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January 2009 Posts

Hello Marrakech: The visual and gastronomic pleasures of a day in Morocco

Leaving Milan I was full of expectation. The pictures of Marrakech were of deep blue skies, exotic visuals, Koutoubia Mosqueand customs barely changed for hundreds of years. I landed in Marrakech International Airport at 9:00 am feeling a little dragged down from the 4:30 wake up call. The airport is a lush garden of a port, set amongst trees and flowers with dry hills and the snow capped Atlas range in the background. The cab took me as close as is possible for a car to my hotel. He handed me my bags and said “go straight”, which I have come to find out is a euphemism for “try to head in this direction and find your way along the small, twisting, turning streets and try to not get run over by a motorcycle”. Being directionally challenged I was lost almost immediately. Luckily a nice man in the traditional djellaba (traditional one piece wool clothing worn by men and made famous – aka – borrowed for the clothing of the desert people in Star Wars part 1. Think Obi-wan’s costume.) led me the way there through the maze to the front door. I use the word hotel lightly. I’m staying at Jnane Mogador, a riad, or traditional family home built around an open courtyard with an open roof top deck. Luckily its very close to where I want to go and what I want to see here – mainly Jamaâ El Fna in the old city, or medina.

Jamaâ El Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, is an open square in the center of the old city that dates back to the 11th century by most accounts, and in some form or fashion for longer still. Being on an ancient trade route to the sea, Marrakech was a stopping point for caravans of spices and/or pilgrims making their way to Mecca. To feed hungry travelers locals began setting up small food stalls. These were made to be portable and drawn by donkey, just as they are today. As the city grew more varieties of food began to open, as well as forms of entertainment. I went first thing today after dropping off my luggage. By 10:00 am there were a good thirty stalls selling fresh orange juice and as many selling nuts and dried fruit. Snake charmers with their strange instruments and drums sit on carpets and keep their cobras and vipers entertained. Monkeys on leashes perform tricks and sit on shoulders. Water sellers, in their ornate, brightly colored clothing, bang together small cymbals to let possible buyers know they are near by. The square is a living being as a social creature, as many sociologists have said of groups of people. It is controlled chaos. Within an hour the square had changed a little. Food stalls started opening and some of the juice stalls started closing. It wasn’t like a changing of the guard, it was more organic than practiced. I sat in a corner shop and sipped sweet mint tea for an hour watching the comings and goings. And as the mint finally settled to the bottom of my second glass a more vibrant square was beginning to take shape. I wasn’t the only one watching. I was surrounded by locals doing the very same.

I left for a bit to explore. I meandered down a few side streets glancing in the souks, or shops, at the millions of objects for sale. The souk district is similar to the Grand Bizarre in Istanbul, only smaller and a little less controlled feeling. Not really in the mood to purchase, I caught an open top bus, a tourist’s paradise on wheels, to get my self familiar with the area. Marrakech is a strange city. It is a place of deep tradition and old ways of life. At the same time the outskirts have in the past few years become the playground for the rich and famous of Europe. A simple hostel can go for five dollars a night. One night in a renovated historic riad can cost thousands. The only real casino in town requires a coat and tie to get in the door. Winston Churchill loved to vacation here and is known to frequent a particular bar in the newer side of town. I thought about this quite a bit today while aboard the bus as well as stopping for a walk around a garden created by designer Yves saint Laurent, a walled off city block circled by less than opulent surroundings. In a world of Disney theme parks and Travel Chanel specials, travel can easily become a bit of a top ten travel sites to visit demi-glace – lots of the good condensed into single servings. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I have, after all, done that very thing for ten days so far. I rode from site to site getting a feel for the place but not really feeling anything. Shortly after dark, however, I got off at Jamaâ El Fna and walked to the distant sound of drums toward the bright lights and smoke pouring out of the center of the square. Unlike the daytime, this was true madness. Where was once a few dozen orange juice stalls was now a mob of cooks and waiters selling everything from kabobs, tajines (small, one serving stews cooked in clay pots over a flame) and couscous to the more exotic snail and boiled sheep head options. This is street and comfort food rolled into one. Along the way to my stall of choice I passed interesting oddities you don’t often see in my neck of the woods. Crowds gather around belly dancers moving to the beat of the drummers, fortune tellers reading palms, witch doctors selling remedies for every ailment under the sun, and story tellers who make their living recalling forgotten myths and legends. This is one place where the tourist actually adds something to the mix. The square was created for travelers passing through. It would be almost nothing without someone to be sold something.

And in this sense the idea of “history” becomes something to really think about. We grow up reading history texts – memorizing the dates and locations of monumental events. TV series and movies use strange phrases like “…and changed history forever.” But really, history is much more abstract than that. It isn’t just a collection of recalled events organized by periods and state or technological advances. You don’t change history, you create it. Every person I walked by today has a history as unique to them as their own face. And their, or our, history is more important to us than the achievements of Reconnaissance artists A food stall at Jamaâ El Fna(which will be the next blog – got a little behind on account of lacking internet access in Italy) or the impact of Hellenism after Alexander the Great. This is my fascination with a relatively obscure four block by four block square in the middle of a small city in northern Africa. History is transported from an abstract concept attached to an ancient building into a living, breathing being that continues to find its small place in a large, diverse world. An ancient tradition becomes part of my history. I often think about the importance of tradition in living. For a very long time we humans have survived both mentally and physically by traditions. We live in an era where it is normal if not encouraged to “break with tradition”. To see not just a physical building but a way of life and tradtiona received as a Heritage Site is very important.

The food was as good as I had hoped. Being a fan of a good tajine, and despite the fact it was also my lunch, I had one with bread and a few kabobs on the side for good measure. The smell of the tajine when the waiter removed the lid, with its still sizzling chicken and vegetables, was incredible. Tajines were traditionally food for the working man. The round, heavy clay pot with domed lid were brought to work every day with the necessary ingredients. The ingredients would all be mixed together and thrown on coals in the morning and would be perfectly cooked by lunch. Its basically a single serving stew. My personal favorite, and the type I had for lunch is chicken with preserved lemon. The stall I ate at, (Stall 1) had four or five different tajines available, of which I hope to try by the end of my visit. The kabobs were fantastic and under a dollar a piece. All in all it was the best $8 (with water) I could have spent. I will be back tomorrow and the next. I think tomorrow might also be a good day for snails…

My stomach is full and my eyes are heavy after the early morning flight.

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Istanbul (not Constantinople): My First Day in Town

Airports can be cruel in their irony. After 9+ hours in coach behind two relatively unsupervised 4 year old boys who seemed to become more energized with every minute of sleep they borrowed from me I awoke (haha) at the Istanbul International airport. The transportation hub of what Napoleon once considered the only and best choice for a global capital city (“if all the world were a single nation…”) threw me for a bit of a loop. If one were to land in Hawaii a young lady in a grass skirt would promptly greet passengers with a lei. Arriving in the Dominican Republic I was welcomed with rum. When one enters Istanbul Antarak you are promptly greeted with… iPhone advertisements. That’s right, kids, iPhone. Oh, and Samsung flat screen TVs. Now, being a capitalist at heart I encourage the sale of goods on a global scale. But sadly the romantic at heart was expecting something a bit different. Like what, you might ask? Oh, perhaps the plane would travel under a roman aqueduct, or have to jolt quickly on the runway to avoid an ancient pillar or monument. Maybe we would exit the plane onto a city wall. I didn’t really expect this. But just for a moment I felt like I hadn’t even left JFK.

The good news is that the good stuff starts only minutes away. After a quick trip through customs I grabbed the first cab in a row of twenty little yellow cars driven by a nice man in a suit. Doing my best American impersonation, I proceeded to speak quickly in English and hoped we were on the same page and his language of birth was only a cover up for the English he MUST hear in his head (that would be a joke). We were close. I’m glad his English was better than my Turkish. I did ask him for help on a few Turkish phrases as we departed the airport. Here’s how it went:

Me: How do you say thank you in Turkish?
Cab: Tesekkür ederim
Me: Oh, Takshudaklf… huh.
Cab: No, no,no. Te. Tesek. ederim.
Me: Ok, Tesekcure….
Cab: (Laughing) Uh, I think we will understand just a “thank you”.
Me: Can I quote you on that?
Cab: Huh?
Me: Whoops, idiom!
Cab: Who?

And away we go. Well, after transferring to the front seat as the seat belts were missing in the back. Drivers here are nuts. One of the highest traffic related death rates in the world.

After no more than three minutes pass you enter what was once an ancient city gate, walls, and the entry point for the old city. Growing up in the US I am fascinated with the age of objects in older places. These walls, which have survived countless wars and conquests, have been built upon and in. There are shops inside – 7-Eleven style stores built into walls that predate the earliest western monuments in North America by 700 or more years. This was more of what I was expecting. The short, and cheap I will say, ride to Eminonu, where I am staying and the region containing the sites I came for most of all, was fascinating. After leaving the four lane highway you are suddenly transported to the pictures you see in the books: old wooden and stone houses, dozens of minarets, clouds of small shops, all accompanied by the auspicious feeling that you are finally somewhere else. Somewhere else being a little abstract. I am after all blogging from my personal computer through a wifi port in the hotel – and not really that “far” mentally. None the less the smell is unique and new. This for me is a distinguishing factor of a new spot. Smells are eternal. Smell is the one sense we have that does not warp over time and can bring back old memories by a single whiff. I can still remember the smells of particular places: a cold night in Alaska (cold and snow do strangely have a scent), arriving in Tel Aviv, a Masai village, a guava orchard in El Salvador, my grandparents house from when I was a child… Smell is often, in my humble opinion, overlooked in travel. You can show the sites through pictures, you can bring back spices and taste exotic flavors, but no device can yet recreate the smell of a dirty street in fill in the blank or that perfect moment when you first smell the ocean.

So, after checking in at the hotel I ventured out to my first and only site of the day: Aya Sofia. Honestly, this one site is probably 40% of the reason I came. Aya Sofia was largest building on earth from when it was built in the 6th century until the 15th century – a good 900 years. The immensity was astounding. However, it wasn’t just large, it was ornate – a challenge we seem to have forgotten as a culture (compare a modern basketball arena with the Roman Coliseum and you will know what I mean). Every square inch was painted or carved. The art tells stories and carries messages about the triumphs and failures of being at the crossroads of many cultures and major, well funded, religions for 1500 years – the earlier mosaics from the Christian era of Roman history, Muslim calligraphy from the Ottoman period, later Christian mosaics from the post-Crusade and on. Christian and Muslim symbols stand side by side. The highest paintings, minus the dome, are all early Christian. The enormous calligraphy “coins” placed on each side are Muslim. The building is a living witness to the incredible changes and changes that have taken place in this city; something you don’t seem to see often. Relics are usually replaced. New people, new stuff. We are lucky this stuck around through war and even earthquakes. What struck me, strangely, about the Christian symbols was that “God” was not pictured, but rather and only Jesus and Mary. This alone, for a religious historian paints a picture of the changes in mentality throughout a religions history. Also of note is that Islam forbids the painting or reproduction of an image of God or Mohammed, much as Christianity did for the first few hundred years until the Council of Ephesus. Ah, so many angles to look at…

Left Aya Sofia for lunch and stopped at a small restaurant that grabbed my attention as I walked by. There is something about lamb kebabs being grilled over an open flame that I can not resist. Met a few locals and fellow travelers and chatted over kebabs and tea. The people I’ve met here have been very friendly. I spoke with a local man who sat on the bench next to me in this restaurant for over an hour. He told me quite a bit about Istanbul and we discussed random topics such as the Gypsy Kings, which was oddly the music of choice in this establishment, and the rapper 50 Cent. Even the waiter and owner sat down for a tea and talked a bit. Where would we be without food and drink? I am fascinated with how human culture was able to convert something so simple and necessary for life into an opportunity for connection. The next table over was populated by two older men in the kind of deep conversation only people who have been close for 40 years can have. Over plates of mezze (small bites much like tapas) and a bottle of Raki (more on this later), they drank and ate and laughed the afternoon away. Looked like a good life.

Baklava and Turkish Delights
Oh yea, baklava. Lets just say this was dinner tonight. Turkish delights here so far are much better than the version I had in the UK. But the baklava was like nothing I’ve ever had. The friendly gentlemen said I would need more than one piece and the little voice in my head agreed. Thank you little voice. Thank you Baklavaki Said. The amount of honey that went into each piece is astounding. Honey has been proven to last indefinitely. Archaeologists have sampled and tested many thousand year old honey from Egyptian tombs and said it checked out to taste fine and was chemically unaltered. So as the “you are what you eat” rational goes, I should be good to go for the next thousand years by the time this trip is over.

Long story for such a short day. I’m going to watch a little BBC World until I pass out from lack of sleep. Not a bad thing really. Big day tomorrow…

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Edit Another Day in Istanbul: Underground cistern, ancient artifacts, and the perfect $2 fish sandwich

Since the last post I’ve adopted a new policy on sightseeing. Long story short, I’ve slowed down a bit and tried to enjoy the Istanbul on its terms. What does this mean? All good things. Two or three cups of tea after a meal, longer conversations with locals, a few nights listening to music at a pub or two, and a really interesting time at a local nightclub/discotheque. If the phrase “discotheque in Istanbul” conjures up images of Borat dancing in a bar playing western music on a violin to a Russian techno beat, I might think you were there and I didn’t see you. Don’t think I’m being harsh or poking fun. I actually kind of enjoyed it. I will also say the euromullet is alive and well amongst the local hipsters. If you haven’t heard of said phenomenon I encourage you to Google it immediately.

A fellow solo traveler from Spain and I explored a few areas of town over the last few days. Also interested with local culture and sharing a “fly on the wall” ethic, we traveled across the bridge in search of an elusive bar at the top of a hotel (I have an odd love for hotel bars) and a club called 360 in the trendy Taksim region of Istanbul. Finding 360 closed we settled in at the loudest discotheque on the block. When I mentioned Borat before I was thinking of the part at the beginning of the movie where he is dancing with the people in town – that particular style of dancing found in Eastern Europe and Russia. Men dance with their arms wide, not touching anyone, but dancing around each other. Women either did something similar while standing still or danced in a style similar to what one would see from a belly dancer. Do you ever notice how if a woman took Ballet as a child she would sometimes walk as if in a rehearsal? There something about the placement of feet that is unique to ballet dancers. Its like this with the style of dancing in this club. People might not be dancing traditionally, but the tradition is there. The movement is an older step interpreted into modern movements. I think this is how it is to be in Istanbul in general when viewed with western eyes. I wrongly tend to think of modernity as almost being a western value, as if in the west it is created and it spreads to the rest of the world. But it isn’t. Modernity is just adding new components to the old system. There are certainly particular aspects that are picked up in different cultures, but really what happens is assimilation. The most common type of bacterial mutation is an antigenic shift, meaning two strains form an entire new strain. Makes me wonder about how I must look to people from outside my community.

Before making our way to Taksim that night we settled down in the Galata region on a pier that juts out into the Bosphorus offering live local music and a $2 fresh off the boat fish sandwich. In a cold night under a a plastic tent beside a rocking boat I had the most delicious and fresh sandwich. Picture a six inch slice of french bread topped with a grilled fillet of bluefish and an assortment of fresh vegetables. Everything it seems is cooked on a grill in Istanbul, meaning everything is delicious. If you have the chance to visit make your way here. It will be the best $2 you can spend.

One of the most popular sites in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. In the 16th century an Istanbul official was curious as to how the people near Aya Sofia where getting their water. They would drop buckets into the ground and pull up water – only the buckets would often come up with fish as well. After aBasilica Cistern from the 6th century little excavation they uncovered an underground structure capable of holding 2.8 million cubic feet of water forgotten for hundreds of years. The cistern is a roughly 500 by 200 foot structure supported by over 300 marble pillars 30 feet tall and walls 15 feet thick built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Using new pillars and older recycled pillars from yet another destroyed pagan temple, the cistern pipes in water from a river in a forest twelve miles north of the city through aqueducts. Istanbul actually has quite a few of these, though smaller, cisterns – I believe I heard over two hundred. In “From Russia with Love”, James Bond travels through the Basilica Cistern which in the movie was just under the Russian Embassy. Of course, the embassy is no where near it in reality. The cistern was beautiful and extremely unique. It is also the only part of the city that is actually quiet. Aside from the occasional dripping water or person talking, it is a cool, peaceful place. One interesting item to see is the ancient heads of Medussa at the bottom of two of the pillars. One is on its side, the other upside down. No one knows why they were used but guess the builders were just looking for a shim.

I spent most of today at two museums: the Istanbul Museum of Archeology and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. The Archeology museum was one of the most interesting museums I have ever been to. I know it seems like every place I visit in Istanbul is “one of the best”. Well, its no exaggeration. When you walk into the museum grounds there is a garden of large, early Roman, Christian, and Islamic statues, pillars, and other artifacts. If hundreds of antiques that many museums would give their teeth for are just sitting outside is any indication of the quality of the artifacts inside, then you get why I speak so highly of this 4th century BC sarcophagus place. As if further justification is needed, the current exhibit is called “8,000 Years of Istanbul History”. In what I have read about Istanbul much of the emphasis is put on the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman aspects of Turkish history. So much so that one doesn’t think about what came before. Well, there is Troy, but this is spoken of in almost a Greek sense. But even between Troy and the Roman period was Alexander the Great and his conquest of Hellenization. Before Western European Christain and Ottoman Islamic influences, Istanbul was a very Hellenized place. However, this other history did not really occur to me until I walked through the museum. There were rooms of Romanesque marble busts, statues of Alexander, regional copies of suzerainty treaties (agreements between cities or states in which each side gets a copy), ancient near eastern cuneiform tablets (ancient style of writing), and the remains of old pagan temples (the ones that got away from future developers). One interesting piece was an Egyptian sarcophagus, though not from Istanbul. There are two inscriptions written on the top. The first was in traditional hieroglyphics but the second was in a script used by the city state of Sidon, in what is now Lebanon. The two phrases basically mean an Egyptian general was buried in it until it was repurposed for the king of Sidon. What’s worse than reusing ancient building material for new structures? Reusing caskets. No thank you. As a little side point, a school was on a field trip today. The kids were super cool and very friendly. A good dozen of them were trying to teach me basic Turkish and had a lot more success than the cab driver the first day. My hat goes off to them.

After a few hours of ancient history I left for the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. This is a smaller museum but still pretty impressive. Most of the relics were from between the 10th and 18th century, On display at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Artincluding a large number of very old carpets. I wouldn’t say I was a huge carpet guy. Honestly, it has never really been my thing. What was great about this museum is that it explained the different styles and what that meant. Boards discussed the various patterns and where they come from. Each rug had a purpose and a story. The patterns used on carpets were regional and created using extremely tedious techniques from the dyeing of fabric to the actual weaving with looms. The patters were part of the community much like a regional cuisine or music. Besides the rugs the museum told a little of the history behind the symbols used by sultans, which came in handy later that day when I visited the tomb of Ahmed the Great. The courtyard also provided wonderful views of Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Not the most interesting museum but a well spent hour to say the least.

Tomorrow is my last day in Istanbul. My flight leaves for Italy at 10 pm. I plan on spending most of the day eating well and visiting Topkapi Palace. I might even hit Han Kebab for the forth time this week. This has become my favorite restaurant in town. The staff is great. I sat there for two hours talking to a few of the waiters about life, love, and the pursuit of something better over glass after glass of apple tea. The Turkish people I’ve met have been extremely friendly. Even the kid I caught trying to reach into my bag today apologized when I stared him in the eyes. :)

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