Wednesday, December 30, 2015

INTREPIDLY, MADRID TO MARRAKECH (Part 3): A day at the Fes Medina

The medina of Fes ("Fes el Bali")  is said to be largest in the world, and was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1981. How large? Well, by some estimates, there are ten thousand streets inside it. It is a car-free zone, and pretty much everything you can find inside it -- markets, schools, mosques, restaurants, riads (akin to boutique hotels for tourists), tanneries [more on this later] and all kinds of shops.

This is how it looks from a bird's eye view. "Whoa!" was the only word i could utter, really. 

Our group spent one entire day with a local guide, walking through the winding narrow alleys and taking in the sights (and smells); and trying our best not to bump into locals (or get trampled over by passing horses). 

Lots of food items for sale, such as these fruits, dates, olives, fresh salads and the like:


 For some strange reason i cannot fathom, we saw a lot of these huge nougat type of sweets (colored pink, green and white).

And these brown things swimming in the yellow goop? That's meat preserved in lard. They supposedly last for one year at room temperature, without spoiling. Ummm, not quite appetizing eh?  Maybe i should have bought some, to give as gifts to my frenemies. ;-D

 Seriously, though, i saw a shop selling camel meat; and guess what, they chopped off a camel head and hung it in front of their stall. Grisly and a bit stomach-churning. 

One has to be alert whilst walking on the narrow alleys, especially as locals transport goods using these same pathways;  and they are generally bustling about and in a hurry. When you hear cries of "Balak!" (meaning 'Watch out!"), well do watch out and get the hell out of the way. 

For me, the highlight of our excursion was checking out one of the three leather tanneries inside the medina. Fes is famous for leather goods, and the best place to buy them was right here.

The leather shops typically have a terrace, where one can view the dyeing pits and vats, where the animal hides are soaked. It makes for a very colorful and picturesque (and needless to say, Instagrammable) scene. We were out of luck, though, that day, as the pits of this particular tannery were being renovated; so this was the sight we saw:

I've grabbed this photo below from Flora the Explorer, one of the female independent travel bloggers whose writing i admire. Quite pretty, huh? 

Above the tanneries in Fez
(Photo credit: Flora the Explorer)

You can actually smell the tanneries, before  you see them, as the odor can best be described as malodorous. That's because part of the process of converting raw animal skins to leather handbags, shoes, etc. involves cow urine and pigeon poop. Here's an excerpt from the blog Moroccan Bling, which gives the full details:
"The start of the tanning process begins with the collection and sorting of the raw animal skins. The types of animal skins used are sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin with the best quality leather coming from goat and camel skins.  These skins are soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins. Once the soaking duration is done, tanners then scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the skins for dyeing.

Once the skins have been cleaned, they are laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. Dried, the skins are taken to a different set of vats where they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make the skins supple and soft. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows for the skins to become so malleable and to some extent the animal hair loosens. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.

At this point, once the leather has reached its desired softness, the skins are moved to a select set of vats for the tanning (or dyeing) process. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. However it is not stated by tanners or tannery shop workers but one suspects that chemical products are also used today for a better quality and longer lasting color, along with a less pungent odor."

Here are some photos of the leather goods in the shop, a veritable profusion of colors:

Fancy these babouches (Moroccan slippers)? ;-D

 Here's a closer view of them:

Hmmm, they seem inordinately fond of making these giant Ottomans. I'd love to buy that vivid blue one, haha. 

Caveat emptor, though. Our tour leader Anki warned us that there were NO fixed prices, and that bargaining was the way of life here. So if we were interested to buy, we had to bargain hard; and be able to walk away if we didn't get the price(s) we could afford. 

I expressed concern that the shopkeeper might be insulted if our price ideas were very low (and push us over the terrace into the pits below! LOL :-D), but she said they did not take it personally. I suspect they actually enjoyed playing the game.

My tourmate Sedgman was piqued by that torquoise green travelling bag (check out the lower left hand corner of the above photo) and so inquired as to its price. Their conversation went something like this:

Shopkeeper : "Ah, that is 4,500 Dirhams. But for you, my friend, i give at 3,600 dirhams."
Sedgman     : (with deadpan expression) "I will not pay anything above 2,000 for it."Shopkeeper : "Ah...."
Sedgman     :  "Take it or leave it."

And just like that, he was the triumphant owner of the bag!

By contrast, i was looking for a brown messenger bag and looked through more than a couple of different designs. After much hew and haw-ing, i finally asked the price. 

Shopkeeper  :   "That is 1,500 Dirhams."
GUS             :   "Really? So expensive!"
Shopkeeper  :   "What price you want?"
GUS             :   (does mental math, twiddles thumbs, scratches head, frowns) "Umm, what's your best price?"
Shopkeeper  :   "What price you want?"
GUS             :  (crosses fingers) "500 Dirhams."
Shopkeeper  :  "Too low, i lose money. 1,000!"
GUS             :  (hesitates) "600!"
Shopkeeper  :  (less firmly than before) "800."
GUS             :  (gathering steam) "650!"
Shopkeeper  :  "750."
GUS             :  "No. 650."
Shopkeeper  :  "700."
GUS             :  "No. 650."

And finally, he gave in! Yeyyyy! [fist pump]

We had a spot of lunch as well in one of the restaurants inside the medina. Your typical Moroccan lunch:

Bread. (The soda is less than typical, of course. Haha)

Assorted vegetables (carrots, olives, etc.) and goat cheese.

Meatball tajine (literally meaning the earthen pot in which it is cooked).


Moroccan mint tea. You can take it with or without sugar. I must say that the sugar cubes are quite cute, and i preferred two cubes per glass of mint tea. Drinking it without sugar has a taste akin to liquid toothpaste.

We also passed by this former school from a couple of earlier centuries. Check out the magnificent tile work, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada.

And one of the final stops was this silk store, where the merchandise was actually pretty good. Tourmates spent most of the time being egged on to try stuff by the staff, and here's some shots worthy of 'Lawrence of Arabia':

Sheik Sedge, perhaps? All together now, the sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick!

Friday, November 13, 2015


When in Portugal, one particular must-try food item is the pastel de nata (egg tart pastry). Found virtually in every neighborhood bakery cafe, I must have eaten around a dozen of them during our short stay in various parts of Portugal. 

Apparently, the recipe for these egg tarts originated from the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem district, and one brother sold this said recipe after monasteries were closed by the state in 1834. Thus, the present-day Pasteis de Belem was born in 1837, and they have not looked back since.

Their pastel de nata is acknowledged to be the best in the country. Thus, i made a note to drop by and taste the goodies during our time in Lisbon, and pestered our tour leader Anki about it. 

So it was, that we went via tram to the Belem district one sunny morning. The Pasteis de Belem store turned out to be quite big, with table service for 400 persons.

And what impressed me was how busy it was. There was a constant flow of clientele queuing at the counter. Apparently, this is a de rigueur stop for many tour groups; from our table at the dining area, there was an even bigger hall at the back, and waves and waves of people just kept showing up. 

If you're not contented with eating inside, you can order takeaway too!

Here's a look at the glass-enclosed baking area (the actual mixing and oven areas are out of sight and off-limits, of course). Trays and trays of egg tarts! I couldn't wait for our order to be served, as i was literally salivating like a Pavlovian dog. 

Ah, here finally is our order! Viola! Looks great huh?

You can sprinkle them with powdered sugar and/or cinnamon, or eat them just as is.  Anki pointed out the bottom of each egg tart has an onion-like circular pattern, which is unique to Pasteis de Belem.

So, how do these egg tarts taste like? Do they live up to their lofty 'best in Portugal' billing? Upon first bite, what i noticed were the light and fluffy texture of the pastry; and that the custard part wasn't particularly sweet. 

This was a bit disorienting, as many of the egg tarts i've tasted in neighborhood cafes and in the World Needs Nata branch in Coimbra were markedly sweeter (and their custards were 'gooier'). 

But this is actually a good thing, as one can eat more than one piece (yeyyyyyy!!! :D) without the taste becoming cloying. I found out later on that Pasteis de Belem made their custard part only with milk, not cream, which made it less sweet. 

And look! All wiped out after one minute! I would have wanted to order a second (and third and fourth) serving, but didn't really want my tourmates to needle me about my sweet tooth. Hehe. 

Check out the this mural on their tiled wall in their bathroom. Unusual in a nice way.

But there was still some unfinished business. After touring around the Torre de Belem area and whilst waiting for the tram back to our hotel, tour mate Sedgman and i made a quick stop to Pasteis de Cerveja. Yup, you guessed it, this shop makes a pastry infused with beer ;-D

In stark contrast, this pastry shop was rather uninviting in appearance; and there were not very many patrons inside. 

Here's a signage touting their Beer Cake.

So, Sedgman (being the ultra-heavy drinker that he is. LOL :D) and i ordered one each for takeaway. Here's how it looked like:

Not quite appetizing, right? And below is my half-eaten one. I must say it was disappointing. The crust was dry, and while the paste was sweet, i couldn't taste a hint of beer at all! 

Curious to see if my sentiment was shared by other people, i checked online, and the sentiment was that the taste of beer was masked by almond paste. No wonder. 

Verdict : Pasteis de Belem is a must-visit!!!  Pasteis de Cerveja. . . well, since it's just nearby anyway, one might as well pop in for the sheer novelty of the beer cake, if one was so inclined and didn't mind the feeling of regret after taking one bite. 

Pasteis de Belem, Rua de Belém, Lisbon,
Pastelaria Nau de Cerveja,  Rua de Belém, Lisbon.

Friday, October 30, 2015

INTREPIDLY, MADRID TO MARRAKECH (Part 1): Chefchaouen - Blue, Blue and Blue

(I joined Intrepid Travel's Madrid to Marrakech tour during Sept. - Oct. 2015, and will be doing a series of posts about the trip. As usual, posts will be rather haphazard - not chronological, and some stops will be skipped altogether :-D)


Chefchaouen probably does not ring a bell when one talks about different tourist spots in Morocco, since it is off the beaten path. Located in the Rif Mountains (where, incidentally, most of Morocco's hashish is grown), the first adjective that comes to mind to describe this small town is "picturesque". 

And truth be told, it was this stop of our tour that i was looking forward to the most. Why? Having seen photos online of its predominant blue color motif, it was extremely pleasing to the eyes, and i wondered how the town would look like, in real life. 

We took a tour around with our guide, the venerable Abdul Salaam, who proved to be quite loquacious and game to answer all sorts of queries we had. (He did have the rather unfortunate tendency to pull your elbow forcefully, and growl "Listen to me!")

Gate of a hammam (spa)

An obvious question was, why was the town painted blue? He  informed me that it was for practical reasons - it kept the weather cool, and kept the mosquitoes away (imagine that, blue insect repellant!).

During the previous centuries until 1945, natural indigo pigment was used for the blue color. Since then, synthetic pigments have been used.  

Blue walls and path to a blue-gated residence
However, Abdul Salaam also mentioned that the locals repaint three times per year, on auspicious dates: One week before end of Ramadan; during the Haj; and on Prophet Mohammed's birthday. So it seems logical that there is religious significance to this practice. 

I also checked online, and one other theory was that Jewish refugees started the practice back in the 1930s, as they considered the color blue to symbolize the sky and heaven.

Hotel entrance

Our tour leader, Anki, posing on the street

Wandering around the narrow streets of the Medina (Old Town)

Check out this particular corridor below. The walls, the steps on the pavement, the doors - all in blue! ;-D

As you can see, the blue color comes in different shades and degrees of intensity. Here's a particularly vivid blue door below. I was strolling around and chanced upon this Taiwanese tourist having her photo taken by her friend.

Ni hao? :D 

Some of the doors have intricate designs, too.

Entrance to a mosque

Entrance to a hotel
This one below is my favorite, located right at the main plaza of Chefchaouen, very near the Kasbah (fortress). It used to be the gate of old hammam:

Here's a close-up. Lovely as can be!

Here's a view of the town, from the topmost level of the kasbah:

There are many shops selling souvenir items, and leather goods in particular. Do be forewarned, though, that Moroccan shop keepers tend to have aggressive sales tactics; and that bargaining is the way of life here. (In my case, i have to thank one of my tour mates, Steve, who is very adept at pulling me away from the clutches of said shop keepers)

Genuine leather goods for you, if the price is right!

Going back to the doors, there is an odd green one or two, like this one. Green being the color of Islam, Abdul Salaam mentioned that this signifies members of a 'holy' family live inside. 

One thing our tour leader, Anki, repeatedly mentioned was that unlike in Spain and Portugal, taking candid photographs of people in Morocco was generally frowned upon. You have to ask permission first. 

I was aiming to shoot this narrow alleyway, with a blue wall lined with quite colourful fabrics and clothing. Whoosh! Mr. Photobomber appeared on the scene at the exact same moment that i pressed my mobile camera button.

 Somehow it was only fitting that he was wearing a vivid blue shirt!!! ;-D