in the Prayer Hall, the most magnificent room in the mosque with its grand arches, elegantly carved stucco, rose granite pillars, Italian chandeliers, gleaming Moroccan marble floor, and carved cedar retractable ceiling. A balcony on each side of the hall was designed for women to pray, protected from the sinful gazes of men, behind a wooden lattice screen.

In Islamic communities, the muezzin sings a hypnotic chant over a loudspeaker, calling the faithful to the mosque for the five-times-daily prayer. Before each prayer, Muslims must wash their feet, hands, ears, nose and face to spiritually cleanse themselves for the ritual. Underneath the Prayer Hall, the Ablution Hall contains 41 marble fountains for performing the ablution, or spiritual cleansing. Interestingly, if one does not have access to water at prayer time, he can imitate the movements of washing his feet, face and hands and it is thought to achieve the same spiritual result. Our guide kneeled beside one of the fountains and demonstrated the ablution with the thoroughness and precision of lifelong practice.

Our tour concluded with a tour of two hammams – a Moroccan hammam and a Turkish hammam. A traditional Moroccan hammam contains four rooms, each kept at different temperatures. The bather begins in the hottest room to sweat out all of the toxins and works his/her way to the coolest room. The Turkish hammam, or Turkish bath, was a large, dimly-lit room almost entirely encompassed by a shallow pool. Unfortunately, the pool had been drained for cleaning, which detracted from the ambience. The hammams at the Hassan II Mosque are not working hammams; however, it was easy to imagine both bathrooms full of the steamy conversation and heated debates that are so characteristic of Arab men, huddled around an outdoor table or under a shady tree.

While Casablanca was nothing like the movie (and not exactly brimming with tourist sites) our visit to the Hassan II Mosque made the trip worthwhile. Most mosques are closed to non-Muslims so we were fortunate for the opportunity to view a work of such remarkable craftsmanship and to gain personal insight into the world’s most media-hyped religion.

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August 15th 2008

Posted under Morocco

After the decadence of the French Riviera, the parched Moroccan desert was a climate and culture shock, even for us. The arid desert air made us miss Arizona. We had booked three nights in a riad – a traditional Moroccan home – near the kasbah in Marrakech. Janice, the quirky English owner, gave us a warm welcome and was a wealth of information about Morocco. Three well-appointed guest rooms occupied the ground floor of the riad, surrounding a tiled open-air courtyard. A Spaniard named Juan was staying in one of the other rooms and invited us out for an evening walk in the Djemaa el-Fna, and although we were overcome with exhaustion from the day’s travel, we could not resist the allure of one of the world’s greatest spectacles.

The Djemaa el-Fna is a huge open square in the medina (Arabic old town) that explodes with colorful chaos at dusk. Open air food stalls serve up escargot, fresh seafood, skewered meats, tapas and tajines (traditional Moroccan hot pot stews). Diners squeeze in wherever there is room among the long, crowded picnic tables. All of the servers are male, a reflection of the 99% Muslim population.

Away from the food stalls, the remaining area of the square is utterly consumed by the equivalent chaos of ten circuses operating simultaneously in the dark with crowds of spectators gathered around each one. The performers – all men – make music and dance, perform plays and acrobatics. Within a twenty foot radius, you can get henna-painted hands and feet, watch snake charmers, get a custom-mixed herbal remedy for whatever is ailing you, and pose for photos with a monkey on your head. The days are so oppressively hot that seemingly everyone comes out a night – old women, families pushing strollers, and young boys – to witness the grand festivities. The air is bursting with music, laughter and energy. Your heart begins to race along with the tempo of the drums. It is madness!

After dining in one of the food stalls and a lap around the circus, fatigue finally overcame us, hindering our ability to see or think straight, and we followed Juan back through the desert pink maze of unmarked corridors to our quiet little street. The breezy desert night had caked our already travel-grimy skin with dust. Too exhausted even for showers we washed our weary faces and fell into a deep sleep.

When we finally resurfaced around 9:30 the next morning, we lazed around the riad, lingering over coffee and long showers, and mentally preparing ourselves for the hassle and hustle of the Third World. As we have learned in our travels through Africa and India, you must be sharp. You must constantly be on guard for everything is a negotiation – everyone wants your money and they’re not shy about asking for it: beggars, hustlers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, and random people on the street who offer directions and then demand a tip. You must have your game face on at all times or fall victim to the hustle.

Hunger finally pulled us from our quiet oasis and into the streets. Walking toward the Djemaa el-Fna, we found a restaurant with shaded outdoor tables and a decent-looking menu and sat down for lunch. During our one-hour stay, no less than six elderly beggars approached our table with their hand out. Poverty is rife in Morocco with the average daily income around US$3.25, but the faces of the people – indeed the only visible part of the body through the traditionally conservative Moroccan dress – possess unexpected warmth. I had anticipated the fierce, penetrating, mistrusting eyes that dominate my memory of the conservative Muslim Egyptians but, in the eyes of Moroccans, I sensed none of the contempt or suspicion that made me feel so unwelcome in Egypt. Not everyone has the same experience however; a sweetly naïve young British girl on holiday with her boyfriend reported that a burqa-clad woman pulled aside her face-concealing veil and spat at her on the street.

We spent the afternoon checking out a few of the sites around town, the most fascinating of which were the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (aka madrassa – a venue for teaching theology, law, and Arabic literature) and the Musee de Marrakech, a beautifully restored 19th century palace turned museum. Both buildings displayed traditional Moroccan architecture with open-air courtyards and stunning artwork: Colorful zellij (mosaic tilework); rich woodcarving; linen-colored stucco carved into patterns of fine lace with Arabic calligraphy embedded in the designs; ornate arched doorways, water features, and opulent painted ceilings. The sights had a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Once you paid your admission at the entrance, there was no one inside but other giddy tourists, exploring the artfully decorated and extraordinarily photogenic nooks and crannies.

On our way back to the riad, we wandered into the souk – an enormous, maze-like bazaar adjacent to the Djemaa el-Fna – but quickly realized that we didn’t have the energy to get lost in that dizzying world of “Come look my shop! What you want? I have it! Special price!” Instead we walked “home” through the big square – a much tamer animal by day – and soaked up the quiet of the riad for a few hours before charging back into the irresistible madness of the Djemaa el-Fna for dinner.

By our third night in Marrakech, we had the medina and the main square pretty well figured out. We took in a few more sights around the kasbah and regrouped at the riad. We were joined by the young Brits whom I mentioned earlier and Juan who had returned from a camel safari in the outlying desert. Janice, our lovely hostess, had generously sent down a couple half-bottles of surprisingly delicious Moroccan wine which warmed our spirits for our final night out in the Djemaa el-Fna. Wandering through the intense revelry, I strained to memorize every sight, sound and smell. Clouds of smoke from the grills billowed through the night air, blurring the bright lights, burning my eyes, filling my nose with tantalizing aromas. The beating of the drums folded into one unified rhythm. It felt like a wild dream.

The five of us unwittingly sat down at the end of one of the long picnic tables edging the walkway between the food stalls. We ordered calamari, meat brochettes and greasy French fries. The foods are all prepared ahead of time, piled high under a big awning, so our order was delivered in less than five minutes. As we ate and conversed, young beggar boys approached, pointing at our meat. When we shooed them away, they snatched meat from our plates and ran. Across the walkway, I watched an old woman and two teenaged boys hungrily devouring the remains of someone’s tajine, sopping up every bit with bread. At the end of our meal, another old woman asked for the two rounds of bread left untouched on our table, which I happily gave. I had offered them first to one of the little meat thieves but he’d had a one-track mind. While our meal on the outer edge was more disrupted than in the buffered interior, we were reminded what a privilege it is to enjoy such a meal. Some boys endure their entire youths without ever tasting the luxury of meat outside of that which they manage to snatch from someone’s plate in the market. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have and gentle with those who have not.

To be honest, I was dreading this brief return to the Third World after indulging in the comforts of Europe, but Morocco has already begun to win my heart. From the art and architecture to the fantastic chaos of the Djemaa el-Fna to the muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer echoing through the stucco walls in the maze-like medina, Marrakech is full of life. With adventurous spirits and open hearts, we dove in and immersed ourselves in its wild, colorful, chaotic charm.

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August 11th 2008
Cote d’Azur

Posted under France

The French Riviera, the Cote d’Azur, the south of France…vacation destination for jet set Europeans, playground for the rich and famous, where celebrities are photographed frolicking on the beautiful beaches only to have their bodily imperfections magnified in gossip magazines. We had set our sights on Nice, the second most-visited French city (after Paris), planning to steal a glimpse of St. Tropez, Cannes, and other famous cities along the coastal road. The sapphire waters of the Mediterranean invigorated and enchanted us as we endured the traffic and inadequate signage through the pretty seaside towns.

We were delighted to discover that our hotel in Nice was only two blocks from the beach, though parking proved to be a challenge. It had been a long day of driving so, despite our eagerness to explore, we settled in and relaxed for the evening.

The next morning, we set out early to spend the day in Monaco. Measuring a mere 1.95 square kilometers, Monaco is the world’s second smallest country – only the Vatican is smaller. The entire country curves around the glistening, yacht-filled Port de Monaco. We parked just north of the port in the capital city of Monte Carlo and began our walk. The famous Casino Monte Carlo was thronged with photo-snapping tourists who rudely left handprints (and probably saliva) all over the Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked in front. The decadence of the cars, clothes, and jewels on display in Monaco were unparalleled by anything we have seen. The architecture dripped with sculptures, murals, and beautiful wrought iron detail. The yachts in the port were a vision of eye-popping flash seen only in rap videos.

We made our way toward the port and sat down at a waterside café for lunch to drool over the boats for an hour before continuing to the Prince’s Palace. The ascent to the palace was laborious but afforded the best views of Monaco. The palace exterior was less remarkable than I’d expected, considering the artistry in Monaco’s other grand facades. We browsed the souvenir shops and had just turned down a shaded alley of shops when the sound of church bells echoed through the stone corridor. We followed the sound of the bells through a maze of stone and stumbled upon the Cathedral de Monaco, a beautiful church overlooking the sea. A crowd of tourists were gathered across the circle and we scurried over to see what was going on. A wedding! On the church steps were gathered Monaco’s elite, dressed to impress for the gorgeous affair. The bride and groom soon appeared through a shower of flower petals, followed by pretty blond bridesmaids in canary yellow gowns. We watched the merriment for a few minutes and then headed back down towards the port. The wedding was an unexpected and marvelous surprise.

Monaco was a spectacle of wealth and glamour. The ladies of Sex and the City would definitely have approved.

Back in Nice, we divided our remaining time equally between Vieux Nice (the old town) and the beach. The old town was full of life, especially at night when the restaurants were abuzz and musicians filled the lanes with sounds from around the world. Gelato stands were ubiquitous. Outdoor cafés filled the lanes with Heavenly aromas and wine-induced chatter.

The beaches in Nice were polished gray pebbles, which were less comfortable than sand, but the cool blue ocean was intensely refreshing. A day rental of a beach chair and parasol in Nice runs about 20 euro per person so we joined the hordes of locals in setting up camp on the pebbles. The tanned, toned bodies on the beach added to the beauty of the already spectacular seascape. Above the beach, the promenade des Anglais (English promenade) was a wide, palm-lined boardwalk with plenty of beachfront seating, snack vendors and rollerblading locals. It was a wonderful place for a stroll both day and night.

The Cote d’Azur was the perfect conclusion to our adventures in France. There is nothing like a sparkling beach to make you feel like you’re on vacation. Nice seemed like a relaxed and livable city, perhaps more so outside of tourist season. The cafés were surprisingly unpretentious; the food and wine were wonderful; and the streets were picturesque and full of life. It has been our pleasure to share our adventures in France with Aaron’s mother and we hope that her memories of the experience are as fond as ours.


August 9th 2008

Posted under France

We left Bordeaux for Provence with visions of lavender fields dancing in our heads. On the way, though quite well out of the way, we stopped off in the tiny, stinky cheese-producing town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Aaron wanted to tour the Roquefort caves where the world’s finest blue cheese is aged. We arrived at Le Papillon, makers of our favorite Roquefort, just in time for the tour. Forty-five long but educational minutes later, we purchased a trio of cheeses and a baguette and made a picnic overlooking a craggy mountain valley. Valerie had bought Aaron a beautiful cheese knife and it slid marvelously through the soft white cheeses.

We arrived in Arles at dinnertime and settled into the lovely Hotel le Cloitre in the center of town. The air was noticeably warmer in Provence than Bordeaux but the narrow streets sandwiched between beautiful stone buildings offered some reprieve from the heat. Already intrigued by the bright-colored fabrics of French Provencal décor, the narrow labyrinthine streets, and sidewalk cafés, we ventured out for a taste of the town, landing at a lovely café with a mister system, free Wi-Fi, and very large beers.

The next day we set off on a self-guided walking tour of several subjects of Van Gogh paintings. Van Gogh spent several years in Arles, immortalizing flowers, buildings, and landscapes on canvas, and was briefly committed to an insane asylum after lopping off his ear during an argument in Arles with fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. At each site, an easel displayed a reproduction of the painting so that we could compare the work to the modern day subject. It was amazing to stand on the bank of the Rhone at the near-precise spot where Starry Night Over the Rhone was created; to see the vividness of color and light in seemingly ordinary objects through the eyes of an artistic genius. The tour took us all around Arles and we stopped to peruse shops and markets as they crossed our path. A lazy café lunch and an hour’s rest recharged our batteries for our evening event: the bull races!

Built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Arles’ Roman amphitheatre still serves as the venue for bullfighting and bull races. What is a bull race? Snarling, snorting trained bulls are pinned with special ribbons around their horns. A bull is released into the arena. Young, nimble men, dressed all in white, attempt to snatch the bull’s ribbons with tiny dull hooks. There are upwards of fifteen men playing simultaneously against a single bull and still the bull usually wins, inciting roars of applause from the fedora-clad spectators. The most exciting moments of the event are when the bull leaps over the arena wall and goes running around the perimeter until it is lured back inside. The crowd loves this. Each bull lasts about twenty minutes, daring the challengers to get close to its ferocious horns, and then the next bull enters in a rage of fury. Each bull has a unique fiery personality. Best of all, the bull is not killed at the end as it is in a bullfight. The bull lives to snarl another day!

All around Arles, I had been admiring postcards, calendars and paintings of vibrant fields of lavender. On our last day in Provence, we decided to take a drive into the countryside in search of the vivid purple hues. Heading northwest towards Avignon, we found no lavender but Avignon itself was worth a visit. The town was enclosed by a tall stone wall and the buildings within the periphery were elevated such that they rose up beyond the height of the wall. The majestic Palace of the Popes is Avignon’s most architecturally impressive and historically significant sight. It is the largest Gothic palace in the world. We wandered the streets and lingered in the courtyard of the palace for some time but our quest for lavender precluded us from going inside.

The most fruitful element of our Avignon stop was a visit to the tourist office where a woman explained in wonderful English where we could find the lavender. With renewed enthusiasm, we hopped back into the car and headed northeast toward Sault. It wasn’t long before we squealed with delight at our first glimpse of lavender fields near the golden city of Gordes, which was itself a hidden gem. Built entirely of stone and spilling down a steep mountainside, the picturesque cityscape was a stunning sight, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. Around Gordes, we discovered sweeping mountain valleys with plots of lavender and grapevines interwoven like a patchwork quilt. The car provided us unlimited freedom to span the countryside and, between Gordes and Sault, we found more and more lavender. We drove all day, arriving back in Arles weary and satisfied with the day’s adventures. Provence, with its charming towns, artistic history, and fields of lavender, exceeded our highest expectations.


August 7th 2008

Posted under France

As self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs – a passion cultivated over years of devoted “study” – we have been privileged to visit wine-producing regions around the world and sample the fruits of their land and labors. From Napa to South Africa to Australia and New Zealand, we have been enthralled with the art of wine tasting. It has always been a stress-free, happy experience. Not so in Bordeaux.

While most wine regions around the globe warmly welcome visitors on a walk-in basis, the Bordeaux wineries require visitors to make an appointment. While decidedly inconvenient, if that were the sole obstacle to enjoyable wine tasting in Bordeaux, I would not even bother to mention it. From the office of tourism, we had obtained literature describing the various wineries in the region. Next to each listing was a picture of one or more national flags, indicating what languages could be accommodated at the winery. The problem was that when I called the supposed English-speaking wineries to make appointments, almost no one on the other end of the lines was willing or able to speak English. Now, Aaron and I both studied French for four years and, while no one would mistake us for French, we are both functional French speakers. When I attempted to make appointments using my functional French, no one would accommodate us. It was bizarre and frustrating. I dialed nearly twenty of Bordeaux’s “English-speaking” wineries and got two appointments. I felt like I was making cold calls for a sales job!

As it turned out, our two tasting appointments were wonderful and we left them both smiling and happy. We decided to take a drive along a well-known “chateau trail” as outlined on our map from the tourist office. The Bordeaux region boasts upwards of 5,000 wine-cultivating chateaux. We drove along, stopping at leisure to photograph the lovely facades, including the much-admired Chateau Margaux.

While we were disappointed by the chilly reception of the Bordeaux wineries, we made the most of our experience there and still ended up tasting plenty of local wines. Our California red-soaked palates have developed a financially unfortunate affinity for French wines. For those interested in “doing Bordeaux”, we might suggest booking an organized tasting tour in advance. While the haughty French attitudes were difficult to endure, the wines were wonderful!

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