Mediterranean labour movements

At the end of a recent trip to Morocco, we drove to Marrakech airport, leaving Essaouira before dawn for the 180km trip. I have never travelled this road in the morning before, and after a long drive under the sunrise on an empty road, we suddenly hit Chichaoua (pop. 16,000), which seemed like the busiest place on earth at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning in June.

There were trucks, trailers, market stalls and people everywhere.  The road was blocked with pick-up trucks packed with people.  As in many Muslim countries, in more rural areas of Morocco it is mainly men who are visible out and about, but there were even vehicles full of women.  We ground to a halt and I began to worry about missing my flight….

delicious Moroccan veggies
(c) Lynn Sheppard

My Moroccan friends explained that these were all day labourers.  Every day, men and women wait at the side of the road to be picked up and transported to farms to pick fruit and vegetables

Successive EU-Morocco accords, designed eventually to lead to a greater EU-Mediterranean free trade area, have opened up the huge EU market to Moroccan produce.  This tackles a big gripe I heard often on my first visit to Morocco in 2001: that European was closed to Moroccan agricultural produce. 

The globalisation of labour movements and of consumer tastes has its pros and cons.  This policy has win-win potential for the EU (in tackling illegal immigration) and Morocco (in local job creation and wealth generation). When I got home, I even found Moroccan fruit and veg in my local supermarket in the UK. However, the names of the producers were not Arabic – they were Spanish and Portuguese.  I wonder if the accords have simply enabled European producers to profit from cheap labour on the southern side of the Med? 

The sight of dozens of unskilled day labourers in trucks reminded me of a documentary I saw in 2007, “El Ejido,” about illegal Moroccan immigrant labour in the huge agri-enterprises of Almeria, Spain.  The advantages to Moroccan families of salary remittances and to the European consumer of low price salad vegetables grown under plastic all year round by cheap labour are undermined by the environmental, personal health and social catastrophes – not to mention the moral one – of what charities have called “de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe.” If local jobs can prevent this kind of exploitation, so much the better.

Fresh from the farm – Moroccan chillies
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Back on the road to the airport, I was pleased to see local employment opportunities, even if the work is hard and largely unskilled.  I am convinced that family and social cohesion is important in creating stable societies and that mass economic migration undermines this.  But when I heard that the average daily wage on a Moroccan farm is 30-50dh (around €3-4.50), I easily understood why someone might pay to cross the sea in a leaky fishing boat to work for €20-€30 a day and even live in a shack made of cardboard and plastic next to a cess pit of chemical fertilisers and risk non-payment, degradation, violence and worse to earn a sub-survival wage.

We can only hope that those who choose to stay at home can improve their standards of living, education and purchasing power to contribute to an equitable development in rural Morocco.  Wherever they are created, it is important that the quality of jobs created by increased exports or foreign direct investment is verified to ensure that local people are offered adequate pay and appropriate conditions.  This may, of course, mean that our winter strawberries are more expensive.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Anecdotally, I have heard that Moroccans are reluctant these days to cross the Mediterranean because they know the problems faced by the Spanish economy (and they may also have been undercut by even cheaper labour from West Africa).  Others are returning to build businesses back home with money made in Europe during the boom years.  And ironically, according to this Dutch report, the impact of the Eurozone crisis has led Spanish people to seek jobs in Morocco!

Is any job better than no job?  How far would you go to find work? If you have opinions or know of research in this area, feel free to comment!

(c) Lynn Sheppard

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Loungin’ in the ‘hood – a Brussels city break

I lived in Brussels for 5 years and try to get back a couple of times a year to catch up with friends and former colleagues.  I was there twice in June checking out the changes and re-visiting old haunts. 

serving expats, Eurocrats and locals alike – all are welcome at Britxos!
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Brussels has a reputation for being boring and full of office blocks and Eurocrats.  Those who know it better know it is famous for the Grand Place, the Atomium, moules frites, chocolate and beer. Once you’ve ticked off the sights, however, I recommend you get out into the neighbourhoods around the city centre and live like a local.  Inevitably, this will involve considerable amounts of eating excellent food, drinking wonderful booze and – weather permitting – people watching from café terraces.  If that sounds like your kind of city, read on!

The ‘hood

The neighbourhoods in Brussels are not particularly logically demarcated, but they are all easy to reach on public transport (bus, metro, tram).  The areas of St Gilles (around the golden-roofed town hall and the Parvis de St Gilles) and Ixelles (around Porte de Namur, Place Flagey and the Chatelain) are full of neat squares, buzzing café life and fabulous fin de siècle Art Nouveau architecture.

Around the St Gilles commune (townhall)

Britxos in St Gilles
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Every Friday during the summer, apéros urbains organise after-work open air pop-up bars around the city.  The location changes each week.  In addition to these, in St Gilles, there is a regular Friday night apéro on the square in front of the town hall.  While you’re in the ‘hood, grab a bite to eat at newly opened Britxos – a kind of globally inspired tapas bar with regular events, themed dinners and communal table brunches at the weekends.  It’s run by a good friend of mine, Alex Weston from La Britannique, so do pass on my regards if you pop in.  Further along the same street (Rue de Savoie), around the back of the town hall is chez Moeder Lambic, where you’ll find a huge selection of Belgian beers and a few Belgian comics to sample.

Around the Place du Chatelain

Moroccan salad mezze at Bab Dar
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Wednesday is the night to hang out in the Chatelain, when the weekly market takes place.  On a fine evening, it’s definitely worth popping by, eg after a visit to the nearby Horta Museum – home of the Belgian Art Nouveau architect.  Wednesdays are when you’ll spot the double-parked BMWs and Audis as their owners not only do their high-end grocery shopping, but also pause to indulge in some al fresco rosé or tapas.  The restaurants in this neighbourhood are top notch (and well reviewed in the guide books) – it’s worth booking in advance if you want to eat there on a Wednesday.  If you fancy something a bit more chilled, head over to Bab Dar on Chaussée de Charleroi.  Run by the same guys as the hip and funky Kif Kif Café off Place Flagey, Bab Dar is a like Kif Kif’s calmer older sister – a haven of beautifully designed interiors serving up a limited – but excellent – Moroccan menu. I recommend the mezze of Moroccan salads as a starter – it was bursting with intricate flavours and unexpected spice combinations.

Around Place Flagey

sabayaki (grilled mackerel) at Izakaya
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Place Flagey has had a major overhaul in the last decade, which has resulted in the paved open square (previously a frequently flooded building site and/or car park), a new public transport hub and the renovation of the Maison de la Radio, which is now a cultural centre.  It still houses a radio station as well as a theatre, a café and a restaurant and is frequently the hub of various festivals and outdoor events.  There is a produce market on the square on a Saturday.  Around the back of the Flagey building, is Rue du Belvédère, a small street mainly of Portuguese chicken shacks.  Avoid them and head to Marché au Vins, a small wine bar and live music venue located in…. a garage.  It’s larger (and more sophisticated) than it sounds – the owners used to run a wholesale wine business there and now offer a friendly welcome, a wide variety of wines (by the bottle or the glass) and some small snacks.  It’s perfect for a pre- or post-dinner drink.

takoyaki (octopus batter balls) at Izakaya
(c) Lynn Sheppard

My favourite, and by far the most authentic, of Brussels’ Japanese restaurants, Izakaya is on Chaussée de Vleurgat, one of the ten streets which converge on the square.  This restaurant is the closest I have found to a genuine izakaya (like a Japanese tapas bar) in Europe.  They serve all three Japanese mainstream beer brands, excellent Japanese food including sashimi, noodles, fish, yakitori and amazing yaki onigiri (rice patties basted in a sweet soy dressing and grilled).  They don’t do sushi – in Japan, sushi is only served in sushi restaurants, not izakaya.  Check out the daily specials and, f you know about Japanese food and/or speak Japanese, head off menu – the staff are happy to help!

Around Place St Boniface and Place Ferdinand Cocq

a wide selection of spirits and vinyl at L’Amour Fou
(c) Lynn Sheppard

There are many good restaurants in this area which mixes student shared flats with grandly renovated townhouses for European functionaries.  I like L’ultime Atome and Belgo Belge around Place St Boniface.  On my recent visit, I visited L’Amour Fou on Place Ferdinand Cocq.  It is under new management, so I thought I’d give it a go. Typical of Brussels establishments, it is at once a cafe, a bar and a restaurant.  The menu features fresh ingredients prepared on the premises and a focus on burgers.  The new management seem to have a minor obsession with music on vinyl and rum.  Neither of which is a bad thing. It’s worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood.

a fine aperitif Prosecco from Titulus
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Further over towards the European Parliament and the Place Luxembourg area (general assembly point of young European expats and interns in the bars flanking the square), I discovered a new wine bar and shop open since September 2011.  At Titulus, you can stop off for a glass or two, pick up a bottle on route to a party or buy a range of cutely packaged conserves and pickles such as sardines and antipasti. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly and I was very happy with the Prosecco which they recommended.  It’s on the stretch of Chaussée de Wavre just as it leaves Avenue de la Couronne and heads into Matongé, Brussels’ African neighbourhood where you can pick up authentic West and Central African cuisine for a couple of euros.

And the answer to the question on your lips….. Where to buy chocolates?

In Brussels, you are never more than a few feet from a chocolate shop.  The big names (e.g. Neuhaus, Leonidas, Godiva and Corné) are on every corner.  You can leave it to the airport or the Eurostar lounge, but in my view the best chocolate is worth hunting out.  Pierre Marcolini (shops at the Sablon and on Avenue Louise) is the haute couture of Belgian pralines, but since Nestlé bought a large stake in the brand, it no longer has that artisanal feel, although it does still have a certain bling factor.  I recommend you buy your chocs from Lorette on Rue Franklin in the EU district.  Lorette is super friendly, speaks a handful of languages and brings together various small producers in one cute, artsy shop.  Her main praline supplier is Flemish chocolatier Frederic Blondeel, who has his own shop and café Quai aux Briques in the Place St Catherine area (also a good location for fish and seafood restaurants).  Blondeel makes the most amazing flavour combinations.  His pralines feature ingredients such as thyme, Szechuan pepper, cardamom and ginger.  I prefer spicy or citrus to floral or super sweet flavours, so Blondeel’s are my kind of chocolate!

And finally….. sleeping

I am fortunate normally to be able to stay

clean, minimalist decor at the Thon Europe
(c) Lynn Sheppard

with generous friends in Brussels, but on a recent trip I tried out the new Thon Europe hotel in the EU district and was very impressed.  The decor is modern – the seats in the bar/restaurant are lime, fuchsia and turquoise and the rooms are spacious with clean, minimalist lines.  The Thon is super convenient – the location (between the European Parliament and the main European Commission buildings) is excellent, there is a small supermarket onsite, and Apple Macs available for free internet access in the lobby.  If you’re in Brussels for work, I’d certainly recommend the Thon. (Note: be careful not to confuse it with their central hotel at Place Rogier when booking!)

Do you know Brussels?  What are your tips for a weekend in the Euro-Capital?

(c) Lynn Sheppard

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Barcelona part 3 – my new tips

the facade of the crazy Casa Batlló
(c) Lynn Sheppard

With apologies for the delay, here are my recommendations for Barcelona, based on my trip in May 2012.

Tourist attractions

  • Casa Batlló – I love Gaudí’s fantastical modernist architecture and I visit the fabulous Parc Güell on every trip to the Catalan capital.  However, I had never visited either of the two masterpiece houses he designed on Passeig de Gràcia: Casa Batlló and La Pedrera.  The former offers a full audio-guided tour of the interior, so that was our choice.  The house is full of symbolism, quirky design features (is the light fitting supposed to represent a circle of nipples?  Who knows!) and incredible attention to detail.  The audio guide is really comprehensive and allows the visitor to take their time over areas of particular interest.  What I found interesting, given my recent trips to Morocco and the extensive Moorish history of Spain, were the nods to what I consider to be features of North African architecture: mosaic and tile work, a plunging light shaft through the centre of the building and curling plaster structures.  Parts of the house also reminded me of Northern European art nouveau such as the Horta house in Brussels.
    Casa Batlló, Pg de Gràcia 43.  Metro: Passeig de Gràcia
the interior of the Casa Batlló
(c) Lynn Sheppard
  • Cathedral Quarter – the area around the Cathedral in the Barri Gòtic has had a facelift in recent years and it’s well worth a poke around the back streets to see some fabulous examples of Barcelona architecture through the ages, ie a  few ages ahead of Gaudí and his modernista mates. The Cathedral itself is well

    Geese. In the Cathedral.
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

    worth a visit (where else can you visit geese in a church?!), but then head around the side to explore.  I spent a while in the shade of the vaulted sunken courtyard of the Museu Frederic Marès, where I managed to pick up Barcelona’s excellent free public wifi. (Once you’ve signed in near or at a museum you’ll pick it up all over the place). A few doors along is the tranquil 16th century Palacio de los Virreyes of the The Archive of the Crown of Aragon, like a Moroccan riad in the Gothic Quarter.  Around the narrow streets at the back of the Cathedral are other fine examples of Gothic, mediaeval and later architecture on this, the site of the original Roman city.  Many of these have been carefully restored and maintained as public buildings, including the Department of the Catalan President.
    Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, Plaça de la Seu.  Metro: Catedral

    the courtyard of the Museu Frederic Marès
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

Eating

gambas ajillo at Agua
(c) Lynn Sheppard
  • Agua – there is a whole set of beachfront restaurants and bars tucked under the promenade in the Barceloneta, beneath the sculpture of the bronze fish in the former Olympic Village.  We were lucky to get a table on a beautiful sunny day at Agua, which specialises in fresh, no-nonsense Spanish dishes.  (Some of its neighbours offer Asian fusion and other exotic delights). We had huge, fat gambas grilled in garlic, a mountain of deep-fried artichoke shavings, a rich grilled goat’s cheese on a thick mattress of sun-ripened local tomatoes and many other delicious tapas. We washed all that down with a crisp, dry Galician Albariño and even indulged in dessert.  The girls were particularly impressed by the fresitas gratina, a kind of runny crème brulée with strawberries in.  It sounds odd, but really was quite special! With two bottles of wine (€19 each), our seaside lunch wasn’t cheap (€196 for four of us), but the setting and the food were well worth it.
    Agua, Maritim de la Barceloneta 30. Metro Barceloneta (but it’s still a bit of a walk)
fresitas gratina at Agua
(c) Lynn Sheppard
  • Ácoma – reaching the Boqueria market too late to get anything to eat (get there before 4pm), we dived into the labyrinth of small streets on the other side of the Ramblas leading towards the of the Barri Gòtic in search of tapas.  Not far along c/ de la Boqueria, after dodging a few waiters trying to tempt us in to pubs and bars, Ácoma caught our eye because a TV in the front window was broadcasting images of a cute interior courtyard.  We headed through the bar to the courtyard where a band was setting up for later that evening.  It was a sunny haven of tranquility and reasonably-priced tapas in a neighbourhood which is otherwise can be dark, full of hassling touts.  The perfect location for post-shopping down-time!
    Ácoma, c/ de la Boqueria 21.  Metro: Liceu

    at the back of the Cathedral
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

Drinking

  • Eclipse at the W – Everyone in Barcelona was talking about the new W hotel, perched out beyond the marina like it’s just too cool for one of the coolest cities in Europe.  So, we decided to join the in crowd and headed over there for cocktails at sunset.  The view from the 26th floor of was something else as the sun set and the lights came on along the beachfront.  The sun loungers and rollerbladers made it feel like LA, not the Mediterranean! And there’s even a view from the toilets! The cocktails were really good and one as an aperitif didn’t break the bank (although a whole night of them might!)
    Eclipse at W Barcelona, Plaça de la Rosa del Vents. Metro Barceloneta (but it’s still a fair walk – take a taxi)

    dusk over the Barceloneta from the W hotel

     

  • Boutique Bar at the Ohla Hotel– the weekend we were in

    Cocktails at the Ohla
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

    Barcelona, the bar at the 5* Ohla was named one of the Sunday Times’ Top 50 bars in the world.  Now, that was an opportunity too good to miss.  The hotel looks a bit too avant-garde even for Barcelona – it’s got dozens of plastic eyeballs on stalks sticking out of its period façade and the downstairs bar is teeny.  But, as we discovered, perched at the bar for lack of seating, it well deserves all accolades!  We found prize-winning mixologist Massimo (Max) La Rocca on duty and ready to mix us cocktails on and off-menu like an alchemist creating magic potions.  I like citrus and spicy flavours, so my cocktail (run-based, of course), had a wafer thin disc of lime floating on top which Max coated in cinnamon sugar and set alight.  I drank it through a metal mate straw.  Amazing!
    Ohla Hotel, Via Laietana 49.  Metro: Urquinaona

    Alchemy
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

Sleeping 

We stayed at the U232 Hotel in the Eixample.  Styled like a gentleman’s club in grey, black and bronze with oversized black and white photos on the walls, it was fantastic value: spacious and comfortable with a great breakfast buffet, helpful staff, free wifi and a roof terrace complete with four-poster sunbeds.  It was in a great location for sampling some of the Eixample neighbourhood vibe (eg in the excellent value La Cococha restaurant two blocks away at c/Casanova 157) and picking up the open-top city bus tour.
U232 Hotel, c/ Comte Urgell 232.  Metro: Hospital Clinic

roof terrace at Hotel U232
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Where are your favourite Barcelona haunts and hang outs?  Please share your tips!

© Lynn Sheppard

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The Dalai Lama in Scotland

This week, I was fortunate enough to attend an event with the Dalai Lama.  That’s not something that happens every day!

The capacity crowd was there to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.  His talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, which celebrated the 20thanniversary of the Edinburgh Lectures series, was on ‘Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.’ It was more a series of observations interspersed with his characteristically infectious laugh than a formal speech, and rambled around the themes of compassion, positivity, humanity, respect and good intention.  Following the formal part, he took (incredibly challenging and well-considered) questions from local school pupils on a range of issues related to ethics and morals.

The Dalai Lama is such a charming figure.  It is hard to imagine that he and his people have been through incredible hardship and even harder to comprehend his tireless campaign for global peace, his enduring respect for fellow humans and his commitment to non-violent means.  At the age of 77, he is spritely, good-humoured and incredibly vibrant.  He even cheekily asked the school kids to guess his age, suggesting that he could pass for a man in his 60s.  (He probably could). 

The attraction of his message is in its simplicity.  We would all like to hope that a life without conflict could be achieved.  And he can make us believe it could.  He spoke of how humans have more in common than that divides them – on a human to human level, we could all get along.  No-one wants bother or conflict in their lives – isn’t it easier just to respect one another? He touched on the importance of genuine affection early in life and the vital role of mothers in providing that stabilising force to their babies.  The Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the latest reincarnation of a series of spiritual leaders who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others.  He didn’t stick to Buddhist philosophy or religious tenets, however: he even expounded on the theme of secularism, indicating that the secular approach – of respecting all religions as well as those who have none – was a cornerstone to avoiding conflict in the world.

The respect and admiration in the audience and on the stage for this inspirational figure in red and saffron robes created quite an emotional atmosphere and everyone was on their feet applauding loudly as His Holiness left the stage. 

Who inspires you?  Who would you like to hear speak if you had the chance?

This is a version of an post which first appeared on my Edinburgh blog.

(c) Lynn Sheppard

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Barcelona part 2 – tips from friends

As mentioned in my first Barcelona post, I have decided to pass on my Barcelona tips in three parts: my pre-this trip tips; pre-trip tips from others; and then finally a post about what I actually did.  This is Barcelona Part 2!

Tourist attractions

As I have been to Barcelona several times before, I have seen most of the top tourist attractions.  For this trip, I was recommended the following, both of which I had already seen:

typical Spanish architecture at Poble Espanyol
(c) Lynn Sheppard

  • The Montjuïc Fountains – the water of the fountains flows, shoots, spurts and changes colour to music.  The shows are free and are on Fridays and Saturday nights in winter (Oct-April) and every night Thursday to Sunday in summer.  It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour or so on a warm evening.
  • Poble Espanyol – a kind of Spanish cultural theme park which recreates Spanish small town life and showcases Spanish architecture.  I found it a bit cheesey, but you can easily while away half a day or more and there are restaurants and shops inside.  There are also shows (eg flamenco) in the evening in summer.

 Eating

The Spanish equivalent of the ‘greasy spoon’. Greasy ‘bikini’ anyone?
(c) Lynn Sheppard

  • Mirablau – panoramic restaurant and cocktail bar in the Tibidabo area.
  • Taller de Tapas – on the lower key, leafier Rambla Catalunya (as opposed to Las Ramblas), this was recommended as a great tapas restaurant and particularly good for lunch. For dinner, it was easily able to accommodate our group of 9, but I found the staff a little complacent and the atmosphere a little tourist-y.
  • Cerveceria Catalana – also on the Rambla Catalunya is a very famous tapas restaurant which consistently gets good Trip Advisor reviews, despite the queues.
  • Arenal  – we were recommended this restaurant on the Paseo Marítimo de la Barceloneta – a fantastic location right down on the beach (under the promenade), which is wonderful in good weather.  We didn’t get in to Arenal, but tried out one of its neighbours, Agua – check out the review in Part III!
  • La Gavina – hitting the lists of celiac-friendly Barcelona restaurants, La Gavina is in a lovely setting overlooking the marina.  It is a bit touristy and you pay for the location, but the food is good and the service is slick, catering easily with a large group.
  • El Botafumeiro – a traditional seafood restaurant.  Our insider local called it ‘pretty posh and generally pretty quiet’ but claimed the locals rave about the food.  We didn’t make it there to find out
  • Cuines Santa Caterina– apparently it’s often necessary to wait but it doesn’t take very long to get a seat and there is a great selection of wines at the bar.
  • Libeliña 2– an authentic Galician restaurant in the Eixample which is not glamourous but is popular with locals at Calle Equador 89.

    typical tapas
    (c) Lynn Sheppard

Drinking and dancing

We were recommended an “aperitivo-crawl” on a weekend night taking in try the following bars in the Barceloneta: Jaica (where one is advised to ask for the home-made vermut), Electric (for Brazilian smoothies & cocktails), Casa Ricardo and El Vaso de Oro. Already late by British standards, the best times to go to these places is around 12.30 – 1am – after that they get very busy.

Other recommendations:

  • Boadas Cocktail bar, 1 Tallers on Las Ramblas is tiny. It was opened when the original owner returned from Havana in 1933.
    Tel: 93 318 8826
  • Les Enfants Club, 3 Carrer Guardia. Barca’s oldest club plying pop, funk, disco, indie, Spanish hits and no techno.  The dress code is laid back dress and the dancers are mainly students and hedonists.
  • El Bosc de les Fades - a fairy forest themed bar near the wax museum off the Ramblas. It sounds bizarre and I’m really sorry we didn’t make it there!

I was particularly interested in finding some Latino culture in Barcelona and looked up opportunities for salsa dancing in the city.  I found this very helpful blog post.  A Barcelona resident friend-of-a-friend supplemented it with the following two venues:

  • AGUA DE LUNA – 211 C/Viladomat, metro Hospital Clinic. From 11pm till late
  • LA BODEGUITA DE MARISOL  – 7 C/Vic, metro Diagonal. Nice Cuban place to have dinner and some mojitos before going dancing in Mojito Club.

The Barcelona skyline from the Parc Guell to the sea
(c) Lynn Sheppard

These are largely the tips I didn’t manage to test on my recent trip to Barcelona.  Have you been to any of these sights, bars, restaurants and clubs?  What did you think?  Or were you – like us – busy discovering new places to go?  What are your Barcelona top tips?

© Lynn Sheppard

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Had Dra market, Morocco

local produce for sale
(c) Lynn Sheppard

In a comment on my post about misshapen vegetables , one of the followers of this blog mentioned Had Dra market near Essaouira. I was keen to go there on a future visit!

For me, travel is an experience; a broadening of the horizons.  I like to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  I might not agree with their vision – and I might be fortunate enough to have the means to choose to live in another way – but at least I can try to understand their perspective.  In order to do this, I think it’s important to leave the air conditioned hotel and take some time to live like the locals.

Had Dra is one of the largest markets in Morocco.  Animals, agricultural produce and manufactured products have been traded there for decades, probably centuries.  Essaouira was once the port which served Timbuktu, in modern-day Mali – passing the riches of the camel trains out to the world and exchanging them for goods from European traders.  Not so long ago, we can imagine, slaves would have been traded at Had Dra – 40km inland and on the road to Marrakech. 

the market as a spectator sport
(c) Lynn Sheppard

To catch the best of the action, an early departure is called for.  For a mere 5dh (37p), one can flag down one of the many clapped out buses leaving Essaouira’s bus station first thing and hunker down for another hour’s sleep in the cramped seats among a sea of men with tartan shopping bags.  I was almost the only woman on the bus!  Obviously, I thought, shopping at Had Dra was a very macho pursuit!

a reluctant farewell?
(c) Lynn Sheppard

On arrival, we headed over to the far side of the market to the livestock area.  At 8am, we had already missed the camels – we just saw a guy lead off the final three.  But there were still plenty of cattle, goats, sheep, horses and donkeys for sale; mooing, braying, whinnying and moaning or simply quietly accepting their fate.   And there were thousands of guys huddled together in small groups haggling, discussing, poking, prodding, inspecting and driving a hard bargain between the hoods of their jellabas.  This was no scene for the hen pecked husbands sent off to market by their wives to buy veg – this was where the serious business was taking place!

bargaining is serious business
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Nearby there was an (halal, of course) abattoir and stand upon stand of every cut of any animal you’d care to eat (and then some).  Close to that were the fruit and vegetable sellers – some with mountains of tomatoes, marrows and squash; others with just a few pickings from their garden.  Further round there were the stalls selling second hand everything: rope, fishing nets, scrap metal, wood offcuts and even plastic sheeting (from unused sheets of labels from a yogurt packing plant to industrial grade tarpaulins).  Then we found the Moroccan equivalent of the 99p shop: stands selling Made in China plastic tat for a few dirham.  There were also more traditional items: soap and accessories for the hammam, djellabas and beautiful Berber rugs.

any old iron?
(c) Lynn Sheppard

There were plenty of cafes around the market (probably not for the faint of stomach) and we selected one on a street bordering the site which served the sweetest mint tea I have ever drunk.  (In a country of over-sweetened tea, that’s quite an accolade!) We managed to grab a quick view of a spectacle where men and boys were encouraging an over-excited man to regale them with stories of reptiles – it was more snake aggravation than snake charming and we didn’t hang about.

purchased sheep await their fate near the abattoir
(c) Lynn Sheppard

The sun was high in the sky by 11am and the breeze we had felt on the coast was absent.  We piled back on a bus and dozed in the heat back to Essaouira.  We hadn’t bought a thing other than our breakfast, but the sites I saw, the photos I took and the memories I formed will stay with me longer than any souvenir.

Do you like to visit markets when you are travelling?  Which have you enjoyed most?

© Lynn Sheppard

Chillies at Had Dra market
(c) Lynn Sheppard

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London lite

I was in London earlier this month and took the opportunity before and after my meetings to catch up with a few friends.  I wasn’t there on a major tourist mission, so I didn’t see many sights, but with the help of some local knowledge, these are the places I discovered and re-visited.

Sunday lunch: Somerstown Coffee House

the Somerstown Coffee House on a sunny Sunday
(c) Lynn Sheppard

My parents used to run this place!  The pub, the neighbourhood and the clientele were quite different back then (in the early 70s).  The pub has been through a change of management in the last year.  It’s now run by the “Yummy boys” who have turned around a couple of pubs in the countryside and this is their first venture into the Big Smoke.  So far, they have opened up the two bars into one large drinking/dining space, installed a couple of shabby chic Union Jack sofas at the fireplace and brought in a British tapas/small plates menu plus roasts on a Sunday.  They are working on the garden and had better get a move on – theUK’s in a heatwave!  We had the Sunday roast – I had a veggie version which was a stuffed Portobello mushroom plus all the trimmings including aYorkshirepud and with olive oil sautéed potatoes instead of the goose fat version on the menu.  They were a decent price (for London) at £10.95 and the staff were all chirpy and chatty.

Veggie Sunday Roast – Somerstown style
(c) Lynn Sheppard

This pub is a bit of an undiscovered gem – it’s right between King’s Cross/St Pancras and Euston stations, very near the British Library – don’t overlook it for long, because others won’t!

 
The Somerstown Coffee House,60 Chalton Street,London, NW1 1HS. Tel: (020 7)387 7377 (tube: King’s Cross/St Pancras)

Activity: Victoria and Albert Museum

courtyard at the V&A – in the rain!
(c) Lynn Sheppard

On a rainy day, you can do a lot worse than dive into one of London’s many museums.  The V&A is a good choice – it’s a great museum of applied arts and design, but it’s also in South Kensington, right beside the Natural History Museum.  The V&A is far too big to tackle in a day, so we had a wander round the calm and peaceful Islamic Middle East section and the truly bizarre Cast Courts. Apparently, the making and collecting of casts of famous monuments (for study or conservation purposes) was particularly popular in the mid to late 19th century.  And the V&A has a whole room of them – replicas of monuments which in real life are continents apart and have since crumbled, eroded or potentially been destroyed. 

Cast courts at the V&A
(c) Lynn Sheppard

We also visited the newly restored V&A café, which is located in the V&A’s original refreshment rooms, which formed the first museum restaurant in the world.  The setting is stunning – across a large open courtyard where fountains normally play (when the water’s not falling from the sky) and three rooms designed at the time to showcase modern design and craftsmanship.  The menu of light meals, salads and large slabs of cake is perfect for a mid-museum pause and is provided by Benugo – caterers also at Edinburgh Castle.

There’s so much to the V&A, we didn’t do it justice on a rainy afternoon.  I highly recommend a visit – they’ve just refurbished their fashion galleries and are celebrating an exhibition of beautiful ballgowns, red carpet evening dresses and catwalk showstoppers. That is something I have to see!
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. Tel: (020 7)942 2000 (tube:South Kensington)

Dinner: Da Polpo

the milkiest, most succulent mozzarella!
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Da Polpo is a part of a great new mini-chain across London and is a vibrant, warm bar/restaurant with an interior of reclaimed furniture and serving what could best be described as ‘Italian tapas’.  The staff are super-friendly, the menu is a select collection of small plates and sharing dishes and the food is as fresh as a daisy.  We had a couple of amazing simply yet tongue-zingingly delicious salads – one with a milky dome of mozzarella and buttery fresh beans (including their crazily spiralled shoots) and the other featuring lightly grilled courgettes – both drizzled with a light olive oil.  We shared a spinach pizetta – a kind of extra-thin based mini-pizza Fiorentina complete with an egg on top.  Pizzettas are a bit of a Polpo speciality: the star is the topping not the pillow-like base, as has sadly become the case in many popular pizzerias. We also had a fritto misto which consisted of crunchy batter around succulent fish and seafood pieces.  I have honestly never had such a perfect batter.  We finished all of that off with a lemon and yoghurt fool, poured in a glass over amaretti biscuits (one between us, I hasten to add!).  Fabulous! Food that fresh is so much more satisfying and our shared light dinner, up at the bar with some mixed olives and a 25cl carafe of wine each, came to a very satisfying £48 (plus 12% optional service charge, as is customary in London), which is a steal for Theatreland.  Da Polpo gets a big thumbs up from me!
Da Polpo, 6 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NA. Tel: (0207) 836 8448 (tube: Covent Garden, Charing Cross)

Spinach pizzetta and frito misto at Da Polpo
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Shopping: Skandium

All the best of Scandawegian design under one roof and over two large floors!  All your favourites are here: Marimekko, Iittala and Arabia and many more.  On the ground floor you can buy homewares, accessories and smaller items; downstairs there are larger pieces such as furniture.  The staff are really helpful, even when – as we were – you are only looking (and dreaming!)

Skandium – branches throughout London.

Sleeping: Premier Inn, Victoria 

I often stay in the area around Victoria station for work and hotel represents the best value I have found. The rooms are a good size, beds are comfy, bathrooms are spacious and the wifi is cheap (£3 for 24 hours). When I was there, they also offered a meal deal (dinner and buffet breakfast) for £22. As I had already paid for breakfast, that was deducted and I ended up paying £13 for a substantial 3-course meal and a glass of wine. Try and find that elsewhere in London!!  Best of all, though, were the staff. They were all helpful, friendly, motivated and enthusiastic. Top class service in a budget hotel.

The room cost a lot more than the cheap rates in their TV ad, but the hotel met all of my needs and actually exceeded my expectations. Around the corner on Belgrave Road is an EasyHotel, which although much more basic is clean and genuinely cheap.

Premier Inn London Victoria, 82-83 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PS
Easyhotel Victoria, 34-40 Belgrave Road, London, SW1V 1RG
(tube: Victoria)

Have you been to London lately?  What are your favourite places to eat, sleep and generally hang out?

(c) Lynn Sheppard

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Barcelona part 1 – my tips

 
View of Barcelona from the Parc Guell
(c) Lynn Sheppard

I recently spent a long weekend in Barcelona.  It was at least my 5th trip to the city – it’s one of my favourite destinations.  I compiled the tips below a while back for visiting friends and colleagues.  I thought I’d share them first, then share the tips I got from friends for this most recent visit and then finally let everyone know what we actually did and offer some reviews of what’s hot and what’s not in this eternally changing city!

My top tourist attractions

      • Mercat san Josep – on the Ramblas.  Check out the jamon, fish and local cheeses. Get there before 4pm.  Yum!
      • Institut d’Estudis Catalanas, c/del Carme  47 in the Barrio Chino.  Beautiful cloistered building featuring Andalusian-style mosaic.  It’s like something straight out of ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. There’s a park nearby for a spot of guidebook consultation and contemplation.

        I have been in many cathedrals, but no other with… geese!!
        (c) Lynn Sheppard

    •  La Seu, Barcelona Cathedral in the Barrí Gòtic.  Featuring geese and turtles in the interior.
  • Parc Güell
  • Not that easy to get to but really worth it for the fantastic Gaudí mosaics and views of the city.  Not to be missed!

  • Sagrada Familia. Another Gaudí masterpiece, begun in 1882 and not yet finished.  Always busy, but worth seeing even if you can’t be bothered to queue!
     
  • Teatre National de Catalunya, Plaça de les Arts.  Fantastic over the top architecture. Tours available. 

 What Barcelona does best….. 

  • Architecture– not just Gaudí’s modernism, but also the gothic, the modern and the downright crazy.
  •  Pan amb tomaquet,  the Catalan alternative to bread and butter is delicious at any time of day – smear garlic and Mallorcan tomatoes on crispy ciabatta-style bread and top with olive oil and sea salt.  Perfect for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
constant renewal….
(c) Lynn Sheppard
  • Continual renewal – Barcelona is the hippest of Spanish cities and never stops still.  The new gerkin-style building above the Olympic district is already old hat.
  • Football – as important to Catalans as politics and fine food.  Take your pick from superteam FC Barcelona (tickets harder to come by, but the Camp Nou stadium is open daily for visitors) and Espanyol, the formerly pro-Franco team who play in their stadium on the Montjuïc hill. Tickets are available from the Tourist Information Centre on Plaça Catlunya.

Bars (check out subsequent posts for more!)

  • Boadas cocktelería – c/Tallers 1, off the Ramblas.  Small old-style spirits and cocktail bar.  Crowded (bit thankfully no longer smoky), but a bit of old Barcelona
  •  El Xampanyet – c/Montada, 22.  In the neighborhood of the Picasso Museum, which features lovely courtyards and little boutiques to explore.  Stop of for a cava and some tapas to refuel your energy. 

if tourism seems a bit like hard work, head to the beach!
(c) Lynn Sheppard

Eating in Barcelona

Vellpoblenou – Fresh, local produce prepared in the Catalonian style.  Not very central, but a mecca to good food for the residents of this area, who know better than to seek out quality in the tourist traps of the Barceloneta. 
http://www.vellpoblenou.com

c/Rossello cafeteria - If you look hard enough, you’ll find plenty such local establishments without airs or graces (and with plenty of football on the telly!). Check out this cafeteria-style local tapas bar in the Eixample, just east of the Hosptial.  Unassuming, much cheaper than the touristy tapas bars around the Plaça Catlunya, you’ll need a bit of Spanish and a tolerance of Spanish sport and soap operas.  Try out the sherry in the barrels behind the bar! A good place to grab a bite before hitting the clubs hidden around this area.

Ría de Mera - There are plenty of Galician restaurants in the Eixample district, but this one is a good one, serving delicious Galician seafood, hams and wines, just in case you get bored of all things Catalan! (address: Carrer del Consell de Cent 299)

Can culleteres - Hardcore Catalan cuisine in the oldest restaurant in Barcelona.  For those who like a lot of protein on their plate!  http://www.culleretes.com

Accomodation in Barcelona

Consider renting an apartment.  Flats are often cheaper than hotels, especially for groups.  Cocoon offer modern, renovated, high spec apartments in various districts of the city.
http://www.cocoonbarcelona.com/

Top tip: Watch your pockets and your handbag.  It’s sad but true – Barcelona is rife with pickpockets.

What are your favourite places in Barcelona?  What would you recommend?

Sagrada Familia – under construction for 30 years
(c) Lynn Sheppard

(c) Lynn Sheppard

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Eating in Marrakech

There is no shortage of restaurants in Marrakech – there are new ones popping up every week.  However, if can be difficult to find something that represents good value (whether cheap or expensive) and it’s often difficult to find a menu more extensive than the usual tajine or couscous dishes.

On a recent two-night trip to Marrakech, we had two very different tourist eating experiences: we ate at a stand on Place Jmaa el Fna one night and on the second, we pushed the boat out and had a celebratory meal at Pepenero, currently #2 of 269 Marrakech restaurants on Trip Advisor.

Place Jmaa el Fna

Place Jmaa el Fna by dusk

Marrakech’s main square undergoes a transformation every day at dusk.  As the orange juice stands and water sellers retreat and the selections of false teeth and folk remedies are packed away, the food hawkers wheel their mobile kitchens, benches and tables out onto their allotted pitches, lit by bare bulbs.  As the cooking begins, the steam rises and the lightbulbs twinkle in competition with the stars.  As the acrobats, Gnaoua musicians and dancing boys appear for the entertainment of the diners and those taking an evening stroll, the atmosphere seems tinged with a hint of the magical and mediaeval.

If it weren’t for the banter of the hawkers and the conversation and companionship of our fellow tourists, packed in along the narrow benches beside the trestle tables, our meal would have been disappointing.  I took issue with our waiter who served us a saucer of couscous bouillon as ‘vegetable tajine’.  When I told him his ‘tajine’ would not grace my own table, he promised a ‘proper’ one the following evening.  (But we had other ideas – see below).

Sheep’s head, anyone?

Among Moroccans, who don’t baulk at the idea, Place Jmaa el Fna is well-known for the opportunity to eat sheep’s head (including ears, eyes and brain).  I left that ‘delicacy’ to my friend and ate instead a passable harira soup, which was sub-contracted from the soup stand nearby.

Eating on the square is at the top of the ‘must-do’ list for visitors to Marrakech.  However, it’s not what it once was – the offer (on laminated menus in at least 4 languages) has become increasingly organised and homogenised and you pay for the experience more than the quality of the food. However, no-one hurries you and on a warm evening I like to tune in to the sales patter and the ingenious methods and variety of languages used by the waiters to tempt tourists onto their stand.  And between the identikit brochette/ merguez/ tajine/ couscous stands you can still find stands selling only tea; barrows laden with sweet sticky baklava and – of course – the odd steamed sheep’s head.

Pepenero

Pepenero – the photo doesn’t do it justice

When I first heard of Pepenero’s reputation, I wondered why one would travel to Marrakech for Italian food.  When we spotted the stylish black and white signs dotted around the Riad Zitoun Jdid area of the medina and followed them to their destination, we realised how little justice the description of ‘Italian restaurant’ really did for Pepenero.  And when we managed to book a table there the following night, we could not believe our luck! In an awe-inspiring setting, knowledgeable and polite (but not stuffy) staff serve outstanding food.  Miss it and miss out!!

amuse bouche

Pepenero is down a series of winding alleyways and is set in a kind of double riad.  It is probably the most beautiful and romantic place in which I have even eaten. (Le Tanjia in the Marrakech Mellah comes a close second on the interior design front, although I see it gets mixed reviews on everything else these days). The first courtyard is dimply lit and features a traditional riad garden complete with fountain and under-lit pool; the second has the main restaurant seating around another fountain, flanked by a zellij-tiled wall fountain and two salons off at either end offer additional seating and windows opening into the courtyard.  There were traditional interior features and handicrafts from floor to ceiling.  No photos I took could do the place justice with its subdued lighting and tinkling fountains.

But we didn’t just come to sit and gape at the surroundings.  While we ate a fluffy, creamy salmon mousse amuse-bouche, our waiter expertly helped us through the Italian menu (if it had been in Arabic, French or English we would have been fine!).  There is also a Moroccan menu and we decided to mix and match.

selection of Moroccan salads

We shared the selection of Moroccan salads as a starter.  Moroccan salads are often made with cooked vegetables which are dressed and served at room temperature.  In my opinion, this kind of home cooking is not prevalent enough on the average restaurant menu.  The Pepenero salads – roast red pepper, roast green pepper, zaluq (smoky roast aubergine) and foul (broad beans flavoured with confit lemons) – were delicately flavoured and demonstrated why Moroccan cuisine deserves a place on the top table of global cuisine.

Risotto Carnaroli allo Zafferanoca

I don’t normally bother with a pasta course, but the idea of heavenly Moroccan saffron was irresistible, so we shared a Risotto Carnaroli allo Zafferanoca.  The flavour of the risotto was simple and let the saffron shine through.  The texture was perfect: not too al dente, but not too soupy.  It was fresh and fabulous!

For the main course, we went Italian again: my companion chose a filet steak, whereas I took the sea bass.  Both were presented on fresh, succulent seasonal vegetables – baked vegetables (mushrooms, tomatoes and sugar snaps) with the bass and pan-fried carrots, leeks, French beans and fennel with the beef.  I can only speak for my main, but it was exquisite – the folk rule about not eating fish in Marrakech does not apply at Pepenero!

Branzino di mare al Cartoccio

After all that, a dessert was a tad too much, but our mint tea was accompanied by small homemade pastries, which provided a sweet finish to a perfect meal.

mint tea and pastries

In my opinion, Pepenero is excellent value for money.  You can spend a lot more in Marrakech to eat at the latest ‘in’ location and still only be offered tajine.  For two courses, a bottle of wine and one of water plus complementary amuse bouches, bread and patisseries, in an idyllic setting and served by professional, attentive staff, just over 700dh (around £55) was a gift!  I could not easily find the quality of dishes or location in Europe for that figure and the pricing reflects the lower overheads in Morocco that many feted Marrakchi restaurants don’t bother to do. Chef Khalid Robazza Essafa has found a winning formula.

Filetto di Manzo con selezione di Verdure alla piastra

Following the meal, guests are offered a taxi service (there is also – rarely for the Medina – parking nearby) or are escorted by a staff member resplendent in black jellaba and red felt fez back through the labyrinthine streets to Place Jmaa el Fna.

Top tips: On their website, Pepenero is currently offering a free dessert to those celebrating a special occasion.  We also found that a booking request from a hotel or riad carried more sway than an individual reservation.

Restaurant PEPENERO
17, Derb Cherkaoui – Douar Graoua Marrakech
phone : +212 (0) 524 389067
e-mail : contact@pepenero-marrakech.com
Web site (and directions): www.pepenero-marrakech.com

© Lynn Sheppard (words and pictures)

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Misshapen Vegetables

There are so many paradoxes in the Western/Northern concept of ‘progress’.  One of the absurdities of modern life is our apparent desire for perfectly formed fruit and vegetables – all year round, regardless of their natural season in the country of purchase.  In the UK, alongside the increasingly popular movements in favour of organic, local, home-grown and ‘slow’ food there is even a campaign in favour of “knobbly veg” being run by Delicious Magazine supported by the National Trust. 

chickens for sale

One of the things I love about visiting Essaouira in Morocco is our daily trip to the market.  I don’t eat meat, so I don’t need to linger by the (live) chicken stalls, I just make a beeline for the veg stands.  There’s no need to ask if the produce is local – it goes without saying.  There isn’t a polystyrene multi pack in sight and the veggies come in all shapes and sizes.  It’s ideal for the single person or the extended family because you can buy as much or as little as you like: just collect all the veg you want in a plastic sieve and it’s weighed and priced all together.  There are no prices on display: what you pay is simply an average of the kilo price for whatever’s in the selection you’ve picked out!

vegetables piled high

Nearby, nearer the street, you can find guys selling all the seasoning you need: garlic cloves, chillies, ground spices, salt and pepper by the dirham or half dirham.  It’s perfect if you only need a small quantity and your purchase is usually wrapped in a twist of recycled piece of newspaper.  (Or, as the sadly recently deceased old guy we used to buy from – in the pages of an old algebra exercise book.  RIP, gnarled old garlic man!)

Out on the main road through Essaouira’s souks, you will be left in no doubt as to which fruit is in season.  In between the barrows stacked with bread and bushes of mint and verbena are the fruit sellers.  Last time I was in town, the men were carefully arranging ripe strawberries one-by-one on their carts – like hundreds of upturned nipples!

white radishes and beans

It’s such a pity that our supermarket-dominated food shopping habits often encourage over-packed, over-processed fruit and veg in quantities greater than we need.  This leads to unnecessary waste – both of food and packaging.  It’s good to be reminded of a simpler life.  Hopefully we in the West can learn from our past mistakes and countries where consumers still buy only what they need and live in tune with the land and the seasons can avoid them all together.

If you’d like to use your knobbly veg in a traditional Moroccan tajine, there’s a recipe here.

What do you think?  Do you prefer the convenience of supermarket shopping or do you seek out the knobbly veg at the market?

© Lynn Sheppard, words & pictures

Posted in Morocco, world cuisine | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments