Lisbon, Portugal: The Alfama District

Lisbon: florid, effervescent, lovely. I recognized going in, Lisbon was a dangerous place. Dangerous for how much I knew I would adore it, how enchanting it's narrow city streets would be, how placid the city's personality. I wasn't wrong; I can say with certainty that Lisbon is one of my favorite European cities (and who is surprised? No one, I'm sure). We stayed in a sweet AirBNB in the Alfama District, the oldest part of the city. Our quaint apartment gave us ample access to the winding alleys, cobbled streets, cafes, and restaurants the area is known for.
If this photo of a sweet old lady feeding pigeons from her window doesn't embody the feeling of Alfama, I don't know what does. Everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful (a travel cliche, I know, but in this case true). We walked our entire stay in Lisbon, taking brief rides on the famous trams. The overall feeling of the area was unhurried; even the busiest street corners were relatively quiet, and we never experienced the loudness of cars honking or people shouting. As noted, Alfama is the oldest neighborhood of Lisbon; in 1755 one of the largest earthquakes in the world hit Lisbon (estimated magnitude of 9.0), and nearly the entire city was destroyed. Alfama, however, sits north on a hill, and remained intact through the disaster. This means that district is still dotted with architecture pre-dating 1755, which is pretty amazing. 
One of my favorite experiences was our first night in the city; I was exhausted from traveling, and Phil was enthusiastic about exploring the area. We compromised by wandering around the neighborhood for a few hours before choosing a cafe to eat an early dinner. As it turned out, the cafe selected was a venue for Fado, which is a traditional type of Portuguese ballad played with a 12-string guitar (listen to a sample here). The cafe was small, and it was early in the evening, so we were one of only two occupied tables. We got a private concert with two (very talented) guitarists and two (very talented) singers for nearly two hours. It was the perfect introduction to Portugal and the best way to start our trip (and end a long day). 
As you explore Alfama, you'll catch glimpses of the Tagus river, hand-painted mosaics and ceramics, and plenty of colorfully-painted homes. If you plan on visiting Lisbon, I highly recommend staying in Alfama; you won't regret experiencing its character first-hand. 

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Chefchouen, Morocco: The Blue Pearl

Chefchouen (shef-sh-oww-EN) has recently become THE destination of Morocco. Known as the Blue City or the Blue Pearl, this magical little town is painted entirely in shades of blue. Which means that it is every photographers dream locale for a chance to become #instafamous. Chefchouen sits in the Rif mountains, approximately three hours northwest of Fez. I read about it years ago after seeing dreamy photos of the brightly hued narrow alleys, and decided then that if I ever visited Morocco, I would have to make a stop in Chefchouen. So, even though we only had three days in the country, we decided to use one of them to take a day trip to Chefchouen.

Blue city aside, the drive to visit is stunning on its own. A meandering three hours from Fez, the drive is quiet and comfortable, passing by farms and small villages the whole way. We hired a driver to take us, and we were glad we did ($150 for an entire day; worth it if you're short on time). My favorite surprise was that we happened to be in Morocco when all the wildflowers were in bloom. Meaning that every field we passed was absolutely brimming with yellow and orange poppies. From a distance, it looked like someone had taken a highlighter and scribbled orange and green swaths across the mountains. The yellow flowers mixed in with the green fields made the hills look neon green. So beautiful!

Chefchouen did not disappoint on the color front. In the medina, every wall is painted in various shades of aqua, turquoise, royal blue, and white. Like Fez, Chefchouen is a pedestrian city with no cars or motorcycles. The city center is very quiet, aside from the sounds of tourists chatting and children playing. Because Chefchouen is on the side of a mountain, all of the streets are sloping and hilly. This not only makes it fun to explore, but much easier to find your way around. You can always orient yourself based on the location of the mountain.

We arrived in Chefchouen around noon, which ended up not being ideal. It was very hot (nearly 90 degrees) and the sun was high in the sky, meaning the alleys gave little shade. From a photography standpoint, this also meant that there were harsh shadows and high contrasts in most of my photos. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it harder to see just how blue everything is. Photography tip: visit in the morning or evening for glowing alleys and less sweat. 

Chefchouen sits relatively far north, so the locals actually speak Spanish in addition to Arabic and French. But, since it's also a major tourist destination, most people speak English as well. Since Chefchouen is such a hotspot, the streets are filled with shops selling trinkets and souvenirs. Rugs, dyes, spices, and clothing line the narrow alleys. The center of the medina is filled with restaurants geared towards tourists, with salespeople trying to push you into patronizing their respective cafes. We visited one of the restaurants that seemed more appealing than its neighbors, but the food was lackluster. Similar to Fez, all of the best cooks work for the riads and not the restaurants. If you are able, try to have a meal at a riad rather than being sucked in by the free wifi and proximity of the tourist restaurants.

Ultimately, the draw of Chefchouen is simply the uniqueness of the blue city center. The only activities are wandering the streets and visiting the shops (which isn't a bad thing necessarily). We spent three hours walking around, and by the end had seen most of the main part of the city, eaten lunch, and shopped around. If you're planning a visit, you probably won't need more than one day to see everything. There are some beautiful hikes in the mountains nearby though, so if you do stay longer than a day, use the opportunity to take a hike. With all that in mind, I am very happy we decided to visit. We had the perfect amount of time to get a taste of the city (and A LOT of photos, haha). It was a long day, but I was very happy with our Blue City experience. 

PS - Happy fathers day, Dad! I love you!
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Two Days in Fez, Morocco

If you're dreaming of colorful buildings glittering with hand-painted tiles, a marketplace full of rugs and spices, and desert-scapes dotted with camels, don't come to Fez. You're thinking of Marrakesh (and so was I). What initially started as a bit of shock and disappointment (where are the beautiful buildings? Where can I find the big market?) turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Fez, unlike it's sister city to the south, doesn't orient itself around the needs of its visitors. It nods its head at tourism, without bowing down to it. Ochre buildings arranged in an actual maze of over 10,000 streets spread out in an intricate weaving. It becomes abundantly clear that this is no place for the casual tourist; unless you're willing to get fully lost or else throw yourself upon the mercy of the locals (or a paid guide) you will find yourself anxious and discouraged. If, however, you embrace the labyrinth and lose your colorful expectations, Fez will be a remarkably interesting city to visit. 

As per Islamic tradition, the buildings in Fez focus their beauty on the inside, rather than the outside. This has created a rather homogenous city of plaster and sandstone alleys. However, what is missing on the exterior is not lacking on the interior. Elaborate tile and carved wooden arches are abundant inside many of the buildings in Fez. Colorful courtyards with fountains and orange trees, embroidered cushions and sequined pillows, and beautiful mosaics are commonplace. The trick is finding buildings that you can actually enter. In our case, we only saw the interior of our own Riad and a few restaurants, but if you're able to visit other Riads and traditional stores, I recommend it. 

The list of highlights in Fez is centered around visiting famous madrasas (schools) including the oldest university in the world, a few palaces, the medina, and the leather tannery. We took a three hour guided tour of the medina which led us past some of the well-known madrasas and mosques, but we did not enter any of them. We spent much of our time exploring the medina, which prior to our arrival, I had envisioned as an amalgamation of Istanbul and Cairo's famous souks. If you, like me, expected colorful lanterns, loud music, and tourist shops, you will be disappointed. The medina is clearly focused on meeting the needs of the locals. Most of the "shops" are carts in the street, or very small rooms with a counter facing the street. The goods are primarily foods and housewares, most of which aren't gifts you'd send home to mom and dad. In fact, we buy a magnet in every country we visit for Phil's mom (she's collected them for a very long time),  and we didn't see a single shop in the medina with magnets or any items of the like. However, this meant more interesting people-watching (and photos!).

Possibly the most famous (at least on Instagram) destination we visited in Fez was the leather tannery. This is the largest leather tannery in Africa, and produces a good amount of the leather exported worldwide. It is a series of vats of natural chemical compounds and dyes, used to soften and dye the leather. The chemicals used are made from liquified pigeon droppings, which works wonders to create silky-soft leather. However, this results in an incredibly foul stench famous for making visitors gag and even become sick. I myself was anxious prior to entering; would the smell make me sick? Would I faint or vomit or have to leave? With so many horror stories online I could only imagine the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to find the smell quite tolerable, even without the sprig of mint they hand you to hold under your nose. It smelled no worse to me than the piles of garbage that filled the streets outside my home in Cairo (no offense, Cairo). 

Fez was our first stop in Morocco, so we experienced all of our Moroccan "firsts" there. Going in, we knew that they speak Arabic and French, and we assumed Arabic would be the dominant language. Phil speaks French from growing up in Switzerland, and I speak [very rusty] Arabic after living in Egypt. When we got to our hotel, our host took us to the courtyard to fill out paperwork and tell us about the city. I spoke a few niceties in Arabic with him and immediately he said "Ah! That sounds like Egyptian!" to which I blushed and said "yes, it is." He said "You know, the interesting thing is that Moroccan Arabic is so unique, but we can understand all the other forms of Arabic. But none of the other Arabic countries can understand us!" And he was correct. Try as I might, I could hardly understand any of the words spoken by passerby's in the street or at the restaurants or shops we visited. Moroccan Arabic sounds like Arabic spoken in a French accent, but it also seemed to use a lot of unique words (and some that were French just sprinkled in!).  As it turned out, everyone spoke French, and it was pretty standard sounding. Phil did almost all of the communicating on the trip, and I was too embarrassed to try using my Egyptian Arabic again. 

Possibly the most surprising thing about Fez is how peaceful it is. The majority of old Fez is pedestrian only; the streets aren't wide enough for cars and no one seemed to use motorbikes. We didn't notice music playing from houses or stores anywhere in the city, and there wasn't an abundance of people out in the streets either. This resulted in a charming experience in which the dominant sounds are birds chirping and children playing in the streets. The people we encountered were gracious and not pushy; nothing like the experience we've had in all the other North African/Middle Eastern countries we've visited. Nobody followed us or made us feel intimidated. Nobody yelled at us or made inappropriate comments. Every person we met was simply lovely and helpful; even the strangers who walked us to-and-from different places in the city (we used three different forms of maps and still got lost!) asked politely for a tip at the end of our interaction but didn't push us for more money. What Fez lacks in beautiful buildings it certainly makes up for in beautiful people. 

To say Fez didn't meet my expectations would be an understatement; but that's not to say that it was a negative experience whatsoever! My disappointment quickly metamorphosed into curiosity and landed somewhere in the realm of pleasantly surprised. Phil and I truly enjoyed our time, and would recommend visiting yourself if you're able.  

My recommendations for visiting Fez, Morocco:
  • Hire a tour guide at least your first time exploring the city, and be prepared to get lost on your own.
  • Stay at a locally owned Riad; they are true to the local culture and beautiful to stay in.
  • Practice your French as everyone we encountered spoke it. Modern Arabic is too different from Moroccan Arabic to be of much help. Many people spoke a bit of English but French is the easiest language to use. 
  • Don't bother eating at any restaurants; have your Riad cook all your meals. All of the best cooks work in the Riads, not the restaurants! (we learned this the hard way)
  • Fez has many locally owned co-ops for artisan goods; rather than buy tourist trinkets to take back home, consider investing in the local economy at one of these co-ops (we bought a rug from a women's rug co-op!)
  • Bring your camera and a sense of adventure!

Have you visited Fez before? How did your experience compare?
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