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!)
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)