Essaouira: A Surprise on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco

seagull, bird, sun, sunset, Essaouira, Morocco, ocean, Atlantic Ocean, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

When I decided to go to Morocco, my images of the country were more of what I encountered when I got to Marrakesh (though Marrakesh was so pretty that I didn’t expect every town in the country to look like that).  But, after an overnight in Marrakesh, we left the next morning to the coastal town of Essaouira (once known as Mogador a long time ago and pronounced something like “Ah swear” as the final vowel sounds silent to English speakers).  I had signed up to do my third trek with Trekking for Kids to help improve the lives of orphaned or at-risk children around the world and the center where we were going to work was located in this seaside town.  (Check out the work done at Bayti Centre here.)

The town of Essaouira – not the Morocco I expected

Upon arriving in Essaouira, it felt different.  That was likely due to it being a coastal town with nice beaches and the accompanying tourism infrastructure (I suspect the main source of tourists is domestic followed perhaps by those from neighboring Arab or European countries).  It looked clean and was not too crowded.  The town, currently with about 70,000 inhabitants, was a fort originally established by the Portuguese centuries ago and was coveted by all major European powers.  The town proper was begun to be built in the 18th century by Mohammed III.  I learned after leaving that scenes of the movie “Othello” by Orson Wells were filmed in the streets of the city.

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No, those are not Star Wars characters but palm trees held while they grow so they don’t blow away

We got to our hotel, the Riad Zahra Morgador, and I was very pleased.  It was beautiful and the staff very friendly.  I enjoyed our stay there in every way, except the wifi only really worked in the lobby.

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A welcome treat!

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The room I stayed at, spacious and comfortable

Riad Zahra Morgador, Essaouira, Morocco, room, hotel, travel, photo

The staircase at the Riad

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Did I mention the pool guest?

Among the many surprises was the climate.  Of course, I expected being on the coast meant sea breezes and slightly cooler temperatures than Marrakesh (which had hovered round 100 F when I was there).  But they were much cooler, like in the low 70s for THE HIGH!  A strong sea breeze contributed to actually feeling a little cold even before the sun set as we walked along the beaches one day.  And on the beaches for the visitors, there are camels… for the ride.  Some of my fellow trekkers decided to try their hand at riding a camel but first… one must successfully get on one!

Essaouira’s Old Medina

Another big surprise was the general personality, if you will, of the town.  People were not all over you like in Marrakesh.  They were more relaxed, I’d say.  Even in the market (or “souk”), I didn’t feel hounded.  People would certainly invite you to look at their wares, etc. but once you stepped way or said no, they were very respectful.  Given my temperament, this was more conducive for me to actually engage in more meaningful dialogue with store clerks than I would otherwise be inclined to be.  It led to a more enjoyable experience for sure.  It also led to me buying more as I normally shy away from aggressive sales tactics (which I understand are normal in some places).  Essaouira, Morocco, souk, market, Old Medina, food, bread

Old Medina, Hats, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Olympus

Colorful wares!

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And more color and patterns

I found it fascinating to see guys pushing these massive carts loaded with fruit through the throngs of people – masters of their craft!Essaouira, Morocco, souk, market, Old Medina, food, fruit, Samsung Galaxy Essaouira, Morocco, souk, market, Old Medina, food, fruit, Olympus Essaouira, Morocco, souk, market, Old Medina, food, fruit, Samsung GalaxyI enjoyed walking around the Old Medina where I felt very safe so I could admire the details of the architecture around. Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Olympus Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Olympus Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Olympus

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Pharmacy near the land-side gate into the Old Medina

A sweet tooth is always one in the U.S. or in Morocco!

However, all is not architecture and fruit carts.  A stop at a local patisserie on the edge of the Old Medina towards the beach (Pátisserie Driss) delivers delicious sweets and coffee!

coffee, Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Ahhhh!!!

sweets, elephant ears, Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Mmm…

sweets, Old Medina, souk, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Double mmm…!

Essaouira’s old walls

On my first day, we explored the North Bastion with its old Portuguese cannons and the sea walls.  On another day, we got to spend time along the South Bastion next to Bab Marrakesh (the gate to Marrakesh from the walled Old Medina) where I took some of the sunset pictures shown later in this post.

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The Old Medina sea wall (ramparts) are now the perfect setting for shops

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Cannons along the sea wall

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The group of Trekking for Kids trekkers at the North Bastion

And the sunset photos…

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Approaching the Old Medina at dusk

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City walls and the Old Medina as seen at sunset from the South Bastion

Old Medina, city walls, sunset, Essaouira, Morocco, market, goods, colorful, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Sunset over the Old Medina from the South Bastion

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Sunset along the beach – and me

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Photobombing my sunset picture…

So, all around, Essaouira was a pleasant surprise; different than the Morocco I expected.  Here is to good surprises!!!

Trekking for Kids and the Bayti Centre in Essaouira

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Olympus

In the summer of 2014, I decided to do another trek with Trekking for Kids (TFK) with whom I have trekked in Romania in 2012 and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2013.  When I learned TFK was going to go to the Camino de Santiago, something I’ve wanted to do since I learned about it, I knew I just had to go as it was the perfect combination of a trek and of service to improve the lives of children, something I am very passionate about.  The group of trekkers paid their own way and then raised funds for projects to be done at the center selected by TFK.

Trekking for Kids, TFK, trekking, Morocco, Essaouira

The group of Trekking for Kids trekkers before the first day of work – I was in GREAT company!

The service work was going to take place at a center for street and at-risk children in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco – a town that surprised me and of which I am writing separately.  TFK decided to work with the Bayti Centre to improve the facilities where they work with the children to protect them against violence, to provide psychosocial rehabilitation, to reintegrate families, and other related activities.

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TFK being welcomed by Bayti Centre staff

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A group shot with tons of kids is hard to pull off…

TFK selected a number of improvement projects like helping the exterior of the building be repaired and painted.  Another project was a kitchen renovation that facilitated the two kitchen staff to be able to work side by side in the small kitchen with two sinks, a new fridge, and a new stove as well as more shelving to better use the space.  New equipment for instruction (like a flat screen TV) and other items for the children were donated as well.  In summary, a series of projects that would enhance the facilities to create a better environment for Bayti to deliver its services and attend to the children of the streets of Essaouira.

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The facade of the Bayti Centre after repairs but before painting

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Finishing touches being applied on the repairs prior to the painting

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Painting the exterior – street level

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Building a wall garden requires woodworking skills!

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One dirty (and happy) trekker after a day of work at the Centre!

Along with the works, we also got to take the children on outings and threw a party where we all got to enjoy food, games, and music much to the delight of the children.

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Getting ready for one of the outings

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Face painting in progress!

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Canon EOS Rebel

A fellow trekker doing the artwork!

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Another great face paint job and a happy kid!

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The end product of face painting!

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Olympus

One of the outings was to go to a park in the city for fun and games

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Olympus

The girl on the right sure knew the right technique for jump rope!

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Olympus

Precious little girl!

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Olympus

He was having fun at the park – and I was glad to be a part of it

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Samsung Galaxy

Fun and games at the pool park in one of the outings

kid, Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Canon EOS Rebel

More fun and games at the pool

A final word is to thank the amazing staff and volunteers who are the ones who truly made the world a better place for these children.  Je vous remercie, mes amis!

Bayti Centre, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, volunteerism, Samsung Galaxy

TFK trekkers with the staff and volunteers of the Bayti Centre

I look forward to another TFK trek in 2015!

Djema el-Fna: The Central Square in Marrakesh – Full of Life!

spices, Morocco, food stand, medina, Djemaa el Fna, Jemaa el-Fnaa, food stall

Market time!  Marrakesh has a very lively market, Jamaa el Fna (or Djema el-Fna) spread out over the same-named square, second most famous square in African after Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so that should command some attention, right?

Of course, the souks (or alleys) of the medina are full of shops but it is this square that is the main scene.  At night, the market is teeming with life.  Locals and tourists alike enjoy all it offers.  The range of items for sale, be them food or other goods is wide.  Eateries can be found all around from the basic to the restaurants.  Of course, be ready for the extra “persuasiveness” of any of the sellers around.  It is intense to walk around (a little bit of a turn-off for me).  You can also see diverse live animals to charm you.  But feeling the place’s vibrancy makes it a must-see and must-walk-around.  Perhaps even buying a thing or two?

dates, fruit, Morocco, food stand, medina, Djemaa el Fna, Jemaa el-Fnaa

Dates, dates, dates

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So many orange juice carts! Must be a lot of thirsty people around…

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Food stalls, like these with spices, add a lot of color -and aromas- to the scene.

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Beautiful lamp

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And back to food after that lamp!

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Continuing with the food vendors…

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Dried figs!

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The baked goods could not be far behind!

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One of the many casual eateries in the square; more formal ones can be found in its periphery

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Soft drinks are part of an entertainer’s set up in the square

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Many restaurants all around

Djema el-Fna, Morocco, food stand, medina, Djemaa el Fna, Jemaa el-Fnaa, Canon EOS Rebel

So whether during a short visit like mine or one that allows you exploring every nook and cranny of ‘kesh, don’t miss out on an evening out at Jemaa el-Fnaa!

 

Images from Marrakesh, Morocco – Or Why I Would Return

doorway, Arabic, Moorish, design, architecture, architectural detail, design element, Morocco, Marrakesh

On my recent trip to Morocco, I spent two overnights in Marrakesh on either end of my visit to the country.  It certainly was not the right amount of time to spend there, especially given that I loved its architecture and would have enjoyed seeing more of it.  However, it was a good amount of time to sample the city.  So, I thought I’d share some of the images that stuck with me so you can get a sense for the town.  Of course, I witnessed beautiful sunsets in Marrakesh but I will share those separately from these!

Airport

The airport in Marrakesh has a good number of international flights.  It must be very new and it is very modern indeed.  I loved getting off the plane after an overnight flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam and a 3-hour layover before heading to Marrakesh.

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The airport terminal as I deplane

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The departures area on the day I left Marrakesh – pleasing to the eye.

Our riad

A typical place to stay while visiting Morocco is the “riad.”  A riad is a home with a small inner courtyard or garden that offers quite a few benefits for its residents such as privacy and an outdoor space with little to no direct sunlight which helps deal with the high heat of this type of locations.  Riads remind me of the centuries-old houses in places like Old San Juan, which also had inner courtyards.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

View down towards the ground level at Mon Riad

Well, riads nowawadays offer a great design for small places of lodging and so it was with the one where we stayed in Marrakesh:  Mon Riad.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

Mon Riad

With a small courtyard with a small pool in which one could dip one’s feet, it certainly was a nice place to get to after a long trans-Atlantic trip!  I immediately dropped my bags, started meeting my future fellow trekkers (more on my trek along the Camino de Santiago soon!), enjoy a welcoming cup of hot tea (yes, that is actually the best thing in hot weather!), and taking my shoes off so I could refresh my tired legs in the small pool!  The staff and accommodations (great A/C in the rooms!) were phenomenal.

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My welcome hot tea – nice touch!

I enjoyed the rooftop terrace where we had dinner one night and where I got to watch some very nice sunsets and sunrise!

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View from Mon Riad’s terrace

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Perfectly set up for dinner up in the Mon Riad’s rooftop terrace!

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The alley where Mon Riad is located – quiet and clean!

Red everywhere

Most structures in central Marrakesh are red or pinkish-red.  The same red is visible in the pottery typical of the area.  It is a neat color especially in contrast to the beautiful blue skies, the sparse but present green of the palm trees, and the color of the desert that kisses the city.

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Driving in towards the medina from the airport

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Minaret of the Koutoubia mosque

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Right before entering the medina, we passed this beautiful gate: the Palace Gate (or Bab Agnaou).

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Going around the medina, looking for the entrance!

Marrakesh, Morocco, medina, photo, travel, Olympus, red walls

The outer walls of Marrakesh’s medina.  Red on the walls, red on the stop sign, and red on the curb!

Marrakesh, clay pot, pottery, handicrafts, souvenir, market, Morocco, Olympus, travel

Presumably the same clay that is used for walls is used for these clay pots – more red!

Decorations and architectural details

The best images I take away from Marrakesh (sunsets aside) are these.  I have always found Arabic architecture (if that is the right term) beautiful since the first time I saw Moorish Spain’s legacy to the current architecture of places like Granada and Cordoba.  In Marrakesh, everywhere I turned there was an interesting architectural or decorative element.

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Though worn by time and feet, this tilework is still beautiful.

Marrakesh, Morocco, design, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Great patterns

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Incredible detail above a doorway – exquisite

mosaic, engraved doors, Arab design, Marrakesh, medina, Morocco, Olympus, photo, travel

Entrance to a building in the medina. Great mosaic and metal work

As I said earlier, I wish I had had more time to explore this exotic town but hope these images begin to convey the beauty to be found in the town.

Summer Vacation Is Almost Here!

map, Iceland, Reykjavik, Akureyri, travel

This summer, I finally get to take a real vacation, not just a couple of days of here or there.  Actually, I get to take TWO real vacations!  The two vacations came about differently and it was certainly hard to plan them as I did not control when one of them took place and the other had to be coordinated with other people’s schedule.

The great cold and outworldly:  Iceland

The first vacation will be to Iceland, my first time visiting this unique land sitting astride an incredibly active piece of Earth (who remembers the volcano-whose-name-cannot-be-said-because-it-is-too-hard?).  Friends of mine were planning to go and invited me to come along with them and their two young daughters.  One of the parents has an Icelandic ancestor and has been doing research so part of the trip will be to visit the rural areas of her ancestors.  This is likely unlike what the normal tourist goes to do in Iceland and that is precisely what I think makes it a great opportunity for me to travel.  Of course, we will try to hit the major unique features of the island that make a visit there so neat (waterfalls, volcanoes, hot springs, fjords).

Upon landing, we plan to hit the Blue Lagoon hoping it will help some with jetlag (we have a 6-hr layover in JFK… remember, with two young girls aged 4 and 7…).  We will then spend some days anchored in Reykjavik but hopefully doing the Golden Circle and perhaps a day trip to the south part of the island.

After those three days we will drive clockwise on the ring road to the town of Akureyri.  We have rented a house across the “bay” from it with spectacular views.  We already see ourselves in the hot tub with a bottle of wine soaking in the late Icelandic summer day…  We will use this as a base to explore the northern part of the island and the area where my friend’s ancestors lived in.map, Iceland, Reykjavik, Akureyri, travel

Trekking with a purpose:  the Camino de Santiago and Morocco

Right after returning from Iceland, I will go on the second vacation of my summer.  This one is a special one as I will be doing 7 days of the Camino de Santiago with Trekking for Kids in order to help street and at-risk children in Morocco (I went with this organization to hike in Romania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro).

The trip will begin by going to Morocco and spending a few days at the center that we will fundraise for (each trekker raises money that will go 100% to the projects we will fund at the center).  I have never been to Morocco and though I will not be officially “touristing,” I like that I will experience some of Morocco in such a unique way.  We will then fly to Madrid and train it to León from which we will begin our trek in the Camino.  I have wanted to do the Camino ever since a friend did it many years ago (though I am not sure I would want to do the route starting at the Pyrenees). So this trek is perfect as it will be about 7 days’ worth of walking.  A good bit of that walking will be in the area of Galicia where some of my ancestors come from so walking through it will be special in that way for me.

I have been to Santiago de Compostela before but look forward to the experience of arriving there by foot, as many have done since the Middle Ages, and getting my “Compostela.”

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I am very much looking forward to my vacations, long overdue.  One thing I will say before I conclude here is to urge you to consider doing a trek with Trekking for Kids – it will be a unique experience as the fact that many trekkers (like me) keep returning for other treks!  Check out the upcoming treks to Kilimanjaro, Jordan, and Patagonia here.

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