Chillin' In The Moroccan Heat: The Fes Medina

Our entry into Morocco was a long hot, dusty and eventful day (see "Crossing Borders, Crossing Continents") and we were relieved to arrive in Fes before nightfall. My wife usually organizes our accommodations and always does a great job, but in Fez she outdid herself. After 13 hours of travel by taxies, ferries, grandes taxis and an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque first stroll through Fes’ medina, we plopped our bags down at 9:00 pm in a beautiful, cool apartment within a dar, a traditional Moroccan house.

As far as I can tell a riad is a larger, multi-room house with a courtyard and central fountain, many of which have been converted into full-service hotels, and a dar is a multi-family house or apartment building for Moroccans. Our apartment manager described our particular apartment as a massreiya, a Moroccan “newlywed quarters” that each of the family’s sons stay in once they are married. Once the first son and his bride are able to get their own place, the second son moves in, etc. Our lodgings were cool and spacious and decorated with intricate arches, stonework and mosaic tiles. Many tourists stay in similar surroundings in a riad, but with a family of four our massreiya was a more affordable option and we liked the fact that we’d have a small kitchen and there’d be other Moroccan families within our dar.

A large family with many children lived directly across from us, our respective doors facing each other, four feet apart. We saw them often and exchanged salaam aleikums or had short conversations in French. When no one else was around their 6 year old would shake our hand, smile and politely ask for a coin. They had a teenage daughter who occasionally would round up her friends and stand in front of the downstairs door, waiting to get a look at my teenage son. As we’d walk by them and up the stairs to our apartment, we’d hear stifled giggles from the group.

Our apartment was near the center of the Fes medina, believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. It’s like taking a flat city and placing it into the bottom of a trash compactor: scrunching the urban terrain to create hills, transforming wide city streets into narrow lanes and alleys and having the same population in an area about one-tenth its original size. The entrance to our building was a battered, non-descript wood door that led to a dark alley. Occasionally we’d see tourists on a tour of the medina watch us enter our unmarked door in a dark alley and we could almost hear them saying Where are they going? We got to know our mercantile neighbors – the gregarious butcher, the sullen barber, the man who ran the market and sold us fresh baguettes each morning and the fellow who ran an Internet café with the world’s dustiest computer keyboards.

Fes in June is hot and just a twenty minute walk is enough to make you start sweating. We found ourselves gravitating towards the shadows as we moved through the medina’s labyrinthine alleys. As we walked though the heat, our massreiya’s cool stone walls and shuttered windows beckoned us, like a silent call to prayer. Although life in the medina was fascinating, the heat made us come back to our cool refuge repeatedly during our stay.


Venetian Resurrection

As printed in Hand/Eye Magazine June 17th 2010

Venice puts the Mask back on

Thirty years ago you couldn’t find a mask shop in Venice; today you can’t walk anywhere without seeing one. The colorful masks, usually associated with Carnevale, have been around since the 12th century, but for most of the past two centuries they’ve been largely forgotten. In the early 1980’s Mario Belloni and a handful of other artisans were credited with reviving the Venice mask making tradition. Mario’s Ca Macana mask store is a few steps off the Grand Canal and he offers workshops on the mask making process. His book, Mashcere a Venezia explores the history of Venetian mask making and Stanley Kubrick came to Mario when he needed masks for the movie Eyes Wide Shut.

With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the importance of Carnevale and masks diminished to the point where they all but disappeared for nearly 200 years. In 1979 the municipality of Venice reinstated Carnevale to not only bring back a Venetian tradition but to bring in much needed tourism revenue. Around this time Mario and some of his fellow architecture students started selling papier mache masks in the squares. Was it the love of a time-honored tradition that inspired Mario? “No. I needed the money,” he admits. “There were no mask shops like you see today. We didn’t know about the Venetian mask tradition and that’s why today you see such variety— suns and moons and things like that. Back in those days there was just ten to fifteen of us selling masks made of newspaper papier mache. No shops, just us.”

Obviously a lot has changed. There are hundreds of mask shops now in Venice and the quality runs the gamut from beautiful and expensive handmade masks to cheap, machine-stamped plastic ones from China, Romania and Albania. Mario pulls a mask down from his workshop shelf and shows the layers of paper strips that form the texture inside the mask; the hallmark of its handmade origins.

The workshop is cluttered with half-finished masks, painting supplies, clay busts and large stacks of blotting paper. Mario gives a quick explanation of the mask-making process, “First you make a clay mold of a face and from that you make a plaster cast. Inside the cast you put a little clear grease and then you start laying in strips of blotting paper— about four or five layers brushed with water and flour paste. After drying 45 minutes or so, you remove it from the plaster, trim and adjust it, and then you’re ready to paint.”

While talking, Mario takes out an unadorned, white, sharp-beaked larva mask and puts it on along with a black cape and black tri-cornered hat, one of the most traditional of Venetian costumes. Pointing to his outfit, Mario continues, “This is the bauta. The word bauta originally comes from the black cape but it has come to mean the whole ensemble.” Still in costume, he displays another mask, a muta— a black, oval mask with no mouth hole. He turns the mask to show the string bit that allows the wearer to hold it to her face by biting onto it. “These were used by the ruling class women in their games of seduction. You knew you had won the game if she allowed you to see her face.” Mario moves over to the counter and pulls out some old pen and ink drawings. One of them features the eerie Dottore Della Peste (plague doctor) mask. This white mask with a long curvy beak was used by doctors during the days of the Black Death. The beak was stuffed with medicinal spices and herbs to help prevent doctors from catching the plague while attending to patients.

Born and raised in Genoa, it’s clear that Mario feels at home in his workshop in his adopted city. “I was coming back from Rome and the train stopped at the Venice station at night. I decided to get out and explore the city and I fell in love with it. I got my chance to live here when I was an architecture student and since then I’ve learned a lot about the history. Venice was an amazing place!” exclaims Mario. “Five hundred years of peace! It was a dictatorship by the nobles, and the ruling class was loved. It was an egalitarian society where people left their windows open at night.” Mario sits down and continues, “You must remember 500 years ago, these masks were not just worn for Carnevale, they were worn year round, to court, to parties, at the casino. They let nobles engage in behavior”, says Mario, searching for the right phrase, “that were afraid to try without a mask.” Indeed, wealthy Venetians could afford to indulge their eccentricities but the small, crowded island didn’t offer many opportunities for privacy. The mask was the perfect solution.

Mario looks around the workshop, perhaps reflecting on his journey from architecture student to preeminent Venetian mask-maker. “It was not a gift,” says Mario with a sweep of the hand, referring to what he has built. “It’s been a lot of work but it’s been great.” Many stories about artisans who create things by hand are about a craft endangered by machines and cheap offshore labor. Mario Belloni’s story is not about a dying craft; it’s about the resurrection of one.

You can purchase a mask or Mario Belloni’s book Mashcere a Venezia at his Ca Macana store at Dorsoduro 3172, Venice, Italy. You can also purchase them online at


Morocco: Crossing Borders, Crossing Continents

Usually crossing borders is nothing more than a rubber stamp, but crossing land borders in the 3rd world can sometimes be problematic. Perhaps it’s because many border crossings are in out-of-the-way locations, where petty officials can do what they like far from the gaze of their higher-ups. Or perhaps it’s because border towns are places that thrive on incomplete information, where locals can count on travelers not knowing the local price for a cab or the current exchange rate. Nador, the border town where we would enter Morocco, appeared to be such a place.

On paper, getting from Malaga, Spain to Fez, Morocco in one day isn’t a big deal, but because we weren’t flying and we would make a land border crossing, we were ready for anything. Our plan was to take a ferry across the Mediterranean from Malaga to Melilla, a Spanish protectorate on the Moroccan coast, cross the border at Nador, then connect with the afternoon train to Fez. The ferry from Malaga to Melilla was pleasant with blue skies and dolphins jumping off the bow of our ship. The taxi from the Melilla port to the Moroccan border was a breeze but as we walked towards Moroccan immigration through the no-man’s-land between the two borders, we steeled ourselves. My wife handed over our four passports to the immigration officer as I watched our bags. “Who is this?” the officer asked with a scowl, pointing at my passport. My wife motioned in my direction and I waved to him. He then stared at his computer for awhile. After 20 minutes of questions and suspicious glances, he slammed his rubber stamp down four times and we were done. So much for pesky border bureaucrats.

With what is typically the hardest part now done, things started to fall apart. We jumped into a taxi and headed straight for the train station, where we arrived to find out that the afternoon train to Fez had left 30 minutes earlier. We then went to the bus station but when we arrived we learned that the only bus remaining was later that night; too late to get us to Fez at a reasonable hour. This led to our last resort, a more expensive grandes taxi, the large Mercedes-Benz share-taxis that ply the roads between large Moroccan towns. It was now almost 2:30 pm and it would take five hours to get to Fez. We walked about five blocks, seeing no other foreigners, to a lot full of Mercedes-Benz taxis and began haggling with a taxi driver. After 20 minutes of not getting close to the standard price – a price that we had earlier verified at the bus station – we realized that we were in a local taxi area, not the grandes taxis that make long runs between towns. Apparently, a long run would have been made for us if we’d been dumb enough to pay double the going rate.

The taxi driver pointed to the right location further down the street and saw about 15 taxi drivers sitting around waiting for business. I picked out an older gentleman who spoke Spanish and started our negotiations while the other drivers stood up and eagerly watched. We settled on the price fairly quickly but, when clarifying that he would take no other passengers, he became upset for some reason and gave me a look that said “Hey buddy, do you want a ride or not?” My insistence on clarifying this point led to what looked like an impasse to the other cab drivers, who quickly started importuning me with quotes for a ride to Fez. Two of them grabbed my arm and my Spanish-speaking guy was getting moved to the back of the crowd. Voices were raised, people started pushing to get closer to me and chaos was starting to take over.

There are moments when you can feel a crowd situation starting to get out of control. As long as my Spanish-speaking guy seemed to be in control, the others just watched. The moment it looked like he was losing the catch, the others sensed blood in the water and wanted their turn to reel in the big fish. Sensing that this might be one of those moments, I pointed to my guy and said “Si, vamanos,” grabbed him by the arm and steered him away from the group. We put our bags in the trunk of his taxi, got in the car and waited, glad to be away from the mob. Our Spanish-speaking guy drove us around the corner then got out to make way for another driver that didn’t speak English, Spanish or French. Before we could object to the bait and switch driver, he was gone, mumbling something about a stop at a police checkpoint.

We drove out of Nador with our new driver a little after 3:00 pm and into the North African desert. Nine hours earlier we were in the modern Spanish port town of Malaga and now we were in the desert with no food or water and a driver with whom we could not communicate. We had made no stop at a police checkpoint and it quickly became apparent that our taciturn driver was not in the mood to communicate with us. “Can we stop for some water?” my wife asked him, in three languages. Even when I pantomimed drinking a bottle of water, he just shrugged and drove on. My wife later told me that she wanted to stop for water as much for someone to see us as to slake our thirsts. If we disappeared in the Moroccan desert, at least someone would have seen us.

After an hour we stopped for gas at a dusty adobe shack on the side of the road. While our driver emptied a couple dirty, plastic liter containers of gasoline into his tank, I went inside to buy some water. The proprietor was in cleric garb with a knitted Muslim skull cap. When I asked for water he seemed to be annoyed, but sold us some warm drinking water. Feeling a bit tense, we continued to drive through the desert. The drive was long and after a while our driver warmed up a bit. He accepted a swig of water from my bottle and made another stop for us to buy some snacks. We felt much more comfortable with him and sat back and enjoyed the scenery which became greener and more agricultural as we neared our destination. We arrived in Fez around 8:30 pm and after meeting our apartment manager, we made our way to our accommodations located in the center of the medieval medina.

The last leg of our journey was a surreal 20 minute walk through the Fez medina; a dense, compact walled city overflowing with humanity and mercantile activity. It was a long and eventful day crossing the border into Morocco and getting to Fez. Everything leading up to the rubber stamp at the border went smoothly, it was the aftermath that was touch and go…and interesting.

"Rubber Stamp" is the theme of the latest Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival, hosted by GingerBeirut. The carnival starts on June 21st.


Homeschooling: The Mediterranean's Fluid Borders

One of things that our kids (and their parents) are learning from our travels in the Mediterranean is how fluid borders are. Roman outposts in Morocco, Greek colonies in Italy, Macedonia dynasties in Egypt, Genoese watchtowers in Corsica and Venetian cities in Greece are but a few examples. It can be easy for non-historians to fall into the trap of thinking that a present-day border contains the history of that country. Our kids have learned that this is not true; a great example of this is Turkey.

When planning the Mediterranean portion of this trip, the present–day countries of Egypt, Greece and Italy were high on our collective list, so for the kids’ homeschooling we decided to focus on the respective histories of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, figuring that those cultures comprised the underpinnings of Western Civilization. With those three civilizations as our focus, the present-day country of Turkey was not on the radar screen, despite the fact that my wife and I had been there before and were both surprised and pleased at how diverse and interesting it was. It was only later, a few months into this trip, that we decided to add Turkey because of its proximity to both Egypt and Greece. Now that we’ve completed the Turkey portion of our trip, we’re thankful because not only have we learned much about Turkey, we’ve learned a lot about the Greeks and Romans as a result.

Present-day Turkey’s history dates back to the aftermath of the WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, so there is only 90-odd year’s worth of modern history to consider. While that history is interesting, especially Kemal Attaturk’s founding of the secular Turkish Republic, it is the couple thousand years prior to that which is instructive. The Hittites, Greeks, Persians, Armenians, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Kurds, Ottomans and Turks have lived in or occupied the Turkish peninsula known as Asia Minor. The Romans called this peninsula “Asia” and after the true size of continental Asia was known, it became known as Asia Minor (“Little Asia”).

We learned more about the Romans than the Turks when we visited Efes (Roman name: Ephesus), Bergama (Roman name: Pergamum) and Bodrum (Roman name: Halicarnassus) on the Aegean coast of Turkey. In Istanbul we learned more about the Greek-Byzantine era of the city -- previously known as Byzantium, then Constantinople -- than we did about modern Turkey. In essence, our trip to Turkey was just as much a glimpse into ancient Greece and Rome as it was a view of Turkey. We feel like our kids have an appreciation of this, of how borders can change over time. So do their parents. Who says homeschooling is only for kids?


Pottery Shards On The Amalfi Coast

It’s hard to imagine the small, picturesque town of Amalfi having a population of 70,000 people. Today there are less than six thousand full-time residents and it seems like there isn’t room for more. Amalfi rivaled Pisa and Genoa as a maritime superpower between the 9th and 12th centuries until a 1343 earthquake and storm caused the entire town to slide down the precipitous cliffs and into the sea.

Those breathtakingly beautiful cliffs are also what make parking so impossible there. When planning our week on the Amalfi coast, we were torn between staying in Amalfi or Positano. We were incredibly excited about either option until our research revealed that (because of the aforementioned cliffs) it was not possible to park anywhere in either town. This led us to stay in the quieter and slightly-less steep town of Praiano, halfway between the two towns. Anywhere you go on the Amalfi Coast you are going to be impressed with the scenery. The towns with their colorful stucco houses and bougainvillea vines, seem to cling to the steep mountains that drop straight into the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea. The narrow road bends forever and at times climbs up to 1,000 feet above the water. Every square inch of land seems to be cultivated with lemon and olive trees and household gardens teem with fresh basil, tomatoes, artichokes, beans, butter lettuce, melons and many other fruits and vegetables.

I think this is what I like most about the Amalfi Coast: the fruits and vegetables. From our terrace we watched our neighbors lovingly tend to their perfectly-arranged and weed-less gardens. Below us, two septuagenarians raised a horizontal pole holding the tops of ten tomato plants. At the house below them, an older woman picked big, lumpy lemons from her terrace of lemon trees and placed them in her basket. Lemon trees were everywhere and the Amalfi Coast is famous for its cultivation of lemoncello, a delicious lemon liqueur that we had after every meal while there. To our right, another septuagenarian couple weeded and pinched basil flowers in their garden (see first photo). Seeing all this, it should come as no surprise that the quality of the foods in Praiano’s three tiny stores were excellent. Almost every night we ate pasta and fresh vegetables or salads for dinner while enjoying the stunning view from our terrace. Right about the time we were breaking out our nightly lemoncello, we watched the sun go down over the island of Capri.

When we weren’t enjoying our view and eating fresh foods, we were at the beach. We traveled up and down the coast and went to a different beach each day. My daughter combed the beaches and started a collection of pottery shards that frequently wash up on the area’s beaches (see second photo). Each of the shards were painted with colorful patterns and had smooth rounded edges sanded by the surf. Occasionally we’d find two that looked like they came from the same plate. “Maybe these are from the houses of that earthquake that destroyed Amalfi,” I said to her. “Maybe,” she said, probably realizing that 700 years would most likely reduce pottery shards to grains of sand. The shards were beautiful nevertheless…like everything on the Amalfi Coast.


Sistine Chapel: Turn Right, Then Left, Then Right, Then Left…


We had done our homework. My wife bought our Vatican Museum tickets for the last Friday of the month; the only night where it’s possible to visit and avoid the daytime throngs competing to view the Sistine Chapel. We also paid a premium for an appointment time online; this would ensure that we wouldn’t have to wait in line with a few hundred of the 4.5 million annual visitors. Lastly, we were armed with our Rick Steves podcast for the Sistine Chapel; this would allow us to save 28 Euros on the audio guides while listening to Rick’s folksy and sometimes corny humor. Perhaps all the advance preparation led to our heightened anticipation as we strolled right in without waiting on a Friday evening at 7:00 pm.

Our plan was to focus on the Sistine Chapel and save much of the other art for a future visit. If we saw something interesting along the way we would stop. Imagine passing by Raphael, Giotto, Bellini, Caravaggio and DaVinci because they didn’t make the cut. We started out and immediately saw a white Cappella Sistina sign instructing us to turn left. Was it just around the corner? We saw another sign with an arrow pointing right. We walked down a long hallway with male statues with their penises hacked off. Pope Pius IX decided that all those penises were too vulgar and he had them removed and in many cases covered with a fig leaf. We had been walking for fifteen minutes and we were still following the little white signs. The Vatican Museum has thousands of paintings in a complex that covers 5.5 hectares and we felt like we were passing by every one of them. We took another right, looked around the corner hopefully, and…it was the 16th century map gallery full of floor to ceiling frescoes of the world as it was known in the 1500’s. We walked down the long corridor, paused at some of the map frescoes and turned again. By now we had made dozens of turns, climbed stairs, gone back down stairs, passed through courtyards and still not reached the chapel.

Finally after about 40 minutes of walking, we arrived in the Sistine Chapel, which was smaller and darker than I expected. Perhaps all the twisting and turning along the way was to prepare you for the vertigo-inducing feeling of looking up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece. We looked up at the 800 square meter, barrel-vaulted ceiling along with the other 20 people in the chapel. We were fortunate; 30 years ago my wife remembers being one of 200 people vying for spot to view the ceiling. After a minute my neck was already hurting and I looked around to see if it was possible to lie on the ground and look up. Rick Steves, talking in my earphones, said that Michelangelo painted standing up, with his neck constantly in that position. As we continued gazing upward, Rick detailed for us the nine panels running down the middle of the ceiling, all from the book of Genesis and painted in reverse order. Rick also talked about Michelangelo’s reluctance to take the job from Pope Julius II and how his assistants plastered an area right before he painted it so that the fresco wouldn’t crack. On the front wall of the chapel was the Guidizio Universale (The Last Judgement), which depicted souls being dredged from their graves to face the judgment of God. Again Rick, at his informative best, talked into my ear about the 35 year gap between the painting of Genesis on the ceiling and the painting of The Last Judgement at the altar wall.

Leaving the chapel was very straightforward, especially considering how we entered it. There was no swirling, left-right, up-down maze as when following the many Cappella Sistina signs upon entering. The chapel was indeed spectacular and we headed out for a gelato, abuzz with excitement. Our mutual euphoria was matched only by the physical sensations of sore necks and the dizziness from heeding all the Cappella Sistina signs.



Arrivederci Roma: Life In The Love Lane

Heading south from Rome, we decided to take the scenic route down to the Amalfi Coast; scenic in this case being our euphemism for “free.” We avoided the Autostrada toll freeway, swung around the freeway that circles around Rome, turned south on SS148 and settled in, all of us humming Dean Martin’s “Arrivederci Roma.” It was about 9:30 in the morning and it would take 5-6 hours to make it to our destination of Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. We called it the scenic route and after 15 minutes we realized that our nickname for this road was appropriate, but in a very different way.

Our first glimpse of the “scenery” came near the town of Pomezia. On the side of the highway we whizzed by a young woman with heavy makeup, hot pants and see-through halter top awkwardly walking alone in extremely high stiletto heels. In the flash of a second we had passed her and I looked in the rear-view mirror but a large truck blocked my view. Did I really see that? I told my wife that I thought that I’d just seen a prostitute on the side of the freeway and she laughed. Five minutes later another scantily-clad woman walked near a “semi” truck that had pulled over to the side of the road. “Look, another one!” I said. Ten minutes later we saw two women sitting on the guard rail, dressed for work.

At this point the kids, who had been reading in the back seat, became interested. “What are they doing?” asked my daughter. “Well, they’re prostitutes looking for customers on the freeway,” I said delicately. This led to a short discussion about prostitution and how it might work here on an Italian freeway. We tried to honestly answer their questions as quickly as possible in order to end our impromptu homeschooling lesson and get their minds focused on something else. My wife and I often tell ourselves that our kids are getting a great education by traveling with us, perhaps in part to reassure ourselves that they’re not missing out on too much back home. This was definitely something that they would not be getting in the classroom.

Fifteen minutes later we saw another working girl walking through the gravel on the side of the road in her high heels. Every few miles there were “turn out” lanes that allowed cars and trucks to make stops for a variety of reasons. “Love lanes,” said my wife, coining the term as we passed another truck pulled over to the side of the road. We didn’t see a girl around the truck, but on this road any truck pulled off to the side was immediately suspect. As we drove on for the next hour, every time we saw a truck parked on the side of the road, we looked for hookers. Guilty until proven innocent. That’s life in the Love Lane.

(Note: we did not see this traffic sign but found it on a Google image search)


Finding The Unexpected In A Florence Supermarket

It’s always an adventure to shop in a foreign supermarket because of the things that you just don’t expect to find. Florence is no exception. We looked around at the supermercato near our apartment and in many ways it all seemed like home: corn flakes, milk, soda, pasta, wine, produce and of course Italian specialties like prosciutto, salami, bufala mozzarella, olives and crusty Tuscan bread loaves. There was one item that took us by surprise: I’m talking about a little stress at the checkout line.

The Italians have no word for stress in their language. Okay, that’s not exactly true…in fact, it’s not true at all. What is true is that Italy is a pretty relaxing place; they seem to have a patent on all the things that make life worth living: beautiful art, scenery and culture and absolutely delicious food. So why do my wife and I feel a slight feeling of anxiety every time we approach the checkout line at our Florentine supermercato?

It starts as my overstuffed green plastic shopping crate-on-wheels rolls into the only checkout line. When it’s my turn I load all the items on the small counter and the lady quickly scans each item and slides it towards the rectangular stainless-steel bagging surface. I fumble with my Euros trying to get the correct change so that I can quickly get to bagging my food. This is the source of stress: trying to bag everything quickly before then next person’s things start sliding towards me. Almost every time, I’m struggling to get all my things into bags while the person behind me has paid for and bagged his/her goods. On a few occasions the person behind me has left the store before I’ve finished bagging. At this point a few people in line lean to one side to get a better view at what is taking me so long. This is the moment I try to avoid and every time it happens.

What is the source of this stress? The unfamiliarity with the Euro coins definitely slows me down. Part of it is that I’m buying a lot of food – for a family of four -- so it takes me longer. Another factor is what I’ll call Costco expectations vs. Italian reality. This is the intersection between an American buying enough food for a week or two and the Italian model of shopping for smaller and fresher quantities daily.

Things got a little better over our four weeks in Florence; for one thing I became more familiar with the coins and took less time fumbling for the right change. I also took my wife’s suggestion and placed the heavy items that get bagged first – milk, juice, wine – on the counter first so that I’d be able to bag faster. Lastly, since we were in Italy, I decided to just relax a bit, do as the locals do and take my time.

For more interesting finds check out Orange Polka Dot's current Blog Carnival on Interesting Finds in Foreign Food Markets