Going back to Morocco to share some architecture from the Bahia Palace, Saadian Tombs and Koutoubia Mosque – all in Marrakech.
And a few Moroccan kitties.
Next we were off to Venice by train. This 5-day trip to Italy was really just a case of making use of layovers. To get from Morocco to Istanbul we had to fly through Europe somewhere. Milan happened to be one of the cheapest options (thank you RyanAir) and Venice is just a hort train ride away. Since I’ve always wanted to see Venice, it seemed a good opportunity – so we took it.
Venice is unlike any other city, with transport only by foot or boat. It’s made up of 118 islands separated by canals and connected by bridges. the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I just find the idea of Venice and the look and feel of it romantic. I didn’t feel the need necessarily to do or see anything particular,just to wander and get lost in it. And that’s what we did for 3 days.
The weather was a little dreary, but the city was bustling. There is a lot of shopping to be done here, lots of Italian leather goods, Venetian glass and clothes, and being the week before Christmas, things were busy.
One of the best parts of Italy is the food and wine. Our favorite places for inexpensive tasty food were Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta and Antico Forno. At Alfredo’s you could get fresh pasta for 6 euros, but there are only a few seats. We got to sit both times we visited, but you need to be ready to stand. At Antico Forno you could get delicious pizza slices for 2.50 euros. They were pretty busy, so the chance to get a slice from a pie right out of the oven was quite good.
I’ve had people tell me that they think Venice is overrated, but I disagree. I loved it for the character that comes from the canals and hundreds of little alleys. Even when its crowded on the main streets, there are plenty of out of the way places to get away and wander. It won’t take long to find yourself alone. I do think Venice is an inherently romantic place. There is just something about it that makes you feel like there are treasures to be discovered around every corner. This city offers you so many moments with romantic potential, its hard to ignore.
Couchsurfing In Milan Italy
After our less than ideal experiences in Morocco, our welcome to Italy could not have been better. We arrived in Milan, met up with our Couchsurf hosts, Mattia and Claudia and were welcomed to their home with a pasta lunch and a glass of wine.
On our first day, we headed downtown and saw the Duomo Cathedral, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and Sforzesco Castle.
In the evening, we met up with Mattia to go out for some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. We capped off the meal with a taste of Mirto and Limoncello, delicious traditional Italian liqueurs.
Our next day, we started off with one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had.
We returned home for a delicious homemade dinner with Mattia and Claudia, including one of the symbols of the city of Milan, the Panettone. This sweet bread is traditionally prepared at Christmas/New Year’s time and although they are now served all over Europe and even sometimes South America, their origin is Milan.
We finished off our brief, but wonderful stay in Milan with breakfast, giving Mattia a scrambled egg tutorial while he cooked us the best bacon of the trip.
Just 48 hours and I was in love with Italy!
One of the challenges of travelling only by public transport is that we tend to see far more of cities than countryside. Since I’d consider myself a bit more of a country girl, this is a serious drawback. One decent way to experience more of the rural side of a country without renting a car is to sign up for a good tour. It can be cheaper than renting a car and more importantly, there are a number of countries we’ve been to where renting a car and driving is just plain scary.
We had the opportunity to take a tour in Ireland and it was fantastic. All tours are not created equally however, so it pays to hunt down some reviews before signing up.
When we arrived at our hotel in Marrakech, we were presented with the option of a 2 or 3-day tour to the Sahara. As it included not only the chance to set foot in the Sahara, but also to ride a camel, we couldn’t say no.
It turned out to be a pretty poor tour, but the sites we saw were still spectacular.
We started by visiting Ait Ben Haddou, a fortified city (or ksar) along a former caravan route that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It may look familiar as its been used in the shooting of quite a number of movies (Gladiator, The Mummy, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Jewel of the Nile to name a few), as well as the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.
We also got to see a real live oasis – they do exist and they look like this.
We had a brief introduction to how Berber rugs are woven by women (yes, they did also make it as difficult as possible to leave without purchasing a rug.)
And a quick visit to Dades Gorge.
Finally, after the better part of 2 days in a tourist van, we arrived at Erg Chebbi dunes for our camel ride and night in a Bedouin camp. In case you are offered the opportunity to ride a camel, two hours is too long, just my advice.
After an extended argument between a stubborn innkeeper and one of our tour participants, we finally boarded our camels and rode into the sunset.
Being a two hour journey, much of it was in the dark, but it was quite peaceful, although I wasn’t entirely certain we weren’t lost. We were shown our tents then herded to the oddest dinner I’ve ever experienced where I shared a plate of rice and then stew with several complete strangers. We did each get our own fork.
We were all good-natured and an in-this-together mentality prevailed, but this could have been a much more enjoyable experience if it had started out with some type of explanation about what we were eating, what was going to happen while we were at camp and how this was an authentic Bedoiun experience. Instead a plate of rice was unceremoniously plopped down in front of us along with 5 forks and a “Bon apetit” while we all looked on wondering – Is there more coming? Are there going to be plates maybe? There was more coming, a plate of tagine with a piece or two of chicken showed up when the rice was mostly gone. There were not plates.
After dinner someone asked where the bathroom was (we we’re all wondering but afraid to ask) to which one of the camel herders answered with a sweeping hand gesture and said “Everywhere.” That’s what I thought…
No one shared any information about when we were leaving in the morning, that there might be an option to take a 4WD instead of a camel or anything useful. We overheard a conversation about the 4WD option and asked the camel herder we heard it from a bit later and were chastised for not asking sooner because now “all the spaces are full”. And I’m not trying to be disrespectful by referring to the guy as “one of the camel herders” but no one was ever introduced or really even talked to us. They didn’t seem to know much about what tourists might expect or care much about whether their clients had a good time. It was quite an odd feeling and not at all reassuring 2 hours out in the Sahara.
The exception is Omar who we actually enjoyed hanging out with for a bit after dinner and enjoyed a nice conversation. I was glad to have him recognize us in the morning and choose to lead our string of camels on the return trip.
At 6am we were back on the camels for the two hour trek back to the bus. This was the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever witnessed, with reds and oranges more vibrant then I’ve ever seen and all from the back of a camel, made it quite a memorable experience.
So in the end, this was a horrible tour on which I still had amazing and memorable experiences. Some of them memorable in a good way and others in a comically bad way.
In general there was a lack of communication. Where are we going? What are we doing now? What do we need to take with us? To get any information from our driver took the repeated asking of the question. The feeling I got was that our desire to know what was going on was amusing to him. Possibly a cultural difference, but since this was a tour – for tourists – I thought the needs of the tourists should be addressed a little better.
The biggest confusion was when we got to the camel rendezvous – would our bags be taken to camp in a 4WD or would we only have what we carried on our backs? Turned out it was only what was on our backs, but no one ever told us that. Important information to have before you spend a cold night camping in the Sahara in December. We sensed something might be amiss and asked our driver with about 6 requests for clarification before we got an answer we understood. I had just enough time to throw on all my layers and stuff my toothbrush in my pocket.
In addition to looking into reviews of tour companies, I’d also recommend getting a more detailed itinerary. The description of this tour was pretty vague and did not include a timetable of any sort, so we didn’t realize how much time we were going to spend in the van or how much distance we needed to cover. We spent most of the 3 days in the van and the overnight bivouac/camel ride, was followed immediately by a 12 hour drive back to Marrakech on these highways.
I would still take the tour, but with a different tour company and a little more information. I just would have liked the chance to be mentally prepared for what was coming.
The medinas of Morocco are a vibrant and hectic places, where streets are narrow alleys between two and three-story buildings crowded with people and donkey carts. There are scooters noisily weaving in and out of this traffic and even the occasional car that barely fits.
This was a huge change from our recent European wandering and we definitely felt like we were back in Africa again. The colors and the crafts of the souks were vibrant, colorful and beautiful and I loved them.
But the energy and hecticness is also exhausting and after a bit of time I was happy to return to our riad. Riads are the common kind of hotel in the medina (the old city). Like most buildings in the city, there’s just a non-descript door in one of these alleyways,
but when you enter you are greeted by an open air courtyard with furniture and usually a fountain or pool, surrounded by hotel rooms.
Because there are no windows to the outside you can tell nothing about the inside from the outside and (thankfully) you can hear almost none of the noise from outside in your room. Its like an oasis, a calm in the center of the storm. Because of this, picking a good hotel is key.
In Fez, we had a very different experience of staying in a normal second-floor apartment with windows opening onto the alleyway. This was a completely different experience, being a bit more in the community, but also affording no respite except for the rooftop terrace, which most buildings in the old town areas have.
Because the streets are like narrow chasms, a lot of the sun is blocked when you are at street level, but up on the roof, you can soak up the intense sunshine.
The view is a sea of rooftops punctuated by the rectangular minarets of dozens of mosques. It was an interesting place to be during the call to prayer, as the call emanated from the minarets. There was nowhere you didn’t hear it, not even your riad in most cases.
It was a new experience to be in a country that was predominantly Muslim for the first time. Where the majority of women wore head scarves, many full burkas and since it was winter, many men wore these pointy robes. The robes worn by the majority of women were brightly colored and beautifully crafted.
I’ll be honest I wasn’t a big fan of most of the food I tasted in morocco, but the mint tea and the fresh-squeezed orange juice ($0.50!) were highlights of my trip.
In Marrakech, the center of activity is Jamaa El Fna square.
Particularly in the evening, you had the feeling it was like everyone’s living room. (There was even a film festival while we were there so it was especially crowded.)
All day there were snake charmers and henna dealers targeting tourists, but there were also food tents, games, storytelling & performers of different sorts attracting lots of locals as well.
One particularly amusing one to watch was fishing for soda..like many such games, a lot harder than it looks.
The square was also the best place for finding fresh orange juice. There are more oranges in Morocco than I’ve ever seen.
As much as I loved certain things about Morocco, the colors, the crafts, the orange juice, its not on my list to return to. Here’s my best explanation of why.
We are used to being asked for money and relentlessly asked to buy things and we don’t love that, but we’re ok with it. I won’t always say yes, but I don’t mind being asked for things, what I do mind is being tricked. I hate being tricked or lied to. I did not feel respected here. Our experience in Morocco, in Marrakech in particular, was that people didn’t just ask, they hounded. They would grab your arm and guide you into their craft stall under the guise of giving you directions somewhere else. They would take your hand in a friendly manner and suddenly you have henna, even though you’ve already said no and they agreed. (And even though they say it will last 2 weeks when they ask you to pay, it lasts 24 hours.) They would tell you that the few dollars you’ve given for something you didn’t ask for in the first place (a photo with their snake), is not enough and you need to give them more. This is not how I like to travel, I like to talk to people but every time I talked to a stranger it turned out they weren’t just being friendly and it just became not worth the risk or energy to me.
This is hard for me to admit. I like people and my default is to trust. I know a number of people who have genuinely loved Morocco and I went excited and prepared to love it – and I’ll be honest, I didn’t. We were ready to leave before our plane tickets said it was time and to sort of seal the deal, the day before we left we had our iPhone pickpocketed in a somewhat tricky way.
I am glad we did visit Morocco – there are some amazing things to see. I had some great experiences and did meet a few great people (see Mohammad and Michela below who we shared soup with in the Fez henna souk), but I’m not putting it on my list of places to return to.
Impressions of France… First, I love France! The French appreciate beauty, quality and enjoying life.
When we arrived in Paris after being in cities in 15 other countries, we immediately felt that Paris and France in general, were different. Where many cities are an amalgamation of cultures, which actually makes them quite similar – Paris is French. The culture is French. The brands are French. The fashion is French. They even dub all the English movies they show in French. (Most countries just add subtitles and leave them in English.)
There is an overriding sense that they are their own thing. People may have come from all over to live in France (Paris especially), but they consider themselves French first. Our tour guide was from Mexico City, but she was definitely fluent in French and considered herself a Parisian. People either live here because they are French, or they want to be French. In general people are proud to be French. They don’t say it, you can just tell.
I suspect this may be where the reputation of being snooty and unfriendly comes from. We’d heard all kinds of stories and were a little nervous going in, especially not speaking any French.
However, after spending a little time in France and meeting some French people, I suspect that reputation is mostly a misunderstanding. French people are very friendly, they’re just proud to be French, like American’s tend to be proud to be Americans. Act like they should set aside their Frenchness to cater to your culture and language and you may find the welcome a little cool. Much the way many Americans act when visitors arrive in our country not speaking any English.
However, we found that a few words go a surprisingly long way. It’s not that we communicate in French – we certainly don’t. We know about 6 words. But we got the feeling that when we greeted someone with “Bonjour”, it was more like saying “hey, your French, we like France, we’re happy to be in France and even though we know we’re not French, we like the idea of being French.” And 99% of the French people we met were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
We thanked someone at the end of a conversation in English by saying “Merci” and suddenly his face lit up and he said “you speak French!” Hang on there! I assured him we really didn’t and rattled off all 6 of our words, but he stayed excited and happy.
In France, just like every other place we’ve been, we found that putting in a little effort to learn a few words and treating people with respect goes a long way.
So there you go, my impressions of France.
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