Wednesday, March 16, 2011


When you arrive in Portugal, you'll soon realize that there are two things you'll see a lot of - cobble stone sidewalks and azulejos, which are traditional painted tiles. They cover everything from palaces to bathrooms. The tradition of the azulejos is more than 500 years old in Portugal. The name comes from the Arabic words for painted stones, al zulayj, which the Moors introduced to Portugal and southern Spain during their occupation of parts of the Iberian peninsula between 711 and 1492. Seville was originally the center of the tile-making industry, but it eventually spread to Portugal in the early 1500s.

The earliest tiles followed the Islamic patterns that were inherited from the Moors even though they had been completely driven from Portugal by 1249. They were geometric patterns, which could be repeated to decorate an entire wall or room. We recently went to Portugal's National Azulejo Museum, which had many beautiful sets on display.

As the tradition developed, Portuguese artists transitioned to painting entire scenes with blue paint on white tiles. These can be seen all over Portugal depicting moments in history.

Inside Sintra's Pena National Palace

A building in Porto.
A scene from the National Azulejo Museum.

And the most famous azulejo scene:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rock the Kasbah

Marrakech is a cool city, but we decided to explore the surrounding area a little more. We hired a driver to take us to Toubkal National Park, home to Morocco's tallest peak at 13,671 feet. It's around 2 hours from Marrakech, but we took the scenic route to see the countryside along the way.

Ibrahim was our driver. 

We stopped at a reservoir, which provides water to Marrakech and all the surrounding farmland.

Of course we saw camels.

As we approached the mountains, Berber children stopped us to sell flowers.

As you get into the mountains, donkeys replace camels.

We had lunch at a place called Kasbah Toubkal, a hotel catering to tourists located on the slopes of Toubkal mountain. Because we sat on the roof, we got to wear these awesome hats.

It had amazing views of the mountains.

On our way back, we stopped at a women's cooperative where they made argan oil by shelling and grinding the seeds by hand.

After returning to Marrakech, we celebrated a successful day trip with kebabs in the Djemma el Fna.

Morocco can be overwhelming for some people. We heard more people disparage it than praise it as we were planning our trip, but we had a great time and would recommend it to any adventurous travelers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

More Marrakech

Marrakech, founded more than a thousand years ago, was one of the country's many cities used as the capital. Many believe that the name Morocco was derived from the city's name. It has the largest market in Morocco and is the most popular destination for tourists who want to get a feel for Morocco.

Because the city was built so long ago, the streets inside the Medina (the old city) are medieval, narrow and winding. As a result, taxis drop visitors off away from the central parts of the old city. We had decided to stay at a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard, which had been converted into a guesthouse. A teenage boy guided us down a long alley to find the door.

After wandering through the markets and stopping for lunch, we made our way to Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakech, and one of the largest city squares in all of Africa. Vendors sold fresh orange juice from carts. It was cold and delicious.

Our friend really wanted to buy a carpet as a souvenir, so we found a reputable looking shop deep in the souks. They pulled out dozens of carpets and asked her if she liked them. She would hold a few to consider and the rest would be tossed to the side. When she found the one she liked, the bargaining began. The merchant gave her a "special price" because she was young. She bought it for less than 1/3 of his first offer. We learned later that all the questions he asked when we first walked in were to evaluate his starting price.

This is a photo of the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, which was finished in 1199. Marrakech was our first time to hear the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer since leaving Jakarta - we hadn't missed it.

At dusk, restaurateurs set up food stalls in the middle of the main square. It's packed with tourists and some locals. We had really good food at one of the stalls on our last night.

But on our first night, we opted for a restaurant with candle and belly dancers.

In the Jemaa el Fna, you see all sorts of crazy things going on - snake charmers, story tellers, monkeys, and this guy. He had set up two plastic bowling pins just far enough apart so that a perfectly kicked soccer ball could knock them both down from about two yards away. Hillary convinced me it was worth 15 cents to give it a try.

After watching for about five minutes, we had seen all but one local fail, so I was not confident as I stepped up and took aim.

But I nailed it. First try. And I walked away about 50 cents richer.

To celebrate, we watched more belly dancers and had wine. These two types of decadence can only be found in the ritzy places that most locals generally can't afford.

We also visited El Badi Palace, built in the 1500s.

Because Marrakech was the royal seat for hundreds of years, it is also home to Bahia Palace, built in the 1800s.

We'll save the rest for later.