Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

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Marrakesh's Jemaa el-Fna: madly marvellous and mystical

click here to view a slideshow of images from Marrakesh

Our minivan driver Ahmed got us to Marrakech, Morocco, around 11pm after an eight-hour scenic ride from Fez that included stops in Sefrou and Bhalil, a small town in which some of the homes are built in caves. We stopped for tea in one such cave, home to an 80-something widow who not only served us tea but danced for us with a jug on her head. But I’ll save more tales of this day-long adventure for an upcoming issue.

Marrakesh, a city of more than one million with a strong Berber influence, sits almost in the middle of Morocco. Sipping tea in its famed square, Jemaa el-Fna, one literally feels in the middle of the country.

We were exhausted and hungry when we checked in at our hotel, the Ryad Mogador, which we had booked online on otel.com. At first they didn’t seem to have our booking, but in the end they found it. This is sometimes a problem with otel.com but usually the paperwork goes through smoothly – and the price is always better than when you book on the spot or through an agent. We paid the equivalent of about $60, which included a modern, comfortable and cozy room as well as breakfast.

The Ryad Mogador is in a fantastic location. It’s in the newer part of town, facing a huge bus station just outside the walls of the Old City. It’s right next door to a supermarket, so we were set, especially when I needed ice for my knee, which Irwin got in the fish department. The first day we slept in and at noon got a taxi for $1 (for a 15-minute ride) that took us straight to the entrance of the centre of Jemaa el-Fna.

In retrospect, we realized there was no other place to be in Marrakesh than this teeming square that spans a full kilometre. Our sojourns to the new city paled in comparison and we inevitably felt disappointed with the restaurants and atmosphere in that part of town.

Irwin remembered having been in Jemaa el-Fna in 1968 and said it ­hadn’t changed all that much. He pointed up to one of the rooftop cafés and told me he remembered sitting there for hours watching the people go by.

This is exactly what we did for the next couple of days – except we chose a street level café because my knees could never have made it up the narrow steps to the rooftops.

From Jemaa el-Fna one can take any lane into the maze of the medina and the melech (the old Jewish quarter) and discover smaller souks (markets). It’s hard to get lost. Just ask around and find your way back to Jemaa el-Fna.

Among the souks you can explore are Souk Addadine (metalwork), Souk Chouari (basketry and woodturning), Souk Smata (slippers and belts) and Souk Kissarias (clothing, fabric and leather goods.) I’m not sure if there’s a connection between “Smata” and “Shmata.”

The most colourful market is the berber souk, which sells just about everything.

We spent most of our time with our books and camera, soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating the array of workers, strollers, and shoppers. And then there were the snake charmers, musicians, women selling henna tattoos, and the unfortunate monkeys on leashes doing tricks for a few coins, which the tourists avoided.

It was a 10-ring circus, something like Barcelona’s Ramblas except all in one square. I’m not talking about one monkey or snake charmer, I’m talking dozens!

It was in Marrakesh that I first began to appreciate the beauty and versatility of women’s clothing in this liberal Muslim country. What I love about the Moroccan lifestyle is that virtually every code of dress is accepted. You often see women walking together arm in arm, one wearing traditional garb and the other in jeans with no head covering. The only thing you’ll never see on a Moroccan woman is shorts and skimpy tops. Most tourists are respectful and cover their arms and legs to some degree.

On our first visit to Jemaa el-Fna we decided to take one of the small paths into the densely crowded souk to scout out a place for lunch. We chose the first “eatery” we found, a rather primitive place with three pots cooking on an outdoor fire. We pointed to the pot of our choice and were served rich and flavourful stews (mine was vegetarian) with bread and soft drinks that came to about $3 each. The warm hospitality of the owner/waiter gave us strength to attempt some of the longer market trails, but I was so overwhelmed with the sheer colour and variety of … well, everything … that I eventually agreed with Irwin that stopping for a mint tea at a café facing the square would be a fitting end to the afternoon.

Two or three mint teas later I had taken the pictures you see here. As twilight approached and the food vendors came out into the square to offer their wares, cooked on open fires at their stalls – there seemed to be hundreds of them – we decided we had had enough and headed to the new town to eat – a big mistake.

It was May when we visited Marrakesh, a perfect time of year to travel in Morocco. When we returned to the country in July for three more weeks, we confined ourselves to the north.

But I still look forward to more of those souks and sipping tea at the Jemaa el-Fna.

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New York’s capital city a capital choice

If you don’t have a lot of cash to spend and want to get away for the weekend, a good choice would be New York State’s heritage region, Albany. The state capitol building has free tours, the state museum has free entrance and offers eclectic options for each member of the family to enjoy, Grandma’s is the perfect pit stop for home-made food (even if you’re just passing through this exit) and the uniquely designed Desmond Hotel is a fun place to rest your head.

The New York State Capitol building, finished at the end of the 19th century, is a combination of renaissance, gothic, and medieval styles, and was built and carved by hand. When you take the tour you can see the difference between the assembly and senate chambers (notice the 23-carat gold leaf “wallpaper” and think of it as tax dollars stuck to that wall) and note the $1 million dollar staircase. Find out about the whispering fireplace, the resident ghosts, and ask to see the carved face of 4-year-old Lucretia (lovingly carved by her proud grandfather - one of the sculptors who were allowed some artistic freedom after their required list was finished).

Nearby, The New York State Museum covers the gamut, from a passing art exhibit on American attitudes toward race to permanent ones on the Adirondack wilderness, archaeology, the Cohoes mastodon, and Harlem in the ’20s. Other attractions include real-time displays of earthquakes in New York and around the world, a fire engine hall, birds and an enormous mineral collection. Do not miss the exhibit on the rescue after the World Trade Center September 11, 2001, attacks, including the recovery operation at the Fresh Kills landfill and the public response to the attacks.

You can ogle the governor’s collection of contemporary Native American crafts, while the kiddies will love visiting the original set of Sesame Street (secret: my dad helped build it), as well as the full-size carousel built between 1912 and 1916.

The restaurant called Grandma’s is a misnomer, as it’s run by a grandpa. Joseph Danaher opened it in 1976 as an alternative to fast food. He stuck to such basics as pot roast or meatloaf with mashed potatoes, hot open turkey sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, quiche, roast chicken, lasagna and delicious homemade soups.

As at all grandmas’ homes, you must leave room for dessert. Heirloom-recipe pies are the specialty here: wild blueberry, tart cherry, coconut custard, swiss chocolate almond, four kinds of apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin and even five sugar-free choices.

Even sleeping can be fun in Albany, as the Desmond Hotel was planned by a local family to mimic a Philadelphia street. When you are inside the complex it feels like you are outside. Rooms have balconies overlooking landscaped indoor courtyards, back doors with tables and chairs, and some of the rooms have two floors, with circular staircases leading up to your canopied bedroom (you can see a photo at www.drivei95.com/ plogger/plogger.php?level=picture&id=634)

Before you go New York State Capitol, Washington Ave. and State St. Take NY Thruway Exit 23. Walk-in tours Monday-Saturday. Info: 518-474-2418; www.ogs. state.ny.us/visiting/cultural/tourscapitol.html.

New York State Museum, Madison Ave. across the Plaza from the State Capitol building. Open daily from 9:30am-5pm. Info: 518-474-5877; www.nysm.nysed.gov

Grandma’s Restaurant, 1273 Central Ave. Take I-87 Exit 2. Info: 518-459-4585

Desmond Hotel, 660 Albany Shaker Road (Exit 4). Info: 800-448-3500; 518-869-8100; www.desmondhotelsalbany.com

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Florence: a city filled with treats for the eyes

click here to view a slide show of images from Florence

We had been in Italy for a week, but it wasn’t until we arrived in Florence, or “Firenze” in Italian, that I suddenly felt unfashionable and underdressed. The first thing I noticed was how chic and elegantly dressed Italian women were. My friends and I were backpacking around Europe, and coming from three weeks on the laissez-faire beaches of the Greek islands. We were not quite prepared to blend into the fashion-filled streets.

Florence is a classic Italian city – dainty cafés, narrow streets, glorious museums, medieval castles, a romantic river, gelato, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Gucci, Prada and Valentino. It has a population of about 367,000 and is the capital city of the northeast region of Tuscany.

The first sight we visited was the famous Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. We made our way through a maze of unidentifiable narrow streets, stopping for pizza along the way and asking locals for directions. While nobody spoke English, they pointed us in the right direction. Suddenly, from what seemed like out of nowhere, the street opened up into a huge piazza with a massive and beautifully neo-gothic decorated Duomo. However I’m reluctant to admit that after witnessing the grandiose exterior, the blandness inside was somewhat disappointing, with the exception of the decorative 100-metre-high Brunel­leschi’s Dome, named after the architect who designed it. The interior of the dome is painted with a scene of the apocalypse. During its construction, Brunelleschi built kitchens, dorm rooms, and bathrooms between the two walls of the cupola so the builders would never have to descend. We climbed the seemingly endless old, claustrophobic staircase to reach the top with its beautiful 360-degree view of the city.

Across from the Duomo is the Baptistery, famous for its tremendous bronze doors depicting scenes from the Bible.

After an overpriced dinner in a mediocre tourist trap, we ended our first night watching the sun set from the Ponte Vecchio, the 14th-century bridge lined with shops on stilts over the Arno river. The bridge is filled with hundreds of locks placed there by lovers. After locking their love during the romantic sun set, they throw the keys into the river to show their commitment. Locking your love on the Ponte Vecchio is illegal, and if the police find you doing it you can be fined. City workers painstakingly cut the locks off one by one, but before long they are replaced by new ones.

If you are in Florence and only have time to visit one sight, make it the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno to relish Michelangelo’s David. We waited in line for 20 minutes to enter this small museum filled with sculptures. The masterpiece of Renaissance marble depicting the biblical King David contemplating his upcoming battle with Goliath stands 5.17 metres high. David looked magnificent: strong, yet soft and angelic. We all appreciated the semi-circular bench placed around the back of the statue, where many women sit and enjoy the view of David’s perfectly sculpted derrière.

We then walked to the Piazza della Signoria to tour the Palazzo Vecchio, which from the outside looks like a castle straight out of a Disney movie. We waited in line for half an hour to tour the extravagantly decorated old rooms of this crenellated fortress. Michelangelo’s David once stood at the front entrance, before it was moved to the Accademia dell’Arte in 1873. A copy now stands in its place. The Palazzo now functions as a museum and the town hall of Florence.

The great Uffizi museum is right next to the Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the oldest and most famous museums in Europe, displaying works by such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Despite this, we were not inspired to stand in line for four hours to get in.

After my friends and I decided to venture off and explore on our own, I found the synagogue – Tempio Maggiore, built in 1874-1882. The synagogue, of Italian and Moorish design, is extravagantly beautiful. Unlike most of Italy’s Duomos, which you can simply walk into, I had to go through a thorough security check before entering. There is a small but vibrant Jewish community in Florence that maintains the temple, which was almost destroyed during the Second World War. The Italian resistance defused the explosives and saved it. I stopped at Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant for a quick bite before heading back to meet my friends.

I got lost, of course. But that is what you do when you travel in Europe – lose yourself to the city. It was getting dark. I stood in the middle of a piazza, opened my map and within seconds a nice young man who spoke no English approached me to offer his help. That trick works every time. Fillippo escorted me back to the Piazza della Signoria, passing several kiosks selling inappropriate postcards of David “parts” along the way, where I met my friends. I introduced them to Fillippo, and for the rest of the night they joked about my new Italian “boyfriend.”

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Stockholm to Tallinn

click here to view a slideshow of images from Stockholm to Tallinn

Originally Published September 2007

This summer’s adventure began in Stockholm, where we spent just two days, eager for more exotic and less expensive cities.

From Stockholm we took a luxurious ferry to Tallinn, Estonia and then, after three enchanting days in the Old Town, moved on by overnight train to St. Petersburg, where we spent four days and enjoyed two ballets!

From St. Petersburg, we traveled by overnight train to Riga, Latvia, a city full of culture and surprises, where we spent three days, including a day trip to Jurmula, an enchanting resort 40 minutes from the capital.

From Riga we took a day train to Vilnius, Lithuania where we spent three days touring the Old Town, especially the Jewish museum of the Vilna Gaon.

From Vilna we took a day train to Bialystock, Poland where, before World War II, 70,000 Jews resided. From Bialystock we traveled by train to Warsaw, this year for rest, recreation and shopping, having toured the Jewish sites last year. From Warsaw we moved on to Budapest, Irwin ’s favorite Eastern European city. After one night in Budapest, we flew to Israel for two weeks to see family and revisit our younger days, especially mine in Haifa, my still-favorite city.

We spent four days in Jerusalem, visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins. It’s been five years since our last visit so it was an emotional time. We visited our Cuban friends in Raanana who have recently made Aliyah (immigrated).

I re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem celebrating a personal anniversary — forty years since I first entered through Damascas Gate in 1967. Cousin Judy took us to the Bethlehem Machsom (checkpoint) and we had a glimpse at the wall that cuts off the Palestinians from Israel.

After Israel, we spent three days in Budapest and finished up in Vienna for the last two days.

As I sort through the hundreds of photos of places and people we met and saw along the way who hosted us and showed us their cities, I look forward to sharing this adventure of a lifetime with you.

Stockholm was beautiful, cold and expensive. Our hostel was right in the middle of the Old Town, perfect for exploring narrow, cobblestone streets full of caf és and boutiques. At $100 US a night for a tiny room, the hostel itself was nothing to write home about. With its clean showers and washrooms shared with many, we had to rent the sheets and make up our cots after landing jet lagged and bewildered. But the manager was extremely friendly and helped us book our overnight ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.

Unfortunately it was rainy and cold in Stockholm, forcing me to buy a sweatshirt and wear it for the next two weeks! This rain followed us to Tallinn and, to a lesser degree, to St. Petersburg and Riga. While they were sweltering in the south of Europe as far up as Budapest, we were shivering in outdoor restaurants, pulling blankets provided by the management around us and sitting as close as possible to the outdoor heaters. We drank lots of tea and ate berry crumble, which is served up warm in almost every caf é in the Old Town.

We were fascinated by the White Nights in Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, and Riga. There is daylight till 11 pm in Tallinn! This makes for natural security and romantic late night teas in outdoor cafés.

We took the Hop-On-and-Off Bus around Stockholm, stopping twice in different areas to take pictures of the architecture and sip coffee on picturesque streets. This do-it-yourself tour is  $25 and you can get on and off the red double deckers for 24 hours and explore different parts of the city on foot. The bus tours are available in most of the cities we visited and all cost about the same. Our happiest time on the bus was meeting a couple from California and getting to know them. The people we meet, whether tourists or citizens, always make our trip more memorable and enjoyable.

From Stockholm we took the most luxurious ferry ride we’ve ever experienced to Tallinn overnight. Our romantic and cabin had a double bed and we had to pull ourselves away from its sheer luxury and privacy (after roughing it in the Stockholm hostel) to experience the cuisine of the “coffee shop,” which included thick lox sandwiches and glorious desserts. We won’t dwell on it here except to say this was possibly our most fatte­ning summer adventure ever. The ferry ride, $150 US each, was pricey because the price is for a return trip. Most Stockholmers spend the day in Tallinn and return home the next evening. There is an enormous buffet on board, which the Swedes lined up for in two shifts, at $45 a head. We opted for the less daunting café.

The only snag on this leg of the journey was in finding the port our ferry left from. Our manager ’s assistant mista­kenly told our cab driver to take us to the wrong port. (Stockholm is a huge port city and there are many ports so it ’s easy to confuse them.) We ended up paying our driver triple, but finally, after stopping and asking several times, we reached the terminal, took a number, and waited an hour or so to board. The luxurious ferry made up for the harrowing misadventure of finding it.

To give you a real taste of Tallinn, I’d have to provide you all with the thick slabs of mouthwatering smoked salmon we gorged on at the market during our three day visit.

We stayed at the Villa Hortensia in the Old Town, in a tiny loft with rustic wooden beams and a kitchenette. Villa Hortensia, owned and managed by a Finn, Jan Parn, is located in a courtyard surrounded by artisan shops and a Chocolateria.

Tallinn is enchanting and accessible, and Estonians are happy to be free of Soviet domination. Their language, appearance and behavior seem more Scandinavian than Slavic to this Canadian with her limited knowledge of Scandinavian people and countries.

Since there is much to tell about our visit to Tallinn and many pictures to show, I will continue next issue with the description of Tallinn ’s Old Town and the World Folk Festival we stumbled onto in the main square.

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Malibu: 21 miles of scenic beauty and surfing for all ages

April, 2009

Last week my good friend Cassie and I spent the day in the Bu (pronounced “Boo,” which is slang for Malibu). We walked into the Malibu Surf Shack on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) after a two-hour, 20- mile drive through the traffic-filled streets of Los Angeles.

Dozens of colourful surfboards, wetsuits and kayaks lined the deck outside. A young girl from Vancouver was eyeing the latest surf swag inside. Sean, the store owner and a Malibu native, says he typically does not give interviews, passing up opportunities when hotshots from Vogue or Glamour come in, so as not to be overexposed.

Part of Malibu’s essence is its relaxed and laissez-faire attitude. The locals like to preserve the casual-yet elegant ambiance, which separates Malibu from the high-strung, smog filled, paparazzi circus of Los Angeles.

Malibu is 21 miles (34 km) of scenic beauty along the Pacific coastline. It borders Topanga Canyon to the east,Ventura County to the west, the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The California State Parks within Malibu are packed with breathtaking trails for hikes, horseback riding, and biking. But Malibu is best known for its premiere surf beaches and the surf culture that goes along with it.

The Surf Shack is across the street from the Malibu Pier and the well known Surfrider Beach,which is said to have the “best breaks in the world.” Surfers from all over, of all levels, shapes, sizes and ages are drawn to the waves at Surfrider. At $20 an hour or $25 a day to rent a surfboard, surfing is nicely affordable during these harsh economic times. “Kayaking is equally as popular,” Sean says, gesturing to the store’s windows overlooking the beach. “A lady in her 60s is out there kayaking. She’s been in a couple of times,” he says.

“An 86-year-old man from the Midwest came in for a surf lesson,” he adds. “We held the board the whole time until he caught a wave and stood up. It’s one more thing to check off of his bucket list.”

Sean has co-ordinated senior group outings of 20 to 30 people.

We crossed the street and strolled along the pier, which holds the new Malibu Pier Club, a vintage-inspired bar offering cocktails and appetizers. The pier is an excellent spot for salt water fishing. We moseyed on over to the beach, walking along the sidewalk on PCH, passing surfers waxing their boards and zipping up their wetsuits, and breathing in the fumes from a Volkswagen Hippie Bus.

The Malibu Lagoon State Park, part of Surfrider Beach, is where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. It is a pleasant little bird-watching area where the Adamson House, a natural historic site, showcases Malibu artifacts. The students of Malibu High School frequent this area as part of their nature studies.

Opposite the Lagoon, on the other side of PCH on Cross Creek Road, is the Malibu Country Mart. With over 60 shops, it is a great place to people- watch because many celebrities shop there. The Malibu Kitchen is reason enough for me to make the trip. It is the only gourmet deli in the area, which unfortunately allows them to get away with charging $12 for a sandwich. The service is mediocre, but the desserts are miraculous. The monstrous carrot cake cupcakes and Oreo brownies are my favourites.

Further up the coast is the family friendly Zuma Beach, known for its long, wide sands and excellent surf. This is where Valley kids and Malibu High and Pepperdine University students go to “slide the Bu” (surf in Malibu).

The Paradise Cove Café, just east of Zuma Beach, is the only restaurant in Malibu right on the sand with its private beach and cove. Its Sunday all you- can-eat buffet attracts large crowds, and while it appears in just about every guidebook I would steer clear. When I was there the place was packed and parking was horrendous. We waited 40 minutes for a table, and then were seated in the direct sun surrounded by children running around spreading sand everywhere. There was not one thing to eat for a vegetarian like myself; the menu consists solely of overpriced seafood. I left hungry, sun burnt, and annoyed.

Further up the coast, past several smaller, less-frequented yet lovely state beaches, is Neptune’s Net Seafood. This artery-clogging joint is where the bikers traveling along PCH hang out. Menu items include such delicacies as fish ’n’ chips, oysters, clams, lobster and calamari – all deep-fried, of course.

For a relaxing Malibu ocean front meal, I suggest Moonshadows on PCH during sunset.

Wildfires and mudslides aren’t the only troubles this upscale and tranquil community is facing these days. It’s a telltale sign of the country’s hardship when there are signs that the rich are suffering. Many of the seaside beach houses and canyon estates are up for sale. There are several empty stores in the Malibu Country Mart. Even the Malibu Inn, a legendary bar that has hosted many memorable musical acts, has closed.

However, I believe the Bu will pull through. Malibu’s greatest asset – its 365 days a year of surf weather – will forever attract people to its shores.

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A one-day Turkish tease in Bodrum

April, 2009

Bodrum. The name itself is exotic. The only destination on our seven day cruise that wasn’t an island, this town of 40,000 is a magnet for tourists. On the Turkish coast, it was the second stop on our Easy Cruise, which started in Athens. Irwin and I were eager to get back to Turkey, which we had explored for five weeks, five years ago – even if it was only for one day.

Like many Turkish cities, Bodrum has its shuk, or market, with hundreds of small, tantalizing shops to explore in a maze of narrow streets. I have to confess I spent most of the day wandering around them buying jewellery for my staff and family. I adore bargaining in these tiny shops.

The trick is to buy a lot in one place, once you’ve shopped around and found an owner willing to lower prices. The shop we chose was owned and run by a family of burly men who were gentle and smart about recognizing me as a serious customer.

For lunch, the shop owners recommended a fresh-fish restaurant on the sea. We were taken there by the same boy who had brought us traditional mint tea and Turkish coffee after our deal was sealed. But as I predicted, the restaurant prices were outrageous and we left to search for another eatery.

Finally we made our choice and took our seats facing the beach only to realize that many restaurants had their own beaches, little spaces with beach chairs where one could have a sip or a meal and use the beach for free. No towels provided, though, and certainly no bathing suits. Irwin had his suit, but I had left mine on

the ship, so we decided to go shopping for one. Unfortunately, there were no suits I wanted to splurge on. Finally we found a fun boutique and I purchased a “skort” (remember those?) and went in with my T-shirt, looking pretty silly. So I learned my lesson. Never leave your bathing suit on the ship.

Of course, Bodrum didn’t have the serenity of Kalymnos, our previous stop, but it was an exciting way to spend our second cruise day, and it certainly put the idea of returning to Turkey again into our heads.

Bodrum boasts some fascinating historic sites and nightlife galore, but I have to confess we were doing the cruising thing and just shopped till we dropped into the sea for a swim.

If you want more information on accomodations and sites, google Bodrum.

Next stop: Kos

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