Into Erg Chebbi

We took the early bus from Marrakech, the only one going all the way to the end of the road.  It started off easy, and soon we were making our way up the western side of the Atlas Mountains.  The mountains are impressive, with small villages terraced into the hillsides and many people selling fossils and cool rocks along the road.  The road was in great shape but it was kind of a scary ride with the clouds beneath us.  The bus driver had a few pretty sketchy passes on the switch backs; he wasn’t stopping for anyone.  Some of the highest peaks even had some early snow cover.

On the back side of the mountains we passed through a lot of small villages with square houses made of mud and straw.  They blended right into the natural landscape, which by now was straight desert.  We had made it to the Sahara!!!  Soon we were passing through Ourzazate, famous for the filming of many desert movies including Lawrence of Arabia.  By now there were a lot of the Berber people around, dressed in their standard long robes.  They all had pointed hoods to block the sun that made them look a little like wizards.  Historically nomadic, the Berbers used to roam back and forth through the Sahara from Morocco to Yemen, but now modern borders restrict their movements.

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The landscape became more and more barren with oases popping up along the way, always with an accompanying village.  We saw signs warning about camels crossing the road, but besides that there were very few signs of life.  We reached Merzouga after dark; the desert was flat around us but we could make out shadows of the huge dunes in the distance because of the amazingly-bright full moon.

Upon exiting the bus, a bunch of people came at us.  “Do you have reservation for tours?” they kept asking.  We said “Yes, we already have one!” but they would not leave us alone.  They gave us a lot of bad info, saying there would be no taxis and such, trying to lead us astray and into their hotel or whatever.  Typical hassler shenanigans.  After only 10 minutes a taxi showed up and he took us the five kilometers to Hassi Labied, the village near the Erg Chebbi dunes where we would be spending the night before our journey into the nothing.

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Mohammed was a Berber and owned a shop and house right up against the dunes.  He was also in the process of building a hostel which he currently lets Couchsurfers stay in for free.  He also had a cousin that did tours into the dunes, so he hooked us up with a good price for a two night adventure.  The hostel was dusty but comfortable, so we got a great night sleep – it was almost too quiet.

The next morning we were shown around town, purchased some turbans and got some last minute emails written.  We would leave at 5pm and spend two nights at Berber camps in the dunes, then return before sunrise the following day.  With us would be an older French couple, and a couple our age from Moscow.  We learned that we were not going to ride camels (two humps), but dromedaries (one hump).  A technicality we never knew about until now!

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Riding the dromedaries took a while to get used to, stretching weird muscles us in all the wrong directions.   Sand, as far as the eye can see.

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When we reached the tops of the dunes, we could see a large mesa in the distance, the border of Algeria.  Along we went, on top of our beasts, adoring the simple beauty of the erg, like giant waves, no two the same.  We made it to our Berber camp just after dark.  It was a collection of square tents made of carpet with a center table for diner.  It was peaceful and the moon bright, and we wandered off into the sand while dinner was being made.

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Happy with life and loving the adventure.  Food came late, tajine of course.  We went to bed tired as usual but slept extremely well again.

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In the morning we hiked up the large dune overlooking our camp.  The sunrise was grand, casting amazing shadows over the sandy hills.  We screwed around with the GoPro and rolled around in the sand.  After breakfast we got the dromedaries lined up and started off deeper into the nothing.  We really got to know the term “lurching” as we slowly made our way through the desert.  Three hours quickly passed and, just as we were becoming super sore, we made our way into a small camp.  By this time we were dehydrated, tired, and hurting in all new places from the ride, ready for lunch and a small break from the midday heat.  Other travelers greeted us at a camp, including a rather talkative Turk, very reminiscent of the character Dennis Hopper plays in “Apocalypse Now”.  Where are we?!!?

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Lunchtime Berber drumming

After lunch the wind was really starting to pick up.  It started as kinda cool, and turned into “I can’t see, breath, or talk,” without sand getting into everything.  The sun was becoming eerily fogged over with the ever-growing sand being thrown hundreds or thousands of feet into the atmosphere.  Every bit of exposed skin stung like small needle pricks during the big gusts.  We hid our cameras, except for the GoPro, and covered our eyes as well as we could.  If we didn’t have a guide it would have been scary.  Getting lost out there is no joke.

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Luckily we were close to our final camp and the wind started to die down as soon as we got there.  Our eyes were a mess from the sand and it took a few days for them to feel normal again.  But we had felt the thrill of adventure, getting “out there” where humans are not supposed to be, the real desert, hot, windy, and unforgiving.  We longed for a shower but settled for a dusty bed beneath the stars.  Our Berber guides played some traditional songs on their drums and we relaxed under the bright moon, feeling privileged and carefree.  What a life, what a life.

Equity Point Hostel – Marrakech, Morocco

Equity Point Hostel - Marrakech

Equity Point Hostel is located in the heart of the medina in Marrakech, Morocco.  The entrance is slightly hidden down a small alley, but once you are inside the hostel opens up into a huge complex.  There are different rooms for every traveler’s needs and budgets, along with a bunch of different common rooms to hang out and escape the madness of the Medina.

The best part about this hostel is the central swimming pool.  The cleanest pool we saw in Morocco, it offered a great escape from the intense heat of the city.  Besides the pool, dorms and rooms are also equipped with air conditioning which really makes sleeping easier.

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The top floor has the restaurant and bar, with a very cool view over the medina.  A great spot to sip on a drink, they also offer the cheapest beer that we were able to find in the city.  We really liked this hostel, from the cleanliness to the amenities.  Swimming pools aren’t unheard of in the city, but the price to swim is usually more than the total cost of Equity-Point.

Services:

Wifi

Internet Cafe

Free simple Moroccan breakfast

Restaurant

Bar

24 Hour reception

Swimming pool

Luggage storage

Air-conditioning in rooms

Tourist information

Address:

80, Derb El Hammam Mouassine Marrakech Medina
Tel: (00212) 524440793

Phone:

+34 93.231.20.45

Email:

infomarrakech@equity-point.com

Website:

http://www.equity-point.com/our-hostels/equity-point-marrakech-hostel/general-information.html

Prices:

8 bed dorm – 8.00€

6 bed dorm – 10.00€

4 bed dorm – 12.00€

3 bed private room – 59.70€

Twin bed private room – 51.00€

Double bed private room – 61.00€

Marrakech – The Heart of Morocco

The Koutoubia, Marrakech's central mosque

The Koutoubia, Marrakech’s central mosque

The all night train from Tangier to Marrakech was comfortable, but still impossible for sleeping.  We spent the night popping in and out of sleep, strange cities coming and going along with the people in our compartment.   At dawn the sun rose over the desert and everything looked distinctly more African.  Dusty and brown with scattered shrubs and skinny trees.  Once at our destination we hailed a taxi (more like he hailed us) and we were soon passing through the wall surrounding the Medina and driving across Djemaa Al Fna (Community Square), one of the most famous places in Morocco.  The driver left us at the edge of the maze and after a couple minutes walking we were in our riad.  We needed a nap but the city was calling.

Medina walls

Medina walls

Endless madness, thats what was happening.  We walked into the medina knowing we would get lost.  Once we wandered into a distinctly less touristy area, kids started pointing us back in the right direction.  Carrie made sure I knew that getting lost in large African cities was a bad idea, so we were more careful after that.  “ZOORRMMM” as a motorbike screams past, barely avoiding the other motorbikes and crowds of people.  We had to always keep an eye or ear out for them as we really didn’t want to end up in a Moroccan hospital.  There was SOOO much stuff here and it took about an hour to get from one side of the medina to the other.  The craftspeople are still organized in a guild system, so there was an area for blacksmiths, shoemakers, leather workers, potters, the lamps, carpets, spices, etc.  Overwhelming wasn’t a strong enough word.

Spice markets

Spice markets

It seemed like most everything sold in the medina was made in the medina.  We also got the feeling that a lot of people who lived there rarely, if ever, left.  The walls are twelve feet apart in the widest sections, so it quickly got claustrophobic.  The people were just way to pushy and sometimes rude.  But there were also people who were genuinely really nice and it was hard to tell the difference a lot of the time.  Someone just needs to teach them that saying “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me…” over and over and over as we ignore you is never ever going to get us into your shop.  Also, when you yell “Rasta! Rasta!” over and over that is just going to make us mad.  Carrie didn’t know she had dreadlocks; thanks for telling us.

In Marrakech there are always people whispering (sometimes yelling) “…Hashish…” to anyone who is young and white.  A lot of tourists buy this stuff from these people but it is a bad idea.  Many of the dealers are snitches and will go right to the police as soon as you walk away with the brick.  The police will then arrest you and you will spend a mandatory two nights in jail plus a large fine.  Everyone makes money, only you lose.  Just say “no” sternly and keep walking.  They aren’t very pushy about it, unlike in Lisboa where there’s the same stuff, just more annoying people trying to sell it.

The Djemaa Al Fna gets crazy at night.  About 20 food stands appear in the middle around the dusk call to prayer, setting up and disassembling every night.  They all sell similar foods, cooked over charcoal – tajine, kebabs, soups… all served with bread and mint tea.  The smoke is crazy, filling the square and it gives a real mystic feeling to the multitudes of other performers set up everywhere.  There are acrobats, snake charmers, homemade carnival games, bands, story tellers, women applying henna, and who knows what else.  The same scene has been happening for a millenia and isn’t going to stop any time soon.  Just don’t take any pictures unless you’re ready to drop a few Dirhams in their hat.

Djemaa Al Fna at night

Djemaa Al Fna at night

And then there was the new part of town, Gueliz, where women uncovered their heads and restaurants sold beer for exhorbitant prices.  There was a modern shopping mall and supermarkets, traffic lights and vehicles drove on specific sides of the road, separate from pedestrians and sheep.   It’s nice for when you need to get out of the claustrophobic medina.

Marrakech is frustrating at times and at others down right annoying.  But it is the heart of Morocco and once you figure it out, it starts to grow on you.  All in all we really enjoyed our five days wandering, wondering, and drifting away, into the madness.

Tangier – the gateway to Africa

Looking over the Mediterranean from Tangiers

Looking over the Mediterranean from Tangiers

Going Back to Africa held so many emotions and expectations for me.  It’s a continent on which a year of my life has passed; not a great amount of time but it bears a great amount of significance.  I was excited, hoping the continent would instantly bring back old memories, familiar sensations, that I would feel at home, that Zach would love it.  Yet I knew, at the same time, that Morocco is a world away from East Africa, with a completely different culture, race, and self-perception.

One of King Mohammad VI's palaces

One of King Mohammad VI’s palaces

Stepping off the ferry from Spain onto African soil again for the first time in three years was a relief.  The FRS Ferry from Tarifa to Tangier was not at all a comfortable ride.  The first 10 minutes of the journey the huge boat rocked from side to side so violently that I thought I was going to lose my lunch.  And I have never been seasick in my life!  Apparently it was a problem of “getting up to speed” and once we got going faster the rocking lessened.  We got a taxi through the bustling medina to Hakim’s (our CS hosts’s) apartment.  He immediately informed us that we got ripped off by taking the “wrong color taxi” and that we should only take blue ones because they have meters and the brown ones just name a price.  Well how were we supposed to know that before he told us?  Oh well.  Welcome to Africa.

Walking through the "medina", the old city/marketplace in Tangiers.

Walking through the “medina”, the old city/marketplace in Tangiers.

Tangier was, of course, wildly different from East Africa.  Almost every woman wore a hijab, many completely veiled in birkahs.  The call to prayer could be heard five times a day from a variety of different directions, mosques dominating the city.  There were remnants of a strong foreign prescence however, as Tangiers used to be an “international zone” in the years surrounding World War II, with different sections controlled by several different European nations.  It was also a popular hangout/escape for the artists/writers/druggies of the Beat generation, home to William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and a popular touring ground for the Rolling Stones and The Clash.  Nowadays, a lot of the expats have gone home, and the city remains largely conservative.  Alcohol is nearly impossible to find and insanely expensive.  The Lonely Planet lists which bars, specifically, are okay for women to drink at, and its not very many!  We took a break from the drinking scene, as our CS hosts were pretty devout Muslim non-drinkers.  We did enjoy a lot of “Berber whiskey”, a.k.a. the famous Moroccan mint tea, super sweet and chock full of fresh mint leaves.  Hakim and his roommates also cooked us an amazing “tajine”, basically a vegetable/meat stew slow-cooked in a special clay dish with exotic Moroccan spices.  The rest of the visit was spent exploring and taking in the beautiful Islamic architecture!

Delicious tajine...sorry for the bad picture!

Delicious tajine…sorry for the bad picture!

Classic Islamic architecture in the Tangiers "Kasbah"- castle

Classic Islamic architecture in the Kasbah – ancient walled castle section of town

Classic Islamic architecture in the kasbah

“Hands of fatima” symbolizing the Five Pillars of Islam

Intricate mosque ceiling on display in the Kasbah Museum

Intricate mosque ceiling on display in the Kasbah Museum

Cafe Tingis, the old school coffeeshop in the Petit Soco that Anthony Bourdain visited on "Parts Unknown"  We even saw one of the people he met on the show here!

Café Tingis, the coffee shop in the Petit Soco that Anthony Bourdain visited on “Parts Unknown” Bonus points to anyone who can name the person Bourdain talked to on that show.  He is in this picture!!!!

A new side of España!

Sevilla, Spain

Sevilla, Spain

After a week in Portugal, we took another Blablacar rideshare into southern Spain.  We choose Sevilla because we had heard good things and it was on the way to Tarifa, where we would catch the boat to Morocco.  It was nice to be back in Spain; we really love it there.  The wine is cheap and the people are really nice.  Seville turned out to be one of our favorite spots yet.  It was cool to see the drastic differences between the north of the country and the south.  Everything was new here.  The accent, the food, the prices…  It was awesome to get a glass of wine and tapas for under five euros each.  Our Spanish had also improved greatly after a couple weeks of hearing mostly Spanish/Portuguese.  The people in Sevilla also spoke a lot more slowly than they did in San Sebastian, which we appreciated!

Sevilla was also our first time using AirBnb.com.   I know, we are behind the times!  We stayed in a nice, affordable room in an older woman’s apartment very close to the city center.  Maria had a very cute doggie which eased our grief over missing Dusty, and she was very welcoming and helpful.  I think we did pretty well speaking only Spanish with her!

Gazpacho, cheese, sardines, spinach/chickpeas, and mushrooms

Gazpacho, cheese, sardines, spinach/chickpeas, and mushrooms

On our first night in Sevilla we had a tapas feast, of course!  The tapas here weren’t all set out on the bar like the “pintxos” in San Sebastian were; you actually had to order them.  They weren’t quite as good, but they were cheap and a little different!  “Cola de toro” (bull tail) was my favorite.  Since it was Friday night, people were out in droves and everyone was having a good time.  Sevilla struck as an incredibly vibrant city where people have a lot of fun despite the Spanish recession.

Cola de toro

Cola de toro

The next day, we got lucky enough to visit the Catedral de Sevilla on “World Tourism Day” (who knew that existed?), making admission free!!!!  This cathedral is actually the largest in the world!  The altars, exhibits, and mausoleums were incredibly ornate and impressive, and slogging up the seven flights of the tower were well worth it for the views over Sevilla.

Hugging an enormous pillar in the cathedral

Hugging an enormous pillar in the cathedral

The organ

The organ

Cristobal Colon aka Christopher Columbus is buried here

Cristobal Colon aka Christopher Columbus is buried here

Main altar

Main altar

View from the tower

View from the tower

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Despite some rain coming in that night, we still managed to venture out to find a secret, local flamenco show at a place called Casa Anselma in Barrio Triana recommended by Maria.  The venue was completely unmarked, but upon finding the address, we asked around and learned that it didn’t open ’til midnight.  Typical Spanish night owls!  So we were forced to have some more tapas and wine at an awesome little joint we discovered down an inconspicuous alley, also filled with only locals.  The champiñones ali-oli were delectable and it was fun to watch how a tiny tapas-oriented kitchen/bar staff operates!  We kinda felt like we were crashing their party, but we love discovering those “off-the-beaten-path” places!

Amazing tapas bar hidden in an alley

Amazing tapas bar hidden in an alley

Finally, we went back to the flamenco place to find a line forming.  We jumped in the back and waited about 20 more minutes as more people arrived.  Obviously, this was the place to be!  Once the doors opened, madness ensued.  The proprieties, a feisty,  petite woman, opened the side door instead of the front door, putting those who had waited longest at the back of the line and those who had just arrived in front.  A crazy stampede of pushing and yelling ensued, ending with Zach & I being among the last patrons to actually get seats and a bunch of people standing in the back.  The place was packed to the gills and we only spotted two or three other foreigners.  It was free too, but you had to buy a drink.  I didn’t know much about flamenco, because all I was picturing was women in colorful ruffly dresses dancing.  Instead, this place was all about the music.  A band of four guys playing acoustic instruments and harmonizing perfectly on ballad after ballad, while the dancing was left up to any audience member who wanted to strut their stuff!  Obviously they learn from a young age because they were great!  We stayed until 2am and there was still no sign of them slowing down.  All in all, an unforgettable night in an amazing city!

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Flamenco at “Anselma”

Hotel Sherazade in Marrakech, Morocco

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Hotel Sherazade in Marrakesh provides a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere with rooms that fit any budget!  Its location in the heart of the Medina just a couple minutes’ walk from Djemaa al Fna (the main square) is perfect for both exploring and finding your way back home!

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Central courtyard

Hotel Sherazade takes its form from a gorgeous old “riad” building- a traditional Moroccan home consisting of an open courtyard with fountain surrounded by different types of rooms on several levels.  The roof provides chairs for sunbathing, a chill space with pillows and shade, and a stellar view of the medina’s rooftops.  Sip some rejuvenating mint tea and catch up on your journal-writing up here after a long day spent getting lost in Marrakesh’s chaos.

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Rooftop hangout

King-size suite

King-size suite

Run by a German-Morroccan family and their friendly, English-speaking staff, the hotel can also help you arrange tours and excursions to other great destinations in the region.  The third-floor terrace has a cozy breakfast room and patio with a daily breakfast buffet that will only set you back 50 Dirhams ($1=8DH).  Half and full board are also available add-ons.  The WiFi is fast and reliable, and the showers are hot!  Private suites are the most luxurious rooms, while less pricey shared-bathroom doubles are still richly decorated with soft mattresses.

Services Included:

WiFi

Hot water

Continental breakfast buffet (50 DH)

Air-conditioning or fans in rooms

Tourist information available

Address: Derb Djama 3, Riad Zitoun l’kedim Marrakech-Medina

Email: sherazade8@gmail.com

Website: www.hotelsherazade.com

Prices:

With A/C and private bathroom: 500-640DH depending on type of beds and number of guests

With fan and private bathroom: 220-500DH depending on type of beds and number of guests

Fan/shared bathroom single: 180DH

Fan/shared bathroom double: 230DH

Half board: 150DH

Full board: 250DH

 

Sintra – A Town of Castles

Sintra, Portugal is located to the west of Lisboa, a short train ride out of the busy capital.  It is a magical mountaintop on the edge of a national park that is the home to many castles built by many conquerers.  Romans, Moors, and Christian crusaders fought many battles and all occupied the space for a time before Portuguese kings began to use the town as a weekend retreat, (Wikipedia Sintra will explain the complicated history better than me.)  Now it is one of the most touristy places in Portugal but well worth fighting the crowds to see.  From perfect castles to ruins of ancient fortresses to cobblestone hikes through thick forests, Sintra has a lot for everyone.  We didn’t actually go inside any of the castles because they are expensive and we would rather just take pictures and walk around the outside.

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Quant old houses with the Moorish Castle visible on top of the hill

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The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (like everywhere else in Europe, it seems) and has many nice restaurants and cafes.  We brought some food for a picnic because everything in Sintra is overpriced.

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Hiking to the Moorish Castle at the top of the mountain.

6We enjoyed the hike to the top.  There were amazing views and it felt like we had escaped the city life for at least a short time.

Part of the Moorish Castle

We continued along the trail to Pena National Palace.  They made you pay like 15 Euros before we could even see anything, so here is a picture that I stole from the internets.

Pena National Palace

If we had a little bit more cash to spare, we definitely would have gone inside the palace.  As it was, we felt more like hiking and enjoying some nature anyway.  Sintra was a very good escape from the big city!

 

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