Dublin, Lisbon, Rome – where will your next citybreak be?

April 18, 2014 by  

When spring arrives with sunshine and daffodils, it always puts me in the mood for planning my next getaway, a mini-break to throw off the chill of winter and tide me over until the summer holidays. If you’re in the mood for a weekend away in Europe or the UK, take a look at the fun web app from SuperBreak to fuel your holiday inspiration. Whether you’re planning a relaxing half term break with the family, a weekend of eating and entertainment with your friends, or a cultural city-break with your partner, here are some of the destinations that you might want to consider;

If you’re a couple looking for a weekend of food, drink and entertainment you might look at….

Dublin

Dublin at night Photo by Lendog64 on Flickr

Dublin at night, the ultimate party town

What Superbreak have to say; Just a quick jump across the water and you can enjoy traditional Bars, comedy clubs, delicious local food and the ever-so-friendly Irish welcome! Guinness at the ready!

What I enjoyed about Dublin;

  • I love the way that the Irish always have a story to tell, that you can go into any pub and strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and there’s always some music and a song or two.
  • Visit the Guinness Storehouse in an amazing 7 storey old warehouse with modern glass additions to learn about Dublin’s favourite tipple – you’ll be shown how to pull the perfect pint of the black stuff and can buy up the brand’s heritage (love the retro toucans).
  • Take the train out to Sandy Cove, a seaside spot where the members of the 40 foot swimming club test the water every day of the year and where James Joyce lived in an old Martello tower and liked to take a dip.

Here’s what I wrote about Dublin: The best of TBEX, the best of Dublin

But if you and your partner are looking for a weekend of culture in Europe, why not try…

Rome

The Trevi Fountain in Rome Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Throw your coin in the Trevi Fountain in Rome to return some day

What Superbreak have to say; With a wealth of history, culture and plenty of Italian charisma, you can’t help but feel the love on a weekend break in Rome with someone special.

What I enjoyed about Rome;

  • Buying a gelato from the kiosk shop on the island in the Tiber and eating it with a view of the river where Dan Brown’s hero, in the book Angels and Demons, parachutes out of an exploding helicopter to land on the island.
  • Visiting the Turtle fountain or Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei first thing in the morning before the crowds have gathered – so much more charming and less crowded than the Trevi Fountain.
  • Visiting the daily fruit and vegetable market in Campo de’Fiori and buying a slice of pizza fresh from the oven from the artizan bakery at one end, then sitting on the steps of the central monument to eat it.

Here’s one of my stories about Rome: The view from the dome of St Peter’s in Rome

If you are a couple who fancy a weekend of culture in the UK take a look at …

Stratford-upon-Avon

The river at Stratford-upon-Avon Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Picnic by the river at Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare

What Superbreak have to say; Discover the quaint city of Stratford upon Avon on a romantic weekend break. Step back in time in this historic city and see the spots where Shakespeare’s most famous plays were created.

What I love to do in Stratford-upon-Avon;

  • Visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a fabulous venue that has gone through a multi-million pound renovation. You must try and get a ticket to see one of their Shakespeare productions but even if you can’t, be sure to pop in to wander round the building, visit one of the exhibitions, climb the tower or take a backstage tour.
  • Taking afternoon tea at the Arden Hotel right opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the perfect place for a lunch stop in between sightseeing or a pre-theatre dinner before you pop across the road for the performance.
  • Several of the houses in and around Stratford associated with Shakespeare and his family are open to the public, and we we especially love Anne Hathaway’s Cottage with its cottage garden and the settle by the fire where young William might have snuggled with his new bride Anne.

Here’s what I wrote about Stratford-upon-Avon: The Tower and other Transformations at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

But if you are a group who’d like a weekend of culture in Europe why not try …

Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Visit the great Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

What Superbreak have to say; With history, landmarks and iconic French architecture around every corner, Paris offers everything a group would need for a cultural break. Don’t forget your camera!

What I enjoyed about Paris;

  • Wandering around the Parisian’s choice of market, Marche d’Aligre with the most polished and perfect fruit and vegetables, a mouthwatering selection of prepared dishes in the covered market and a flea market where you can buy everything from vintage footwear to elegant wine glasses.
  • Walking down Canal Saint Martin to admire all the houseboats and then continuing along the narrow footpath right beside the Seine, with views of Notre Dame in the distance – a world away from the tourist crowds at the cathedral itself.
  • Exploring the covered arcades with art galleries and street cafes in Place des Vosges and then visiting Maison Victor Hugo to find out about the life and times of this celebrated French writer, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Here’s what I wrote about Paris: Our winter weekend in Paris, the food, the sights, the video

And if and your friends are looking for a weekend of culture in Europe, why not try…

Lisbon

The vintage trams in Lisbon Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Ride the vintage trams in Lisbon up the hill

What Superbreak have to say; A weekend break in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital offers an eclectic mix of fascinating Portuguese history and contemporary art and culture.

What I loved about Lisbon;

  • Listening to the mournful Fado singers who perform in the restaurants in the Bairo Alto and Alfama neighbourhoods – don’t expect the food to be anything special but the music will touch your soul.
  • Eating Pasteis de Belem from the famous cakes shop near the Monastery of Jerónimos - these creamy custard tarts are the signature of Lisbon and you can either sit in the vaulted cafe rooms at the back of the shop or take them away to eat in the gardens overlooking the port.
  • Taking the yellow, vintage No 28 tram up the hill to the Castelo de Sao Jorge where you can walk around the ramparts and gaze over the rooftops towards the river where the ships left to conquer the New World centuries ago.

Here’s one of my stories about Lisbon: An autumn weekend in Lisbon – Podcast

There are plenty more inspirational short break destinations to discover with the SuperBreak app so why not give it a try and see where your inspiration leads you.

About the Superbreak Holiday Inspirator:  To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Yorkshire based holiday company  Superbreak.com have created a fun app to help you choose the perfect UK or European city break based on who you’re travelling with and what you enjoy. Check out the Superbreak Holiday Inspirator Webapp or follow the coversation on the Superbreak Facebook Page or on Twitter @Superbreak using hashtag #SuperBreakinspo

This article is brought to you in partnership with Superbreak.com

Photo Credits: Dublin at night by LenDog64 Other photos by Heatheronhertravels.com

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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Finding Josphine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech – video

April 14, 2014 by  

When Mike and Lucie Wood found an old property in the Marrakech Medina to add to their small group of Marrakech Boutique Riads, they named it Riad Star, for not much more reason than their daughter liked the name. It was only when neighbours asked them if they were naming it after the star who had lived there, that they learned this had once been home to Josephine Baker; the American born cabaret artist of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who had been the toast of Paris, who had been awarded the Legion d’Honeur by Charles de Gaule for her wartime work in the French Resistance and who was a leader in the civil rights movement for racial equality. In honour of Josephine Baker, the renovation of Riad Star, with its art deco woodwork and coloured glass took a new theme, incorporating jazz age glamour and sparkle and a sprinkling of objets and memorabilia from the period.

Riad Star, Marrakech Photo by RiadStar.com

The courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech, decorated on a Jazz age theme

I hope you enjoy the video below of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech

If you can’t see the video above of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech view it on my blog here or on YouTube here

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We spent a weekend staying at Riad Star in May, taking advantage of the new easyJet direct flight from Bristol with a schedule that is well timed for long weekend breaks. Our taxi from the airport dropped us as close as it could could get to the Riad, where Abdel, the energetic Riad manager greeted us and led us through the narrow lanes to the unassuming door of the Riad, marked only with a small star. Miriam, the Riad’s excellent cook had prepared a traditional Moroccan meal for us with a selection of side dishes as starters; coleslaw with walnuts and sweet dried fruits, a delicious rice dish with green and red peppers, courgettes and green beans cooked with oil, lemon, parsley and cumin. After such a feast we barely had room for the succulant and fruity lamb tagine cooked with prunes, a dish that is often served at celebration meals in Morocco.

The Josephine room where stayed is thought to be where Josephine Baker herself slept, and the white walls were hung with Jazz age prints from the Revue Negre as well as a large portrait of Grace Kelly who befriended Josephine Baker and invited her to perform in Monacco. The double bed covered with a soft gold bedspread was framed by an arch of traditional carved plasterwork, while silver cutwork metal lamps threw patterns of light on the ceiling. On the tiled floor was a Zayan Berber marriage shawl serving as a rug, with silver sequins woven into the fabric to represent money and a few small tables and stools scattered with catalogues and records from Josephine Baker’s musical performances.

The Josephine Room at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Josephine Room at Riad Star in Marrakech

Our en suite bathroom was a similar fusion of traditional Moroccan polished plasterwork and art deco inspired polished black marble with delicious orange blossom shower gel and body lotion from Les Sens de Marrakech. The powerful shower was contained in a bathing area with a high step which I tackled rather carefully for fear of slipping on the tiled surfaces. At the internal window from which voices wafted up from the kitchen below, was a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker dangling in the space, complete with banana skirt and pouting lips.

Our bathroom in the Josephine room at Riad Star Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Our bathroom in the Josephine room at Riad Star

From reading the books and biographies about Josephine Baker that were scattered around the Riad, I learned more fascinating stories of her time in Marrakech. In the early years of the Second World War, Josephine had started to work for the French resistance, secretly passing information about German operations within occupied France which she hid in her underwear or wrote in invisible ink on her music scores. In 1941 she received orders to move on the North Africa, arriving first in Algiers and then moving on the Casablanca and Marrakech, and it was during this time that she met one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Morocco, T’hami el Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech. Josephine had left France suffering with pneumonia and fatigue but now El Glaoui offered her a place to rest and recuperate in his palace, now the Museum of Marrakech next door to Riad Star, putting on a grand dinner in her honour.

The inner courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The inner courtyard of Riad Star in Marrakech

The two became close friends and in 1942 Josephine became pregnant and late in her pregnancy suffered a miscarriage in the clinic in Casablanca. She developed an acute infection  from which she nearly died and had an emergency hysterectomy which meant that she could never have children of her own. When she was well enough Josephine returned to Marrakech where El Glaoui offered her the use of the guest wing of his palace, now Riad Star, to recuperate. It is said that the Pasha paid children to stand under her window and recite verses from the Koran, as we might say a prayer for someone’s good health and speedy recovery.

As the Josephine room where we stayed is the only room in the riad that overlooks the street, which is unusual as most look inwards to the courtyard, it is believed that this must have been her bedroom. In the street she was known for her generosity and the elderly neighbour remembered being given sweets and modelling clay by her when he was a child. After her recovery Josephine Baker spent the remaining war years touring North Africa entertaining the American, English and French troops and later adopted a ‘Rainbow tribe’ of thirteen children to make up for the children of her own she could never have.

Jazz bedroom in Riad Star Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Jazz bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech

We loved the fusion of Moroccan craftsmanship at Riad Star with the elegant furnishings and metalwork from the souk and the Art Deco antiques and objets that owners, Mike and Lucie Wood have collected on their travels. Each room is decorated in unique style and is named after a part of Josephine Baker’s life; The Paris room after the Casino de Paris that made her a star; the Rainbow room after her Rainbow tribe of adoptive children and the Chiquita room on the roof terrace after her pet cheetah.

Rainbow bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Rainbow bedroom in Riad Star, Marrakech

Each morning we were served a delicious breakfast of fruit salad, pancakes and scrambled eggs, seated at the green banquette in the alcove to one side of the inner courtyard, which had a small dipping pool to cool off on hot days. While many of the Riads of Marrakech have been converted into holiday homes or small boutique hotels, they were originally family homes designed to house extended families, with different generations living in the rooms that overlook the internal courtyard. The narrow street outside may look a little scruffy, but the unassuming door opens to reveal an elegant private world, designed to shield the women from prying eyes and to keep the house cool in the heat of summer. Owner, Mike Wood told me how most of the skilled craftsmen he had employed to recreate the traditional Beijmat teracotta tiled floors, Tadlakt polished plasterwork and hand carved plasterwork friezes and arches, could be found within 10 minutes of the Riad. From the souk had come embroidered cushions, small silver poufs and stools, silver cut metalwork lanterns and berber sequin marriage rugs, as well as art deco statues and ornaments in keeping with the Jazz Age theme.

Breakfast at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Breakfast at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The roof terrace has been converted into a delightful area for relaxation, with a wrought iron ballustrade around the central opening which has a clever retractable roof to keep the courtyard below dry and warm in the cooler months. The terrace is cleverly designed with different seating and sunbathing areas separated by arrangements of shrubs and herbs in pots, and in the evening the fairy lights twinkle in the bouganvillia with a fireplace for cooler evenings. There’s also a private hammam that leads off the terrace, where private treatments can be arranged, which is ideal for couples who want to try the hammam experience together, as the public hammams are strictly segregated.

The terrace at Riad Star in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The terrace at Riad Star in Marrakech

In keeping with the Josephine Baker theme, there’s a rail of sparkling, sequinned dresses and other costumes provided for guests to dress up, with a jewellery box of 1920s style hair ornaments and necklaces to try. While we were there, the Riad had a special display of costumes for the Marrakech Bienniale cultural festival, including a red evening gown worn by Josephine Baker in during one of her final performances in Paris before she died in 1975. The Woods managed to purchase the dress, along with a sequined costume worn by the celebrated French singer, Mistinguett, letters, a movie script and other Josephine Baker memorabilia at a recent auction at the Casino de Paris.

Left: Josephine Baker dancing in her banana skirt Right: Dress worn by Josephine Baker in Paris Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Josephine Baker dancing in her banana skirt Right: Dress worn by Josephine Baker in Paris

We very much enjoyed our stay at Riad Star, being looked after by the wonderful staff, relaxing in the beautifully restored surroundings and reliving a little Jazz Age glamour. I’m sure Josephine Baker would have approved.

Visiting Riad Star and Marrakech

Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast. The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.

Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!

We also found the free Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app features a GPS responsive map of the old town medina which saves you from getting lost in the maze of narrow lanes and the latest version has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech. Download the free Marrakech-Riad app from iTunes here

More things to see in Morocco

Marrakech – on shopping, sightseeing and (not) getting lost in the souk
Paradise Valley – Blue pools and waterfalls in Morocco – video
Top 10 things to do in Marrakech

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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A weekend in Birmingham on the Tolkien Trail

April 8, 2014 by  

With the latest addition to The Hobbit trilogy being recently released on DVD, and the next instalment ready to grace our cinema screens in a few months, now would be a perfect time to delve a little deeper into the life of the author, JRR Tolkien. While he may have been born in South Africa in 1892, he had an affinity with the city of Birmingham since moving there at four years old and, as such, literary fans will love to explore the sights that have been linked to the writer’s Midland adventures.

The Tolkein Trilogy

The Tolkein Trilogy

It’s often believed that Middle Earth was based on the Midlands, so it’s only natural to want to see where Tolkien gained his inspiration. If you’re after a weekend break in the city so that you can see more, book with Travelodge and you won’t have to worry about spending more than your budget can allow on accommodation. The Tolkien Trail is the perfect way of exploring parts of Tolkien’s childhood, with highlights including:

Sareholl Mill in Birmingham Photo: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Sareholl Mill in Birmingham on the Tolkein Trail

  • Sarehole Mill, situated in the village of Sarehole (which is often considered to be the inspiration for Hobbiton and The Shire), is a fantastic museum that pays homage to Tolkien. It’s believed that he, and his brother, used to play for hours near the mill. It’s only open for part of the year though, so make sure you check that it’s open before you visit to avoid disappointment.
Moseley Bog in Birmingham Photo: Peter Lewis on Flickr

Moseley Bog in Birmingham

  • Moseley Bog was once a mill pool and was the site of many an adventure for Tolkien when he was a lad. Nowadays, it’s a Local Nature Reserve and a perfect addition to your Tolkien itinerary if you’re a lover of the great outdoors. You can access it via Yardley Wood Road or the Wake Green Playing Fields.
  • St Anne’s Church on Alcester Street is where Tolkien and his family used to worship. Pop by during service hours and you can enjoy the interior beauty as well as the outside.
  • Perrott’s Folly stands near to the Edgbaston Waterworks, alongside a Victorian tower that, together, are believed to be the inspiration behind the Two Towers of Gondor – which, as any Tolkien fan will know, is the name of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Perrotts Folly in Brirmingham Photo: Tony Hidgett on Flickr

Perrotts Folly in Birmingham on the Tolkein trail

Whether you wish to head off on your own adventure, discovering these places and more, or you prefer to embark upon a Middle Earth tour with the help of a tour guide, the Tolkien trail is a must for any fan of this fantasy writer. These tours operate at various times during the year, so keep an eye on the Midlands Discovery Tours site if you fancy being part of the next one – you can sign up to receive email notification of when tickets for the next tour go on sale, and it’s recommended you do so, because they sell fast!

If you can’t wait for the next tour, there’s no reason why you can’t venture out on your own to see where the inspiration for Tolkien’s amazing literary works evolved. Incorporate it into your visit to Birmingham and learn more about Tolkien’s roots in The Midlands.

This article was brought to you in partnership with Travelodge.

Photo Credits: Sarehole Mill by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Moseley Bog by Peter Lewis, Perrott’s Folly by Tony Hisgett, Tolkein Trilogy from TheHobbit.com

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Tagines and fresh orange juice – the food we enjoyed in Morocco

April 7, 2014 by  

My recent trip to Marrakech has brought back mouth-watering memories of last year’s trip to Morrocco with the family, when we stayed in Taghazout, the surf-capital of Morocco. Our week was spent in an apartment that overlooked the ocean and we spent our time either trying to surf (the kids) or hanging out in the many little cafes along the sea front (me) surfing in our imagination while sipping a refreshing orange juice or a sweet mint tea.

Eating Cous Cous at Paradise Valley in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Eating Cous Cous at Paradise Valley in Morocco

We were there around Easter a year ago, and since Morocco is a warm and sunny spring destination and a number of airlines, such as Monarch offer cheap flights to Agadir, there’s really no excuse to go. Here are some of the happy food memories from our trip to Taghazout and Agadir to tempt you;

Moroccan Salad and orange juice at Taghazout in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Moroccan Salad and orange juice at Taghazout in Morocco

Because of the years that Morocco was under a French protectorate, it’s easy to find delicious freshly baked baguettes as well as the more traditional Moroccan flat-bread to eat for breakfast. With it we tried the local Amlou, a dip made of ground almonds, Argan oil and local honey which was so moreish that we had to bring a jar home with us. It makes a smooth, oily mixture, a bit like runny peanut butter to dip your bread into and on one of our day trips we stopped at the Argan oil co-operative to learn how the argan kernels are pressed to make the oil used both in cooking and in skin and hair preparations.

Lunch was often a Moroccan salad which is served in all the cafes and restaurants as a side dish or starter, preferably with a view of the expert surfers twisting and turning their way into the beach. The salad is made from the vegetables that most families might have growing in their back garden, chopped small, such as tomatoes, cucumber, green and red peppers and red onion tossed in vinaigrette and served with French bread.

Orange sellers Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Orange sellers in Morocco

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not generally served, except in cafes and restaurants that cater for Europeans, but instead we drank gallons of freshly pressed orange juice. In the markets you’ll see huge stalls full of oranges waiting to be taken home and pressed into juice and we also came across a few juice bars that sold more interesting juice combinations, using carrots, beetroot and ginger such as the kiosk next to L’Auberge in Taghazout.

Chickpea Salad in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Chickpea Salad in Morocco

Another ingredient that featured in many of the Moroccan dishes we ate was chickpeas, which is made into hummus but also used in the green salad that we often ordered, mixed with other Mediterannean ingredients such as tomatoes, black olives and goats cheese, or cooked in tagine dishes in place of meat.

Cous Cous at L'Auberge in Taghazout Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cous Cous at L’Auberge in Taghazout

A staple of the North African cuisine is of course cous cous, a small grain that is steamed and then served with oven cooked vegetables and sometimes pieces of meat or chickpeas. I began to realise that the same repertoire of Moroccan dishes appears in almost every restaurant, from the street-food vendor to the smart restaurant, so you are often paying more for the decor and ambiance of the restaurant than any difference in the style or quality of the food.

We ate cous cous several times in different variations in Taghazout, from the elegant French-style version at L’Auberge, to a party version for the guest night put on by the owners of the Surf’n'Stay apartment where we stayed, as well as a home cooked version prepared over the open fire after our walk up to Paradise Valley. Each time there is a base of cooked cous cous in the bottom of the clay tagine dish, topped with chunks of meat and then a layer of large vegetable pieces, such as carrots and courgettes and potatoes laid over the mound of cous cous, with a dish of spicy harissa sauce of the side or poured over the top to give extra flavour. I gather that the French almost regard cous cous, which they inherited from their North African colonies as a national dish, just as we Brits love a good curry even though our Indian empire is long gone.

Cous Cous at Paradise Valley near Agadir Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cous Cous at Paradise Valley near Agadir

The final favourite that we discovered in every restaurant was the Tagine, which refers more to the style of oven cooking in a clay pot than to any specific combination of meat and vegetables. Just as we might talk about a stew or casserole cooked in the oven, the Moroccan tagine dishes rely on being cooked oh so slowly in the oven (think six hours). Since every neighbourhood would have a hammam, you might leave your tagine dish with the man stoking the wood fired boiler for the hammam and come back a few hours later after your bath to pick it up for your lunch.

Chicken with apricots in Morocco Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Chicken with apricots in Morocco

The tagines we tried seemed to often combine meat with fruit flavours, such as lamb cooked with prunes or chicken cooked with preserved lemons and green olives which were delicious.

I know that in a week near Agadir we only scratched the surface of Moroccan cuisine and were probably experiencing the tourist favourite dishes. From reading some of the Moroccan Food blogs out there such as The View from Fez and Maroc Mama I know there is plenty of variety in Moroccan home cooking, so if you are tempted, I commend some of their recipes to you. Enjoy!

More inspiration from Morocco

Paradise Valley – blue pools and Waterfalls in Morocco
Life’s a beach – watching the surfers in Taghazout
Marrakech – on shopping, sightseeing and (not) getting lost in the souk

This article was brought to you in partnership with Monarch Airlines who fly twice a week from Manchester to Morocco.

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Marrakech – on shopping, sightseeing and (not) getting lost in the Souk

March 29, 2014 by  

Marrakech can be exotic, chaotic, challenging and welcoming in turn. You want belt? You want slippers? Where are you from? How much you want to pay? A woman grabs my arm and offers to to cover it with intricate henna patterns. When I decline she starts to make a ‘present’ of a design on my hand and I have to tug myself away. I point the camera in the direction of a distant group of snake charmers and instantly a man is there with a cap asking for payment.

Heather at Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Heather at Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech

There are sights to see in Marrakech; palaces, gardens, mosques, but that’s not really the point. You go for the colour, the street-life, the banter, the people. All of this can be rather exhausting of course, so thank goodness we were staying at Riad Star, a haven of calm within the Medina or walled city. Riad Star is the latest addition to a small family of boutique Riads, owned by English couple, Mike and Lucie Wood, and is beautifully designed on a Jazz Age theme in honour of Josephine Baker, cabaret star of the 1920s and 30s, who lived there for a time.

To help you make the most of your stay in Marrakech, the couple have designed the Marrakech-Riad i-phone app that you can download free from iTunes, giving you tips on haggling, information on restaurants, recommended shops and things to see around the Medina. Best of all the app has a map that is stored on your phone (no need for wifi or roaming) with all the points of interest marked on it and a GPS feature which means you can navigate your way through the narrow passageways of the souk by following the moving dot, without falling prey to those helpful young men who point you in the wrong direction and then offer to  show you the way (for a small fee).

The Saadian tombs in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Saadian tombs in Marrakech

We flew to Marrakech with easyJet for a weekend on their new direct route from Bristol and spent our time sightseeing, haggling for things we didn’t really need and trying not to get too lost – although that is half the fun. The Saadian tombs were one of the things we discovered, entering in single file through a narrow walled passage, that opened into a large courtyard. Pavilions with columns and carved plasterwork housed the tombs marked on the floor in tiles, with a raised section to prevent anyone walking on the dead. These tombs are the resting place of the rulers of the 16th century Saadi dynasty, but were dusty and forgotten until 1917 when they were rediscovered and restored.

Even more impressive was the Medersa Ben Youssef, an Islamic religious school founded in the 14th century with over a hundred tiny rooms for the pupils, overlooking the courtyard with central shallow pool. The Medersa is well known in the Islamic world and every surface is covered with patterned tiles in blues, green and browns as well as intricate plasterwork and Arabic inscriptions. The richly decorated surroundings make it the ideal place to bring visiting royalty and celebrities to be photographed framed in one of the windows or against a tiled backdrop that says “Here I am in Marrakech”. The Medersa even starred as an Algerian Sufi retreat with Kate Winslet, in the film Hideous Kinky.

The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech

Even more recognisable for those “Here I am in Marrakech” photos, are the Majorelle Gardens which have become known for that particular shade of blue named after them, “Majorelle Blue”. The gardens were developed in the 1920s and 1930s by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle and were later bought and renovated in the 1980s by the French fashion designer, Yves Saint-Laurent. The gardens feel a bit like walking into an art installation, clothed with tropical bamboo stems, shady palms, spiky cactus and water lilies drifting in shallow pools. Rich teracotta painted paths lead the eye towards electric blue pavillions, while acid yellow and tangerine painted and planted pots punctuate the garden paths. There’s an interesting museum of Berber clothing and jewellery within the gardens, but don’t make the mistake of taking a sneaky photo inside or you’ll get a severe telling off like I did!

Vegetarian dish at Earth Cafe in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Vegetarian dish at Earth Cafe in Marrakech

We used the Marrakech-Riad app to locate interesting places to eat as we wandered through the Medina, mainly European style cafes such as Earth Cafe that specialises in fresh juices and vegetarian and vegan dishes. I enjoyed my beetroot, ginger and orange juice with a lunch of roasted tagine vegetables topped with goat’s cheese. We were equally at home at some of the street kiosks that we came across in the souk where we tried a mini tagine of lamb and vegetables served with bread and a Moroccan salad of chopped cucumber and tomatoes. We discovered that the same fresh orange juice, tagines, flat bread, and Moroccan salad dishes appeared in most of the restaurants, so the choice of where to eat was less about the originality of the food and more about the setting and ambiance.

Painted tagines in the Souk at Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Painted tagines in the Souk at Marrakech

Haggling in the souk can be a daunting prospect, since you know that all the traders have been perfecting their bargaining skills since childhood and are relying on that fact to extract the maximum amount of money possible from you, while persuading you they are your best friend. Of course it’s all a friendly game of charades where each side understands the part they are playing. Luckily I was able to use the tips on the app to brush up on my haggling patter which works something like this;

First you decide what you want to buy and what is a fair price to pay, perhaps by checking out some of the fixed price shops such as Ensemble Artisanal or by asking the price of the same item in a few stalls while making it clear that you are ‘not buying today’. Next you find a stall that has a good selection of the slippers, bowls or lamps you want to buy and wander up without expressing any particular interest. The conversation develops like this;

“Please come and look, looking is free! Where are you from? Bristol? – I was working near there a few years ago. Do you like this bowl (thrusts it into your hand).

“Oh I’m not sure, I have no space to take this back to England but how much is it?

For you I’ll make a special price of £10, how many do you want to buy?

“Oh it’s very nice, but I can’t afford that and I’m not sure my husband would like it, but how about if I gave you £3 and I might take two?

Shopkeeper looks horrified; “Madame, you’re trying to rob me, I have a family to feed and can’t you see the beautiful craftsmanship – this is hand painted. But for you I can do it for £8″

You look doubtful, “No I really don’t think I need it, but perhaps I could go as high as £4 for it”

And so it goes on until you agree at £5 and before you can change your mind your purchase is being wrapped up for you and the cash (preferrably the exact amount or you might not see your change) is handed over.

I think after a month or two of haggling I might have got the hang of it, but we did go out looking for a lamp and came back with six painted bowls and a mirror after making the mistake of expressing interest in a pepper pot. But the nice shop-keeper did then take us up to the top floor of his shop and give us a great view over the roofs of the souk and we just about managed to squeeze it all into our easyJet hand luggage!

Heather tries a freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fnaa, Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Heather tries a freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fnaa, Marrakech

And so to the square of Jemaa El Fna, the beating heart and soul of Marrakech, where you can be entertained,  robbed if you don’t take care, buy a glass of orange juice, or get into conversation with an ‘official’ guide who will feed you misinformation and try to take you to his friend’s shop. Watch the snake charmers and monkey men from a safe distance or they’ll be onto you, draping a snake around your neck and demanding money for the photos, or take a horse and carriage ride around the Medina. Around the edge of the square are cafe terraces where you can get a view over the square which is especially useful as dusk falls and the food stalls are put up to feed the throngs of visitors.

We didn’t eat at the stalls in the night market, although we fully meant to go back there, but somehow once we got back to the calm of Riad Star, we couldn’t face going back out again to face the pressing crowds and the succession of people trying to extract their share of your cash. We were recommended by the staff at Riad Star to try stall number 117 and by the Marrakech-Riad app to try the fish stall at No 14 serving fish from the ports of Essaouria and Casablance with French fries and salads – a Moroccan Fish & Chips. If you try either of these stalls, do let me know how they were!

Snake Charmers in Jemaa El Fnaa in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Snake Charmers in Jemaa El Fnaa in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Another benefit of using the Marrakech-Riad app is that it gives you a 10% discount at many of the cafes, restaurants and boutiques that are popular with Europeans, such as the Henna Cafe, a co-operative that is supported by the Marrakesh-Riad and provides an art space, small rooftop cafe and a community project  where language classes are provided for locals who want to learn English, German and French to work in tourism. If you want to avoid being grabbed by a persistent lady in Jemaa El Fna, this is the place to get your henna design in a more relaxed atmosphere, but try not to step on the tortoise who roams under the tables in the terrace cafe!

Market square in Marrakech Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Market square in Marrakech

It took me a couple of days before I could really relax in Marrakech and enjoy the atmosphere without worrying about being ripped off or scammed. By then it was time to fly home, but next time I’ll be ready to bargain like a local and bring home another suitcase full of slippers, painted tangines and Aladdin lamps.

 MarrakechRiad app on iTunesGetting to Marrakech

Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!

Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. We loved the beautifully designed home-from-home in the Medina, filled with Moroccan craftsmanship combined with Jazz Age objets, paying homage to cabaret star, Josephine Baker who stayed there in the 1940s. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast and delicious Moroccan meals are available on request.

The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, owned by English couple Mike and Lucie Wood, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.

About the Marrakech Riad App

We found the Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app is free to download from iTunes and features;

  • A comprehensive GPS responsive map of the old town medina to save you getting lost in the maze of bustling streets. In the latest version the map has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech.
  • Background profiles on popular tourist attractions and up to the minute guides to restaurants and bars, written by Marrakech Riad owner and local expert, Mike Wood
  • Discounts at many of the shops and restaurants recommended by the app
  • Information on day excursions from Marrakech
  • Useful tips on haggling in the souks and other advice to make your stay in Marrakech more enjoyable.

Download the Marrakech-Riad app from iTunes here

More things to see in Morocco

Paradise Valley – Blue pools and waterfalls in Morocco – video
A scrub and massage in the Hammam in Agadir
Life’s a beach – watching the surfers at Taghazout

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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