Fez, Morocco/Lisbon, Portugal 2019

This is the medina side of the Blue Gate. Blue when entering, but green (Islamic for peace) as you leave the city.

1 MAD (Moroccan Dirham) = about $0.10

Thursday February 28

As with most of our vacations, the journey does not start with an airplane. This time, as the schedule would have it, El worked in New York City a couple days this week and I am on my way to meet her before our flight leaves from JFK tonight. I start my journey on the train from Albany to New York City. I will pull into Penn around 11:00am and meet El for an afternoon in the city before heading to the airport closer to 8:00pm tonight. Coincidentally, mom and dad are in the city today and we are exploring an opportunity to meet up with them this afternoon, but we will see if the variables are on our side. Morocco. Why Morocco? Because it was what is next for us. Over the year we considered many places, with Uruguay and Cambodia making the short list. Every year a safari in South Africa gets considered, but only long enough for me to start looking at the costs then it gets relinquished to a future trip with no timeframe. El has not yet been to Africa and now seemed like as good a time as any to get both of us on the same continent count and leave the other perennial destination consideration, Antarctica, for last so we could both reach #7 at the same time. I have wanted to visit Africa for awhile, but haven’t done much research beyond a map to see where it would be fun to visit. I would certainly like to visit Kenya or Rwanda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and of course, South Africa, but Morocco seemed like a more accessible destination so I started to look into options of where to go and what to do. My first inclination was to consider what I knew about Morocco. Casablanca, Marrakesh, Rabat, Fez, Tangier and maybe one or two more cities. I think Casablanca is the biggest city, so I looked into that. However, much of the research that I was doing was steering me away from Casablanca and towards Fez. I don’t know many people who have been to Morocco and even fewer have spent quality time in Fez, but the blogs and travel sites I was reading consistently put Fez above all others. It didn’t take long to switch my focus and since I have no personal knowledge of any city, they all started on a level playing field. Before long I had laid out flights and it looked like many of the cheapest flights flew through Portugal. Upon further inspection, the airline offered an extended layover in Lisbon at no additional charge. Though we were not necessarily looking to visit Europe this year, we felt that we should take advantage of the offer. Once we really got down to laying out the flights and dates, it started to get a little more complicated since the direct flights between Portugal and Fez seem to only run on certain days of the week which frequently resulted in less time in Morocco than we wanted or less time in Lisbon than we wanted. In the end we did have to make a couple of minor sacrifices, but if everything goes as planned, I think we will be happy with how the chips fell. No doubt that the beginning of the year has thrown us some major stumbling blocks including a death in the family and an unplanned layoff, but we have fortitude to forge ahead. To say we need to get away is an understatement, especially in this brutally cold winter. So, at 11:30pm tonight, we leave for Lisbon to get our connection to Fez. I am already not sure how we will get from the airport to the riad, but challenging our comfort zones is what it’s all about and what better way to do that than to jump in feet first upon arrival. For future reference, a riad, is a type of multi-level, Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard. They can be private residences, but many have been converted to multi-room guesthouses. Less formal than a motel/hotel and the quality can range from run down to luxury. I think I have some fun stuff planned for us over the next week and will be hopeful they will go a long way to clear our heads and keep us focused on the rebuilding of our lives upon our return. We spent a fun afternoon in NYC and met up with mom, as dad is feeling under the weather, and took her to the Campbell Apartment. Those drinks were really good. After dropping mom off at her hotel (I couldn’t bear to see her take a taxi when the subway from Grand Central is so easy), El and I jump on the subway to Queens to take the airtrain out to JFK. We know we are significantly early, but we have already eaten and had drinks and at this point, it is better to hang at the airport instead of in the city and risk being late. We arrive before the gates open, but we have a little more than boarding passes to discuss with the agent. We make our way into the forming line, knowing that the counters aren’t open yet. We take this time to rearrange our luggage, throwing NYC coats into our checked baggage and changing from walking around shoes to our flying shoes. Once the counters open we are among the first in line. At this point we have two potential issues. One is that the website for our airline (TAP airlines) has no place to add our known traveler (TSA precheck) number which is supposed to be added to the reservation at least 48 hours in advance. I called the airline weeks ago to have this info added. The second issue, is that this morning when I checked in online, the system assigned our seats apart (one of us in row 8 the other in row 29), but, for a $52 seat change fee, they would gladly move us around to different, adjoining seats. I called the airline, but they say only an agent can make this change, but that he would go ahead and block off two adjacent seats that would be able to be reassigned to us. Problem is that neither of these people did what they said they would. So, after giving us the upcharge pitch to change the seats and confirming that our TSA numbers had not been added to the reservations, she offered for us to return to the counter in an hour and that she would be able to waive the fee. She was taking a longer time than I expected to process our boarding passes and check our bags and at the end she handed me our passports and boarding passes and said “thank you, you can pick up your bag in Fez”. I confirmed that I would be back in an hour to get the reassignment and she kindly said that she had taken care of everything! Our TSA Precheck had been added to the boarding passes and the seat reassignments had been made with the fee waived! We were good to go and literally, three minutes later we were through the screening process heading to the gate. Now we just needed to wait three hours for our boarding call. Luckily, there are some bars in the terminal who are more than happy to take our cash. We spend our waiting time journaling, knitting, chatting, and drinking. The weather is good. The flight is on time, according to the boards and we are officially on vacation. Life is good!

Friday March 1

It is 3:45am and we are flying over the Azores. 1h45m to Lisbon where we will have a three hour layover before heading on to Fez. I have been able to sleep most of the flight so far, if you can call it that. As usual, I can’t get a good position for my neck, my back is aching, I wake completely dehydrated so my sinuses are a mess too. Luckily, I have a bottle of water that keeps me from needing to run back to the attendant station every 10 minutes. To top it off, I burnt my tongue something fierce on my soup at lunch, so it is feeling like sandpaper. Achy sandpaper. I wonder if we can use the water to brush our teeth in Morocco, I think I will check on that now. We land in Lisbon without incident. During the layover we freshen up and grab a coffee and light snack. We find an ATM and take a nominal amount of cash out. One, to make sure our card is working (we only use it when we are travelling) and also to have some cash on hand when we come back later next week. El had been able to do some SIM card research before we left and knows what she is looking for. This part of the airport, though does not have a Vodaphone kiosk and research on the current options tells her to wait until we return later in the week. Our flight to Fez is scheduled for 1:00pm, it is now 12:17 and we should board shortly.

The skies are very sunny over the Atlantic today and the inflight food is pretty weak, but the flight lasts only 1h45m. We are both in dire need of a shower and some solid rest, though I was able to catch another hour of nap on this flight- having now slept through both take offs- I can’t help but think that I am overly tired. We land on time and make our way through the passport control and customs very quickly. It is a very small airport (there are only 4 gates, and you have to walk to and from the plane) and we are the only plane landing right now, so all attention is on our small planes worth of people. After passport control, El and I split up. She exits the customs and heads to the concourse to buy a SIM card and get to an ATM. I, on the other hand head to baggage claim before clearing customs. When I exit, El has already gone to the ATM and found out from the info desk that there is no SIM card kiosk in this airport. You can buy a card in a cigarette shop, but by the time she decides to try it, the shop has closed for the night. Our next challenge is that as either of us exited customs, we see no sign with our names from car services picking us up. It certainly sounded too good to be true. You see, last month I signed up for a walking tour on our first full day in Fez. Then, around the same time, I was researching the options for transport from the airport to the riad asking if metros or buses were an option. If this is something you arrange with the riad or if they can provide a recommendation? Are there shuttle buses? During my research I had the walking tour company offer us a free taxi to the riad! Doesn’t that sound a little too good to be true? I am not sure what the angle is, I cautiously accepted, doing enough research to have an idea of how much a taxi from the airport would run (about 150 MAD). I paid nothing up front. If he shows, I ask the price, he says free, I give a good tip. He does not show or tells me an outrageous amount, I expect I can find another taxi, as it is an airport after all. One by one the drivers waiting on passengers meet with their clients and exit the terminal. Maybe our guy is not inside, but outside near the other taxis? No signs with our name. We try to go back in to the terminal, but they won’t let us back in through the exit, we have to now go through the entrance with the presecurity check- getting all of our baggage rescanned and all metal out of the pockets routine. We have no SIM card, but El is able to get onto the airports free wifi. As I look around we are now, the last passengers from our plane still here. Everyone else has met their connection. We email the company to see if someone is coming, and they are surprisingly responsive. “Yes, he is on his way”, “yes, he should be there now”, “yes, he is there waiting for you, what do you look like?” Ummm, at this point we are the only Americans with luggage standing among a swarm of taxi drivers who want our business in the worst way- we shouldn’t be that hard to spot! The response comes, that this is a new driver who did not know to meet us at the terminal and instead is waiting in the parking lot. Moments later, Sayid arrives and helps us with our bags. I was not asked to pay any money. During the ride, the driver puts me on the phone with my coordinator contact who asks for a “thousand sorries” and explains what is going to happen now. This driver will take us to the medina (the walled part of the city) which is where we will meet our tour guide for tomorrow. Really, this guy has no obligation to us until our walking tour tomorrow, yet he is going to show up and meet us tonight? He will then take us to meet a representative from the riad who will in turn get us to the riad. And, you know what? That is exactly how it played out! Driver Sayid drove us from the airport to the medina where we met Mohammed who will be our guide tomorrow. Mohammed spends the short ride further into the medina introducing himself and assuring us that we will have a great tour tomorrow. Before long we would pull over and get out and get introduced to our fixer, named Hassan.

El and I with our fixer, Hassan

walking through the dimly lit medina at night. Though we encountered no issues, you can see how it could get real creepy, real fast!

A young man who works for the riad. He does not say much, but grabs El’s suitcase as we follow obediently we delve squarely into the labyrinth that is the medina of Fez. I am reminded of the old section of Jerusalem with its mazes of alleyways and paths that are paved with reasonably level cobblestones that aren’t difficult to walk on now, but probably get a bit slick during a rain event. The “streets” are only about 6 feet wide and no cars could fit in here if they wanted to. I have not even seen any bicycles, though I suppose that could work. I won’t know until I see it. We are sure to remain with Hassan as he twists and turns through the corridors trying to take in the scenery, trying to make mental notes of landmarks that are less of the street sign type and more of the turn left at the pile of concrete block type. We arrive at the riad and it is much smaller and more casual than I expected. Hassan drops our bag and tells us to sit and wait. We obey and he returns a few minutes later with two glasses of fresh mint tea. We drink the tea. Mint is not my favorite, but this wouldn’t be the worst thing I ingest tonight! Hassan takes us to our room, that smells like a sewer. This ain’t the Marriott! We tell him that we need to buy a SIM card for the phone and get some food and know that we have no idea where to go for those or more importantly, how to get back afterwards. Hassan says he will go out to get us food if we tell him what we want. Not sure of our options, we ask if we can go with him and promise not to take too long making our decisions. He takes us back the way we came and we already are starting to recognize the mental landmarks. He assures us we will only be lost for the first day or two and then we will know how to find the riad on our own. Our first stop is a grilled meat vendor that Hassan recommends. A local seal of approval works for me. This man tends to a hibachi with skewered meat over charcoal. He periodically squirts some water on the coals to create some scented steam. He then turns on an oscillating fan to act as a bellow for the coals, but a side benefit it also force wafts the scent of the grill into the path of passers by- making the corridor smell like fresh grilled meat. Hassan confirms our order of two sandwiches without vegetables (fresh lettuce and tomatoes should be avoided my western stomachs), 20 MAD each is the price and we press on to the phone card store called INWI. We arrive just as the gates are being lowered at the end of the day and in the moment, resign to coming back tomorrow morning, the riad has free wifi and we don’t plan on doing much else tonight anyway. But Hassan peeks under the gate which is down enough to indicate he is closing, but up enough to let the single customer inside out (or let Hassan in to ask if he would be willing to help us out). The guy answers in the affirmative and now the three of us find ourselves inside. El works with the guy while Hassan and I chat outside about a host of things. We find ourselves next to a peanut vendor who has set up shop on the street. I wander over and figure out what he is selling and ask how much. 5 MAD for 100 grams. The vendor asks me to taste so I grab a single peanut and eat it- much to the horror of both Hassan and the purveyor. As I stand indicating my approval of the single nut, both men quickly grab a peanut and demonstrate the method of rubbing the skin off with your fingers and eating only the skinless nut, I don’t have a problem eating the skin, though I do see that some nuts have more salt on them than others, and that deskinning them probably does give them more of a uniform taste of saltiness. I take my order, wrapped in a makeshift newspaper cone and walk away labeled the crazy American that eats his peanuts with the skin on. It takes El a bit longer than anyone assumed it would to make the SIM card purchase, but I have so little knowledge of any of that stuff, that I know my limitations and stand back to not interfere with her expertise. It takes as long as it takes, I buy the snacks and she buys the SIM cards- we make a good team. Once we move on (after about ½ hour) we go back to the sandwich vendor where Hassan had ordered our dinner. The grill is full of meat skewers and obvious organ meats.

grilling random organ meats that will end up on sandwiches, including mine!

There are skewers of white meat and dark meat. Each sandwich has one light and one dark skewer inside. When we arrive back at the stand, our order is waiting for us wrapped and bagged, ready to pay and go. 40 MAD and we are on our way. Hassan has other guests that he needs to tend to, so after dropping us at the riad, he leaves to meet them while El and I eat. We dig into the sandwiches that both have a pronounced spicy component as well as a strong grill flavor. It hits the spot as we pick at the peanuts as our side dish and wash it down with a Coke. The chicken is very nice and I could eat a whole sandwich of just the chicken. It is the unknown component of the dark skewers that are not bad but certainly give the meal a contrasting texture and flavor- though the overpowering spice and grill flavors seem to mask any potential unpleasantness. We are almost done with our sandwiches when Hassan returns and we figure this is the better time to ask what we are eating. “Hey Hassan, what kind of meat is this?” I ask. “Chicken.” he says. “No, that was the white skewer, what is the other one? The dark one?” Well, when your fixer, whose English by all accounts, is excellent, replies with “I don’t know how to say it in English,” you can figure that answer ain’t “more chicken”! El and Hassan work through their French, English, and Google translate to come up with “goat or sheep hearts”. Though I might have liked to know before I ate it, I relish in the fact that I am done eating and don’t need to take additional bites. I may look to avoid organ meats. It’s not that I can’t eat them, it’s that I just don’t want to! [note to self: double chicken, zero hearts next time]…and with the taste of this sandwich, there will be a next time! Knowing that we have to be up and out to meet our walking tour at 10:00am, we have to plan to shower and eat before walking down to the center to meet our guide, we decide to call it a night and are in bed around 9:30. Hopefully we can get ourselves on the new schedule sooner than later.

Saturday March 2

It was a pretty good night’s sleep and I am surprised just how silent the riad is. Not only from the inside, but with no cars or motor vehicles on the streets, there is little to make noise outside- only the 4:30am call to prayer and the occasional cat fight. We get up at 8:00 and shower and get downstairs to eat around 9:10. Youness has prepared a full spread of breads, juice, mint tea, and coffee as well as eggs, hard boiled. Every time I thought we were done, he brought more food out. Eventually, other guests arrived and his attention shifted to them. We were full by the end. One nice surprise was when he brought a pitcher of steamed milk that was added to freeze dried Nescafe to make a creamy, warm, latte that was surprisingly good. At 9:50 we tell Hassan that we are ready to leave and we make our way to the center trying to remember the route. We are almost there, but do make one key directional error that Hassan needs to correct. We meet Mohammed at 10:00 as agreed and start our 6-hour tour of Fez with him, and our driver, Sayid. On the way to the first stop, Mohammed questions us about what we know of Fez and what we want to see. We pull out our list of researched things to do while we are here. We read off things like The Blue Gate, the University, the mosque, and the tanneries. We know very little of any of these items, but if we wind up seeing some, any, most, all of them during our time here, we will consider it a successful trip. Our first stop is the king’s palace. It has ornate mosaic work and is very beautiful architecturally and stylistically.

one of the gates into the king's palace with intricate tilework and metal artistry (enlarged to show detail)

He explains that the king is considered like a hero to the poor here. As we admire the mosaic work on the palace, Mohammed explains that the king could have had any master craftsman create the intricate tilework that adorns the palace, but instead asked specifically for local artisans to perform the work so that the money went to support these local craftsmen and their livelihoods. We get a little about the history of the country and the current king himself. Mohammed tells us that none of the public are allowed in the palace and that the king has multiple palaces around the country so that he has a place to sleep regardless of which city he is in. A few moments later he is telling us about the beautiful gardens inside and that they even have a mini golf course. I smile and ask how he knows he layout inside if none of the public are allowed in. Mohammed tells us that the king’s wife (the princess, not the queen) is from the city of Fez and that her family too is in the city and that one of his friends from school is a close relative of the princess and took him inside at some point. We don’t spend long here. We move on to meet the driver a few blocks away. On the way, Mohammed asks if I have been called Ali Baba yet? I don’t get the reference and he explains. Many people in Morocco are clean shaven and a beard is a little out of the ordinary. Many people, when they see a man with a beard will say “Ali Baba” (after the hero of literature). He continues to explain that it is not meant as disrespect and should not be taken that way. I tell him that I have not noticed the call since we have been here. [Just after this point, and for the rest of the trip, I start hearing "Ali Baba" frequently. Usually when walking through the souks (markets). So often, it becomes comical and as I smile and stroke my beard in the direction of the exclaimers]. Our next stop is the Burj Sud.

Fes el-Bali from atop Burj Sud with Muslim cemetery in the foreground

There are two mountaintop fortresses above the city, one to the north and one to the south. It is a pretty long and winding road to get to the top and as we drive Mohammed points out that you can see a lot of tourist cars and buses turning off to the right, but that we will bear to the left. He explains that there is a nice view to the right and for an entrance fee we can see it. But that he will take us to a similar view, no entrance fee, but with an additional component. We get to the top of the mountain and enter an open air mosque. It does not look like much more than a rock wall perimeter with a grass and dirt courtyard, but that a couple times a year (around Ramadan) the faithful make the trek on foot to pray above the city and the large cemetery that lies below- the feature, though sprawling, cannot be seen from the other side of the mountain. We are able to grab some good photos overlooking the medina without other tourists before heading back down the mountain and learning about the “cooperatives”. We pull into a lot and are introduced to a man named Idriss. He is an instructor, I think, at this pottery/ceramics making school. He gives us a brief tour showing us the methods used for making this colorful pottery. As we walk, I am reminded of our experience in China when our tour group would be brought to different artisan collectives to get a lesson in what they do only to be ushered through the gift shop on the way out for an opportunity to purchase some of the crafts you have just gotten a lesson in. This was no different. We walked with Idriss to each station of the process seeing artists creating everything from beautiful mosaic tiled fountains to chess boards and ashtrays. We were not on the market for ceramics, but do agree that a couple of ceramic tiles might be a fun addition to our current kitchen remodel. Many of the items do have a price on the bottom, except the tiles, of course. As El sorts through the designs and colors looking for the ones that would fit our motif and color scheme, I ask Idriss for a price on the tiles. He cleverly and conspicuously changes the conversation so as not to throw a number that might scare us off. We get on the internet and try to figure out a reasonable amount that we could pay for these tiles. These are not mosaic tiles, just glazed and painted tiles. We decide somewhere in the neighborhood of $3-5 each. We convert the money in our head and know what we are comfortable paying. El also chooses 3 small bowls- as gifts for people at home. Those are labeled 100 MAD. We walk up to the counter with a firm idea to pay not more than 200 MAD for all of it. And while it is true that the marked price of the bowls alone is closer to 300 MAD, I guess we will find out just how strong our haggling skills are. The answer…not too good. Idriss looked at the three bowls and five tiles and priced them at over 1000 MAD! I knew immediately that we were not going to make a deal today. But we continued trying. Take away the three bowls, how much for just the tiles only? 700 MAD! That is still US$70 for five 4”x4” ceramic tiles. I offered him 100 MAD for the five tiles ($2 each), hoping he would counter with 300-500, but with his immediate reaction to my offer, you would have thought I just spit in his corn flakes. He did not consider me a serious buyer and as we left everything on the counter and walked away, I knew we were not getting a last ditch attempt to strike a deal. As he escorted us to the door to meet Mohammed, I could only guess the conversation between the two of them. My last offer was “100”, and Idriss realizes it was not explicitly Moroccan dirhams and the light bulb goes off, he asks me if my “100” was dollars? I said no and we parted ways. Tileless and bowlless. We are driven to what is called the Blue Gate.

the Blue Gate, one of the most popular entrances to the medina. No motor vehicles beyond this point

Fez is a walled city and much of the surrounding wall still stands. There are 14 official gates to the city and the Blue Gate is the most famous one. We take some pictures and head into the medina. This starts off good as we see the local people coming to buy their days fresh produce and other cooking needs. I love walking through farmers markets, seeing the action. It is Saturday morning and there are a lot of people in the market. The market seems to be split up so that all of the meat vendors are in one section, all of the vegetable vendors are together, all of the shoe vendors together, etc. I always love walking through food market. We saw a camel butcher in the market. One of the things I noticed as I would walk by meat vendors was how slippery the floor was. Even if we aren’t looking to buy, though we can sometimes be tempted to grab something like fresh olives or nuts on the go. I certainly don’t need to spend much time walking through tables of knock off leather wallets and sunglasses. Unfortunately, before long we are out of the food part of the market and into the more trinkety junk. One of the things that did strike me funny is how much emphasis Mohammed was putting on the local artistry and craftsmanship in this city. Rabat, he said, is the political capital. Casablanca, the economic capital, Fez, the artistic/cultural capital. With so many people in this city doing creative things, I am surprised how much cheap Chinese made bags and pottery are for sale. With the medina being so compact, it is impossible to know what lies ahead. So, as we arrive at a specific spot, Mohammed will stop and say we are standing in front of the mosque or the madrasa (Islamic school), most of which we aren’t allowed into, so we can only peek inside, snap a few pictures, and keep moving. He takes us to another place that is a bit unclear what it is. It was like an antiques shop, but also has some items that the proprietor tells us have been made by him or his family, yet some of the items clearly look mass produced, while other items do look unique, but unless you are on the market for a 12-foot bronze and wood door, I am not sure what you would find of interest to buy here. One of the things about this particular shop is that they are willing to take us up to the roof for a 360 degree view of the medina rooftops from rooftop level, as long as we are willing to spend a few minutes in the shop to consider buying something.

rooftops of the medina, from a rooftop. this shot cost us some browsing time in the shop below

When we come down from the roof, we are served a glass of mint tea while we browse. No obligation to buy, but just to hear the pitch. I know right away that I am not on the market for a 12-foot wood and bronze door, regardless of how much he is asking or I am willing to pay for it. That goes for pretty much everything else in this place. I suppose there are some decorative items that aren’t that bad, but I am not one of the people looking to bring them home. We do our best to look interested and considerate, but at the end, hand in our used tea glasses and tell Mohammed that we are ready for what’s next. We head to our next stop, a carpet shop. We are taken upstairs to watch the weavers working the current projects. They tell us that it can take one woman years to make a single carpet depending on the detail, material, and knot count. There is a lot of talk of buying once we get downstairs to the showroom where we are introduced to Mr. Hassan- a character for sure...and pitchman extraordinaire. We got our new names for this pitch of “brother” and “sister”. We would be addressed at least 30 times in the next 30 minutes. They too serve us two things: a glass of mint tea and the hard sell. We get a 30 minute pitch that sounded very well rehearsed, that included not only buying carpet and rugs for yourself, but also getting schooled in the USA carpet and rug importing laws. And since Americans can bring up to ten carpets into the country per trip without paying duty, why not bring some home to sell? Well, there is a question I didn’t need to spend any time pondering. As if on silent cue, the two helpers laid out carpets. At first carrying rolls big enough to require two people. We are talking about 15 foot carpets. They unfurl the carpet while El and I get the pitch and they go to get another. When I say “wow, we don’t even have a room that big” Mr. Hassan is quick to say “no problem, we have much smaller options!” calling to the helpers to start bringing the smaller pieces. They come out in a methodical order so that Mr. Hassan can illustrate the differences in patterns, styles, weaves, knot count etc. He throws many cliches at us, but the ones we heard the most were “happy wife, happy life”, “champagne tastes with beer budget”, and “full heart, empty pocket.” I was glad to hear that he had done work with Peace Corps volunteers, which is probably where he picked up the cliches. Anyway, we are doing our best to say we are not interested in buying a carpet today. At the end of the presentation, Mr. Hassan says he wants to teach us some Arabic words. He teaches us the word for “take away” and “keep”. Then, as the two helpers stand at one end of the pile they have laid out of about 20 carpets, you are supposed to say “take away” and they will roll it up and whisk it away. After two times I could see how this was going to go down…we were going to say “take away” 20 times and adjourn to lunch. So, I stood up, told Mr. Hassan I appreciated his time, but to save both of our time, he could take the entire pile away instead of waiting for me to say “take away” at each one. We shook his hand and let Mohammed know we were ready to move on. All was good. A word to the wise, if you, or someone in your group is easily pressured, DO NOT TAKE THIS TOUR!! Mohammed is a fun guide and he does hit many of the things that we mentioned this morning, but we are only half way through with the tour! I think surviving the carpet pitch without buying anything worked us up an appetite. Mohammed takes us to a restaurant, where we are shown to our table and asked if this is OK. “Yes, I suppose, this is fine” were the words that were Mohammed took as his cue to leave. We sort of expected he would eat with us, or we would go to one of his favorite market vendors, but a sit down restaurant with English menus? Even though I am one, I am feeling very much like a tourist in this place. Mere moments later an entire busload of foreigners show up. As El and I sit and discuss the tour so far, we are torn about how we are being marketed to. On the one hand, we can tell Mohammed that we do not want any more cooperatives, whereas on the other hand if we did not go to the cooperatives, we would not have learned about the pottery artistry, seen a carpet actually being woven, or seen the unique perspective standing on the rooftop of the medina. We agree, that as long as we are in solidarity not to succumb to pressures to buy, we can try to at least limit the time we spend in the cooperatives. After lunch, we go to the tannery. Smells awful, but we came prepared with eucalyptus oil to dab on our upper lip to mitigate the stink. At the entrance they offer sprigs of mint and it is sort of funny to see the groups of people all walking around with bunches of herbs held up to their face. Not sure if it was better to arrive on a full stomach or if it would have been a better pre-lunch stop. Sort of an interesting scene you probably never experienced- I know we haven’t. There are certain leather working/leather selling shops that have access to balconies overlooking the tannery. So you can go up towards the roof and look down on the process. There are a handful of people working, using the same methods as they have for a very long time (centuries?). This tannery is almost 1000 years old! The hides arrive in one piece, with all of the hair, fat, and skin together. The hides are then soaked in giant vats of cow urine and limestone powder. They stay in these vats for two weeks, when a worker will use a giant knife to separate the skin from the fur and fat. Then the get transferred to a vat of pigeon feces and water where the workers knead the skin to the desired softness with their feet (and you think your job sucks?) Then the skin gets moved to soak in clay vats of color where it will be dyed permanently.

the tannery from above...if you could only smell this

working the hides

drying the hides

preparing the hides for drying

dried hides loaded onto donkeys to be delivered to other parts of the city

Then the hides are hung to dry for a week. Once dry, they are loaded on to donkeys and taken to a shop to be crafted into bags, shoes, jackets etc. Once we get the quick presentation about how to tell quality leather from pleather (it’s all about trying to set it on fire as real leather will not burn/melt!) They show us examples of leathers from cow, camel, sheep, and goat. As expected, we are then herded through shops of leather bags, coats, and shoes. El seems more interested than I expected, but our sticker shocks today have me gunshy about even asking (once you ask, that is a sign you are a potential buyer!) She does ask Mohammed as we leave about how much a leather coat costs and he says about 5000 MAD ($500). Next, since we have seen the tannery, we tell him that we probably don’t need to see any more cooperatives. We have been out with him for about 5 hours now, and if the tour was to end sometime soon, that wouldn’t be the worst thing- we feel we got our money’s worth. He says he had planned for a spice shop and then a glass cooperative. We tell him we will skip the glass and go for the spice place. As we are introduced to the pitchwoman, we realize that the spices she is trying to sell are for essential oils and lotions. She sits us down and pulls out oils one by one, applying a drop to our forearm so we can smell them. “This is for wrinkles”, “this is for clogged pores”, “this is for eczema”. As she applies the oil to me, she notices with a keen eye, that I have some eczema on my wrist. It hasn’t been bothering me lately, as it is more of a summer issue for me than winter. She, applies the oil to my wrist. We kept asking for food spices, but her pitch is not over yet. Knowing we are not buying beauty products, I stand up, ask her for food spices and start to grab my bag to walk out on her presentation. Guess what, her pitch came to an abrupt halt and she shifted seamlessly to food spices. Amazing how that works, huh? We even buy two packages of severely overpriced spices to bring home with us. Walk back with Mohammed to meet up with Hassan who lets us try to navigate back to the hostel by ourselves. We get close, but miss it by just a little. Maybe one more shot. There are 9400 alleyways and corridors in the medina, so, cut us some slack, as it is easy to get lost! It is thought to be the largest urban car-free zone in the world. And I believe it! The donkey is the primary method of transport in the medina. Sometimes you will see someone riding one, but usually they are being led or pushed with a burden. That said, I asked, what happens if someone is ill and has to get to the hospital? There are no ambulances here (in the medina). It was explained that emergency services will use donkeys or in some cases a wheelbarrow-like cart to shuttle the ill to the street for ambulance service. In some cases the doctors will even make house calls. Makes sense. Once we are back at the riad, we relax after our busy walking day. Hassan is running around and checking in on us periodically. At 8pm on a Saturday night, all of the food tours that I can find on the internet are all booked for Sunday. I find one that I can get a reservation for Monday. I buy those tickets, and ask Hassan if he can arrange for a bus to take us to Chefchaouen (the blue city) tomorrow. On one of his runs to meet guests in the square, he reaches out to his network and comes back telling us we are all set for Sunday. We will meet the driver in the square at 8am and that I will pay a deposit now. We are coming to the realization that we cannot do much around here without a lot of help. Either walking us around or driving us to places. We are filling up our time here and taking advantage of what we can. I even found a food tour in Chefchaouen, but don’t hold out much hope it will happen for us. Hassan is going home for the night and we walk with him to Place RCIF (the center square). We will test our ability to get home as he leaves us. We want to grab some food and take it back to the riad with us. We stop at the sandwich place from last night and there is a line. I ask if I can take a photo while we are waiting and he says no, so I decide to see if there is someplace else in the vicinity- hey, if I am buying your goods and want to take a photo of some kidneys roasting on the barbie, I think you should let me. It is not dark yet, but it is past sundown. I don’t need to spend too much time here. We walk up the street, out of the medina and towards a more crowded area. Lots of people on the streets tonight. As we round the corner, there seem to be less in the way of stall vendors- which mostly seem limited to the medina, apart from a few fresh fruit carts or nut stands on wheels that set up shop along the street so that cars can stop and make a quick purchase before moving on. The medina has those too, but also the vendors that you have to order from and wait for it to be prepared. We see a couple of cafes and decide to stop in and order a coffee. The place is pretty full with people at almost every table. El realizes sooner than I do that she is the only female in the entire place. I was wondering if we were going to be treated any differently than we expect. But, the waiter takes our coffee order, jokes with us a bit and we have a pleasant experience. The 10 MAD latte is actually pretty good. As we leave we do see a couple more females sit for service, so it is not exclusively for males. While sitting and enjoying our coffee and people watching, El does a quick search about street food in Fez and finds a blog that mentions a stall by name, “Mister Ayachi”. He is said to have the best grilled sandwiches in the city and comes recommended. She shows me the blog and I am good to keep it in mind, if not now, then for tomorrow or Monday. She continues her search and clicks the next blog and it too recommends Mister Ayachi for sandwiches. Well, now we feel that we need to find this place. But how? We are in the main square without Hassan, do we know anyone else that can help us? Well, it is worth a try. We go back to INWI which is the shop where El bought the internet SIM card on Friday. We stop in and he is finishing up with another customer. He probably assumes that we are here with a problem about the service or card we bought. Once free, we ask if he knows Mister Ayachi and he says he does! He tells us to wait a minute and then he will help us. He gets on the computer. I assume he is either printing directions or a map for us. After a few minutes he puts on his coat, locks the shop, and tells us to follow him as he walks us into the medina and delivers us directly to Mister Ayachi himself! He keeps walking as we work with Mister Ayachi. A jovial man, he is all smiles as we order two chicken only sandwiches. I know I could get the mixed organ meats, but, hey, if you tasted one grilled heart, you’ve tasted them all. We are invited in to sit and wait for the meat to grill, while watching the grillmaster do his thing. Instead of an oscillating fan, he uses a hair dryer to fan his coals.

Mister Ayachi blow drying our dinner. you can get a sense in this photo of how small these stalls are where you move in to sit on a long bench at the table

We strike up a conversation with a guy in the stall who is incredibly curious about the power of the internet to bring us here, updating Mister Ayachi after each revelation pertaining to the blogs that we used to find him. With our sandwiches almost finished a young couple arrives and orders in French but speak to each other in English- without accents. They are told that Mister Ayachi will be leaving now for about 10 minutes to go to pray and that their food will be cooked upon his return. They agree and are invited to sit next to me. I strike up a conversation with them finding out that they are from NYC and also read about this stand in a travel blog! It sounds like it took them a lot longer to find this than it took us- I guess they don’t have the connections we do! Meanwhile, the INWI guy who brought us here stops back to make sure all is OK for us. We thank him again and he says it was no problem as he had to use the restroom anyway. While I wait for our sandwiches, El goes a few stalls down to get an order of olives and opts for the hot sauce addition. She also stops to watch a vendor who makes something that looks like falafel. He sees her watching and offers her a taste which was enough to get her to order one of his sandwiches. I peek through the roof covering of the market and see that it is getting darker than I wanted it to be for our first time getting back to the riad by ourselves even though there are street lights. We agree to head back without delay. Our bus leaves at 8:00am tomorrow and breakfast will NOT be provided by the riad, so we decide to stop for a croissant-like pastry to eat on our own. While El gets that, I grab another bottle of water for tonight and tomorrow. Then we are off to the riad. And without any hesitation, we find it. It took us exactly 24 hours to be able to navigate this maze of alleys and corridors and I am pretty proud of that. We set up our dinner in the common room and finish our evening, one of us journaling and the other knitting. With our tour leaving at 8:00am and we need to leave the riad at 7:50, we set the alarm for 6:50. Calling it a night at 10:30.

Sunday March 3

I think I have figured out the problem in our room! You see, the bathroom is very small and there is no shower to speak of, just a depression in the floor. I am going to bet that there is no trap built into the shower drain, which is allowing the smell from the sewer to come back up through the drain.

that's the shower on the right

The room smells like a latrine, enough so that it frequently wafts into the room, and when you are trying to go to sleep, it just reminds you that you aren’t at the Marriott...or the Quality Inn for that matter. You know, this place has a charm that I don’t know that we would have experienced had we sprung for the Marriott. That is not rationalization, that is travelling on a budget reality. They have a concierge, we have a fixer. I really wouldn’t want it any other way. We are up at 6:50. This will give us enough time to shower and eat before Youness takes us to the meeting spot. We assume it is the square we have been to many times, but these guys gave arranged the bus for us, so I think it is best to stick with him until we get handed off. We eat our pastry we bought yesterday when we knew we would not get breakfast at the riad. Youness arrives on time and we head directly to the plaza. No shops are open and the only activity on the street, for the most part, is the street cleaners/garbage collectors/beautification crew that must work most of the morning getting the streets clean after Saturday night revelry. It still cracks me up to see the garbage guys arrive to the communal dumpster each with a donkey carrying a load of trash. We stand with Youness on the corner waiting for our driver who is late. He apologizes, but after I see what is going on, we cut him some slack. True, the meeting is at 8:00am, but he is stopping at each group’s pickup spot and if a group is slow or late, it compounds to make the bus late for everyone yet to be picked up. We are the next to last group to be picked up and expect this was the issue…at this hour we know it was not a traffic problem. After the last pickup, we are on our journey of 4½ hours to Chefchaouen making three stops on the way. One is a scenic overlook of a lake, the second is a café for snack and bathroom break, and the third is just before we hit the destination as our first glimpse of the “blue city”on the mountainside.

mountainside view of Chefchaouen

Once we get into town, the driver lets us off and we are met by a tour guide. It is a little chaotic. There are 15 of us on the bus. Some speak English, some only Italian, two French. While someone asks a question in one language, the guide or the driver will try to answer to everyone, but not everyone understood the question or the answer and then it becomes a reposing of the question in a different language, or retranslation of the answer while others come up with new questions talking over others. Chaos ensues. They tell us we will have a brief tour and then we will be on our own to explore before we have to meet the bus to go back. We walk as a group to the gate of the medina. Some want to go on their own and only want to know where are we meeting the bus and at what time. The driver tells everyone we are meeting at this spot at 4:15 to go back. Some go off on their own, but El and I start with the tour, it is not required, but I figure we aren’t going to know what we are looking at if someone doesn’t tell us about it. Basically, we walk through the medina where she stop periodically to point out specific photogenic spots or other items of interest. At this point I will mention that is was quite a chore to understand our guide. Not because of her accent or her vocabulary, but this poor young lady had an incredibly small mouth with incredibly big teeth that had braces. I am not sure if she just gotten the braces and was learning to speak with them or if this was the best it was going to get. Over the course of the tour we learn that she can speak eight languages and her English was superb, just listening to catch words was a chore. You know how you can quarter an orange and bite into the wedge sideways where the peel is the only thing showing between your lips? Imagine you are doing that. Now, try to say, “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” That’s what our tour was like. Listening to an orange eater. An orange eater with an amazing command of the English language. I imagine others had an even more difficult time understanding her. The walk lasts for about an hour. We walk through the market, getting a little bit of a history lesson on the way. We see the main souvenir vendors, food stands, and some of the town’s primary tourist attractions. After an hour she tells us that we will meet at 4:15 in the main square! Well now, how are we going to meet the bus at 4:15 at the gate if we are meeting in the town square at 4:15? She assures us everything will be OK and 4:15 at the square was where we should be. I figured as long as there was a few of us, the bus wasn’t going to leave without us. As the tour ends, the guide says she has arranged for a special priced lunch if anyone wants it. Otherwise we are free to go. This only leaves us about an hour or so to roam around. We soon realize that we have already seen what everyone comes to this town to see…the blue! We can’t go into the Grand Mosque (because we are not Muslim), so we decide to go into the kasbah instead, which is like an old fortress. It has lookout towers, a prison, and some spectacular views. It costs 60 MAD each, a disappointing price, but we did get some nice photos and had a few laughs.




We spend much of the rest of our time looking for a tile shop. I want to try to find some blue tiles that would fit well with our new kitchen colors. We find tiles, not exactly the blue and white that I expected, but nice, cheap tiles nonetheless. I ask him to throw in a discounted bowl at the same time. I may have overpaid, but I feel like I paid what I wanted to. We meet the rest of the group at 4:15 in the square and head back towards the bus. The ride home is a little shorter than it took to get here. I get more quality sleep on the bus ride than I do in the bed. I don’t usually have jet lag problems, but the last couple of trips we have gone on have affected me a little differently than most trips before. I guess I am just getting old. It is not a problem, I just have to press on being tired during the day and find myself not sleeping as well as I want to. Hey, remember yesterday at the spice cooperative, I told of the pitch woman rubbing oil for eczema on my wrist? Well, I can’t help but notice that my wrist has been remarkably itchy today. Coincidence? More likely snake oil, I say. I am not sure what we will find when we get back to Fez in terms of dinner options. I could go for a nice tagine dinner, but sit down restaurants in our part of the medina are had to find. Tomorrow we have our food walking tour that will hopefully take us to a different area of the medina, though I should be content wherever we end up. The driver lets us off at Place RCIF and Hassan is there to meet us. It is 9:00pm and we don’t want to ask Hassan to drop us at a real restaurant (though would offer to buy him dinner), so we decide to just grab a grilled chicken sandwich on the way back. We tell Hassan to stop while we get the sandwich. But, his chicken guy is closed for the night. I ask if he knows Mister Ayachi and he does (of course we remember how to get there). Hassan takes us direct to Mister Ayachi and we get the same sandwiches and also some french fries from the lady next door who fries the potatoes while you wait. Once at the riad, we grab our olives and eat our feast. Adil, the owner of the riad, comes and we want to square up with him as we have to pay for the whole stay. Usually, you pay when you check in to a place, but so far no one has asked us for any money. I tell Adil that I would like to square up with him now if I could as there are no other guests around and I don’t necessarily want to discuss money in front of others. This turns out to be a little strange, since he does not accept credit cards, so we have to pay for the five nights in cash! What kind of hotel/hostel/guesthouse doesn’t take credit cards? This actually puts a crimp into our plan as it requires an additional ATM withdrawal and taking from our “cash for vacation” account rather than our “paying for vacation” account. We get it sorted out, but I do express my disappointment that I was not told ahead of time to bring cash. I tell him that we will have to take care of this tomorrow night, since I don’t have that cash on us right now. He is OK with this.

Monday March 4

We have our food walking tour today. It was a little unclear last night if Hassan is taking us there or if we are going by ourselves. We wake at 8:00 and are downstairs at 9:00. Because we will be eating today I don’t want breakfast. Youness tells us that he will take us to the meeting spot at 10:00, so we have some time. I try to catch up on the journal enjoying my coffee. At 9:20 we meet a boy named Osama (maybe 16 years old), a friend of the riad (he could be Youness’ son or related to Adil or something). Osama is directed, by Youness, to take us to Hotel Batha where will meet the food tour guide- and very quickly we are on our way, following the young man. We arrive well before the meeting time, so we get a coffee at the café across the street. On the walk, Osama embarrassed, sheepishly asks us for a tip. We have no change on us, so we invite him to go to the café with us where he reluctantly orders a tea when we press him. What we didn’t realize, that we learn while we are sitting, is that he is on his way to school. He really just wants his tip and to leave, not to hang with us. To put us all out of an uncomfortable situation, I just go to the cashier and get change. I get back to the table and as fast as I can offer a coin, he takes it, thanks us, and runs along. Of course, his tea arrives and El says that she will drink it (she can handle the sweet tea better than I can). After we finish the coffee, we head across the street to Hotel Batha to meet our guide for the walking food tour. We confirm we are in the correct meeting spot (on the map emailed to us). The tour begins at 10:00, but by 10:05, no one has come. This is unusual, to have both a private tour, and a late guide. After a few minutes Fatima arrives and apologizes for her tardiness. It turns out we really are the only ones on the tour today and that is OK with us. As we walk to our first stop, she asks us some questions about what we have seen and where we have been in Morocco. She gives us some general history information (like what we got from Mohammed on Saturday). It does not take long to reach our first stop. As we arrive, the small room is full. I say room, but as we will see a few times today, some people order food to go, to eat on the way or when they get home. But, for those who want to eat here, there is a small table with a couple of bench style seats where you can sit and enjoy your purchase. We stand and talk until three seats open up and we squeeze in, encouraged by the matriarch of the family business waving us in. Fatima does all of the ordering, once in a while giving us choices, other times just presenting us with the offer. We start off pretty heavy with a wedge of couscous bread called harcha. Similar to cornbread, but the slice is closer to a small slice of pizza. It is then sliced in half cross-wise and goat cheese is spread between the halves. Then comes a piece of flour and oil bread called msemen that is like Indian naan, again with the cheese. These, already filling items, are served with an avocado milkshake, which tastes like guacamole with sugar.

mmmm...an avocado shake

I like guacamole, but this was not worth more than a sip to me. I stick with the fresh squeezed orange juice. It is a good thing we did not eat breakfast today! Once finished, we move on to a vendor with a third type of bread. His is called beghrir and is like a personal pizza sized pancake and tastes just like one. Except, this guy smears butter and drizzles honey before handing it over. I cringe at the idea of eating anything honey drizzled with my hands. Let alone not within eyesight of a sink. I start to go into Adrian Monk mode and refuse to touch the outer paper before El is able to whip out the wetnaps. She has my back. Next, we stop at an olive vendor who lets us sample all sorts of olives with all sorts of additions (hot peppers, cured lemons, spicy sauces etc). When we are done sampling, we get to pick some olives to take with us. As we walk, there are some slick spots on the floor. The floor/walkway is constructed of brick and stone which aren’t exactly uniform. They are not so unlevel that you have to walk eyes focused on the floor to avoid stumbling, but there are enough obstacles seen and unseen that will remind you that you aren’t shopping at the grocery store. One of the things I learn quickly is to be careful when passing a butcher vendor…of any kind. Those stones are slippery. It wasn’t blood and you never see it coming, but you need to be sure of your footing as you pass one.

a camel butcher, the heads on the wall tell you what he's serving up

cats in the market waiting patiently for their next meal

You see, there are a lot of cats that roam the market streets looking for food. No doubt they get shoo’d away from countless stalls on a daily basis, however, once in awhile you will see a butcher trimming a piece of meat. Not like a chop or loin, I am talking about an entire camel leg for example- huge pieces of meat. And at times, you will see a cat sit patiently in front of the meat hoping for a scrap to fall or be tossed its way. As little pieces of fat are removed from the carcass, you will sometimes see it jettisoned from the window to the eager recipients. But, over time as the scraps hit the floor, they create a slick spot that you won’t see in front of a vegetable seller. Upshot of the story, the fat makes the stones slippery, so be careful. We move on to a soup stop. Again a small seating are for 4 people or so. We make our way in and are served a bowl of soup. It looks like pea soup, but it is fava bean stew served with a drizzle of olive oil on top and, of course, more bread. You add salt, fresh squeezed lemon, hot pepper powder, and cumin to your taste. The Soup is OK, little bland without the condiments. I love pea soup, but it is usually the other ingredients with the peas that make it for me- the ham hock, carrots, onion etc. But this reminds me of lima beans cooked down and mashed in water with no additional flavor.

El and Fatima in an actual, in use, alleyway used by two residences. don't even ask me how they get a sofa or fridge into their home

As you can imagine, we are filling up fast. Next stop is another kind of soup called harira which is a combination of tomato, onion, garlic, spices, and two kinds of pasta. This is much tastier than the fava soup and this time we decline the bread. Along the way, Fatima continues to point out historical and cultural tidbits as we see them. She even shows us the broken water clock that Mohammed mentioned, but did not show us the other day. It is a clock that kept time using streams of water hundreds of years ago, but when the last caretaker died, no one seemed to know how to fix it? She says there is a movement to restore the clock now, but nothing of a restoration can be seen as of now. We just keep walking through the souk (market) with her. Seeing some of the places that Mohammed showed us, and also many new places. Believe it or not, the next stop is “lunch”! I mean, we are on a food tour, but really, we are really full. We arrive at the restaurant and are ushered into the kitchen where we are each given a spoonful of four different tagines. Nevermind that the woman did not know that we are married, we were both served from the same double dipped spoon and do not know what happened to the food that we did not choose. Some questions are best left unanswered, I guess. We tasted a lamb, beef, meatball, and a vegetable tagine. We both opted for the vegetable, though almost immediately realized we should have ordered one tagine to split. Not only does the tagine arrive, but so does a selection of hot salads (lentil stew, chickpea stew, (more) fava bean stew, spinach with spices, and an onion stew). We do our best, but are not able to eat as much as we would have liked to of the tasty foods. While we eat, a group of tourists from Virginia arrive and sit next to us. We wind up chatting with them a bit, but mostly sitting to digest all that we have eaten so for. It is funny to me that some of the people in this group are clearly not comfortable with this part of their day and that if they were to head straight back to their hotel, they would be just fine with that. That is is a pretty normal lunch, is how I know our boundaries have been stretched! After lunch we move on through the market. Next stop is desserts. There are a few different kinds of sweets sold at a few different vendors that usually specialize in one or two kinds. Some baklava style pastries, some cookies with nut paste inside, some little fried dough kind of things, nougat candy, peanut and almond brittle, dates, dried fig and apricots, dates stuffed with nuts.

confections cart with nougat and brittle. you can't see it too clear, but the amount of bees swarming around these carts can be very unnerving

But it is now to the point that even just tasting this stuff is uncomfortable. Even though we are feeling the pressure from some of the vendors to order food to take with us, I can’t even entertain that notion- though El puts the items into her bag. Next Fatima takes us to a milk vendor who makes cheese and yogurt. I fear it is going to be goats milk yogurt and in my heightened state of fullness, I am not sure, I am going to be able to stomach it. We tell Fatima on the way that we are done. Regardless of her intentions, and yes, we know this is a food tour, we are going to call an end to the tour after this stop. We are offered a cup of fresh made yogurt that he wants to give to each of us, we tell him that we will split one. El tries it first and says it is good. I try it and we agree that this is cows milk yogurt with vanilla. It is pleasant and a good way to end the food tour (she does tell us that this was planned to be the last stop of the tour anyway). We exit the medina and say our thanks and goodbyes. She asks us to follow her on Instagram at majestictourguide. After the tour concludes and we part ways with Fatima, El and I need to sit and digest for a few minutes. We walk to a café that we had passed a few times. We sit outside and people watch on the sidewalk while drinking some cappuccinos and chatting with a friendly waiter, who like many people wants to visit the US and knows people in New York. He is also in the tourism business, which, it seems like everyone around here is. We finish up and walk back to the riad where we plan to sit, journal, and relax. We may go out later tonight, but if we do it will probably be just to café hop, as I cannot see us needing food any time in our near future. Plus, we have dessert and olives already. It is now close to 5:00pm and we get settled in to the common room at the riad. We do a quick money check and see that we have a few questions for our bank regarding the fees that they charge for ATM withdrawals. El uses her Googlevoice credits to call our bank and get things sorted out. Between journaling, knitting, and calling, the nearby mosque call to prayer tells us it is now almost 9:00pm. We are in for the night. Adil comes back and we settle up with him, however, my other issue I have with him is that most places here quote prices in Euros, yet only accept dirhams. The conversion is generally 10 MAD to 1 Euro. It makes it easy to convert in your head. Everybody used the same 10 to 1 method. Everyone...except Adil. He rounds up and uses 11 to 1. So, even though I confirmed the amount of MAD using 10 to 1 and he said yes, when I actually handed over the cash, he counted it, and said he needed another 140 MAD (about $14). I don’t feel like I am getting taken advantage of, I just feel like several parts of this transaction could have been more transparent. I chalk it up to not staying at the Marriott.

Tuesday March 5

Up at 6:45 to get downstairs to leave at 7:50. Youness will take us to Place RCIF to meet our driver for the day as we are taking a private car to the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, near Meknes. SInce it is a private ride, we can make stops whenever we want and the first is a town of ruins called Volubilis. It is ancient Roman ruins like those of Pompeii or much of Israel. The entrance cost is 60 MAD each.

among the ruins in Volubilis

a roadside overlook to take in the scenery

Archaeology has been going on here for 100 years (though it doesn't look like they got too far in all that time!) and you get a decent sense of the living quarters and social structure of a city from a very long time ago. We spend about 1½ hours in Volubilis, wandering the ruins and taking photos before heading to Moulay Idriss to see the mausoleum of the father of the father of Morocco. The main square in town is where the restaurant will meet us. More on that later. We have 30 minutes until our meeting time so we wander into the medina towards the mausoleum. About 30 feet into the journey we are greeted with a sign that states in no less than six languages: “non-Muslims not allowed”. We have been used to that at the mosques and madrasas, but assumed that a mausoleum would be open to everyone. We admire what we can see and while we are standing there an older gentleman approaches us to tell us where we can go to see a panoramic view of the city, including the mausoleum. He makes it sound like the stairway is right around the corner, but when we start to casually follow his directions, we find ourselves getting further and further into the medina. Much like where we are staying, these are like cave systems where if you go too far, you can easily turn around and find yourself lost. Kind of fun if you are just wandering, not so much if you have a meeting in 20 minutes. We have gone far enough and decide to turn back. We go back to the mausoleum gates and explore a bit in the other direction. We eventually hit a dead end and decide to head back to the square to meet the restaurant people who are coming to pick us up. We get back to the square where Mohammed is waiting with the car. He asks if we enjoyed the mausoleum, so I tell him “no non-Muslims allowed,” which he understands. While we were gone he called the restaurant and arranged for us to be picked up at 12:15, so now we wait. Knowing that he will have to wait for us while we go eat, which could take an hour or two or more, I give him his tip for the day hoping that he can find some lunch for himself. Anticipating a big lunch, we tell him that we will want to head directly back to Fez with no further stops. On time, Hamza arrives to take us to lunch. The lunch... During my research for what to do in this part of Morocco, I came across a dining experience that sounded a bit weird and different and of course, right up our alley. It is a place called the Scorpion House. I keep saying “restaurant,” but this is the private residence of the owner of one of Fez’ best rated restaurants called the Café Clock. It was a bit of a project putting this together and it was certainly worth it. The place only serves lunch and by reservation only. All prix fixe lunches are €55 and must be prepaid by Paypal at the time of reservation. Like I was explaining, they tell you that there are no public transportation options to get from Fez to Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, so you have to arrange a tour group or a private car to get you here. Having already gone through it, I am not sure that I would have done anything differently- except maybe push to leave closer to 6:00am to get in more sightseeing before lunch. I still would come back directly as walking around on such a full stomach is not fun for me. Knowing what we know now about the potential to get lost in a medina, it would certainly be impossible for them to give directions to the home. It just makes sense that someone like Hamza would be the runner who would make sure guests are met and make their way to the lunch. Hamza walks us up through the medina, through similar corridors as where we are familiar with in Fez, but won’t be here long enough to learn any of these. The walk is only about ten minutes and we find ourselves in a really neat house. Literally and figuratively. The owner, an obvious traveler and collector has art and decorations from around the world in each room, each of which are impeccably clean. We are shown to the terrace which overlooks the entire Moulay Idriss valley.

our lunchtime view

personalized menu

some of the lunch selection of "salads" and bread

A spectacular view, to be sure, and today, with no other guests, overlooking the entire valley is a private setting for this perfect experience! As we take in the view from all angles we are greeted with a fresh squeezed orange/strawberry smoothie. We would not see another person (except Hamza) for the duration of our lunch. As we are seated, each of us has a menu card listing out each course that will be forthcoming. Hamza keeps bringing us the foods from the menu and explaining any that we cannot recognize from the name or the description. Food trays are coming fast and furious. Most served in ramekins and called "salads” though they are more like the stews that we had on our walking tour yesterday. Once all of the food has been delivered, Hamza leaves us alone to sit in silence enjoying the time together. All of the food is wonderful, with the biggest surprise being the chermoula sardines. Basically, they took sardines, filleted them, put some aromatic spices on them, and grilled them to perfection. I tried a little bit of mine, and it was surprisingly unfishy and the spice crust complimented the grill flavor of the fish very well. Seeing my approval, not only does El try it, but she winds up going back for seconds! The lunch runs just about two hours and we take more time at the end soaking in the view, digesting and sipping our mint tea from small glasses. The funny thing is that I hate mint tea, but have enjoyed every glass I have had this week. It is what they do here. I am enjoying what they do here. Around 2:30 we head back to the plaza to meet our driver. I was going to ask to meet the chef, but figured that I would just go with whatever program they were offering and if the chef coming out to get some accolades about the food was not part of the plan, I wasn’t going to upset that cart. It was all Hamza and he did a great job. Attending when we needed attending and standing back when we wanted to be alone with the beauty of the moment. This kind of experience is not for everyone, but it is absolutely for us. What a wonderful recommendation from the people on the internet, thus proving that a little bit of research can go a long way. Once we got back to the square, Mohammed was waiting for us and we jumped in the van, reminded him that we were going direct to Fez, and we were off. I slept most of the way there and back. No matter, we are on vacation. We get back to the Place RCIF and this is the first time no one is here to meet us. They must be confident in our ability to find our way home again! El wants to stop and get a coffee at a café and buy some postcards. We must not be in the very touristy part of the city as we can only find one shop that sells postcards. Postcards that have seen their share of rain. They don’t strike us as particularly attractive cards, even if they were brand new. Subpar photography of subpar subjects. However, after walking a bit in each direction in the medina, we decide to just buy what we need and move on. Chefchaouen was probably the place to get more quality cards, but we were more bent to get our tiles there. We will head back to the riad and spend the evening journaling, knitting, eating up some desserts from yesterday that we couldn’t finish, and of course, writing postcards. The common area is a fun place to sit as you see the new guests come and go and chat with any as they sit or just pass through. Anyway, as our time in Fez winds down I am taking some time to think about the trip so far and I have to say it was a wonderful experience, but that it is certainly not for everyone. And what I mean specifically, is that El and I have been trying to push the boundaries of our comfort zones when we travel. Staying less at Marriott and more at hostels as I have come to experience travel in a new way since being introduced to hostels. Some have been better than others and if you are a person who likes your privacy with your clean towels, then you would probably be best suited to stay in the new town- that is if you make to Morocco at all. But, when we travel, I would like to think I am trying to experience something I can’t get at home. We have met plenty of people on our trips (including this one) who are content to eat meals in their hotel, take group tours everywhere, and feel out of their safe zone anytime they find themselves in a new situation. I want what’s new to me. I want to see what I find weird and others (locals) find normal. I want to experience new tastes and smells- even if they aren’t all pleasant to me. I have come to find the normalcy in hanging cow or camel heads. That is when you pass a butcher shop in a market, he has to advertise what kind of meat he is offering. When was the last time you were in a butcher shop? Even in America, most people buy their meat at the supermarket- relying on a package label to confirm the contents. Well, many market butchers will hang the decapitated head from a hook. So, when you see a pig’s head, you know he (or she) sells pork. This was the first time I ever saw camel heads- but it wasn’t as jarring as the first time years ago, that I found myself face to face with a pig’s head- it has come to be normal for me. Or a table full of goat heads. It is jarring at first, but completely normal to the people that live here. That is what I want to see. And we saw, smelled, and tasted it in spades in Fes el-Bali (official name of the medina). I am pretty sure some of the people we met weren’t looking for that stuff and would probably recoil in horror should they find themselves staring a dead camel in the eye. This is not to say we don’t do our share of things that are safer, it is usually how we find ourselves sitting and talking with the people who do NOT share our sense of adventure. And there are plenty of people who consider all of our travels tame. But, as long as my comfort level is being tested, I can say I am ready for the next step. Today Morocco, next year Rwanda?

Hassan arrives with a new set of guests and he is able to arrange for getting to the cooking class tomorrow as well as a taxi from cooking class to the airport. This guy has been so incredibly helpful to us, I can’t imagine if he (and Youness) weren’t here to help us.

Wednesday March 6

1 Euro (€) = about $1.13

Today is our last in Fez and our flight leaves around 5:30 this afternoon. I have a rough night’s sleep. Combination of uncomfortable bed, blanket heat, and food digestion- or indigestion as it were. For our last hours, we have scheduled a cooking class. We get up at 7:30 and pack our bags and get downstairs to wait for Hassan who says he will be here at 9:30 to get us where we need to be by 10:00. Before taking off, we grab a few pictures of the riad. All in all, for $20 a night, I didn’t have much of an issue with the place, though the smell in the bathroom was really a significant hurdle. At first I assumed that if we left the door open it would carry the stink out through the vent window. But eventually I had to go with the closed door method which at least let me get some sleep without feeling like I was sleeping in a sewer. Also the requirement to pay in cash threw us off when planning our finances for the trip. Those things aside, the people here have treated us very well. Our class is being held in a riad in a different part of the medina, so there is no car access. We are OK to walk it, but today we have our baggage in tow. I am silently thankful to Hassan for grabbing the bag, which, even though on wheels, is still a bitch to pull up the cobblestone streets of the medina. We arrive at the riad a little earlier than 10:00. To put things in perspective, our riad was $20, where a room at Riad Anata will run more than $100 a night. To say that this riad is nice is an understatement! The class is run by the housekeeping supervisor, Zamira. We are invited to sit for tea and coffee on the terrace before she arrives and introduces herself. The first order of business is to go to the market and buy fresh ingredients. On the way, she asks us about what we would like to cook, as it turns out we are the only two students today! And we didn’t have to pay the upcharge for the private class. Anyway, I am not sure that there is anything we have been wanting to try that we haven’t yet. I was curious to try eating camel, but I wanted more of a bite than to request a meal of it. The other thing is the snails. The market has snail vendors that have thousands of live snails in their stalls. Some in buckets, some in bags, some loose in bins. I wanted to try the spicy broth preparation of them, but thought that I would want a vendor recommendation, rather than just ordering some without any knowledge of the seller or their methods. Anyway, I didn’t ask for that either. No, instead my big mouth introduced me to something I am no fan of. On the way, we decide we will make a vegetable tagine, a lemon chicken dish, three kinds of “salad” which are cooked- think ratatouille, and a dessert. Zamira does this often, so she knows where to go to get everything she needs in only a few stops. As we enter the market, we see that this is the same place where we started our walking tour with Fatima the other day. I had a question that Zamira might be able to help me with. On the way, we pass by one of the bread merchants that we sampled Monday. He had the porous bread that tasted like the breakfast pancakes we know. It is very airy and when he served it to us, he smeared some cream substance over the top before drizzling with honey and handing it to us. As we ate it and discussed the pancake qualities of the bread, we both thought that what we assumed was the creamy butter had a bit of a strange and almost sour taste. It was not off putting, especially with the honey. At that moment, though, I was completely consumed with the sticky quality of the honey, to where the sour butter was secondary. Not eating any today, I decide to stop at this stand with Zamira and ask about something we had read about, called smen. Smen, is rancid butter. We see it offered for sale in the market, but have never seen it sold commercially. We have also never eaten smen, to our knowledge. As we look at the display case and I describe how the bread was served, I tell her that he smeared something on the bread and want to know if it was smen. She looks at the plastic tub of the white creamy spread and says no, that this is just some kind of cheese. So, we are not sure if it was goat cheese, my question came down to, yes or no, is this smen? Answer: “no…but, if you like, we can use smen in our lemon chicken dish for today’s lunch!” Wait! What! No! I was not saying I wanted to use it, I just wanted to know if I had eaten it or not. I am willing to try it in a small dose, but I don’t want to cook chicken in it and have to skip eating the meal because the first bite was bad. Sadly, she insists and I have now signed us up for a chicken with preserved lemon and smen dish. No turning back now. Our first stop is the chicken guy. How I missed this guy the couple of times we were in this part of the market, I am not sure. He is the chicken butcher. Zamira orders one chicken and immediately steps down to the next vendor, a vegetable stand. I am fascinated with how this chicken situation is going to go down and try to linger behind to see how they do it here. And like a machine, an incredibly efficient killing machine, the butcher reaches to the back of his stall and grabs one live, clucking, pecking chicken, and sets it into a milk crate that sits atop the scale. The crate prevents the wings from spreading and the chicken stands calmly in the crate for its last seconds on Earth. The butcher then reaches in and pulls the bird out by the wings, pinning them behind its back with one hand. The fowl is agitated, so he puts his other hand over the eyes to calm it down as he moves the bird towards another station. And in one swift movement, he reaches with his eye covering hand to grab a knife and drags it across its neck. Not enough to separate head from body, but the dark red stain running down the breast feathers leave no doubt he hit his mark. He then sets the chicken head first (feet in the air) into a coffee can where the life drains from the bird before he moves with impressive quickness to process the fowl for sale. Plucking all the feathers, cleaning, butchering and bagging the order in a matter of moments. Meanwhile, Zamira is ordering all of the vegetables and herbs for all of the dishes we will make, with the exception of the fruits, which she already has at the kitchen. We finish loading our bag and grab our chicken- which has been reduced to a the contents of a plastic bag on the way out. She explains that this is not actually our chicken, but that she has to prepare the chicken overnight and that this is actually tomorrow’s class’ and that our chicken was bought yesterday and has been preparing overnight. We make our way back to the riad and get washed up to start working in the small kitchen. Most of our work consists of prep work, peeling, slicing, dicing, and grating the stuff we bought. The tagine takes about an hour and a half to cook, so we need to get that going first. Once that is on, we move on to the chicken. Instead of using a stew pot, because of the time it takes to cook, we will use a pressure cooker that will cook the meal in less than 30 minutes. We are following the directions and then Zamir will stop us so we can watch her do something like add spices or other ingredients. The chicken gets salt preserved lemons and a teaspoon of the infamous, smen. She opens the plastic tub of smen and holds it up for us to smell. Toe cheese! It smells exactly like the nasty, foul smelling, discharge that you scrape out from under an ingrown toenail! Damn, I do not know who the first person was that smelled this and said, “yeah, I’ll eat that”! Zamira scoops a teaspoon of the cream and adds it to the pressure cooker before securing the lid. Meanwhile, Zamira is instructing El on boiling the vanilla cream for the dessert, while my job is to juice the blood oranges. Once portioned out, the cream layer is put into the fridge to set. Eventually, the orange juice is cooked down, it is added as a top layer to the cream and also set to cool. Then, we rapidly get the salads cooking, which don’t take all that long. In about 30 minutes, everything is pretty much done. Usually, when we take a cooking class, the whole group will enjoy the food together and it becomes a fun social experience, but since it is just us in the class, we are brought back up to the terrace where we dine al fresco on the food we just had a hand in creating. Everything is wonderful...even the chicken with smen! There is no way, I don’t think, that I could eat that stuff on a piece of bread, but as an ingredient it certainly gets lost enough among the spices to make it palatable. We enjoy our lunch together during our last hours in Morocco. The weather could not be better nor the company.

"salads" that we made in our cooking class

vegetable tagine (l) and chicken with preserved lemon and smen (r)

chilled orange cream dessert

Overlooking the medina, listening to daily life passing by beneath us. Lastly, the dessert is brought up and we enjoy every last drop of the orange cream. Just wonderful. At the end we are alerted that our taxi to the airport has arrived. Since no cars can drive in the medina, we have to grab our bags and follow our leader out to the street where Mohammed (same driver from yesterday) is waiting to whisk us to the airport. The ride is about 20 minutes and again, the airport is so small that there is no wait per se at any of the stops (pre-screen, check in, security etc) and we are at our gate literally within minutes or arrival. Now we set our sights on the next leg...Lisbon. The flight goes off without a hitch and once we arrive and get through customs, I head to the tourist info desk to get our Lisboa Card and El goes to the SIM Card kiosk. The Lisboa Card is an unlimited public transportation card that also offers free or discounted tickets to many museum and attractions. It cost us €40 for a 72 hour card and I will keep track of our usage to determine if it was worth it or not. The hostel had emailed me some directions to take the metro from the airport and they are excellent. Once we get checked in to the hostel we ask for a local bar where we could get some food. He points us down the street to Taverna Anti Dantes and ask for a recommendation for wine and order a couple of small plates to share. Standard bread and olives as well as mushrooms in Balhao Pato Style (cooked in white wine, garlic, and lemon) and is excellent. We share, opening up our guidebooks and discussing plans for tomorrow. The wine is Vargas and it is very good. We are a bit tired and the one hour time difference makes us feel that it is 10:30 now. We agree to not make it too long of a night and get back to go to sleep early to get out and start exploring first thing in the morning. The hostel looks pretty good. It is a little pricey but seems like a better hostel than some of the others we have been to. As I ready for bed, I am starting to get the sniffles, I need to get some rest.

Thursday March 7

The only thing we have scheduled today is a walking tour at 10:00. The guy at the hostel keeps trying to sell me on his (free) tour, but even though the one we have is also free, I keep my commitment for the one I signed up for. Besides, it will give us an opportunity to take the metro and start branching out into another neighborhood just to meet the guide. On the way out of the hostel we grab some quick breakfast. A banana, muffin, and a hot chocolate for me. While we are sitting, I see a poster sized panoramic photo on the wall of Lisbon with a caption in several languages. The English one reads, “do you like this view? It is only a 10 minute walk from here!” It then gives directions. As we leave the hostel we walk towards the metro and realize that we have already done 5 minutes of the 10. We have enough time and decide to keep going. We walk, to what amounts to the perimeter of a large park, where the far end is much higher in elevation than the end we started on. We walk the length uphill and when we turn around, we see the same view as the poster in the hostel.

i wish the sky was bluer in this photo as it really does look exactly like the photo we saw in the hostel

We take some pictures and then walk the length downhill to the metro. The sky is deep blue and it looks like it is going to be a good day. We metro to Bairro Alto to meet the guide from Chill Out Tours. Tour runs three hours. We walk through Bairro Alto making our way down to the water and then up through Alfama neighborhood that is as steep going up as Bairro Alto was going down. During the tour it starts to rain. Some interesting history and a passionate guide. Informative and recommended. After the tour we ask for recommendations for a place to eat in this area. She tells us we are standing in a touristy area and going up by the church will offer more local/less tourist experiences. We are having a bitch of a time with our maps. Even the GPS maps are throwing us for a loop. Streets seem to change names and if you are not looking in the right spot on the map you could be on the correct street, but not realize you have to go two blocks in order to see the sign for it. Hey, if I have to be lost, I could not be lost with anyone better. We reach the church and Yelp some restaurants in the area. Sadly, some are closed until dinner time or have not opened yet for the day. There is one good one in the area and we set out to find it. Out of frustration we just choose the place on the corner, as we cannot actually figure out the address numbers here. What I mean is that we are used to addresses being odd and even sides of the street, where here, you will have #1 next to #2 on the same side of the street, but if you are looking for #96, you’d think it would just be 94 doors up the street. Wrong. We get to #36 and then the next number is #114. Well, where is #96? So, we turn around and get down to zero, but there is no #96 to speak of. This is not the first city where we have run into this issue, but it is now raining- pretty hard, we are tired from the walking tour, we are hungry, and my cold is getting worse what seems, by the minute. We go into a place called A Mourisca and order from the lunch special. I get a pork dish and El a beef lunch. This kind of restaurant has a menu that changes every day and they write the menu on a board in the window. And as they run out, they cross them off. All food here is very respectable and a welcome rest after our busy morning. After lunch, we head back to the hostel to rest so that we can go out tonight. I want to go to a fado bar. Fado is a traditional kind of Portuguese folk music usually played by two guitar players and one singer. I understand it is something you should try to experience in Lisbon. I asked our guide for a recommendation and she gave me two.

tourguide Ines' fado house recommendations

On the way to try to find the closest metro stop, we see the tram and jump on it just to see where it takes us. It takes me literally, ten minutes just to find our route on the map! Turns out the tram line ends at a metro, so we just take the metro back to the hostel. I am able to sleep for 2½ hours, though when I wake, I feel my cold is getting worse. While I slept, El was able to do some research on the two fado recommendations we got, chooses one, and is able to secure a 9:15 reservation for us. On the way out for the night we stop at pharmacy and luckily the pharmacist speaks enough English to find me the OTC meds I need and to tell me how to take them. We take the metro to Bairro Alto and have another bitch of a time with the maps. Between not being able to find street names on the map and Google maps literally walking us in circles- yes it told us to walk, turn right, walk, turn right, walk, turn right down stairs, only to find that we are now standing in exactly the same spot we started at! Un-freakin’-believable. I just want to grab a coffee, though the coffee shops seem to be closing down for the night. We spot one that is open for another half hour and go in for a cappuccino. We have another two hours before our reservation at the fado house. We walk through Bairro Alto and try to get our bearings. We do start to recognize places from the walking tour, but at night, some of the landmarks are obscured by darkness. Since the maps are not treating us well, and so we don’t screw up our reservation, we decide to find the fado house now and then go to a heavy metal bar to journal and hang until our reservation. When we find the fado house, they are between sets and staff is outside trying to get us to come in. We tell them that we do have a reservation and will be back. We press on to a metal bar called The Cave. Walk in to Alice In Chains followed by Wolfmother and several Queens Of The Stone Age selections. My kind of bar. I ask the bartender for help locating the other metal bars on my list and she obliges. I like this place. We may have to come back here tomorrow! We only stay for a single beer and at 9:00 we head over to Mascote da Atalaia for our evening of fado. Because we have reservations we are ushered in directly and given our choice of seats. We opt for the €25 prix fixe menu. I order a cabbage and chorizo soup for starter and a pork and rice sausage for the main course. We split a litre of white sangria. The room holds about 40 people max and the performers set up in the corner. The music starts at 9:15 and they (two guitar players and one singer) play three songs with the singer, who then leaves to let the two guitar players play two songs without lyrics. There are no microphones and the music is played with an intensity that, when voice is added, conveys incredible emotion. The guitars oscillate between quiet and loud, but her singing is usually full on emotive. We have no idea what she is saying, but you can certainly tell when she is singing of pain. During the music, for the most part the audience is respectful. The food is delivered between sets, of which there are three. And people are careful to not speak or let their silverware make noise. One gentleman stands to the side, the whole time on his cell phone. He barely looks up during the performance…just remaining engrossed in whatever is on his screen. It is distracting to me, and must be very distracting to the performers. Then there is a 20 minute break while food is served and people coming in off the street are seated. Not everyone eats. Some only get drinks, but others do order food. The food is certainly acceptable. Nothing to write about, but I am glad we didn’t just sit and drink all night without eating. At 11:00 the guitar players come back for the third and final set. This time with a man singing. He sings two songs and takes a bow and walks off. Instead of the female singer returning to the “stage”, another man takes his spot between the guitarists. It is the cell phone guy from before! I guess that is what he does waiting for his turn to sing. He belts out two songs while the female singer sits and plays on her phone. I don’t get the sense she is doing it to spite him, but this is just how she seems to be passing her time waiting her return to the spotlight. Once he is done, she gets up for her last two songs of the night. After the last song, without a bow, the performers walk off and the lights come up. We square up with our bill and head out to the next rock and roll bar on my list. This one is called The Wasp. We find it faster than I expect and walk in to Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. As we sit and journal and enjoy our beer, I decide to call it a night. I have a morning plan to go to the Belém neighborhood and the earlier we get started with that, the better. We finish up our beers and head back to the hostel. I am really starting to feel run down and achy. It seems like he medicine is working, but not fast enough!

Friday March 8

I get a poor night’s sleep and do not awake refreshed. I feel like I could use a bunch more sleep, but that would not be prudent right now. To save a few Euros, we opt again for the free breakfast in the hostel. Similar to yesterday I just get a banana, a muffin, and a hot chocolate. Today there is a guy making fruit pancakes and offering them to anyone who wants them. We don’t spend more than 20 minutes there and are on our way out the door in short order. Our plan this morning is to take the tram #15E to the Belém section of the city. There are no metros out that far, so you can only get there by bus or tram. There is a Tram #28 that acts like a circulator to several spots of interest in the center city, but it too does not reach Belém. We take the metro to the section of Bairro Alto where we can catch the tram. With no disrespect to Tokyo, I will say that Lisbon keeps their metro system impeccably clean. The walls, the ceilings, the trains, the tracks, everything, spotless. Just an absolute joy to ride. The wait is longer than we expect for a Friday morning, but it is not too bad. Once we get on the tram we realize that this is a pretty old system. Rickety, old wood and steel streetcars. That said, there are no announcements or scrawls telling you what the next stop is, or any indication where on the line you are. I find it difficult to impossible to catch the stop names as we pull up to the platforms. It is increasingly frustrating to keep missing them. El meets an Italian couple on the tram who suggest she download an app to follow to tram route in real time. It works like a charm, basically a GPS with the tram line on the the map and we are able to get off at the Princesa Square stop. El a found a self guided walking tour of the area and uses that as our guide of what to do and see. I am already getting run down and I haven’t even done anything yet! This is going to be a long day. Our first stop is the Belém tower.

Belém tower

It is free to get in with the Lisboa Card. We get right in and walk directly to the top of the tower. It is a nice view of the Tagus River and a few overlooks from the watchtowers let you imagine what it must have been like to be here when Vasco De Gama set sail to the new world, as the caravels sailed past the tower into the Atlantic Ocean. More people are starting to show up to the tower and when we are finished we get out to let more people in. Our next stop is a bit down the esplanade. Walking along the shore of the Tagus down to the Monument to Discovery. This is a sizeable monument to the explorers, kings who the explorers were sailing for, and also other thinking people of the time. We take some pictures, but truth be told, it is not like I know who any of these people are (except Vasco De Gama) and this monument goes to prove that I couldn’t even pick him out of a literal lineup.

Monument to Discovery

inside Saint Gerome Monastery

The next stop is Saint Gerome Monastery. I am getting weaker by the minute and need to find a spot in the sun as I am shivering uncontrollably (due to my cold) and the gentle breeze is feeling much colder than it ordinarily would. I position myself to sit directly in the sun for some added warmth. By myself, I appear to be a sitting target for all of the hustlers in the area. Like a magnet, they gravitate towards me, some trying to sell me trinkets while others just straight out ask for money. I continue to journal. El may have another stop in mind after this monastery, but I may try to steer us towards the bakery that was the only reason that I wanted to come to this neighborhood and also I am getting hungry. Upon her return she remarks that is looks like I got some color while she was away- and not in a good way! Turns out in my state of chills, I couldn’t feel the midday sun cooking my face to a sunburn! (I told you this was going to be a long day). The bakery is closer than we think it will be and it is easy to spot, next to the Starbucks, but it is the business with a long line in front of it. What you get here is Pastéis de Belém. Like Oysters Rockefeller at Antoines in New Orleans, this is a secret family recipe that many places try to duplicate but no one else knows for sure the exact ingredients. The entire country loves these pastries, and this is the place that invented them. This sales counter runs like a well oiled machine. People generally order one, four, or six pastries and they have them already boxed up in those configurations. We order four to take away and are on our way in mere seconds- pretty sure it took longer to order them than pick them up. Now we need to get back on the tram 15 to get back to the center. Our time keeps seeming to get away from us. On the way back, El finds the directions to a funicular that she wants to take. This city is designed much like Quebec City where one part of the city is much higher than another. These are called the old city and new city, but they are just different neighborhoods here. The lower part is Baixa, while the upper part is Bairro Alto. We arrive to realize, it is not a funicular per se, but more of an elevator. We wait in line 15 minutes to take the 45 second ride up. There is so much wrought iron in the structure that getting a clear photo of the view is nearly impossible. Once we are at the top we take some photos from the terrace. Then, included in the price, we are allowed to go up to the observation deck for more unobstructed views.

view from the observation deck. you can see the (still) ruined remains to the main church destroyed by the major earthquake of 1755

We spend another few minutes and happen to be walking by the elevator as he is loading up to go down. El has had her eye on a knitting shop somewhere in the area since she did some research. Just finding the elevator was a chore and because of it, we started noticing some street names. That said, we find the street, with the shop, but again the addresses (we are looking for 216, but the numbers stop at 103). I am trying to tell El that I need to stop walking. I can sit in a park or a square and wait, but I will not be able to follow while she keeps trying to find the shop. Today is the International Day of the Woman and we come upon a street concert, complete with chairs set out in the middle of the street for spectators. I take a seat during soundcheck and remain seated during the show. El goes to find knitting. After she leaves, the band starts playing. The music is certainly fine, even though I don’t recognize any of the tunes. The band, though only plays about 20 minutes, before being replaced on stage by people who will make speeches, And oh boy, did they make speeches. I don’t know who any of these people are, though local politicians or businessmen is my guess. The guy, who may have been a mayor or something, must have spoken for a solid 20 minutes. To listen to somebody, anybody, speak for 20 straight minutes takes skill on the part of the speaker to keep people’s interest. With the obvious language barrier, all I could do was listen to the drone for as long as it took. It was my commitment to El to wait here for her that prevented me from moving to a nearby square. When El did get back (after about an hour) I tell her that at this point I am very hungry and want to take advantage of my appetite to get something in me. She tells me that in her quest for the knitting shop, she came across a local looking restaurant called Merendinha do Arco. It was close by and open, so I was game. We are presented with menus in Portuguese. El does an amazing job trying to communicate with people here that do not speak English or Italian (which a lot do), but it seems that Portuguese is just a little bit too different from the romance language roots that she Is used to, that there is still some measure of the unknown when it comes to getting things ordered. The thing is that you see on the menu “carne de porco a Alentejana”, it is easy to assume you will get some sort of pork dish, but how much work do you (or the waiter, for that matter) want to put in so that you can understand what exactly the “Alentejana” component is? I guess it could be pork roast with Alentejana sauce (whatever that might be), it could be pork chops made in the “Alentejana” style, it could be pork brains, for all I know. The pork is not the issue. I would like to know before I order what I will get, but I think not knowing is my fault and can’t expect others to come to the rescue all the time, though luckily we frequently get people who want to show off their skills, which are usually way more amazing than mine. Anyway, we order two “carne de porco a Alentejana” and hope for the best. I continue to be weirded out by the foods that get brought to your table unordered. It is common in Europe for the waiter to deliver a couple of small plates, usually bread is one, some sliced cheese, and some sort of salad- yesterday was octopus salad, today it was olives. If you don’t eat it, they take it away and you don’t pay for it. But if you do eat any of the offerings, they just add it to the bill. I am just not sure what happens to the food that is passed over. I mean, do you really want to eat bread that was sitting on someone else’s table? Do people ever touch the bread and not eat it? How many tables get the bread set down before the waiter tosses the uneaten foodstuffs? We confirm we will not be eating the small plates and they take them away. In a matter of minutes our “carne de porco a Alentejana” arrives. It is like a grilled pork chop, cut into pieces, served with a side of fried breadcrumbs (think, like a stuffing made in a skillet), along with some clams. I didn’t see that being the Alentejana component of the dish. But, there aren’t many, and they are certainly fine. We eat and I am glad to have my appetite. After the lunch, we order two coffees. While we sip and discuss what she found on her knitting shop adventures, I sneak two of the pastries out of the box and we eat them with the coffee. We finish up here and start making our way back to the hostel. It is about 4:30pm, and even though I will find myself saying “ooh, feels like the medicine is working,” other times I just say to myself “how am I still on my feet?” I still have one more rock bar to check out on this trip called Sabotage. It is in the Bairro Alto section. We agree to nap from 5:00 until 8:00 before heading out for the night. I hope I will feel refreshed. I think it is a better idea if we head to Bairro Alto and visit Sabotage and call it a night, though I wouldn’t mind stopping at the Taverna Anti Dantes from the first night again. But, that is only if we are feeling hungry. This city is not laid out with much of a grid order to it. There are lots of side streets, connectors, streets that turn into stairways, and of course, streets that just seem to end without warning. At some point, El looks up Sabotage bar and realizes that they do not open until 10:00pm. It is only about 8:00 now. If we take the metro, we are going to be there in a matter of 20 minutes. Against our better judgement, when trying to figure out which metro to get off, I decide to walk the trip without using the metro. Ordinarily, this is not a problem. But, since we are not all that familiar with the city, and with my health/strength waxing and waning, what we cannot tell yet is how much of the trip will be walking uphill. It is true that the hostel is at a higher elevation that Bairro Alto, so if you take the right route, you can probably get to your destination using only downsloping streets. However, without a grid, per se, sometimes you find yourself backtracking because there is no direct street connection. This trip is no different. As we walk we have to keep stopping to recheck our map. We find our next turn, make it, stop and reconsult the map. It takes us about 45 minutes to walk to the bar I liked from last night called The Cave. It was near the fado place and once we see streets we recognize, it is easy to make our way back there. The music is not as good tonight as it was last night. I order two beers and tell El that we will only stay for one. Then we will head to Sabotage and check that out. At some point on our walk, El realizes that we did not go to a museum that I was hoping to see. Between her knitting shop excursion and my not feeling well, I assure her, I am OK. The beer in this country is not very good. It is just after 10:00 now and I think we will move on to the next place. Time to pull out the maps and plan the route. We walk down to Sabotage and find it pretty much without issue. We had heard that this is the seedier part of the city as most bars in Lisbon close at 2am, but there is a section of Bairro Alto where they stay open until the morning. It is where the all night partiers go and there seems to be plenty of unsavory stuff going on there, judging by the amount of cocaine I have been offered in the last hour walking through. We arrive to Sabotage, but they have a band tonight and the cover is €8. I am not looking to pay to drink tonight, so we decide to skip this and head back to Taverna Anti Dantes where we went he first night. We find the closest metro and get back near the hostel, to go to Taverna. We walk in and the manager recognizes us, but says she is sorry that the kitchen has already closed. She recommends a place down the street called Senior Lisboa. We find that and even though the room is full of people, their kitchen too has closed for the night. For a city that parties until morning (in some places) the closed kitchens at 10:30 on a Friday night are somewhat of a surprise. We can try for a fourth place, or we can just call it a night. A cup of coffee and our last Belém pastry should fit the bill.

tastes waaaay better than it looks

We walk back to the hostel and get ourselves set up in the kitchen area. El writing postcards, and me journaling. Our flight is tomorrow morning and we don’t have anything else planned. This will surely be the way we spend our remaining hours in this city.

Saturday March 9

Our plane is at 12:50 this afternoon and when you factor in getting up to shower, packing, getting some breakfast, checking out, and getting to the airport, this process always takes longer that I think it will. We are up at 7:30, eating at 8:30, checked out by 9:00, at the metro by 9:30 and at the airport by 10:15. Check in and security are quick and we are in the terminal at 11:00 waiting for a gate to be assigned. El takes our last few Euros to see if she can buy some overpriced stuff to bring back with us. I journal, including a tally of the fares and admissions saved by using the Lisboa Card. We bought the 72 hour card for €40 and between metros/trams/elevators and attraction entrances used €42.65. I am confident we would have used more transport if we were here for more of the day and would have seen more attractions if I didn’t come down with being sick. So, my suggestion for next time is to only get the card for each full 24 hour period you are in the city, and not partial...and of course, don’t get sick!

In Conclusion

As we get ready to leave Lisbon, I am putting together some thoughts on the visit, trying to figure out if I would need to come back to either of these places where we have spent the past week or so. Remember I said that one of the reasons we were heading to Morocco was to stretch the boundaries of our comfort zones? I am trying to reflect on our time here to decide if that mission seemed accomplished. I would say, absolutely! Over the six days we were in Fez, we met several other travelers, each traveling in Morocco for their own reasons. That said, I believe we have witnessed the way to visit Morocco if you are looking for a safe and comfortable vacation. Staying in the new city in a European hotel, eating meals in the hotel, taking tour buses everywhere. Yes, I do believe you could visit this city and not leave the relative comfort that you may be used to. But, wandering the medina and more importantly, learning our way around the labyrinth was what we wanted. We got lost a couple of times, but eventually we found our way to something we recognized. Eating grilled goat hearts is a far cry from the meals in the hotels. I am not saying that every aspect of our trip was boundary stretching (we did take a private taxi for a day and did spend a day on a tour bus). But some of the people we met on that tour bus reminded us that not everyone is excited by the prospect of having a feast of olives and grilled meat sandwiches bought in the market that locals are shopping at. There are plenty of people who are way more adventurous than we are, and someday I hope to get to that place mentally. Until then, I can only say that my travel partner is as interested in pushing the limits as I am, and that keeps us both looking forward to the next trip.

There are some cities that you can fall in love with immediately and there are others that I am indifferent to and don’t care if I ever see them again. And, for me, Lisbon lies somewhere square in the middle. In some ways, Lisbon felt like a second rate Spain though two significant factors were against the city when forming my opinion- being sick and the short length of time we were here. I had a fever break during the night, and I am feeling much better today. I continue to take the medicine as directed and my sinuses are acting more normal than they have been. I am a little on the tired side, but the aches have dulled and my full appetite has returned, so I would say I am on the mend, just as we get set to leave. Even though we only spent two days here, I can’t help but think I have probably seen as much of this city as I need to. The people are very nice and the public transport is very good, but I can’t get away from that feeling that it is one giant tourist trap. Everywhere you go, people and signs remind you of the number of pickpockets in the city- and to keep an eye on your stuff. A friendly reminder of a harsh reality. The amount of souvenir shops is remarkable as well. I am not saying that those places shouldn’t exist, as we buy stuff from them ourselves. But, when you wander down the street and every shop caters to the tourists, I begin to think we are walking in the wrong neighborhood. Prices tend to be higher, quality of goods a bit cheaper, and the quality of food gets a little more pedestrian. Before we came to Lisbon, we had gotten some advice from other travelers...see Sintra and go to Porto. Sintra is a day trip outside of Lisbon and Porto is another city up the coast. I would probably have done Sintra if we had more days in Lisbon and if we ever make it back to Portugal, I am not opposed to visiting Porto. The food, while decent, was not universally amazing (like we found in Spain), but it certainly wasn’t awful either. I know the Portuguese are very proud of their history and culture, so, if I get the opportunity to come back, I will take advantage of it and try to give it a second chance to make the best first impression.