Moroccan Food Tour

We enjoyed a 4 hour food tour in Marrakech, which involved frequent stops at street stands to taste a variety of foods. Our guide picked us up at our riad about mid-morning, and we began a stroll through the nearby streets.

Our first stop was a small eatery close to our riad, where we tasted a local breakfast dish of hssoua belboula, or barley soup. This was akin to starting the day with cream of wheat. However this was a soup made from barley – a common grain grown in Morocco – and infused with olive oil and cumin. Quite tasty.

The next stop was at a street stand, where three women were producing a pancake/crepe like dish called msemmen. These are made from a basic bread recipe, flattened into a square, fried on a hot metal cooking surface and brushed with a mixture of spices. Best eaten hot, the crepes were very tasty.

Our third stop was another street stand, where the gentleman was producing sferj/chfanj, or Moroccan donuts. These are produced from a water/flour/sugar/salt dough, deep fried and served with copious amounts of drizzled honey.

After a short walk, we came upon another stand which was serving brissara, a soup made from dried fava beans and served with lots of olive oil, cumin and cayenne. This was accompanied with the traditional Moroccan mint tea.

At our next stop we crowded into a very small cafe and squeezed into a table for two – with five people. Our guide then brought us a dish called loubia, a bean soup served with Moroccan bread. This was eaten with folded over small pieces of the delicious bread.

Next was a stop at a local “Starbucks” for strong Moroccan coffee. We watched while the vendor ground the beans, covered them with hot water, placed the container in a barrel of hot and heated sand and allowed the mixture to blend. The result was a wonderful but very strong coffee.

After another stroll through the souk, we came upon a series of olive stalls. Olives are a staple of Moroccan food, and these stands contained a huge variety of olives. We tried several, including a flavored and spicy variety.

Our last stop was for lunch at a restaurant near the main square. We climbed two sets of stairs, finally settling in at a spacious table on the rooftop. After a series of Moroccan salads – all delicious – we were served the main course of a very traditional dish called a tanjia. A tanjia is a Moroccan stew – usually lamb with saffron, cumin, preserved lemon and garlic – cooked in a ceramic jug or amphora for many hours while buried in hot ashes. The end consistency is akin to a confit of lamb, quite delicious.

That was the end of a quite enjoyable food tour. The guide service offers such tours during the day and also in the evening, and offers a good way to experience various foods and to tour part of the medina.

La Maison Arabe

What better activity to take on next than a cooking school. So off we went to a three hour class at La Maison Arabe, a cooking school located within the riad of the same name.

We met with Alia Al Kasimi, a well-known author of Moroccan cookbooks. She explained the herbs that form the base of cooking in this country.

We then moved to the kitchen where Ouda, via a translator, began to teach us about Moroccan cooking. She began with preparation of the semolina-based dough used for Moroccan bread; the prepared dough was transferred to an nearby oven. We then began preparation of the ingredients for a chicken tagine, accompanied by a zaalook salad (cumin, ginger, tomato and aubergine) and a taktuka salad (green pepper and tomato).

When the dishes were prepared, we retired to a dining area to enjoy our meals.

High Atlas Mountains

There are a many activities outside Marrakech that are worth considering. On this trip we chose to experience the High Atlas Mountains in two ways. One involved a 1.5 hour drive to the north side of the mountains to visit a Berber village. The other was a much longer drive over the mountains to the Sahara side to see two casbahs.

Berber Village

One day we drove about 1.5 hours to the village of Imlil, situated on the northern banks of the mountains, a distance of 60 miles. Imlil is a small village which is the starting point for climbing Jbel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in northern Africa at 4167 m. We were meant originally to hike one hour up the mountains to a small village overlooking the valley. Once the hosts saw our ages, the plan was to carry us on donkeys to lunch, again up the hill. When we had difficulty mounting the donkeys, the decision was to call on a very old 4 x 4 to drive us up a winding, switch-backed narrow road to the lunch place.

We arrived at Auberge Roches Armed, a ten room Berber hotel and restaurant perched atop the hillside with magnificent views of both the valley Ait Mizane and the mountaintops including Toubkal. Interestingly one can make bookings at this facility through Booking.com and other sites.

We were greeted warmly, led to a rooftop table complete with table, table settings, carpets and the like, all awaiting the presentation of a Berber meal. The meal included two tagines, one with lamb and another with vegetables, and both were delicious.

After lunch we returned to Imlil village and drove back the Marrakech. Shortly after leaving Imlil we went past a large tourist vacation facility owned by Richard Branson.

Over Tizi n’Tichka Pass

Another long day we drove from Marrakech over the Tizi n’Tichka pass, one of the most scenic in the country. A series of hairpin turns carves its way up the valley rising to the 2260 meter summit, with impressive views over the rugged, rocky mountains below. On the downhill side we visied Telouet Kasbah and a local market there, then on to Ait Ben Haddou.

Telouet was once the fortified home of the Glaoui family, who ran the trade routes to south Morocco. It is estimated that the decorations on the ceilings took 300 workers 3 years to complete. Unfortunately Telouet has been left to decay and is almost abandoned today.

The local market was quite fascinating, including all kinds of locals vending various foods, equipment and other things.

The scenery was quite different and interesting at the same time.

After a lengthy drive we arrived at Ait ben Haddou, a fortified town on the banks of the Ounila River. Built from local mud bricks, it’s one of the best places in Morocco for a captivating sunset. It has been partially rebuilt for iconic films such as Gladiator, Jewel in the Nile and Jesus of Nazareth.

Marrakech – Part 1

The city of Marrakech is a real favorite of ours, as Karen and I have each been there three times – together the last two. In fact, the name “Marrakech” was the first subject she and I ever spoke about! Together with our dear friends Molly and Carl, we spent six nights in this delightful place on our recent Moroccan tour.

Koutoubia Mosque

Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco. The city is situated west of the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times. The city was founded in 1070 by Emir Abu Bakr ibn Umar as the imperial capital of the kingdom. Beginning in the 17th century the city became popular among Sufi pilgrims for its seven patron saints who are entombed here.

Marrakech comprises an old fortified city packed with vendors and their stalls. The medina quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco, with some 18 souks selling wares from traditional Berber carpets to modern consumer electronics. Crafts employ a significant portion of the population, who primarily sell their products to tourists.

Our first day was primarily taken up with a medina tour conducted by Fatima, a lovely young tourist guide. We met at the Koutoubia Mosque, a familiar landmark in the city. The mosque features intricate tile work, salmon-hued walls, expansive archways and an impressive 253-foot tall minaret. It was built in the 12th century.

Our first stop was a visit to the Saadian tombs. This cemetery features more than 160 tombs filled with the remains of prominent Saadians, who were members of an Arab dynasty and descendants of the prophet Muhammed. The tombs date back to the 14th century and the decor from the 16th century includes cedar ceilings, colorful mosaics and Carrera marble headstones.

We then visited the Bahia Palace. This 19th century palace exemplifies the lavish lifestyle of the Moroccan elite. The property housed various Moroccan royals. The public areas are open and feature rounded entryways that lead to colorful mosaics and intricate latticework, as well as cool shady walkways that lead to vast, sunny courtyards and gardens.

We then enjoyed a delightful lunch at the LeJardin Restaurant.

After lunch, we diverted from museum-like visits to wandering and shopping in the souks. There are literally miles of narrow, winding “streets” (no cars, only people, donkeys and motorbikes) with shops, cafes, bakeries, hammams, spice stands, etc. to ogle at. The bakery was quite interesting. Each neighborhood typically has a local bakery which bakes bread supplied by the residents.

And nearby a man is heating fires to supply steam for the adjacent Hammam (Local baths) and cooking tanjias for a local restaurant – beef or lamb dish baked in a clay pot under ashes.

And then the souks and shops.

A major highlight in Marrakech is the main square known as Jemaa el Fna, filled during the day with food stands, vendors, orange juice stands, snake charmers, donkey carts and hundreds if not thousands of people milling around. Then at night the hot food stands come out, offering sheep’s head, tagines, tangias, fried seafood, snails and other Moroccan dishes.

Volubilis

Volubilis is a partially excavated Berber-Roman city near Meknes, Morocco. Established late in the BC era by Juba II, it became the capital of Mauretania and was one of the most remote Roman cities of the time. It is quite near the holy city of Moulay Idriss, which overlooks Volubilis from the adjacent hillside.

It was once home to about 20,000 people, it was actively part of the Roman Empire until the Romans left in 285 AD. The Berbers took over the site in the 800 AD range, managed by Idriss I.

The French began early excavation of the site in the 1830’s, and work continues to this day. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997. Volubilis is well worthwhile visiting as part of a stay in Fes. There is a nicely done visitor center with historical information, pictures and a few exhibits.

Moulay Idriss

Chefchouen

One day while in Fes, we drove about 3.5 hours north through the farmlands to see the beautiful city of Chefchouen (“the Blue City”) in the Rif Mountains. The city nestles in the hollow of the two mountains -ech-Chaoua (the Horns) – from which it takes its name. Steep narrow streets with white and indigo limewashed buildings, small squares, ornate fountains and houses with elaborately decorated doorways and red tile roofs make this a delightful town. It was founded in 1471 by Idrissid shorfa, descendants of the prophet Mohammed.

The Drive

The drive was beautiful as the road would through a somewhat hilly terrain filled with farmlands, orange groves, small villages – and the most olive trees in existence!

The City

Many of the older buildings in the medina are painted blue. We heard of several reasons, including “to look nice”, to attract tourists”, “it repels mosquitos”, “blue is the sky according to the Jews”, “blue is cooler”, “blue represents water – essential for human life”. Who really knows but it is pretty!

Favorites in Morocco

We visited many places, saw a lot of interesting things, slept in several riads and ate many meals. Our favorites:

Riad Itrane, Marrakech

This is a lovely riad in Marakech, located within the medina in the Dabachi quarter and 200 meters from Jamaa el Fna, the main square. It is owned and managed by Charlotte and patrice, who are a delight to work with. It is a 17th century house and is quite magnificent with many treed terraces, seating area, rooftop and comfortable rooms. We also ate several meals at the riad, including chicken tagines and a wide selection of Moroccan salads.

Villa Maroc, Essaouisa

Thia is a lovely 18th century riad hotel located in the midst of Essaouira, with access to souks, waterfront, restaurants, harbor and historical sites in a beautiful city. The riad has 21 rooms, each one different from the other, spread among three floors. Many have views of the Atlantic. Very comfortable and convenient place to stay.

Le Fondouk, Marrakech

Located in a rather shabby area, one gets to this restaurant led by men in cloaks with lanterns down a dusty alley to a luxurious building. After three flights of stairs, one enters a lovely rooftop restaurant. The food is equally enchanting.

Pepe Nero, Marrakech

Pepe Nero is a delightful Italian restaurant located a five minute walk from Jamaa el Fna. It is housed in the Riad Al Moussika, the former residence of the Pasha of Marrakech. One enters into a Moorish courtyard, complete with pool, trees and wonderful scents. And the food is delicious and very nicely served.

La Table by Madada, Essaouira

This is a delightful restaurant as well, which used to also be home to a cooking school that Karen and I attended a few years ago. It is located a two minute walk from Villa Maroc in a very clean and safe side street.

Fes

Fes, founded in 789 AD, is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities. It is located on the River Fes near the Middle Atlas, and is Morocco’s third largest city. Fes is a World Heritage site.

The Riad

We stayed in Fes for four nights at Riad Idrissy, located within the medina. The riad is a 400 year old building with thee floors, and very steep stairways. It was named after the founder of Fes, Moulay Idriss. Riad Idrissy was totally restored beginning in 2006. Meals are served in the Ruined Garden, complete with mosaic floors and fountains and a somewhat overgrown garden.

We spent just one day in Fes itself. Our tour included a ceramics factory, the Jewish quarter, an overall vista of the city and the souks. We actually finished the tour at an Jewish antiques store owned by the father of our guide. The souks are always fascinating of course.

Entrance to Medina
Tannery

Jewel of Casablanca

We began our recent two week trip to Morocco with a flight into Casablanca. Karen had been in Morocco 12 or so years ago, and was taken to see the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. However the tour guide had failed to confirm that the mosque was open for visitors! So Karen was insistent that we visit the mosque on this trip, and it was open indeed.

History

On his birthday in 1980, the Moroccan king (King Hassan II) declared that the great Hassan II Mosque was to be commissioned and built giving Casablanca a unique monument. The construction of the mosque, designed by French architect Michael Pinseau, began in 1986 on reclaimed land in a dilapidated area near the ocean front. It was completed in August 1993. Almost all the materials in the mosque come from Morocco, except for the imported white granite columns and glass chandeliers (from Murano near Venice). The cedar comes from the Middle Atlas and the granite from Tafraoute.

Over 6000 Moroccan masters and artisans were employed to work these local materials into intricate decorations that embellish the entire structure.

About the Mosque

The Mosque is magnificent in size and in the quality of the building. It is one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in the world after the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

The minaret at 210 meters is the tallest in the world. A maximum of 105,000 believers can gather for prayer; up to 25,000 can be accommodated in the prayer hall, while 80,000 can be accommodated on the esplanade. The main prayer hall measures 100 meters by 200 meters, and is 65 meters high (all three measurements dd up to 365).

What to See

The mosque is open to all Muslims during prayer times. Non-Muslims can enter on tours that are held several times per day. The most distinctive feature of the mosque is its spectacular location on a platform above the Atlantic. Part of the floor is made of glass, so that worshipers can kneel right above the sea.

The style of the Mosque shows strong Moorish influences reminiscent of the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Horseshoe arches are common both inside and inside, and the walls and pillars of the interior are finely carved in a variety of intricate patterns. There is a huge women’s gallery to the right as one turns from the prayer area, which is beautifully carved out of dark wood. On the ground floor, there are Turkish style baths and fountains for washing.

Elephant Havens – Part IV

Elephant Havens was established with the primary goal of rescuing baby elephant orphans, raising them and ultimately releasing them back into the wild as young adults. The charity hopes to become a leading voice in wildlife conservation awareness and wildlife protection. However the little elephants also insist that the charity engages with their human neighbors as part of the mission.

Community Outreach

Elephant Havens has hired all local Botswana staff from the Delta area and immediate community. As of today EH employs 24 people, impacting them and their families.

EH has successfully drilled three water wells for the local community to provide the first ever fresh drinking water to the area.

The Foundation has initiated outreach to those most in need and are feeding those folks who the team can identify as most critically affected by the covid shutdown.

Several recent initiatives have been to complete or repair new bridges over flooded channels that lead to the community.

EH has acquired a new Toyota bus, and makes four trips each morning and four trips each afternoon to the local school. The local children can now avoid the dangerous miles-long trek to school through corridors used by elephants moving between the water and the mopane woodlands.

The bus has proven to be such a success that the local school now overflows with students. EH is providing tents as classrooms to shelter the overflow and provide the opportunity for more children than ever to engage in learning.

EH is providing school uniforms and shoes for 150 students, with the uniforms to be sown by local tailors.

EH supports local women by training them in the craft of paper-making using elephant dung. These ladies are making quite a successful business out of their beautiful paper products that are sold on the property.

EH has built toilet facilities for the local community center.

EH has established relationships with local leaders and classrooms of students. Several classrooms of students have visited the orphanage and had their first positive interaction with elephants.

EH has recently provide 100 milk goats to ten local farmers to raise and sell goat milk. This product is very beneficial to the young elephants. Each farmer will tend to their goats, provide milk to EH until the value reaches the original cost of the goats. At that point the farmers will own the goats and will sell the milk to EH.

Partnership

  1. EH is approved as one of 12 wildlife partners with the Dallas Zoo.
  2. Dallas Zoo interns chose EH as their conservation project and raised $20,000 for the Foundation.
  3. EH’s Botswana vet, Dr. Comfort Nkgowe, visited Dallas and Houston zoos to tech and learn.
  4. The Dallas Zoo has provided some of the equipment as well as specifications for the establishment of a proper “bush” veterinary lab. They also sent two of their employees to help set up the lab and train the local team in Botswana how to do simple lab tests.