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Archive for the ‘Markets’ Category

Our first 24 hours in Marrakech consisted of: a no show airport shuttle driver which then led to being ripped off by our taxi driver and subsequently the boy who carried our bags while leading us to our riad. Walking through a maze of overcrowded alleys with motor bikes weaving in between pedestrians, with fly-ridden stacks of stinking old sardines for sale on the side of the road. Having our reservation lost by our riad, and then being given a room that had a log of feces floating in the toilet. And last but not least, having our hands hennaed by force in the main square by gypsies. Welcome to Morocco.

In all seriousness, after the culture shock of the first 24 hours wore off, Marrakech became one of our favorite destinations on our trip thus far.

Despite the unappetizing way that meat, fish and produce are sold by street vendors (not refrigerated with dirt being kicked up onto it from the street), Moroccan food is incredibly delicious. Couscous, tagines, lamb, Moroccan soup, root vegetables, figs, honey, and crepes, just to name a few. We quickly became unabashed at being “those” tourist who take pictures of their food. Documenting our meals with photos somehow makes the taste linger longer.

Tagine with lamb, artichoke hearts, olives and preserved lemon rinds

Meat skewers ready to grill at a food stand in Djemaa el Fna Square

And the mint tea. Oh. My. God. We must have averaged three or four pots per day. As a Muslim country, alcohol is taboo and not widely available (with the exceptions of being available to non-Muslim tourists in select hotels and restaurants). We found that mint tea is consumed in its place, and as ubiquitously as Coors Original at a Rockies game.

Mint tea glasses lined up at Djemaa el Fna Square

Anyone writing about Marrakech will tell you that you must visit the “souk” which is a vast network of shops and walkways. Within this labyrinth of merchants, you can find nearly anything from Nike running shoes to a live goat. Should you chose to venture to Marrakech one day, we suggest you remember these tips to help you survive the onslaught of vendors who, despite their friendly smiles, show very little mercy to unsuspecting tourists.

Tip #1: For your first visit to the souk, don’t bring your money. This will allow you to browse for items you might like to purchase, but prevent you from being persuaded to buy something you have no use or desire for. You can’t buy if you don’t have money.

Tip #2: Learn these phrases “non, merci” and “la la, shakrun.” They mean “no, thank you” in French and Arabic, respectively. They won’t be enough to stop the vendors in their tracks, but just smile and keep walking.

Tip #3: Before returning to the souk for some haggling, ask a local Moroccan working at your hotel or riad how much they would pay for each of the items you want to purchase. Keep those numbers in mind, and don’t pay more.

Tip #4: You can always walk away. Vendors in the souk are good at what they do and have a whole arsenal of methods for convincing you to pay more for a product than you should. They will likely act offended, angry, or outraged at the prices you propose. If you are feeling too much pressure or are unhappy with the negotiation, smile, say thank you, and walk away. They may try to stop you, or they may let you go. Either way, no harm, no foul. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Tip #5: Whenever possible, do your haggling in a language other than English. French is good because it is an official language of Morocco. Spanish is even better because most of the vendors understand and speak a few words, but are less comfortable with the language (anything you can do to gain an edge and make the vendor feel less confident is a plus). Americans pay double prices or worse, so if you must speak English be from “Vancouver” for a day.

Winding alleys through the souk

Colorful shoes for sale in the souk

Tea sets for sale in the souk. Mike successfully haggled for one of our own!

Adjacent to the souk is Djemaa el Fna Square. This is where much of the action in the city takes place.  It is visited each day by thousands of tourists and locals alike. The square takes on two different personalities, which are literally day and night. During the sunlight hours, Djemaa el Fna is lined by countless fresh juice and dried fruit vendors. The juice is a real steal at four Dirhams (about 50 cents) per glass!

Piles of dried fruit and nuts for sale at Djemaa el Fna Square

Amy with a juice vendor at Djemaa el Fna Square. A daily trip for us while in Marrakech.

Each afternoon the square begins to transform into its nighttime form. More than 100 food tents are set up each evening for outdoor dining and groups of musicians and snake charmers create a very mystical environment. We made a video of the square coming alive one afternoon before dusk, which you may watch here. If you visit, be sure to watch out for the women offering henna tattoos; day or night, they will grab your hands and start tattooing before you get a grip of what’s happening.

Click on this picture to watch a video of Djemaa el Fna Square coming alive just before dusk

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house designed with a courtyard and fountain in the middle. Although there are hundreds of riads in Marrakech alone, you may be hard-pressed to find one as their doors are plain and unsuspecting, but always open up into a beautiful and peaceful building. After a few hours of haggling at the souk and an evening in Djemaa el Fna Square, escaping back to the tranquility of a riad is the perfect end to a day in Marrakech.

The entrance to our riad – you would never suspect the tranquil place that lies behind this door

View from our room of the fountain in the riad’s open air courtyard

Intricately painted ceilings and carved metal light fixture in our room

Courtyard and fountain in the riad

Despite the initial issues we had at our riad, everything was smoothed over and it turned out to be a fantastic place to stay. Breakfast each morning consisted of homemade crepes and harcha with a variety of preserves, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee.

Traditional Moroccan breakfast, served each morning at the riad

Sitting in the courtyard or on the rooftop terrace always lowered our blood pressure after being out on the town. It was here that we first experienced the “adhān” which is the Islamic call to prayer. While we were familiar with this religious custom, Morocco was the first Islamic country that either of us had visited. Hearing the adhān five times each day was a part of the trip that we will certainly never forget. We made a video of the call, which you can watch here. It often begins as nothing more than a low distant hum, but soon becomes a 360 degree barrage of sound. For the most part, business continues as usual in the city, and everyone does not drop what they are doing and run to the mosque, but the call to prayer definitely creates a special feeling in the air.

Click on this picture to watch a video of and listen to the Adhān (call to prayer) in Marrakech

Marrakech was a crazy place, no doubt about it. It caught us off guard and left us feeling a little rattled. It was the first time we felt truly out of our comfort zone and in an entirely different world. But that is what traveling is all about.

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If you’ve read the About Us page of our blog, you know that we love food and that one of the main goals of our trip is to sample local flavors.  As the home of paella, we knew that we had to make Valencia one of our stops in Spain.

Pan of traditional Valencian paella

As expected, there was paella coming out of the woodwork in Valencia.  Every restaurant, take-out window and market sells paella.  It has become such a tourist spectacle, however, that it seemed somewhat forced.  We learned that “Paella Valenciana” is not the typical seafood paella that you commonly find in the States, but rather has chicken, rabbit, peas and beans intermingled with the saffron rice, as well as a strong rosemary flavor.  Here is a link to a traditional Valencian paella recipe.

While the paella wasn’t all that we had hoped for, the city had many pleasant surprises.  The old part of town has an abundance of quaint marbled plazas that seem to appear out of nowhere in the maze of small winding streets.

La Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Another part of Valencia that we loved was El Parque Natural del Turia, which stretches 9km across much of the city and is located in the bed of the river Turia which was diverted in following a massive flood in 1957.  The park is host to a wide diversity of trees, gardens, sports courts, paths and playgrounds and culminates at La Ciudad de Las Artes y Ciencias.  If you read our last post, Setting Sail, this architecture may look familiar.  It is the work of Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, who was also the brains behind El Auditorio de Tenerife which we visited on our cruise.  His work is modern, yet reminiscent of Gaudi at times, and also marked by the use of chipped, white tiles.

The Hemispheric & Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

Us in front of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

El Museo de las Ciencias Principe Felipe at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

While our visit to Valencia began as a quest for paella, we found that this city has so many other culinary delights to offer.  We first encountered cured morcilla (blood sausage) in a restaurant in Valencia and have since been addicted, eating it every chance we get.  While blood sausage was not a new concept to us, we had never seen it in this form, dried and sliced, similar to salami.

Picnic of pan fresco, manchego fuerte and morcilla

Valencia’s main market, Mercado Central, is the largest and most impressive we’ve seen in Spain thus far. Pictures do not do it justice, as the smells, sounds and flavors make up so much of the experience.  We were impressed by how specialized some vendors are, for example, one stall sold only lemons and garlic.  Somehow the 20+ produce stands, all of which sell more or less the same product, manage to not only stay in business, but thrive!  It appears that locals have their favorite vendors and ignore the rest.  Everyone gets their share.

Jamón vendor at Mercado Central

Fishmongers at Mercado Central

Not your typical seafood

This little piggy went to market…

We are beginning to appreciate that one of the best parts of traveling is encountering the unexpected. While our visit to Valencia did not lead us to the world’s greatest paella, it did provide us with some other great adventures and delicious food.

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We are leaving Barcelona in the morning.  What a great time it has been.  Now that we are actually on the road, living from our packs, and exploring the unknown, we have a lot more pictures and stories to share.  So without further delay, we present to you some of our favorite parts of this amazing city.

Gaudi

What a guy! The famous Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi, drew much of his inspiration from nature’s constructive beauty. Through this revolutionary style of design, he made so many incredible contributions to Barcelona.  He has even made Amy’s “Top 5 list of people to bring back from the dead to have dinner with.”  We dedicated one full day to exploring Gaudi’s contributions, including two of his most famous works El Templo de La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell.

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia – interior of basilica, stained glass projecting on columns

View from the top of the Nativity Lift at La Sagrada Familia

Gaudi’s House at Parc Güell

Open plaza surrounded by tile benches, Parc Güell

Columns by Gaudi in Parc Güell

Mercats

We spent a ton of our time in Barcelona simply walking around the city.  While not high on the list of must sees for most tourists, we found the neighborhood “mercats” in Barcelona to be a bright point of our time here.  While exploring a quaint old part of town known as La Barceloneta, we encountered our first mercat.  Imagine the produce section of Whole Foods on steroids. These are different than the make-shift, bazar style markets that you find in much of the world.  They are a well built structure, clean/sanitary, and packed with some of the best food we have ever seen.  Upon returning from Barceloneta, we found a very similar mercat just a few blocks from our hostel in the neighborhood know as El Clot. Since we had access to a full service kitchen at our hostel, we took advantage of the incredible produce, meats and seafood to cook affordable and yummy dinners.

Fish Vendor at Mercat El Clot

Cured Meat Vendor at Mercat La Barceloneta

Sitges

After a few days in Barcelona, we were eager to get out of the city and see more of Catalonya.  Based on a suggestion from Mike’s cousin, Lilli, we hopped on a train one morning headed towards Sitges.  Sitges is a pristine beach town, just 30 minutes south from Barcelona via a regional train along the coast.  Shortly after arriving, we stopped for breakfast where Mike enjoyed toast with “pata negra” ham, the most delicious cured meat he has ever tasted, and Amy a cafe con leche y croissant. We had a fabulous time strolling the beach and walking through the narrow, well kept streets.  It was a welcomed change from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona.

Cafe con Leche y Bocadillo de Jamón

Enjoying the sunshine in Sitges

Tomorrow evening we will be boarding a cruise to Spain’s Canary Islands, Portugal’s Madeira Islands and Málaga/Granada.  We found a killer deal on this cruise before leaving the States and it is an exciting change from hostel living!  Looking forward to sharing our travels upon our arrival to Valencia following the cruise.  Salud!

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