I’ve written briefly about our recent honeymoon, and today I wanted to post some highlights from Morocco for those of you interested in visiting someday. We were in Morocco for one week, and really should’ve planned to be there ten days (or more). We spent our time in two of the major cities, Marrakech and Fez, and then joined a very small tour heading out to the Sahara for a camel trek. During our brief time there, I feel like we saw a great deal of the contrasts the country has to offer — from bustling souks and markets to quiet, star-studded desert skies. Here’s a peek.
After talking with friends who had traveled there and flipping through guidebooks, there were many things I expected to encounter in Morocco: getting lost in the narrow, winding medina streets; the sweeping desert that’s unlike anything here in the States; the mint tea; the captivating city squares where tourists and locals collide in one big colorful flurry of activity. But then there were so many surprising bits that I didn’t expect to encounter: the lush countryside on the way out to the desert with palm, olive and orange trees; the colonial gardens; the level of safety and comfort I felt while walking the cities, even alone (I’d read quite the opposite). At one moment I felt like I had it kind of figured out, and the next moment I’d realize I was just scraping the surface of an understanding of the people, the geographic features, the culture.
In general, we stayed at riads in the major cities, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an interior courtyard. They are often smack in the middle of the medina (the walled-off old city center) but because the courtyard is “protected,” so to speak, with the small structure of the building itself, they’re most incredible, quiet refuges. Riads are generally quite small (usually 5-12 rooms, on average) and, like your typical hotel, range in price and level of amenities. Breakfast is usually included at the riad and consists of some combination of strong coffee, fresh orange juice, pomegranate seeds, a not-too-sweet spice cake, and thick yeasty crepes with jam and butter.
We really found that the best way to get to know a city in Morocco is just to get out and walk. While we did visit a few museums, gardens and cultural attractions, we spent most of our time walking the medina, people watching, letting ourselves get lost. The souks — or the open-air markets — span what feels like miles in both Marrakech and Fez and could easily take up a few days of your time. There are different souks for different goods (leather, spices, wood work) and they all have their own little neighborhood, so to speak. We brought home a new tea pot, some spices, and a few gifts.
Riad Cinnamon, the perfect landing spot for our first few nights in Morocco. This small riad is right in the medina, an old merchant’s house with a beautiful little dipping pool and a large rooftop deck. Gracious service and lovely breakfast.
Madresa Ben Youssef, an old religious boy’s school that was renovated in 1999. Gorgeous Moroccan tile patterns and intricate wood-carved windows and doors. You can amble in and out of the old classrooms and hallways.
Maison de la Photographie: This small museum is in an old riad and exhibits photos from 1870-1960. There’s a great old 1907 photo of the main square in Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna, and a sweet portrait of a couple in the 1920’s. Highlight here, too, is their terrace cafe where you can have an espresso and look out on the city’s rooftops.
Marrakech Museum: This tiny little museum is worth a go if convenient (it happened to be 2 minutes from our Riad). Remarkable tile floors.
Majorelle Gardens: Lush and manicured gardens designed by the French expat artist, Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s. I’d heard the cafe here serves a traditional Moroccan breakfast that’s not to be missed (we did miss it, sadly). Yves Saint Laurent bought the gardens in 1980 after becoming quite smitten with them.
Hammam Ziani: This traditional hammam (like a bathhouse or traditional spa) is located not far from the main square in Marrakech. Great steam/scrub/massage. Quite a different experience if you’ve never been — perhaps not for the modest or shy as you’re all in one large room (although they do separate men and women). When you start to fade or tire from walking around the city, this is an awesome, very reasonable fix.
Terraces des Espices: One of the better tagines we had while in Marrakech, but the real reason to go is the outdoor terrace and loungey booths.
Grande Cafe de la Poste: This cafe and restaurant in the Guliz neighborhood of Marrakech has a distinctly colonial feel and the perfect patio for cocktails or snacks (the restaurant inside is decidedly more formal). Guliz is very different from the majority of Marrakech (it has more metropolitan shops, restaurants, and newer construction).
Cuisine de Mona: Heidi told me about this Lebanese restaurant in the Gueliz neighborhood and while it was incredibly hard to find, the food was really fresh and delicious and Mona, the owner, sat down with us to chat about Morocco for the good part of an hour. We liked the vegetarian dishes here the best: great fattoush, hummus and tabbouli.
Panna: Right across the street from Cuisine de Mona, this gelateria was opened by an Italian man who moved to Morocco. Very special flavors, bright, modern atmosphere (unusual for Morocco). They have a flavor called “Italian cake:” get it.
Mamounia: When you can’t afford to stay at the fanciest hotel in town? You go and have a drink — which I would highly recommend here. The grounds of this hotel are stunning (we spent a good hour just ambling about) and they have a handful of different bars to choose from. Deluxe people watching.
Dar Bensouda: I cannot say enough about this riad (pictured in the three photos above), and I can’t wait to return someday. It used to be the Iman’s palace, and was then a madrasa (school); five years ago it was converted into this rather majestic, very special riad with two sweeping tile courtyards, a beautiful pool with old palms, and a rooftop deck that overlooks the entire city and proved to be a very peaceful reading spot.
Peeping at the Kairaouine Mosque
Madrasa Bou: Intricate, quiet, beautiful tile work. We got here at a magical time right before the tourists swept in, and had a good half an hour to sit and enjoy the craftsmanship.
The Medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fez): Tough to miss if you’re staying in the city center, I couldn’t stop marveling at how the medina and souks in Fez were noticeably different than in Marrakech and I couldn’t quite place why. The streets in Fez seemed wider, perhaps, and somehow more spacious and walkable (or maybe I was just used to the pace by that point). I believe vehicles aren’t allowed within the Fez medina streets, so it did feel calmer. If you pay attention, you’ll see craftsmen everywhere tucked away in corners and alleys working on leather and wood crafts or sewing clothing.
Cafe Clock: I’m not sure I’d seek out Cafe Clock on a future trip. It’s really largely geared towards tourists and expats, but it is in a central location right in the medina and does provide a nice break from the tagine, couscous and kebabs we eventually tired of. We had sandwiches, french fries and shared a milkshake and it all tasted pretty memorable at the time.
Dar Bensouda: We stayed in one night and had chicken tagine with olives, herbs and citrus at the Riad. We ate in the quiet courtyard sipping mint tea. They have really nice, traditional sweets for dessert, too.
THE DRIVE TO ERG CHEBBI (SAHARA): HIGHLIGHTS
Erg Chebbi is one of the large dunes in the Sahara. The company we chose for our camel excursion was Camel Trekking, and owner Omar made it really simple and stress-free to coordinate logistics from afar. I will say that while the description of the three day trip online sounds packed and eventful, it is a really, really long drive to the desert. We’re talking about two very full, long days in the van. I hadn’t realized this for some reason, and would consider this when weighing how much time you have on your trip. That being said, the countryside was gorgeous and the Sahara was unlike anything I’ve ever seen — the perfect antidote to the bustle of the cities.
Dades Gorges Valley: This was some of the most beautiful countryside in Morocco, and my favorite part of the drive. One moment typical desert scenery and another surprisingly lush palm trees and rivers. The remarkable rock formations there are called “monkey fingers,” and all of the homes and structures are in muted shades of taupe or light pink.
Ait-Benhaddou: This old ksar is on the former caravan route and is, today, the home to many films set in the desert.
Ouarzazarte: From my understanding, this is akin to Morocco’s Hollywood, noted filmmaking location and the home of Atlas Studios.
The photo above is of Sam and I on our first day in the Sahara (Sam bought that cheche in Marrakech, and a few of the guys on our trip taught him how to wrap it. I called him ‘my desert Sam.’). Now that we’re settled back in with work and “real life,” I’m excited to start cooking and featuring some fall recipes on the site and there are some incredible new cookbooks out there for inspiration (like this one, or this one, or this one). At some point, I’d love to write about some highlights from our time in Italy, too (if you’re interested?). I hope you all have a wonderful week ahead (November!)
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.