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Porto de Mos, Lagos May, 2016

Near our home in Porto de Mos, Lagos, Portugal      May, 2016

In hindsight, we should have started writing our blog in 2011.  Back when the “great epiphany” hit us that we wanted to trade in our current lives, wipe the slate clean so-to-speak and walk down a totally different road. But of course then we were much too busy!  And so it wasn’t until 2013, during a housesit in Antigua, Guatemala, where we were graced with some reliable Wi-Fi that we got serious and started to research how to even start a blog; the nuts and bolts of putting it together and what we wanted it to look like.  And that didn’t even count what bloggers call “content” – our words, our pictures, our ideas …  We checked out a couple of blogging websites and selected WordPress because it was simple.  Easy for non-experienced and new bloggers like us who had no idea what we were doing.  With some gentle hints and guiding us in the right direction we put the bones together.  We started out slowly, with no real goals and like our travels, no idea what direction we wanted to go or even an idea of where we wanted to end up…

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by Cheri Lucas Rowlands, an editor at WordPress who asked us if we’d be interested in being featured in a post she was putting together about “nomadic and free-spirited lifestyles.”  Of course, we jumped at the chance, not only because WordPress has thousands of bloggers and being invited to do this was a big deal, but we really liked being called “free spirits” at our age!:)  As if that weren’t enough, we’re in the amazing company of two other terrific blogging duos who write at Adventures in Wonderland and Paint your Landscape.  Go ahead, you know you want to check them out!

Here’s Cheri’s post with the link:

 

Three retired couples blog about their shared journeys and the joy of travel and self-discovery.

via Blogging Nomads: On Wanderlust and Shared Journeys — Discover

We hope you enjoy Cheri’s post and want to tell you how much we appreciate you all for stopping by our blog.  It’s so awesome to think of all the people we meet online, comments exchanged and virtual friends we’ve made.  Our world has grown much richer through our travels but also richer with the friends we’ve met, both online and face-to-face through fortuitous meetings.  Our sincere thanks,

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoot ‘Em Ups and Spaghetti Westerns in Tabernas, Spain: Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

We left early in the morning to make the seven-plus hour drive from Lagos, Portugal, to Mojacar, a resort city where friends were staying in Spain’s Costa del Sol region.  The toll road (the A-22) that took us along the southern coast of Portugal was smooth and sparsely populated and, after several months of driving along this stretch of road, we felt sufficiently confident to listen to an audio book while the miles passed.  As usual, we traded the time behind the wheel back and forth and, with a cooler for drinks and some snacks, we only needed to make a few, short breaks.  About five hours into the drive we passed north of Granada and were thrilled to see the Alhambra atop the hill in the distance which we had visited a few months earlier and wrote about here.  The highway began to climb and wind through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and we spied snow on many of the higher peaks although it was almost summer. Oleander, with pink and white flowers, and bushes with brilliant yellow blossoms filled the median of the highway with vibrant color for miles.  Evidently this was a major freight route because we passed uncountable numbers of long haul tractor-trailers (we’re not sure who drawled, “We’ve got us a convoy” from the old song which cracked us up) laboring their way up the slopes and braking on the downside.

Presently, we left the highway for a two-lane road; the land became more arid and the small olive groves and vineyards that we could see from the road thinned out.  We passed through little villages and wondered out loud why people had chosen to live in such an inhospitable country.  And then, like tech-dependent travelers everywhere, we checked our GPS and finally (a throw-back to our generation) we pulled out our road map of Spain as well to check our whereabouts.

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape (see the cemetery?)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape

And there we were – right in the middle of the Desierto de Tabernas, surrounded by landscape that looked strangely familiar, like something out of an old, western movie: dusty, dry with low-lying scrub brush, ravines, plateaus and mesas.  In fact, the Tabernas Desert is located in Europe’s driest province, Almeria, where rainfall averages around 6 to 7 inches annually and has the distinction of being the “continent’s only true desert climate.” Evidently, we weren’t the only ones who thought of America’s southwest and old western movies as we gazed at the passing scenery because a few miles down the road we spotted a huge, honest-to-God billboard for “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.” Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Here’s the landscape made famous by many of the old “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term widely used to describe the international films, most of which were directed by Italians and included multilingual crews and casts from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the US. In fact, between 1960 and 1980, over 600 European Westerns were made.  Sergio Leone, an Italian who shot many of his movies in the Tabernas area, was the genre’s best known director and his wildly popular film-making style in the sixties made his movies international box office hits.  We’d seen the three movies known as the “Man with No Name” or “Dollars Trilogy” with the up and coming star, Clint Eastwood, which included one of our all-time favorites, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No wonder we had a feeling of déjà vu!Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas - Spain - photo by No Particular Place To To

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To GoThe sets built for many of the old spaghetti westerns were acquired by a stuntman-turned-entrepreneur, Rafa Molina, in 1977 and have been turned into a nostalgic western-style theme park called “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.”   At the entrance gate we handed over the not-so-insubstantial fee of 35€ which included a senior discount.  A few steps took us back in time – a hundred years and more – and place – the American wild west – as we strolled through dusty streets exploring movie sets, ready and waiting for their next role as backdrops in an old west or southwestern epic.  Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Boomers like us will remember the golden age of westerns, the weekly television shows like Rawhide, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. We spent many weekend nights at the movie theater where we could watch handsome men with watchful eyes and murky pasts pursue outlaws who had committed dastardly deeds, protect wagon trains of settlers moving west from marauders and chase after dreams of gold.  Cowboys built ranches, sheriffs delivered law and order by gun or by rope and merchants turned obscure outposts into bustling towns.  These were places where justice was pursued by a fast-draw hero with a dead-on aim, the bad men were easily identifiable by their black hats and “shifty eyes” and anyone foreign was either naïve or downright suspect.  Women knew their places, too: they kept their virtue unsullied and their mouths shut, looked slightly disheveled but alluring and listened to their men.  A feisty woman who questioned the way things were done always had questionable morals.  Stereotypes abounded and, now that we think about it, while westerns were lots of fun in their heyday, sometimes it might just be better to move on …

By Anita Oliver and Richard NashFort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, Spain Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Note:  We’ve only talked about the spaghetti westerns here but the Tabernas Desert and the surrounding area of the Almeria Province have served as the backdrops for over 400 movies of many genres including Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and are even seen in the 6th season of Game of Thrones.  Here’s a link with a little more background:  http://www.unique-almeria.com/movie-filming-locations.html 

To the Manor Born: The Parque da Mina

We spend a lot of our time as travelers imagining.  Imagining what it might be like to live as a modern day Bedouin in Jordan, a Berber in Morocco, a farmer or fisherman eking out a living in Nicaragua, Vietnam or Russia.  We have no problems at all imagining where we would go if money were no object or the style in which we would travel.  And, since we both have a passion for history, we imagine what it would have been like to live at the height of the Mayan or Incan civilizations, travel along the Silk Road or learn about wondrous new places during the time when the New World was being mapped in the Age of Discovery.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of castles and fortresses that are located in Portugal and ruins dating all the way back to the Romans and even earlier. So it’s easy to for us to close our eyes and imagine the lives of the nobility and history’s “social influencers” – what it would be like to stride our way through one of the great halls, feast at a grand banquet in one of the dining halls or sleep in one of the bed chambers of these vast estates.  It is, however, harder to frame a picture of the day-to-day lives of the common folk who tended the sheep, brought in the crops or sold their wares at the markets.  And there’s surprisingly little written on the lifestyles of those wealthy merchants or the “middle class” of Portugal just a few centuries ago.Parque de Mina

Our chance to find out more about how the common folk and upper-middle class lived came when we took a detour on a recent day trip to Monchique, located in the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique of the Western Algarve.   A winding mountain road took us through forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees, past small farms and the occasional groupings of homes.  A sign for Parque da Mina at the edge of the road invited us to take a right-hand turn and piqued our curiosity so we turned and followed the paved road a few meters to a small parking lot. Upon further reading of another sign we found the tempting promise that we could travel back in time and see how one, land-owning family lived in this area of Portugal.  We ponied up the price of 10€ each (which seemed a bit high but goes towards maintaining the property) and set off down the path as it began to lightly rain, towards the family home turned museum and a glimpse of how life was lived many years ago.

Parque de Mina

Our first sight of the 18th century home made it very clear that this was a property lovingly and carefully maintained.  In typical Portuguese fashion, the home has been passed down by the original family through the generations and the current guardians of the estate have generously shared their family history and opened the home as a living museum to the public. And what a treasure!  We were welcomed at the door by a smiling woman who gave us an informative tour through the old home that was packed full of practical artifacts used in daily life, some extensive and eclectic collections that reflected the family’s interests and some more modern curiosities like the old Victrola we found in one room. Parque de Mina - 18th century Portuguese farmhouse

The tour began with the heart of the house, the kitchen, furnished with a lovely old table and chairs, earthen bowls and a collection of plates decorating the whitewashed walls. Here the meals would have been prepared by those in the employ of the family and the large fireplace in the background serves as the focal point.  Look closely and you can see the keepers-of-the-hearth sitting and enjoying a bit of a rest. Parque de Mina, near Monchique, PortugalNext was the dining room with a rich Oriental rug and intricately carved furniture.  (A maid stands ready to serve some traditional Portuguese dishes.)  Parque de Mina

We passed by the sitting room where the family may have sipped some tea and learned of the news of the day from (what seemed to us to be so quaint mixed in with the formal antiques) a vintage radio perched upon the side table. The bedrooms were tastefully decorated and, since Portugal is a traditional Catholic country, the saints protected and watched over the family while they slumbered.Parque de Mina

 

Parque de Mina,

And then came our favorite room, obviously where the family must have spent their time together playing music and maybe cards, listening to the Victrola, reading and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  Here was their collection of musical instruments and, a sure sign of how times have changed, several species taxidermied and displayed.  A large sea turtle shell stood upon the floor next to the backbone of some huge, unknown mammal.  Viewed by today’s cultural norms the display might be a bit macabre but the home would have reflected the tastes of a well-traveled and sophisticated family who enjoyed and celebrated a good life. Parque de Mina

 

Parque de MinaHere and there were nooks with a favorite collection of the patriarch’s pipes, displays of fine china and a whole little room devoted to an enormous assortment of finely carved and embellished, antique wall and table clocks. We peeked into a room where the sewing machines and flat irons stood at the ready and learned that all families of means employed their own personal seamstresses.Parque de Mina - sewing room

Passing by the office we noticed a colorful painting that, upon closer inspection turned out to be a grisly little scene of hunting dogs bringing down a wild boar and the master with his knife at the ready, lunging in for the kill. A bit removed from the more genteel side of life but another glimpse into times past and the country life of long ago.  Parque de MinaThe last part of the tour took us down a winding staircase to the immense cellar with doors giving access to the courtyard and grounds which, again, had several informal exhibits showcasing the different industries that would have been necessary to support the household. As one of the wealthiest and largest properties in the Monchique region, Parque da Mina had agricultural fields, forests and a working mine that produced iron-ore and copper.

Parque de Mina

The old trades of the region were showcased in several displays of many fine, old agricultural tools and machines whose uses we couldn’t begin to guess at.Parque de Mina

In one corner an animatronic wine maker greeted us in Portuguese and we admired the nearby wine making apparatus and learned about the local liqueur, medronho, made from the fermented berries of the arbutus tree which grows on the property. Parque de Mina

And, in a country where wine flows as abundantly as water, we saw many old barrels and casks used to store vintages of years gone by, some marked branco (white) and tinto (red).Parque de Mina

One of our favorite displays was of a general store and its contents that dated (our best guess only) from the 19th and 20th century.Parque de Mina

And finally, despite the threat of more rain showers we ventured outside to explore some of the outdoor exhibits and especially liked the old vintage vehicles scattered about the grounds.Parque de Mina

 

IMG_7734 (800x477)

Sometimes it’s more fun to take a detour to explore a place you’ve never heard of rather than stick to the original plan and, for us, this turned out to be one of those times.  It’s rare to see a historic home so meticulously maintained and to find so many authentic and vintage collections displayed in each room. We arrived at our original destination, Monchique, a few hours later than we had planned but very pleased to have taken a trip on the “Way Back” machine and imagine what it might have been like to live in this rural area of Portugal long ago.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Put a Cork in it – The Cork Trees of Portugal

Homemade Liqueurs - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netEver think about where that cork came from that you just pulled (maybe in pieces) from your wine bottle?  If you’re like us, the answer would be a resounding “Never” and maybe a suggestion to “Get a life.”  Sometimes an item that we see daily, handle and casually toss away when we’re through with it takes on a whole new significance when we learn more about it.  Until we moved to the Algarve Region of Portugal, all we knew about cork was that it was handy to pin notes on, provided a cushioning footbed in our favorite sandals, served as a convenient little coaster to prevent those unsightly rings on our table and lent a festive “Pop!” when pulled from a bottle of quality champagne.  However, in the souvenir shops and vendor stalls found in Lagos and other towns up and down the coast of Portugal, cork products are a big business and you might wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Our curiosity was piqued and, when we mentioned our newly found interest in cork (who would have thought?) a friend of ours told us about a tour given by the family owned company, Novacortiça Cork Factory.  We booked a visit online and set off one morning on a pleasant one-hour drive to nearby São Brás de Alportel, a village in the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains, regarded by those in the know as one of the best regions of cork in the world.  It wasn’t hard to find the place (and yeah, there was a big sign too!) as there were huge piles of tree bark, almost all neatly stacked and baled in the front and along the sides of the building.  And the smell?  A bit hard to describe but an aromatic combination of sweet and earthy that took us back several years to stacking freshly cut wood for our fireplace.  Only better.

harvested cork

harvested cork

It all starts with Portugal’s national tree, protected by a strict law that makes it illegal to cut down any cork tree in Portugal without permission from the government.  It takes twenty-five years for the cork oak to grow large enough for the first stripping of the bark in the hot summer months by a highly skilled cutter, a tirador, who peels away door-sized cuttings using a specifically purposed hand-axe.  The virgin cork has an irregular structure and is very rough and brittle, hence its main use is as wall and flooring insulation.  The second cutting, after a period of 9 years or more, in which the outer bark regenerates, yields a denser bark but it isn’t until the third cutting, that occurs any time after the tree is 43 years old, that a high quality cork, compressed and pliable and suitable for wine stoppers, is finally harvested.  Which makes the Portuguese saying, “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren” easy to understand.  And, since the trees can live up to 250 years old and yield a harvest every nine years (the year of the stripping is painted on the bark) they can be a valuable heritage for many future generations.

Cork oak before stripping

Cork oak before stripping

cork oak after stripping

cork oak after stripping

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

We sat through a well-presented lecture about how cork is processed and wine stoppers are made before our tour of the plant and asked so many questions that the German couple next to us started giving us dirty looks that perfectly conveyed the meaning, “Let’s get a move-on, you nerds!” as well as “Get a life.”  Once the actual tour started we still asked questions but tried not to embarrass ourselves further while we racked up “most fascinated tourist” points with our guide.

There are several steps that go into making the heretofore underappreciated wine stopper:

  • The pieces of harvested cork are boiled to remove dirt and insects which also softens it and makes it easier to work with.
  • The rough outer layer of bark is removed by hand.
trimming the cork

trimming the cork

  • The planks are sorted by quality and thickness and cut into pieces that make them easier to work with.
Squeezing water from cleaned cork

Squeezing water from cleaned cork

  • Whole bottle stoppers or the discs that comprise the “technical corks” can be hand or machine punched .
  • The majority of Novacortica Cork Factory’s end product are the discs for the more economical “technical corks” or “one-plus-one corks.”  A cylinder of agglomerate cork comprises the center of the bottle stopper with a disc of natural cork at each end.  The disc portion of the cork is what comes into contact with the wine so that the taste is not tainted.
cork discs - Novacortica

cork discs – Novacortica

The beauty of any product made with cork is that there is no waste.  Any cork scrap can be ground up, molded into large blocks or pressed into sheets to make fabrics and upholstery, handbags, shoes, hats, flooring, fishing floats and even surfboards.  It can be textured, dyed and burned.  It’s completely natural, completely renewable and completely recyclable.

We can honestly say we’ll never look at a “cork” the same way again!

A few factoids:

  • Cork stoppers for different qualities of wine range from 5 cents to 3 euros (about $3.36) for the finest of champagnes.
A variety of corks for different libations-Novacortica

A variety of corks for different libations

  • Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork.  Cork oaks also grow in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
  • Cork has a honeycomb cell structure which gives it remarkable insulating properties.  It’s flexible, compressible and elastic as well as lightweight, impermeable, durable and hypoallergenic.
  • The cork oak forests have been called “Europe’s Amazon forests” and are amazingly biodiverse regions that conserve water and soil as well as provide wildlife habitat.  Cork oak trees store carbon (and reduce greenhouse gases) in order to regenerate their bark.
  •  And lastly, here’s a link about Wine Corks that has even more fascinating information.  Thanks Dyanne at TravelnLass.com for sharing the heads-up with us!

By Anita and Richard

cork upholstered couch - Novacortica

cork upholstered couch – Novacortica

Quality handbags - high cork products

Quality handbags – high end cork products

 

 

Grottoes and Golden Arches – Ponta da Piedade

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, PortugalFor longtime followers of our blog it should come as no surprise that we have a passion for travel and love delving into guide books, checking out Skyscanner for good deals while dreaming of exotic places and reading our favorite travel blogs for the thrill of a virtual armchair travel experience.  And even though we’d done a lot of reading about things to do and see in our own adopted town of Lagos, Portugal, it was quite by accident earlier this year that we happened upon what has become our favorite place here while driving around, following the different roads here and there.  A two-lane road led us west of the historical old town a couple of kilometers, skirting Lagos Bay along the coast and ending in an almost deserted parking lot with a small restaurant (closed for the winter) and a souvenir shop with a few offerings. The wind gusted across the promontory as we set off on a short path towards the yellow lighthouse (circa 1912) topped with a red lantern.  A sign told us that we had arrived at Ponta da Piedade which translates forlornly, for some long-lost reason that we couldn’t find, into “Point of Pity.”Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Probably the most astonishing thing for us as US expats, coming from a land where everything carries a warning of imminent danger, was the fact that only a tourist sign stood at the edge of the sixty-plus foot cliffs which stretched in both directions as far as we could see. Effectively, our safety was solely in our hands. Should we wander too close to the edge of these sedimentary rock faces, feel the earth crumble from under our feet and hurtle to our deaths, well, so be it.  And perhaps that’s the meaning of the name “Point of Pity.” 

Ponta da Piedade

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

We followed the path alongside the cliffs for a bit, clutching our coats around us against the fierce winds, gazing at the dizzying views and watching the waves hurl themselves against the cliffs.  The chill chased us back to the stairs, all 182 of them, that wind down to the bottom of one of the most amazing natural monuments we’ve ever seen where the physical world has played its starring role as a sculptor for thousands of years.  Staring down and around and lastly up, as we descended, we kept saying “Wow” in hushed amazement and wonder at the fantastical setting of golden-hued arches, pillars and tunnels, grottoes and other huge, surreal rock formations in pyramidal shapes.  The waters’ shades varied from deep blues to turquoise and, with the gray sky and scudding clouds creating a backdrop, rivaled any cathedral we’ve seen.Pontas de Piedad Grotto boat trip

Since our initial visit we’ve made many return trips by ourselves when we’ve needed to add a bit of wonder to our lives.  We’ve also made it a point to include Ponta da Piedade as a highlight whenever we get a chance to play tour guides to old and new friends – a spoiler alert for those of you coming to visit us this summer!  But, despite several on land visits, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that we actually took one of the numerous boat tours available with friends visiting from Nicaragua and saw what Huffpost calls “The most beautiful shoreline on earth” from another perspective.

Pontas de Piedade - Grotto boat trip

 

Ponta da Piedade -Grotto boat trip

 

Pntas da Piedad grotto boat trip

Since we stumbled upon the Ponta da Piedade on a winter day we’ve learned that many regard it as one the most magnificent features along the Algarve coastline and we can enthusiastically add our opinion to this thought.  And it’s yet another reason to add to our growing ode of “Things we love about Portugal” and why Lagos could well be the perfect place for us.

Note:  Boat trips are available from numerous companies in booths and tents that can be found along the walkways near the Lagos Marina.  We booked our two-hour trip with Dolphin Seafaris and the cost (low season) was 12.5 € per person.  Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are also available for rent.

Seafaris Grotto boat tour

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

Once Was Enough: A Visit to Marrakesh

In the Medina-The PlazaWe took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. We gazed out the windows at the dusty, brown landscape, piles of trash here and there and shabby towns passing by and we talked about a song from the late sixties, Marrakesh Express, sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  For us, the city symbolized some of the spirit of the sixties and seventies, attracting rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, celebrities and the wealthy from all over the world as well as the young and adventurous.  The city sings its siren song to travelers like us, older with many experiences behind us but still eager to explore its souks, gardens, ancient streets and history.In the streets

We climbed into a taxi and set off for our lodgings located within the Medina of Marrakesh, the older, walled portion of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Fez and Casablanca, the streets were teeming with people in western and traditional dress sharing the thoroughfares with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, mules, horses and carts.  Here and there we spied some of the many scruffy cats that slink about the streets, lingering occasionally to enjoy a bit of sun.  Our attention was drawn to two mules, hitched together alongside the road and a man beating one frantically with a stick who had his teeth sunk into the neck of the other.  And then, in an unexpectedly shocking act of violence the man picked up a large rock and hit the offending mule savagely in the head.  Shaken and a bit sickened by what we’d seen we continued on, our anticipatory moods subdued by the event.Dar NaJat

For our living arrangements we had selected the Dar Najat, a traditional hotel, featured on Trip Advisor.  A dar is similar to a riad in that it is a three to four-story residence organized around a central courtyard but it lacks the interior garden and fountain. Our host, an energetic and dreadlocked young man with a wide, welcoming smile showed us to our small but clean room with rock hard beds and vividly colored bedspreads and pillows. The vibe was most definitely young and hip (in fact, we got the feeling that a joint or chunk of hash could be ours for the asking) but we felt comfortable and joined the few other travelers on the roof top dining and lounging area.  During our stay, we started each morning with a vast assortment of Moroccan pastries, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and bitter, strong coffee to fuel our adventures.In the streets - Medina wall

Today, Marrakesh is a huge draw for tourists all over the world and consists of its old city, the Medina, fortified by the (not so) red sandstone wall which gave it the nickname, “The Red City” and is surrounded by modern neighborhoods.  However, it should be kept in mind that it is one of the world’s most important trading centers, stretching from antiquity to the present day drawing merchants and buyers from the Maghreb (all of North Africa west of Egypt), Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Europe. One of Morocco’s four former imperial cities built by the Berber empire, its history stretches back over a thousand years to its founding in 1017; a city that has survived feasts and famines, plagues, anarchy, the plotting of feudal lords, military coups and political intrigues.in the Medina

We spent a couple of memorable days in the company of our driver, Taoufiq, who showed up our first morning at Dar Najat promptly at 9 to collect us and walk us the short distance from the Medina to the square where his van was parked. His older brother Daoud, an erudite and well-spoken gentleman, accompanied us and shared the history of this fascinating city.  The following are some of our favorites:

  • The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.  An interior courtyard let in the day’s weak sunlight and featured intricately carved stucco walls, marble floors and ancient, hand-worked cedar trim enclosed by a warren of dormitories.  It was fascinating to imagine the lives of its male inhabitants, as many as 900 at a time, who studied in its environs over the years.  The madrasa closed its doors in 1960, underwent extensive refurbishment and was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.Medraza de Ben Youssef
  • The El Bahia Palace, first begun in the 1860’s, was completed a couple of decades later by a former slave who rose to wealth and power, Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought hundreds of craftsmen in from Fez to lavishly embellish it.  Intended to be the greatest palace of its time, Ahmed Ibn Moussa lived there until his death in 1900 with his four wives and an entourage of twenty-four official concubines as well as the multitude of children who accompanied them.  With 160 rooms of reception halls, private quarters, interior courtyards with fountains and the two acres of gardens surrounding the palace, the place is a mouth-dropping delight of carved stucco panels, zelig tiles, arched doorways, carved cedar and painted ceilings.Palais BahiaPalais Bahia
  • The twelve-acre botanical garden, Jardin Majorelle, was designed by the French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947.  In 1980 the garden was bought by Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there after his death in 2008) and his partner, Pierre Bergé, who continued the efforts to preserve the garden and share the artist’s vision with the public.  Bird song and the play of water trickling from fountains accompanied us on our walk and voices were hushed, much like being in a church.  An astonishing variety of cacti, some fifteen to twenty feet high, are included among the three-hundred plant species from five continents. The buildings on the grounds are painted a bright blue that is named after the artist, bleu Majorelle.Jardin MajorelleJardin Majorelle
  • We’d missed seeing a working tannery during our time in Fez so a visit to the Tannery District was high on our list, a chance to see how leather has been processed for well over a thousand years.  Our guide, Dauoud presented each of us with a large clump of mint and told us to breathe through the leaves while we were there.  The noxious stench was visceral.  The animal skins are brought by mule or donkey from the slaughterhouse and then piled high awaiting their turn.  Men worked in and near vats filled with various mixtures of diluted cow urine or pigeon feces (ammonia cleans the hide of remaining fat, flesh and hair) and the hides are spread out to dry.  A ghastly pile of scrapped-off animal hair stood to one side.  Then the hides are immersed in other vats filled with natural vegetable dyes (indigo, henna, poppy, cedar wood, etc.) and at some stage the men knead the skins with their bare feet to soften them further.  The process was fascinating to watch but we definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with vegetarian preferences.tannery
  • We’re not shoppers by anyone’s definition but a stroll (if you can tolerate the aggressive vendors who surround you whenever you pause to examine an item) through the Souks of Marrakesh are an integral part of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the city.  Here it seems like everything you can imagine is for sale from slippers to jewelry, medicinal herbals to geodes, leather goods to carpets.In the medinaIn the medina
  • Lastly, the heart of Marrakesh, the Jemaâ El Fna (historically used for public beheading by rulers seeking control) is the center of Marrakesh’s activity, tourism and trade.  We’d thread our way through the narrow streets of the medina and throngs of people at the end of each day to sit on the second-floor balcony of one of many restaurants overlooking the huge square and meeting place of the Medina. We could easily have been transported back centuries as we ate lamb, chicken and sausage dishes along with the ever-present hovis, round unleavened bread, washed down with a-ti’, sweetened mint tea. Below, unfolded a tapestry of musicians, dancers, snake-charmers, henna artisans, food vendors, alms seekers, magicians, acrobats and hucksters out hustling the masses that flowed through and around the square striving to make a living.  Wandering through the surging throng seeing what was to be seen took fortitude to ward off the persistent vendors who weren’t turned away with a polite headshake or firm “No.” It soon became apparent that when one’s camera was raised what quickly followed was a hand insisting on a small remuneration for the privilege. It seemed that everywhere we turned there was a demanding hand or a wheedling voice trying to sell us something and it didn’t take long before we’d decide to forego the fascinating scenes playing out before us and tire of the intimidation and harassment of the vendors and flee.In the medinaIn the Medina-The Plazain the medina plaza

In 2015 Marrakesh was named by Trip Advisor as its most popular travel destination in the world.  That fact alone should have served as a warning to avoid the city…  While we enjoyed much of our time there we found that we were also uncomfortable many times with the repeated demands for money and pestering to sell us goods in which we had no interest.  At the end of our third day in Marrakesh a full moon hung low in the sky and we boarded a night train heading back to Tangier and home to Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

 

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

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