What’s that Smell? Communal Ovens, Morocco

Narrow winding streets define most of the cities in Morocco, at least in the warrens of the medina passageways. The medinas are the oldest walled areas of North African cities. Purposefully designed with tangled winding paths, intended to slow down ancient invaders if they breached the high stone walls of the medina. In Fez, the medina is over 1200 years old and has some of the most beautiful gates in Morocco.  In many of the cities or villages, the tight paths only allow foot traffic, some permit donkeys and in Marrakech, one needs to dodge scooters and a random horse carrying propane tanks. Bellmen use enormous wooden carts to transfer luggage from a street through the circuitous paths to hotel doors.

Chefchaouen Al-Haouta Oven 1540

Moroccans developed a specific cuisine known for a combination of pungent spices. I didn’t visit any supermarkets, I did peek into small single room shops along the path of my Nineteen Day Camel Caravan, and of course, sampled the tremendous towers of spices and olives in the souks. Most Moroccans in the countryside live on what their seasonal gardens produce, making their own olive oil in the fall, grinding wheat into flour in winter. The outdoor markets are bursting with a variety of freshly slain animals hanging from hooks, stacks of fresh fish fill the seafood markets, neatly arranged piles of vegetables reward daily shoppers. Jars of freshly preserved lemons, beautifully arranged glass vessels of green and black olives flavored with chunky black peppercorns. The elegance of the display is as significant as the freshness of the produce. Most locals shop every day for fresh ingredients.

On my previous visit, I hadn’t seen a communal oven or faraane. In the numerous neighborhoods of Morocco, there are five places open to the local public: mosques, schools, public water fountains, hammams, and communal ovens. Follow the scent of a wood fired oven or keep an eye open for the small kids with wooden paddles of dough headed to the local oven. Chefchaouen, the famed Blue Pearl village has multiple public fountains and communal ovens. Many of the small homes in the medina don’t have the luxury or space for an oven, they deliver their molded dough to a baker at a communal oven, reducing the need for burning wood in summer in their home and the location provides the perfect space for meeting their neighbors. For a small fee, the professional baker cooks the loaves and pastries, often delivered on oversize trays. Centuries have passed preserving this practice, the locals dressed in hooded djellabas, and in November, a heavy wool fabric, looking more like snuggly night shirts with a tasseled hood.

Small entrances to the Communal Bakery belie the size of the massive wood burning ovens just steps from the entrance, whatever remaining space holds racks of freshly baked bread or dough waiting to be slid into the ovens. The intense aroma of baking bread may lead you directly to a communal bakery. Communal ovens have been an integral part of traditional neighborhood Morocco society for centuries, a treasured link to the past.

Perhaps the only thing more important than the warm fresh bread itself is the significance of sharing it with another. In Moroccan culture, bread is considered nothing less than sacred. For many meals, it replaces the fork and knife, scooping up juicy Tajine morsels and sopping up the vegetables with bites of bread.

Moroccans love their bread; it is served at every meal, mostly small round loves sprinkled with seeds and very light flatbread, made with white or wholewheat flour with a thick crust.

Always piping hot and served with honey or homemade jams. You will see bread sold everywhere, in round loaves, stacked baguettes, platters of freshly baked bread. Bread is a community commodity.

Public fountains, seqqâya, are scattered about the medinas, some small homes may not have running water, in Fez, there are over 60 public fountains. Many are found near the mosques, which is usually the central area of a medina.  In Chefchaouen, look for the ancient water systems, small open pipes which delivered water from vast canal systems engineered in the 1400’s. Many of the fountains are ornate basins built against a wall with several spigots, elaborate tiles adorn the walls.

Reasons to visit – Best of Madrid

Last fall, after I meandered the medinas of Fez and Marrakech, the intricate maze of the souks, the ancient cities, and the deserts of Morocco, I moved on to Europe’s sunniest capital city, Madrid. A first peek for me I will return for the full Spain architecture and gastronomic tour. There’s a spicy unique rhythm to life in Spain. From the staccato of the fiery flamenco dancers, animated chatter over tapas and rioja, bustling boulevards and cobblestone walkways, the excitement is palpable in Madrid.

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Endless cultural and culinary options, Madrid, Spain’s central capital, is a city of elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks such as the Buen Retiro. There’s far more to this vibrant city than tapas, bull fighting and flamenco although you will find all three here. It’s renowned for its rich cache of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, and nearby is the baroque Royal Palace and Armory, displaying historic weaponry. 

Goya at Prado Museum, Madrid

Over eighty museums and more than two thousand monuments -both historic and artistic, contribute to the city’s richness, Madrid’s cultural legacy offers visitors an incomparable tour: El Paseo del Arte, an Art Walk which includes the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía National Museum and Art Centre, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and, more recently, CaixaForum.

I spent several days wandering with our expert guide, she a foodie and art major, with a deep love of her city.

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Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral

Art lovers will delight in Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle of Art’, which comprises three world-renowned galleries, including the famed Prado Museum. Admire some of Europe’s finest art before wandering through the opulent chambers and salons of Madrid’s magnificent Royal Palace. Built in the 18th century, this lavish royal residence is one of the largest palaces in Europe, and with 2,800 rooms, visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring the elegant interior.

Museums Museo Reina Sofia and Museo del Prado are an absolute must for art lovers. The Reina Sofia for contemporary art (and Museo del Prado for the classics. Museo Nacional del Prado is Spain’s main national art museum. Along with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Museo Reina Sofía, the Prado forms Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. 

Markets and Shops.  Madrid is a shopper’s heaven, the El Rastro Sunday market is a social gathering place for madrileños. Locals come every Sunday to shop, stroll, and grab a bite at the generations-old tapas bars that dot the neighborhood.

Culinary Scene. Any trip to Madrid could become food focused due to its diverse culinary scene. Mercado de San Miguel opened as a wholesale food market more than 100 years ago. Nowadays, it’s the place to sample everything from Iberian ham to fresh fish and tapas from more than 20 stands serving up authentic Spanish food.

Spend a day outside the hustle and bustle of Madrid in the enchanting city of Toledo. This ancient city is renowned for its cultural heritage – this was where Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures peacefully coexisted in the Middle Ages. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River, Toledo offers wonderfully dramatic views across the gorge below. Discover the history behind this multi-cultural city and admire the works of controversial artist El Greco, who once lived within the city walls.

Sobrino de Botin. For a truly memorable meal, head to Sobrino de Botin, the official oldest restaurant in the world and a favorite of authors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sobrino de Botin opened its doors in 1725 and continues to base its dishes on its original recipes. Among those recipes? The roast suckling pig that earned a mention in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. Casa Botín, founded in 1725, is the oldest restaurant in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records and a benchmark of Madrid’s best traditional cuisine. Forbes magazine gave the House third place in the list of the world’s top 10 classic restaurants, together with its two specialties, the delicious suckling pig and lamb roasted in the Castilian style. Three and four times per week, shipments of the best Segovia suckling pigs and lambs arrive at the restaurant from the magical triangle for this meat: Sepúlveda-Aranda-Riaza. My guide and I spent a few leisurely hours here over a delightful Sunday afternoon. Highly Recommend!

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