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    Africa Travel

    Magic & Mud at the Moroccan Hammam

    Chapter Eleven Scrub Down

    I’ve had some pretty remarkable “spa” experiences over the years and through the travels of My Fab Fifties Life; a massage by a blind woman in Zanzibar stands out; the public baths in Budapest were fun; a most memorable Korean Spa Experience (read about that one here); soaking in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland on a cold winter night remains a highlight;  the Thai masseuse jumping up and down on my back I won’t soon forget.

    And now, here in memorable Morocco a new experience – the ancient way of the Hammam.

    A Hammam is a cleansing experience, a social event, and a structure.  The ancient buildings were often the only source of hot water for the people of the medina and villages and these places became the social center of life in the old times.  To have a Hammam in your neighborhood was a much sought after addition.  Usually built near to a mosque to share a water source for cleansing.  The Hammams old and new are designed to trap warm air and vent steam, usually through a domed ceiling with small star-shaped holes.

    A Hammam experience is very different from the Korean Spa experience where you “soaked” in tubs of different temperatures.  Instead, in Islam it is considered unclean to “soak” in water.  Instead it involves a lot of pouring water and scrubbing and spraying.  Islamic people are fastidiously clean, washing hands and face three times before praying and praying up to five times a day.

    Today’s Hammams are usually open for women during the day and men in the evening.  Women flock to the Hamman to enjoy the ritual cleanse, relax and get away from their daily duties, and to gossip and socialize with their neighbors.  Just like fasting, a weekly ritual for devout muslims, a weekly visit to the hammam is part of both a religious and social Moroccan life.

    When we were in Asillah I visited my first Hammam, but it was not purely authentic although I enjoyed it immensely.  It was geared more to tourists and was located in a hotel.  Here I spent two hours having a woman scrub and cleanse me and wash my hair.  Following this I also had a massage and a manicure and pedicure.  It was all very lovely and relaxing and my skin felt so fresh and new.

    My second Hammam was a very authentic one in the city of Fes with my friend Sarah.  Fes is Morocco’s second largest city and the world’s largest medina (and oldest – a Unesco Heritage site).  The city of Fes has so many hammams, nearly one in every neighborhood. Even though there are so many they are nearly impossible to find.  The medina is an incredible maze and since few businesses of any kind have signage, you can easily walk right by and not know you just passed a Hammam.

    So we were taken to the Hammam by the housekeeper of our Airbnb.  She took us to the hidden one close to our Riad. She helped show us how it works. She brought all the things we needed and proceeded to create a very magical authentic cultural experience, even though she speaks not a word of English.

    At first it was a bit weird hanging out naked with our housekeeper. But we got over that after we were doused over and over with hot water. While we sat on the tile floor she slathered us down with African black soap, a mixture of several oils and plant extracts that looks like mud. It is solid but greasy and turns to liquid when rubbed on your warm skin. It felt pretty nice. She then used a scrub mitt and scrubbed the hell out of my skin. She was pretty proud of how much skin she sloughed off. Doused. Next she mixed dry henna with water and slathered that all over (I mean ALL over) my body. The green henna smelled exactly like spinach. Doused.

    Next she washed, conditioned and combed out our hair. Doused. I thought at this point we were done. Not.

    Next she lathered a loofah with jasmine soap and scrubbed us down again. Doused.

    Next she poured dry rosebuds in giant buckets of hot water. While the roses soaked she cleansed herself while we relaxed.   She then took the rose-water and doused one final big time. At this point my contact lenses and my inhibitions floated away.

    The room was abuzz with about a dozen other women of all ages including two small children.  The women all helped each other scrub their backs.  There was one very ancient women who seemed to be the hammam madam.  She refilled water buckets and cleaned up, dressed in what looked like board shorts and nothing more.

    This experience although unique, was similar to rituals in other countries. It seems to me everyone except the USA has some kind of ancient communal bathing ritual. If you can relax and let the magic take over, you should try it.  It was fun to experience it so authentically here in Fes.

    Africa Travel  --  Food & Drink

    Eat Morocco

    Chapter Eleven – The Flavors of Morocco

    Cumin, paprika, garlic and saffron.  You can smell it in the air.  Onions, harissa, citrus and dates.  Wherever you are, Morocco’s flavors and smells will make your mouth water and your tummy growl.  This colorful country is a feast of flavors and colors and tastes unlike anywhere I have been.  You just can’t get enough.

    Lemon and olive Chicken Tajine

    We’ve been in Morocco for three weeks now, and we still have more than a week to go.  We have learned some of tips for the cuisine of this North African nation that has

    Grilled lamb chops

    been a crossroads for thousands of years.  From cultures near and far the Moroccan cuisine developed into the flavor-filled mix of vegetables, meat and spices we know today.  The Berber’s long history in this region, combined


    with the Romans, the Vandals, the Phoenicians, and later the Jews, the  Spanish, the Brits and French, certainly makes for a unique combination of cultures and flavors.

    Farm to market produce

    Today Morocco stands independent under King Mohammed VI, and the delicious food is a proud tradition as seen in the medinas and restaurants, street food and homes through out the cities and rural regions of Morocco.  Seafood on the coast; beef, sheep, goat, chicken and even camel makes an appearance in the interior; and the ever-present olive can be found at breakfast,

    Grilled fish

    lunch and dinner.

    We had a very special experience during our ten days in Asilah on the Atlantic Coast.  Our airbnb in Asilah came with a full-time cook, a sweet and talented Moroccan woman named Latifah.  She fed us the

    Latifah making couscous

    most remarkable meals during our time there and we were spoiled beyond reason.  We learned a lot about the cuisine, watched her cook and asked her so many questions.  She took us to the market with her and helped us understand the foods she was

    Latifah serving pastilla

    making for us.  What a remarkable opportunity this presented and we were so grateful.  We wanted to stuff her in the suitcase and keep her forever!  So through Latifah we learned the cuisine.

    There are some surprises too – like the flavorful fava bean and garlic

    B’sara soup

    soup called B’sara served for breakfast.  Not a dish found on restaurant menus but if you ask it can be made for you.  We did just that, wanting to try it and the proprietor gladly made it for us even though it was lunch time and well past the normal morning hour it is usually eaten.  It tasted much like a split pea soup but spicier and very satisfying.

    Another surprise is the pastilla – a completely

    Women making the filo on round griddle

    unexpected sweet and savory “pie” resembling spanakopita but filled with nuts and dates, chicken or pigeon, sweet and savory spices and baked then sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.  It can’t decide if it’s dinner or a dessert, but it is delicious and unusual all at once.  The dish is created with a super thin filo type pastry made by hand by artisans in the

    Latifah unveiling the tajine

    markets using a very surprising shaped cooking shaft that the thin dough is placed on for just a few seconds to let it cook.  Pastilla is usually reserved for special occasion meals, but can be found in most restaurants serving tourists.  We were very lucky to have a special one made for us by Latifah.

    More well-known are the bubbling tajine dishes cooked and served in their unique crockery.  Tajine can be made from many things including lamb,

    Lamb and dried fruit tajine

    beef, chicken and vegetables and the best part is usually the wonderful rich broth at the bottom of the pot.  My favorite ones were the chicken olive and lemon and the lamb, dried fruit and nut.  These two are also favorites among locals and its easy to see why. I had them multiple times and each time it was delicious.


    Another well-known dish is Couscous.  But the couscous we know back in America is very different from what we have enjoyed here in Morocco.  In fact, making couscous is a major undertaking and is reserved for Fridays, the holy day in Morocco.  We spent much of one day watching Latifah make us a remarkable (and gigantic) couscous feast that included chicken, carrots, zucchini, potato and turnips and of course the couscous itself.  A special steamer is used to steam the couscous over boiling water – a most unusual and time-consuming preparation.

    Harira soup

    Dried figs and dates

    When all is said and done this lovely and colorful pile of deliciousness is topped with a flavorful broth that has been simmering and reducing for hours.  It just really is a special meal and poor sweet Latifah had a real workout in the kitchen on this day.

    Grilled meats on a stick, similar to such things in other countries, can be found at restaurants and street vendors.  Known as Brochette’s,  popular varieties are lamb, chicken and beef, as well as ground lamb, but my favorite was a lime-marinated fish brochette I had in a restaurant.


    While in Asilah by the sea we had a great opportunity to sample the local seafood.  Latifah made us the most amazing selection of grilled and fried fish including sardines and dorado served with a delicious green chili sauce and lemon. Simple and sublime.  We also had anchovies in lemon, octopus salad, rich and delicious fish soup and tiny deep-fried sardines.

    The country is teeming with the freshest and most colorful produce that makes its way into every meal. All of these goodies are locally grown and pesticide free, usually harvested with hours or days of your purchase.  Unlike the United States, rarely are things in the market being shipped in from other countries. My favorite was the persimmon, pomegranate and tangerines – hands down the best of those I have ever had.  A walk through the market is a kaleidoscope of tomatoes, radish, squash, plums, grapes, pears, oranges and lychee, as well as a never-ending variety of nuts and beans and grains.

    But there is one thing I have not yet elaborated on  – the key to all of the distinctive Moroccan foods we have savored over the past three weeks.  The spices.  Moroccan cuisine has developed through a magical mix of spices, in a region abundant with the finest.  In the markets  you find the colorful choices piled beautifully on display while Moroccan grandmothers sniff and purchase

    Fresh mezze salads

    the savory wonders.  Most common in dishes are salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric (often referred to curcumin), saffron, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and white pepper.  A special spice blend known as Ras El Hanout is a blend of dozens of spices and is unique to individual shops and regions.  Ras El Hanout means “best of the shop” and will include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, turmeric and often other “secret” spices.

    I’m taking away from Morocco a real gift in this cuisine, an excitement to try new flavors and techniques I’ve learned here.  I wonder why there aren’t more Moroccan restaurants back home and encourage you to get out and find the flavors of Morocco wherever you can.  Because there are so many amazing things about this country – but if you can’t visit – at least eat Morocco.  You won’t be disappointed.

    Africa Travel

    Morocco on my Mind

    Chapter Eleven

    Location: Morocco

    Morocco on my mind. We’ve been in Morocco for 15 days and in Asilah for a week already and I am enchanted.  And so very relaxed.  Morocco is just about everything I could have hoped for.

    View from Our airbnb

    Except warm.

    No, in November Morocco is not warm.  I’ve layered up a lot, buried myself under blankets and comforters at

    Tea by the fire

    night, and cuddled up by a roaring fire in the evenings.  But it’s actually nice.  It’s sunny during the day, and comfortable and dry and we know we have heat and humidity coming up in destinations in the near future, so we are enjoying a bit of “winter” in North

    Moroccan Harira soup


    Morocco on my mind.

    Casablanca was “meh”, Chefchauoen was “bright”, Tangier was “confusing” but Asilah – ahhhh Asilah.  I will never forget you.  We are right on the ocean where the crashing waves lull us to sleep.  Where our morning coffee and breakfast is served on the terrace with the wind and salt air cooling our coffee mugs.  We walk on the beach each morning, with the resident camels, and wander the quiet “off-season” historic medina.  We visit the mercado with the locals, no other tourists around and we are both


    Latifah makes Couscous

    accepted and stared at by the amazing variety of residents of this region.  Asilah has been a spectacular, laid back, relaxed place to recuperate and regroup  on the Grand Adventure.  Exactly what the doctor ordered.

    Of course our perfect Airbnb plays a major role in how happy we are here.  Not only is the space perfect but it comes with Latifah, our personal chef and housemaid who is talented, kind, funny, and one of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life.  We have not eaten out at all during our

    View from our room

    time in Asilah – we have instead allowed the talented Latifah to pamper us beyond reason.  And I am so happy.

    Morocco on my mind.

    Our friends from California Sarah and Steve arrived two days ago and they too are loving Asilah and Latifah and we all are learning to cook the incredible Moroccan cuisine together.  Expect a blog soon about the cuisine of this amazing country.

    Two weeks in and still two weeks to go.  We relax

    Beautiful spices

    here in Asilah for a few more days and then we pick up the pace again; four days in Fez where we have a lot planned, five days on a tour that includes the desert and then three days in Marrakesh.  Feeling satisfied and welcome, enchanted and enthralled in this colorful, ancient and fascinating world.

    Morocco on my mind.

    Africa Travel

    Artistic Asilah Sur La Mer

    Chapter Eleven

    Location: Title

    We came to artistic Asilah to do nothing.  Seriously, that was the plan.  We really needed some true relax days – to stay in bed all day if we so desired.  We chose Asilah because of its location, sur la mer, without knowing much more about it.  And it’s perfect.

    Only an hour south of Tangier, this teeny ancient town is nestled on the beach on the Atlantic Ocean.  In November it’s very quiet.  I mean really quiet.  In fact the year round population is about 20,000, with significantly fewer inside the medina perched on the ocean surrounded by Portuguese walls and ramparts.  During the summer months the population swells to more than 120,000, especially on the weekends, as Moroccans flock here
    for the cool ocean breeze.

    But November – how lovely.  The sun is shining but we need a sweater and at night the temperatures really dip.  Our Airbnb sits right on the sea, comes with a full-time maid and cook and we are only paying $72 a night.  There is very little to do here, but that’s okay with us.  Exactly what the doctor ordered after the past two months of constant motion.  Peace and quiet except for the crashing waves – like a lullaby.

    Annually Asilah hosts an art festival (in July) where murals are painted on the whitewashed walls and buildings inside the medina.  This began  in 1978 as a children’s art event and now defines Asilah.  The small town is known now as an artist haven, with galleries and working studios as well as the murals that are painted fresh each year during the festival.  The festival also includes music and dance and other arts, and draws about 200,000.  Too many for me.  Glad to be here in quiet November.

    The murals are a treat.  Some done by children, but most done by Moroccan artists.  My favorites are the ones that incorporate parts of the buildings – such as doors or windows or the ever present historic grates on the windows.

    The murals have certainly made Asilah a popular stop for visitors, many bus tours from Casablanca will stop for a couple of hours on the way to Tangier.  But in November we have only seen perhaps a half -dozen tourists.  And that’s the way we like it.

    So we get up and do some Yoga and then maybe take a run or walk on the beach.  Our cook Latifah then serves us breakfast on the seaside terrace.  The rest of our day is free – maybe we read.  Or blog.  Play scrabble and chess.  Maybe we nap.  Or walk through the quiet medina and enjoy the murals.  Latifah then serves us a midday Moroccan meal – sometime around 2:00pm.  This is our choice to eat at this time.  Later we might have fruit or a snack or step out for some tapas.  Who knows?  We have no plans.  We are relaxed in artistic Asilah sur le mer.




    Africa Travel

    Maze Madness in Morocco Medina

    Lost in Tangier

    It’s like being a mouse in a kids science fair project. Drop the mouse in the maze over and over and see how long it takes the mouse to learn it’s way.

    Definitely the mouse would learn much faster than we have.

    Tangier Morocco Medina is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. So much bigger, more complicated and confusing than other old cities and Medinas we have visited. It has me wondering what the heck Marrakesh and Fez will be like?

    So we play the mouse game. We had a guide take us out the first time. He whipped through the streets pointing out landmarks and claiming you can figure it out in no time.

    No time?  Hardly. We ventured out on our own. Back tracked and started again. Oops. Nope, not that way. Try once more. Dead end. Wait I recognize this but this isn’t where I thought we were.  Finally found the museum but honestly by pure luck.

    The tiny alleys, in some places narrow enough to touch both sides, are a jumble of shops, homes, mosques, restaurants.  We turn around, backtrack and wander.  No doubt the locals find it all amusing – we try to look like we know what we are doing.  But when you pass the same shop owner a half dozen times they aren’t fooled.  Silly tourists.

    The tall walls all around give the Medina a cave like feeling, often blocking out the sun.  Which direction you are heading who knows?  There is no grid.  Some streets straight, some curvy, many dead-end, few street names.  A-maze-ing.

    Mouse-like we go in search of a restaurant. We put it in our map app.  But the tall walls (that hide the beautiful homes and gardens within) make the app unable to work properly so the mice are on their own.  We never find the restaurant.  We end up eating at the same place as the night before.  Then we still get turned around trying to get back to the hotel.  Pitiful mice.
    If by chance you find yourself in one of the open squares, you drink in the light and try to reorient before starting again.  But before you do it might be a good idea to sit and have some mint tea. For strength.  😊


    Africa Travel

    Feeling Blue in Morocco

    Chefchaouen – where the sky and the village become one

    Have you ever walked in the deep end of an empty swimming pool? Or been inside an ice cave?  Or imagine what a surfer must feel like inside the curl of a giant blue wave. This is the best way I can come up with to describe walking around the bright blue city of Chefchaouen 

    It’s mesmerizing, a bit blinding yet enchanting.  And weirdly makes me think about Smurfs.

    And for a photographer – a dream come true.

    We heard several different stories about when this town came to be blue (dubbed locally as the blue pearl).  Most likely it was in the 1930’s when Jews fleeing from Nazi-persecution adopted blue as a heavenly reminder to live a spiritual existence. Prior to this it was painted the more traditional Muslim green. Today, for whatever reason, the blinding blue has made the old Medina (founded in the 1400’s) unique.  In addition to the blue, Chefchaouen is nestled into the green Rif Mountains and the contrast is lovely. In fact the name Chefchaouen means “look at the peaks”.

    Tours come here, but frequently just for a day. Staying for a few days really gives you time to see the little town in the early morning or after dark without a lot of visitors. Although unlike Fez or Marrakech, Chefchaouen never feels overly crowded.

    As a photographer, my favorite thing to do is to get lost. And here it is very easy to do. The labyrinth of alleys, each one vividly blue, white, periwinkle and occasionally terra-cotta orange, are a colorful maze. Wandering both day and night presents great photo opportunities, unexpected vistas, as well as encounters with locals who, kindly, redirect you when you suddenly find yourself at a  deadend.

    As you wander, you will enjoy plenty of opportunity to shop for Moroccan treasures of every color and kind.  You will go up and down stairs and paths and stumble into delicious restaurants, some with views and others tucked neatly into the hillside.

    Finding alcohol though will prove to be difficult in this Muslim village.   Cats however, are everywhere. Some of the fancier hotel restaurants serve alcohol.

    Visiting the spectacular and recently restored kasbah ($1 admission) is highly recommended.  It’s small but a climb up the tower provides a perfect birds eye view and a great photo perch.

    Also a climb up to the recently restored city walls and to the Spanish Mosque about a mile and a half from town provide the more intrepid visitor a spectacular vantage of the mountains and the blue pearl below.

    We have only seen two places so far in Morocco, but I know without a doubt that Chefchaouen will be one of my favorite memories of Morocco. So if you come to Morocco don’t miss the beautiful blue pearl, where you will find yourself taking more photos than you can ever know what to do with.

    And maybe thinking about Smurfs.

    Africa Travel

    Morocco We Are Here

    The First Crazy 24 Hours

    Welcome to Morocco.  What a ride so far.  Fast paced, horn honking, traffic snarled, French speaking whirlwind.

    Rick’s American Cafe

    We knew Casablanca wasn’t going to be pretty.  Most tourists skip it.  But our flight came through here so we decided to take one day.  It’s actually

    Interior Hassan II Mosque

    always good for us to have a day to get settled before heading out on an adventure in any country.  And, now that  we’ve been through the past 24 hours we are glad we had some time.

    First, our flight landed 45 minutes EARLY.  Cool.  Or so we thought.  But we waited in the passport line for 45 minutes.  Then we got our bags.  Then we waited in the bag inspection line for 30 minutes before being pulled aside for a search.  They were looking for our kitchen knife, which we have taken through I don’t know how many airports in our checked bags over the past eleven months with nary a problem.  Apparently they don’t like knives in Morocco.  So bag searched – they pull out the knife, hold it, look at it, sniff it, taste it (jk 😉) and then decide it is just a kitchen knife and give it back to us.   Ah duh.

    Next we go to get a Sim card from a ditzy girl who

    The amazing interior of the mosque

    assures us the website where we load the minutes is in English.  Next we find a cash machine.  Then we spend thirty minutes trying to find the Qatar Air info desk to deal with an upcoming flight.  We are directed to multiple locations and never do find the office.  We give up.

    Next we go to get our rental car.  Another half an hour goes by.  Then we discover as we are getting ready to drive out of the lot that Morocco does not allow Google Maps.  Wait.  What?  Google Maps is our whole world.  Ugh.  So no Google Maps in Morocco.

    By the time we finally get on the highway heading the 15 miles to Casablanca it’s 4:05 pm on a Friday night.  Rush hour.  Ugh.  The highway was fine but as soon as we hit the city streets it was a frightening experience.  Traffic.  Taxis. Scooters. Pedestrians.  One way streets.  No street signs.  No Google Maps. Oh My.  We could see our hotel but we could not figure out how to get there.

    Finally, more than four hours after touching down we arrived at our hotel.

    Turns out the annual Casablanca Marathon is Sunday.  Very busy.  Oh la la!

    We eat at the hotel and fall into bed.

    Light and shadows

    This morning we realize the Sim Card from the ditzy girl at the airport is not working and that website she promised would be in English?  French.  Merci.

    Arne spent four hours online and walking to two different locations to try to get the phone operational.  He was, shall we say, pas amuse’ (not amused).

    We are really surprised how few people speak English.  Francais et Arabe.  Definitely more English speakers in Tunisia than Morocco – so far.

    The giant area for washing before prayers

    So it’s noon on Saturday before we head out to see the Hassan II Mosque, the one sight we were most interested in here in Casablanca. (Read more about it here ) Our book said there was a 2:00pm tour, but turns out it was a 3:00pm tour so we got tickets and enjoyed the exquisite exterior.

    Lunch at Rick’s

    Since we had more than two hours to kill we decided to walk to Ricks Cafe for lunch.  I had said we weren’t going to go here because I thought it was too touristy, but we were hungry and it was close – or so we thought.  We spent the next hour walking around trying to find it (no google maps).  We went through some pretty questionable neighborhoods.  Finally we were back at the Mosque so we got a cab and it drove us to Rick’s – we had walked right by it not seen it.  Incroyable!

    But then we had a spectacular Moroccan meal with

    Walking through Casablanca looking for Rick’s

    outstanding service in a beautiful setting and voila! Happy peeps.  Really glad we went and it was not touristy at all.  Lovely.

    Lost in Casablanca

    Finally it was time for our tour of the inside of this spectacular mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, built in honor of the 60th birthday of King Hassan

    Exterior. The tallest minaret in the world.

    II in the mid 1980’s.  Our tour guide was wonderful, funny, educational and spoke excellent English.  The mosque is sublime.  Truly – there is no other word.  It is one of the most amazing buildings and architecture and craftsmanship I have ever seen.  I am so glad we went.

    And so there we are.  Our first 24 hours in Morocco.  It’s a good thing we had a day to work out some of the kinks. Short visit to Casablanca and in the morning we are off to Chefchaouen, Morocco’s famous blue city. Hopefully the marathon won’t keep us from leaving town! In Chefchaoen we will have three days to relax.  I am looking forward to that.

    The adventure continues!  Oui!