Camel ride and night in the Sahara Desert

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Camel riding is the activity most closely associated with Morocco, so I booked a desert tour specifically to do just that. The camel ride was just a small portion of the tour, lasting for only 1.5 hours each way from Merzouga. In between, we spent the night at a camp in the Sahara Desert.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just as the desert tours are most likely all operated by one company, I get the feeling that there are only a few places that conduct camel rides. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel at the edge of the desert where dozens of other tourists had already gathered. Some were on 2-person private tours, and some were on huge 16-person group tours like the one I was on. It didn’t matter, we were all funneled here for the camel rides into the Sahara Desert.

Starting point for camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

After checking us in, the staff at the hotel informed us that we were leaving as a group at 6pm, when the Sahara had cooled down and in time to see the sunset en route. We could bring a little bag for water, our cameras, and whatever we needed overnight, but otherwise we should leave everything else on the vans.

At 6pm, we all gathered outside the hotel where the camels were waiting. They were already tied together in strings of 5-7, patiently sitting in a row. The staff split us up into groups somewhat arbitrarily, and each string of camels got its own driver/guide that led the camel up front.

While we waited, they showed us how to tie our scarves into head scarves, which they insisted was necessary for sun and sand protection in the desert. Given that it was a pretty calm day and the sun was already on its way down, I think they brought us more joy as a touristy gimmick than real functional benefit.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

And we were off! When the camel gets up and sits down, it does so one side at a time, so you really have to hold on to avoid being thrown off backwards or head first. It’s similar to horsebackriding, lurching with each step. The rocking is especially bad when the camel goes down a sand dune and sinks deeper into the sand.

The camels are extraordinarily well trained; when the rope comes undone (as it did twice for my camels) and there is nothing pulling it forward, it simply stops and awaits further orders.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

It’s also worth noting that the camels move extremely slow. Slow enough that I could easily outpace them at my normal walking speed, even moving through sand. So I understand their usefulness if you are traveling with heavy loads, but solely as a means of short-term transport, they’re not the best option.

Our guide was a nice person with a fondness for practical jokes. He helped us take pictures while we were on the camels, but he would pocket our phones with a note of thanks and not give them back until a while later. Our guide struggling with his turban:

Our guide on our camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

As we rode on, the shadows got longer and longer and the dunes glowed ever more orange.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just before sunset at 7:30, we stopped to climb one of the taller sand dunes to see the sun drop below the horizon. The sand is ultra fine, making it a little difficult to climb but very fun to slide down!

Sunset in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Along the way, we saw some scattered camps tucked between the dunes. Little black boxes clustered together in larger rectangles. According to the guide, these belonged to nomadic Berber families that lived and worked in the desert, including at the camp that we were headed to. We arrived at this main camp after another half an hour or so, just before it got dark.

Camping in the Sahara

The camp consisted of many tents around a central square/camp fire, with only two toilets for the 60 odd people. The tents had beds and sheets in varied conditions and could accommodate up to 6 people, but we were also free to sleep outside. Even when night fell the temperature didn’t drop too low, so you could sleep inside without sheets and outside with a thin blanket.

At night, we had a surprisingly nice meal (considering that we were out in the desert) of soup, bread, chicken tagine with vegetables, and cut up fruits. Then, the guides all gathered to play Moroccan drums for us.

Dinner at camp in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Most people retired to bed by 10:30-11:00, since we had to get up bright and early at 3:30 to ride back during sunrise. It was painful to get up, but the starry sky was breathtaking without any light pollution! (And also, unfortunately, impossible to capture on camera).

Just as we stopped for sunset, we also stopped briefly to appreciate the sunrise.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Sunrise in the Sahara desert, Morocco

By 6am, we were back at the hotel where we started, and where they had breakfast waiting for us.

This is where we said goodbye to the camels. They’re a little scruffy looking with patches of missing hair, so I’m not sure how well they’re taken care of. It struck me that people are often up in arms about elephant riding and how inhumane it is, but doesn’t the same thing apply to camel riding? The camel has traditionally been a beast of burden, but it also doesn’t feel quite right to exploit it for touristic purposes.

In any case, I did enjoy this ride, but I think it’s a one-time thing – unless I’m somehow part of an actual caravan next time!

Desert tour from Marrakech to Fez

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

My top priority for Morocco was to see the Sahara Desert, and from research it looked like I could do it en route from Marrakech to Fez.

The Sahara Excursion

The hard part was picking a tour company to go with. There are hundreds of different excursion companies, not to mention random people handing out flyers and calling, “Excursion? Exclusion?” I looked up a few of the top rated companies on TripAdvisor, but they only did private tours ranging from 500-700 euros for only 3 days and 2 nights. In the end, I went with the package that the hostel was selling, 75 euros for 3 days and 2 nights (not including making my own way to Fez afterward). It seemed reasonable compared to the other group tour quotes I got, which were for 90 and 125 euros.

On the morning of, a man came by the hostel around 7am to pick me up. A couple of other people were also with him, and we walked a little ways to the main square where the man directed us to one of the many identical large vans. There wasn’t an official company whatsoever, just a van, a driver, and a group of other people who at least confirmed that they where there for the same thing.

I learned from said group that we all paid different things: some 80 euros, some 65 and even 60 euros. They sell you more expensive packages with the promise that the amenities will be better, but we were literally all on the same tour. I guess it just depends on how big of a cut your hostel/hotel/agency wants to take.

Our unmarked van followed the dozens of other unmarked vans and made almost all the same stops, so I get the feeling that there is just a single excursion company that everyone funnels the tourists into. The only place that we stopped at which was unique was an argan oil shop, where a row of ladies showed us how argan oil was made next to shelves of merchandise – yep, it was one of those tours.

We also all soon discovered that there are a lot of little fees that they didn’t mention up front. Two breakfasts and two dinners are included, but no lunches (which run at about 100 dirhams or $10 a piece). Each day we had a local guide, who we were very much encouraged to pay 20 dirhams to. Entrance fee to Ait Ben Haddou, 30 dirhams. Oh, and by the way, it’s mandatory to have a scarf for camel riding. Luckily, you can get one here cheaply for just 60 dirhams!

Next time, I think I’m just renting a car. But anyway, it was a good brief introduction to Moroccan life inland and next to the Sahara!


Atlas Mountains

A little ways outside Marrakech, we made a pit stop along the side of the highway to take pictures of the Atlas Mountains:

Atlas Mountains, Morocco

You can tell we were going to be entering desert very soon!

Ait Ben Haddou

Our first real stop was Ait Ben Haddou. It is an old village that dates back to the 18th century, and around 10 families currently live here. It has become steadily more popular amongst tourists since the 1960s, due to its status as a world heritage site and its use as a set for popular movies. These have included Lawrence of Arabia (1961), Gladiator (2001), and, most recently, Game of Thrones! Some of the families here played extras in these films/shows.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

The village is on the other side of a river, named Asif Ounila, which is Arabic for “salt.” Currently, the river is mostly dried up. But in the winter time, there can be so much snow melt from the Atlas Mountains that the river cannot be crossed.

The houses are all made from a traditional mixture of mud and straw, which provides insulation from the extreme heat in the summer and the cold in winter. However, especially when it rains hard, the wall erodes. So it has to be patched up every 5-8 years.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

According to the guide, the mound in the distance was used as the smaller colosseum for the Gladiator.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

I’m not sure exactly where Game of Thrones was filmed, but there was definitely a great view from the top of the village.

Buildings at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate is another, much bigger city known for its involvement in the movie industry. That’s about all I know, because we just stopped for 10 minutes to snap pictures of these buildings, and then we were out.

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Later, I checked online and found that there isn’t all that much to see in Ouarzazate, people mainly use it as a home base and take day trips out to other places like Ait Ben Haddou. At least I’m standing by that because it makes me feel better about not having seen it at all!

First Night: Boumalne de Dades

At the end of the first day, we entered canyon lands.

We checked in for the night at a hotel near a ravine. The amenities were nice (but maybe I only think so because I’ve been staying in hostels the entire time – I can’t remember the last time I stayed somewhere where I was provided with a towel!), but two rooms within the group found bed bugs. I didn’t check closely, but I woke up bump-free, so hopefully that means there weren’t any in my bed…

Todra Gorges

Our first stop on our second day was a Berber village near Todra Gorges. We walked through farmland, past all sorts of crops that he guide explained even even let us taste: alfalfa (to feed animals, and for green dye), apricots, dates (which are pollinated by hand), wheat, figs, olives, mint, pomegranates, corn, and bamboo (for the roofs of the kasbahs).

Guide through Todra Gorges on the Sahara excursion in Morocco

Then we entered the village itself, where the guide took us to a kasbah that sold berber carpets.

Carpet seller on a Sahara excursion in Morocco

Commercial stop #2! We did learn a couple of things about the carpets, though:

  • Carpets made from the dromedary camel (which has just one hump, whereas camels have two) wool is the longest lasting, but they can only be sheared once in their lifetimes.
  • The carpets use natural dyes: henna for brown and red, saffron for orange, alfalfa for olive green, indigo for blue
  • If a carpet only has one fringe, that means that only one woman made it. However, if it has two fringes, two women made it.
  • The women don’t have plans for the carpets before starting, they simply weave whatever patterns they feel like and use carpet weaving to tell their own stories.
  • It takes about 7-8 months for a woman to finish a large carpet, because she works on it for about 2 hours a day between housework.

After politely listening to the carpet dealer and all awkwardly refusing to buy, we continued onto Todra Gorge, a beautiful canyon with bubbling clear groundwater.

Todra Gorge, Morocco

There used to be a hotel inside the canyon, but it closed after a rock fell from the canyon and through one of the buildings. Yep, pretty bad for business.

Sahara Desert

Finally the Sahara desert, the main event! We arrived in Mezouga in the evening and rode camels out to a desert camp, where we spent the night. Read about the full camel ride here!

Ride to Fez

The tour that I booked covered a return trip to Marrakech, but since I wanted to go to Fez instead, it was – surprise, surprise! – an extra 300 dirham ($30) fee. This was steep compared to the 150 dirham ($15) buses that run from Merzouga to Fez, but it only goes overnight. So, alas, I gave into the convenience fee.


Sahara Excursion Summary

Overall, it was a great excursion. Commercialized, yes. Rushed in places, yes. But it still delivered a fair amount of value, especially if you haggled it down to a good price. My impression was that most tours probably went along the same route and included the same things, so I’m glad that I didn’t splurge for a private tour. I’m sure it would have been nicer, yes, but 5-7x nicer? …Debatable.

Regardless, whichever way you go, it’s worth the trip! Just look at these scenes:

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

View from the bus to the Sahara, Morocco

Morocco at Ramadan

Entrance to Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Entrance to Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Unwittingly, my trip to Morocco coincided with the start of Ramadan. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – Would many places be closed? Would it be difficult to find food? Could I not eat or drink in public during the day? Many many questions.

When I got to Marrakech, I discovered that Ramadan doesn’t make much of a difference for tourists. Many sites have shorter hours, and restaurants are closed around sunset so that the workers can break their fast. For the most part, locals don’t mind if tourists eat: restaurants and markets stay open, and people still eat on outdoor patios and terraces.

However, you can sense that tempers run a little short during the day, when the locals who are fasting (which are the majority) are hungry and thirsty. I passed at least one fist fight that broke out behind me on an already chaotic street. And haggling comes with a little more tension than usual. A friend from the hostel countered with 30 dirhams for an item that started out at 300 dirhams, and he was told very curtly to put the item back and to “be careful, sir, its Ramadan.”

One evening in Marrakech, I went to check out the central mosque, Koutoubia, with a few friends from the hostel. On previous nights I heard broadcasted prayers, so I wanted to see if there was a ceremony of some sort at the mosque. However, the official sunset time of 7:31 came and went, and the mosque stayed empty and quiet. There were lots of mats laid out outside, though, so we gathered that something probably goes on here.

Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

We found a restaurant with a terrace right across from the mosque for dinner while we waited to see if something might happen later. There were surprisingly only two or three, even though it was the central tourist area. At around 7:39, less than 10 minutes later, a series of calls came from the mosque, signaliing that it was time to eat.

But the main event came an hour or so later. Around 8:30, people started showing up at the mosque. And then before we knew it, a seemingly unending stream of people started pouring in. Some went into the mosque and some filed into the matted area outside, until it was basically filled. And still they came.

Evening prayer at Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Soon, the prayers began. In sync, the entire mass of people bowed again and again in the direction of Mecca. According to a local at the restaurant, the prayer goes on for 2 hours and happens every day during Ramadan!

Such immense dedication! Coming to an Islamic country during Ramadan is definitely a unique experience and good chance to learn about Islam. I’m embarrassed by how very little I currently know, but I’m aiming to change that!

Cooking Class at Amal Women’s Center in Marrakech

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

What better way to learn about Moroccan cuisine than to cook it?

Online I found several cooking classes offered, but I went with the Amal Women’s Center because it benefited a nonprofit organization. For 300 dirham ($30), we would learn to cook and later eat a Moroccan meal of chicken tagine, Moroccan salad, and Moroccan mint tea.

The facilities of the Amal Women’s center were beautiful:

Cooking class at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

They had all of the ingredients prepared for us, all we had to do was put it together.Though the chicken tagine involved multiple spices, the recipe is surprisingly easy. Honestly, all we did was chop onions (under pretty close scrutiny, because there were about 4 kitchen helpers for just the three of us in the class) and spoon ingredients in the amounts specified. We were done in about 10 minutes.

Cooking class ingredients at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

We covered our tagines and took them outside to little individual charcoal grills. They had us use bellows to get the fire going – these things are quite effective! A few spurts of air, and you get a little crackling fire.

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

The chicken cooked for about an hour or so, with two breaks in between: one to flip the chicken and put the oil in (it goes in later so that the chicken has a chance to absorb the spices), and another to add some more water.

While we waited for the chicken to cook, the staff told us a bit about the women’s center and the work that they do:

Amal Women’s center

The mission of the women’s center is to empower women by training them for and helping them find sustainable employment. Kitchen jobs are the target, a big industry in Marrakech and an easy transition for women as they likely already have cooking experience. For six months, the center trains the women in technical skills and soft skills like punctuality and cleanliness, and then they are responsible for helping the women find a kitchen job after the program. But their main goal is to teach and show the women that they can be independent; they don’t have to be dependent on anyone.

They primarily focus on women from four disadvantaged groups:

  • Single mothers: often ostracized by society and even kicked out by their families for having premarital sex
  • Widows
  • Divorcees: divorce is still not very common, and it is frowned upon. Women legally have the right to get divorced, but few exercise it. And if a man divorces a woman, it means that she was a bad wife.
  • Orphans: receive help from the state until they are 18, but then afterwards they are on their own without much support.

While women in morocco legally have a lot more rights than they did before, culturally and socially, they still face a lot of issues that hold them back. It is undesirable for a woman to seem too independent, and there are problems with education.

There is no sex education, so many women do not even know the basics about their bodies and sex. Some women who already gave birth to children don’t know what it was that made them pregnant – it sounds ludicrous, but if nobody tells you, how do you know? Abortion is also illegal, and some women die because the try to abort the baby themselves. Alternatively, their family might take them out of the country, where they have the baby and leave it there. But some men still abide by the age-old test of checking if the hymen is intact to determine virginity.

Anyway, a very good cause!

And a very good meal:

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to reproduce the meal on my own, even though I have a recipe list. But I got more than just culinary knowledge from this class. Thank you Amal, and keep doing the good work!

I also learned a neat tidbit: locals serve Moroccan mint tea by lifting the teapot high while pouring, and there are a couple of reasons for this. (1), it cools the tea a bit on its way to the cup. (2) the more sugar there is in the tea, the more foam there will be when you pour the tea up high. Sugar was a precious commodity, so this was a way to demonstrate to guests e was sugar in the tea before they even tasted it.


Chicken and Preserved Lemon Tagine:

Ingredients:

1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley and cilantro
1 pinch saffron
1/2 tsp ras el hanut
1/4 preserved lemon pulp
1/2 lemon juice
1 small oninon, finely choped
2 chicken breast and legs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 handful olives
1/2 preserved lemon peel, thinly sliced
water

Instructions:

  1. Combine all spices into mixing bowl
  2. Place chicken into mixture and coat well
  3. Spread onions evenly in tajine
  4. Place chicken on top of onions
  5. Pour rest of spice mixture over chicken
  6. Cover tajine and place on low heat for 1 hour
  7. After onions have browned, pour oils
  8. After 10 minutes, pour water in tajine up to lid line
  9. Check periodically to add more water to the lid line
  10. 10 minutes before finishing cooking, place olives and lemon peel on top of chicken

Moroccan Salad

Ingredients:

4 tomatoes
1 cucumber
onion to taste
2 tbsp parsley and cilantro
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

  1. Chop everything
  2. Mix!

Palaces, tombs, and gardens in Marrakech

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

The largest sites in Marrakech are concentrated in the Medina, so they are easy to get to (or stumble upon when you’re lost). They’re also almost all very cheap to visit, with a ticket price of just 10 Dirham ($1).

The only problem is that there isn’t much explanation of what the sites are or what you’re looking at. It appears to be pretty popular to go into the palaces and tombs with a private guide who can share the history and explain the context. I opted to go without, so many thanks to Wikipedia for the below content.

Ben Youssef

A famous Islamic school founded in the 14th century. It is one of the largest in North Africa, with a large area for dorms and second floor.

Courtyard of the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, Morocco

Inside the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, Morocco

Saadian Tombs

These 16th century tombs house about 60 members of the Saadian Dynasty. There are tombs inside (the royal family) as well as outside (for soldiers and servants).

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

Saadian tombs in Marrakech, Morocco

El Badi Palace

El Badi Palace was originally funded by a ransom paid by the Portugese, who the Saadian sultan defeated in battle at the end of the 16th century. It was a splendid palace, but it declined after the fall of the Saadians, and now all that remains is a ruin (topped with many birds’ nests).

El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Walking through, I couldn’t help but notice all of the holes in the wall…were they intentional? Or did the walls all just deteriorate that way due to the construction? Of course, it’s a question that’s been asked on the internet before:

When they were building the walls, they inserted wooden blocks into the walls so that they could climb on them as the walls got higher. Once the walls were complete, they took them out, leaving the holes. The holes then act to prevent the walls from cracking with the changing temperatures by somehow absorbing some of the expansion and contraction.

At El Badi palace, I paid an extra 10 dirhams ($1) to see the Koutoubia minbar. Mostly because I wasn’t sure what a minbar was. But now that I’ve seen it, I would say don’t. It does have beautiful, intricate carvings, though:

Koutoubia minbar at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Koutoubia minbar at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Bahia Palace

Not to be confused with El Badi Palace, Bahia Palace was built in the 19th century, housed noblemen and not royals, and is still in good condition.

Room in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

I couldn’t get enough of those roofs…

Roof in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Roof in Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

Dar Si Said Museum

I stumbled on the Dar Si Said museum completely on accident, while searching for a hammam (turkish bath) place. It’s not as grand as the other palaces, but still worth a visit. It also used to be a nobleman’s home, but has since been used as a museum for cultural artifacts from around Morocco.

Dar Si Said museum in Marrakech, Morocco

Dar Si Said museum in Marrakech, Morocco

Mejorelle Garden and Berber museum

The Mejorelle Garden is one of the top destinations in Marrakech. It was the private garden of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who built it over the course of 40 years. Once he died, it was preserved by Yves Saint-Laurent (yep, that one) and Pierre Berge, and has been opened to the public since 1947.

Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco

Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco

It also one of the most expensive at 70 dirham ($7) for the gardens and an extra 30 dirham ($3) for the museum. Online reviews said that it was small, but a nice quiet oasis. And that’s exactly what it was. Would I go back again? Probably not (especially since the Yves Saint-Laurent memorial was literally an unassuming rectangular rock). But the Berber museum inside was very well-done (albeit also small), and I think that was worth the trip in and of itself.


I got along fine without a guide in Marrakech, and had fun exploring the sites myself. But if anyone wants to bring the European free city tour model to Morocco, there’s an open market!

The streets and shops of Marrakech Medina

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Even if you’re not heading anywhere specific, just a stroll through the souks (alleyways) of the Median itself is quite the adventure. But before you head outside, make sure that you are mentally prepared!

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco
Whether it is by shopkeepers, restaurant owners, women selling henna, men with moneys on chains, taxi drivers, or even the occasional young lad looking to make a buck, you will be accosted. Sometimes physically.

Calls of “hello!” “excuse me!”, “excursion?” and, in my case, “Nihao!” “Arigatou!” and “Japan? Korean? China?” come flying from every angle. Most of the time, people are beckoning you to look at their services/shops. But often times people will appear to be helpful by trying to direct you (“Square? Square? Is that way!” As if there’s nowhere else I could potentially want to go besides the square) or offering unsolicited explanations. All for a little fee at the end, of course. If you wave them off, they sometimes get angry at your “rudeness.” I like to smile at people I pass on the street, but I quickly realized that the best way to respond was to either ignore them or give a curt nod and smile but keep walking.

The streets are really narrow, perhaps just large enough for a standard sedan to go by, and not without difficulty. In both directions, bikes and scooters zoom by without warning. As far as I can tell, it’s the responsibility of the pedestrian to get out of the way as fast as s/he can.

There’s never a dull day on the streets of Marrakech, that’s for sure!

Jeema El Fna

Jeema el Fna is the large central square, filled with fruit juice stalls and merchants with carts. There’s a long line of horse drawn carriages. You’ll also find snake charmers and men holding monkeys on chains, asking if you want to take a picture for a fee.

It’s quite beautiful at night:

Night market on the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Street-side stalls

All of the streets are lined with people selling clothing, ceramics, jewelry, beauty products, and any knick knacks that you can think of.

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Market stall in the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Some stalls have pastries that look delicious, but they’re simply COVERED with insects. See those little dots? All bees (hopefully not flies!).

Pastries on the streets of Marrakech, Morocco

Lessons from Spain

Lessons from Spain

1. Take it nice and slow

Since starting my travels, I’ve mostly followed the rule of staying in one place for at least 3 nights before moving to the next one. This gives me time to get to know the location a little better and means that I don’t have to squeeze all the sights and scenes into two full days, but I’ve come to discover that even 3 nights isn’t enough.

In Spain, I slowed it down even further to 5-6 nights in each location. While this seemed long before, it feels perfect now. With 4-5 full days, I was able to see just about everything that I wanted to and comfortably take day trips. However, it still wasn’t enough time to see Barcelona (I was so busy running around that I never made it to the beach) – guess I’ll have to go back and spend 2 weeks there next time!

2. Enjoy life a little bit

Spain is a place of leisure and pleasure, two things I’ve never quite been able to embrace. To me, any second that isn’t productive is wasted, and “fun” is an item that is usually scheduled (in between events of adequate productivity). Ironically, even though I no longer have a full time job, I still have a perpetually full todo list.

In Spain, however little, I learned to relax a bit. It feels good to have a sangria or a refreshing tinto de verano with a meal. It’s not a bad idea to go back to the hostel to escape the heat of the day (though I haven’t quite begun cultivating the nap yet). For the first time, I miss the makeup and non-conservative quick drying clothes – just a little bit. And all of it is okay.

3. Take fewer pictures

Even though I don’t believe my photography habits changed, for whatever reason, sorting through and editing pictures took a lot longer in Spain. Did I take more pictures? Were the pictures just crappier (meaning more photoshop)?

I’m not entirely sure, but I had enough and vowed to take fewer pictures. Even though taking another digital photo just means a few extra pixels, sorting and editing still means that each photo comes at a price: time, the most priceless thing of all. So, take fewer photos! It also means that I can be in the present and enjoy the sights in front of me a little more.

4. Don’t force yourself into a lifestyle

When I first got to Barcelona, I was lured by the party lifestyle that permeated the entire city (it probably didn’t help that I stayed in a party hostel). In the previous four months in Asia, I could count the number of drinks that I had on one hand, and I just about never went out. I only had conservative India-appropriate clothing with me, but I figured it would be a shame to go to Spain and not experience the infamous night out that starts at midnight and ends at 6am.

So on my last night in Barcelona, I joined the hostel pub crawl. We went to three bars and ended up in a club. It felt pretty much the same as nights out in college, except it went a lot later and involved more Spanish music (an improvement, if you ask me). The dancing was fun, but nowadays I’m less fond of meeting strangers in clubs and would prefer to wake up early and hydrated. The party lifestyle is no longer for me. I’m glad I went out at least once, and I no longer had fear of missing out after.

5. Just speak Spanish

Even though I haven’t practiced Spanish at all in the past 10 years, I did take about 6 years of it in school. I was surprised at how much of it I actually retained, but I was too shy to try to speak it. Most of the time when I tried, the shopkeepers patiently sat through my stuttered broken sentences and then just replied in English to put me out of my misery.

I wish I could tie it up in a rosy way by saying that I conquered my fears and unleashed a fountain of ever more fluent Spanish, but unfortunately it’s still something I’m working on. This is one of those lessons that I understand in theory but am still trying to put into practice!

6. It’s good to have work

In Spain, for the first time since I left, I started to feel an urge to go back to work. It’s not for financial reasons (though my pockets are definitely emptier than when I started), but rather a need to do something productive – not just for me, but for others. After 5 months, my travel itch has been mostly satisfied, and I’m in a place where I’m once again excited about work!

The Mezquita in Cordoba

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Córdoba is a very religiously significant city. It was the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, a Muslim state that spanned the entire bottom half of the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century. In 1030, the state fractured into multiple independent Muslim kingdoms, which were conquered by the Christian monarchy one by one until the last Muslim city, Granada, fell in 1492.

The Mezquita was the religious center (whether Muslim or Christian) of Córdoba.

The Mezquita of Cordoba from across the Roman Bridge, Spain

Its history starts in the 6th century, when the Visigoths the church of Saint Vincent the Martyr in this location.This is all that remains of the original Visigoth church:

Remains of the original church that became the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

After the Muslims conquered Córdoba, the leader Abd al-Rahman I purchased the ruins of the church, leveled the remains, and built a mosque for his new caliphate.

Construction on the mosque started in 786. Many old columns from the church, which you can identify by their bases, were reused for the mosque. When completed, the new mosque had a prayer hall that could hold 5,000 people, and was the largest in the Western world.

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Doorway inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Over the next few centuries, the mosque underwent a series of expansions. As you walk deeper into the Mezquita, you can clearly see the difference between the areas:

  • First expansion by Abd al-Rahman II in 822. Enlarged the mosque to fit 9,486 people. The new columns did not have bases.
  • Second expansion by Al-Hakam II in 965. Enlarged the mosque to fit 15,773 people. The new columns also did not have bases:

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

  • Third expansion by Almanzor (the tutor of the third caliph, who was at this point reduced to a figurehead) in 991. Almanzor purchased the houses on the street side for the expansion, and enlarged the mosque to fit a whopping 40,000 people. This enlarged area is marked by its austerity – not only do the columns not have bases, the red bricks in the archway are painted on instead of using actual bricks:

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

After the Christians conquered Córdoba in 1236, they converted the mosque into a church and built a royal chapel and a transept within.

Mihrab

The mihrab is most important part of the mosque, and it indicates the direction of Mecca. However, while Mecca lies to the the southeast of the Mezquita, its mihrab points due south.

Mihrab of the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Transept

The transept, similar to one you might find in any other cathedral, is located at the center of the Mezquita. As soon as you come across it, it feels like you’ve entered a completely separate building. The rest of the Mezquita is dimly lit and in shadow, whereas the transept is awash in light and has high ceilings.

Chapel inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Chapel inside the Mezquita of Cordoba, Spain

Minaret/Bell tower

There is a separate ticket to enter the minaret/bell tower, which you can get from a desk at its base for 2 euros. Get there as early as you can, because they have limited time slots and availability!

The original minaret was built around 951 and had two staircases that met at the top. It was transformed into a bell tower by the Christians in 1593. The view of the Mezquita from the bell tower:

La mezquita from the bell tower in Cordoba, Spain

A church that used to be a mosque (which was expanded three times) that used to be a church. If there was ever a building that exemplified the constant shift in culture and power on the Iberian peninsula, this is it!

The Patios of Cordoba

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Córdoba is known for its beautiful flowers. Every May, houses throughout the city open up their doors to show off their patios (courtyards). Unfortunately, that’s in the beginning of May, and I didn’t get there until the end of the month. Fortunately, there were still some flowers left!

Seen on the streets of Córdoba:

Flowers in Cordoba, Spain

Flower in Cordoba, Spain

Flower statue on the streets of Cordoba, Spain

Los Patios del Alcazar Viejo

There were also still open patios, but you have to pay to visit them. I went to los Patios del Alcazar Viejo, a coalition of 7 patios that allow you to enter with one combined ticket. There is a separate office (a small, nondescript shop) nearby that sells the tickets, which you have to purchase before going to any of the patios.

Along with the ticket, you get a map to all of the participating locations. It’s a very easy, very colorful treasure hunt!

At each address, you knock on the door and present your ticket to someone who marks the address to indicate that you have already been there. The patios could be owned by a single family or could belong to multiple families who care for the plants together.

I’m not sure how they water some of these plants!

#1 San Basilio 14

San Basilio 14 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

San Basilio 14 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#2 Martin de Roa 2

Martin de Roa 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#3 Martin de Roa 7

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Martin de Roa 7 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#4 San Basilio 40

San Basilio 40 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

San Basilio 40 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#5 Duartas 2

Duartas 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Duartas 2 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#6 La Barrera 1

La Barrera 1 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

La Barrera 1 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

#7 Postrera 28

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Postrera 28 of los Patios del Alcazar Viejo in Cordoba, Spain

Free Patios

Some patios were “free” to visit, but ask for a coin donation. This was one such patio that I stumbled on, right next door to Matin de Roa 7. It wasn’t part of the patio tour, but based on all of the awards that it prominently displays, it’s a pretty stunning one as well.

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

Award winning patio in Cordoba, Spain

If you’re going to Cordoba, definitely go when the flowers are in bloom!

 

The Alcazar in Seville

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Alcazar in Seville is very similar to the Alhambra in Granada, but smaller in scale. It is just as impressive, however, and it has something that the Alhambra doesn’t: the distinction of serving as a set for Game of Thrones. That’s right, this is Dorne!

The Alcazar was a palace for the Almohades, the previous Muslim kingdom in Seville. When the Spanish monarchy conquered Seville, it took over residence of the palace and built a gothic addition. To this day, the Alcazar is the official Seville residence of the royal family. But they often prefer to stay in fancy hotels instead, which is good for tourists because the Alcazar shuts down when the royal family stays there!

Salon de Almirante

Seville was the center of trade with the Americas, and this very hall was where all of that trade was controlled politically. The hall is filled with paintings from the time period. This one features the Virgin of the Navigators, Colombus, and the ships that were used to sail to America.

Painting of the Virgin of the Navigators in the Salon del Almirante of the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de la Monteria (Hunting courtyard)

This main courtyard is where the king’s hunting party would congregate before leaving for a hunt, thus giving rise to its name.

Alcazar palace exterior in Seville, Spain

Directly from the audio guide: Looking up at the front facade of the palace, there are many styles present. The top part is the style of carpenters from Toledo. The middle is in the Granada style, as seen at the Alhambra, and the bottom features blind arches of Sevilla.

Facade of the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Palace

The inside of the palace is every bit as grand as you would expect it to be, even starting from the vestibule.

Doorway in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Roof in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las Doncellas

Walking straight inside the palace, you soon find yourself at the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Damsels), which is one of the most iconic courtyards of the Alcazar. It features 4 pools, representing the 4 rivers of heaven, which split the courtyard into 4 pieces, representing the 4 known continents of the time.

Patio de las Doncellas at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Hall of the Ambassadors

At the end of the Patio de las Doncellas is the Hall of the Ambassadors, the most famous room in the Alcazar. Because this:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

And this!

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

That’s right, I’m more excited that actors were here than because this place has hosted actual royalty and historic events.

But the hall itself is truly marvelous, you can see why they picked this location. No set could ever compare. Some background on the Hall of Ambassadors: this splendid main hall is also called hall of the half orange for the shape of the ceiling.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

It’s just about impossible to get the entire hall in one picture, and for the picture to convey all of the intricacies of the place. There are so many details that many are easy to miss, like the fact that all of the monarchs are painted in a row between the golden ceiling and the blue tile walls. Not to mention all of the meticulous carvings.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las muñecas

Another well-known courtyard in the Alcazar is the Patio de las Muñecas, or the Courtyard of the Dolls. The audio guide said that the name is derived from carvings of dolls in some of the arches, but I have a feeling that we were lied to.

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Nothing looked remotely like a doll to me…

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Cuarto del Principe (Prince Suite)

Even though the palace is Moorish, it hosted the Spanish royal family for centuries. As a result, many rooms were given new names, like this one: the Cuarto del Principe, or the Prince Suite. This room is so named because it is where Prince Juan, the only son of the Catholic Kings Isabella I and Ferdinand II, was born.

(To be honest, I’m not sure if this photo is of that particular room, but it’s representational of the rooms in the palace and is one of the only ones I managed to get without any people in it)

Room in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic palace

The Spanish monarchy also added on to the original Moorish palace of the Alcazar by building a Gothic Palace right next to it. This palace is more similar to the other ones in Spain, with high arches and massive tapestries.

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Fuente del Mercurio

Going outside from the Gothic Palace to the gardens, you first pass the Fuente del Mercurio, or the Fountain of Mercury. This beautiful fountain was a reservoir in Moorish times.

Fountain of Mercury at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

See the Fountain of Mercury in the background, to the left?

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Banos de Maria de Padilla

A dark passageway underneath the Gothic Palace leads to the Banos de Maria de Padilla. There used to be beautiful gardens in this location, but after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the gardens were converted into this (whatever this is…I just know it’s beautiful) to offer more support to the palace.

Banos de Maria de Padilla at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens

And finally, the expansive gardens themselves! I can’t really communicate how big they are, except that it takes about 30 minutes just to walk through them, without stopping to enjoy the plants or the view.

The gardens are the location of another very famous scene:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Water Gardens of Dorne! It just wasn’t quite as romantic or nearly as empty when I was there.

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Other locations in the gardens didn’t appear on camera, but were similarly beautiful:

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain


Thus concluded a morning spent in Dorne (with about 5,000 of my closest friends). With such gorgeous and unique locations, it’s no wonder that they chose to shoot scenes for The Game of Thrones here.

Not to say that the Alcazar is not spectacular by its own merit, just like the Alhambra. But knowing that it was featured in a hit TV show just increases excitement a bit, and there’s no harm in that!