Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 48. My last day in Germany

For my last day in Germany Anna (Christine and Gustav’s daughter) has planned a nice hike around Feldberg, one of the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. So, come mid-morning, Christine and I left the house in this fine Sunday morning, and so did a million other Germans, intent of enjoying a hike, bicycling, or taking a motorcycle ride up the mountain. The end result is that we couldn’t find a place to park near the top, and instead had to park at mid elevation, where we met Anna.

Christine was in fine athletic form, and pretty soon she and Leo (her dog) had a healthy lead on Anna and myself. This gave me a great opportunity to chat with Anna to our heart’s content. I have known her since she was a baby, maybe a year old, and now in her mid twenties she is a delightful and beautiful young woman with a wide range of interests. For example, a few years ago she spent a semester in Ruanda, promoting small businesses among the women of the town, and only recently came back from a semester in Sevilla, where she developed an amazing command of Spanish.

The hike through the pine forest was wonderful, and the views of Frankfurt and its surrounding villages were breath-taking. In total we walked maybe 8 to 10 km, and by the time we made it to the top I was glad to see that, true to form, there was a comfortable restaurant way on top, where we were able to enjoy a cold beer, a plate of French fries, bread accompanied by rendered lard with bacon bits, and a type of pancake chopped into pieces and smothered on strawberry syrup. OK, so it was not a lunch that would make my doctor happy, but we enjoyed it with the appetite of those who have already burned the calories.

We came back to town just in time to go to dinner with our old friends Gabi and Dieter, where I had a plate of hack steak in some sort of sauce, fried potatoes, and with the whole covered by two sunny-side up eggs. Strange, but actually quite tasty. Naturally we also had a final toast with Apfelwein.

To wrap a perfect day Chrsitine and I went to visit Phillip’s new apartment. He studied Mechanical Engineering, and is now doing a paid internship with a company that is not to far from their home, but since he now has a salary he figured it was time to cut the umbilical cord and find a place closer to work. He chose very well. The apartment is in the first floor of a three-storey building, but in a neighborhood of mostly single homes. He has one large bedroom, a living room with a huge terrace, and fairly adequate bathroom and kitchen. Everything looks empty now, because the big move is in a couple of days, but he has most of the furniture lined up, so he will be snug as a bug. Christine likes it because she can come visit when she takes Leo for a walk along the River Mainz!

And that is it. Tomorrow Monday, July 27, 2015 I am flying back to Houston (a killer flight of 2.5 hours Frankfurt to Istanbul, and from there 12 hours from Istanbul to Houston). I will spend the night in Houston, and on Tuesday I will take a flight from Houston to Monterrey, rent a car, and hopefully sit to supper with my parents by 6 pm. Since the remaining trip is not likely to produce any significant adventures I will finish this blog here, and will resume it next time I go adventuring. Perhaps a motorcycle tour through New Zealand next January?


Africa-Europe 2015 Day 47. Riga to Frankfurt.

We had a busy morning, trying to do all the things that we had not done. Christine and I took the electric tram 7, for her to look at Little Moscow, and for both of us to see the outskirts of the city. It is a fine city in which it would be very easy to live.

Then we had to visit the Lutheran Cathedral, I had to return the scooter, and finally we had to have breakfast. With about an hour to spend we concluded our visit to beautiful old town with a quick walk around the Saint Patrick’s Church, where the amber merchants offer pretty necklaces and bracelets to the passing tourists. I didn’t know this, but amber is washed unto the shores of the Baltic Sea, and amber jewelry is a significant cottage industry here.

We flew back to Frankfurt at 2 pm, and by 5 pm we were home. At 7 pm Klaus, Gustav’s brother, came to pick us up, and went for another fine meal at yet another Apfelwine restaurant. Klaus became a certified hunter a few years ago, and promptly leased the exclusive right to hunt in about 600 square kilometers of woods in the nearby Vogelsberg. Next time I stop by I will need to go with him to check it out!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 46. Jurmala

West of Riga is the beautiful beach of Jurmala, and we all wanted to visit it. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to rent a scooter, so I found a rental place through the internet and made a reservation. At the crack of 9 am I got to the rental location, only to find out that the rental company had moved. A kind young woman did me the favor of calling them in her cell phone, and when she passed it to me I spoke with a man who had a very strong Russian accent. He told me to wait for him, and 10 minutes later he came. Big dude with a helmet that didn’t let me see his features. He gave me the extra helmet he was carrying, told me to mount behind me, and departed like a bat out of hell for the new location.

As we got farther out from the city center and entered some dodgy neighborhoods I started to get a little anxious (not to say anything of the fact that I was hanging on for dear life as he zig-zagged in and out of traffic). Finally we got into a dilapidated industrial area, and all I had heard about the Russian mafia started playing games with my imagination. Something was not right, because he made a detour to show me a graffiti school, where a new generation of vandals was learning how to paint walls and carve wood (some of the stuff was actually pretty good and artistic). Finally we stopped in front of a garage and I braced myself for the worst. We descended, and he unfolded himself into a tall powerful man, but when he took of his helmet I saw a laughing honest face with twinkling eyes. What a relief!

I emphatically recommend him to anyone interested on renting a scooter in Riga: Noma Rent, Gaujas 3, Riga (+371) 2231 3978.

Ten minutes later I was on the road, heading west toward Jurmala. I was driving a new Honda scooter, with plenty of zest to be in the freeway. However, I didn’t feel comfortable driving through the fast traffic, and as soon as possible took a side street and started navigating by feeling through handsome small towns. Eventually I reached the forest, the street turned into a dirt track, and I was lost inside the beautiful Latvian forest (not lost lost since I knew the general direction I had to follow, but there were no signs to guide me). Eventually I got into the coastal lagoon, which I followed for about 10 kilometers before I got to the town of Jurmala. From there on the black top road ran parallel to the coast, but still in the forest, and I saw many beautiful residences along the way. Either many Latvians earn a lot more than the average, or the beautiful houses belong to foreigners that vacation in the area.

The town of Jurmala itself is absolutely lovely, with a lively promenade for the tourists, and a long sparkling beach where many families were playing in the sand and the tiny waves (the Gulf of Riga is protected from the wind so no big waves form in it). I had agreed with Christine that we would meet at the Jurmala train station at 1:30 pm, and I dutifully saw the 1:33 pm and the 2:07 pm trains come in without spotting my friends. Oh well, perhaps they had finally decided not to come; they had come, but in a taxi, and Christine had completely forgotten where we were supposed to meet L

So I took my scooter and kept going west, until I eventually reached the Kemeru National Park, a coastal forest with endless opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and bird watching. It is also one of the few places where one can see vast raised bogs. A raised bog starts as a shallow lake that fills with sediment until the only plant that can survive is a sphargnum moss. This moss has the ability to store a lot of water, and to grow on itself, so pretty soon forms a thick carpet of vegetation soaked with water, where very few other species can survive (Venus fly traps, and dwarf beeches and pines). The moss keeps growing on itself until eventually it forms large soggy mounds. Once the mound forms, it spreads out by gravity, and cracks in the same way a resurgent dome does. The cracks are deep and immediately fill with water, so it becomes very treacherous ground in which the innocent hiker can easily sink when crossing what looks like an innocent puddle. Pretty cool phenomenon.

Eventually it was time to go back, and this time I took the freeway and tested my scooter to speeds as high as 90 km per hour. It was scary but fun.

That evening we went for dinner to a medieval dungeon, which extended for quite some distance under one of the buildings. All the waiters were in costume, and a group of minstrels were playing lutes and flutes as we feasted on excellent onion soup, rabbit, duck, lamb, and a piggy that had been slowly roasted on the spit over a wood fire. A great place to have our last dinner in Riga!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 45. Around Riga 2

Yesterday I forgot to mention that, at the end of the day, we boarded a river boat and took a sunset cruise out toward the mouth of the river. The afternoon was truly lovely, with a fresh breeze, and the city just gleamed under the setting sun. Once we entered the zone of the peers we noticed stacks of lumber (birch trees mostly) and big piles of coal (clearly these had been brought by train from Russia, and we speculated they were waiting to be loaded and transported, maybe to the steel mills of Kiruna in Sweden). Gustav, who is very resourceful, had convinced the galley to part with some whisky on the rocks, and we happily toasted another great day.

In the morning we had a group going to see the KGB House, an ominous building with but one narrow entrance at the very corner (we saw it yesterday, and that is how I know what it looks like). Christine, Andrea, and Frank wanted to tour the detention cells and executions floor, but I found the idea too ghastly. In the meantime Gustav and I went to visit the Museum of Navigation, which had a lot more on the history of Riga than on the history of navigation in Latvia.

At noon I met with Frank, and the two of us went back to the bike rental place, to take the other tour. Being experienced on this kind of thing, I told Frank that he was going to have a unique experience, because as soon as he got on the bike he would effectively become invisible! Yes, be it a little old lady, a clueless mother pushing a baby carriage, or a leggy Latvian beauty glued to her cell phone (and Riga has many of the latter), all of them look through an incoming bicycle and blithely step on its way. Either they all have a death wish or they truly cannot see you coming.

The tour was good, but not as good as the one of the day before. Part of it was the guide, who gave us the sense that some of the population is not quite happy with the renovations that have been done in the old city center. To quote: “They have turned it into a Disneyland, and soon I will have to change my name to Donald Duck!” In any case, he ably took us to the other side of the Daugava River, to an island where at some point the Russian army was detained (the citizens of Riga had destroyed all the bridges to keep them at bay) for several months (once the river froze in the winter the army crossed and easily took the city), during which they established a wooden house town that has now become the place for the wealthy to live. We saw many an old wooden house, but also some that had been re-built in a most luxurious style.

From there we went to the docks, where we talked at length about the current Latvian economy. I had asked the same question to my other guide, and what I get from both conversations is that (1) Latvia exports wood to the Finland and Sweden, where it gets turned into IKEA furniture or toilet paper, much to the dismay of local environmentalists; (2) Latvia has become the host of many companies that like to do business with Russia, but would rather located in a more liberal country; and (3) tourism into Latvia keeps increasing. I have heard mixed numbers about the average monthly salary (is it 500 or 1,000 euros per month?), but at least in Riga one sees very few idle hands, new vehicles on the street, and ongoing renovation of buildings.

Our guide was also an architectural buff, who nicely blended historic architecture with history and sociology. For example, Latvia has hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings (1900 to 1910), interspersed between Art Deco and what they call National Romantic styles (1910 to 1930). The first is ornate and includes abundant nymphs, dragons, and flowers and leaves, whereas the last two emphasize straight, more utilitarian lines. Go back in your mind to 1900, when workers were being exploited under the crushing thumb of the Russian Empire, and you can well imagine that the Art Nouveau style was associated with the wealthy and leisurely ways of the aristocracy. In 1905, a public demonstration of workers demanding better salaries and work conditions was violently crushed by the Russian Cossacks, thus starting the socialist movement that eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (at least that is the Latvian perspective). That Latvia was a source of socialist unrest is well reflected by the fact that Lenin’s personal guard was formed by the Latvian Fusileers. Local architects responded to the socialist movement by turning toward the more utilitarian forms of Art Deco and National Romantic, spent less in the facades and more in the interior of the building, and created the multi-social apartment buildings where the upper crust (in the upper floors) and lower classes shared on the same building, as a reflection of the new, changing social order.

Frank and I hurried back to make sure we were at the hotel before 3 pm, because Andrea had retained the services of a German guide to give us a tour of the city. This was not to be your standard tour, but was going to touch on some important places in the history of a German poet/comedian, who was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’. This comedian, Heinz Erhardt, was loved because his funny performances included some very witty verses that highlighted the music and oddities of the German language (different style, but as funny and beloved as Cantinflas is to all Mexicans). Our guide was a veritable font of those verses, so we all had a great time listening to them as we walked through the town. 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 44. Around Riga 1

I have been going to bed so late that I have fallen a couple of days behind in this blog. This is not so good because one event tends to mix with the other, but has the advantage of letting me develop a more synthetic view of Latvian geography, history, and economy.

Latvia is one of the Baltic countries, which from north to south include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Estonia and Latvia share the fact that they are Lutheran, while Lithuania is Catholic. On the other hand, Latvia and Lithuania share closely related languages, while Estonian is more closely related to Finnish.

Our first adventure was to take the hop-on hop off tourist bus, with the idea that it would give us a good panorama of the city. Riga is much smaller than say Paris or Lisbon, so there is only so much you can see before you start repeating yourself. Still, we got a good view of the Daugava River (the Donn River for the Russians). The city was developed along the east bank of the river, about 20 km inland from the shores of the Baltic Sea, initially by the migration of groups from Finland and Estonia (ca. 900 BC), but it was not until the Vikings came into the picture (700 to 1200 AD) that Riga became a permanent settlement. The Vikings loved it as the stage from which they could pillage and plunder Russia, using the Daugava River as their access.

We made a stop at the Riga market place, which we were told was the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world (Latvians, like Texans, like having the biggest and best of just about anything). Yes, the market has four large halls, and the farmers market on the outside is fairly large, but from there to being the largest could be a lively topic of discussion. After the market I walked to the central plaza, where two merchant houses of the Middle Ages have been reconstructed and gilded with gold to celebrate the Golden Age of Riga.  From 1200 to 1580 AD, Riga became a part of the Hanseatic League, a network of wealthy cities between which there was very active trade. Traditionally associated with German merchants, the Hanseatic League extended all along the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Riga was a key member of the League as the hub of commerce with Russia. The Russian quarter of the city, now known as the Little Moscow and of dodgy reputation, was well established in the Middle Ages. In 1570 The Reformation came to Latvia, which became Lutheran, and to date about half the people of modern Latvia are Lutherans.

I later visited the Occupation Museum, a memorial to the hardship suffered under the Nazi invasion (1940 to1945) and the Russian Communist regime (1945 to 1991). Poor Latvians have really had a hard time at it. Being in a very desirable location at the mouth of the Daugava, just about everyone and their mother has taken a crack at them:

1580 – 1620 Annexed by the Polish Empire (after a suitable war)
1620 – 1710 Annexed by the Swedish Empire (after yet another suitable war)
1710 – 1918 Annexed by the Russian Empire (yes, after yet another suitable war). The Russian Orthodox Church becomes very important, to the point that nearly half the population of modern Latvia is Russian Orthodox.
1917 – The Bolshevik Revolution and the end of World War II
1918 – Latvia declares independence, and for the next two years fights with the new Russian Communist regime to uphold its independence.
1920 – The Soviet Union recognizes the Latvian state, and promises never again to occupy it.
1920 – 1940 Peace and prosperity of the Latvian Republic.
1939 – Germany and the Soviets Union agree to specific spheres of influence. Latvia falls within the sphere of influence of Soviet Union, who promptly establishes military outposts throughout Latvia. The Cheka (KGB) starts operating as a secret police in Riga.
1940 – Germany declares war on the Soviet Union and invades Latvia. The Cheka flees the city (great sigh of happiness heard throughout the nation, only to be followed by a groan of agony as the SS takes its place).
1940 – 1945 Germany occupies Latvia, and carries out the Holocaust of the Jews here as well.
1945 – Latvia hopes the victorious allies will recognize it as a sovereign state, only to find itself under the Soviet yoke. The Cheka comes back with a vengeance. Thousands are deported overnight for the gulag camps of Siberia. To make up for the missing labor force, thousands of Russians immigrate to Latvia, in the well known pattern of colonization by “diluting” the local population with people from the colonizing country.
1991 – The Soviet Union is dissolved, and the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are recognized as sovereign states. To date, Latvia is an ethnically diverse country. About 60% are native Latvians, 30% Russian Latvians, and 10% of others, including German, Polish, and Jewish Latvians. Most schools teach in Latvian and offer English as the second language, but there are some where the instruction is in Russian with Latvian as a second language. Both Latvian and Russian languages are heard throughout the city, and all printed signs are in Latvian and Russian.

So, as you can see, Latvia is quite a young republic, with a lot of room to grow.

To close a busy day I took a 3-hour bicycle tour of the city. It was wonderful! Our guide was a smart young man who knew a lot about the country and the city of Riga, and humble enough to candidly say he didn’t knew the answer to the odd question. He first took us along the banks of the Daugava, but eventually plunged into the dodgy streets of Little Moscow. This part of the city has existed since the Middle Ages, but the powers that be always kept the Russian traders outside of the walls of the city and would not allow them to build stone structures. So, they built traditional wood Russian houses, which periodically were burnt, either by accident or on purpose. For example, during the Napoleonic wars the Fathers of the city saw a big cloud of dust coming from the south and, panicking with the idea that Napoleon was coming, set fire to the Russian district only to find that the dust cloud was nothing more than a farmer bringing his animals to market. In any case, this is now the low rent district of Riga, has a very large Russian population, and you would not want to promenade yourself here after sunset.

From there we went to the Jewish Ghetto established by the Nazis (almost as dodgy an area as Little Moscow), and visited the Jewish cemetery (which like all the other city cemeteries was “beautified” into a park by Russian bulldozers during the 1960’s). Moving up on the social scale we biked through the working class suburbs, and eventually worked into the recently manicured buildings of the early 1900’s. Great tour that I would highly recommend to anyone coming to Riga!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 43. From Frankfurt to Riga

We left the home by 7 am, boarded our flight at 9:55, and landed in Riga, Latvia, by 12:30 pm. A short taxi ride brought us to the luxurious hotel Gustav had selected, right in the middle of the old city. After a brief repast, and the first of what will no doubt be many deep amber beers, we went for a brief exploration of the old city. It is a beautiful European city, which is slowly recovering from the long time of occupation by the Russians.

Since we are like a pack of chickens, each going his or her own way, I soon lost the group and decided to spend a couple of hours making plans and arrangements for the next three days. I bought us all Riga Passes, which for three days will entitle us to use public transportation, access to several museums, use of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus, and significant discounts on some restaurants and scenic tours. After that I located the bicycle rental place (that will probably be tomorrow Wednesday’ adventure), and the scooter rental place (that will be Friday’s adventure). Finally, I found the supermarket and bought some munchies and drinks). Latvia is a lot cheaper than Germany, even though it is a EU country and uses the euro.

In the afternoon we went out to dinner at the Blue Cow Restaurant, where we had a typical appetizer of pickled vegetables and thin slices of fat! Yes, pure cold white fat; you pile on a slice of black bread, add some of the pickled vegetables, sprinkle it with pepper and salt, and wash it down with cold vodka. Of course, the fat has no flavor, but we must believe our waitress and accept that it is just the thing to accompany a shot of vodka. Christine and I also had salted herring, which was very good.

Latvia is clearly making an effort to attract tourism, and all the young people speak perfect English. We often baffle them by addressing them in German, but they recover quickly, and always answer back with a smile. Good people, reasonable price, a long history, and a charming city will no doubt make Riga a popular destination in the years to come.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 42. Here and there around Frankfurt

Today Gustav and Phillip have to go to work, so Christine and I will be walking Leo and running errands. Start by letting out the chickens. Yes, Christine decided to try her hand at keeping chickens and rented five for 10 days (actually, it was a birthday present for Oma Inge, Gustav’s mom, but she didn’t feel up to the challenge, so Christine brought them home). I leave you to imagine the groaning that came from Gustav. It is not that he is worried about the chickens, but he is weary that his lovely wife will next time rent a pig or a cow.

Then it was time to walk to the Beckerei to buy Broetchens for breakfast. Very pleasant except that Leo has the runs, and at some point we had to stop to clean a very messy sidewalk. Christine attributes the loose vowels to the fact that Leo has been eating chicken shit.

Then we went to visit Oma Elisabeth, Christine’s mom, who is recovering from chemotherapy at a senior living facility up in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. Before we got there we made a stop at the small town where Chrissy grew up, and took Leo for a long walk along her old stomping grounds.

Elisabeth was looking good, but is not very happy with the food, which she finds bland and without taste. What she really wanted was pizza. So, while Chrissy visited with mom, I took the car and went to buy a pizza in downtown. I had just gone down the hill and stopped at an intersection when the car suddenly stopped. In panic I looked at the fuel gage and saw that I was operating on fumes. Surprisingly the car started right away as soon as I took my foot off the pedal, but it kept stopping every time I made a full stop (later I was to learn that it is an “eco” feature of her sports Mercedes). I drove to the first gas station that crossed my path, put in some gas, and discovered that right across the street there was a pizza parlor. The nice station attendant said it was OK to park the car there, and a half hour later I was back at the home with a steaming pizza.

We all sat at the little table Elisabeth has in her room, and had a simple but very fun lunch. Clearly she enjoyed the visit, but is ready to go home a week from now. The problem is that she lives alone in this big house, without anyone to clean, cook, and keep an eye on her to make sure she is OK (sounds familiar?). Naturally Christine is there for her in case of an emergency, but she thinks they need to find a daily companion and that may not be easy.

Since we were already on the mountain, lucky Leo got a second walk through the forest. It was a good cardio exercise, and we were looking forward to having a drink on the Kneipe on top, but to our great disappointment found it closed. Of course, it is Monday, and these rural bars close Monday and Tuesday. Schade!

On the way back Phillip called, to invite us all to dinner. That is, he offered to cook us dinner at the house. Nice! As soon as we got back he and I went shopping, and he told me how he had rented an apartment and would be moving there next week. Phillip is a mechanical engineer, is 21 years old, and is currently doing an internship with a company in the nearby town he is moving to. I can’t believe that this tall strapping young man is the sturdy baby I met oh so long ago. (Since he likes cooking I have ordered a crockpot from Amazon, as my house warming gift for his new apartment. All I need to do know is to write down the recipe for ox-tail soup.)

Dinner was a real success, with a main dish of chicken breast stakes baked on a cream sauce with cheese and basil. Clearly this young man shows promise! 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 41. Marrakech to Casablanca to Frankfurt

For some evil reason, Morocco chooses the end of Ramadan to spring the clock forward one hour, so I didn’t get much sleep before my alarm went off at 2 am (now 3 am), to give me time to shower, dress, and walk to the train station for my 4:45 am train to Casablanca. I actually got there at 4 am, but better early than risking missing the train. My plan is to go to the main station in Casablanca, and from there take a taxi to the airport (for about US $30). I am a bit worried because I don’t have enough dirhams left for the taxi, so I am going to have to pay the fee half in local currency and half in euros.

Fortunately for me, when I got in the train, I found myself sharing the cabin with a chatty woman, whom I asked if there was a train connection to the airport. Yes, she said, but you need to get out in a small and practically unknown station in the outskirts of Casablanca, where you can then take the local train to the airport. It was a very pleasant 3-hour trip to Casa, and my new friend, attentive as she was to my needs, made sure I got off at the right place. If I have omitted saying this before I will say it now: Moroccans are the friendliest people, and I will always remember them with fondness and appreciation.

The train ticket cost measly 40 dirhams, so now I have about 150 extra dirhams to burn at the airport! Furthermore, I only had to wait 20 minutes for the train, so by 9 am I was ready to check in for my noon flight to Frankfurt. Easy piecey!

I landed in Frankfurt at 6:30 pm, and no sooner had I stepped out of customs that I saw the tall form of my dear friend Gustav, holding two beers to welcome me into Deutschland. He had it all planned: We were to have dinner at a restaurant near his house, where they have excellent Apfelwein. Now, I happen to like Apfelwein, and it is wonderfully refreshing in a warm afternoon like this one was, but I have memories of associated overeating whenever we had gone for a glass, so I determined that this time I was just going to nurse a half pint and have a light dinner.

Once we got to the restaurant Gustav ordered two pints, and Handkäse mit Musik (a hand-molded cheese with onions and cumin that is reputed to make you pass gas sonorously, hence the “music”), in what was but the beginning of a slippery slope. Shortly thereafter Christine and the rest of the group started to arrive, and eventually we had the merry company of Gustav and Christine, their grownup children Anna and Phillip, Frank and Andrea, their daughter Alisa, and yours truly. Get a group of happy Germans together (and a willing Mexican) and you have the perfect conditions for eating and drinking indulgence. Of course Gustav knew the owner, and of course we had to go to the cellar to do some Apfelwein tasting, and what would an evening like this be without tasting the Brandwein distilled by the patron in his free time!

By the time we got home my stomach was in furious rebellion, so to quiet it down we sat in the backyard porch with Christine and her new dog Leo, and Gustav promptly produced two enormous glasses of Bordeaux wine to accompany the evening conversation. Leo is a cross between a poodle (it must have been the biggest poodle that ever existed!) and a cocker spaniel; he is a nice shaggy dog that likes to squat flat in the floor, in a perfect impersonation of a shaggy Afghan carpet. It is nice to be home!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 40. Idling the day away in Marrakech

My last full day in Morocco, and I am afraid I don’t have much to show for it. In the cool of the morning I walked with Nancy to the bus station (to buy her ticket) and the train station (to buy my ticket), and on the way back sat on a café near the hotel, sipping a café au lait first and a mint tea later, like all Moroccan men seem to do in the heat of the day. Since it is the end of Ramadan all other shops are closed, as families celebrate with new clothes for the kids and their first “normal” meal after a month of fasting.

Afterward I went to my air-conditioned room, wrote e-mails, and completed my reservations for the rest of the trip. At noon I crawled down to the hotel pool, swam a bit, finished the book I was reading, and drank empty the largest Bierstein you can imagine.

Finally, in the afternoon, I dragged myself of the hotel to take a ride with four of my peers in a horse-drawn cart. We went through the affluent neighborhoods of Marrakech, the Jewish quarter, the peripheral souks, and finally made a loop around the main plaza, which was just coming to life. It was a gentle, lazy thing to do, and it kept us out of the crowds, which is just the thing I need.

Intrepid Tours did the thing right, and found a small but very well appointed hotel for our last two nights in Morocco. Even the toughest traveler needs a little comfort now and then.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 39. Essaouira to Marrakech

“Freedom, freedom at last” I thought as the wind blew against my cheeks and the land flew past by me. Well, “flew by” is a relative term, because the scooter I rented had a top speed of 30 mph. Still, it was the perfect vehicle to cure me from the restrictions of group travel. I started south, parallel to the beach, but after a while the road took to the coastal hills, and I reveled on the arid landscape, dominated by thorn bushes and dwarf trees. It really feels like Africa out here. I made stops at the beaches of Sidi Kaouki and Iftane, where local entrepreneurs rent camels to stroll along the beach (but there were precious few visitors), and local shops are ready to rent you a surf board. I believe these beaches were very popular with hippies and the surfing crowd in the 60’s, when Jimi Hendrix made them famous with his song “Castles Made of Sand” (locals claim that he visited Morocco twice, one of them before he wrote the song).

From there I headed inland, to visit the small hamlet of Ida Ou Gourd. My goal was to see the remains of the sugar cane plantations that played an important role in the 17th and 18th century trade out of the port of Mogador. The sultan had a profitable exchange with Carrara, Italy, whereby the sultan exchanged, kilo by kilo, sugar for marble. Since there is a lot of Carrara marble in Morocco the sugar cane plantations must had been enormous. Alas, nothing is left of them nowadays, unless the odd tumbling wall could be ascribed as being a ruin of the sugar mills. The valley is fertile compared to the surrounding arid lands, however, so Ida Ou Gourd has become the in place for villas of the upper class (it is too bad that all these villas are behind 12-foot walls, because you can see from the top of the trees that they are surrounded by beautiful gardens). The hamlet itself is the meanest, ugliest, and dirtiest I have seen! I should add here that overall Morocco is a very clean country, where sanitation is made a priority and where the municipal services work really hard at keeping the cities clean. Let the wealthy be the ones that ignore the municipal services of the valley they have taken over!

Back in Essaouira we collected our luggage and took the bus that was to bring us to Marrakech. It was a 3-hour bus ride, and when we got off we all felt the blow of a very warm afternoon. The hotel is great, however, and by the time we got out to visit the central plaza the cool of the afternoon had already set in. The central plaza of Marrakech is all a tourist can dream of: Colorful, exotic, and (thanks to Ramadan) not overly crowded. The problem, as I learned 20 years ago, is that every seller and street performer is out to make some money off the goofy tourists, so some of my peers got badgered by the snake charmer, the water seller, or the fruit vendor for a tip after they had laughed taking their photos. The owners of the market stalls, on their part, may had been weak from a month of fasting but still knew that they only had one chance to make money out of us, so they were at their charming best to draw us into their stalls, only to turn into veritable selling demons once one of our group had fallen into their clutches.

Happy and tired we were getting ready to the painful negotiation with taxis, when one of our number (we were five altogether) talked a horse-drawn carriage to take us to the hotel for a mere 100 dirhams. It was a fun, careless drive, and we have arranged for the carriage to come tomorrow afternoon to take us for a city tour for a very reasonable fee.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 38. Essaouira

The first half of the day was devoted to a guided tour of the medina by Monsieur Hassan. He started by taking us to the port, where he summarized for us key snapshots of the history of the city: Some scholars believe that the large island in front of it was the famous Cerné Island, which according to some old texts was the farthest western port reached by the Phoenicians and Carthagenians in the 6th to 1st centuries BC. The Romans took particular interest on the islands, as the source of the Tyrian purple dye extracted from murex shells found around the offshore islands (the name of Iles Purpuraires dates from this time), and because it was the port through which goods from the fabled Timbuktu reached the coast. The Portuguese occupied the town for brief five years (1505-1510), just long enough to build the battlements that since then have protected the city; even though it was a brief stay they gave the city the name through which it would be known for the next 300 years: Mogadur.

In the 17th and 18th centuries many Jewish-Arab merchants moved into the city, which thrived as one of the most significant African ports (the Jewish population of the city was very significant until large modern vessels became the instrument of trade, after World War II, at which point the shallow bay of Essaouira was bypassed in favor of the deeper port of Agadir, trade declined, and the Moroccan Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel). When the brief French protectorate came to an end, after World War I, Mogadur was renamed Essaouira (a variant of its original Berber name of Souira).

Our guided tour included a visit to the old Jewish quarter, the courtyards where the camel caravans from Timbuktu traded grain, salt and spices, and a visit to the shops where skilled artisans create incredible mosaics of inlaid wood and delicate silver jewelry. Overall an excellent introduction to this great city.

The afternoon was free, for us to explore the city on our own. Some of my fellow travelers planned to go to a Hammam (what we might call a Turkish bath, where you go to sweat and clear your pores), but to me that is insanity after the temperatures we experienced in the desert. Others plan to go for a Moroccan massage, which as far as I have been able to ascertain is just like any old massage so I will pass. Instead I found a bookstore, where the pleasant owner chatted with me at length about Moroccan authors. I then went back to the port to visit the fish market, and to walk through the ramparts taking photographs. I also visited the museum of the city (small but informative), and took a very lazy stroll through the shops of the medina. I saw some magnificent specimens of ammonites, a good foot in diameter, and even a rare fossil of a partially uncoiled ammonite (Baculites sp.) about 18 inches high. I didn’t even dare ask for the price!

Ramadan is about to end, but nobody knows if tomorrow Friday they will still fast. According to my informants, the official end of Ramadan is the first sighting of the crescent moon (or new moon). This was a convenient rule for a rural population, where every small camp could make the determination, but in an urban population the sighting needs to be confirmed by an Imam, so we can be sure that Ramadan will be over by Saturday, but are still unsure about Friday. Will the crescent moon be seen tonight?

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 37. Jbel Toubkal (4,167 m amsl)

After a good night sleep 7 of us tackled the mountain. We were going up to the small shrine that serious mountaineers use as base station to climb Jbel Toubkal (4,167). Much to the disappointment of some of my peers, we were not going to attempt to reach the top of the highest peak in northern Africa (I believe the highest mountain in Africa is Kilimanjaro at 5,895 m amsl), but I was delighted at this opportunity to put my feet on the igneous and metamorphic core of the mountains. Incidentally, I was surprised to see abundant boulders of a latite that looks just like our Table Mountain latite with its big laths of plagioclase; I couldn’t get a clear outcrop anywhere, but one of the boulders had a clear intrusive chilled contact, so I am pretty sure it is a shallow intrusion.

Besides the beautiful scenery and the interesting rocks, I enjoyed the hike very much because of the company of my fellow travelers. Truth is that in a random group you are going to find some “strange” personalities, but they all seem to be home bodies, and in the hiking group we have distilled the more amiable and pleasant personalities. I spent a truly delightful morning.

Back at the home of our guide we had an early lunch (Berber omelet, Moroccan salad, and watermelon), which is probably the best we have had so far, and then got on the mini-bus for the grueling drive west to the coast.

After being in the cool mountains the coastal plain felt hot and dusty, and we were all a bit saddle sore and grumpy when we stopped at a women’s co-op, where the nuts of the argan tree are processed into oil and cosmetic products. The argan tree looks a bit like an almond tree, and just like an almond produces a fruit with a hard “pit” or stone, inside which is the nut. The nut, which resembles a fat almond, is then ground into an oily pulp, which is then pressed and rendered to produce the argan oil. This oil was used for traditional Moroccan cooking (it is high in Omega-3), but then L’Oreal discovered that it was a good base for creams, and from there on the production has shifted into essential oil and skin-care creams. Some of the females of the group were excited about the products (although none of them had ever heard of argan oil), but most of us were chomping at the bit to get to Essaouira, one of the main ports of Morocco on the Atlantic coast.

Essaouira was a dream come true! The coastal air is cool, the city has a happy feeling to it, and the drive was over! When we reached the walls of the Medina we had to unload the mini-bus, hire three porters with small carts to carry our luggage, and plunge into the alleyways of the medina to reach our Riad hotel (i.e., an old grand house in the old Medina that has been modernized to serve as a hotel). A shower had never felt so good!

I fell for the trick again and joined on a group dinner “at the best restaurant in Essaouira” recommended by our guide. It was OK, and the menu included fish instead of the ever present tajine, but it was pricey and not really that good. I am sure I could have done a lot better on my own. As soon as I could I separated from the group and went for a late night stroll of my own. Generally Morocco “feels safe”, and with basic precautions I have never had any worries about moving through the deserted alleyways by myself, but after going on for a few minutes it started to feel creepy. Where were all the people? Turning a corner I got the answer: Everybody was in the marketplace, eating, strolling, or buying the clothes the kids will get on Friday. This feels so much like the Morocco I remember from 20 years ago!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 36. Across the High Atlas (again and again!)

Today was a travel day. We had to get back north, and to do so we have to cross the High Atlas for a second time. We did so using a very winding highway that follows the canyons. It was a perfectly good highway, and our driver was taking its time, but by the time we reached the crest we had many people with queasy stomachs. Fortunately I have a cast iron stomach so I could really enjoy myself looking out the window.

As soon as we were across the mountains we turned southwest, toward Asni, and from there made a hard turn south, once again heading toward the core of the High Atlas. In Imlil, way up the mountain, we left the mini-bus, and ventured on foot into the Toubkal National Park, where we were received for the evening at the house of one of the park guides. His name is Hussein Tajine (yes, just like the most common Moroccan cooking style), and he and his wife make their living from hosting groups of mountaineers. They have three cute girls, 1 through 6, and the 4-year old is a holly terror. Described as cheeky by his adoring father, this beautiful little girl is the undisputed monarch of the house, its inhabitants, and its visitors. She was particularly excited because Ramadan is coming to an end on Friday (today being Tuesday), and on that day all kids will get new clothes (just like in our Christmas).

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 35. Tinghir to Ksar Ait Benhaddou

We left Tinghir with the fresh of 9 am, planning on going west along the southern margin of the High Atlas. Farther to the south, the chain of the Anti Atlas paralleled our way. The area between the two mountain ranges is an arid high plateau, but is crossed by several of the streams coming down from the High Atlas to provide ribbons of agricultural land.

I am still suffering from nasal drip, so in a moment of desperation I took a wad of toilet paper and plugged it into my left nostril. It was like magic (uncomfortable, but still magic), and from there on I didn’t have to sneeze or have watery eyes.

The day was mostly spent in travel, but our guide had the good sense of giving us enough rest stops to make it bearable. By now we have been traveling together for several days, and personalities are becoming better defined. Most of my companions are very agreeable, but there is always a small group of “special” folks who can easily get on your nerves on a long trip.

We went through the small towns of Boumaine Dades (known for its rose water and perfumes), and Kalaat M’Gouna, until eventually we reached the impressive city of Ouarzazate, dubbed the Hollywood of Morocco. This modern city has ample boulevards, nice looking buildings, and at least four movie studios. I had never thought about this, but Morocco being a very stable country has provided the location for many desert movies (Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, and Cleopatra, to name but a few). And here I was thinking that most of them had been filmed in the Mojave Desert. Movie producers like Morocco for the scenery, and for the fact that they have an unlimited supply of set builders and extras.

After lunch in Ouarzazate, a brief drive brought us to a small village with the impressive name of Ksar Ait Benhaddou. A ksar is the collection of several kasbahs, and lo and behold, just across the river from our hotel there is a beautiful ksar that crawls up a small hill to form an imposing medieval fortress. Ksar Ait Benhaddou was a toll point, where caravans moving across the High Atlas had to stop to pay taxes, or to exchange merchandise moving from the desert to the coast and viceversa. This was the happening place from the 13 to the 18th centuries, and in such a long time many waves of history passed through the town. Today it is a World Heritage site, but it is unfortunately decaying, because adobe structures are only good as long as they are being inhabited (they have to be in constant state of repair, or a crack will soon be enlarged to a cleft by running water).

In the afternoon we went for a walk through the ksar, and it really felt like you were walking through history. From high on top you have a beautiful look of the river, its strip of emerald green agriculture, and the endless desert beyond. You also get a nice view of the desert arena of Gladiator J

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 34. Hiking in the High Atlas

The morning was glorious, at least as seen from the depths of the Todra Gorge. Last night we were given the choice between (a) lazing around the pool until lunch time, (b) same as (a) but going for a gentle walk along the river to our lunch place, or (c) going for a 4-hour hike to the top of a nearby mountain. I chose the latter, and by 7 am a group of seven of us got ready to go walking. It was a tough climb, and visions of lounging by the pool kept going through my mind as I huffed and puffed up the trail. A month of doing a lot of sitting has definitely eroded my stamina!

Ah, but the views were fabulous, just like hiking one of the tributaries of Zion or the Grand Canyon. It was early enough that we got a lot of the morning cool, and by 10:30 we made it to the top (and not a moment too soon, if you ask me). The view was absolutely worth the effort, and I spent a few minutes showing my fellow hikers a beautiful example of a reef, a thrust fault, and a series of folds. Really spectacular geology!

One of the highlights of this hike was a visit to an old nomad who lives atop of the mountain. He is 76 years old, speaks only Berber, and welcomes visitors to his high mountain abode. We were invited to his tent, formed of heavy wool blankets, and he immediately went out to gather mountain herbs to invite us a cup of tea. Not two minutes had passed when I felt the urgent need to sneeze, and my left nostril started flowing like crazy. I borrowed a tissue (which became a soggy mess in an instant), and had to excuse myself to go sneeze violently outside of the tent. After a few minutes in the fresh air the itch calmed itself a little, and I came to join the others for tea. As soon as I came into the tent the need to sneeze came back with a vengeance, and while the others chatted with the old man, using our guide as an interpreter, my nose gushed in between the sneezing. That was the start of a miserable half day. I suspect that something in the dust of the old wool blankets brought in a severe allergic reaction, but it could also been that the first sneeze caused a small lesion in the very dry inner left nostril, and that my body is simply trying to generate enough liquid to return it to its normal moist condition.

The way down was mild torture, partly because of the sneezing and partly because by then the heat of the day was being felt in earnest. Once we made it to the bottom of the gorge we platched in the river to cool down and went to our lunch meeting place. Horror of horrors, it was a closed stuffy room lined with wool carpets, so I started my violent sneezing once again. It was so bad that I decided to skip lunch and simply stood by an open window, gulping big batches of warm but clean air.

Once in the hotel I went into the pool, and then napped under the shade, feeling worse and worse. I did have dinner but went to bed early, hoping that a good night sleep would help the healing process. It did to a certain degree, but when I woke up in the morning I had to plug my left nostril with some tissue, so at least I am not gushing as I write this message. But then again I am writing in the veranda of the hotel, looking at the steep limestone cliffs, and a beautiful sight is always a good palliative for the soul. 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 33. The Anti Atlas

We all woke up around 5 am, intent on climbing a dune that must have been at least 150 m in height, with the ultimate purpose of seeing the sunrise over Algeria (yes, we are very close to the border). The climb was tough because the sand is loose and the air you breath is very dry, but the beautiful sunrise was worth the effort. Unfortunately our guides kept calling us down (Yalla, yalla!), so I had to make a dash for the top (I was the only one who made it), just to turn immediately around. The effort brought a series of coughing fits, which only abated once I had drank many little sips of water to moisten my throat.

Right away we got back on the camels, and made it back to our kasbah, for breakfast, just as the sun started beating miserably on us.

Back on the bus we went back to Erfoud, and from there took the road east along the Anti Atlas. We were heading for the town of Tinejdad, crossing the toughest dessert you can imagine, when we came to a landscape dotted with small mounds, about 2 m high and 5 m in diameter. There were hundreds of these mounds, aligned in rows. We stopped in a small store by the side of the road, and learned that these were khanats, a type of irrigation scheme practiced in Persia, north Africa, and Mexico. Imagine a plain that rises gently toward the mountains; the water table would be at a higher elevation near the mountains, so you start excavating a tunnel, maybe 10 m deep, throughout the plains and toward the mountains, with just enough slope that, if it had water, it would allow said water to flow toward the valley. Digging such a long tunnel 700 years ago was a mind-boggling feat of engineering, and since they didn’t have tunnel boring machines a vertical adit would be dug, by hand, every 20 meters, down to the target depth of 10 m. I always thought these tunnels would be barely large enough for a kneeling man to go through, but no, these tunnels were 3 m high and a couple of meters wide. Anyway, you keep going this way toward the mountains, until eventually you hit the elevated water table, after which groundwater seeps into the gallery excavated at such cost of manpower and time, and now you have a pipeline bringing water into the valley, and the adits then become wells from which water can be extracted with a camel skin bucket, a balanced pole with a pot at the end (shadouf), or with a camel-driven water wheel. What is even more mind boggling is that these khanats are several kilometers long, and to cover the valley they were built parallel to each other, maybe 50 m apart. If one is an impressive piece of ancient engineering, 20 of them must represent the labor of several generations of desert dwellers.

For lunch we made a stop in the most amazing village, El Khorbat. On first sight it appeared to be one kasbah after another, so the complex looked like a very complicated fortress. On close inspection, the kasbahs are joined to each other through a maze of covered corridors, so the people can move within the village without having to go into the blazing sun. The kasbahs are large buildings, four stories high plus the level of the watch towers, built with adobe. Each floor is very tall, maybe 4 m tall, so the hot air can rise and keep the room bearable. The walls are 50 cm thick, and are “poured” like concrete using portable forms, but instead of concrete what is poured is a mixture of mud and straw. Surprisingly the walls are very strong, so one floor can be added over the other. The ceilings are supported by beams cut from the date palms, which are apparently bug resistant and can stand for centuries.

El Khorbat has embraced tourism as a good industry, so everyone is friendly, there is a good hostel, and the locals have developed all sorts of options for eco-tourism, including guided bike rides and hikes into the canyons of the High Atlas. They also have a great little museum of Berber culture, with all sorts of artifacts, photos, and “this is how we live” displays, well documented by written explanations in Berber, English, German, Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. They are very simple computer-printed rectangles of paper, but they are very well written, and I found no fault with them in the languages I know (contrary to what you see in airports back home!).

We finally pushed farther west to the town of Tinghir (looks like a charming mountain town from the distance), but once we got there we turned into the Gorge of the Todra River, to reach our abode for the night. From the other side of the river it looks like a grandiose kasbah, but on close inspection it is all fake. Still, they have a swimming pool, and after frying for two days in the desert that is all we care for. So the afternoon today will be devoted to leisure and clothes washing, and tomorrow we will explore our surroundings.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 32. Across the High Atlas and into the Sahara Desert

It was with some sorrow that we departed our comfortable kasbah in Midelt. A kasbah would be the equivalent to one of our haciendas, where several families live together to tend, in this particular case, the beautiful apple orchards that cover the ground all around us, but they are distinguished by being somehow fortified, with a watch tower in very corner of their square plan view. More about this later.

From Midelt we headed south, across the High Atlas. These mountains are twice as high as the Middle Atlas, and the twisting road takes you higher and higher past beautiful outcrops of contorted limestones. Fortunately for me, we made a photo stop right where the basal thrust of the High Atlas has pushed the heavily deformed limestones over the almost undisturbed units of the Anti Atlas (we would call the Anti Atlas the foreland of the orogenic belt, to mean that it is the leading edge of the continent against which the deformation pushed).

Eventually we came into the valley of the Ziz River, which like the Nile forms a thin ribbon of luscious agriculture across the tan colored rocks of the desert. This long “oasis” is well known in Morocco as the source of the best dates. By now the heat is becoming oppressive, so we very much appreciated the shaded garden of the small hotel where we had lunch.

Pushing farther south we came to the city of Errachidia, which is the entrance to the Sahara Desert. It is a beautiful, prosperous town, largely due to the fact that it is the place where the Moroccan army has its headquarters for the forces that guard the border with Algeria (Algeria is regarded here as a dangerous country, where fundamentalists are gaining a foothold). By now we were passing desert shops selling fossils left and right, so finally we stopped at one of them and I bought myself a nice ammonite to decorate the house.

Pushing further south we passed the towns of Erfoud and Tafilat, and from the latter left the paved road to go about 20 km into the desert. It may had been about 6:30 pm when we got to a kasbah, where a caravan of camels was waiting to take us into the desert to a tiny oasis where we were to pass the night. It was a great ride, and for the first time in my life I felt the thrill of going in an expedition to a vast sea of sand. We got to see a beautiful sunset before we got to our camp, after which the temperature dropped to a comfortable level. The Berber camel drivers cooked us a great camp dinner, and showed us into the traditional tents where we were to spend the night. I immediately felt claustrophobic and had to drag my mattress outside, as did many of my fellow travelers.

Our guides made a bonfire and treated us to a concert of drums and Berber chants, and with these sounds I felt profoundly asleep.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 31. Over the Middle Atlas mountain chain.

So far we had been moving steadily east, from Rabat to Meknes to Fez. Today we changed directions, however, and turned south with the intention of crossing the Middle Atlas mountain chain. At some point the Atlas Mountains formed a continuum with the Appalachian Mountains of North America to the south, and the Caledonian Mountains of Great Britain-Greenland-Scandinavia to the north. This mountain chain formed as Laurasia and Gondwanaland sutured together to form the supercontinent of Pangea in the late Permian, only to be segmented during the Mesozoic, as the current continents started to split apart. This is one of the cornerstones of the plate tectonics theory, so I am particularly happy to be able to see the Atlas Mountains.

As we traversed the country I saw a few shops selling rocks and fossils, among which I recognized ammonites of good size. Unfortunately our guide had planned to stop at a rock shop tomorrow, so he didn’t call for a shopping stop for me.

As I said, we headed south from Fez, and within an hour we were climbing the foothills of the Atlas, driving into a cypress forest that was pleasantly cool compared with Fez. After a couple of hours we stopped in the most beautiful Alpine village imaginable, Ifrane, where we stopped to have a cup of coffee and to buy the makings of lunch. I took advantage of the break to walk a bit through the city, which was refreshing and beautiful. The houses look much like Swiss chalets, because the snowfall in winter requires steep roofs. I also saw quite a few storks nesting on the chalet roofs, which reinforced the similarity with European mountain villages. Once I got to the coffee shop I found a street vendor waiting for me; my buddies had told him I was in the market for fossils, and he had a nice little Bakelite box with a neat collection of Moroccan fossils, which included a trilobite, a couple of small ammonites, belemnites, sea urchins, and a fine collection of shark teeth. He wanted US $25 for it, but I didn’t want to carry so I kept saying “no thanks”. He kept dropping the price to convince me, and I finally gave in when he hit US $15. They are nice fossils, but how am I to get them home?

Continuing south we went over the Middle Atlas by a 1,000 m high pass, and dropped slightly into the high plateau that separates the Middle and High Atlas. The cedar forest is gone, replaced by grasslands where nomadic Berbers tend to big flocks of sheep. They live in typical Berber tents, and are continuously in the move from the highlands in summer, to the coastal lowlands during the winter.

At about 3:30 pm we pulled into our eco-friendly hostel, in the town of Midelt. It is a fabulous Moroccan castle surrounded by apple orchards, with one court after the other, nice arbors covered with grapevines, roof gardens, and even some decorative turrets. They do have a water tank for irrigation that has been adapted as a pool, so I started the disorder, changed into my swimsuit, and plunged in. Half an hour later half of the group was in the water enjoying a refreshing swim. Afterward we went for a walk that took us to a mini-Grand Canyon, carved through flat-lying Paleozoic limestones, just before the foothills of the High Atlas. We were all so happy to be out and about that our guide has promised that from now on we will have an afternoon hike. This is what I came to Morocco for! 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 30. Fez (or is it Fés?)

Ah, Fez, the city of One Thousand and One Nights. Modern Fez is of course a young, growing city, but the old Medina (the core of the city) goes back to 700 AD, and certainly bears well 1,400 years of history. Today we had our first lady guide, Hakima, who courageously undertook the task of guiding 16 cats through a labyrinthine city. By now we know who is going to always be last, so we are taking turns herding this particular cat, but that means that we move slowly, just like the much scorned tourist groups do. And like said scorned tourist groups we made a stop at a pottery and mosaic shop, where our guides get a little kickback for getting us there. Mind you, it was supper interesting seeing the raw kaolinite-rich mudstone they quarry from the nearby hills; the whole molding, drying, decorating, and firing processes; and the tile making process. What totally floored me is the way they make a mosaic table, fountain, or palace wall: First you fire tile on each of the colors you plan to use (green, red, blue, gray, orange, yellow, and black being the common colors). Second, a group of men chip away with a sharp chisel the different shapes that will be used (squares, triangles, wedges, half moons, parallelograms, or stars). Mind you, these are really tiny pieces, maybe a centimeter long, and they have to chip thousands of them from each tile. Third, the master creates the design in his head, and then lays the chips against each other, face down! That is right, he cannot see the colors that he is laying down, so if he makes a mistake the whole thing can be ruined. It might take him a couple of weeks to put the puzzle together for a garden table (and months if it is a special design, such as the emperor and his 500 wives). Once the puzzle is set, the steel frame of the table is placed over the puzzle, and the puzzle and table are bound together by grout. Let it dry for another week and, presto, you have a fancy table to have afternoon tea. Lovely, but how would you take it home? No problem. For US $800 they will be glad to ship it to you, properly protected by a wooden frame!

Then we went for a walk through the labyrinth of the market place, wondering at the great variety of olives, sweets, galabeeyas, and bronze house furnishings, all the time headed for the tannery (or the terrace overlooking the tannery because the latter is quite slippery and stinky). As soon as we got there we got a branch of mint (to fend off the stench) and were courteously taken to the top floor, where a knowledgeable salesman gave us an overview of the tanning process. I remained behind in the terrace while the group was escorted to the lower floors to admire the beautiful work done in leather, including sandals, jackets, purses, wallets, boots and a dozen other articles. Some of my fellow travelers did a bit of shopping, and I enjoyed the visit, but spending an hour and a half on what should have been a 15 minute visit (just like we did at the pottery shop) is beginning to get on my nerves.

We had another lazy lunch together, and as soon as it was over I offered my excuses to the guide and took off for a solo exploration of the souk. It is a bit confusing, but it is not infinite as you first imagine, and after two hours of going round I began recognizing market stalls and where to turn to get to where I wanted to go. OK, now that I got it the time had come to go out and see more of the town. Yes, it is a town, and the market place is just a small part of it. Not only that, but the city council has invested on some useful signs to show different paths through the town: The Path of the Mosques, the Path of the Gardens, or the Path of the Palaces. It is too bad that by that time I was hot and bothered, because I didn’t have the strength to crack that puzzle, but I think I am going to suggest these paths to our guide as an alternative for her non-shopping clients.

When I felt ready to get home I took a Petit Taxi to the vicinity of the hotel, but actually found the energy to go to Carrefour, the modern supermarket, where I enjoyed browsing through the corridors to guess at what the modern Moroccan homemaker was planning to have for dinner. My favorite, as always, was the aisle of spices, where I found cous-cous spices, tagine spices, and the all important Ras El Hanout, a unique spice mix of pepper, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, and rose petals. Anyone interested in cooking with flowers?

Still enjoying my new found freedom I went to dinner to a small restaurant that faces the Boulevard Hassan II, where for US $10 I had a wonderful dinner with Moroccan salad (a type of cob salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce), a good side of steamed vegetables, a delicious tagine of chicken cooked in preserved lemons and olives, a big bottle of fizzy water, and a café au lait. I think we have been systematically paying twice as much for our meals than non-tourists do. As I was sipping my coffee my friends went by, looking for a place to eat. They are a good group of people, but simply by moving as a pack they radiate the aura of tourists half a mile away. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 29. Meknes to Fez

Today we had the morning free to explore Meknes, and by 8 am I was already in the old city, only to find out that everything was closed L A bit later I serendipitously met some of the members of my group, and with the power of many managed to find a very charming old gentlemen, who held the keys to the mausoleum of King Ismail (ca. 1650 to 1710). Back then Morocco was a powerful empire that extended over what now is Algeria and Tunisia, and the King was the official sponsor of the famous Barbary Pirates, who preyed on Mediterranean commerce. Whenever a ship was captured the women would be sent to the harems of the powerful, the male passengers and officers were held for ransom by their governments, and the sailors would become slaves. The King kept the prisoners held for ransom in an underground prison (and here our charming host produced, as if by magic, the keys to the dungeons), notified the ambassadors of the corresponding nation about the captives, and waited for months until the ransom was delivered. In the dungeons, the prisoners dragged a ball by a chain attached to their ankles, and withered sleeping in straw and very basic food and drink, with some air and sunlight entering through the vents in the ceiling. The British battled the Barbary Pirates with little success, but were certainly a thorn on the side of the kings, so when the 16 American colonies declared themselves independent, the Moroccan Empire was the first to recognize them as a new nation.

Meknes was the capital of the empire only during the reign of King Ismail (before and after the capital was either in Fez, Casablanca, or Rabat.

The temperature is soaring, so after a short walk through the marketplace I sat with a couple fellow travelers to drink mint tea in the shade. At noon we met with our guide, who took us to the house of one of our vendors, to have a lunch of camel burgers. Very good indeed.

After lunch we boarded a little bus that took us to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis (100 BC to 500 AD). When Rome defeated Carthage in 176 BC, it immediately started colonizing the Mediterranean zone. In Morocco the most important Roman city was Tanger, which is a coastal city. Volubilis, in contrast, is a good 100 miles inland, but overlooks a very fertile valley. Springs in the mountains provided the water to be transported to the city via aqueducts, so Volubilis grew to become a rather large city. The city decayed after the separation of the Western and Eastern Roman empires, but was occupied on and off by local tribes, until the 1755 Lisboa earthquake destroyed it completely (the earthquake was devastating throughout northern Africa).

The temperature was 44ºC, but our enthusiastic local guide, who was a font of knowledge, did not let the heat deter him, and he gave us a marvelous tour of the city. Some archeologic restoration has been done, so you can see the walls of a large country estate, the baths, the temple of Jupiter, the Christian Basilica, the triumphal arch, the brothel, and the columns of the forum, but what I found most wonderful were the beautiful floor mosaics. My favorite sight so far.

We arrived to Fez around 6 pm, settled in our hotel (OK, but not as luxurious as the one in Meknes), and by 7 pm went out for a very special dinner in the old city. A family has turned their home into a restaurant, where you eat fixed menu of small plates of beets, eggplant, rice, potatoes, carrots, hummus, and olives; followed by a delicious flaky pastry filled with a yummy chicken stew. It was absolutely delicious, and we all groaned with satisfaction when we stood up from the table. And now we better go to bed, because tomorrow we will be walking all day around Fez

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 28. Rabat and Meknes

We were advised to take a Petit Taxi to the Mosque Hassan II (the now deceased father of the current king), so Eve, Dan, and I caught a Grand Taxi (and at 40 dirahms or US $4 were overcharged) and were there at 8:30 am, ready for the 9 am tour. The mosque is absolutely enormous, with a total capacity of 25,000 men and 15,000 women. Empty it looks even larger. The workmanship was, of course, of the first quality, but otherwise it was kind of plain, without Coranic writings or great decorations. Noteworthy is the system of running water they use for cooling it.

Somehow I got separated from Eve and Dan, but shared a Petit Taxi with Nancy and Sally, and got back to the hotel for only 10 dirhams or US$ 1). Forget the big taxis!

At 10:30 am we got on a little bus that took us to the supermodern train station, where we boarded the 1-hour train to Rabat, which is currently the capital city of Morocco. There we had lunch, stored our luggage with the friendly shop keeper, and went for a walk in the old market and the original fortress, the latter of which now encloses a pretty garden. They had an exhibition on the prehistory of the area that I found fascinating. Not that I should be surprised, but Homo erectus lived here 500,000 years ago, as demonstrated by the finding of Acheluian stone kits, followed by Homo sapiens neandertalensis and its Mousterian stone kit, and finally by Homo sapiens sapiens and its Neolithic stone kits. Come to think about it, the rivers that drain the north coastal plain of Morocco would have been a perfect place for human habitation.

Back at the train station in Rabat we drew lots and got in First Class, AC cabins for the 3-hour ride to Meknes. Well, it was the sauna ride, because the AC was not working, and the closed cabins turned themselves into Turkish baths. I was riding with Jennifer and Annette, and we three were totally drenched by the time we got to Meknes and our supermodern hotel, where the AC works to perfection!

Reflecting on my fellow travelers, there is a clear trend of independent travelers who are for the first time trying this group thing (just like me!). This means that it is hard keeping the group together. Everyone here has several countries under their belts, so the initial conversations were directed at probing how extensive the other one has traveled. We have an excess of women (10) versus guys (6), and quite a few are teachers taking advantage of the long summer vacation, just like me!

At dinner I had my first tajine of lamb with prunes. Hmmm … delicious!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 27. Lisbon to Casablanca.

Maya and I had a delightful morning, walking around the shorefront of the Tagus River. Today is Sunday, so the place was hopping. There was a 10 km race going on, tourists were pouring from buses at an amazing rate, and the locals were there in force bicycling, jogging, or just walking with the kids and dogs. Along the river front there is an amazing monument to the Portuguese explorers that looks like the prow of a ship. Thirty or so of Portugal’s great explorers were represented climbing along the sides of the ship, at the front of whom was Prince Henry the Navigator (cynics say that it looks like everyone else is pushing Henry into the river). As I said before, Prince Henry never travelled himself, but he was crazy about cartography, maps, and captain logs. He was without doubt the drive behind the great voyages of exploration, and is credited with the idea of leaving behind a few goats and pigs wherever the explorers landed, so when they went back a few years later there would be a local source of food.

We also visited the Tower of Belem, which was one of the two bastions guarding the mouth of the Tagus River against unwelcome incursions by pirates or enemy fleets. It is a handsome structure and, as a bonus, we discovered that all museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, which happens to be today!

With the knowledge that museums were free we went nuts, and in less than two hours visited the Museum of Popular Art, the Museum of Lisbon Archaeology, and the Monastery of Jeronimos. The latter was … breath-taking. Now, I have visited many monasteries and cloisters in Mexico and around the world, and I have seen some truly outstanding ones, but I have never seen anything so impressive like the cloister of Jeronimos. The white limestone has been carved with delicious detail, and the result is a harmonious symphony in stone that you cannot get tired of looking out. Incidentally, the monastery was built with the proceedings of the very lucrative spice trade, so locally it is referred to as the Pepper Palace.

By noon it was time for me to take off for the airport, so we had a celebratory Pastei de Belem, and I said goodbye to my dear Mayita. I know she will do great in the rest of the time she has in Europe, and am convinced that she will never forget the experience.

The trip to the airport was uneventful, the flight was on time, and I landed in Casablanca at 4:30 and was out of customs by 5:30, preparing to work my way via taxi to downtown Casablanca. Then, to my surprise, I saw the name of the tour group I am joining held by a smiling young man. I reported myself and after three other people were picked up we headed for the city. The secret here is that I was not in the list of people who needed to be picked up, but were lucky enough that some other people were being picked up and I simply went along for the ride!

Casablanca has a very modern airport, about 25 km from the city. The highway connecting them looks fairly new, and as we approached the city I saw modern glass-lined buildings, and all the trappings of a vibrant economy. The old core of the city, however, has clearly seen better times. The buildings are large and have interesting architecture, but they have been neglected so the whole ensemble has a sad aspect. It reminded me of my visit to Alexandria, in Egypt.

I arrived a little late to the initial meeting, which started at 6 pm, but I got the basic info, and during dinner I started the process of getting acquainted with my 14 fellow travelers. This may change once I get to know the better, but right now there seems to be 2/3 Australians and 1/3 Americans. Looks like a good group.

Muslims are now celebrating Ramadan, a very holy month of fasting when devoted Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. It is hard when this fast falls in the summer, because the day is 17 hours long and when the temperature can rise to 40ºC. Curiously, when Faby and I were in Morocco 20 years ago, in January, they were also celebrating Ramadan, but then it was in winter, when it was cool and the days were short.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 26. Another hard day of tourism in Lisbon.

For our second and last full day in Lisbon we decided that each one of us should chose a place to visit. Maya decided that she wanted to see the Panteon Nacional, which she had seen from the height of the Lisbon Fortress on her first day. The map, I am sorry to say, deceivingly put it by the shore, whereas in reality it was half way up the mountain of the Alfama (the very old quarter of the city, built when Portugal was under Arab rule, and accordingly a maze of narrow streets and cul-de-sacs). The good thing is that we got to see this iconic portion of the city, but we were totally winded and sweaty by the time we got there, only to find that it is a huge mausoleum built in snow white marble, but with little else. We didn’t even go outside because we felt it was not worth the 4 euros they wanted to charge us.

Incidentally, the Alfama district is where the Fado houses are, so in every nook and cranny you find a quaint little restaurant offering live music in the evenings. It is a really pretty part of the city.

Once we got out of our perch we took the tourist bus to the Park of Nations, the complex built when the city hosted the world expo in 1998. There we stopped for my choice of a place to see, to visit the Oceanarium, an aquarium of which the city is rightfully very proud. Before going into the aquarium we lunched on a paella de mariscos, which was good, but not as good as the paella we made in Paris. The aquarium was great. It is build around an enormous tank where all sorts of fishes co-exist. We saw schools of silvery fishes swirling in great clouds around the rocks, sharks eyeing them mournfully, rays, tuna, and two Moonfish, which are about the ugliest thing I have ever seen in my life. They are basically a half fish; yes, just a big ugly head that swims around on left over fins, lacking a body (I wonder if this is what inspired the idea of seraphims and cherubins?). Then, on the corners of the tank, and in two different levels, the aquarium has exhibits related to the different oceans, and to coral reefs, penguin rookeries, and the Arctic Circle. It was well done, and we had a great time, although every exhibit was a bit preachy about the imminent demise of the oceans unless we stop eating fish (good luck telling that to the Portuguese, who seem to have fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

By the time we got back to downtown we were pretty tired. We made a quick visit around the Mercado de la Ribeira, drank a glass of cherry liquor typical of Lisbon, and then headed back to our hostel, intent on having an early dinner and getting to bed at a reasonable time. I am writing this blog in the back garden of the hostel, enjoying a drink, and I can hear Maya chatting and laughing with young people from Holland, Bulgaria, Ireland, and China. I think this trip to Europe will be unforgettable to her!

P.S. We went out for a celebratory dinner and they had caracois (snails). Not the big escargot, but a smaller type about a half-inch in diameter. We asked for a half order and they brought us a small mountain of them, cooked in a tasty broth. I am proud of Maya, who happily tucked in. It is true that we learn all sorts of new things while traveling!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 25. Beautiful Lisbon.

How do you see a large and vibrant city in two days? You avail yourself of the tourist bus, which for a flat fee of 30 euros will take us around all over the city for the next 48 hours, with hop on-hop off privileges, so we can spend time visiting whatever is most interesting to us. The city of Lisboa is developed at a bend of the Tajo River (Rio Tejo or Tagus in Portuguese), near its opening into the Atlantic (in relative position it is where Sausalito is with respect to the mouth of San Francisco Bay, so the river forms the south and east boundaries of the city). Our hostel is in what used to be the port of Belem, to the southwest of the old city, although nowadays it is just a far away suburb of the city. This port played a big role in the maritime history of the city, which is why the Marine Museum and other important buildings are located here, so the first leg of our touristy trip took us along the banks of the river, where the original warehouses have been replaced by monuments, museums, and fancy restaurants. We have scheduled a walk through this area for Sunday, two days from now, on the morning of the day I fly to Casablanca.

Once we got to the core of the old city we hopped off the bus and took the electric tram (included in our tickets) for a spin up the hills of the old city. It was fun, but the tram moved very slowly, partly because of traffic, and partly because it never fails that some idiot has parked on the tracks to run a quick errand so we had to wait and wait. Afterward we needed a walk, so we followed the tourist streets, which were pleasantly busy but not packed. We took this chance to get lunch at a small restaurant, where the dish of the day were grilled sardines. We devoured them with gusto, even though Maya discovered that they had not been gutted. Oh well, when in Rome

Back on the bus we headed for the newer portions of Lisbon, and we were very impressed. Yes, the city has a glorious past and its downtown is very quaint, but the modern Lisbon is beautiful, gleaming, and in the high speed lane of commerce and industry. It has many times been compared with San Francisco, and I think it bears the comparison well, even to the extent that it too experienced a devastating earthquake and fire in 1755. This event destroyed much of the old, helter-skelter city, so the then mayor, the Marquis de Pombal, took the opportunity to redesign the city plan, include gardens and avenues, and overall prepared it to grow well during the following 250 years.

In 1998 the city hosted the world expo, and the remaining installations have now been converted into an ultramodern high tech park and living area, which we are going to visit at length tomorrow.

By the time 5 pm rolled around we were getting pretty tired, so we decided to get back to the hostel to get some rest. Maya wants to go back to the city, where they are having a free concert of Portuguese music in the evening, so I thought a nap would be a very good way to prepare for what promises to be a late night. We headed out at 10 pm, and by the time we got to the main plaza the place was packed and the concert was in full swing. The Portuguese are very fond of a music style they call Fado (destiny), which entails a sad and plaintiff recounting of the vagaries of destiny, accompanied by masterful guitar playing. We enjoyed it for a while, but I don’t think it was what Maya would consider “a concert”, so by 11:30 pm she gave the signal to depart, and by 12:30 am we were back in our hostel for a well deserved night of rest.