The Ourika Valley Tourist Trap

We knew that we wanted to get out of Marrakech somehow, for at least a day trip. While I’d normally try to take a bus somewhere, or maybe the train, because I believe public transit is a great way to see a city, I was too intimidated by the language barrier to attempt this. Many people speak a little English, but French and Arabic are the main languages. So, we decided to go on an excursion. Each of the Riads offer excursions for €40+, and that wasn’t an option for a cheapskate like me. We ended up going on an excursion through a company that individuals can sign up for. Basically a bus takes you around to the shops and restaurants of the friends that run the excursions. I’m sure there are kickbacks involved. We negotiated the price down to about US$20 for each of us for a trip to the Ourika Valley. We were told we’d see a Berber home and 2 of 7 waterfalls in the Ourika Valley.

We woke up bright and early and tracked down the tour. It was a little nerve wracking because the guy we negotiated in just left us standing at a café with no explanation. About 10 minutes later some other people were deposited, until there were 15 or so of us. We headed to the valley by way of an herbalist/argon store. They bring you on a tour of a garden, show how the famous argon oil products are made, and then bring you into a room to check out some products. No obligation, looking is free, as always. We hung out there for about 20 minutes waiting for the next part of the trip.

Argon nuts. Used for making nut butter and oils for massages.

Playing with the camera at the argon oil pit stop.

Next we went to a Berber house. It reminded me of the homes in Central America quite a bit. Same type of building materials, same sort of layout. The plumbing was a bit different though. This house was right next to a river and they got running water by digging a ditch and diverting the water through the house that way. The water powers a type of grist mill, some type of washing machine, and then goes through the kitchen where it creates a pool that acts as the kitchen sink. I never did ask about what they do to answer the call of nature, but my guess is more of an outhouse type situation.

Whetstone for grinding grains.

Berber washing machine.

Berber kitchen. Mint tea always at the ready.

Berber kitchen sink.

We hung out at the house for about an hour, and then headed on towards the waterfalls. There are cafes all along the water, and they deposited the tour right in front of one. Everyone sort of mindlessly wandered inside, including us, until we decided we didn’t HAVE to eat there.  We walked a little farther and saved about 40 dirhams (5 bucks), although some others in the group got a much better deal. Speaking Arabic really helps with the bargaining.

Next we were lead up to the waterfall. It’s definitely a tourist attraction for Moroccans and foreigners, so there were many groups walking up the trail. This trail is not really suited for multiple groups, which leads to lots of bottlenecks, and it takes a lot longer than it should to actually get to the waterfall. That’s one complaint. The other is that when going on a guided excursion like this there isn’t enough time to go to the other waterfalls. If we had gone on our own we could have gotten there earlier and left later, giving us time to move beyond the throngs of people. That being said, it was still a beautiful location. It’s no wonder it’s such a big tourist draw.  The second waterfall is beautiful, and getting to look out at the Atlas Mountains is very calming. If you’ve got a bathing suit (or not, many people took the plunge in their clothes) you can get your picture taken being pummeled by the waterfall. I, myself, would never do that, because being the nerd that I am all I can think about is the kind of debris water can carry at that speed, and how much it would hurt falling on your head.

Second waterfall. Ourika Valley.

Second waterfall. Ourika Valley.

Atlas Mountains. Ourika Valley.

On the way back to Marrakech I conked out on the bus. That’s one of the benefit of an excursion; you don’t have to worry about the other people on the bus, or missing your stop or anything. Randy took a lot of cool pictures on the road to the waterfalls that give a really got a good feel of the countryside.

Camels on the way to Ourika Valley, à la Randy. On the way back you get a chance to ride them, or pay to take a picture. He got this shot for free!

On the way to Ourika Valley, à la Randy.

Moroccan donkey, à la Randy.

After the trip we made my last purchases in the souks and then went to the square. We had some great sandwich things that we saw the locals ordering at Hassan’s booth in the square. His was so good he had TWO numbers (each booth is numbered). As we mentioned there are about 100 booths that all serve the same thing, so finding one that stands out to the locals means it must be delicious, right? It was! Last night dinner, win! Got some ice cream for dessert (double win!), and headed back to the Riad because we had an early flight the next day. We’re sad to leave Morocco, but glad to be heading to Paris! Next I’ll tell you about haggling in the souks (‘cause I’m sure you’re dying to know!).

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Where Sultans Live and Die

On our tourist day in Marrakech we only got to see two ‘real’ places because we had to switch Riads in the morning. The pace of life in Marrakech (probably all of Morocco) is different, everything happens at a slower pace. So, leaving Riad Dar Zaman took about an hour because we chatted with the owner, a great Englishman Randy knew through a friend, and then finding Riad Altair and establishing ourselves there took another hour and a half. You have to fill out the paperwork, then drink the mint tea, then get a tour of the Riad, and then you can finally go to your room and get ready to head out for what’s left of the day. While I’m not the typical impatient New Yorker (I think…), these rituals still take some getting used to.

Even when we were finally on our way it took about an hour to find our first destination because we got lost in the maze of the medina and had to interpret the typical misdirection of the locals on our way to the Bahia Palace. The national monuments are only open until five pm, so we were worried about having enough time. We finally found the palace around 1:30, after teaming up with a Dutch couple who were also lost. After the hefty entrance fee of $1.25 (10 Dirham, if only all museums cost this much!), we explored the rooms. Probably less than one fourth of the palace (there are 125 rooms) has been fixed up and is open to visitors, but what you get to see is beautifully ornate.

Door detail. Bahia Palace.

Arch over window. Bahia Palace.

Some of the cat gangs get to hang out in the palace. They must be the leaders.

Here cats are Kings.

Even though it’s about 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest part of the day many of the rooms had beautifully tiled fireplaces. You get to experience how the clever construction has created an environment with nice cool temperatures and breezes that move through the rooms. Thick walls and few windows are the trick.

Me and one of the many ornate fireplaces. Bahia Palace.

Multicolor fireplace! Bahia Palace.

There were a few nice courtyards, each equipped with graceful fountains and nice vegetation.

Fountain in a courtyard (Randy and I in the mirror). Bahia Palace.

All the detailing is amazing. The amount of work that goes into a palace like this is incredible. It took 10 years to complete.

Plasterwork detailing. Bahia Palace.

Tile detail. Bahia Palace.

The other goal for the day was to find the Saadian Tombs. After a delish shwarma lunch (‘fast’ food, cheap prices, my kind of place) we managed to get to the tombs without getting super lost. It was a miracle. I think it was because it’s not in a maze-y part of the medina, and because we got directions from the shwarma lady, and we also asked some other tourists who spoke French and could help with directions. Keep in mind, we had 2 maps, they are just impossible to read. We got there at 4, with just enough time to make it through the open areas.

There are a few Sultans that are buried in the giant tombs. These have super high ceilings, and beautiful tiling, ceilings, and pillars. Bigger stones are for adults, smaller ones are for children.

Huge, beautiful tombs for the sultans. Saadian Tombs.

Another shot of the ridiculously high vaulted ceilings. Saadian Tombs.

Adult tomb and child tomb. Guess which one is which. Saadian Tombs.

You also see tombs outside, which, we think, are attributed to people who died of the black plague. Not sure if we messed up that translation though.

If you prefer, an outdoor burial. Saadian Tombs.

These tombs had been ‘lost’ for a few centuries, so they’re still fixing up some of the structures. Not much is open to the public, but what’s there is so ornate that it is totally worth the US$1.25 (10MAD) fee. So that’s the history we saw.

We managed to catch a little culture later that afternoon by accident. We were walking around and I saw what appeared to be a giant camel. Turns out it was a parade float! There were lots of Berber tribes and people in costumes dancing and playing music. So glad we were in the right place at the right time!

Parade! Marrakech, Morocco.

I’m really regretting not having more time in Morocco. I wish we had 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years! Anyway, we ended up taking a trip outside the city the next day to the Ourika Valley. It was really interesting, but not an ideal excursion. I’ll write about that next.

Morocco, A Brief Introduction

So Morocco is AMAZING. I don’t have much time because we’re about to head out on a day trip to the Ourika Valley, but I thought I’d pull something together quickly. So far we’re on our third Riad. We just wanted to try a few out so we’ve been hopping around. They’re basically all the same, but with different colors, and room sizes vary by a few square meters. They generally have an open courtyard with or without a plunge pool (it gets pretty hot during the day so it’s nice to have something to dip into, but it’s by no means a proper swimming pool), a covered sitting area, and a rooftop terrace. Each of our rooms has had an ensuite bathroom, which is pretty nice.

Courtyard and plunge pool at the Riad Dar Zaman.

Balcony at the Riad Dar Sara. Right around the corner from our room.

Sunny rooftop terrace at the Riad Dar Sara.

For the first day we basically walked around the markets explored the medina. It was mostly covered walkways, so it feels kind of like a Vegas environment. That may seem like a bizarre comparison, but what I mean is that just like you can lose sense of time and money in Vegas because the casinos are contained environments in the medina you don’t realize that it’s 100 degrees out (shade makes a big difference) and people are constantly talking to you, haggling with you, trying to get you to see why their stuff is the best, so you’re in there for 5 hours and it feels like you’ve just been there for 1…or vice versa.

We ate dinner in the square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is very lively, tons of people trying to feed you, entertain you, and entertaining each other. After dinner we went up to a terrace and had a soda (booze is harder to come by), and then I got henna painted onto my hand. Yes, I am that tourist.

Our dinner. Chicken tangine, merguez, chips, eggplant, and sprite. Mmmm!

The square at night. It’s so much fun to walk around and see everything!

In Central America there were dogs everywhere. Here there are CATS everywhere! I love it!

One of the kitties in the market. Meow! I love cats everywhere!

I’ll write more later. Off on an adventure!

What’s the D’If?

We’ve had a beautiful time in Marseille. Blue skies, 85 degrees (but not humid), nice ocean breezes. After a bit of wandering (and arguing) we found the tourist office. Randy likes to ask people where to go, and I like to figure things out myself…so that can lead to a little head-butting (basically I think he’s a butt head, and he thinks I am one). It also leads to success, because usually Randy asks someone who tells us where to go much faster than I can figure it out. Thanks to a local woman who spoke English very well, and brought us to the tourist office herself (it was near the metro, apparently), we got some maps and information.

Our first activity? Visit the Island of If. On this island lies the Chateau d’If, which is actually an old fortress. It’s what the Count of Monte Cristo is based on, and hundreds of prisoners (especially protestants) have been held here over the last few centuries. Now it’s a great tourist spot.

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Ferry from Vieux Port area to Islands of If and Frioul.

Chateu d’If from the ferry boat.

Chateu d’If, from the front. I love castles. Fortresses count as castles.

It was pretty cool walking around the fortress. There were very few restricted areas, so you basically go into every room. Since there are no furnishings (it was a prison…they didn’t have fancy things anyway) you just imagine what may have been there. There is a dungeon and numerous rooms, each with fireplaces. A few of the rooms (the Count of Monte Cristo’s (a fictional character from Alexandre Dumas’ book) room, and the room attributed to Jean Baptiste Kléber, who was assassinated in Cario in 1800, but lay in the fortress from 1801-1818.

Graffiti from the early 1800s. That’s right, it’s carved into the wall.

They were kind of obsessed with the Asian rhino.

One of the prison cells with the most intact fireplace.

Next we walked up to the Notre Dame de la Garde, A gorgeous church that overlooks all of Marseille.

Notre Dame de la Garde, all the way up there...yes we've walked that far (and more) thus far!

Notre Dame de la Garde, all the way up there…yes we’ve walked that far (and more) thus far!

It’s not such a bad walk from the old part of town, and I think there are buses and trams. Our problem was our knack for getting lost, even with a map. We eventually made it to the church, and just in time for 6 o’clock sermon. That would have been great if I practiced religion, but as a tourist it was not so great because we couldn’t really walk around the church as we didn’t want to disrupt anything. Still, a pretty cool church, and one of the best views I’ve seen in a while. It was great to see Marseille spread out below us.

Notre Dame de la Garde, from the soccer pitch that’s right below it. A blessed field if ever there was one.

Notre Dame de la Garde, and the flag of Europe.

View of the altar within the Notre Dame de la Garde.

View of the islands of If and Frioul from Notre Dame de la Garde. If is the small one, second to the left (I think).

On our way home we ended up buying some amazing handmade raviolis for dinner. Accompanied with a beer, some salad, and the ubiquitous bread and cheese it was an amazing dinner. It’s very nice having an apartment for this leg of the journey.

Today we did a lot of walking (again). I tend to go for lower cost tourist attractions and free transportation. That means exploring cities by foot, and visiting lots of churches. I find that way you get to see a lot that you may otherwise have missed, and end up off the beaten path, plus churches tend to showcase some of the best architecture of their times. And they’re huge, generally cooler temperatures, and smell good.

So, not surprisingly, we ended up at la Major Cathédrale de Marseille, which I’d seen from the ferry yesterday and really wanted to check out. After remembering that it was Sunday (one of the hazards of vacation is forgetting what day it is) because everything was closed we managed to secure some delicious doner kebab sandwiches. So good! from there we walked (or meandered around until we managed to find it) for a few hours. It was totally worth it. The cathedral is in a part of Marseille that is undergoing construction, and despite being Sunday, this huge, beautiful cathedral was practically empty. Not sure if that had to do with time of day, we were there around 5 o’clock or the nearby construction.

la Major Cathedrale de Marseille, from the side.

Oh, and here it is from the front.

This doesn’t really do it justice, but there were simple yet elegant mosaics along the floor, and it was so spacious, as it was obviously designed to be.

View of the benches and windows. Crazy how empty it was.

Ceiling shot. If that’s not arching, then I don’t know what is…(that’s probably not what it’s called.)

Small carving detail. Everything was simple yet elegant.

After this epic walk we headed for home, which was roughly across the water from where we were. So, we had to walk alllll the way around it, which took quite a while. When we reached the halfway point we stopped for some beers as a reward/motivation to continue. Ahhh, refreshment.

Now we’re just relaxing before getting some dinner. Tomorrow we head off to AFRICA (Marrakech, Morocco) in the afternoon. Can’t wait to see how that goes!

Bienvenue à France!

So, I’m in France! Randy and I arrived Thursday to Paris, after a lovely overnight flight from JFK. The flight was nice because it was a) direct and b) they served food and wine for free! I haven’t been on a flight that feeds you for some time.

We navigated the hectic airport, made it through customs in record time (I forgot to ask for a stamp…I’ll have to remember when I come back from Morocco), and got our bags. Getting into the city from the airport was nice and easy on the RER, and Jeremy met us at his subway stop. What service!

Since we were out of it due to the time difference we just walked around his neighborhood. It’s in the 2nd arrondissement, and is a beautiful place to walk around. His apartment, that he so graciously is sharing with us while in Paris, is amazing, with a huge balcony. Perfect for drinking 5 bottles of wine on…

Jeremy’s balcony.

Jeremy’s staircase. He lives on the 5th floor. No elevator. You really feel the burn after the 2nd wine run.

Walking around Paris, somewhere near the Gare du Nord.

We left Paris yesterday morning, in the rain, and took the train to Marseille. Luckily the rain stayed in Paris. Jeremy’s friend is putting us up in a gorgeous apartment overlooking the ocean. Day two and already one of the best vacations yet!

Marseille balcony. Yes, that’s the ocean in the background.

We took it easy today, just exploring the city a bit. We don’t have a map since I left all my Lonely Planet stuff at home. We were looking for a tourism office, but missed it by about a block. Gives us something to do today. We had a simple dinner on our balcony, enjoying French wine and cheese.

Dessert: Caramel and pecan sundae flavor ice cream et vin. I could get used to this.

Today we’ve got an actual plan. I’m hoping to make it to Notre Dame and to Château d’If. If we don’t end up there, we might just have to laze around on the beach all day. Poor us…

Sunset view from the balcony in Marseille.

Camping in the Catskills

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Kaaterskill Falls, Catskills, NY

This past weekend Randy and I went camping. We got allready to go, got our packs all set up, and then headed to the Catskills. Little did we know, I picked a ‘car camping’ (North-Southlake campground) site. So, we just paid for a campsite, parked the car, and made sure to remember to leave the food in so that the bears and other ferocious beasts (squirrels and chipmunks) didn’t attack. We got up there around 2 pm on Thursday, set up our tent, and set off on a little exploration. 

Our first stop was the site of the old Catskill Mountain house. Once again, thought there might be some cool remnants. There were not. There were, however, amazing views. And some very informative walkers up there to share their knowledge. 

View from former site of the Catskill Mountain House

View from former site of the Catskill Mountain House

We continued along the escarpment trail and saw some awesome rock formations. Some camouflaged frogs, and some neat looking caves. Then we turned around and headed back. 

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Can you find the froggy?

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Cracks in rock shaped like a 5

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Rock overhang along the Escarpment trail. Cattskills, NY. Randy’s there for scale…

Next we headed down to the lake. Our campsite was near the water, but not on it, which we were very happy about later in the evening. Why, you may ask? Because whenever we walked to the bathroom we heard the incessant WOOing of loud, party animal, young adults. The lake was beautiful. We saw a family of ducks, and some very nice views. It was quite peaceful at this time of the evening.

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South Lake, North-Southlake Campground, Haines Falls, NY

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Quack Quack! North-Southlake Campground, Haines Falls, NY.

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Our tent! FYI: a yoga mat is not a substitute for a sleeping pad…

Randy bought some firewood and hotdogs, and I scrounged around for matches and additional firewood. We grilled up some tasty hotdogs, and then had s’mores for dessert. Can you believe it was the first time Randy’s ever had s’mores??!! Me neither! They are pretty good. In fact I just had 2 for dinner…adults are allowed to do that, right? 

After a long night (it’s been a while since I’ve slept out on the ground…like 15 years), we woke up to the birds chirping…at 10 am! What’s that about nature’s alarm clock? We made some PB&Js for breky, and then packed up the site. We knew we wanted to check out the Kaaterskill Falls, but we had to make sure to get back to the city by 6:00. The hike is super quick, and not too strenuous, so we were fine!

On our way to the hike I saw my first bear in the wild! We also had a deer about 5 feet away from our car when we were leaving to get the hotdogs, but I didn’t have time to get the camera out before we passed it. It’s a jungle upstate!

 

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Not the best shot…it’s the black circle in the center left of the shot, between the trees. I had to scramble for the camera so by the time I had it on the bear was running through someone’s yard, heading for the stand of trees. Pretty cool anyway!!

The falls are a very rewarding hike. There are numerous cascades along the hike, and the actual Kaaterskill Falls are one of the higher waterfalls in New York State.   

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Trail head for the Kaaterskill Falls.

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Small falls you can see from the road. Near the trail head to Kaaterskill Falls, NY

After hiking for about 15 minutes, max, up a fairly well maintained trail you get to the actual falls. They are quite spectacular, as the pictures can only barely convey.

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Kaaterskill Falls, NY. The camera’s battery died, so I used my ipod Touch. Then I had to play around with photoshop…

Despite numerous warnings we ended up hiking to the second tier. It’s pretty dangerous, since it’s all unconsolidated materials, and it was slightly saturated from the rain we’ve had lately. Luckily, no mishaps!  

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DANGER!

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Top half of upper tier…can’t get far enough away to get the whole thing in one shot!

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Here’s where the second tier starts. Where’s my barrel?

After this we carefully made our way back down and to the car. Going down is definitely scarier/tougher than going up. My knees are still aching! It was a great way to spend the day, much better than the second half of our day sitting in the car on the way home (traffic is the bane of my existence!). 

Can’t wait for my next camping trip! Although the next trip on the agenda won’t involve so much roughing it. In two weeks Randy and I’ll be going to Paris, Marseille, and then Marrekech for two weeks. Anyone want me to ship them some Moroccan furniture? Maybe I’ll start an import/export business if this whole PhD thing doesn’t work out…

 

 

First Hike of the Year! (make that last three years!)

Black Rock Forest

Went hiking for the first time in years this past weekend. I think the last time was maybe 3 years ago, hiking Camel’s Hump in Vermont with Daphne. We practically ran up that mountain…and when we got to the top we were pouring sweat out, and we couldn’t figure out why we’d hiked so aggressively. This hike was a bit different. No large mountain, just a large rock. And I traded out Daphne for Randy. The hike was listed online, I think we found it by searching ‘hikes, new york city’ or something like that. Seemed doable, and with the possibility of seeing waterfalls and views, it was cemented.

The route of our hike. Starts and ends at that black slash mark. 'Black Rock' is where the scenic vistas were located.

The hike started out fairly easily. Nice and quite, no one else on the trails. Weather was a bit cool, but it was around 10:30/11, so we expected it to heat up a little. Plus, as prepared hikers, we wore layers! There was a nice stream running through the woods, which afforded us some good nature sounds, and some pleasant views. There were also some nice bridges across the stream, making for good picture opportunities.

RAR! Yay hiking! Bridge #1

Mini waterfall.

Even though there weren’t any leaves on the trees, we did see some nice vegetation and flowers poking through. Get ready for flower close-up shots!

Flowering tree.

Little fern.

Octopus tree. First they grow here, then they swim away.

On our way to Black Rock we came across a reservoir. Water levels were really low, which was really cool, because I got to see an empty spillway! Yay hydrology! Not sure why the water was so drawn down, or when they raise the levels, but it was neat. As we came upon it we saw an otter (or some other small mammal) scampering away. Wouldn’t see that near the city!

This is where the water would be flowing.

Close-up of the dam looking onto the reservoir.

Next stop: Black Rock. After about 20 more minutes, and a steeper incline, we finally reached our destination! The views were great!

View number 1 from Black Rock

View number 2 from black rock. I think that's the Hudson River.

After resting a bit at Black Rock and enjoying the sunshine we decided to return home. We felt a sense of urgency, mostly because we forgot to pack a lunch. Whoops! Lesson learned. Don’t do a day hike without snackies. Luckily we had plenty of water, but the lack of food was definitely felt by the end of the day.

The return hike was less picturesque because it follows a bunch of gravel roads. No more quaint trails through the woods. You also end up near route 9W at the end, so the sounds of traffic mix with those of nature. We did see one more neat river before we made it to the car.

A fixer-upper in the woods.

Upon reaching the car we gobbled down some peanut butter and crackers, and nutter butters. First stop: a deli for some tasty sandwiches. All in all an extremely enjoyable day! Can’t wait for the next hike! Maybe I’ll finally have an excuse to buy hiking boots, rather than wear my old gym sneakers!