Marrakesh, Morocco

It took nearly four decades, but I finally made it to Africa. For my 40th, Helen and I traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco (the French spell it Marrakech, if that matters to you). We spent the better part of a week in Riad Ben Youssef, located in the Medina, a central business region of the city and an official UNESCO World Heritage Site that was founded nearly a millennium ago.

Other than an excursion for some Moroccan barbeque and a visit to a liquor store, we spent all of our time within the Medina. At 230 km², there is plenty to see and do there, and more than enough ways to get lost, which we did plenty. It didn’t help that the winding streets were often crowed with a mix of merchants, tourists, and motorcyclists speeding through.

Nonetheless, by the time we left, I felt like I had at least a basic understanding of the layout. Of course, on our way to meet our ride to the airport, we walked through a completely new area and I realized I hadn’t even seen a fraction of the city.

Getting Around in Marrakesh

Other than a bus from the airport and a return taxi (well, a guy in a van with his three children in the back), we got everywhere by walking. The host at the riad (our hotel; a “riad” is a residence with a courtyard within it) helpfully let us know about Maps.Me, an app that allows you to download full city maps to use offline. This was especially useful because neither Helen nor I had data, and Google Map’s offline mode is pretty weak.

With the help of our map and a list of places to visit, we haphazardly made our way around city. I say haphazardly because we didn’t really plan anything on this trip. In fact, though Helen had been to Marrakesh once before, neither one of has done that much planning ahead of time. We mostly went to relax and enjoy good food, which we did, and good drink, which took a little more effort.

Where to Find Alcohol in Marrakesh

As it turns out, one thing we would have known if we’d done more research ahead of time is that finding liquor in Marrakesh is pretty hard. Most restaurants don’t serve it and liquor stores are nowhere to be found in Medina. The only time we could get alcohol with a meal (including beer and wine) was when we ate at the fancier restaurants (liquor licenses are expensive in Marrakesh). Even at those spots, it wasn’t always available.

We also wanted alcohol for enjoying poolside at our riad, which required the aforementioned trip out of the city central. Another couple at the riad told us about a liquor store, the Mini Marché Majorelle, near Jardin Majorelle. There we filled a backpack with various inebriants and hiked it back to our riad under the hot sun. We lucked out in that our week there was relatively cool (32° rather than the ~40° it had been the week before), but when you’re saddled with a few pounds worth of alcohol, it doesn’t feel cool.

For our hunt for alcohol in Marrakesh, we initially turned to a common tool familiar to any traveler: travel blogs. When we searched for restaurants and other information (like, “where to find alcohol in Marrakesh”), Google spit out blog posts. It makes sense. Most serious travel bloggers (which, as I’ve said previously, I manifestly am not) know the tricks to getting recommended by the various search engines. They involve using keywords and key phrases, things like “best restaurants in Marrakesh” and “top hotels in Marrakesh”. If you insert enough of those into your blog, you’ll pop up when people search those terms. (Or, at least, that’s how it used to work; Google is always changing their algorithm, so who even really knows anymore?)

The thing about blogs, though, is that there’s really no reason to assume the information is correct. I mean, generally speaking, what we found was helpful. But a lot of writers who write these blogs present themselves as experts on cities they’ve visited three or four times. As I’ve said numerous times in this blog, even after a year living in cities, I never felt like I was an expert. And considering how quickly places change now, I don’t feel like I can claim to have much insight into the cities I lived in for 10 Cities. Which is to say, the blogs were generally helpful, but some of the “best restaurants in Marrakesh” were just places this guy had happened to walk into. And they didn’t help us find alcohol.

The Best Restaurants in Marrakesh

I have no idea if the places we ate at could qualify as the best, but we did have a few great meals. In fact, after a somewhat disappointing lunch of shawarma and falafel for our very first meal (both were dry), the food was fairly uniformly great. For more casual meals, we enjoyed the Google-challenging Falafel restaurant (if you want to find it, go to Maps and search for “Cafe restaurant Falafel”). Nothing fancy, but we had two meals there and both were exactly what we wanted (definitely try the falafel sandwich).

For fancier meals, we ate at Le Trou Au Mur (alcohol), Nomad (no alcohol), and, on our last night, Le Foundouk (alcohol). Le Foundouk was both of our favorite meals; cannot recommend the pastilla with chicken and the fennel salad with grilled halloumi enough. I’d describe some of the food as a slightly earthier take on foods you might find in Greece, though there were plenty of other options available beyond the local cuisine.

Also, the common drink you’ll get whenever you go to cafes or restaurants is Maghrebi mint tea (Thé à la menthe). It’s surprisingly refreshing, especially since I generally don’t like mint drinks. Most servers will pour it the way Spanish cider is poured in Asturias, well above the glass so that it waterfalls from nearly a meter up. Even if tea isn’t your thing, give it a try.

What to Do in Marrakesh

Again, I can’t actually tell you definitively what to do in Marrakesh. We only spent five days there. But, of the things we did while there, going to a hammam (Le Bain Bleu) for a hard scrub and a massage and shopping in the Medina markets were two highlights. Helen found a selection of kaftans that she negotiated a good price for, and I found a leather jacket that I negotiated a less good price for. In all, though, it was a successful shopping adventure (considering that we spent half the time dodging speeding motor bikes and donkey-drawn carts, it really was an adventure).

We were warned at the riad to not allow people on the street to “guide” us through the city or to the local tannery. We were told they would take us to more expensive shops or demand a tip for their “help.” There were people all over the city, mostly young men in their teens and twenties, who called after us as we walked the streets. They always assumed we were looking for the main square or the tannery, which we never were. Sometimes they were persistent, but most of the time if we just said “No thanks” or ignored them they moved on.

Morocco is a poorer country (a Moroccan dirham is worth about a tenth of a euro) that draws in relatively rich tourists. So, that kind of gamesmanship is to be expected. Call it running a scam or simply call it hustling, but people are going to find a way to get by.

Passing Time in the Riad

Ultimately, the highlight of our trip might have been the Riad Ben Youssef. Located around the corner from the historical Ibn Youssef School (which we didn’t visit), our modestly priced hotel was a perfect oasis in the midst of a often hectic city. It’s a three-story residence-cum-hotel with maybe four to six rooms available to rent. There were a few common areas, and breakfast was served daily on the main floor, but the first impression wasn’t immediately great.

Our room changed that impression. When we reserved our third-floor room, we didn’t realize we had the entire rooftop terrace to ourself. It included multiple seating areas, a separate tented area of seats (that one of the local workers used as his personal hookah tent when no one was there), and a black and white cat who regularly hung out. The cat wasn’t technically a feature of the hotel, but it felt like it.

We also had, via a spiral staircase, direct access to the pool. It wasn’t a big pool, but it was gorgeous, enclosed by four towering walls, and since none of the other guests used it, it was essentially our private pool. Even after we checked out, the riad let us hang out by the pool in the afternoon to kill time before our late-night flight. If you’re visiting Marrakesh, I can’t recommend highly enough having a pool all to yourself. In fact, if you’re going to visit anywhere, I recommend that.

The End of Our Trip to Marrakesh

As I said, we had a late flight on Friday. So, before we left, we visited one of the “landmarks” that we were told to see, the Secret Garden (Le Jardin Secret), which is situated in the heart of the Medina.

It was a small but beautiful enclosed park that, like so much in Medina, spoke to the long history of the city. Once a palace, the grounds now house various vegetation and animals (including, oddly, turtles), an ornate gazebo, and an elevated café. Worth a visit, though there were numerous other parks and gardens around that we didn’t visit that appeared to be larger.

It was a short trip to Marrakesh, but a memorable way to finally make it to my third continent; it’s a place I would definitely return to someday. We didn’t even scratch the surface.

So if Google brought you here while looking for “the best shawarma in Marrakesh,” sorry, I can’t help you out. Just try somewhere random, you may be pleasantly surprised.

The Year That Was: 2022

Another one bites the dust.

Is it just me or was this a reeeally long year? It feels like spring was a decade ago. Perhaps it’s because the summer was the hottest on record, the unrelenting heat making every day just drag on. Even more than 2020’s pandemic-elongated year, 2022 has felt markedly divided into periods. Three distinct ones.

First, of course, there was the winter/spring period. I’m sure some interesting stuff happened in the first months of 2022, but since that was 17 years ago, it’s hard to remember. I think there was a party or two. Whatever happened, it all culminated in a two week vacation to Greece (Athens and Hydra) and Sicily, Italy, my first trip to either country.

Upon returning from that trip, the summer immediately kick into high gear. From June to September, Madrid was smothered in a bracing heat, only occasionally breaking enough to breathe. Helen and I stayed in the city most of that time, only getting away to the slightly cooler Cercedilla for a weekend with her parents. Otherwise, our only escape was frequent trips to Madrid’s various pools, which, thankfully, are cheap but very nice.

Helen and I also saw The Smile in concert during one night of Madrid’s Noches del Botanico. If you’re unfamiliar, The Smile is the side project of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (both of Radiohead) with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Their album, A Light for Attracting Attention, splits the difference between Radiohead’s In Rainbow era and Thom’s solo material on Anima. With a slightly more improvisational spirit. A highly enjoyable concert experience (even if some random girl dumped her red drink on my white shirt two minutes before the concert began).

Then came October; the heat broke and we had a couple months of pleasant weather. That meteorological shift was marked by a trip to the south of Spain where I visited Cadiz for the first time and spent a week on the beach at El Palmar de Vejer. If you haven’t been, add it to the list.

This was perhaps the most prolonged autumn I recall having experienced since moving to Madrid, with a sustained string of warm days and cool nights, the leaves gradually changing colors. Of course, that all led into December, which has easily been the wettest I’ve experienced here. It might not be record-breaking (yet), but it’s notable that the sun has been in hiding the majority of the month (though it’s peeking through today), and more rain is expected up through Christmas.

But, we won’t be here for that. Helen and I are hopping on a plane soon and will be back in the UK for Christmas, followed by New Year’s Eve in Ireland—which will make it three new countries for me in 2022. Huzzah.

Highlights of 2022

At times, with the various posts about my trips, this managed to be the “10 Cities/10 Years Travel Blog.” But, of course, most of the year didn’t involve travel. There were long stretches of time that I was just here in Madrid, working, listening to music, writing, listening to music, seeing friends, and listening to music. There was a lot of music this year. (Last.fm can confirm.)

I don’t have a Top 10 Albums of the Year, per se (I love end-of-year lists, but some albums need more time to be appreciated), but these are the 2022 releasees that have gotten the most play in my ears this year, in no particular order (and with the possibility some will fall off in the future):

  • The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention (Favorite track: The Smoke)
  • SZA – SOS (Favorite track: Nobody Gets Me)
  • Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa (Favorite track: The Devil & Mister Jones)
  • Hurray for the Riff Raff – Life on Earth (Favorite track: SAGA)
  • Death Cab for Cutie – Asphalt Meadows (Favorite track: Foxglove Through the Clearcut)
  • Florence + the Machine – Dance Fever (Favorite track: My Love)
  • Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (Favorite track: Mirror)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time (Favorite track: Western Wind)
  • Orville Peck – Bronco (Favorite track: Daytona Sand)
  • Beyoncé – RENAISSANCE (Favorite track: VIRGO’S GROOVE)
  • The Mountain Goats – Bleed Out (Favorite track: Mark on You)

I wish I could do the same for 2022 movies and books, but I rarely catch up with those until the next year (at the earliest). I did see a couple new releases; while I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped, Everything Everywhere All at Once was probably the most fun at had in theaters this year. Off the top of my head, the best movie I watched this year was Florian Zeller’s The Father (from 2020). There’s a slew of new releases coming out in the States right now that I hope reach Spain in the next few months.

As far as favorite books, again, I rarely read anything that came out in a given year. The only one I managed was Devil House by John Darnielle (lead singer of The Mountain Goats); definitely a fun read, especially if you’re interested in the Satanic Panic era of modern American history. Darnielle’s gift, both as a songwriter and a novelist, is his unflinching empathy for people of all types, particularly the “losers.”

Other books I read and loved this year (but written before 2022) were Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain (easily the best book I’ve ever read about Spain). I also want to give a special shout out to Sapphire’s Push, which I had always dismissed out of hand (undoubtedly for ingrained racist bias), but which I found to be a reliably effective dramatic work.

To the Future

As far as personal creative output, it’s felt a bit underwhelming, despite finally finishing a novel that began as a short story idea over a decade ago, getting published in Newsweek, doing my first public talk about the 10 Cities Project, and bringing this very blog out of hibernation. I’m hoping 2023 will allow me to build on that momentum into something more productive and sustained. We’ll see.

But, whatever the year brings, I’ll try to be right back here recapping the year that was next December.

I hope your year was more ups than downs and more Scotch than soda.

See you in 2023.

Portugal, Part 2: Porto (& back to Lisbon)

We return, now, to the second and final leg of my trip to Portugal, which involved two days in the northern city of Porto, and a return to Lisbon.

First, though, a brief aside:

Ryanair

There are worse airlines than Ryanair. So I’ve been told. Ryanair’s reputation has been trash for so long that it was inevitable they would make some minor improvements and allow one of the other discount airlines to slip below them. But, being the second or third biggest turd in the pile doesn’t make you a Snickers bar.

Look, discount airlines exist to sell cheap tickets for the bare minimum of luxuries (i.e. none), and that’s fine. Greyhound buses can be excruciating means of transportation, but I know what I’m paying for when I buy the ticket. With Ryanair, though, on top of offering no amenities, they find every possible way to charge you more once you’re in the airport.

RyanairOne of their sliest, sleaziest techniques is charging a printing fee if a ticket isn’t pre-printed before the gate. No, it’s not a massive ordeal to print a ticket, but a) it is inconvenient when literally every other airline has adapted to 21st century digital tickets, and b) people of modest means (i.e. their customer base) likely don’t own a printer. It’s essentially a “poor tax” and like all such fees, it can seem like a minor quibble, but it penalizes the least well-off.

Another one of their less than reputable techniques is making their maximum sized carry-on luggage slightly smaller than the industry standard (55 centimeters instead of 56). Again, a seemingly insignificant difference, but one with a massive 53€ fee for owning luggage that almost every other airline accepts. And as my travel partner, Calla, and I learned, quite unhappily, they don’t make exceptions.

In summary, screw Ryanair.

From the Banks of the Douro

Porto

Other than that aggravation, visiting Porto (Oporto) was quite possibly the highlight of the trip for me. Two weeks ago, I posted some of my first impression photos of the city; check them out to get a sense of the grandeur. When people – or, at least, I – imagine charming European cities, it’s places like Porto we are conjuring.

Mixing vibrant, classical architecture with intoxicating riverside views and, of course, excellent wine, Porto charms effortlessly; even the city’s dilapidated areas still exude a historic dignity. Like many European cities, Porto has known better economic times, and perhaps that is why it felt so welcoming to visitors.

As was our routine throughout the trip, Calla and I were guided by the recommendations of others, and the one culinary must-have everyone was in agreement on was the Francesinha.

Francesinha
A decidedly not vegan-friendly meal.

Ostensibly a sandwich, this Porto original stuffs various hams and sausages between two pieces of white bread covered by melted cheese and gravy; often (but not always) an over-easy egg rests on top. This is a fork and knife affair, to be sure. To reiterate, it’s meat, cheese, bread and gravy: how hasn’t this become a standard in every American diner?

There are many places you can get a Francesinha in Porto, but just as there are only a few places to get an “authentic” Pastel de Nata in Lisbon, we were told to seek out the Café Santiago for the real deal.

Our waitress, like most of the people we interacted with in Portugal, spoke English well, which was good since the only word of Portuguese I know (that isn’t the same as Spanish) is “obrigado” (thank you). She was very excited to learn my surname as it was hers as well, and she took to calling us “cousins” (though, she was perhaps disappointed when I admitted I knew very little of my family’s Portuguese roots).

Guindalense Pana

After lunch, Calla and I explored Porto by foot, eventually coming to the Dom Luís I Bridge, which spans the Douro River. Heavily trafficked by pedestrians, this two-level bridge connecting the city center of Porto to the more suburban Vila Nova de Gaia provides mesmerizing views of the city. 

From the Bridge

At night, we reconnected with our friends from Madrid for drinks and dinner. It was a Saturday night and the city was abuzz with tourists and revelers. We patronized a few bars and even a Jazz Club on only its second night of business, but for me, the most diverting aspects of Porto at night were its gently lit streets and, at times, almost ghostly pathways inhabited by stray cats.

To The Light

Our second day in Porto was Easter Sunday, which seriously hampered our ability to find lunch. Calla and I wandered for upwards of an hour and a half before we finally settled on a restaurant directly across the street from Café Santiago (itself closed for the holiday).

Suitably fed, we allowed ourselves to get a little lost, crossing the Douro not on the Dom Luís, but by the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique, the less pedestrian-friendly bridge. Our aimless wanderings eventually brought us to a seaside cliff and to a series of stairways and passages that led to a row of burnt out and decimated buildings that once must have boasted the best views in the entire area.

 

 

After our detour, we returned to the waterfront to drink port wine at a riverside café. That was the plan, at least, but the server seemed to have a hard time remembering two drinks. After 20 minutes, we vacated our table having received 50% of our order.

That evening, back at the Yes! Porto hostel, we dined on a purportedly authentic Portuguese fish-based dinner with a group of fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Hostel living has its downsides (snorers, louder talkers, people humping each other three feet from your head), but it also helps you feel connected to the world of travelers, like a slight stream feeding into a roaring river.

Before leaving Porto, we had one other recommendation to track down: the Prego. Not, in fact, a pregnant lady, the Prego is another Porto must-have sandwich, this one consisting simply of succinctly steak and melting cheese on a roll. The cheese is optional, and like the Francesinha, an egg is a not uncommon part of the recipe, but we were told that the best Prego was found at Venham Mais 5, and after tasting a little bit of heaven there, I’d consider their steak-and-cheese only version the standard.

Inside the Arco

Lisbon (Again)

We returned to Lisbon with two days before our flight back to Madrid and a few more items on our to-do list. First up was finding one of the best views in the city at Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte. We were informed by both our walking guide, Luis, and the manager of the Travellers House where we were staying, that even though Castelo de Sao Jorge draws the most tourists, the view from “Our Lady of the Hill” was just as good, and free (plus, it includes a view of the castle).

We made the trek through the winding roads and up the hill to be greeted by spectacular views, as advertised, but also by gusting winds that could have likely carried us out over the city if we had skipped breakfast.

Lisbon View (Our Lady)Before we could leave Lisbon, I had one final stop on my list: Restaurante Ponto Final.

Located on the banks of the Tagus River, reaching the restaurant and idyllic viewing spot requires a short ferry ride to Almada, across the river from Lisbon. After exiting the ferry, head west along the water by the pop culture-infused street art that decorates the cement pathway. At first it’ll seem like you’re walking to nowhere, but eventually you’ll come around a corner and see your destination.

 

Resaurante Ponto Final

At this point, I wasn’t hungry, I simply wanted to enjoy a glass of wine along the water while looking out over the city I would be leaving in less than 12 hours.

Self Ponto Final 2

With the day fading, we walked back to the ferry. We had just a few hours until we needed to head to the airport for an uneventful (albeit, a tad delayed) return flight on Iberian.

It was just after midnight, Thursday morning, when we landed in Madrid, having left the previous Tuesday night. In the course of our travels, we drank our respective weights in wine and beer, enjoyed a smorgasbord of Portuguese cuisine, and stood in quiet appreciation of some of Portugal’s most inspiring views. We also didn’t kill each other; a successful trip by all standards.

Porto Sepia

I look forward to going back someday soon.

Porto Panorama

I’m in the midst of an eight day trip through Portugal right now (writing this in the Travellers House in Lisbon), so I’ll be keeping this brief and simply posting some of my favorite images from Porto, an absolutely beautiful and enchanting city that I wish I had spent more time in.

Enjoy, and I’ll return next week with more photos and details about the trip.

~L

Calem PanaInfante Douro PanaGuindalense PanaPorto from the Docks PanaDouro PanaStreet Art PanaPorto Douro PanaDouro Banks PanaPonte Suis BW Pana