Tangier, Morocco: Stop And Stay A While

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Every now and then in my travels I find a spot where I want to stop for a while. Damascus, Harar and the Orkney Islands have all captured my imagination because of their rich culture and laid back atmosphere.

Damascus is lost, sucked into the maelstrom of a country intent on destroying itself. Harar and Orkney are far away. So I’m lucky to have discovered Tangier, Morocco, less than an hour’s flight from my home base of Madrid.

Set in a broad bay next to the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s been an important spot since ancient times. On a high hill stands the Casbah, once the domain of the Sultan but now an exclusive neighborhood for rich Moroccans and an increasing number of expatriates. Below lies the medina, a jumble of houses and labyrinthine streets that are home to shopkeepers and laborers. There’s also a sprawling new city thanks to the booming port.

Tangier is a fascinating city. You can see all the tourist sights in two days and spend the rest of your life figuring the place out. Tangier has one of the most mixed populations I’ve seen. Arabs rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif, Sahrawis from Western Sahara, and an increasing number of Senegalese and other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The men dress in everything from the traditional djellaba to T-shirt and jeans; the women in everything from the niqab to miniskirts. There’s also a long-established expat population of French, Spaniards and British.

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This ethnic alphabet soup means you hear half a dozen languages as you walk down the street. The local Arabic is called Darija and is distinct enough that my rusty Levantine Arabic is almost useless. Berber is often heard too. If you don’t speak either of these languages, chances are that any individual Moroccan will speak French, Spanish or English, or perhaps all of them. I’ve never met an African who spoke fewer than three languages.

It’s often hard to know which language to use first. I generally start conversations in Spanish because that’s more widely understood than English, although one young guy immediately switched to English and asked, “Why are you speaking Spanish if you’re from an English-speaking country?” Conversations often slide from one language to another. This is a place where you can end up using four languages just asking a waiter for a cup of tea!

Speaking of tea, sitting in a cafe with a cup of Moroccan mint tea (cloudy with sugar and with the mint leaves still floating in the water) is the best way to see Tangier. The locals love to relax with friends and watch the world go by. My favorite place to sit is the Petit Socco, a small square in the center of the medina through which everyone seems to pass. Not far off and outside the old city walls is the Grand Socco. It’s even more lively but the blaring traffic makes it less relaxing.

You won’t have to sit long before you’ll get in a conversation with someone. Moroccans are very social and you can learn a lot about life in their country by spending a couple of hours lounging in a cafe. I’ve been treated to everything from Berber tales of spirit possession to catty gossip from longtime expats.

Tangier used to have a bad reputation for hustlers and touts. They’ve been mostly cleaned out in recent years although you’ll still have young guys coming up to you asking to be your guide. A polite “no” will work if repeated two or three times. This doesn’t work in Marrakesh or Fez! Once you’ve been around a couple of days they’ll all recognize you and stop asking.

There are other advantages to staying for a while. Most visitors spend only a day or two in Tangier, or come as day trippers from Gibraltar or Tarifa and disappear after a few hours. The locals quite understandably see these people only as sources of money. Once the folks in Tangier have seen you around for a few days they start getting curious. Soon you’ll get to know the people who hang out at your regular cafes. The kids will start following you to get English lessons. You’ll start getting invitations for lunch or parties or day trips.

This, of course, works most places. What makes Tangier special is the diverse range of people to meet and the vibrant feel to the place. It’s a place of constant movement. People come here to make their fortunes or to use the city as a launchpad to get to Europe. It’s welcoming to newcomers because so many people are newcomers. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people with interesting dreams in Tangier and to become part of the scene in this endlessly interesting city requires only a bit of time and an open mind.

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Havana In Seven Mojitos

havana mojitos

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita,” wrote Ernest Hemingway of his infamous drinking exploits in Havana. “Ernesto,” as the Cubans call him, was a big fan of the rum, lime and mint-based cocktail, as evidenced by the slew of drinking holes throughout Cuba where he was reported to have drunk himself silly.

Indeed, sipping mojitos is a big part of the tourist experience in Cuba. And in a country where a glass of high-quality Havana Club Reserva costs significantly less than a bottle of purified water, there’s no reason not to partake in abundance. Cuba’s capital of Havana is flush with drinking establishments to help facilitate the cultural experience. Here are seven.

La Bodeguita del Medio
For tourists following the “Hemingway” trail, La Bodeguita del Medio is the Holy Grail – an atmospheric wood-paneled watering hole lined with photos and scribbled endorsements from Hemingway, as well as famous patrons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. The place is often crammed with tourists herded in by the busload, who snap photos and clap their hands to a live band. The mojitos, however, are overpriced (CUC$4) and taste watered down.

El Patio
Situated smack in the middle of Havana’s Plaza Cathedral, El Patio certainly beats the competition in terms of location. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) are lightly sweetened and stuffed full with mint leaves, and live music plays long into the night. Stake out a spot on the ground floor for priceless people watching.

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Vinales

We were welcomed to Vinales with big smiles, handshakes and enthusiastic promises of music from Buena Vista Social Club. Our guard immediately went up; it was clear we were being solicited by a jinetero, a ubiquitous breed of Cuban hustler. Despite our protests, he called over the waitress and ordered us a round of mojitos, which were sugary sweet, with too much lime and too little mint. Sure enough, the bill confirmed our suspicions. At CUC$6 each, the mojitos were the most expensive we encountered in Havana, and it was clear our new friend had pocketed a portion of the “tip.”

Café Paris
Located on a busy corner in Old Havana, Café Paris is a popular spot for tourists seeking ceiling fans and a cool drink. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) were unmemorable, but the ambience provided the perfect midday respite from the Cuban heat.

Jazz Cafe
For a taste of Cuba’s most talented musicians, head to Jazz Cafe, a sleek 1950s diner-inspired spot above the Galerias del Paseo shopping mall in the neighborhood of Vedado. The CUC$10 cover includes the equivalent in food and drink, and the mojitos are a steal at CUC$2.50. Let the mind-blowing drum and saxophone solos distract you from the less-than-mind-blowing drinks, which were heavy on the sugar syrup.

Hotel Florida
The ground floor lounge at Hotel Florida is that rare nightlife spot that’s equally popular with locals and gringos. Compared to other music venues, entrance was cheap – CUC$5, including two drinks. The mojitos weren’t stellar, but they were strong – which really, was all we needed to wash away our inhibitions and hit the dance floor.

And the winner is … The Gallery Bar at Hotel Nacional
The mojito (CUC$4) at Havana’s most famous hotel bar strikes the sweet spot without being overpowering. The secret? Angostura bitters and a splash of dark rum. It’s no wonder that the bar’s former patrons include Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Nat King Cole. With the bar’s stash of high-grade Cuban cigars and dominos, you can easily while away an entire afternoon here – that is until it’s time to hit up the next bar.

The Twelve Tribes Cafes: are they worth it?


Visit the website representing the members of the religious group, The Twelve Tribes, and they’ll cheerily tell you all about themselves. Visit one of the cafes the group, now located in the USA, Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Australia, owns and the workers will warmly welcome you and feed you while you uncover the details of their religious beliefs in pamphlets and papers, some of which are difficult to miss because they’re tacked on bathroom walls. Check out the Yelp reviews for the respective cafes, bakeries, and delis and you’ll find myriad mixed reviews. Some people leave before they order, scampering off scared by the uncommon religious propaganda. But other people seem to love the cafes, no matter their ideological differences.

As I write this, I’m sitting upstairs at Common Grounds–a Twelve Tribes cafe in Hyannis, Massachusetts. To follow is the breakdown of what I know so far about these people, their cafes, and whether or not you should drink their juice.

%Gallery-126493%Who they are:
An international confederation of religious communities. Founded by Gene Spriggs in 1972, the group’s original base was Chattanooga, Tennessee. The group attempts to recreate the First Century Church from the Book of Acts.

What they say:
(Everything below was copied directly either from their website, free paper, or menu)

  • We follow the Messiah, Yahshua, the son of the living God. He gave up His life for us so that our sins could be forgiven. This is why we love Him. Our love for Him is expressed in our daily care for each other…
  • We believe and follow the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, in a very real and practical way. We believe that God is good and just, and will judge all men according to their deeds…
  • We live together in households, clans, and tribes, sharing our possessions in common. We strongly support marriage, and we teach our children at home. We dress modestly, eat wholesome food, work hard, pray together, and celebrate our life in music and dance…
  • We hate the death, war, strife, hatred, starvation, murder, injustice, greed, and selfishness that is leading the whole world to destruction. We want to see all of this come to an end. We want many, many more people to hear the voice of hope we have heard, to come and see the life. We are thrilled to be able to invite you to come and see that it is a reality.
  • Community, as we use the term, means those who love one another so greatly that they are of one heart and mind, holding all things as common property, living together, taking their meals together, devoted to one another because they’re devoted to the One who saved them from death and misery.
  • The ones we are most concerned about are the ones who think they are fine.
  • We live in an environment that is separate from the world while remaining right in the middle of it.
  • If you worry that many catastrophes may happen soon, you’re right.
  • We regard all hardship as discipline, which will eventually cause us to be conformed into the likeness of our Master.
  • When the world sees Yahshua’s disciples dwelling together in unity, denying themselves for the good of their brothers, it proves something.
  • A woman is to desire her husband and let him rule over her. She is to bear their children in pain. A man is to toil and sweat to provide for his family, not live off the labor of others. He is to rule over his wife. Sexual relationships are to be limited to the covenant of marriage.

What others say:

  • “I was once a member of the twelve tribes and I tell you now, they are a high-control cult that twists scripture to suit their own needs. As far as you must accept Jesus, they consider him a demon. Further, when I left the cult they told me I would be dead in two years because the holy spirit cannot live outside of their community. That was three years ago. Stay away from this group and if you can organize prayer groups to disband them I recommend it. The world will be a much better place without them…for one.”Mark.
  • “I do not plan on joining this group, however they are great people and I suggest going and finding out what they are really about. I may go back to find out more with the same people, simply because it seems they live a simple, yet fulfilling lifestyle.”Observer.

Check out other comments on the group on these websites:

GoodMason.com
TwelveTribes-Ex.com
TheAntiTourist.com

More or less, what others say is mixed. The Twelve Tribes appears to be a polarizing group. People seem to think they’re either a manipulative cult or good people with a good message.

What they serve:
Pretty undeniably delicious food and beverages. Also, “the fruit of the spirit”.

Where they are: Check out their own list of where they are located.

So… is it worth it? I say yes. The food is good, the wifi is strong, the caffeine is even stronger, and, generally speaking, the two places I’ve dined in were nice, welcoming, and comfortable. I say go, but go with information about the people who operate the cafe in hand.

Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood: charm, croissants, and cocktails

Darlinghurst, SydneyIn a city chock-full of charming, Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood is a tough contender. Not that it’s an easy choice. If it’s parks, quirky boutiques and specialty food shops, cafes, cheap ethnic or fine dining restaurants, bars, lattice-bedecked row houses, cliff-top beach paths, or Harbour views you want, there’s no shortage of neighborhoods that deliver.

Me, I’ll take Darlinghurst. This semi-residential Eastern neighborhood is wedged between the backpacker ghetto of King’s Cross, and the more sedate Potts Point and Surry Hills. What I love about Darlinghurst is that it’s possible to feel like a local if you make it your home base; something that’s not easy in tourist-thronged Sydney.

One of my favorite pastimes is looking at houses, and Darlinghurst has plenty of eye candy in the form of narrow, winding streets, sweet little row houses, and pockets of greenery. But the neighborhood is also a cornerstone for Sydney’s exploding “small bars” scene. Turn around, and whack! Another stylish spot to imbibe (and snack) has opened its doors.

Sydney also doesn’t want for coastal walking paths, and Darlinghurst is just a short stroll from the lovely Opera House to Royal Botanic Gardens Walk. Within minutes of checking in to my hotel, I was headed out for a run along the Harbour. It’s hard not to feel like the luckiest person alive when you have that kind of view for inspiration.

Sleeping
While Darlinghurst has a handful of accommodation options (depending upon budget, most visitors choose the janky hostels of King’s Cross, or opt for the diverse–and more costly–options in the nearby CBD).

%Gallery-124555%Darlinghurst, SydneyMy pick is the groovy Kirketon Hotel, a member of Australia’s boutique Eight Hotels collection. Located on a leafy portion of Darlinghurst Road, it’s just steps away from bustling Victoria Street. After a full remodel in ’08, the 40-room Kirketon is now a swank goth/art deco/mod-hybrid. I love it, mirrored hallways, dim lighting, chandeliers, smokey color scheme, black facade, and all. It’s slick, sexy without trying too hard, and the bright, well-designed rooms are kitted out with comfy beds and modern amenities.

Despite the trendy vibe, the Kirketon is peaceful and not at all pretentious, thanks in part to the genuinely friendly, helpful staff. Come night, however, this hotel is hopping because of its award-winning bar, Eau de Vie (more on that, below).

Eating
Darlinghurst has lots of dining options, but for me, it’s all about breakfast. Right across from the Kirketon is La Petit Creme, a funky French coffee house serving delicious crepes, pain chocolat and other breakfast treats, and bowls of cafe au lait.

Arguably one of Sydney’s most beloved breakfast spots (equally wonderful for lunch) is Bill’s, owned by acclaimed chef Bill Granger. Granger is one of a handful of Aussie chefs who helped put “Mod Oz” cuisine on the map. Expect bright, seasonal fare inflected with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. It’s a total travel article cliche, but the ricotta hotcakes with bananas and honeycomb butter, sweet corn fritters, or toasted grain cereal with vanilla-poachedDarlinghurst, Sydney fruit, yogurt, and honey really are the best way to start a day of sight-seeing.

My new breakfast (lunch/snack/drunken late-night munchies) obsession, however, is Infinity Sourdough Bakery, located around the corner from the Kirketon. I’m totally convinced that anything that emerges from the ovens at this adorable takeaway will be amazing. Four visits in a single day did nothing to disprove this theory (not counting other carbo-loading sessions). The almond croissants are life-changing, but the pizzettas, ham and cheese turnovers, bread, and other pastries are also excellent.

…and Drinking
Wherever you lay your head, be sure to stop by Eau de Vie, 2010′s Australian Bar Awards Bar of the Year. It’s a living room-like spot on the Kirketon’s ground floor, with a moody, Prohibition-era vibe (I’m of the “it can’t be a speakeasy if it legally sells cocktails” school of thought, because I’m a pain in the ass like that.)

Eau de Vie specializes in seasonally-changing, contemporized classic cocktails that, if a bit precious and theatrical, are crafted with the utmost precision. If you’re interested, one of the friendly mixologists–all of whom possess encyclopedic knowledge–will tell you everything you might care to know about your drink. Said drinks don’t come cheap, although there are plenty in the $16USD range. The $32USD syrupy smooth Old Fashioned made for me by “Dr. Phil,” however, was without a doubt the best I will have in this lifetime. Why so spendy? Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 (as in years-old) rum, housemade bitters, a puck of ice compressed to order in a copper Tyson ice mold, and open flame were involved.
Darlinghurst, Sydney
In the small bar category, Darlinghurst boasts some of Sydney’s favorite newbies (all of the following serve bar snacky food/small plates). At The Passage, expect refreshing libations such as the Professor Plum (plums macerated in Queirolo plum pisco, shaken with lemon juice and Madagascan vanilla syrup), or a Coconut and Kaffir Lime Daquiri, served up with a garnish of pandan leaf.

Lotforty, a miniscule candlelit tapas bar, offers up jugs of sangria ($20AUD), as well as cocktails, and fried, grilled, and crispy treats such as “bbq” King Prawns with orange, fennel, and mint salad. At wine bar Love, Tilly Devine (named after an infamous neighborhood Madame of the 1930′s), the extensive list of international offerings is meticulously chosen and categorized. Sip with slow-roasted octopus with new potatoes and aioli, Macleay River rock oysters, or Burrawong duck liver pate with sweet and sour onions.

Technically, Sticky Bar is in Surry Hills (known for its eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants), just a short walk from the heart of Darlinghurst. Sticky is such a funky, sexy, odd little space I can’t help but include it. It’s a bitch to find (especially after a few drinks), as you need to enter through sister restaurant Table for 20, and climb a narrow flight of stairs to enter the bar. The decor is decrepit-Victorian-mansion-meets-Old-Hollywood: overstuffed vintage velvet chairs, leather ottomans, ornate chandeliers, exposed brick, and shadowy nooks and crannies. Order a glass of domestic wine or a wickedly strong cocktail from the blackboard menu, settle back, and watch the scene (the music’s loud).
Darlinghurst, Sydney
Shopping
Darlinghurst isn’t the best place if you’re a bargain hunter (try the vintage clothing stores in uni-district Glebe, instead). But if you have the cash (or are a bit of a masochist), you’ll find no shortage of on-trend boutiques featuring up-and-coming Aussie clothing designers, shoes, high-end vintage, luxe skincare products, book stores and whimsical home decor. Darlinghurst Road, Victoria Street, and Liverpool Street also have a fair number of shops. I like Blue Spinach, a “luxury consignment” store where you can score affordable treasures if you do some digging. Popular boutiques include Diederic the Cat, which offers American and Euro fashions, and Alfie’s friend Rolfe. This self-described “little Aladdin’s Cave of Australian designer labels” is heaven if you’re looking for quality sartorial souvenirs.

Getting There
Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney out of LAX and DFW, with extensive code share connections available from major cities throughout the country through the partnership with American Airlines. Tourism Australia’s website will provide you with all the information you need to plan a holiday.

Click here to watch one of Eau de Vie’s mixologists create a signature cocktail (don’t miss Dr. Phil’s “Whisky Blazer!”)

[Photo credits: cottage and Oxford St., Flickr user iambents]

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.