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!)
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.