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

 

 

 

It’s All Relative: Old and “New” Fes, Morocco

narrow passages in Medina-UNESCO WHSWe arrived at Ryad Alya in the old Medina of Fès long after the sun had set, following a couple of young men who “offered” to show us the way to our hotel down the dimly lit and narrow lane and piled our small suitcases in a hand cart.  After tipping them and then upping the tip a bit more when they made the face that we became very familiar with during our time in Morocco – basically a grimace conveying the meaning that we were stingy foreigners who had shown disrespect for those who had labored diligently to meet our every need, whether requested or not – we finally escaped into the opening door of our hotel and into another world.

Hassnae, an attractive young woman dressed in skinny jeans like any university student in her 20’s, welcomed us into the riad, a traditional Moroccan house of three stories built around a courtyard.  Furnished with linen-draped dining tables, the large space had a comfortable feel with couches here and there along the walls for enjoying both the bubbling fountain and a garden with orange trees.lute player in Ryad Ayala

An elegantly dressed gentleman in a suit and polished black shoes was seated unobtrusively in a corner, plucking at the strings of a lute producing a soulful melody for the only couple dining.  Hassnae seated us in a lounge off to the side of the courtyard and served us little cups of mint tea, heavily sugared and pretty cookies that, since it had been awhile since our last meal on the road, we wiped out without much ceremony. lounge-Ryad Alya

She then showed us to our room, thankfully equipped with its own heater as the rooms around the garden were all open and it was cold.  Finally, we were able to shed our fleece vests, scarves and coats which we’d worn during our day of travel from Tavira, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and then to Fès. The beds were rock hard and weighted down with heavy blankets that kept us pinned beneath them but we had no complaints.  Actually, despite the late night sugar, we slept like we’d been heavily drugged.Ryad Alya

A tour of the riad the next morning, led by another friendly and pretty staff member named Shaimae, filled us in on the details of the paradise in which we’d found ourselves. Riads, once the fine homes of a city’s wealthiest citizens, lack windows on the exterior walls.  The architectural style is what Wikipedia calls an “inward focus” and opens onto the interior courtyard which provides the family complete privacy from the outside world.  Our riad, Ryad Alya, was originally built in (no typo!)1363.

Riad Ayla

The current owner whom we met that evening, Kholid Filoli, was an articulate, well-traveled Moroccan who spoke glowingly in English of his visits to the US.  He’d bought the riad in 2003 for his wife, an accomplished painter and his daughter, an architect living in Geneva.  The ancient house was renovated by skilled workers who spent three years returning the home to its current glory and converted it into a hotel with five beautifully furnished suites and three less expensive, but no less comfortable, rooms with their own private baths. The walls were embellished with designs in the carved plaster and zellige tilework, “a form of Islamic art” that features geometrically patterned mosaics.

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

During our stay in this Moroccan oasis the staff introduced us to many traditional three and four-course meals of unfamiliar and delicious foods, including our first taste of fava beans.  This had (one) of us cracking up intoning Hannibal Lector’s famous line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” UNESCO WHS-old city walls - Medina

We’d decided to explore the Medina on our own the first day and we set off with maps in hand.  The Medina of Fès was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and is said to be the best preserved old city in the Arab world.  Covering 540 acres, it’s also the world’s largest car-free urban zone and goods are brought in by donkeys, mules and hand carts. Called “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa,” this ancient walled city is actually divided into two medinas, the Fès El Bali or Old Fès dating back to the 9th Century and the “new” part, Fès Jdid, which dates to the 15th Century.  In this area that surrounded us with its sense of ancient history and present activity are great open spaces of gardens with sparkling fountains and avenues.

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

These skirt narrow streets funneling foot and animal-drawn traffic into lanes and crooked paths where it feels like a great crowd of humanity is pressed around you, engaged in the business of daily living.  Surrounded by walls, the Medina’s space has remained the same for centuries as the number of its inhabitants has increased exponentially resulting in overcrowding – probably not the best experience for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.  The passageways wind around in a labyrinth with age-old buildings of three and four stories abutting them and as the streets twist the sunlight overhead is partially blocked. building details in Medina

Behind the walls of these ancient buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair and ongoing attempts at restoration, are other warrens of buildings built around interior courtyards where thousands of people preserve customs and traditions passed down through the millennia.  In contrast to other parts of the world, Jews and Arabs have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years; there’s an old Jewish quarter occupied by a dwindling population as well as the Ibn Danan Synagogue dating from the 17th century. Throughout the Medina are schools for secular learning and madrasas where the religion of Islam is taught.  Groups of children passed by us greeting us in Morocco’s unofficial first language, French, with “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur,” the boys in street clothes and the girls uniformed in white coats resembling lab jackets worn over their street clothes.

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

Open shops on the ground floors offer anything a shopper could want: leather goods, jewelry, dried fruit and herbs, ceramics and metalware, every day and finely embroidered clothing for special occasions.  There are bakeries where families bring their bread daily to bake in communal ovens and butcher shops with fish displayed on ice next to pharmacies, barber shops, small cafes and restaurants.  Lining several of the twisting lanes were other vendors conducting an informal farmers’ market with brightly colored fruits and vegetables piled on makeshift tables.  Heavily laden donkeys and mules led by men in peaked hooded djellabas passed by and there were women completely veiled as well as those wearing robes and headscarves along with many younger women in western style clothing.   street market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

We were completely lost and completely caught up in the full sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes of different foods that we tried here and there.  We gave up on trying to figure out where we were on the map and wandered for a few hours trying to absorb the completely exotic, chaotic and alien world.  And finally, after brushing off multiple offers from the unofficial guides that appeared here and there with offers to show us selected sights and shops with “special” bargains, we struck up a conversation and agreed on a payment with a young man who pointed out places of interest as he helped us find our way back to Ryad Ayla for some much needed tranquility.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next post: Sights to see in Fes, MoroccoJewish Quarter-women in djellaba

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: A Sausage Festival In Querenca

Querenca, with a population of less than 800 residents, is not a place that you’d stumble upon – you have to look for it.  Located in the central interior of Portugal’s Algarve region it’s at the end of a steep and winding road that makes you suspect you’re going nowhere but still feel curious to find out where nowhere might be located.  The drive itself is worth a trip to Querenca to see clichéd but oh-so-lush, green pastures with grazing sheep and pink flowering almond trees. One of the high points of our drive to the middle of nowhere was when we came upon a house between a hill and a creek which sat adjacent to the highway.  The home obviously pre-dated the two-lane, macadam roadway and the Portuguese manner of handling this engineering conundrum spoke to their national ethos. Rather than defacing the existing structure in any manner, there was a sign placed by the side of the road indicating that the thoroughfare was one lane for the next 40 meters or so to allow the driver to maneuver around the house.  And then the road reverted to a two-way.  A simple solution that causes no great inconvenience to those who drive along this road less traveled. village plaza

So what were we doing parking our car mid-morning on a dusty square under the watchful eyes of two frowning women who apparently wanted us to move our car a couple of centimeters closer to an invisible line?  We smiled and accommodated their request – everyone was happy.  And then we followed a small group of people up a hill that opened into a large plaza lined with a few restaurants and other businesses and dominated by a beautiful church dating back to the 16th century for …Smoke

The Festa das Chouricas.  From the moment we’d heard about The Festival of Sausages in Querenca we knew this event had our names all over it.  Besides the prospect of stuffing our faces with the local chourica (a smoked sausage made of pork shoulder and spiced with paprika, lots of garlic, black pepper and salt and blessed with an offering of red Portuguese wine) we planned to sample some of the many tasty foods and libations for sale: olives, breads, nuts, various pastries, glittering bottles of liqueurs and wines.A chef

An annual tradition, the festival is held in honor of São Luís, the patron saint who protects the health and welfare of animals. In times past, the families of inland Algarve raised a pig to sustain themselves through the year and asked São Luís to safeguard it.  To thank the Saint, they offered their best homemade sausages and today the festival also raises money for local charities.  The festival draws an estimated crowd of at least a thousand visitors from many places around the region and the fund-raising looks to be a huge success.

Olives and beans

 

Burning stuff

 

the happy bakerWe walked around inhaling the perfume of chicken and sausage dripping fat upon the grill, admiring the local crafts on exhibit, drooling over the pastries and buying almonds and olives and handwoven baskets. The scent of grilled sausage became irresistible. Everywhere smoke hung in the air.  We stood in line and paid 7.50€ for a monster sausage on a crusty (made you feel glad to have your own teeth!) freshly baked roll that fed two.  sausage sandwich

We stood in line to sample the quiche and share a huge piece of sweet fried bread dusted with sugar among us and our friends.  We chatted with other guests and vendors while the wind swirled billowing clouds of aromatic charcoal smoke from the grills around us.  And we people watched: vendors smiling and bargaining with guests, people enjoying the food and sunny afternoon, children laughing, a fashionista in bright red, 4-inch heels teetering carefully on the old cobblestoned walks.  A lazy, golden-haired dog lay on the pathway with eyes closed and tail thumping while the crowd carefully walked around him. We reckoned the smoke infused lungs and clothes were indeed worth it as we both agreed that the Querenca sausage and the local gastronomy were scrumptious.sausages

 

Olives, figs and almonds

 

smiling vendorIn the mid-afternoon people began to cluster in small groups in front of the picturesque church and before long a man carrying a banner emerged followed by the gold crowned statue of São Luís smiling benignly, carried upon a flower bedecked platform by men in short robes.  A small group of the faithful trailed behind the hoisted saint while we visitors clicked cameras and watched as they paraded at a slow, measured pace around the church.  The procession ended up back at the church doorway and then São Luís was tucked inside the church for another year.the procession

 

AndusThe afternoon was fading and even though musical performances, singing and dancing and fireworks were promised we decided not to brave the winding roads after dark and to make our way home.  We left the smoke and the quaint hamlet of Querenca behind.  But, in the back of our minds lingered the thought that Querenca’s Sausage Festival is only the first of many sausage festivals throughout the year in Portugal.  There were more good times and good eating ahead!

Comida

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

The Postman Rang Twice: The Portuguese Side of a Resident Visa

It’s a strange adjustment to go from three years of nomadic living without a fixed physical address, no utility bills and long and short version answers to the question “Where do you live?” to being tethered once again with a lease agreement, an address and a postal box which receives our utility bills and occasional bank correspondence.  We managed to live virtually paperless for three years since we had to carry everything we owned and now we have folders neatly organizing the papers that tie us to an address once again.

We wrote here Setting Up House in Portugal about the small frustrations of settling into our apartment and the strange acronyms NIF, our fiscal numbers which establish our financial existence in Portugal, and NIB, which shows that we have a bank account. Carrying these acronyms on their separate pieces of paper allowed us to get connected at one of the local businesses, MEO, for phone, cable TV and internet.  And we were really on a roll when we rented a car to take us to new and fascinating places.

Next up on the tasks of settling in came our mission of changing the utilities from the landlord’s name to ours.  Fortunately, we weren’t pressed for time as finding the appropriate buildings was somewhat equivalent to the mythical snipe hunt.  It was difficult to program into the GPS directions we had for the city water company, Camara Municipal, which were, “It’s a big white building on the second roundabout on the way to Pingo Doce (a grocery store), across the road from the burned out building …”  When we finally found the building which, despite its size blended into the background due to its totally bland exterior and that we’d passed by almost every day, we almost high-fived each other.  Upon setting up our water account we asked the English-speaking clerk where we could find the electric company, EDP, and she pointed us in the correct direction.  Another place we wouldn’t have found on the GPS as there was a small space back in the corner of the Miele appliance store where two lecterns with accompanying paper shufflers stood: one for receiving payments due and the second for new accounts. Success again and we were on our last and final leg, Rolegas. The next day, energized by how relatively easy our changing our accounts had been so far we set off in search of the gas company following nebulous directions which read simply, “About six kilometers out of Lagos.”  Having googled the address we had a hazy idea of which way we needed to drive and a picture of what the building looked like.  We sailed by the building three times before we finally saw it using the roundabouts to change direction, missed the entry lane, retraced our route, finally arrived and carried out our business.

Since we’ve lived here we’ve learned to bring all of our folders because we never know what paper might need to be produced.  Each utility company needed our NIB and NIF numbers, our lease agreement and phone number, pictures of the corresponding meter (which we had stored on a tablet), passport information and a previous bill from the owner.  And, except for Rolegas where we ended up with a translator over the phone, everyone we dealt with spoke English and was polite, friendly and bent over backwards to make sure we got signed up with a smile.  Finally, all was done – until and when we decide to find a more suitable apartment and have to redo the whole process!4 month residency visa

4 month residency visaWe’d arrived in Portugal in November with our freshly stamped “long term” visas, good for a period of four months and due to expire in February of 2016.  We wrote about the documents that we’d gathered in the US to procure the initial visas that would set us on our path toward a Portuguese residency in this post, The Great Document Roundup: Starting the Portugal Residency Process. Now we needed to start gathering the documents we’d need to extend the initial temporary Residence Permit on the Portuguese side.  We checked the internet for a list what US citizens needed for this second step but once again we found the information to be inconsistent with what our attorney, Duarte was telling us.  Since it’s simply easier to go with the flow we put our trusting selves into Duarte’s hands.

First off was making the actual appointment with the Servico de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF) aka the Foreigners and Borders Service or immigration, a police service responsible for border control and the issuance of residence permits to foreign nationals legally residing in Portugal.  Since we live in Lagos our appointment with the SEF was in nearby Portimão and we scheduled our appointment about 30 days before our visa expired in case there were any glitches that needed to be resolved.outside of the SEF

We gathered the following documents to bring with us:

  • Passports with our current resident visa
  • Three-months of our most recent bank statements for an account that is in both our names
  • Rental lease agreement
  • The document with our NIF (fiscal) number
  • Proof of health insurance
  • Statement from the Centro Regional de Seguranca Social de Algarve This is Portugal’s version of Social Security, Social Services and Unemployment Insurance in the Algarve Region. Finding this office was another snipe hunt story where it was near the bus stop and behind the Maritime police station, etc.  Basically this document shows that we are not relying on income from the Portuguese government nor are we employed.  We presented our NIF number, our passports for identification and the employee gave us each a signed statement that said a record search showed we weren’t in their data bank.

We also brought a copy of our marriage certificate and 2 passport sized photos which were not needed.

SEF - Official # 1On the day of our appointment we took the train from Lagos to Portimão and Duarte came down from Lisbon to Portimão by train to make sure all went smoothly. We arrived within 10 minutes of each other and then shared a taxi to the SEF.  Our wait was no more than 5 minutes and soon we were chatting amiably with the SEF officer who spoke English. He filled out forms, made sure we had the required documents and then we stood in front of a kiosk which collected our biometric data: taking our photos (no glasses and no smiling so we look rather dour), scanning and recording our left and right index fingerprints and finishing with a retina scan.  We signed forms, one part of which authorized current background checks and then sat and chatted with a second officer who collected €157,80 from each of us, a total of about $350 USD for the both of us.  Note: The SEF only accepts cash or a Portuguese bank card.  After receiving a receipt, we were told that we should receive our Titulo de Residencia cards by registered mail within two weeks.

And so, ten days after our appointment the postman rang our outside bell a couple of times and we signed for our new cards which declare us to be bona fide residents of Portugal. WHOO HOO!  We have the country’s permission to live here for a year at which time we’ll go through the process once again and renew our cards for a two-year period.  In Portugal (as in the US) when things work, they work well!residence card

By Anita and Richard

 

 

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