Foodies in Morocco

No trip to Morocco would be complete without Moroccan food, and even though I’d been before to Morocco (mostly searching for Arabian horses and surf), returning to eat more food and learn how to cook some was a great idea. In my company was the best chef in Iceland, so adding his tastebuds and expertise to the mix made things a lot easier and more enjoyable.

the view from Dar Finn, our hotel in Fes

the view from Dar Finn, our hotel in Fes

Our trip started in Marrakesh, which is a majour tourist hub for Europeans to come and eat, take cooking classes, soak in the sun, and overshop for leather and clay at the massive souk. We did all of the above, and our favourite restaurant of the whole trip was hidden within the souk, Latitude 31°, but sadly didn´t serve any wine. A delicious dinner without wine pairing always seems to be missing the cherry on the top.

cooking class at La Maison Arabe

cooking class at La Maison Arabe

 

Nomad was also a great restaurant in Marrakesh, and we took a cooking class at the Maison Arabe, which is highly rated for good reasons – its a major production with live TV screens and multiple chefs and bread makers (and wooden bread oven) and teachers, AND wine pairing to eat all the food you´ve cooked yourself. Once youve had your hands covered in olive oil and nearly burnt a finger off holding the tagine, you get to relax poolside at the Maison Arabe´s country estate, a short drive out of Marrakesh. Its super expensive to stay at the Maison Arabe, but I can suggest Dar Baraka as a sort of boutique hostel alternative.

the finished product of a days cooking

the finished product of a days cooking

We made a circle from Marrakesh to Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca, always searching out the best restuarants and riads to stay at. In Fez we stayed at Dar Finn, boasting the most beautiful roof top breakfast patio we ate at. We signed up for a private bread making cooking class at the Clock Kitchen which was worth the 40 euros, especially since we got to keep all the 4 types of breads and pastries we made at the end of it. We decided to share it with everyone sitting in the cafe around us, and still ended up with a few coconut macaroons to keep for the road. One restaurant we regretted missing was ‘7’, a locally run place that imports an internationl chef every 2-4 months to cook a new menu with his local expertise with Moroccan products. At the moment there’s a Californian-Asian chef cooking up some mean treats.

the old souk of Rabat nearing sunset

the old souk of Rabat nearing sunset

The souk in Fez was smaller, more intimate, and somehow more authentically local than Marrakesh, so we shopped for some spices and argan oil there. Later we bought a silver tea pot and a yellow dress, a little similar to the ones all the women wear with KKK pointed hoods.

the bread making teacher at Clock Kitchen

the bread making teacher at Clock Kitchen

They say Fez may be the foodie capital of Morocco, others argue its Rabat or Marrakesh, but I can atleast recommend Dar Roumana as one of the best dining experiences in Morocco, located in the Fez medina. The Ruined Garden was a great lunch spot, literally placed within a ruined garden. They also taught cooking classes, but didn´t sell wine.

The Ruined Garden restaurant

The Ruined Garden restaurant

Next stop was Meknes, were the obvious hotel to stay at was Ryad Bahia – atleast according to trip advisor and lonely planet. But then we showed up and seemed to be the only guests in the 8 or 10 bedroom hotel, which wasn´t a problem, but only surprising after having all the other guesthouses and restaurants nearly fully booked. The same happened at our dinner spot – Riad Yacout had a great restaurant reputation, but we were the first and second to last table to eat there.

the colourful medina of Moulay idriss

the colourful medina of Moulay idriss

In Rabat we stayed at Riad Oudaya, and just because of our check-in timing, landed the suite with a built in fireplace while the others who checked in after us were disperesed between the 3 remaining bed rooms. The restaurant Dinarjat was fully booked, with live oud (moroccan guitar) players and dancing waitresses. The setting was a beautifully refurbished riad, complete with marble mosaics and goldfish water ponds, and they had Moroccan wines!

Casablanca

Casablanca

Casablanca was a transient place for us, but we had to try Cafe Sqala for lunch. It had a beautiful patio, a smorgasbord of Moroccan salads, and any type of tagine or pastilla you could dream of. For a more sophisticated meal, we also tried Le Rouget de l’isle, a french inspired restaurant outside of the medina in the backyard of an old mansion.

street food sellers having a ball

street food sellers having a ball

Inbetween the train trips and bus rides, we also hired a taxi for a whole day (which costs 40 euros – the price of a  15 minute taxi in Reykjavik) to visit the Roman ruins at Volubilis and the holy Muslim city of Moulay Idriss. We scampered up and down and around the little hilltop village to find the most photographic old town yet, full of cats and bread makers, and ate a delicious kebab street sandwich (arguably the second best meal of the whole trip). We shared Volubilis with a few busloads of tourists, and experimented with the selfie stick we bought in some souk to try and get our picture infront of the roman pillars and arched city gate.

Volubilis Roman ruins

Volubilis Roman ruins

I think I left Morocco 5 pounds heavier than when I arrived, but don’t regret one meal. I also learned how to bake 3 types of bread and some cookies, tagine, and 2 types of Moroccan salad, and came home with my very own tagine. I I’m slightly addicted to couscous and still can’t understand why its not as popular as rice or pasta around the world, and some Moroccan wines were really, really (surprisingly) good. Now its time to start practicing with my tagine, and figure out where to buy Moroccan rosé in Iceland.

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Detour to Mauritania

sandy streets of downtown, with overloaded donkey carriages for traffic

sandy streets of downtown, with overloaded donkey carriages for traffic

I tried to go to Mauritania in 2013 from Senegal, but that was a weird transition time when visas on arrival at land borders weren’t available. Just before that, you could show up, many by car overlanding the Sahara, and pay $20 or $30 for a visa. Shortly after that, the visa price increased to $130, and only available on arrival for flying passengers landing at Nouakchott. So we flew to Nouakchott, and waited in the line of half a dozen visa seekers for over an hour while one guy punched out visas for each of us that take 3-4 days at any embassy. I was actually surprised to see other travelers on the plane, despite the fact that every single seat on the plane was full, and I still don’t think they were ‘tourists’ per se.

a beach full of boats

a beach full of boats

Mauritania is famous for a few specific things. It has these crazy sand storms, where walls of sand from the Sahara surge in and cover everything and everyone in dust and darkness. It only lasts for a few minutes, but if you’re caught outside, each minute is slower than you can bear as you struggle to open your eyes or mouth or nostrils to see or breathe. Mauritania is also famous for having one of, if not the longest train in the world. There’s an iron ore train that can sometimes reach 3 km in length, and travels hundreds of kilometers from Zouerate and Choum to the sea.

a fish transport car for Port de Peche

a fish transport car for Port de Peche

Nouakchott, Mauritania’s sleepy capital, is on the coast but seems to bridge one faster into the Sahara than the sea. Although the other famous thing about Mauritania is Nouakchott’s Fisherman port, which is ironically not much of a ‘port.’ Its a never-sending stretch of beach, with wooden fishing boats parked side by side with barely enough space between each stern to pass by. Their are big ones and small ones, all with engines much to little, and painted all colours of the rainbow. They’re pushed out to sea and dragged back in manually every single day, in a very chaotic but ritualistic way. Watching the men wearing rain gear and rubber boots never made sense as they all came in from each job emptying the insides of their pants and boots of water, and wading out to sea trying to push a 3 tonne boat must be more difficult when you’re that waterlogged.

manpower vs. net

manpower vs. net

In Nouakchott we stayed at a new hotel every night. We tried everything from ‘western’ hotel to roof-top camping, a mix of hostels and guesthouses, auberges and beds and breakfasts. My favourite was Auberge Diaguili, an unmarked house full of boutique-style rooms and where the penthouse suite costs the same as any other room. Auberge Menata was the most ‘traveler’ friendly, and we finally met some other tourists, or ‘travelers’ rather. One was a Spanish guy who had home made a didgeridoo out of plastic water bottles, sawdust and glue – incredible!

fish sorting and prepping

fish sorting and prepping

Since it was kind of a foody trip in upcoming Morocco, we began tasting a few Mauritanian dishes. There’s an interesting mix of Arabic, Senegalese and Moroccan influences, but then again I never know if the chicken came before the egg or vice versa. After visiting the fish market and seeing piles of dead, rotting fish that actually made you choke, and the younger guys running after the food transporters and ice trucks to pick up all the fish that fell to resell later, seafood didn’t entice. The Lebanese restaurant Le Menara was amazing (stick with appetizers) and Joao’s Casa Portugesa had the best, basic grilled veggies and special ‘tea’ one could ask for. Alcohol was illegal in all of Mauritania, but we had accidentally smuggled in some wine and vodka and didn’t know until after the fact, which caused some awwkard check-out moments when the garbage can had an empty bottle.

The only tourist in Tunisia

After a short visit to Saudi Arabia, I wanted to continue my journey through the African Arabic world. I’d already been to Egypt and Libya isn’t the most inviting place at the moment, so I flew to Tunisia. On a map, squashed between Algeria and Libya, it looks like a tiny place, but only relatively. Its nearly 1 and a half times bigger than Iceland, which some may argue is a small country, but all the space in Tunisia is inhabitable and inhabited. There are internal flights to the south of Tunisia, reaching Berber country, and regular ferry boats that take you to Italy or Malta from Tunis, so you’re literally suspended between Europe and the Sahara, in a little pocket of bustling Arabic life and culture.

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

The tourism market has crashed in Tunisia, ever since the hotel shooting of tourists in Sousse last summer. It’s affected the economy and the daily lives of people, especially those in hotels, restaurants or shops, and its heartbreaking to know that one incident can have such long term repercussions on a people open and welcome to tourism. In the souk, a seller told me I was his first foreign customer since last June, and visiting the old towns of Sidi Bou Said and Hammamet and seeing only locals was a strange feeling. But I liked traveling there, and I enjoyed being the only visitor sometimes. Speaking with locals was a breeze since everyone spoke English and their Tunisian was a healthy mix of French and french-isms. The cafe culture was just like some neighbourhoods in Paris, and Sidi Bou Said could have been a village in Santorini.

Asma and me in Carthage

Asma and me in Carthage

I stayed with a friend I made in Jordan, a Tunisian woman and her family. We shared a passion for tango dancing, and I also tried salsa dancing, but the social dance scene was a little different than I was used to. The tandas were followed by cortinas of belly dance songs where all the men and women got on the floor and started yelling, twisting their hands and shaking their hips. The salsa dance night was more zouk and kazumba, an awkwardly slow and grindy style that I couldn’t get into.

My Tunisian joy ride

My Tunisian joy ride

We found horses to goppity gopp, and not just any horses. First we rode a retired show jumping horse and an endurance racer, then got an invitation back to ride his breeding stallion, a short-track champion. He gave me chills just to look at, and after managing to jump on his back his ovner asked me ‘are you sure?’ I’ll never be sure what he meant but I managed to stay on for one hell of a ride. Riding him back to his harem of mares was the only real tricky part, but he could have carried 3 of me for a whole day and night without tiring.

Hammamet

Hammamet

Like so many other places, I left Tunisia with a longer list of things to do and see than I accomplished during my stay. So there has to be a next time, and on the top of my list is race the Arabian, and learn how to belly dance.

Forbidden Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia was a place I thought I’d never go. It’s probably the only country in the world that doesn’t want any tourism (except Muslim pilgrims), and a tourist visa simply doesn’t exist. The only way to visit the country is to be from Saudi or one of the gulf countries who don’t need a visa, only transit thru the country in 72 hours, marry a Saudi, have family or relatives in the country to visit, get a job sponsor and enter on a work visa, or be a Muslim and go to hajj on a pilgrimage visa.

Al Balad, historic old Jeddah architecture

Al Balad, historic old Jeddah architecture

I considered the second and the last options, but thought a work or family visit visa might be more feasible. I visited a few Saudi embassies, made a few Saudi friends, and failed three times… but a miracle happened on my fourth attempt. I met the ambassador of Saudi to Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, and for some reason he wanted me to go there even more than I did, so I did exactly as he said and didn’t ask any questions. One passport photo and $50USD later, some woman named Elham approved my paperwork, pushed it through the online application system, and a visa was stamped in my passport a few hours later. I never even met her to thank her, but I didn’t want to stick around long enough for them to change their minds.

a fruit seller

a fruit seller

Actually visiting Saudi and writing about it is a bit like Israel – everything I say may be incriminating somehow. There are a handful of sensitive issues that I don’t want to offend anyone on, and I can’t really be honest about all the things I did and saw so long as my real name is attached to these blogs. Everyone there may have an opinion on female rights, the bombing of Yemen, Islam fundamentalists, and the long list of haram things: non-halal food, alcohol, drugs, uncovered women, female drivers, and even cinemas (they’re illegal!), and I certainly do too.

Nora demonstrating how to gracefully walk in an abaya (I always trip)

Nora demonstrating how to gracefully walk in an abaya (I always trip)

The long abaya cloak and hijab head scarf were a welcomed change. I didnt have to worry about what to wear or how I looked, because I could simply disappear and camouflage into a world where noone suspected I was a stranger. Apparently the strictness of covering varies around Saudi, and Jeddah is the most liberal place for women to comfortably reveal their hair or leave their heads uncovered in public. But we still couldnt go anywhere without or male driver or sit in the ‘singles’ or men only sections of any public spaces (including all cafes and restaurants).

One of our many beautiful lunch spreads

One of our many beautiful lunch spreads

I was visiting my Saudi friend Nora, and she welcomed me into her home full of maids and we were catered to like queens. Our driver was a 2 meter tall Sudanese truck of a man who took us everywhere in an airconditioned Escalade, and I don’t think I managed to pay for anything there except for one lens cap I needed to replace on my camera. We went to her family’s private beach home where we could laze in the sun without any burkinis, and every meal was served to us freshly cooked on different sets of plates each time. My bed was magically made every time I got out of it, and we enjoyed a very informative, private tour of Al Balad, the historic old Jeddah. I was glad to leave when I did, since this Saudi standard was a little too easy to get used to, and it couldn’t have come at a better time than after 5 weeks of overlanding in Africa.