Sunday, 8 February 2015

What can I say - (Marrakech & beyond, Part II)


This part of the Morocco post was sitting in a corner, maturing like good wine - and even as I type out that sentence, I know it was doing no such thing. This post was just sitting in a corner half-written. I've mastered procrastination to a fine art. But procrastination suits Morocco well. It's a place where everything happens when it happens.

Here it is now, the best bits. And I hope you'll think it was worth the wait.

*Long post alert* Get a cushion, make yourself comfortable.

The Riad

In Marrakech, we stayed in a traditional Moroccan riad. A painstakingly restored 17th Century house buried in the maze of the Medina. The way to the riad is in itself an adventure - when we reached Marrakech, a car picked us up at the airport and drove us through the labyrinth of the city till we reached the fringes of the Medina. Here, the driver alighted and pointed us towards a little metal 'cage' on wheels, attached to a cycle. 'Umm, what?', our looks said. Rapid hand gestures explained that the cage was not for us, but for our luggage. The Medina was a car-free zone, so the cage had been arranged by the riad so we wouldn't have to lug our suitcases. We loaded our luggage and a little girl into the contraption, and off we went, following it through arteries of narrow lanes, dodging donkeys, mopeds and cyclists. After only a minute or so, we stopped in front of a small, nondescript door in a sliver of an alley.



But then, the door opened. And the world changed. Magic.


We walked into an oasis of contradiction. From the ochre smells and tangy walls of the city, into a white, marbled courtyard that smelled of roses and opened up to the sky, with a pool of water at its center. As green as the outside was not. There were bananas and oranges hanging off the trees, and the house growing around it. Cats lazed on large cushions, and turtles snoozed amidst the fronds. Stairs wound up to sunny terraces. And warm smiles greeted you, welcomed you in.




This is Riad Berbere, a flawlessly beautiful old home run by the charming Ingrid and her team of wonderfully kind local women, who went out of their way, every day, to make us feel at home. This was where Chotto-ma was in her elements - playing with the cats, running around the courtyard, chatting with the women in the kitchen. While D and I lounged by the fireplace chatting over a glass of local wine.


The food we had at the riad were some of the finest of our stay in Morocco. Everything on the table was made by the women in the riad -  the bread would be brought in straight from the oven every morning, along with fluffy pancakes served with homemade preserves, freshly-squeezed orange juice, bowls of fruits and mint tea. At night, a traditional Moroccan meal would be made with whatever was bought from the market on the day. One of our meals was a trio of warm salads, lamb slow-cooked with plums in a tagine, couscous and for dessert crisp-fried phyllo pastry layered with a light creme-anglais and strawberries.

A part of me wants to keep Riad Berbere a secret; keep it to myself. But here it is. If there's one place you should rest your head in Marrakech, this is the one.

[You can also find wonderful reviews of Riad Berbere on Tripadvisor]




The Hike

On the day D turned a year older (and purportedly, wiser) we went on a hike to Ourika, to clamber up a brutally bouldered rock-face to a waterfall. My idea of a birthday gift; and knowing D, the perfect one too. The climb was steep, slippery with mountain streams, and a test in balance. We had a guide called Omar - the nicest person you can imagine - who took care of Chotto-ma every inch of the climb, while D and I concentrated on saving our bones and breath.


He swung her over sharp rock-faces, over gushing streams with wet logs for bridges, he picked her up and bounded up the bigger boulders, then stood her up in a safe spot while giving us a hand to pull us up. And Chotto-ma, boy, she did us proud that day - she walked and walked and walked, and never once changed her mind about making it to the end.

Reaching the waterfall feels like an achievement, a relief, an absolute joy. And then, you look down, and see the sheer rocky drop down, the boulders descending in utter tumble, and realise it's the only way down.



We wouldn't change a thing about that day. And we have the lovely people at Morocco Attractive Tours to thank for it. Abdul, who drove us through the valleys and to Ourika in a 4X4, spoke several languages, and made the trip come alive with anecdotes and facts about the land and its people we would never have known otherwise.

You can also book their tour through Viator, as we did.




A Few Good Meals

Apart from the food from the Riad's kitchen, which made us wait excitedly for dinner, there were a few food experiences that stood out. 


{Jemaa-El-Fna}


This is the Morocco most photographed. Jemaa-El-Fna, the throbbing, beating center of Marrakech. Ancient, unchanged. Spilling over with dancers and snake-charmers and bowls of snail soup. Rows and rows of stalls cooking food, tossing them onto plates, sliding them down long tables to waiting mouths. Loud, hungry for business, persistent, cajoling. It often puts foreign tourists off; tourists who're more used to a softer luring. To us though, it was like being back in India. We didn't miss a beat, and nor did the boys at the stall. They walked up to us singing songs from Hindi films. We love India, they said, kissing a startled Chotto-ma on the head.



We ate at Stall 31, which is always full of locals. (While travelling, this is our simple guide to food - eat where the locals eat; it has never failed us). You start by copying the locals: first come plates of tomato sauce, a little like a salsa, which you mop up with chunks of bread. And then, you let yourself go crazy. What I would recommend are the merguez sausages - as many plates as you can eat. The marinated olives. And a spiced mash of greens, which I know not the name of, but which was good, good, good.








{The Berber Lunch}

On D's birthday, we ate lunch in a Berber home, high up in the Atlas Mountains. A modest home, an almost barren home, but with a kitchen that simmered and smoked with food straight off the land. As far as birthday meals go, I dare say I nailed it.

We ate sitting on a terrace that looked out at the mountains from all sides. A lentil soup, homebaked bread, vegetable couscous with ladles of broth, a chicken and apple tagine. Oranges and mint tea.

Sitting there in the crisp mountain air, our muscles aching from the hike, we ate this warming food. Out of charred, earthen tagines. Soups in green, wonky bowls typical of Berber pottery. Meat falling off the bone. Fluffy couscous piled onto grateful plates.


{A Day in Amal}

Amal is many things -  a training center, a restaurant, a place to learn more about Moroccan culture, but most importantly, it's a place that does good work. Amal helps disadvantaged women find their feet. Through food, and the art of cooking, it empowers local women to earn money, earn their independence. It's a happy place, with women chatting and laughing as they work, bustling around it's garden and corridors. Amal is supported by a small group of people strewn all over the world, and run by Hassan, the director of the center, a charming, witty man who left New York to come back home to Morocco to run this bit of hope.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a day there, doing a cooking class (in between stirring, Chotto-ma also climbed every orange tree in their courtyard, but that's another story).


It was our last day, we had a flight to catch, but if we hadn't squeezed Amal in, we would've missed something very special, important even. Important because it gave us an insight into how simple homecooking can help make a powerful difference. And it brought me in touch with some lovely women, who smiled and gestured me into the art of couscous. Not the 10-minute couscous we quickly throw together before a meal here. But a couscous of patience, taking longer than lamb, steamed gently over a simmering pot of vegetable, then fluffed and steamed and fluffed and steamed and fluffed again. Till it billowed into a pile many times its original size. Shaped into a pyramid and layered with the vegetables that had been simmering, simmering, simmering.


For lunch, we ate what we had cooked - the couscous cooked with Fouzia and Jamila, who showed us how. I also tried my hand at phyllo making, to much encouraging applause - it's a tricky combination of smearing watery dough on a scalding hot metal plate (with your bare hands), and rotating the plate at the same time, till a thin muslin-like layer is made. And then peeling it up like glue off your fingers.


Amal is a place you leave feeling good. Good for having known and been a day's part of this wonderful venture. And for having met this group of good people. When we left Amal and were making our way to the airport, we realised that D had left his winter jacket behind, with important papers in its pockets. We turned our taxi back. But when we returned to Amal, Hassan told us that he had already sent a man with the jacket to the airport. Which was 45 minutes away from the center. When we made our way back to the airport, we found the man standing there with the black jacket and a big smile.

What can I say. We couldn't have left Morocco better.


PS: If you missed Part I of the post, it's here sunning itself.

PPS: This post was NOT sponsored by any of the establishments mentioned - they are all personal recommendations. 



27 comments:

  1. I travel to interesting places full of colour and taste with you! Lovely...worth the wait!

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    1. Thanks AD :) It's a wonderful country to photograph and write about. Sometimes, walking its streets made me miss India.

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  2. Now what can I say!! :) Reading through your post, I could imagine myself in Morocco. Such wonderful use of words Pia.

    Great photographs. They have captured so many beautiful moments :)

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    1. I love that you travelled with my words, Meera. It's nice to get little reminders of why I write this blog. Thank you.

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  3. Lovely account of your trip, Pia. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it, especially the bits about the riad and the home for impoverished women.

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    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. And happy you're enjoying 'The Caliph's House' too. If you're on a travel book roll, give me a shout when you're done with this. I have many more on my much-loved list.

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    2. Please, please, please do share your recos. I'm always on a travel and foodie book roll. :)

      I have quite a few suggestions of my own on these two fronts.

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    3. Well, my all-time 'travel book; is My Family And Other Animals - but you've probably done and dusted that one?
      Throw your suggestion in too.

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    4. Travel books:

      1. A thousand days in Venice, A thousand days in Tuscany and Lady in the palazzo - Marlena de Blasi
      2. Under the Tuscan sun, Bella Tuscany, A year in the world - Frances Mayes
      3. A year in Provence - Peter Mayle

      Foodie books:

      1. The empress of ice cream - Anthony Capella
      2. Relish - Lucy Knisley
      3. The dirty life - Kristin Kimball
      4. The food of love - Anthony Capella
      5. The school of essential ingredients - Erica Bauermeister
      6. Korma, kheer & kismet - Pamela Timms
      7. Eating India - Chitrita Banerji
      8. A homemade life - Molly Wizenberg
      9. Climbing the mango trees - Madhur Jaffrey
      10. Monsoon diary - Shoba Narayan

      And, no, I haven't read My family and other animals. :) You'd be surprised by the HUGE gap that you'd find in my reading.

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    5. Super! Thanks for the list. Most of those travel books are on my shelf, read and loved. Peter Mayle is a favourite. Will definitely check out some of the food-books I missed.
      'My Family and Other Animals' is family thing: it's my mother's favourite book, which she passed on to me and my brother, which I passed on to D, and am waiting to pass on to Chotto-ma :)

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  4. I still dream of Italy, thanks to your last travel post. And now you have such wonderfully evocative things to say about Morocco (a place I've always had on my travel list). What beautiful, compelling, travel writing, this!

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    1. Roxana, I'm sure you'll make your way to Morocco some day and love it as I did. It's funny that a place that feels so close to India in many ways is so far from it in distance. Thank you for loving the piece as you did :)

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  5. Mesmerising, as always. Your words and photographs made me dream of Morocco again. Wish I had a magic carpet. :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Sasha! It's such a wonderful country isn't it? Easy to love. I'm in the queue for a magic carpet too :)

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  6. loved every bit of your posts. the words you choose, your ideas, your photography.. just amazing! not to mention, your experiences!
    my personal favorite was the black and white of chhoto-ma with the multi colored beanie.. her eye-lashes in that picture! oh my god! so cute! i could cuddle and gobble every inch of her! mwah!

    keep up the good work.. and much love to you.. especially on Valentine's!

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    1. Morocco was fascinating. It's an easy country to photograph; so much stark beauty.
      You know, she forgot that beanie in school the other day, and we thought it was lost forever. It has lots of memories, that beanie. Thankfully she found it the next day. And yes, now it's atop those lashes :)
      Blowing kisses to your warmer side of the world. Please pray for our damn winter to be over.
      Love.

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  7. Pia: thank you for sharing such splendid secrets of your magical trip... Because it sounds like 1000 and one nights squished into a week!

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    1. Ah, could there be a more moorish compliment than that for this post? Thank you, Amelia.

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  8. Pia! Am back after a looong hiatus from blogging and its lovely to see all that you have been up to :) As usual, your words just weave magic! The house growing around the tress... I dont think I have heard anyone describe a house this beautifully. You make your posts sing - sometimes with joy, sometimes nostalgia and heartache, and sometimes just a lullaby. Love coming back to your blog...

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    1. So lovely to have you back, Swati! And thank you so much - huge hug for reading and loving my space. You post on the cellphone-less days made me smile, though smile was the last thing you would've done at that busstop all those years ago.
      And yes, those technologically-backward days were 'forward' in so many ways, though.

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  9. +100 to what Swati says above about your blog posts, wonderful is the word. it is as if I travelled along with you in Morocco , wherever you went, even had those awesome meals... lovely house, lovely people and above all love your writing... take care and keep writing..

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    1. This post took a long time to write. But that is what I wanted - to take you through the lanes and mountains we loved. That I managed to give you a sense and smell of the country, makes me happy. Thank you.

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  10. Magic, Pia. There is something so beautiful about your writing. I sit and read and feel my eyes start to water with tears of joy. Completely wonderful.

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    1. Your words walked with me a long time. Thank you, for saying that, and feeling this, and being here. Much love, Tracy.

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  11. Pia, I came here in hopes of seeing said new post (from instagram) but realized I hadn't re-read this after the time I'd read it in a hurry on the phone and filed away in my head for actually soaking everything in.
    What do I say! Thank you again so much for so generously sharing - choto-ma, the travels, the food..
    Meanwhile, new post?

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    1. I think I needed your note to nudge me into finishing the post I was writing. It's on the blog now, as you'll see! Thanks, Lakshmi xx

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  12. Black pepper corns is king of spices. black peppercorns are left on the vine longer so they develop a deep, rich flavor.

    Thanks for information !!!

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