The Blooming Desert

In the country where the Sahara Desert is found it’s unsurprising that gardens are special features. Cities are dotted with them. Mosques are surrounded by them. Giant palm trees, exotic flowering plants and water features star in Morocco’s many gardens.

In Rabat on New Year’s Day a physician I’d just met took me on a long walk around Rabat, a walk that included the Kasbah of the Udayas where we found one lone white rose in full bloom.

In Rabat a large park named Jardin Nouzhat Hassan, sited on the edge of the medina, quickly became my favorite place.

On my first day in Marrakech I stumbled upon Jardin Majorelle, created by French painter Jacques Majorelle and nurtured by him for 40 years. Rescued by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, the garden today is filled with massive bamboo plants, many-year-old cactus plants, and inanimate objects brightly painted in bold blue and screaming yellow. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Marrakech.  Comprised of several acres of mature plants, paths through the garden and the home of Saint Laurent and Bergé, the garden has also become the memorial to the designer. In addition to the garden there are small museums on the property and an upscale shop. Several small restaurants and café’s are adjacent.

The entrance to the garden is lined with enormous, old bamboo.

The narrow paths and the bright yellow pots were found througout the Jardin Majorelle

Here you see the Marrakech home of Saint Laurent and Berge.

Several other large gardens are found in Marrakech including the Agdal Garden covering of one and a half square miles and featuring a large square man-made pond and a botanical garden. Adjacent to it the Koutoubia Garden ,filled with roses and orange trees, surrounds the most visited mosque and minaret in Marrakech. Inside the medina a beautiful place named Le Jardin Secret [Secret Garden] is popular with visitors. In January the days are short, the flowers are few, and my time was limited. I didn’t get to all these gardens so I’ve given you links to share some images with you.

The Koutoubia minaret, surrounded by orange trees.

This is my last post about Morocco. Problems with my computer caused me to be unable to blog as I traveled there.  Morocco is a very affordable place to visit. Prices of hotels and restaurants and taxi cabs (among other things) were extremely low. French is an official language and most people used it. Moroccans I encountered, mostly in hotels and restaurants, were very pleasant and helpful. Marrakech is rather thrilling: the thousands of zooming vehicles will raise your heart rate! I recommend the Hotel Racine where I stayed in Marrakech (very good value) and the Ibis Rabat Agdal hotel in Rabat (delicious food in the on-premises restaurant). There seemed to be lots of honey-mooning couples in Marrakesh.

Libbie

Morocco in the 21st century

Morocco is a kingdom. It is modern and progressive economically. One example: it’s in the midst of a building program that will create 800,000 new housing units by 2021.  On the outskirts of Rabat I saw some of these apartment buildings from the window of the train as I traveled to Casablanca: row after row of identical modern buildings, each holding perhaps eight apartments.

Morocco’s tourism industry is a major part of its economy.  I experienced two newer structures that will play an important role in the growth of tourism in Morocco.  A new train station in Rabat and a recently built airport in Marrakech.  Both of these are spectacular.

You may be familiar with the high speed trains in France called TGV. The French are sharing this technology with its former colony, Morocco. The first high-speed rail line in Africa, Morocco’s TGV line, opened very recently, is in use from Tangiers to Casablanca with a stop in Rabat. It will eventually reach Marrakech. In Rabat an enormous new train station has been built in an area designated as that city’s new financial and transportation center.  Just completed in November, the station will have a number of banks, restaurants and shops although most are under construction now. Here are a photos of what I found there at the end of December 2018.

The new Rabat Agdal rail station.

Interior of the new Agdal train station will be occupied by banks, shops and restaurants. McDonald’s is already here! Can Starbucks be far behind?

The airport in Marakech has the most spectacular airport terminal.  It consists of buildings for arrivals and departures connected at the center. “Completed in 2008, the terminal extension of the Marrakech Menara Airport in Morocco—designed by Swiss Architects E2A Architecture…” This is a quote from an article entitled The Most Beautiful Airports in the World.

Another view of the arrivals hall exterior at the Marrakech airport. I like the “front porch cafe” but suspect it’s really the smokers lounge.

The interior of the arrivals hall.

The exterior of the departures hall.

The departures area interior

The front wall of the departures hall from the inside. I was truly delighted by this giant room.

Here’s a website about 21st century African-Arabic architecture that provides more information about this airport: http://www.archidatum.com/projects/marrakech-menara-airport-extension-e2a-architecture/

And one you may recognize!

Medina and Kasbah — ancient Moroccan places

The word “medina” in Morocco refers to ancient original settlements behind protective walls. One source I found said that the medina was entire city of Rabat until the French arrived ca. 1900 and built all around the it for the next 50 years. I stayed for a few days in an old house there.  Rabat’s medina is a warren of narrow, old streets lined with old houses called “riads” and small shops. The main streets are filled with people selling things and with pedestrians, motorbikes and 3-wheeled mini-trucks. My guess is that the poorest residents of Rabat live in the medina and earn their living there, as have their ancestors for generations. It is an unpleasant place, unsanitary, unsafe to walk through, chaotic.

In the medina in Rabat, Morocco.

The medina in Marrakech is the major tourist attraction. It is also a walled and ancient city. Its center is the largest square in Africa, called Jemaa el-Fna. It’s bordered by “souks” – tiny shops selling mostly things tourists buy. The enormous center fills with street food vendors, snake charmers, people in funny clothes who want to be paid for having their picture taken. I was told that I was lucky to come on Monday because the “men from the mountains bring things their families make to sell on Monday.” Indeed, I saw a man selling a pile of rough wool sweaters which were being bought up quickly by Moroccans, not tourists.

In Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech, men dressesd in red are hoping for tourists to pay them for their photo. In the background notice the minaret of one of several mosques in this area.

One large section of Jemaa el Fna is for selling spices and other bits of aromatic plants. Smells great!

An example of merchadise to be found here: beautiful hand made soaps that smell wondeful (above) and shoes including Moroccan pointed-toe traditional slippers.

I found one beautiful quiet corner of the Medina as I left.

You may also know the word “kasbah.” This, I learned, is a word for an ancient fortress.  In Rabat the Kasbah is a well-maintained structure at the edge of the ocean, overlooking large beaches and a lighthouse. Along the way in and out there are few small cafés selling mint tea and CocaCola. The way out leads to the souks in Rabat – narrow streets of small neat shops selling leather goods and other high-end objects. Tourists come here by the busload.

The walls of the Kasbah in Rabat.

Beautiful wares for sale in the Kasbah in Rabat.

The view from the fortress walls in Rabat’s Kasbah.

The Kasbah in Marrakech is south of the Medina and separated from it. There’s a very large mosque at one end with a beautiful minaret (tower). It was much like Rabat’s medina: crowded, chaotic, filled with shops and shoppers.  I think it served its residents much more than tourists.

Marrakech’s Kasbah is entirely different from the one in Rabat. Here you see some of the omnipresent security forces. Note the large mosque in the background and its minaret on the right.

Perhaps my favorite picture: early morning, oranges on the tree, Moroccan pink wall and one woman alone.

I hope these photos will give you a sense of these places in Morocco.

Libbie

On the Marrakesh Express

It’s impossible to go to Morocco without visiting Marrakesh! Recently I decided I had to go there. I put my bags into a taxi and went to the Rabat Ville train station. As I arrived a porter, a poor man, offered help with my bags. Once inside he helped me find the ticket window and then led me to the train. The wrong train!! Once at my destination I learned that the train  me that took me to Casablanca did not continue Marrakech! A couple of hours later, with the help of a Belgian who has become a Moroccan strawberry farmer, I was on the way, humming to myself  the tune of that old song, Marrakech Express!*

I traveled for two and a half hours across a landscape that changed every few miles.  It was beautiful much of the time. I would love to have taken photographs but the windows of the train were so dirty pictures would have been useless.  Instead I took notes, which I’ll share here with you.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the ride was how often the landscape changed in the course of a two and a half hour ride. The first section of green beautiful farmland was very much like Pamlico County. (For readers who aren’t my eastern North Carolina neighbors, that’s a place that’s very flat and agricultural.)  Almost immediately I began to see old farm compounds on a couple of acres of land, always surrounded by walls. The enclosed houses had flat roofs and were often painted dark red. I continued to see those farm house enclosures (sometimes newer, sometimes larger) throughout the ride.

As we journeyed on, the land became softer, slightly rolling, often hosting small groves of trees that may have been almonds or fruit or olives. Once I saw an old almond tree in full bloom. One thing I’ve never seen before: cactus farms. In Rabat people were selling cactus fruit about the size of a tennis ball in the streets.

As the land varied from flat and green to rolling hills of small trees and back to dry and arid desert-like, I was reminded of rides I took long ago across west Texas and Nevada.  As the train moved farther south I saw plants that looked like tumble weed.

Here and there small villages appeared. These were always walled and often every building was painted pink. As the train headed south I began to see crops in the fields, showing six or eight inches of new growth. The nearer we came to Marrakech the more often pink towns appeared. Some were quite large. The train only stopped at one of them, a city named Benguerir. Google tells me this is a university town, quite a large place, and like all the other towns I saw, mostly painted rosy pink.

As we approached Marrakech the best views of all appeared: the High Atlas Mountains. Visitors to Marrakech often hike or ride through these mountains to find Berber settlements and the Sahara desert. When I saw them in January they were shining in their cover of snow as the sun sank lower. Gorgeous!

Libbie

The photo at the top was “borrowed” from a travel blog by Daniel Vogelein. I hope he won’t mind. For great photos of his experience in Morocco, including some of the rural countryside I’ve tried to describe here, please visit his blog at http://www.photosomnia.com/2015/392/morocco/

*Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1969   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzB5eRu6HOk
The first verse says this:
Looking at the world
Through the sunset in your eyes
Trying to make the train
Through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five foot tall in blue – They described me!

In Morocco

I’m in Africa!  The northwest corner of Africa, where the sky is extraordinarily clean and blue. North Africa, of which Morocco is an important part, is not a great deal like Equatorial Africa or South Africa.  It’s the site of the Sahara Dessert and the Berbers.  As it continues to be today, the country has been ruled by one dynasty since 1631. An elected Parliament sharing governance with the king. Morocco is primarily a Muslim country – at certain times of the day the call to prayer can be heard coming from three minarets.

I’m staying in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco.  Certain sections of the city are brand new (such as the area where the new rail station shown above is located. Other areas (such as the Medina) are ancient – though no one there seems to be without a mobile phone. There’s an active commercial district filled with western-style stores and where today I found McDonalds, Starbucks and Pizza Hut.

Here are some scenes of Rabat you may find interesting:

Here’s a view of the “souk.” Much smaller than the famous one in Marrakech, it covers several blocks of streets. Most merchandise seems intended to appeal to tourists.

Rabat has a number of tall ancient towers erected in the memory of kings.

In the oldest parts of town the streets are filled with merchandise and buyers. Many shops, like this one, display goods inside and out.

A street in the Kasbah quarter.

On the left is the door to the house where I’m staying.

Merry Christmas from Venice!

blog venice frari

Buon Natale as I said to people who passed me on the street early this morning. I got a mixed bag of responses that led me to understand that people in Venice don’t do that!  The lady whose job is to sweep the streets was out working – she was delighted by my wish and responded with a long string of words I didn’t understand and a big smile. The reactions of men on the street varied from a startled look to a grunt to a buon giorno.

For the past week I’ve been searching for Christmas in Venice. This city is filled with churches, sometimes two or three in one block. St. Mark’s Basilica offered a number of times and languages for late night mass last night. Stores have displays ranging from a simple string of lights to extravagant, expensive window displays in the shops of world famous designers. But the old way of celebrating Christmas with one’s family with dinner and mass last night and small gifts and a Christmas lunch today seem to still be the way most Venetians celebrate Christianity’s day of joy.

The best thing I found in Venice at Christmas time was a concert in the only gothic church in Venice, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (shown above). A small orchestra, a choir of 30 or so, and five soloists performed some Bach and Mozart and Bing Crosby (yes, they sang “White Christmas.”)  It was lovely.

Here are a few photos of Venetian Christmas scenes.

 

IMG_1081 St Lucia

The first thing most people see in Venice: Santa Lucia rail station, now dressed for Christmas.

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Agi and Blaine on the high water walkways outside St. Mark’s Basilica.

P1240078

A little high water made a nice reflection outside the upscale shops near St. Marks.

P1240126

Somehow a Walmart Santa made its way to Venice, where it stands guard over an ancient well.

P1240127

A window display of Venetian Christmas glassware.

Surprising Metz, France

When I began planning the French segment of this trip the December timing suggested a visit the “set” of four cities in eastern France that are famous for their Christmas markets.  That included Metz so I added it to the itinerary and did some reading about it but probably would have ranked it last among the four as it seemed to have the least to offer. While there for a short time this week I discovered a rich, fascinating and historical city that I’d like to return to for a much longer visit.

Metz through the centuries in one photo: the 13th century cathedral, the 21st century Ferris wheel (a holiday tradition in French cities), 20th century buildings and an 18th century gate.

My hotel was located in the center of the city, just a few blocks from two of the most important of eight Christmas markets, Place St. Jacques and Place du Forum, the center of the “old town.”

A view of one of the Christmas markets and the medieval arcades next to it, each decorated by a lighted Christmas tree. Note the tall lit structure at the rear.

This is a top piece of a delightful building in the center of the market. It spins, and as it does three layers of characters from a nativity scene appear at each opening. Delightful.

After meandering a while on a cold night, I chose one of several restaurants located in a row of ancient buildings connected by an arcaded passage.  There, in a place called “L’Establi” I enjoyed a huge dinner of beef bourguignon and delicious mashed potatoes. There was much more than I could eat!

A very traditional French dinner and a delicious glass of wine!

The following day, Saturday, I returned to find those markets packed with visitors including Germans, Brits, and Americans as well as many French families. The old market squares are located in the center of a large commercial area filled with small shops and restaurants.  One source says the shopping district in Metz is the largest in France. I soon found my way to the cathedral and the giant Ferris wheel located next to it for the holiday season. The oldest church in France is located in Metz. The city is filled with very old churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and a has a large synagogue.

The construction of the cathedral in Metz began ca. 1220 AD and continued for about one hundred years. It one of the tallest gothic cathedrals in France. It also has the largest expanse of stained glass  windows in the world, nearly 70,000 square feet of glass. The windows date from the 14th century through the 20th.

The very tall nave of the Metz cathedral with a peak at the spectacular glass.

Metz was an ancient Celtic settlement.  Wikipedia says it was settled 2000 years ago; another source says 3000 years. It was from this part of France that the Celts migrated to what is now Ireland, the British Isles and Spain. Wikepedia has a detailed history of the many political changes in the Alsace-Lorraine region over many centuries.  Lying as it does at the point where France, Germany and Luxembourg meet, it’s not surprising to discover that this French region has a strong German background. Following the German victory over France in early 1871, Alsace Lorraine became a part of Germany. It was only at the end of World War I that it was returned to France. It was controlled by Germany again in the early 1940s.

Libbie

Resources:

Wikipedia has an extensive article about Metz, detailing its long history.

Rough Guides “Snapshot” guide to Alsace and Lorraine, available on Kindle from Amazon for around $2.

I’m on a low-budget tour so I’ll share the names of affordable places as I find them.  In Metz I stayed in Hotel Kyriad for $57 a night (breakfast not included). The room was small but comfortable and the location was perfect for touring the city.

I bought a tiny, lightweight computer for this trip and it’s giving me a difficult time. My apologies for the delay in updating this blog. It’s not that I haven’t been trying every day!

On the Road Again

For a year or more I’ve been planning an extended journey around Europe and beyond. Last Wednesday that journey began with a flight to France. I’m writing from the city of Metz in the Alsace-Lorraine region in eastern France. For the next week or so I’ll be making brief visits to four important cities in this historic region: Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg and Colmar. Today these cities may be best known for their Christmas markets. I’ve already begun enjoying one of those but I’ve also discovered much more to this region than Christmas. I’ll write more about that over the coming days but for now I want to tell you a bit about how I planned this trip.

At the end of this month I’m going to Morocco to work in a “Women’s Empowerment” program, helping young mothers learn job and language skills. The four weeks I’ll be there were the starting point for my new journey. In November 2016 I began exploring the options for volunteering in less developed parts of the world. I discovered that many so-called “voluntourism” companies exploit the good intentions of people who want to volunteer. I also quickly discovered an agency from New Zealand called Love Volunteers. Having now worked with them to make my plans for more than two years, I have come to trust this company and to discover that their volunteer placements are truly about working with local agencies in third world countries in meaningful ways to improve the lives of children, women and even animals.

So it was decided that I’ll spend most of January 2019 in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. My plan is to bring you along with me via this blog. I expect to learn much, to have many unique (for me) experiences and to make friendships with people you might like to know about. When my four weeks with the agency are done I plan to explore other parts of Morocco, including Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca and other places.

My intention is to travel for about seven or eight months, and longer if possible. Many of my friends who read my blog had the same misfortune I had in September when our small city, New Bern, North Carolina, was hit by Hurricane Florence. My travel plans have been severely impacted by expenses related to repairing my property. It was hard to decide to go ahead with my plans but many of my travel expenses (including the month in Morocco) were prepaid and nonrefundable. (There’s a lesson there for people smarter than me!) With the help of a friend who is a realtor I have been able to rent my  home to a young couple whose home was made uninhabitable by the hurricane. So here I am — beginning one more exciting journey around Europe.

My plans include eastern France, Venice for Christmas, Morocco in January, England in February (for mostly genealogical reasons), southern Italy and Sicily in March, Athens and two Greek islands in April, my favorite place in Ireland for May and much of June, and a month in a city on the Black Sea in Bulgaria for July.  I’ll travel slowly and cheaply, and I’ll tell you about it here if you choose to keep reading as I travel.  I hope you will.

Libbie

 

Solo Travel for the Medicare Generation

Before I departed on my one-woman tour of Europe in 2016 I read many blog posts, books and articles by women who enjoy traveling alone.  I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tells the negative side of solo travel for older women so I think it’s time for an honest report.

I am not a novice traveler.  My husband and I traveled for a nearly year throughout Europe. By car, train and cruise ship we went everywhere west of Budapest. Four years later we returned for five months in Ireland, France and Italy. Since then I’ve traveled alone quite often. I am a retired travel agent and I’ve often created tours and led as many as 30 people in places such as Athens and the Channel Islands. So I know how to travel!  (Or so I thought!)

In the year following my husband’s death I began planning an extended journey around Europe. I included in my itinerary some places I’d visited before and loved and some places I’d never been to but wanted to visit.  My journey lasted nearly five months and took me from Malta to Ireland. Here are some lessons learned about traveling alone from someone then approaching 70 years of age.

There are, to be sure, advantages to traveling alone. The most obvious for many people is that it’s better than not traveling at all.  When there’s no one to go with and staying home is not preferred, a carefully planned trip may be the best option. Taking a cruise, joining a tour group, becoming part of a ready-made collection of people is a good choice. There are also some disadvantages: single travelers often have to pay as much as 100% more for a cruise or tour because the travel company had counted on two people in that room, not one. It can be a bit unnerving to be going from one place to another alone.

For those who want a personalized itinerary — returning to Paris or finding a grandparent’s home town or seeing that not-yet-visited special place — going alone may be the only option. There are advantages to traveling alone. Desk clerks, rental car agents, and waiters were nicer to me than when I traveled with others. People offer assistance more readily. Perhaps my wrinkles help? Gentlemen helped me find a train station, told me the history of their towns, and forwarded mail to me after I’d moved on.

I spent much less on food because I prefer staying in vacation rentals with kitchens (called “self-catering” in the UK and Ireland). When I did go to restaurants I was paying for only one meal.  On the other hand, hotel rooms and rental cars generally cost the same whether one person or two will be using them.

Younger solo travelers often say it’s easier to meet people when you travel alone. I’m sure for them it’s true but I found it to be the opposite. I am not a woman who commands attention.  Little more than five feet tall, plain in appearance, dressed for comfort not style, I pass through the streets of large cities and small towns unnoticed. Although I’m quicker to strike up a conversation or to make a joke than I was when my husband with me, only once in my five months of travel was I invited to join others at dinner or for a walk or a drink.

As author Virginia Baily wrote in her novel Early One Morning, “Invisibility creeps up on you [as you age]. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment of its onset. Older than you might imagine when you’re young. A forty-year-old woman, for example, has a pull.  Perhaps around the age of fifty it begins … recently there had been a fading.”*

Libbie

* From Early One Morning by Virginia Baily: (p. 149)

The photo shows an Australian solo traveler with the hostess of a lovely B&B in Provins, France

My New Favorite Apps

In planning a very long trip at the lowest possible cost I’ve discovered three new apps that (along with an old favorite) are making my journey possible. Try them for planning your next trip, long or short, far away or close to home. I use them on my laptop but all have good, free apps for your smartphone.

The Culture Trip  I just found this app recently and I’m fascinated by it. Open the app, type in the name of any place you’d like to know more about and instantly a selection of articles with great photos pops up on your screen. I follow from one to the next, and after each a different array of options pops up. Culture Trip is like the world’s best travel magazine, with an endless supply of information and images, and it’s free! I’ve been using it to wander around Romania lately! It will take you anywhere!

Rome to Rio       Want to know how to travel from one place to the next anywhere in the world? Here’s the perfect way to discover all the available options. Rome to Rio has been created by a pair of Australians who were frustrated by the difficulty of planning transportation while traveling. Enter two place names and instantly you’re provided with all the ways of going from one to the other: flights, trains, buses, driving and if available, ferries. Instantly a map pops up along with a list of travel options. As you click one of those options the map shows you the route, the app tells you the cost, and then (in some cases) it offers  to arrange your ticket.

Kiwi.com            I may be the last to discover really-low-price air travel sites on the web. Now that I’ve done that I know how to fly to Europe for very little money. Yes, often it takes longer with lengthy delays to connecting flights. Today’s lowest price for my December flight to Paris, beginning at Newark airport in New Jersey, is $162 one way. That’s for a non-stop to Orly (the easier airport serving Paris). Yes, there will probably be some added costs. I just checked today’s price on American Airline’s site for this flight on a December weekday and it’s $3647.

AirBnB             Here’s my old favorite! Without AirBnB I couldn’t dream of making the journey I’m planning. Using it, I’ve found a very small apartment in the center of Venice for Christmas week for $58 a night. I’ve booked several apartments for much less than $50 a night – sometimes they are under $25 a night. Last week I cancelled my reservation for a hotel room in a French city for two nights. I replaced it with a large, well recommended room with a private bath in a lovely home and saved $110 over the cost of the hotel.

There’s an interesting story in the travel section of this weekend’s New York Times about Debbie and Michael Campbell who have been seeing the world non-stop for the past five years using AirBnB rentals. You can read it here.

Go see the world!  It can be done for much less than you think!
Libbie

The photo at the top of this post shows the rail station in Porto, Portugal.