North to Fes, Volubilis and back to Marrakech….Morocco Road Trip (Part 2)

I read a number of books about Morocco before our trip, in particular a few by Paul Bowles.  While I had trouble getting through parts of his stories, I found his outsider’s viewpoint to be an intriguing glimpse into a incredibly complex country.  Morocco has a deep Phoenician and Berber history, and the far southwest border of the Roman Empire even ran through northern Morocco.  Then the Vandals and Byzantines came along in the 5th and 6th centuries.  Arabic and Islam spread to Morocco in the 8th century and then it only got more complicated.  Between French and Spanish colonization in the early 1900s, I got lost in the intricacy of who had what, when and how.  And don’t ask me how Morocco and Western Sahara are related.  That’s still an ongoing dispute.  But one thing stuck out.  Morocco’s diverse history has left it with an incredibly friendly population, who, while only a short distance from Europe, live a world away from the average European.

This is a long one.

We left the Erg Chebbi dunes and Hassilabied (near Merzouga) to head north toward Fes.  Not wanting to rush, we planned on stopping in Midelt for the night just to break up the drive.

Morocco road trip with cities
This blog entry covers the stops from Hassilabied north to Midelt, Fes, Volubilis and Meknes, as well as the return journey through Mohammedia to Marrakech.

Having read about a tourist loop near Rissani that included a number of historic ksars, or fortified dwellings, we decided to check some out.  Unfortunately, we found it difficult to find this route, despite following the one sign we saw.  Fortunately, we saw a tour group stopping near Moulay Ali Cherif mosque and tagged along to an unidentified ksar, which has very intricate mud work.

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Rissani ksar building – maybe Ksar Arzbat
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Rissani

Leaving Rissani, we headed further north into the Ziz river valley, which was no less than spectacular.  The contrast between the green around the water and the never ending brown elsewhere made for some great photo opportunities.  Plus, the flat topped cliffs and viewpoints helped a bit.  I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine the Ziz valley to be just as stunning.

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Entering the Ziz Valley
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Ziz Valley
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Ziz Valley again
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Riki in the driver’s seat

Along the Ziz River near Meski there is a spot called the Source Bleu.  For a modest 5 Dirhams (50 cents) you can enter the grounds, swim, picnic, and hang out.  Well, only the boys were swimming.  The women and girls were all involved in a group sing along in the shade.  And the men were drinking tea in the little cafes.  We wandered through the area and eventually ended up in a palmery where we found a crystal clear channel where women were doing laundry.

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Source Bleu
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Source Bleu laundry stream

Jumping back in the car, we continued north through more incredible valley sights, eventually nearing the snow capped mountains again.  We went through 4 police checkpoints this day, though were stopped at none.  One, outside of a military town, even had spikes laid out ready to deploy.  Riki wouldn’t let me sneak even a photo from my phone, so I have no documentation of these.  I was going to be really stealthy, but that was vetoed.

Throughout our trip we encountered a feeling of things yet to come.  For instance, huge, new gas stations that look fancy from afar, but when you get up close, you realize that the shop, cafe, and even service center are completely empty and have never been opened and won’t be any time soon.  Entering many towns, the roads would widen, be dotted with oh so many street lights and speed bumps, and there would be nothing on either side of the road.  The most fun were the gates in the middle of nowhere.  Huge, ornate structures we could see from way off and would pass through thinking we were entering another town.  And then there would be nothing.  Not even a house.  It is as if Morocco is preparing for major, instantaneous development.

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“We’re here!” says Riki. “Where?” says I. “Nowhere, but they have impressive gates.” says Riki.
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Lake north of Errachidia
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Another section of the Ziz River
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Sheep in the road
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Contrasting landscapes

We arrived in Midelt late afternoon and briefly hunted for the Sunday carpet souk (market) before deciding if must have only been in the morning.  Then we hunted for somewhere recommended to us to eat, failed and then just settled on a place near the bus station.  This was a fortunate find, as I had the best chicken pizza I’ve had in ages.

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Donkey
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Cat in Midelt
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Midelt mosque

I upgraded us to a nicer hotel when we were in Midelt (13 Euro more).  I thought that after two nights in the desert we may need a few extra comforts.  We didn’t really need the rose petals scattered on the giant, sand-free beds, but the scalding hot water and English television were real treats.

We had been warned while in the desert that a few days earlier there had been a decent amount of snow on our impending route, causing traffic jams and accidents.  Luckily, the roads were clear upon entering the cedar forest near Ifrane.  We did spot some of the endangered Barbary apes in the snow along the road, but opted not to stop to feed them like many of the other cars.

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Heading north
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Aguelmame Sidi Ali lake
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Storks on a roof
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Barbary ape crossing near Azrou

We slowed long enough to get a few shots of the apes and the snow.

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Barbary ape in the snowy cedar forest

 

Ifrane is supposedly the Switzerland of Morocco.  You can see why by the variation in the architecture and the vegetation – complete with mountain chalets.  Wanting to get to Fes in time for a late lunch, we just did a driving tour and continued on our way.

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Chalets above Ifrane

We tried to do some birding just outside of Ifrane, but the lack of water in the Aoua lake made that tough.  Though we did spot a big grey heron and another black and white bird from our travel guide.

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Half full Aoua Lake

Riki handled the entry into Fes like a pro.  After what seemed like a hundred roundabouts, we finally found the dirt parking lot where we were to leave the rental car for three days, at the very reasonable price of 30 Dirham ($3) per night.

We spent the next two days wandering the Medina of Fes, taking in pretty much all the regular tourist sites.  I particularly liked the Medersa Bou Inania and the Medersa Attarine.  While we could not access as much as the one in Marrakech, they had the same intricacies on every surface.

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Fes doorway
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Satellite dishes of Fes
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Moulay Idriss Mosque
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Fountain by Najjarine Museum
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Check out those patterns – wood, plaster and tile
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Tomb of the Merinides
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They don’t even use pay phones here anymore
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In a souk
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Book store
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Getting in the way of Riki’s photo
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Oued Bou Khrareb
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Bab Rcif
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Another amazing and intricate door
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The Blue Gate, which is actually green too
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Cats on cats on cats
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Our kitten neighbors, who don’t eat bread no matter how many times you try.
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Madrasa Bou Inania
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Madrasa Bou Inania
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Madrasa Bou Inania
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Getting in the way again.
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Fes
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Water clock in Fes
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Mmmmm, fish
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Serious underbite on this guy
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Typical traffic jam
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Madrasa Attarine
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Madrasa Attarine
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Madrasa Attarine
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Overwhelming patterns
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Non-Muslims are not allowed into the mosques, but can take photos through the entrance
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So many patterns

Fes’s medina was much easier to navigate than Marrakech’s.  Fes has a few different major routes that are pretty well marked.  Each is color coded and tells you the destination as well.  Since we were staying near the Blue Gate, we often just had to find one of these major routes and follow the zig zagged path back to our riad.

Riki often looks for unique art when we travel.  It can be difficult to find things we like that are within our budget.  But while wandering Fes, we ended up at the end of a very narrow alley in an artists’ coop.  The man spoke French and we managed to ascertain that this guy, his two sons and a few other people all sold their art in this shop.  Riki was drawn to the style seen below, and we bought one of the larger pieces as we felt it represented the colors of Fes better than some of the others.

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Riki’s newest acquisition, and the artist’s father

I later purchased a small rug, where I wrongly asked if I could have tassels added to one side to match the other.  The salesman said no problem and before I could figure out what he was up to, he started to unravel the end without tassels.  I stopped him before he could do more than a few rows and decided to trim them myself later.

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My ‘Berber Picasso’ hanging in Zurich
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Jnane Sbil pond
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Stream on the way to the Jewish Quarter
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Riki in front of the Royal Palace gates
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Dog on a wall
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Jnana Sbil wall and palms
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Literal hole in the wall we ate at
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Meat.

I was not particularly fond of visiting the tannery.  The best views are from the balconies of the neighboring shops and if you don’t want to buy anything, the shopkeepers expect a donation for the necessary mint leave to cover up the stench.  Despite our small donation, we were still hassled a bit while just trying to take some photos.  And its awful to imagine having that job.  The guys stand in chemical muck and pigeon droppings all day.  Often times without any protective gear.

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Chouwara Tannery
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Fes
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Fes
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Fes
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More meat.

We walked up to the Merenid tombs one afternoon, a decidedly nice view, but had a very strange experience.  By this time, we were used to being told we were going the wrong way and offered directions from people who were looking to make a few Dirham.  But the little boy who we met at the top of the hill really threw us for a loop.  He seemed to be all alone and we chatted a little in broken English/French and he pointed to where he lived and where he went to school.  As we were leaving he asked us where we were staying and where we were going.  We told him roughly and politely said we knew how to get there so we didn’t need any help.  But that did not deter him and he proceeded to “lead” us back down the hill and into the Medina.  This is where Riki and I tried to pull a fast one on him, thinking he would get distracted in the chaos of the medina.  So Riki went one way and I went the other and agreed to meet at the Blue Gate.  The kid continued to “lead” Riki and we weren’t able to lose him until we got in a taxi headed to the other side of town.  Even then, he watched us go.  He never asked for money, nor really said anything, just walked a few feet in front of us, quietly glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still there.

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Found a turtle
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View from the Merenid tomb
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View of Fes from the Merenid tomb

We had been eating 10 Dirham ($1) sandwiches for most of our meals, and mainly from the same stand.  On our last night, the stand was closed so we went to the next one over.  These sandwiches are basically grilled mixed meat with a delicious tomato sauce stuffed in a thick round bread.  Easy enough.  But as we watched, the cook took our raw meat slapped it on the grill and used the same hands to open the bread and then leave it propped up on the raw meat resting on his counter.  We paid for the sandwiches, but were ready to toss the bread, until we realized, the bread is about 10 cents at another stall.  We’ll just dump the cooked meat into new bread and be on our way.  So that’s what we did and still with some apprehension we had our last supper in Fes.

The next morning we checked out and retrieved our car safe and sound from the dirt lot.  We continued north and west to Volubilis, a Roman archaeological site.  The drive was really beautiful, though we encountered the worst roads so far.

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Sidi Chahed reservoir
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Road to Volubilis

Volubilis is a Berber and Roman city from the 3rd century BC.  Under the Romans, it grew and even had a basilica and aqueduct.  The incredible mosaics of the fancy houses have been largely restored, though are sitting out baking in the hot sun with no cover.  Not sure that’s the best preservation method, but it certainly makes for an impressive visit.  There is a new museum on the site which really explains the history well and displays some of the artifacts found there.  I have seen a number of Roman ruins, from all over Europe, but Volubilis was the best at really portraying how the city would have been.  I’m not sure if that’s because of the extensive restoration they have done, or just the sheer amount of ruins and mosaics still left.  Whatever it was, you can really imagine how the city looked under the Romans and how impressive it would have been.

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Volubilis
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Tile mosaics in Volubilis
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Volubilis ruins
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Volubilis basilica
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Volubilis gate
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Hijacking more photos at the Volubilis gate
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Volubilis mosaic floor
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Another mosaic
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Volubilis mosaic and view
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Volubilis mosaic
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Caught Riki taking pictures of bugs
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Getting in the way again. Main pedestrian path next to the main road.
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Volubilis basilica
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Restored mosaic

After a few hours in the scorching sun, we heading south again to Meknes.  We left our car under a tree and the parking attendant gave us a twig as a receipt.  We checked into our room, which was little more than a bed in a cubby with an attached bath separated by saloon style swinging doors.  And the whole room was directly over the alley below, with one little window at the far end.  Luckily, we had little luggage and only stayed one night.

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Road to Meknes

We found Meknes to be a much smaller city, with a lot of students and much more diversity.  The souks had a more modern feeling and the medina much less crowded.

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Gate in Meknes
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More intricate tiles
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Spice market in Meknes

We got followed by a man who insisted on showing us a silver shop and the typical work they did there.  It was neat, as they pound the silver in thin threads, but we weren’t really in the mood for any metalwork.

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Damascene metalwork
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Whole animal
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Meknes woodwork
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Meknes medina
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OMG, 17 cats!
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Meknes market
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Meknes main gate

After mediocre food in Meknes, including tacos filled with french fries, Riki was excited to travel along the coast and find some seafood.  We stopped in Mohammédia, just north of Casablanca to see the Atlantic Ocean and have lunch before returning to Marrakech.

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Mohammédia beach, just north of Casablanca
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Lemon in the sand
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Mohammédia

Back in Marrakech we headed straight for the airport to return the car.  Right outside the airport, we got hustled out of about $10 trying to fill up our gas tank, and even though we realized it was happening, we had no proof, and thus had to end our road trip with a bad taste in our mouths.  We took the bus back to the medina and checked into a different riad, which had tiny kittens on the roof and a very picturesque courtyard.  A much better way to end our two weeks in Morocco.

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Back in Marrakech
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Marrakech
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Riad in Marrakech

Travel goal:

“Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes became a reality.  He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler.  The difference is partly one of time, he would explain.  Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.  Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.”

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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Marrakech to the Sahara….Morocco Road Trip (Part 1)

Our trips are planned according to when I can find the best deals and this trip was no exception.  Flying out of Basel can be much cheaper than Zurich, especially if I get a cheap train ticket ahead of time.  I managed to find a direct flight from Basel to Marrakech for less than $50.  The return was about twice that, but it came to Zurich and had free checked baggage, which was necessary after the shopping we did – more on that later.  I also booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com ahead of time.  I found the rates to be about the same or cheaper than booking in person, and without the hassle of wandering around looking for a room, which is nearly impossible in the medinas we stayed in.  I also booked the car from Hertz ahead of time, I got an incredible rate, and we even got an unnecessary upgrade.  The last thing I pre-arranged was our camel trek.  This was one of the things I was most excited for and wanted to be sure it went off without a hitch.  But for that I just emailed three companies with good reputations online and chose the one who gave me the best deal.  So, besides the flights, accommodation, car and camel trek, everything else was up in the air. More or less.

We took the earliest train from Zurich to Basel, which meant we had to walk to the train station because the trams were not yet running.  No big deal though because we travel light and each had just a backpack for the 15 minute downhill walk.  Luckily, security was light and we cruised through to our gate.  Any delay with the trains or airport could have meant a missed flight, we were cutting it that close.  Travel karma was on my side this time though, as unusual as that is for me.

We arrived in Marrakech and took the 2 Euro bus to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa.  Don’t ask me to pronounce it, we heard it so many different ways.  From there we walked about 20 minutes through the medina to our riad.  A riad is a Moroccan house with a courtyard.  The outsides are nondescript but the insides can be very fancy.  Many have been turned into guesthouses.  Though we thought we knew where we were going, we still ended up a bit confused and were hustled by two guys who insisted on showing us the way and both getting paid, despite us declining their services.  Not a very nice way to start the day.  But we made it to the riad, dropped our bags and continued out into the medina.

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In the Medina
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Clay pots for cooking
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Mosque tower
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Souk

The medina was a maze and we ended up in dead ends frequently, but that’s the fun of not having a set schedule.  We found ourselves near the El-Badi palace right before closing and enjoyed the ruins of the late 1500s palace before heading back to the main square to check out the evening madness.

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El Badi Palace
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Marrakech street
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Insulators
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Street Art

The next morning, we went to the Ben Joussef Medersa trying to beat the crowds, which we managed for about 5 minutes.  A medersa, or madrasa (saw it both ways) is an educational facility, and in Morocco, often used for studying Islam.  We visited a number of these, and I found this one the most impressive, as you can wander into the little courtyards surrounded by tiny, dark dorm rooms, which were used for sleeping and studying.  There is an incredible amount of intricate woodwork, tilework and plasterwork, everywhere.

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Inside the Medersa Ben Joussef
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Inside the Medersa Ben Joussef
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Entrance to one of the dorm rooms
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Amazing tilework

From there, we continued to wander the medina for the rest of the day, stopping at El Bahia palace in the afternoon.

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Street art
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Bougainvilla
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Patient donkey
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More amazing tiles
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Patient dog

El Bahia Palace is only a little over 100 years old, but it has stunning tiles and courtyards.  The ceilings were really impressive as well, and it was a great way to get out of the heat for a bit.

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El Bahia Palace
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Stained glass in El Bahia

Unfortunately, about half of Jemaa El-Fnaa square was under construction, so we didn’t get the full feel of it.  However, there were plenty of snake charmers and monkey handlers to go around.  I avoided these like the plague, as the animals are mistreated and these exploits should not be encouraged.  We ate at one of the stalls (#1), but were weary from hearing about so many people being overcharged for things they didn’t want.  We found the food ok, not amazing, nothing to write home about, oh wait, doing that now.

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Jemaa el-Fnaa square
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Snake charmers in the square
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Pushing the monkeys on the tourists

And then the real adventure began!  We picked up our rental car, which was our first time renting a car in a foreign country.  We got upgraded from a mini size to an economy sized Fiat Punto, but not until we were standing in the lot and the Hertz guy realized they definitely didn’t have the car we booked.  We were a bit worried about renting a car, because 1) road conditions, 2) crazy drivers, 3) crashing, 4) not getting an automatic.  But really, none of those things turned out to be issues and you can read about our road trip tips here 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip and our full itinerary here 12 Day Morocco Road Trip.

Morocco road trip with cities
Part 1 – Marrakesh to Hassilabied (Sahara)

We drove over the Atlas mountains, which was stunning and perfectly doable in a small car.  It is crazy to me for some reason to think of snow in Morocco, but sure enough, there was plenty up there.

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Crossing the Atlas mountains

Our first stop was Ait Ben Haddou, which is a ksar, or fortified village and a UNESCO site.  You might recognize it from Game of Thrones.

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Road to Ait Ben Haddou

The village is largely uninhabited, but there are some families still living in the old clay brick houses. The oldest part is from the 17th century.  We found it to be incredibly interesting, but VERY touristy.  For instance, it is free to enter, but if you happen to cross the river and don’t take the bridge, someone will try to hustle you for 10 Dh to see the inside of her house, saying that is the only way to enter the village.  So, we went back across the river and took the main bridge to avoid this character.

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Ait Ben Haddou
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River crossing to Ait Ben Haddou
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Ait Ben Haddou buildings
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Ait Ben Haddou details

At the top of the village is the old granary, which has excellent views, but staying vertical was nearly impossible due to the wind.

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Windy at the top of Ait Ben Haddou. That’s me, trying not to be knocked backwards, and succeeding for the most part.
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View from Ait Ben Haddou
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Amazing rock formations

While Ait Ben Haddou was interesting to see, it is very small and we spent a little over an hour there, before getting back in the car and working our way towards the Todra Gorge.

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On the road again to Todra Gorge
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Nearing Todra Gorge

With walls 160 meters (525 ft) tall and an opening slinking to 10 meters (33 ft) wide, the Todra Gorge is really a sight to see.  We arrived just before sunset, but the red of the canyon was still striking in the shade.  We opted to stay right next to the gorge, so that we could easily check it out again in the morning, in different light.  A request from my photographer, of course.  It is a popular place for climbers, but having no interest in dangling from little ropes over sharp rocks, we just used it as a stopover to the desert.

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Todra Gorge
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Todra Gorge
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Sheep on the roof
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Kids playing in abandoned car
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Todra Gorge
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Leaving Todra Gorge

The last stretch before the desert was probably the one with the most contrast.  We went from vertical walls of rock to mountains of sand, punctuated with palm tree oases in between.

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On the road again to the desert
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More rocks
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Straight and smooth
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One tree, and a hill
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First look at the dunes of the Sahara

We arrived in Hassilabied a bit early, as the roads were empty and smooth.  Hassilabied is near Merzouga, which is the more well-known town for seeing the dunes here.  I was hoping to visit the nearby lakes to see flamingos, but was informed that it hadn’t rained in two years, so well, there wasn’t any water, or flamingos.  So we went exploring and found a small palmery along the desert and not much else.

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Palmery near the dunes
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The Sahara

After a welcome tajine lunch, we suited up in our head scarves and were assigned camels.  Mine was named Jimmy Hendrix and proved to be a bit aloof, despite me bribing him with bread.

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Me and Jimmy Hendrix
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Our group
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Wells leading to the desert
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On our way

We rode about an hour and a half into the desert of Erg Chebbi, which features a dune about 150 meters tall (492 ft).

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Added two
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Me and Riki in the Sahara
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Scarab

We made it to our camp in the late afternoon and were pretty impressed with our accommodation, except that the light in our tent didn’t work very well.  There were a circle of lined tents to keep out the wind and sand, a round dining area and even a latrine.  Much fancier than I expected, though if we had paid an arm and leg more, we could have had a shower too, but that was a different camp.

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Our camp

We spent our downtime sandboarding, playing cards and wandering the dunes.

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Riki sandboarding
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Me sandboarding
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Line in the sand
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Desert cat, of course
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Sunset in the Sahara
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Wind lines

We felt one night in the desert wasn’t going to be enough, so opted for a two night stay.  This turned out perfect, as we were prepared for some downtime and needed a day off from driving.  Though riding in the car was significantly more comfortable than riding the camels.  We woke up at 6 to see the sunrise and then had a big breakfast before taking the camels further into the desert.  We left the camels and our guide at a base camp and climbed the tallest dune, so that we could see Algeria, which was only a few kilometers away.

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At the top of Erg Chebbi, with a view of Algeria

The border to Algeria is closed now, but you can still get a nice view.

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Riki showing off

We descended and had lunch at the other camp.  We stayed there all afternoon because it was quite hot.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Hendrix wandered off and it took our guide an hour to find him.  Finding a camel in the desert seems to involve standing on the tallest, nearest dune and waiting for the camel to come into sight.  Very high tech.  We jokingly told the guide they need to get GPS trackers for the camels.

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Sitting in the giant litter box
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Desert inhabitants
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Just two chairs
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Not much to do in the desert
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Sunset over the dunes
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Inside our camp

On the second morning, we once again got up for the sunrise, but it was cloudier.  We returned to town, showered, though the power was out, and had breakfast.

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Back to civilization during sunrise
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Cat whisker signs showing where water should be, but it hasn’t rained in two years

Next stop, north through the Ziz Valley to Midelt.

12 Day Morocco Road Trip

More detailed blogs are coming, complete with the infamous Riki photos (of which there are 4,000 to go through).  But for now, here is our trip report from our 12 day journey in Morocco.  Check out 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip as well.

We flew in and out of Marrakech, but this could be done from Casablanca as well, or even starting in Marrakech and ending in Fes (with a one-way rental).

Morocco road trip with cities
Map available here : 9 day road trip

12 Days in Morocco Itinerary (Short Version)

  1. Arrive in Marrakech.
  2. Explore Marrakech.
  3. Drive 4 hours to Ait Ben Haddou. 2 hour visit with lunch. Drive 3.5 hours to Todra Gorge.
  4. Drive 3 hours to Hassilabied (Merzouga). 1.5 hours on camel to camp.
  5. Camel ride and climb Erg Chebbi dunes.
  6. Camels back to Hassilabied.  4 hour drive to Midelt.  Stop in Rissani to see kasbahs. Amazing views of Ziz valley.  Stop at Source Bleu in Meski.
  7. 3.5 hour drive to Fes.  Drive through cedar forest near Azrou with Barbary monkeys.  Stop at Dayet Aaoua lake.
  8. Explore Fes.
  9. Explore Fes.
  10. Drive 1.5 hours to Volubilis. 2 hours visiting site.  45 minute drive to Meknes.
  11. Drive 2.5 hours to Mohammedia for lunch. Drive 3 hours to return car at Marrakech airport.
  12. Last minute shopping and return to Marrakech airport.

 


12 Day Morocco Trip Report

Day 1: Arrive in Marrakech late morning. Bus #19 (20 Dh low season, 30 Dh high season) to Jemaa el-Fnaa. Walk to Riad dar Nael (270 Dh/night plus city tax, incl. breakfast) in Medina. Explore souks.  Visit El Badi (10 Dh).

Day 2: Ben Joussef Medersa (20 Dh) to see amazing tilework and student dorms. Visit Ensemble Artisanal for handicraft market with fixed prices. Explored Kasbah neighborhood and went to El Bahia Palace (10 Dh). Bus from Jemaa el_Fnaa to Gueliz area (new part). Walked back.  Ate at stall #1 on Jemaa el_Fnaa (90 Dh for 12 sticks of meat and vegetable couscous).

Day 3: Bus #19 back to airport to pick up rental car (Hertz via Holidayautos for $139 (1400 Dh) for 9 days, mini). Drive 4 hours to Ait Ben Haddou. Visit ksar and climb to top (free). Drive 3.5 hours to Todra Gorge. 7 police checkpoints. Check in to Auberges Cavaliers (190 Dh room, 100 Dh dinner, 50 Dh breakfast).

Day 4: Drive 3 hours to Hassilabied (Merzouga). 3 police checkpoints. Leave bags at Camels House (375 Dh/night in tent incl camel transport and all food/water). 1.5 hours on camel to camp.

Day 5: Sunrise in the desert.  1 hour on camels to base of Erg Chebbi dunes. Climb dunes. Lunch at other camp.  Return to our camp for sunset.

Day 6: Sunrise in the desert. Camels back to Hassilabied for breakfast and shower.  4 hour drive to Midelt.  Stop in Rissani to see kasbahs. Amazing views of Ziz valley.  Stop at Source Bleu in Meski (5 Dh). 4 police checkpoints. Overnight at Riad Villa Midelt (350 Dh incl breakfast).

Day 7: 3.5 hour drive to Fes.  Drive through cedar forest near Azrou with Barbary monkeys.  Stop at Dayet Aaoua lake, but its half dry and has few birds.  Arrive in Fes and park at Ain Azliten (30 Dh/night).  3 police checkpoints.  3 minute walk to Fez Dar (215 Dh/night plus city tax, incl breakfast). Nejjarine Museum right before closing (20 Dh) for woodworking exhibit and terrace views.

Day 8: Early to Medersa Bou Inania (20 Dh).  Explored medina and souks. Medersa Attarine (20 Dh).  Art shopping at Galerie Yessari.  Through Jnane sbile park to Mellah, the Jewish quarter.

Day 9: El Batha Museum (10 Dh) to see handicraft antiques. Chouwara tanneries from viewpoint above (10 Dh to the door guy just to look – no shopping). Walked in El Andalus area and up to Bab Guissa and Merenide tombs (free).

Day 10: Drive 1.5 hours to Roman ruins at Volubilis and museum (10 Dh). 2 hours visiting site.  45 minute drive to Meknes. 1 police checkpoint. Parking at Place Lalla Aouda (20 Dh/night to parking attendant).  Short walk to Riad ma Boheme (200 Dh plus city tax incl. breakfast). Explored souks and silverworks.

Day 11: Drive 2.5 hours to Mohammedia for lunch near beach. 2 police checkpoints.  Drive 3 hours to return car at Marrakech airport (159 Dh in tolls). Bus #19 back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. Walk to Riad Riva (215 Dh plus city taxes, incl. breakfast).  Wander souks and leisurely dinner.

Day 12: Last minute shopping. 40 Dh taxi to the airport. Bus price went up April 1 to 30 Dh / 3 Euro each. Long lines at airport and passport control.

 

 

Car and Gas: Fiat Punto, approx 700 Dh / $70 in diesel (not incl. $10 scam), unleaded was about 1 Dh/L more expensive (~9.50 Dh vs 10.50 per liter, March 2017)

Total distance: 1650 km / 1025 miles

Total hours: ~26 hours, with plenty of photo stops

Tolls: 6, all between Meknes and Marrakech, 159 Dh / $15.80

Police checkpoints: 20, most in the south, stopped at 0

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Outline of Switzerland inside our Morocco route

Map available here : 9 day road trip

More tips here: 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip

15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip

My musings are based on the route below.  I can offer little advice for driving in the cities, as we avoided Casablanca and Rabat on this trip.  For more information about our itinerary, check out the other Morocco blogs (Coming soon).

Morocco road trip with cities.JPG

  1. Road conditions are good.  Our economy sized Fiat Punto had no problems in the mountains or desert, though we did not go off-piste at all.  The worst road we encountered was between Fes and Volubilis, where the edges were bumpy.
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    Road between Fes and Volubilis

    In the desert, the roads were generally smooth except where water occasionally passes over them.  These are marked with this amusing cat-like sign.

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    Thought this was a funny looking cat the first time we sped by
  2. Speed limits are well marked and range from 40/60 (in towns) to 120 (toll roads) km per hour.  Police radar traps are frequent as are checkpoints.  We met a couple whose fine for 68 in a 60 zone was about $20.  Drivers will often flash at you to warn about upcoming radar traps.  We were waved through all 20 checkpoints we went past, most of which were south of the Atlas mountains.
  3. Gas prices are lower than in Europe. Diesel (Gasoil) was around 9.50 Dh/liter (March 2017) and Unleaded (Sans Plomb) was around 10.50 Dh/liter.  There are plenty of gas stations along the main roads.
  4. Moroccan drivers are not all crazy or bad drivers.  We found driving in Marrakech and Fes to be hectic, but only a bit crazier than what we’ve encountered in Europe.
  5. Passing and honking are frequent occurrences.  Use your blinker when passing and honk to let the other driver know you are coming.  Most of the honking we encountered was just friendly beeps alerting us to their passing.
  6. Be alert at traffic lights.  If you are too slow to get moving, you will get honked at.
  7. Roundabouts or circles can be confusing.  For the majority, you should yield to traffic in the circle and this will be evident by a normal red triangle yield sign.  When there is a traffic light to enter the circle, you may be required to stop in the circle and wait for incoming traffic.  If there is neither a yield sign or a traffic light, yielding is the best bet.
  8. Watch out for animals and people in the road.  Many of the rural roads are used by pedestrians as well as herds of sheep and goats.

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    Watch out for monkeys near Azrou
  9. Signs are in Arabic and French.  Most roads signs are similar to those in Europe.
  10. Avoid scams.  We were the unfortunate victim of a gas scam at the Afriquia nearest to the Marrakech airport. Make sure the attendant resets the pump from the previous customer to avoid paying extra. We also read about scams involving people pretending to need assistance, only to take you to their friend’s shop.
  11. Use an app such as maps.me for offline driving directions.  We found this app to be generally accurate even though roads were rarely marked.
  12. Rental agencies are required to provide 3rd party liability coverage.  Consider booking your car with a credit card that offers additional insurance coverage for car rentals, so you don’t have to use the additional insurance offered.
  13. For entertainment during those long hours, we found the Moroccan FM radio to be decent with a mix of English and Arabic songs.  Bring a USB car charger to play your own music and to charge your phone.
  14. Check the spare tire has air and there is a working jack before leaving the rental agency office.
  15. Relax and don’t forget to pull over to enjoy the view (and if you’re Riki, take a few thousand pictures).

 

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In the Atlas Mountains between Marrakech and Ait Ben Haddou
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In the Atlas Mountains between Marrakech and Ait Ben Haddou

 

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Our little Fiat Punto
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Driving in the desert
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Pit Stop
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Road in Hassilabied, near Merzouga.  Fortunately, we only drove on this for a few blocks.
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Smooth roads except for some places where the shoulders are rough.
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Smooth and flat

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Distance markers for major towns are frequent.

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Motorbikes can also make this journey
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Watch out for these guys in the Medinas – real troublemakers.
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Meknes traffic
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Meknes Gate

Thanks for reading, and check out the other blogs on Morocco for more information.

Sintra and More rain….Lisbon, Portugal

We had considered renting a car in Porto and driving south, stopping in a few places along the way and then dropping it off in Lisbon.  Despite rental cars being dirt cheap in Portugal, we heard too many horror stories about bad driving and disreputable car rental companies.  What sealed the deal was finding first class train tickets for only a few Euro more than regular ones – pays to book ahead.  We brought a picnic along and enjoyed our almost empty car for the three hour journey from Porto to Lisbon.

Arriving in Lisbon,  we walked in light rain to our apartment in the Alfama neighborhood.  Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest cities in the world, with Pre-Celtic and Phoenician roots.  Unfortunately, in 1755 a huge earthquake, tsunami and ensuing fires destroyed a huge portion of the city.  The new part was built in a grid using more flexible methods to withstand future quakes.  The Alfama is the oldest district and comes from the Arabic word meaning baths.  It was the Moors’ whole city and is a labyrinth of walking streets and small cobbled plazas.  It reminded me of the Albayzín in Granada, Spain – also with Moorish roots.

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1905 Santa Justo lift. Originally steam powered

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On our first full day, we opted to get a public transit day pass, partially because of the immense blisters on the bottoms of my toes, and partly because of the pouring rain.  Our first stop was the Museu Nacional do Azulejos, which is a great collection of the painted tiles typical of the area.  Riki took a ton of photos, which I assume will manifest themselves in some of his art in the future.  The incredible patterns still adorn so many buildings in Portugal and the museum explains the process and history of the tiles.

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Azulejos in the museum

From the museum, we took an incredibly packed tram to Belém, which translates to Bethlehem, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Lisbon.  It is home to a number of national monuments and public spaces.  The Belém tower is a UNESCO site from the 16th century.  It was used as protection of the estuary and the gateway to Lisbon.

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Belém Tower

Just upriver from the tower is a monument commemorating the Portuguese discoverers.  It shows Henry the Navigator and is made to look kind of like the front of a boat.  Behind it in the plaza is a world map showing the routes the Portuguese took.

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Monument to the Discoveries
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World map in the plaza

Since it was still pouring, we ventured into the free Berardo Museum of Modern Art.  And while you can encounter some interesting artists here, like Picasso, Dali and Warhol, there are a plethora of pieces I just don’t get.  The solid black canvas for instance.  But that’s just me, and Riki.  Those rooms we cruised through.

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Berardo Museum of Modern Art and me

Still in the rain, we walked to the Jerónimos Monastery, where upon discovering the 10 Euro entrance fee, opted for the free church next door, which sported some amazing Gothic features, and the tombs of Vasco de Gama and a poet, Luís de Camões.

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Luís de Camões tomb
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Igreja Santa Maria de Belém at the Jerónimos Monastery

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The most amazing escalator ever. We had to go down and come back up again. Levels out halfway through and then goes up/down again.

The weather was looking a bit better on our second full day, so we decided to take the train to Sintra.  Sintra is an old resort town just outside of Lisbon.  It is scattered with palaces and villas and was probably the highlight of our trip.  The Pena Palace, a 19th century UNESCO site is probably the most iconic palace in Sintra.  The palace is a converted monastery and was the summer residence of the kings.  It is brightly painted with  incredible Portuguese Romanticism architecture.   Despite arriving just in time for the Pena Palace opening, we had to ride a very packed bus up the hill.  Luckily, we were still able to beat the crowds and Riki got some amazing pictures without too many people.

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Pena Palace
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Main facade of Pena Palace with geometric Moorish pattern (blue part)
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View from Pena Palace
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Lower Entrance with King Ferdinand II’s coat of arms above
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Cabinet inside Pena Palace
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Pena Palace clock tower – the red part is the original monastery and the yellow was added later to create the palace
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Triton gateway – half man half fish

After touring the palace, we used what little sun was left to explore the neighboring gardens and park.  There is a microclimate in Sintra and the surrounding forests were lush and green.  And in true Riki fashion, we went in search of good views.

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And we found them, after climbing up rocks and through trees.

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Pena Palace selfie
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Pena Palace
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Shot of Pena Palace through a hole in a stone cross. My only photographic contribution.
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Moss covered wall @ the Lake of the Shell in the Pena Palace gardens
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Riki stone hopping
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Lake of the Shell, Pena Palace gardens
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Camellias in the moss
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Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Palm in the Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Art installation in Pena Palace gardens

We then walked back up hill to the Moorish castle, a 10th century Muslim fort.  It was an outpost for Lisbon and a control tower for the Atlantic and the north.  The sun had pretty much disappeared by the time we got here.  Though the views were nice, it should probably be visited before the Pena Palace, because it is not much more than a pile of rocks in comparison.  There is an interesting archaeological site and the free binoculars let you check out the neighboring palaces.

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We spent the following two days wandering Lisbon, eating octopus (Riki) and Pastels de Nata(me), a delicious mini custard found almost everywhere.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Alfama

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Rossio train station entrance
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Parque Eduardo VII
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Guys filming flips in the Parque Eduardo VII

On our last day we discovered a market near Cais do Sodré where 20-something of the best restaurants are invited to have booths.  You can order a dish (octopus if your name is Riki) from any of the booths and then sit casually at long tables.  They even have a bunch of bars, so you can mix and match from all over.  This is especially useful if not everyone wants just octopus.

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TimeOut Market

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The coolest free thing we discovered was the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros.  A bank sponsors a guided tour, in English, under their building where you can see remnants from the 5th-3rd centuries BC.  They explained the history of Lisbon providing fish for the Romans, the Islamic occupation and how the earthquake changed the way Lisbon’s buildings were constructed.  They even have a 5th-9th century skeleton displayed in his final resting place.  And the whole time you are walking around in the basement of a modern bank, trying not to hit your head as you wander through layers of history.

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Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros

For our last meal, we went back to the Time Out market, so someone could have more octopus.  The next morning we took a 10 Euro taxi to the airport, an unheard of thing for us, but when your $50 round trip flight leaves at 7:05 am, public transit is not an option.

Stay tuned for our Moroccan adventures.

A Rainy Porto and Guimarães….Northern Portugal

Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there.  And no warmth.  But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind.  And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures.  I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.

Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception.  I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted.  This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag.  But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked.  And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer.  But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.

We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip.  Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food.  Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come.  We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating.  And very good.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River.  Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors.  One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings.  Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine.  And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.

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Porto @ night
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Two story bridge with pedestrians and cars on the bottom and trams on the top
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Favorite balcony in town

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Porto streets
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Train station disappears into a tunnel

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Amazing Azulejos tiles in the São Bento train station

Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip.  And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation.  The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations.  So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket.  Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around.  We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.

Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here.  We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.

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Medieval castle and a break in the clouds
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Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and its many chimneys
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Palace and pigeon

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We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.

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Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.

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Porto beyond the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia

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That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full.  But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.

The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar.  Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden.  And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.”  Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything.  And roosters.

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Crystal Palace
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Inside the Crystal Palace

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Videos @ Peacock fight and Peacock Dance

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The males shake their feathers which makes an incredible noise, like a metallic hum – see video above

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Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.

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Mercado do Bolhão

The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings.  First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves.  Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise.  As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.

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Cormorants on traditional port delivery boats

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Huge barrels for tawny port making

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Getting artsy with our tastings, who knew they had white port?

On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever.  After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.

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Me with the double umbrellas

We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.

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Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port.  They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting.  We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port.  Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports.  Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement.  And it continued to pour.

I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home.  But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.

Next up: First class train trip to Lisbon

December Escape….Venice, Italy

The best time to visit Venice is in the winter.  Well, I don’t really know.  This was my third trip to Venice, and all have been in late November or December.  It is also the coldest time.  That I do know.  However, I am told there are less tourists in the winter and it smells better.  There were a lot more tourists this time than 9 years ago when I was last there.  And I suspect it will only get worse.  But this was our reasoning behind going to Venice now.  That and I found super cheap train tickets a few months ago (20 Euro each way).  And to top it off, Lolo, a college friend of mine joined us from the States.

Venice has been high on Riki’s list for awhile and we wanted to get there before it turned into “Disneyland” as people have been saying.  I’ve talked about these lists in the last few blogs, but they don’t actually exist.  My list really includes everywhere, just the order changes depending on the circumstances, ie war, funding, weather.  For instance, India and Sri Lanka are at the top of my list currently, but they require a longer trip and more money, so I suspect you will just see more European blogs in the next few months.  Riki’s list includes pretty much all of South America, so that may have to wait as well.  The perpetual list I guess.

We started our trip with a 7.5 hour train ride through the Gotthard Tunnel, which is the longest train tunnel in the world, and was not even officially open.  But I suspect that really has to do with the European train schedule change on December 11 and not that it wasn’t ready.  Because we also came back the same way.

Riki took something like 3000 photos in 4 days.  He gave me 747 of his “favorites”.  Here are just a few.  We mostly walked, except for one day where we went out to Burano and Murano by boat and then continued down the Grand Canal.  Thanks to Lolo’s fitness tracker, we know that one day we even hit 36,000 steps.  Lots of walking for a small city.  It really is the best way to see things.

Riki has posted more photos on his website: rbernadotte.smugmug.com

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Sunset on our first evening.  The rest of the trip was very gray.
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Me and Lo

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Rialto Bridge – the other side was covered in scaffolding
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This is my favorite pic – the water was so green and completely covering the steps
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A bit of Acqua Alta on our first day
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Basilica di San Marco and Campanile

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High tide

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A leaning tower – one of many

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Lo got asked by an old lady to help her walk down the block. It was a very slow block.
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1 hour boat trip to Burano
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Leaning tower in Burano

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Lo and I in the rain in Burano
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Murano glass
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Santa Maria church in Murano
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Back in Venice, the Rialto from the Grand Canal

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Palazzo Ducale

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Bridge of Sighs

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Inside Palazzo Grimani
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Palazzo Grimani ceiling

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Dog in boat
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Dog on boat
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Jugs of wine
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Normal delivery
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Suitcases

One of the great things about Venice is that everything is transported by boat.  It is probably what makes it so expensive as well.  Everything comes in by boat – mail, packages, beer, wine, food, clothes.  We saw so many over packed boats, with boxes looking like that would fall over into the water at any moment.

Our island trip to Burano and Murano started out gray and rainy, but the brightly painted houses were totally worth the 1 hour trip.  We stopped in Murano on the way back, which was drab in comparison and full of small, touristy glass stores.  Despite our best efforts though we could not find a free glass making demonstration and got hustled out of a large shop for trying to browse and not watch the 5 Euro, 5 minute demonstration.

I can see why people think it will be a Disneyland soon.  Maybe it already is.  The huge cruise ship port, which was luckily empty, funnels a massive amount of people into the small streets and narrow canals.  The shops are full of touristy plastic and the food was underwhelming, despite eating as far from the tourist traps as possible.  Luckily, the architecture makes up for all of that.

Nooks and crannies in the rain….Bruges and Leuven, Belgium

My flight karma struck again on our 48 hour trip to Belgium for the Gaelic Games Europe convention.  We spent 40 minutes standing on a crowded bus on the tarmac in Zurich waiting for our plane to be fixed.  It couldn’t be fixed and they switched us to the next plane, but this caused us to miss our connection in Munich and arrive much later in Belgium.  Thank you Swiss Air.

But we eventually arrived in Brussels and immediately took a train to Bruges, where we were met with a ceaseless downpour of rain.  Being prepared, as we usually are, we donned our rain jackets, rain covers and boots.  Off we went, with the umbrella strictly for the camera’s use.  Hence, some of the dreary pictures to follow.

Why did we go to Belgium?  Good question.  Riki has become an officer in a Gaelic sport, hurling, which he has never even played a full game in.  We went for the convention in Leuven, but with Bruges only an hour and a half away, I had to tag along.  Bruges has also been on my list for awhile.  Have you seen the movie, In Bruges?  You should, very funny, and a bit dark.  It was also our first date almost 9 years ago.

Anyway, Bruges is a fairy tale town, what with the canals and such.  And the nooks and crannies.  Despite the rain, which tapered off just in time for sunset, we wandered the Medieval streets and Riki was still able to get some good shots.

We stopped for a drink at De Garre, which is down a small alley in the middle of the old part.  If you go to Bruges, you must go to this place.  They make a beer here that is probably the best I’ve ever tasted.  It’s 11% alcohol but it is so smooth.  There is a limit of three per person, so you don’t have to worry about having too many.  I had two.

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Just pouring

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Stopped raining
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Bruges Town Hall

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Bruges Belfry – we didn’t go up because we are fat Americans, and it was cloudy
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Where the swans sleep

Back across the country later that night, we arrived in Leuven, the site of the convention.  Its a small town but also has a really ornate Gothic Town Hall.  I took a few photos while Riki was in the meeting.  Later that night, we met up with all the Irish people from the convention at an Italian place and had pizza and carafes of wine.

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 Then it was back to Zurich early Sunday morning, in time for Riki to make it to work.

Short trip, but worth it.

Long weekend, long time coming….Prague, Czechia

Don’t let the name Czechia confuse you.  It is the new official English name of the country we all know as Czech Republic.  But nobody uses it, yet.

We booked this flight 4 months in advance, which is a long time ahead, especially for us.  Swiss Air was having a crazy sale and we couldn’t pass it up.  So we had 4 months to plan, well Riki did, as this was my birthday present from last year, which included all the planning. Therefore, the itinerary consisted mainly of viewpoints, amazing Czech beer and hearty food.  Luckily, I am down for all of those things.

We arrived in the evening and proceeded to wander a bit to find food, and you guessed it, beer.  Prague is full of old cellars, as the city frequently flooded and they decided just to raise the street level and use the upper floor as the ground floor.  We found these cool basements all over town.

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First night beer
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Cellar under the bar with a photography exhibit
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Old Town Square
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Door leading to a surprisingly nice place, in a cellar

We spent five days just wandering, searching for viewpoints, good beer and heavy food.  Besides a tour of the Strahov Monastery library and the Town Hall, we were walking the neighborhoods and checking out the sights the whole time.  Luckily, the weather cooperated.

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Cathedral and castle from across the Vltava River
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Boats on the Vltava

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Tram, type 1
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Powder Tower – one of the old city gates.  Used to store gunpowder, hence the name.

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Jewish cemetery – the largest in Europe
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Tram, type 2
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Giant metronome in Letna Park, where a huge statue of Stalin used to stand
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View of Charles Bridge from Metronome
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Lots of bridges
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Mala Strana metro station

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Monastery side yard where we had more excellent beer
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Cathedral and castle at night

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Sgraffito at the Schwarzenberg Palace

 

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Changing of the guard
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Too many camera phones 😦
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Lennon Wall
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This chick had her photo taken in every pose imaginable

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Charles Bridge from below
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Piss Sculpture – two gyrating men peeing on a map of Czechia
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Prague’s narrowest street has a traffic light for alternating directions

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Giant bronze babies
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Cruising in the river
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Tram, type 1 again and the National Theater
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Riverfront
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Question mark dock
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Dancing House by Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry

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At the entrance to the Dancing House
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Cathedral and palace from the top of the Dancing House

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An excellent dark beer complete with accordion music

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The Hanging Man by David Cerny
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View of Church of Our Lady Before Tyn and Old Town Square

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Elevator to the top of the Old Town Hall Tower
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Prague is full of indoor walkways
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The Dead Horse, also by David Cerny

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Rotating 42 layer sculpture of Franz Kafka, also by David Cerny

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I think Riki got as many pictures of these two as the guy they hired
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Astronomical Clock
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See? Here they are again across town.

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Just wandered into a park where there happened to be peacocks, lots of them.

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Albino peacock
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The Original
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More good beer from a Monastery
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Inside the Strahov Library
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Petrified Dodo bird.  And other “Curiosities”

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Cathedral at the top of the hill

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Golden Lane inside the castle walls where the marksmen initially lived.

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Kafka apparently wrote here for two years.

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Charles Bridge
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Astronomical Clock
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Another peacock
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Apostles from the inside of the Astronomical Clock, who we watched do their dance at noon.
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Amazing stained glass in the Old Town Hall
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Cellar under the Old Town Hall
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Another section of the Old Town Hall Cellar

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Fireworks preceding Wenceslas Day from Old Town Bridge Tower

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 Our last day was Wenceslas Day, which commemorates his death in 935.  He was the patron saint of Bohemia, so it is a national holiday in Prague, but besides the fireworks, we didn’t see much going on.

Prague has been on the top of my list for a long time and it did not disappoint.  Were I one to take photos of my food, those would be included here too.  We ate goulash and dumplings and bread and cheese, and not a lot of green stuff.  It was great.

Part 3 – Southern Spain….Granada, Córdoba and Toledo

My final Spain blog consists of the third part of our 17 day road trip this summer.  This was new territory for all of us and considerably hotter than the north of Spain.

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Part 3: Barcelona south to Granada and Cordoba , then north to Toledo

Leaving Barcelona, we embarked on our longest travel day so far – about 550 miles/900 km to Granada, estimated by the internet at about 8 hours.  Well, it took us more like 11 hours, but we had the obligatory two hour lunch stop and stroll through the old town in Elche/Elx along the way.  We arrived in Granada about 8 pm and met our Airbnb host outside of town, as driving in the city is heavily regulated and parking is difficult to find.  She took us to our apartment in the Albayzín neighborhood, which is on a hill and practically car-free and still has a bit of a Medieval Moorish feel to it.  Our first evening, we tried Salmorejo, and I will never look at cold soup the same again.  This stuff is pureed bread and tomatoes, topped with bits of ham.  Thick and creamy, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.  And for the rest of the trip I had it everyday.  My parents even made it from scratch with their tomatoes when they got home.

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View from our toasty terrace, if you turned around and strained your neck a bit you could see the Alhambra in the other direction.
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Alhambra at night
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Touristy street right near our apartment
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Waiting to go into the Alhambra

So the main attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex full of incredible designs and architecture.  We booked ahead and got early morning tickets (for the best light as you should know – and the heat).  We also got tickets to the Nasrid palace for the first available slot, which allowed us to tour the palace when it was less crowded.  The complex dates as far back as the 9th century, but many of the structures were completed in and after the 13th century.  Muslim art bans the use of people in their pieces, so there is a lot of geometry and calligraphy in the ornate plasterwork and ceramics.  It is an incredible place to visit, with beautiful and intricate buildings, lush green gardens and amazing views of the city.

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After a long lunch and the obligatory siesta, we wandered around Granada some more before heading up to the top of the Albayzín to watch the sunset over the city and get some night shots of the Alhambra.  And then Riki got his seafood fix with giant bowls of snails and a huge plate of octopus in a small plaza nearby.  I almost wish we were those people who take pictures of food, because this was an epic meal.

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Our last overnight stop before heading back to Madrid was in Cordoba, a mere 2 hours from Granada.  The trip was filled with rolling hills covered in olive trees as far as you could see.

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For some reason we thought we could forgo the obligatory siesta when we arrived in Córdoba in the afternoon.  So we wandered around the old quarter for a bit before the heat took its toll and we had to return to our apartment for a late afternoon siesta.

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Riki broke out the tripod for some night pics of the Mezquita

Córdoba was conquered by Muslim armies in the 8th century and eventually became the capital of al-Andalus or Islamic Spain.  It was very multi-cultural, with Muslims, Jews and Christians integrated.  This is highly visible in the main attraction – the Mezquita, which began as a small mosque and later a Catholic cathedral and is an incredible example of Moorish architecture.

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The Mosque part

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The Cathedral in the middle
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Mezquita interior

We toured the Alcazar here as well, but there was very little information provided, though it was pretty and the gardens were well kept.

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Wall in the Alcazar

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On our final full day in Spain we drove a few hours north to Toledo, which is just outside Madrid.  Toledo is set on a hill, with limited access for cars, but a great set of escalators that allows you to easily navigate right up to the heart of the old town.  Toledo is a UNESCO site and also has Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage.  The Romans were here and it was once a Visigoth capital.  Because of its proximity to Madrid, it is full of daytrippers and that is heavily reflected in the number of tourist shops around town, way more than I remember from my first trip over ten years ago.  But it is obvious why it is so popular.

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