72 Hours in Marrakech

72 Hours in Marrakech

It takes just one hour and ten minutes to fly to Marrakech from Lisbon. One of the advantages of living in Lisbon is its proximity to so many different countries and cultures. In the US, unless you live in Florida, only Canada and Mexico are close.

Marrakech

Morocco is a country of contrasts. While 99% of the people are considered Muslims, it feels quite liberal relative to other Muslim-predominant countries, embracing both the old world and the modern world. Burkas and niqabs are worn by less than 10% of the women, and some women wear no head covering at all. Men riding donkeys pulling carts filled with anything from building materials to food talk on mobile phones riding through the souks. Cars, motorbikes and scooters, and horse-drawn carts fill the streets. Beautifully crafted arches lead to alleys with run-down buildings and messages painted on the walls.

Here’s a slideshow of Moroccan buildings, alleys, streets:

One of the biggest tourist attractions is Jardin Majorelle. With a history dating to the 1920s including restoration by Yves Saint-Laurent after it fell into disrepair, it is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, it is also covered with people taking selfies and has a gift shop. When we visited in 2000, there were no more than ten people visiting and no commerce other than an entrance fee.

Marrakech

The Jardin Majorelle is attached to the more recently built Yves Saint-Laurent Museum, which features an array of outfits on mannequins and in photos that could never be worn on the streets of Morocco. Oh well… One thing of note in these connected days is that many of the designs smack of cultural appropriation – a tunic that might have cost less than one euro in its native country was sold for thousands to wealthy people in other countries. No photos were allowed in the exhibits.

Marrakech

A highlight of our three days in Marrakech was the Jewish cemetery and the nearby synagogue. Although there are only several hundred Jews living in Marrakech now, at one time there were hundreds of thousands. Most left for Israel after 1948, sometimes for a life worse than living in Morocco, as the poor Jews in Morocco were brought to Israel for cheap labor. An interesting historical note – the Nazis controlled the government of World War II in Morocco but the Moroccans refused to cooperate with the Nazi anti-Semitism and invited Jews to participate in government functions not dominated by the Nazis.

Here’s a slideshow of images from the Jewish Cemetery in Marrakech:

Morocco is so much more than interesting imagery. Casually walking through Marrakech, one is barraged by the visual sights but also by smells, which originate from eateries, herb and spice stalls, tea and perfume vendors, and food booths cooking everything from lamb’s heads to crepe-like pancakes called msemmen served with honey or cheese. Raw food vendors are common, meat, chicken (live and killed in the stall), vegetables, fresh and dried fruits are everywhere. Beyond the senses of smell and vision, sound is everywhere, with the beautiful calls to prayer emanating from the mosques five times a day, the sounds of ancient and modern music, the constant Arabic and Berber in both conversation and advertising of wares, and the ever-present scooter motors with drivers beeping to warn the crowds in the souks. Because my son looks like a Moroccan and learned enough Arabic to push back on persistent sellers, we were able to navigate the streets with less hassle resulting in a better experience.

Morocco is a country of magic and pragmatism, of color and darkness, of modernity and antiquity. Here’s a slideshow with more photos of Marrakech:

All Souls Day

All Souls Day

All Souls Day is the day after national holiday All Saints Day in Portugal. It’s a day for remembering the dead, like Day of the Dead in Mexico. People go to cemeteries and put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. Because the day before is the day many people have off work, some people take flowers on that day.

Lisbon All Souls Day

All Souls Day had a special meaning for me this year as my father had died just a few weeks earlier. I had nowhere to put flowers, but I went to the large cemetery near my home in Campo de Ourique. It’s almost all above ground, a collection of mausoleums large and small. While some are in disrepair – you could even reach in and touch the caskets – many are not. It’s a beautiful cemetery with a cliff-like perch on the side away from the entrance, leading to terrific views out to Almada across the Tagus River.

Lisbon All Souls Day

There was a small number of graves – probably around ten – that were just mounds in the shape of a body. It’s not obvious that there’s a casket underneath, there may well be. The markers are metal and worn, no names or dates are visible under the rust. Most of these were undecorated with flowers, but there were a few that someone had remembered.

Lisbon All Souls Day

A few graves bore huge amounts of flowers. Was it one relative who bought out a small flower stand? Or were these people with large families or reputations? Maybe by the next All Souls Day, I will have the answer.

Here’s a slideshow with photos from All Souls Day.

Into the Douro Valley

Into the Douro Valley

The Douro River starts in Spain and ends in Porto, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is best known for its vineyards and wine making, and particularly for its central role in the making of Port wine. The valley is spectacular, with steep hills covered in terraced grape vines, beautiful bridges, and winemaking estates and homes.

Douro River Valley

 

Our visit began at the Santa Apolónia train station in Lisbon. The ride to Porto is about three hours and the trains are quite comfortable, even in “tourist class.” Arriving in Porto, there is a transfer to the train going to Regúa, a prominent town that takes another two hours on the train. This train, while not as comfortable, often offers views of the river and the south slope vineyards. It’s an old line, often single-tracked which occasionally causes delays while waiting for an oncoming train to get through.

Regúa

Regúa embraces today’s Portugal, with a well-preserved quaint “downtown” and tasteful modern buildings behind the downtown. As it sits on the river, there are docks and riverside bars. As with every town and city we’ve visited, there are some attractively abandoned buildings.

Douro River

The plan was to take a six hour cruise on the river. Given the heat (34C at the peak), it’s a blessing that this fell through due to dam repairs. Instead, we ended up with another train ride, this time farther up the Douro to Pinhão, a village smaller than Regúa and the departure point for a lot of boat rides. We took a smaller boat for a much shorter ride, a pleasant afternoon jaunt on the river. The tour started out with a group of drunk Americans yelling about tequila (apparently they were confused about what country they were in) but fortunately, they moved to an upper deck and everyone else was happy.

Douro Winery

Back to Regús and out the next morning to a winery. We would have liked to visit a smaller winery with a chance to speak with winemakers or vineyard managers but it was too difficult to arrange, especially as we didn’t have a car. We ended up with a group at a large winery. We had a tour and tasted some decent if unexceptional wines, but it turned out the group, which was mostly Americans with a few people from China, was a lot more interesting than the drunk Americans on the boat ride.

Funicular, Porto

After the winery, we headed back to Porto. Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, much smaller than Lisbon, but with lots of character. Although inundated with tourists like Lisbon, the city center is much smaller so you can escape more quickly. We found a funicular that was fun to ride for all 90 seconds it took to go up a hill at a 75 degree angle.

Romantic Museum, Porto

Porto stands in contrast to the rest of the Douro Valley, it’s urban and modern and busy. We didn’t explore the port houses on this trip but did enjoy the views of the city. It was extremely hot and we ended up in a park the afternoon before we left. Walking through  the park, we encountered a museum – Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha – that had served as the home of the exiled King of Sardinia in the early 19th century. The museum is not on the path most tourists take so it was quite empty. Well-preserved in a condition close to original, it was quiet and enjoyable, the last stop on the trip north.