March in Morocco – Part 1

Time for an international food and “hike” adventure…

In January, my bschool friend Christine and I decided we desperately needed to go on a trip and take advantage of the strong US Dollar. The original plan was to go to Europe; the Euro hadn’t been so cheap in 20 years! Christine wanted to go somewhere warm – i.e. Southern Italy – since she had been freezing in NYC. I wanted to go to Portugal because it was off the beaten path. We couldn’t agree on where to go. And then randomly I threw out Morocco. Not exactly Europe, but it offered us exactly what we wanted – warmer weather and some place different. 🙂

In a Uber car ride after Christine and my phone call, I shared the exciting trip idea with SF partner-in-crime and dear friend Vanessa who had been wanting to go to Morocco too. When our Uber driver exclaimed that he was from Morocco and recommended which cities to visit (Marrakech, Fes, and Essaouira), we took it as a sign. Christine, Vanessa, and I bought our plane tickets the next day, and 3 weeks later were off to Morocco!

It’s no wonder Morocco is one of Africa’s most popular destinations. The cuisine is fantastic (yes, I still love to eat!) and the landscape differs from city to city. We considered visiting several cities but with only one week, we decided to listen to our Uber driver and visit Fes, Marrakech, and Essaouira.

Fes
Many people told us there wasn’t much to see in Casablanca, so rather than fly into the main airport Mohammed V International Airport (just outside of Casablanca), we flew from Madrid to Fes, Morocco.

Fes (capital of Morocco until 1925) is the second largest city of Morocco and has a medina that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The median is a car-free urban area filled with homes, restaurants, shops, butchers, tailors, schools, accommodations, etc.  We stayed at the most beautiful riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard converted into a hotel – Riad Laaroussa.

Christine, Vanessa, and I squealed with delight when we arrived and saw the beautiful courtyard and breathtaking rooftop terrace of Riad Laaroussa. The views of the city and surrounding landscape from the rooftop were breathtaking. Top it off with mint tea and snacks…life couldn’t get any better.

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Mint Tea and Moroccan Snacks on the rooftop terrace
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Happy to be in Morocco after 3 flights!

The accommodations were lovely. I loved that the riad had modern amenities but maintained the authentic, old riad character which made our experience feel truly Moroccan.

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Entrance to the bathroom
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Riad courtyard

The people were what made Riad Laaroussa truly exceptional. Fred and Cathy have created a place full of love and care both for their guests and staff. You felt it in every experience you had at the Riad – the welcome, the decor, cooking in the riad kitchen with Fatima, the food that was prepared and served, and the recommendations and arrangements they made. Everything is filled with love.

We started our first full day in Fes with breakfast on the rooftop terrace with an amazing view and delicious food and drink (fresh fruit, mint tea, coffee, cornmeal pancakes, fresh honey, yogurt, hardboiled eggs).

Rooftop breakfast!
Rooftop breakfast!
Fresh squeezed juice and fresh fruit al fresco!
Fresh squeezed juice and fruit al fresco!.

After breakfast we went to a free “cooking class” in our riad. The chef Fatima didn’t speak much English but she sure did know how to cook! She didn’t measure any ingredients for the lamb and raisin tagine, moroccan salads, or lemon tart. She did everything by sight and taste. I don’t think Vanessa, Christine, and I were very helpful, but we had so much fun chopping cilantro, squeezing and grating lemons, drinking Moroccan wine, taking in the smells, and wearing our aprons.

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Okay…so as you can probably tell, I loved the riad to bits. So did Vanessa and Christine. But don’t worry…we did get out of the hotel to explore the medina. Being such a large medina, our hosts at Riad Laaroussa helped to arrange a tour guide Hamido to guide us around the maze-like medina for our 5 hour media hike.

He showed us teeny tiny alleyways…

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…the inside of a rich person’s riad undergoing renovation. Such beautiful colors and intricate detail!

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We saw stores, stores, and more stores…

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We even stopped for an afternoon snack to enjoy delicious food from the Berrada Family Restaurant owned and run by an energetic 84-year-old man and his family. They welcomed us warmly and served just the most delicious Kefta I’ve ever had. And Vanessa favorite tagine – lamb and potatoes – of the trip.

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The most delicious kefta I’ve ever had!
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Vanessa’s favorite tagine on the trip

After lunch, we went to visit the famous Fes Leather Tannery, the oldest leather tannery in the world.  When approaching the tannery the smell is the first suggestion that something different is about to appear. It’s no wonder the tour guide (aka sales man) hands you a sprig of mint when you arrive. The “aroma” is worth braving as the view over the balcony is incredible.

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Fes Leather Tannery

The tannery is composed of numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various odorous liquids. The hides are first soaked in diluted acidic pigeon excrement used to soften the hides (white vessels on far left). Every Friday, people from the town can bring pigeon poop to sell to the tannery!

Then the softened hides are transferred to other vessels containing vegetable dyes such as henna, saffron and mint (vessels in center). When the dying process has been completed the hides are dried on the roofs of the medina (far right).

After taking in the view and reaching our limit of pigeon poo smells, we did some shopping and negotiating! We looked at many, many leather products including bags, shoes, boots, luggage, coats, furniture. In the end, we walked away with a camel leather bag, shoes, a suede jacket, and an ottoman. It was our first attempt at bargaining, Vanessa and Christine did much better than I!

Vanessa continued her negotiating streak when we visited a carpet store. We saw so many beautiful handmade rugs of different styles. I was tempted to purchase one but couldn’t handle paying hundreds or thousand plus dollars for one and having to lug it home. Vanessa on the other hand, drove a hard bargain, got a beautiful rug, and had them wrap it up so compactly that she was able to squeeze it into her suitcase (not pictured…Vanessa jumping on suitcase to close it.)

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We ended the tour exhausted, happy, and hungry!

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Our wonderful tour guide Hamido

We finished our day with a delicious meal at the riad…the one we “helped” Chef Fatima prepare. We had 4 delicious Moroccan salads (eggplant, pepper, pumpkin, and lentils),  a lamb and raisin tagine, Moroccan bread, cous cous, and a lemony tart.

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The next day we had breakfast on the rooftop and did one last little loop around the medina. Then we were off to the train station and Marrakech! More about our Moroccan adventures in Part 2!

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