Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Virginia State University - Study Abroad Project to Morocco

Our Journey Through The Beautiful Country of Morocco

By Takia Archer and Sharon Smith

Welcome to Casablanca!

We arrived in Casablanca and immediately met our awesome tour guide Abdul and Adel, our wonderful driver.  The men took great care of us from that moment on.  They assisted us with hotel check-in and escorted us to dinner at the famous Rick’s Café which was inspired by the classic movie, Casablanca.  The restaurant had a soft, inviting ambiance which was complimented by amazing chandeliers and beautiful Moroccan artistry.   We were treated like VIPs as we dined in a private dinning room.  The restaurant also created souvenir menus for our group.  Personally, I (Sharon) couldn't think of a better way to start our trip!

This dessert was almost too pretty to eat, but I got over it!  (smile)

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel.  Breakfast in Morocco features an assortment of sweet breads, Moroccan pancakes, fresh local fruits, and homemade preserves.  Another tradition in Morocco is the delicious fresh-leaf mint tea which is served throughout the day, but mostly with dessert.  Shortly after breakfast, we journeyed to our first destination, the Grand Mosque of Hassan II.  

The Mosque is used by locals daily for prayer and worship, and is the only active temple which is open to tourists.  Thousands of Moroccan master craftsmen and artisans worked diligently for approximately seven years to create this massive masterpiece. The architecture and artistry within the beautifully historic structure is absolutely fascinating.

Sharon and Takia

Chef Chapman and Takia 

                                                         Touring Rabat

Next, we headed to the city of Rabat.  Our first stop was the Royal Palace of King Mohammed VI, which is said to have a royal palace in several cities in Morocco.  We were not allowed into the palace but were allowed onto the grounds (at a distance).  The entire structure was absolutely amazing.  

After snapping a few pictures we loaded into our private tour bus and headed to lunch at a local restaurant.  Abdul assisted us with ordering  menu items which were local favorites.  Many in our group were new to Moroccan cuisine; therefore, we looked forward to the meal.  The most flavorful dish of the afternoon was the Lamb Tagine.  It was the one dish requested often throughout the remainder of the trip!

After lunch we continued  our journey throughout the attractive city of Rabat which included a quick  trip to the beach!  The weather was a little too cool for swimming, but the beach was absolutely gorgeous!  Many locals were also there hanging out and dipping their feet in the water.

Takia absolutely LOVED the beach!!!

While enjoying the breeze and snapping pictures, a few local teenaged girls joined us.  How cool!

Takia with  new friends!

We soon had to tare ourselves away from the coastal beauty and continue our journey to the Mausoleum of Mohamed V, which holds the tombs of the last two kings of Morocco.  Once inside, words could not describe the riveting splendor of the place.  The intricate architecture and artistry left us in awe.  The richly decorated monument took our breath away.

We later checked into the Hotel Golden Tulip Farah, freshened up, and went for a stroll through the Medina where we did a little shopping before dinner.  We enjoyed seeing the local craftsmen and women making things, selling goods, cooking, and going about their normal routines.  We found it to be a truly fascinating experience!

We met an exchange student, also from the U.S., who had been in Morocco for three months.  She was excited to meet other Americans and gave us pointers on navigating through Morocco.

The next morning we enjoyed a delightful breakfast at the hotel before starting our lengthy journey into the outskirts of Rabat.  Our first stop was the Vital Import/Export Plant followed by a visit to a thriving strawberry farm.   

The Vital Import /Export plant had only been in operation for one year at the time of our visit.  It is primarily responsible for exporting up to 5,000 tons of produce each year. The company employs 350 people and processes approximately 30 tons of produce a day.    They plan to expand their operation to process double that amount within a year.  Currently, they export artichokes, peaches, figs, strawberries, apricots, rosemary, and blackberries.

Immediately following the tour we were treated to a sampling of the strawberries and mint tea.  The strawberries were absolutely delicious and the tea was wonderfully refreshing.

Fresh-leaf mint tea

On the farm we learned about Moroccan agriculture.  It was also interesting to learn that countries such as Spain, France, and America all grow produce in Morocco because of its warm climate and rich soil.  America, in particular, grows the Salina variety of strawberries there.  The sprouts are first cultivated in Spain and then shipped to Morocco every September at which time they are planted.  The length of the strawberry growing season is three to four months. 

The sun helps the strawberries to develop their bright red color and the rich soil helps them to grow very large.

We then visited the biotechnology and soils laboratories at the INRA, Institute National de la Recherché Argronomique, Rabat research center.  There we learned that Morocco has an enormous soil collection.  The research center has been able to sample and catalog many types of soil in the country; however, they still have a long way to go in terms of capturing every region.  One of the biggest issues plaguing Moroccan agriculture is the high amounts of sodium found in soil furthest away from the sea.  Scientists are trying to understand the problem as they help farmers to understand their soil types and which crops are best for each.

The day ended with a little sightseeing and dinner at the wonderful French restaurant, Le Grand Comptoir, where we also enjoyed an exhilarating performance by the house band. 

The ladies enjoying a little selfie time!

 Our entire group joyfully waiting for our table.

Top:  a delicious fish entrée, below:  a dessert platter

The band had us grooving!!  They were great!

Bonjour Fez!

Our journey to Fez allowed us a little sightseeing time in Meknes.  We visited Bab El Mansour which is considered to be the most beautiful gate in Morocco.  

Sharon posing for a picture outside of the gate

Takia and Adel (our wonderful driver) posing for a picture inside of the gate

During our journey we were able to visit the Roman Ruins in Volubilis.  The historic archaeoligical site is located in the Zerhoun Mountain and was excavated in the early 20th century.  We were awed by the unearthing of such beautiful mosaic tiles as we toured the reminiscences of private royal living quarters which were fully equipped with a spa, pool, and laundry area.  At one point, there was hot spring water running beneath the extraordinary structure.  Having the ability to visit such beautiful ruins is mind-blowing. 

Such beautiful ruins

 Takia and Mimi flashing pretty smiles on a rainy day.

  Dr. Grace is always in good spirits

                                                                                    Isn't this amazing!

Reminiscences of an ancient spa

The absolute best part of the trip for me (Sharon) was visiting the Riad Maison Bleue Resort and meeting Zora, the head chef.  She hosted our cooking class and taught us how to prepare authentic Moroccan dishes.  We also went with her to the market to buy the ingredients for our meal.  The market was absolutely awesome!  It was an open-air market with fresh produce, spices, and meats displayed so vividly, I wanted to buy everything!  The Moroccan people truly embody the farm-to-table lifestyle.  They eat what they grow or what is grown locally.  You will not find any pre-packaged foods in their markets.  Everything is organic and fresh.  The trip inspired me to completely restructure my diet and to purchase more farm goods.

Zora (head chef) , Sharon, and Ishmill (Zora's interpreter)

This produce looks yummy!

Takia smiling as she gathers bunches of mint leaves

After returning from the market, we were given aprons as Zora began instructing us.  We worked together and prepared a completely scrumptious meal.

Sharon and Takia helping with the meal

Sharon and Takia watching closely as Zora fries the phyllo dough for dessert

The menu:

Appetizers:  Zaalouk dip and KhizouM”Shermel
Entrée: Chicken Mesfiou
Dessert:  Jawhara

Unfortutely, we did not capture pictures of the appetizers, but the entree and dessert are pictured below.

So Long Fez!

On our last day in Fez, we stopped in Meknes to tour one of the most famous vineyards in Morocco, Château Roslane, which is located in the foothills of the Moroccan Atlas.  We enjoyed a thorough tour of the facility followed by wine tasting.

Our gracious host (who is in charge of operations at the winery) thoroughly explained the process of wine making.

Unused wine barrels are sometimes made into furniture

   Takia and I really enjoyed the Chardonnay.

We departed the winery and headed to the National School of Agriculture.  We had the opportunity to have a round table discussion with the head of the school along with a highly accomplished professor of agriculture.  The gentlemen spoke about tourism and agriculture being the two major industries in Morocco.  In fact, one major topic of discussion in the agriculture and tourism industries is developing methods to improve rural tourism efforts.  Scientists and economists are working together to find a way of increasing tourism in rural areas without destroying the environment.   Morocco is a very organic country; with that said, increasing tourism efforts in rural farm areas will require some damage to the environment.  Therefore, minimizing the damage and getting the farmers to support tourism efforts are the biggest challenges.

Next, we ventured to the Aicha Olive Farm. The company built an excellent reputation for supplying olive trees throughout the country.   The farm operators led our tour as they explained the intricate process of olive farming.  They explained their process of  rooting the sprouts in a special mineral water mixture then potting and repotting them as they grow.  We toured the green house and walked along the lucious green farm. 

Happy Road Trip

The next morning, we enjoyed our last breakfast at Hotel Volubilis then headed to Imouzzer.  There we toured a goat farm and learned about organic farming and the craft of cheese making. The farm also prepared a delicious brunch which included hand-crafted goat cheeses. 

This little fella is not camera shy!

Just call me the goat whisperer!  (smile)

The assortment of cheeses and Moroccan breads were phenominal!

After brunch, we loaded our tour bus and enjoyed the scenery during the seven hour journey to Marrakech.  As we road along the picturesque mountainside, we stopped for a quick photo opportunity of this breathtaking lake. 

Once in Marrakech, we checked into the stunning Zalagh Kasbah Hotel & Spa.  After freshening up a bit, we visited Jemaa El Fnaa in Marrakech's medina quarters.  That was a place where hundreds of locals and tourists enjoyed performances from jugglers, dancers, fortune tellers, story tellers and traditional musicians.

The Adventures of Marrakech

The next morning we were eager to explore Marrakech. Our first stop was the Bahia Palace. Its gorgeous courtyards and Moorish architecture exemplified Eastern Architecture from the 19th century which truly represented trends and standards of the wealthy who lived during that time. 

Dean Williams 

Abdul, our TOTALLY AWESOME tour guide!

As we journeyed on, we were able to visit a Jewish settlement.  In fact, it was one of only a few still left in the city.  We took pictures in the temple and throughout the settlement.

Abdul walked us through the Marrakech medina and then escorted us to the Majorelle Garden. The Garden was designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle. He explored and eventually settled in Marrakech in the late 1920’s,  Prior to settling, he created the stunning gardens filled with exotic plants. We also toured the Berber Museum, which is housed in Majorelle's former studio. Unfortunately, we could not take photos of the captivating collection of Moroccan artifacts displayed inside. 

Dean Williams adding beauty to the garden

We ventured on to a local Argan Oil Cooperative.  Moroccan Argan Oil has earned a world-wide reputation as a beneficial ingredient in skin and hair care products in addition to being a heart-healthy gourmet product.

Argon kernels

Traditional oil extraction process of grinding the kernels to extract the oil

Takia joined in on the action (far left)
 Afterwards, we took a tour and had a fabulous group lunch at Le Jardin Bio-aromatic de l’Ourika, an organic aromatic garden near Marrakech. The garden was created by a team comprised of doctors specialized in the study of essential oils and pharmaceutics in conjunction with a cosmetic formulator.  



Our last day in Marrakesh ended with dinner at the Le Comptoir Darna restaurant, where we enjoyed a mouthwatering three-course meal which was complimented by exciting belly dancers.

Chef, Takia, & Sharon heading to our farewell dinner

It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye

(Takia) Over the course of 10 days, I have been blown away by the beautiful landscapes and incredible locals. My favorite moment in Morocco was walking through Jemaa El Fna. Walking past numerous of performances by jugglers and other traditional artists reminded me of visiting New York City. Being in that atmosphere has given me the opportunity to become a social butterfly and interact with the locals. Although I am not too familiar with their language, I did not feel they were taking advantage of me. It felt great to exchange hugs and smile uncontrollably. Overall, we have learned how to appreciate so many different things, as well as accept many cultural differences from the different countries we visited. We began to notice more about our own cultures and even learn a lot about ourselves. Virginia State University would absolutely love to visit Morocco again! 

(Sharon)  Traveling to Morocco was the first trip I ever took by plane.  I'm glad Morocco was my destination.  I grew a lot over the 10 day period, and I am forever grateful to have made your acquaintance.  I take with me the many memories created and lessons learned along this journey.    I'll be back again someday, but for now....au revoir!

1 comment:

  1. This was the best trip I've ever taken! I will definitely return someday.