Let me help the mountain gorillas of Virunga!

I don’t use my blog for fundraising purposes, but I thought this is a cause worth seeking help for. A couple of years ago, myself and my now-wife Thuy stumbled upon Virunga, an incredible documentary highlighting the plague that the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park had to endure during the civil war that saw the Kivu’s separatists flighting against the central government of DR Congo.

While the human tragedy was immense, the war was very harsh of the gorillas too, who were killed in scores by poachers seeking to make quick money on these poor primates’ lives. The tragedy could have been even worse if it weren’t for the brave rangers of the park that fought however they could to save their beloved animals.

While today the situation has improved dramatically, the Goma area is still a poor and unrest-prone part of DR Congo – a proxy area for a simmering conflict between Congo and Rwanda. Virunga is today sponsored by the European Union, but money is still needed to help with the park’s upkeep and to help and educate the local community on the value of the gorillas (tourism brings money in, after all).

So I decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise $3,000 to help the park and the community around it by going volunteering and donating much-needed cash. Every dollar you could donate would truly matter and make the difference in the life of these animals and their caretakers.

I plan to go sometimes next year – pending work and family commitments – and I would of course report thoroughly on this blog my experience, so that you could rest assured that your money did make an impact for good.

Thanks in advance for reading and sharing this appeal with your friends, family, and coworkers!

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Park Hyatt Paris Vendome – A short review

One of the great things of big European cities is the wealth of historical luxury hotels they can offer. Paris is no different. The Four Seasons George V is a clear example, together with the newly-renovated Hotel Ritz or the Hotel InterContinental by the Opera Garnier.

For this trip I wanted to stay close to Place Vendome and les Jardins des Tuileries, and not spend much money at the same time. As I had two free night certificates with Hyatt, the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome was an easy choice.

The hotel is perfectly located, steps away from Place Vendome. While it’s located in a historical building, inside it’s pretty modern and functional. As soon as we arrived, a porter helped us with our luggage and escorted us to the check in desk, where we were congratulated on our wedding. The check in agent confirmed we were upgraded to a deluxe room for the occasion, and she personally escorted us to our room, where she showed us all its functionalities.

The agent offered us a bottle of champagne to celebrate our honeymoon, and we duly accepted. A tray of macarons was waiting for us on the desk already.

The room was specious given its location in the heart of Paris, with a nice balcony overlooking the inner courtyard.

The coolest part of the room was perhaps the bathroom, which had a dry area with sink and separate toilet and a wet area with bathtub, sink, and rain shower.

Toiletries were abundant.

Like I said, we celebrated with champagne and macarons, which we enjoyed in our terrace given the mild temperature.

The work desk was spacious and located opposite to the bed.

We did not dine at the hotel, but I read good reviews about the Michelin-starred main restaurant. We did enjoy the gym and spa; while the gym was average but with machines in mint conditions, the spa was fantastic with a great jacuzzi and clean, spacious changing rooms.

Overall, our experience at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome was very good. While not a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton, the hotel provided quality service and an overall great experience.

Given the great value representaed by Hyatt points, I think we’ll visit soon again!

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Eating well in Paris: Benoit and Le Jules Verne

Paris is a fascinating city from many points of view, and the culinary one must certainly be one of its best.

With 80 1*, 16 2*, and a whopping 10 3* Michelin restaurants, this is a place French cuisine (and more) is brought out to its best.

During our honeymoon we visited a couple of them, both 1* and both featuring French classics (we did not want to “risk it” given Thuy’s difficult palate during her pregnancy).

Benoit was the first Michelin-starred restaurant Thuy and I visited togethe back in early 2015. Ever since, Thuy has been wanting to come back, so it was just natural that I’d make her happy 😉

Benoit looks like your quintessential bistrot – small, loud, with running waiters and a very French feeling to it given by the seats, the decor, the smell of butter – it’s harder to find something any more romantic than this.

Benoit is frequented by a mix of young and older people – some are here just to enjoy a nice meal and others are here to celebrate a special event. As the case in many parts of Europe, even a Michelin-star restaurant won’t break the bank, as usually you can have a filling 3 or 4 course meal with wine for around 80-90 EUR per person.

We were not too hungry when we visited, so after having some fantastic bread with salted butter we jumped straight to the point – Benoit’s pan-seared beef fillet, bordelaise sauce with bone marrow, and macaroni au gratin. This dish is simply fantastic as it puts together everything you might want in a meal: a great cut of beef, perfectly cooked to your liking; a great sauce; and a great side dish.

This dish alone is so filling that it left little room for dessert – yet we managed to share a Savarin au rhum (reinforced with some Armagnac) with whipped cream – a French classic that never tires us out (although compared to our first visit, this one was a bit drier).

After we took care of nostalgia, it was time to elevate the romanticism of the trip with Sunday lunch at Le Jules Verne – the restaurant located at the second floor of the Tour Eiffel that very likely enjoys the best views of Paris.

We started the day strolling by Las Tuileries.

ANd then we took Uber to the Tour Eiffel.

You of course get a private elevator to get up there – no need to line up, only to have a reservation. The place is very classy, with magnificent views of Paris. Tables near the windows are granted on a first booked-first served basis, and so we were able to score a nice one with a nice view over the Arc de Triomphe and the river Seine.

The service at Le Jules Verne is impeccable – more similar to a two stars restaurant I would say.

After starting with a nicely done Kir Royale, our five course experience started. This was not a meal for the faints of heart, given the quantity of food served.

We started with the marinated sea bream, which was delicious.

 

Possibly my favorite dish was the pan seared foie gras, a true French classic that delivered a punchy, explosive flavor to our palate.

Wait, did I say foie gras was my favorite? Perhaps the asparagus with mousseline was even better…?

While Thuy opted for the lamb, I had the turbot which was excellent.

Strawberries and rhubarb with Anjou-style cream followed – delicious and refreshing although perhaps not too creative.

Yet, the crispy tower nut was absolutely stunning – both in presentation and taste.

Spork for dessert

As if all of this weren’t enough, chocolate-covered marshmallows and other small treats were served.

What a great meal! While the price tag – including two kir royal and a caraffe of white wine – came at just above EUR500 (and it was probably worth more like EUR250), the view and ambiance were so spectacular that we did not mind what we paid at all. This is seriously a place to experience if you can afford it, be it for a special occasion or a simple date night I assure you: your special one will be impressed!

Dining at the restaurant you also gain access to the second floor of the Tour Eiffel, where the views are sweeping and stunning.

The rest of day we spent it strolling around the Seine river and Montmartre.

For dinner, we stopped by a casual eatery in Pigalle where we dined in 2015 and where Thuy had her very fist doner kebab. It was as good as we remembered.

Overall, while we spent only one full day in Paris we enjoyed this short stopover thoroughly. It was possibly the best way to end this incredible journey. No, wait.. Lufthansa First Class was. More to come!

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The Best for Last – Fascinating Marrakech!

A lot has been said about Marrakech – after all, this emblematic Northern African city is what most people associate with Morocco in the first place. After visiting Chefchaouan, Fez, Meknes, and the mountains and deserts of Morocco, I was sure in my mind that Marrakech couldn’t possibly be that different from what we had seen already. After all, we had seen great examples of Imperial architecture, snake enchanters, fantastic landscapes, and we had sampled some great Moroccan food in Fez. Boy I was wrong. Marrakech turned out to be the most amazing and fascinating of Moroccan cities, with so much art and history as to rival Rome, with a unique vibe, and with a spectacular social life.

The first step was to choose the right hotel for our visit. I had originally booked the Four Seasons, but in the end that seemed too impersonal for what we were looking for. I looked at Le Royal Mansour – spectacular hotel but way out of our budget for now. La Momounia seemed like a great choice, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted a very nice Riad.

After spending many evenings looking for the right place to stay at, I settled for Riad Hykaia, a little gem located in the Kasbah of Marrakech walking distance from Djema el-Fnaa and all of the best sights in the medina (although, to be fair, we did end up taking taxis at night for convenience – at 50 ryals each way it was a no brainer). I will have a separate post for the riad review.

Based on the recommendation of our hosts we decided to head for dinner the first night at Pepe Nero, a famous Italian restaurant right in the center of the medina. Thuy was getting tired of tajine and couscous, and Italian food seemed pretty good to me too, especially given that the chef and owner was Italian. We shared a lasagna and lamb mechoui (lamb roasted on the spit) – and both dishes were fantastic! The lasagna tasted right out of Bologna, while the lamb was tender and perfectly seasoned a-la-Maroccain (read: with cumin). What a great dinner – everything washed down with some decent Moroccan red.

After a great dinner in the medina at Pepe Nero – a truly authentic Italian restaurant serving large portions of lasagne and a killer lamb mechoui…

…we spend a great night at our riad – the bed was very comfortable and so was the temperature. After a wonderful breakfast in the rooftop terrace (the food never stopped coming, really!), we set out to visit the city – we only had one day in Marrakech and we tried to make the best of it.

At the end of Rue de la Kasbah stands tall the Moulay El Yazid mosque.

While the mosque is imposing and a nice sight in its own merit, it’s what lies behind and beneath it that’s spectacular. Here the tombs of the Saadian dinasty have laid hidden by walls for century, until French archaeologists discovered them by pure chance in the first half of the XX century. The tombs – a magnificent ensemble of gold, tiles, and marble – are a true gem worth the stop.

The mosque’s backyard features more great architecture and beautiful gardens.

Keep walking north and you’ll go through local petit taxi ranks that shuttle people and goods in and out of the city on a daily basis – it’s funny to see these dilapidated old Mercedes work as taxi now.

After this colorful part of town, you reach what many people consider the true center of Marrakech: Djemaa el-Fnaa. So, to be honest with you I was a bit underwhelmed by the square – it’s a just a square with a lot of fakirs, tarot readers, hawkers, stalls, henna tattooers, etc. You will see monkeys, ostriches, and other exotic animals here – but it’s not that much different from what we saw in Meknes for instance – except there are many more tourists around here.

Koutubia minaret as seen from Djemaa el-Fnaa

From the square you enter the medina proper, which today houses endless stores mostly selling the same item category in the same district.

As it was a very hot and sunny day we decided to take our host John’s suggestion and to head towards Cafe Arabe, a nice-looking, upscale, multi-level restaurant with a very attractive rooftop where we sat for a hour or so sipping Moroccan rose and cocktails enjoying the nice view over the city’s rooftops.

The beautiful Cafe Arabe

We really enjoyed Marrakech at a leisurely pace, necessary with the heat. We strolled our way through the medina and we saw some funduqs – historical merchant house that have an inner courtyard – until we reached the justly famous Ben Yussuf Medersa – a stunning building with zellij and stuccos all over.

Our next stop was the Maison de la Photographie, an interesting museum showcasing pictures of Marrakech and its inhabitants throughout the last century and half. This popular museum was very informative and made for a nice stop.

Just like Fez, walking through the narrow and busy streets of Marrakech’s medina is what we enjoyed the most. It’s always incredible to see how many people try to do business in these busy alleys. Fez was perhaps more authentic and larger, but Marrakech looked better kept and more lively with tourists.

We stopped by the nice … restaurant for some bessara (fava bean) soup, and to find some respite from the heat – definitely do not visit Marrakech in summertime as in late March it was already very warm.

Great lunch

The view, as mentioned, was great.

We then took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel – it was 4pm already by now – where Thuy had a nice pre-natal massage awaiting her, while I took some time to chill in the rooftop’s lounge chairs with a good book, before taking a jacuzzi together.

Come dinner time, and we decided to head to La Momounia, THE historic hotel of Marrakech with its famous Churchill bar, where the famous British Prime Minister had a drink in times past. The hotel is absolutely grand and stately – from a luxurious lobby to perfectly-manicured gardens, this is definitely the place where we’ll stay the next way around (and the hotel is located near the Koutubia Minaret, one of the true landmarks of Marrakech).

La Momounia lobby

Churchill Bar

Gardens leading to Le Maroccain

We decided to dine at Le Maroccain, one of the three main restaurants of the hotel housed in an attractive outdoor veranda by the gardens. I must give a shutout to Thuy, who wasn’t really keen on Moroccan food anymore but graciously agreed on dining here to make me happy. I am truly lucky to have such a wife!

We shared the Moroccan appetizers, a set of 14 different Moroccan dishes served tapas style. There was a little bit of everything, from picked tomatoes to lamb brain (better tasting than it might sound).

Harira

Moroccan appetizers – including pickled tomatoes and lamb brain

To follow, Thuy had the meat mixed grill (with lamb, sausage, beef, chicken, rabbit) while I had the Essaouira spiny lobster tagine – this dish was absolutely a winner.

Spiny lobster tagine – yum!

Mixed grill

To finish, we shared some milk pastilla – good, but not as good as the one in Fez.

Milk pastilla

Service was excellent at the restaurant, and we enjoyed half a bottle of another Moroccan rose (which was good. We were surprised by the quality of Moroccan wines).

Post-dinner photo op

The night was enlivened by a music group playing traditional Moroccan music, and after some milk pastilla we were ready to head to the riad for our second and last night in Marrakech (by the way, that was the night Federer beat Kyrgios 7-6 6-7 -7-6 at the Miami Open, one of the most entertaining tennis matches I have ever seen!).

All in all, I wish we spent at least one more day in Marrakech to enjoy the sightseeing and the cuisine better. This is an incredible city – one where I am sure we’ll come back in not the distant future with our daughters.

 

 

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Finally! Virgin Atlantic Upper Class from JFK to LHR (including JFK Clubhouse and LHR Revivals lounge)

While British Airways is the UK largest international carrier, Virgin Atlantic has, in the past few years, posed stronger a challenge to its domination over London. After trying the Virgin Clubhouse back in November while flying Singapore Airlines first class, I decided I had to try Virgin Atlantic to see how it compared against BA. I will tell you now – Virgin won hands down.

The excuse to book a revenue ticket with them was my cousin’s wedding back in Italy. For once I was free to choose my carrier, and so I opted for Virgin via JFK.

I reached the airport at 6pm, around 3h30 minutes ahead of my scheduled departure time to London Heathrow, where I would then connect to British Airways to Nice.

Being summer, the lines to check in at Terminal 4 were pretty long, even in the Delta priority section. Thankfully, a Virgin rep stood guard at the entrance of the area to personally escort customers to the Virgin check in desks, located in a corner past the Delta counters.

The great experience started here already, as a friendly agent proceeded to check me in and to ask me whether this was my first time with them. After assuring her that it certainly was, she said: “You will enjoy it!”. I liked the confidence!

Check in was smooth, and the agent had a seat map of my plane (one of the older A340-600’s) and showed me where my seat was located.

I then proceeded through security (it took around 10 minutes overall) and I walked to the Clubhouse lounge, located near gate A5.

I had visited this beautiful lounge already back in November 2016 when flying Singapore Airlines First Class, and I was very impressed then. My visit this time was equally as impressive.

After being checked in I proceeded to the spa to book a hair salon hair cut – I liked my previous cut from Bumble & Bumble and I wanted to get another one right in time for my cousin’s wedding.

Then I took one of the seats overlooking the tarmac – the view is beautiful whenever there are planes waiting to leave. I ordered a Martini cocktail, and to my pleasure the attendant asked whether I wanted it with vodka or gin and with olives or not. Great! The martini promptly came a few minutes afterwards, and it was well made.

Around 35 minutes before my salon appointment I moved to the restaurant to have a quick bite since I had not eaten almost all day. The menu read as follows.

I decided to go with the sweet potato soup and the truffle grilled cheese sandwich with parmesan chips – a simple dish that the kitchen made it perfectly. I washed it down with a nice glass of Lanson champagne and some sparkling water.

My haircut with B&B then came up – my stylist was the same of a few months back and she did a great job once again. I must say – getting a haircut overlooking the tarmac is a real treat for an #avgeek like me!

Haircut vith a view!

After a final glass of champagne, I was ready to go board our VS10 flight to London. Once I got to the gate, I found out the flight had been delayed around 30 minutes, and so I strolled around the Terminal for a while – I must admit that T4 is way better than T8 as it has a more “international” feel to it.

When boarding was finally announced, I proceeded through the priority line for my short hop to London Heathrow.

Flight VS10

June 28th, 2017

21:40 – 09:40+1

Upper Class, Seat 4K

Airbus A340-600

Two things stood out right away while I was boarding the plane: the vibe on board was awesome – almost party-like; the plane was very dated.

Yes, Virgin’s hard product on the A340-600 is way past its prime – the plane is in serious need of refurbishment. Also, the herringbone seats are all but cutting edge these days – they weirdly let you exposed and with lack of privacy.

Upper Class

The controls are not hard to reach and well positioned, although the functionality was not the best (likely given to the age of the system).

The monitor wasn’t big, and the video quality poor (with little selection).

Mmm

Where the hard product fails the crew come to the rescue, though. The service is cheering – exceedingly so for a British crew – and it feels genuine and authentic. The flight attendants and polished and stylish, they know what they are doing and how to please customers.

The bar at the top of the business class cabin is small but a neat feature – a bunch of people would stand there regularly pre- and post- take off to have a drink and chit chat with the lovely crew.

A pre-departure beverage was offered, and not long after everyone was on board we were on our way to London for a short 6h10m flight.

Given the late departure and the flight time, Virgin gives customers three menu options, as pictured here.

  

As you can see, you can have a small night cap before bed; a snack; or a proper meal.

As soon I saw that they offered a burger, I decided I had to go for it – together with some cheese, of course!

I had a glass of champagne while waiting for my food, that was served ten minutes later –  I appreciated the fast service as I wanted to get some sleep time. I started to watch a Hong Kong movie, but honestly both the sound and video quality was pretty bad, and so I soon gave up.

Loving my new Tod’s

My cheeseburger came promptly, and then another hard product failure struck me: the tray would not work. The flight attendant tried and tried to open it, but nothing could be done, and so I just decided to put the tray on my lap. Oh well…

The burger was pretty good for being on an airplane.

That was followed by a selection of cheese featuring some English blue cheese and aged Gouda – I liked the quantity and presentation. By looking at the menu I ordered a glass of Gavi but by mistake I mentioned it was an “Italian red” while Gavi is obviously a white wine. I still received a red wine, but I do not know what it was – the wine wasn’t bad though.

One cool feature of Virgin Atlantic is that they provide pjs in Upper Class – not many business class products offer that. I changed into my sleep suit before even taking off – it was very comfortable. Also, the amenity kits was very nice and with good amenities.

After I was done with dinner, I asked the flight attendant to prepare my bed while I was in the restroom. Once I came back the bed was ready, and I must admit it was very comfortable and with quality bedding. I managed to sleep around three hours, although I got very warm at a certain point – possibly due to one too many drink… 😉

Comfortable bed

When I woke up we were about 90 minutes from landing, and some people were having breakfast. As soon as I got up the flight attendant asked me whether I would have breakfast, but I politely refused and only asked for a glass of orange juice.

We ended up landing ten minutes behind schedule, not too bad overall. he flight, while short, was a good one – I really enjoyed how the crew worked and interacted with customers.

After landing and going through immigration I made my way to the Virgin’s Revivals lounge. For once I did not have to go to the office here in London, but it would be nice to rest and relax for a while waiting for my long connection on BA to Nice.

The lounge has the same overall vibe of the Clubhouse in JFK (and I assume in LHR), but it’s more relaxed as most people are just plain tired. I asked for a shower room, which was good sized and with good amenities. Virgin offers complimentary valet clothes pressing – a must I feel these days.

I took then a seat in the restaurant area and ordered some eggs royale from the extensive menu, as well as an Americano. Unfortunately, I was just brought drip coffee and an egg benedict – which was disappointing as neither were what I ordered. The quality of the food was good nonetheless.

After breakfast I had the chance to have a spa treatment as well – a complimentary, fifteen minutes facial. The treatment room was relaxing and the lady working it very pleasant – it left me very relaxed and with my face feeling much better.

So, what do I think of Virgin Atlantic overall given my experience?

It was a fun experience. The vibe was great, the ground and flight crew enthusiastic were really happy to be there, and the F&B offerings were top notch. My marks would have been higher had the hard product been better though – something that will certainly improve once more dreamliners are rolled out (I forgot to mention VS also offers in flight wifi even on these planes, which is a plus; I did not have the chance to try the service though).

Overall, it was a great experience I look forward to repeat. I will try to compare my experience on VS with my many on BA soon.

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A wonderful stay at Riad Hikaya in Marrakech’s kasbah

In order to end our honeymoon in Morocco stylishly, I looked for a riad in Marrakech that looked both luxurious and small enough to offer personalized service. To be fair, my first thought was to book one of the most famous resorts in town, like La Momounia (stunning hotel really, and great restaurants) or the Four Seasons (I had even booked a room there, only to cancel later on). After looking around for a while, I set my eyes on Riad Hikaya. I must admit it was a bit of a gamble, because the price looked very attractive and the pictures almost too good to be true; yet, a very good rating on TripAdvisor gave me some peace of mind and so I decided to book us here.

The communication with the owners prior to arriving was excellent – we were able to get recommendations for restaurants and tours and even a dinner reservation. Yet, the best started as soon as we arrived at Hikaya.

First of all, the riad is located in the Kasbah, with a car-accessible road in front of the entrance – something not to underestimate in a vast medina like Marrakech’s. As soon as we entered the staff greeted us and showed us our room, together with a tour of the property. Let me tell you – the riad is even more stunning than shown in picture! First of all, in the main atrium there is a fantastic swimming pool – not as nice as the one at Lina Riad in Chefchaouen but similar in concept.

Then, the attention to details is incredible: the furniture, finishing, tiling and everything else has been carefully overseen by the owner, John, during the five years it took him to create this hidden jewel. Everything is of the highest quality and traditionally Moroccan. Each room is different in size and style. I booked us in the Ikhlas room, one of their largest rooms. It featured a comfortable bed, a nice sofa, a fantastic bathroom with iron-cast tub and wonderful tadelakt paintjob. It really felt to be in a luxurious Moroccan home, and the level of service we got just lived up to it as well.

Ikhlas room

First, we were personally greeted by John, who then spent 15 minutes explaining to us on a map where to find what in Marrakech. That was very useful, and learning more about the riad and the city was very informative. Then, it seemed like no request was ever too much for the staff. For instance, there is a very nice rooftop terrace, with sun beds, relaxation area, and jacuzzi. We asked if we could be served breakfast there, and of course it was no problem. The quality of the food was outstanding – and the variety/quality offered fantastic. If you like sweet breakfasts, you will love Morocco!

My wife, 5 months pregnant at the time, got a massage, which she enjoyed (albeit she said it wasn’t particularly memorable).

Yet, the true highlight of our stay was how helpful the staff was after we had already checked out. Long story short, once we got to the airport we realized we had left my wife’s wallet in the room’s safe. We called the hotel immediately, and they not only retrieved our item but dispatched one of the staff members to the airport by taxi to deliver us the good – and there was no way I could make them accept some money to cover at the very least the cost of the taxi. Now that’s excellent customer service – Hikaya really left us speechless!

So, overall, do yourself a favor and stay here next time you’ll be in Marrakech. You’ll get an authentic, luxurious, and personalized experience that you’ll cherish for a long time.

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From Merzouga to Marrakech through Tafilalt Oasis, Rissani, Dades Gorges, Ouarzazate, and splendid Ait Benhaddou

The night spent in desert was fun – albeit somewhat tiring. I have to say though that Thuy was five months pregnant at the time, and she coped well with it. The second day of this three day road trip saw us driving through the lush Tafilalt oasis – a huge palmeraie in the middle of the desert! The size of these series of oasis is astounding, palm trees and fields everywhere next to a barren desert. It’s no wonder that this place made its fortune as trading jumping point between Morocco and Mali.

Our first stop was Rissani, and old town where we visited the mosque-mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif, one of the saints of Moroccan Islam. The edifice was the usual, fabulous mixture of zillaj and carvings.

We visited the old kasbah of the city – apparently a few Jewish families used to live here – but the city itself was a shadow of its former self.

In Rissani we visited a shop run by a local Touareg cooperative selling local handicrafts, including beautiful carpets. Thuy and I fell in love with a beautiful rug that was a mixture of waving and embroidery; after much bargaining, we decided to take it home where it now gloriously sits under a wonderful mango table in our living room. We probably ended up paying twice the going rate for it, but that was still a fraction for what we’d paid back home, and overall we left very happy with our purchase. One funny anecdote: the sellers were amused by my Ritz-Carlton VISA card; made in aluminum, it’s extremely heavy – something apparently they had never seen and that impressed them very much.

We then kept driving through what was a mostly barren and flat landscape. The drive wasn’t very interesting in the morning, but that was bound to change after lunch, as in the afternoon we would visit two famous gorges.

The first ones we visited were the Todra Gorges. To be honest with you, the gorge itself – while fantastic for rock-climbers – were not that spectacular. What was great though was the panorama of the town of Tinghir leading up to it, as old houses were perched along the rocky sides of the canyon.

The night was spent at the feet of the Dades Gorge in a small, unimpressive hotel frequented by many tour groups. After and not particularly good dinner and a not particularly memorable night’s sleep, we climbed to the top of the Dades gorge where a spectacular view awaited us: the serpentine road leading up to the summit of the canyon is really as astonishing as it looks in pictures!

Unfortunately, a monster concrete hotel skeleton lies on top of the gorge. As it often happens in developing countries, this is a clear example of mismanagement and corruption, where permits are probably given to political associates in exchange of bribes. The result is a sore-eye construction on top of this beautiful natural sight – a pity indeed.

Our drive continued then through arid landscape towards Ouarzazate, an overgrown own on the edge of the Sahara mostly famous because of the movie industry. In fact, together with a well-preserved old town the city is renown for two big movie studios.

Entrance to the Atlas movie studios

The kasbah of Ouarzazate is called Taourirt, and it’s simply stunning. It’s very well preserved, from the inner courtyard to the lodging areas, and it’s no surprise that movies like Gladiator and Prince of Persia had this complex as background.

The kasbah has a nice inner courtyard with an old cannon.

The best part of the kasbah was the interior – the living quarters that housed some important extended family. While outside it was hot, the clay and bricks construction was remarkably cool inside.

  

The Atlas Studios were equally as impressive – don’t miss them if you are around. These studios are a favorite of European film producers for desert sets – movies like Asterix & Obelix and parts of Game of Thrones were shot here. Our guide was very informative, and he explained us which sets housed which movies and how everything is hand produced by Moroccan artists – an impressive Egyptian hall set would take around three months to be built.

The set of Asterix & Obelix

Game of Thrones set

Dead

Catapult

From Ouarzazate it is not a long drive to Ait Benhaddou.

This UNESCO-protected, fairy tale-like ksar (fortification) is made of mud bricks, and needs to be constantly repaired. This means that buildings can change shape throughout the years, in ever-evolving forms.

Irrigation

Bricks

The town is very scenically located atop of a hill overlooking the oaud (torrent), and its streets are filled with locas working to restoure the buildings and artists selling nice paintings made with natural colors from the desert.

As one can imagine, a lot of movies have been shot here through the years.

The view from the of the city is glorious.

Ait Benhaddou was surely one of the highlights of our trip to Morocco – a town I wouldn’t miss for any reason if in the area.

From there it  was a further three-to-four hours ride to Marrakech – we definitely had left the best for last!

 

 

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