Monday, March 30, 2009

Marrakesh, Maroc

Keenan and I just returned from a long weekend in the mystical city of Marrakesh, Morocco's Red City. We booked this trip back in January with a few things in mind: 1) a belated birthday gift (I turned 27 earlier this month!); 2) a sun vacation, as Keenan would have spent 5 months in frigid Europe; and 3) most importantly, some quality time together. We achieved two of the three: a birthday gift and quality time together. And for sun? What sun? We picked the furthest southern desert location within three hours flight time from London, and it rained off and on two of the four days in Marrakesh. It didn't spoil our time in Morocco though, as we had a great time in the medina, eating in Jemaa-el-Fna, hammams, and bargaining in the souks (markets)!

We arrived on Thursday afternoon and it was hot! Keenan has not walked around in a t-shirt and jeans since mid-October and appreciated the warmth on his bare skin. We stayed a cozy riad, which is a traditional Moroccan house surrounded by a central courtyard, south of Jemaa-el-Fna off a little derb (cul-du-sac). This is my second North(ern) African country, the first being Egypt, and I found Morocco to be more tourist-friendly. Perhaps it is the King's massive campaign to bring some 10 million visitors by 2010, but we didn't find ourselves haggling all day every day like we did in Egypt (India was the worst in my opinion) and the streets and main square were quite clean. My only complaint was the inefficiencies and the long queues at the Royal Air Maroc/Atlas Blue check-in desk at the airport. I swear, they must have spent 10 minutes per person at the check-in counter. Other than that, no complaints, Marrakesh was a nice excursion from London and we had fun.

There not much to see in terms of sights in Marrakesh. It's a city in which you are leisurely -- strolling through the old palaces and gardens, going to hammams (baths and massages), shopping, sipping mint tea on a terrace overlooking the landmark Koutoubia Mosque and the main square, Jemaa-el-Fna, where you find snake charmers, Berber drummers, entertainers, ubitiquious orange juice stands, and by night, it is transformed into a large food market. Some of our favorite food stalls include #29 where their main specialty is grilled sausages served with bread and a small tomato salad; #14 is all about fried seafood (yum!), and soup stand selling harira (3 dhs), a hearty Moroccan soup that reminds me of minestrone. Of course, being in an Islamic country, alcohol was only served at high-end restaurants and bars. We had drinks at KosyBar in the southern part of the medina and at Nawama on Rue Koutoubia, both very posh chill-out places playing Budda Bar-esque music.

If you are in a rush, you can spend the morning in the northern part of the medina which is where the main souk is as well as the Ben Yousef Mosque and madersa (Koranic School) and Musee du Marrakech. Here you can find leather Moroccan shoes, carpets, spices, lanterns, gifts, dates, jewelry, etc. Keenan scored a few items in which he bargained hard for: a jalaba, yellow leather slippers for me, decorative lanterns, and two masks. It's his thing -- to collect masks from our world travels. Then, you can break for lunch, followed by a southern tour of the medina, where you find the mellah (Jewish quarter), kasbah, Bahia Palace, and the Saadian Tombs. Just take it slow, and forget about the map. It's more fun getting lost within the walls of the medina. It's one of the things I love about Islamic cities -- getting lost in little alleyways in the souks and the medina. It's wonderfully chaotic.

While in Marrakesh, you must try a hammam - Moroccan-style. I sent Keenan to Hammam Ziani, a private hammam for a more traditional (read: public) experience. It was public alright, as at any given time, there were at least four to five men in the room with him. At least, that's what he told me. He ended his hammam with an hour massage. I declined the invitation to Ziani, as we had booked a private couples treatment at Riad ISIS for our final day in Marrakesh, and it's a bit too public for me, but he loved his experience at the hammam. He met me back at KosyBar and his face was glowing and rejuvenuated. ISIS was really nice. The decor of the Riad was a nice blend of Japanese zen and Moroccan minimalism with dark, straight edge furniture. Based on both our experiences, the ritual of hammam consist of three rooms with a small doomed roof and tile floors. We started with a shower in one room to open the pores, followed by scrub with sabon bildi, a black, oily, olive oil-based, gel-like soap, followed by a head-to-toe grommage, exfoliation of dead cells using a harsh glove, and then a final wash in a third room. We indulged with an hour-long massage, our reward after a "hard" day of bargaining at the souks.

If it wasn't raining on Saturday, Keenan and I wanted to take a day trip to either Eassouria on the Atlantic coast or to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains. Now we're back in London, and it was surprisingly sunny this afternoon. Overall, I'd highly recommend Marrakesh for leisure and relaxing, but if you want to see major historic sights, monuments, and amazing architecture, head to Egypt, or Turkey, which is our next destination, a belated honeymoon to Istanbul and the Turquoise Coast.

Here are some more photos from our weekend excursion to Marrakech.

From Marrakesh, Maroc

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Springtime in London

Hello Everyone!

I made it to London last Friday, March 20th and feels so nice to be back. My good friend Lena, who visited Keenan in London with Brent earlier this month, dropped me off at SFO last Thursday. Thanks for the ride to the aeropuerto, Lena! I wasn't sure how I was going to manage with two 23kg suitcases and a carry-on bag. I was more terrified of lugging these suitcases up and down the tube station. Luckily, two American backpackers were kind enough to help me on the Tube from the airport, and my UK SIM card was working so I was able to touch base with Keenan who met me at Green Park. I was SO happy to see Keenan, and he of course was looking smart like a London bloke. =)

It was a beautiful, beautiful weekend in London. Taking advantage of the sunny skies, which according to Keenan is "rare," we wanted to spend the day outdoors. Keenan wasted no time and took me up to Hampstead Saturday morning, his favorite neighborhood in London. Indeed, the Hampstead Heath is beautiful especially on a warm sunny today! We hiked up to Parliament Hills where we found tons of people sunbathing, picnicking, playing with their children and dogs while enjoying the views of London. Afterward, we made our way to the Spaniard Inn, a cute little 16th century pub with a pleasant beer garden. Here we spent hours just catching up with each other, given that we haven't seen each other in two months, we had a lot to talk about!

After I left back to Berkeley in January, Keenan discovered his favorite dim sum restaurant, Leong's Legend, in Chinatown over Chinese New Year when lunching with our friend Howard, so he insisted that we go to Leong's for lunch on Sunday. It was "quite nice," as the Brits would say. My only request for Sunday was NOT to do anything too touristy, and of course, what do we end up doing? A walk to Talfalgar Square through The Mall to Buckingham Palace, to Hyde Park, and then on a double decker ride back to Clapham Common. Touristy, yes! I just need one of those yellow shirts and my tour guide. I must say spring time is lovely in London -- the flowers blooming, the freshness in the air, but nothing beats sunny California in terms of weather.

I spent the rest of the wee
k taking leisurely walks around my neighborhood, running errands, putting together my visa application, meeting up with a fellow urban planning student at LSE, and having pints at The Falcon @ Clapham Junction with a Fulham-based couple friend who Keenan met at a UC alumni event the Thursday before I arrived. It was good fun.

Happy Spring! Lily

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hampstead and Camdentown

So I see that my "re-committment" to blogging more actively hasn't come to fruitition, considering the last post was about the huge blizzard in late January...It's now March. Yikes, lots of things to update on.

The last month or so has been busy with a lot of friends visiting from the US, so I've been making the rounds at the typical London haunts (SoHo, Covent Garden, Mayfair, South Bank, Westminster, all the museums, even made it out to Greenwich, etc.). The last guests just left over the weekend and I woke up this morning to amazingly clear and sunny skies so on impulse I hit the pavement and decided to explore some areas I haven't seen yet.

It was a perfect day to stay outdoors, near 65 degrees, sunny, light breeze, clear skies...Couldn't ask for a better day in London, and an even better day to crawl around the hills of Hampstead! I wish I had taken my camera with me!

At this point I have seen a majority of the major neighborhoods of London and after today I would have to say that Hampstead is the most beautiful neighborhood in all of London! It evokes memories of the East Bay hills of North Berkeley, Tilden Regional Park, the enclaves of Piedmont and Montclair...Just beautiful!

From Clapham Common I just took the Northern Line all the way up to Hampstead, about a 30 minute tube ride. When exiting Hampstead station, just hang a right and walk along Heath Street, an incline which takes you along an impressive array of boutiques, cafes, restaurants and eventually the south side of the Heath. The Heath is a massive 700 acre park with hiking trails, ponds, cafes, gardens, and tennis courts. Adjacent to the 100 acre Kenwood Estate, together these parks form a massive, contiguous outdoor haven with stunning hilltop views of the entire city of London, particularly from Parliament Hill. The crowd was a mix of young couples, picnic goers, dogs, elderly couples, young families, kids, hikers, runners, all very cheerish adding to the atmosphere of celebration that erupts on days like today all over London. I spent a considerable amount of time at Golder Hills Park just people watching. Of all the outdoor spaces London has on offer (the numerous commons, greens, parks scattered all over the city) Hampstead Heath is the most superior of them all. Today I felt like I was back in the Bay Area.

After my time around Hampstead Heath I walked down towards the Hampstead High Street which boasts a nice variety of shops, boutiques, and expensive restaurants, before returning to the tube station to take on Camdentown.

Camedentown...How should I describe this place? Imagine if San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district slammed into Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, resulting in a big bang of the strange, gothic, and bizarre. Now imagine that this resulting space grew appendages in every direction, encompassing an entire city with markets, outdoor food stalls, political protestors, opening up to a quite pretty canal with outdoor music and "freakish" looking people. That's Camdentown. I stumbled upon a fairly happening and impressive food market near the canal (the canal is actually really nice on perfect weather day like today, live music, beer, wine, crowds of people). This food market didn't have the typical crepes, kebabs, doners, fish & chips, and Indian fare that you find at most food markets throughout town. It was an impressive place with Egyptian koshary, West African stews, Brazilian BBQ, West Indy skewers, and Japanese Okonomiyaki. Come here if you want live music, outdoor beer gardens, and food stalls that offer something different. I went with the goat stew from the Ghanese stall today and I didn't regret it!

All in all, a great day to be outdoors. Hampstead is a must-see and next time we have weather like this, I'll plan a proper picnic and hike around there. Camdentown is a once in a while kind of a place, the crowd isn't my scene, but that food market is worth going back to if nothing else.

Hopefully more to come soon. -- Keenan