Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Everybody Comes to Rick's

Winter was half over in Budapest and I needed some sunshine again, so I decided to look for that warm weather in that ‘little city’ (of seven million people!) on the Moroccan seacoast made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca. It was also a chance to visit an old friend and former student, my French buddy Gilles, and his lovely wife Sophie. Plus, another friend of my daughter Morgan also lives in Casablanca and teaches at the American School, so I’d get to hook up with her and her baby daughter. And, of course, I’d find some sunshine and get to go to Rick’s. All in all, sounded like a good week.
One catch raised its head almost immediately. I emailed Gilles to tell him of my visit and he wrote back that he and Sophie were in the process of moving back to France. Well, Hell! I finally come to visit and he probably won’t be there. Figures! Just goes to prove I still have that great
sense of timing. Anyway, Gilles said he may still be in town finishing up his work before his final transfer move, so I just may be able to see him. (NB: Nope. Gilles finished his work in Casablanca and relocated to France just 10 days before my arrival.)
Anyway, Friday, January 23, it was up at 6 AM and out to Budapest’s airport for a 10 AM Air France flight to Paris, hoping Charles de Gaulle airport was free and clear of Charlie Hebdo protestors. Luckily, after a minimal 2.5 hour layover, I was winging my way to Casablanca. (Another NB: the locals fondly call their capitol Casa, and so shall I for the rest of this narrative.)
Morgan’s friend Ivy made arrangements with her trusted taxi driver Mohammed to pick me up at the airport and, when I cleared passport control and Customs, there he was, holding a large sign saying, Mr. Gary. During the ride into town, he called Ivy and we set up a meet for the following morning at a coffee house in her district. Since it was Friday evening, it took us an hour and a half to get to my hotel near the main square, Place de Nations Unis. The usual drive without traffic took around 30 minutes. Traffic was horrendous, and made even more complicated by the slowness of the drivers and the uncaring pedestrians who crossed streets anywhere and any which way, ignoring oncoming cars and sauntering into lanes already filled with autos. A real New York traffic jam.
So, arrived at my hotel around 7:15 PM, threw my bag into my room and headed out for a first reccy of the main area of Casablanca. My hotel was perfectly located for walking adventures to the main sights and places of Casa. I was a mere three-minute walk from the Old Medina, maybe four minutes to the downtown train station, Gare de Casa Port, five minutes to streets filled with restaurants and bars and three minutes to the major tram line in town. Couldn’t ask for a better location.
I wandered for a while, getting the feel of the city, checking out the about-to-close Old Medina, dodging traffic around the main square, walking up and down nearby streets just to see where I was. I had a tasty dinner of chicken couscous at a small streetside diner and called it a night, knowing there would be an entire week of sightseeing and fun ahead.
Mohammed had told me that if I wanted to walk to the Twin Center, where I was to meet Ivy at 9:30 the following morning, it would be about 25 minutes or so. Piece of cake for an old city trekker, so I set out that early Saturday around 8:30, to give myself time to sightsee along the way. Well, the damn walk took me nearly one hour, even with stops for photo ops. I was panting and sweating when I arrived at the Twin Face restaurant, about three minutes before Ivy showed up. It seemed that Ivy had met my daughter Morgan through a mutual teacher friend in southern California and they had stayed in touch for the previous couple of years. We had a get-acquainted tea then headed out for breakfast at one of Ivy’s favorite nearby places, the Mood Café. Omelets with meat, orange juice, bread and some of that great super-sweetened Moroccan mint tea, which I lived on during the week to come. Great stuff, lots of sugar, perfect for the daily exercise of walking around in Morocco.
Ivy then gave me a quick walking tour of the Maarif and Gautier quarters near her flat, wandering through some of the local shopping areas. I also had a chance to meet Ivy’s seven-month-old daughter Addie, who must be the happiest baby in all of the African continent; she never stopped smiling and laughing, what a joy to be around. We made plans to meet up again on Monday evening for drinks and dinner and I caught one of the little red Petite Taxis back to my hotel, the Best Western Toubkal, a great place to stay in Casa. I continued my orientation walk around the central area, checking out the Marche Central, Rialto Cinema, La Bodega tapas restaurant and some of the bars and night clubs I had found on Trip Advisor, all for later reference and visits.
First impressions of Casa: Trashy. Dirty. Crowded. Old and not maintained well. And that’s without mentioning the pairs of soldiers armed with automatic weapons posted around the central district. But full of life. I could hardly wait to see the rest.
For my second full day in Casa, and my first real night, it was pretty much mandatory that I head for Rick’s Café, a three-minute drive along the waterfront from my hotel. Yep, it was designed to re-create Rick’s Café Americain, from the movie Casablanca. Rick’s is set in an old courtyard-style mansion built in the 1930s against the walls of the Old Medina. Founded by Ms. Kathy Kriger, a former American diplomat, in 2004, it definitely calls to mind Old Morocco. The restaurant/piano bar is filled with curved arches, a sculpted bar, balconies and balustrades and even brass lighting filtered through plants that cast amazing shadows on the walls. As I sat at the bar with my champagne cocktail, I just knew Ingrid Bergman would walk through the door any minute.
And, of course, Rick’s wouldn’t be the same without a piano player belting out the old pre-war songs. The piano player is Moroccan and does his stint nightly from 9 PM. As good as he is, aficionados of the original movie may be somewhat hesitant to request the only song anyone wants to hear at Rick’s; asking him to “Play it again, Mohammed,” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.
After several drinks, I finally tired of waiting for Ingrid and had an appetizer of Crab Louis, followed by a very nice filet mignon; as beautiful a cut of meat as it was, it was also the only minor disappointment of the night, as the chef obviously hasn’t yet come to grips with the nuances of rare, medium rare and medium. I asked for medium, but my steak was nearly raw in the middle and, even after sending it back for more cooking, found it was still medium rare inside. Ah, well, a small price to endure for the wonderful atmosphere of this legendary club.
I was feeling no pain as I left Rick’s to negotiate with the waiting taxi drivers for a ride back to my hotel, about ½ kilometer away, and which should have cost around 5 dirham (about $0.50 US), but which cost me 20 dirham to get there in the first place. One guy wanted 50 Dhm, but I was able to find a second driver who “settled” for 20 Dhm. Since I was in no shape to walk, I took him up on his offer.
Arriving outside my hotel around 11:15 PM, I noticed the attached night club was open, with flashing lights and a half-asleep doorman. Should I go in and see the “Spectacle Show?” I knew, from sad past experiences, that if I did it would end badly. It always has. But, ever hopeful, I decided, what the heck, and eased down the red-carpeted stairs to my doom.
Bartender Rashid gave me a drinks menu and I noted there were four vodkas listed: Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Moskovskaya and Absolut. Since I’d been drinking vodka earlier, I decided to stick with it. I asked Rashid for a Moskovskaya shot. He responded, “We don’t have that.”
Sigh. Here we go again. “It’s on your menu, right here, see?” “We don’t have that.”
I should have left immediately, I know that, you know that, we all friggin’ know that. Did I leave? I answer my own question: “No!” I extended my punishment for coming in here in the first place and, shaking my head slowly, I looked back at the menu again.
“OK, I’ll have a Stolichnaya,” I said. “We don’t have that.”
Rashid will never know how close he came to losing his life that night, as I seriously contemplated leaping over the bar and shoving the worthless menu down his worthless throat. He survived only because I’d see the movie Marrakech Express years ago and had no wish to spend time in a Moroccan prison.
But as I looked at Rashid I could see he was a touch nervous, as he took a step back from the bar, just in case. As the veins started popping out in my neck, I said, “Alright, seggfej, give me an Absolut.” (It was a good thing he didn’t understand the Hungarian word for ‘asshole’). He turned and grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured me a shot in a tall glass, then opened a tonic water and set it in front of me. Had I asked for a vodka and tonic? At this point, it hardly mattered, so I took my vodka, poured in some tonic and waited for the show.
The doorman had told me the show would start at 11:30; it was now 11:27. This damn show better be good. I waited. 11:30. 11:40. 11:55. Midnight. 12:08. 12:20. 12:40. No show. No show. No show. Well, scheisse! My vodka was long gone and, I finally decided, it was long past time I was too. So I left. See? I told you it would turn out badly. Never again! (Until the next time, of course).
Sunday, January 25, Robert Burns’ birthday. I was up early, had a nice cheese omelet and some sweet mint tea at the Ramses café on the square, hailed a taxi and headed off to see the Hassan II mosque, third largest in the world. And it is huge! Space inside for 25,000 people, with room on the large square outside for another 85,000. I took the hour-long tour of the inside, and it was worth it.
It’s worth mentioning here that during my stay in Morocco, I never saw any problems between Moslems and others; no one beating up anyone, no Moslems spitting on tourists or haranguing skimpily-dressed foreign women, no anger at foreigners for depicting the prophet on a magazine cover. No problems at all. Everyone was extremely courteous and kind and welcoming and helpful when I asked for directions. No problems at all. Apparently, this is the kind side of Islam. Of course, the US isn’t bombing Morocco or killing Moroccan women and children, so that could have something to do with it. At any rate, no Moslem worries on the west coast of North Africa that I could see.
I taxied down to the Corniche area and walked along the seaside esplanade for a while, then decided it was time for a hammam visit. I hailed a taxi and asked for the Ziani Hammam. Now, one thing visitors to Casablanca must realize is that the taxi drivers, in their little red petite taxis, know almost nothing about their city: street addresses, buildings, landmarks, bathhouses, restaurants, etc. They barely know the major landmarks. So, it’s an adventure taking a taxi to an infrequently-visited site. My adventure included my driver stopping to ask about the location of the Ziani hammam at least four times. I was afraid we’d never get there, but at long last we did, and guess what? Yep, closed. They’d had a fire the previous month and were closed for renovation. At first I thought maybe my bartender of the previous night, Rashid, was also employed at the hammam, but dismissed that thought as ridiculous.
OK, back to the hotel. Maybe they could tell me where a good nearby hammam was. As it turned out, there was one in the hotel across the street, the Royal Mansour. I elevatored up to the 9th floor and found a really nice, clean Turkish bath. I opted for the sweat room (which I had all to myself), the scrub (with mud and a scrub mitt that pretty much tore all the skin off my body) and the massage.
As I had found in every previous Turkish bath/hammam I had been to, I expected to be issued a wrap-around sarong and to have an old man attend to my scrubbing and massaging needs. Things were a touch different here. No sarong, I was told to enter the steam room in my birthday suit. After 15-20 minutes of lovely sweating, a young (Moroccan?) woman came in and ushered me out to the marble-topped scrub bench. Then, still sans sarong or any other garment, she proceeded to rub me down with a mud mixture and scrub me off with the mitt – back and front. I’m too old to be embarrassed at such things, but I must admit it was a surprise.
After a shower to wash off the remaining mud and dry skin flakes, I had my wonderful oil massage in a candle-lit room, still buck naked. It was just a regular massage, back and front, in case you’re wondering, and quite relaxing. Definitely worth the rather expensive price.
To celebrate Burns’ birthday, I decided on Spanish food that night. Rabbie would have appreciated it. So it was off to La Bodega de Casablanca, just a short walk from my hotel. I arrived around 6 PM, figuring the bar would be open by then. Silly me. Due to the midday and evening closures around Morocco, many of the restaurants and bars were not open for three hours, usually from 4 PM to 7 PM; of course, it could also have been from 1 PM to 4 PM, but who’s counting?
Anyway, I had to wander the streets again for an hour or so, during which time I found the Taverne Normandie on one of the main streets nearby. It was small and unprepossessing, but I decided to have my first beer there; after all, how bad could it be? Well, you guessed it: pretty bad. Small, dark, smoky (everyone still smokes in Morocco – in bars, restaurants, offices, everywhere), a few locals watching a soccer match on TV. I asked for a beer and the owner, who must have been recently recruited from the street people brigade, showed me two bottles representing the brands of beer he had available. I chose the cleaner one (it was called Stork) and was understandably disappointed. It was watery and not even cool. Quick, get me out of here!
But I still had 45 minutes until La Bodega opened, so I suffered through the bad beer and bad bar snacks (some sort of beans) and the bad smoke and finally couldn’t take any more. I lurched out the door and headed back, to find, to my immense surprise, that La Bodega had opened early. I was happy. I sat at the bar and ordered a Carlsberg beer and some tapas (fried shrimp and meatballs). I sat sipping and munching contentedly, checking out the décor, which was Spanish bullfight posters, a large bull’s head over the bar and serapés spread around the tables. It was a traditionally darkened bar complete with candles and dim lighting. Home. They even had a downstairs bar area where there would be music after 10 PM. Cool.
After several beers and more tapas (chicken nuggets and garlic mushrooms this time), I checked out the live music for a while and then staggered back to my hotel, just in time to avoid the attached night club. Whew!
Monday dawned sunny and warm as I walked to Ramses for another cheese omelet and mint tea. I was joined for breakfast by my taxi driver from yesterday, who spotted me on the square and followed me into the diner. Maybe he thought I’d hire him for the day, but he was obviously unaware I don’t even wake up until after I’ve eaten. He sat with me all through the meal, even though I ignored him most of the time, and finally left when it became even more obvious I wasn’t interested in conversation or being driven somewhere.
I walked down to the Sacred Heart former church, now converted into a mosque, then back to the Old Medina for more browsing. Lunch at a nearby Chinese place and then taxied over to Ivy’s place around 5:30. We walked down the street to the Twin Center towers and ascended to the SkyBar, 28 floors above the city, with amazing views from every direction. A few drinks there, admiring the sunset, then over to Planet Sushi for – yep, sushi! Good stuff, and we ordered several types, but had to wash it all down with tea, as it was a non-alcoholic restaurant. Booo – I really could have used a cold beer by then.
Still not replete, we wandered over to Picasso, Ivy’s favorite dessert place, where we had the sampler tray of goodies too scrump-diddly-umptious to mention, lest you all go into a sugar seizure. Damn they were good! I got home early in anticipation of my train journey on the morrow.
Up at 7 AM, walked three minutes to the Casa Port train station and it was off to Rabat, about one hour north along the coast. It was an easy train ride in first class, more comfortable seats, and only cost around $10 US one way. I consulted my map upon arrival and found I had either a long walk or a short taxi ride to the Chellah Necropolis, containing the ruins of a former Roman city which had been converted into a Moslem necropolis in the 12th century. I love these old ruins and I wandered happily among them for more than an hour, touching the old stones and tracing the inscriptions and listening to the storks chatter. It seems this quiet place is a stork haven, as there were more than two million storks perched on the old stones and towers all around the ruins. Well, OK, maybe not quite that many, but it seemed like it when they were chittering to each other. Lots of nests way up high and I could even see the chicks when they stuck their heads up over the edge. Even Trajan had been there.
Checked that sight off, then taxied to the area along the riverside esplanade which boasts the tower of Hassan II and the tomb of Mohammed V. I saw them both, inside and out, then strolled down the esplanade and finally found an open restaurant, where I indulged in a tasty Forest Crepe (bacon, mushrooms, onion sauce spread on a delicious French pancake) as I watched the boats go by on the River Bou Regreg on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, just a kilometer or so away. I really do love to travel.
I started to leave, but glanced at the menu again and saw a sweet crepe, this time with caramelized pineapple and cocoa sauce. I was hooked. Just one, OK, just one, I couldn’t help myself, I’m a poor, weak, lonely traveler and exotic food is my undoing. Since it was called a Crepe Exotique, I had to have it. Damn it was good!
Alright, now I can waddle away and continue on down the esplanade to the Kasbah of the Udayas, where the hustlers are more plentiful than the pigeons, which is saying something. I shooed them away – hustlers and pigeons – and continued on to the Medina, which was OK, but nothing special. Some more strolling around the center of town and it was time to catch the train back to Casa. Another quiet hour, a short nap along the way and I was ready again to hit the nightlife. I had a Flack beer at Le Taverne du Dauphine and a nice dinner of tagine at a Moroccan place near the hotel. All was right with the world.
Wednesday was beach day. I caught the tram from the main square (Place de Nations Unis) all the way out to Ain Diab and the Corniche area of Casablanca’s main beach. It was a lovely sunny day (again; Ivy had kindly arranged for the weather to be great during my visit, which it was – the rain stopped the day before I arrived and started again the morning I left) and I took long walks up and down the Oceanside, whiling away the morning. Trammed back to the city center again and had a nice lunch at Romano’s restaurant.
Ivy and I had made arrangements for yet another night on the town, so I met her at her place around 6:30 and we taxied over to Rick’s for dinner. She had only been there once during the day so this was a nice treat for her. It was another fun night, complete with drinks (caipirinha for me, vodka martini for Ivy) and wine and good food. This time we shared an appetizer of goat cheese with figs salad (tasted much better than it sounds) and Ivy had the same steak I had ordered on my previous visit – and with the same results! Medium outside, raw in the middle. She also sent it back and it returned only a touch less rare inside, so, as I had also done previously, she buckled down and enjoyed it. My duck breast was perfect, and the Crème Brule and cheesecake we shared for dessert topped everything off just right. Rick’s even had Limoncini, a first cousin to Limoncello, which helped end the evening on a high note.
On Thursday, January 29, I had sort of planned to take the train down the coast to El Jadida, but decided not to bother, as there really wasn’t a whole lot to see there. So for the next two days I just sort of walked the city, seeing areas I hadn’t seen before, like Habbous for some shopping. Also checked out any goodies I might have missed in the Medina, bargaining for all I was worth, but coming away empty-handed; just nothing I really wanted for myself or as gifts for family and friends.
I filled the time lazing away, walking and eating and browsing and taking care of some internet business and generally just enjoying the warmer weather and sunshine. I was ready to head back to Budapest. Mohammed picked me up at 4:30 AM (yes, that’s 4:30 in the morning!) of Saturday, January 31st, and took me to the airport, where I caught my 7:30 AM flight to Paris. After a nine-hour layover, during which I hung around Charles de Gaulle airport since the weather was so nasty, in two more hours I was home. Once in my flat I immediately turned on the heat, which I had turned off when away, as it’s expensive to heat with gas in the winter. I tumbled into bed clothed in sweats and socks and waited for the flat to get warm again.
All in all, another good trip, meeting interesting people, having some exciting new foods and visiting great places. Stay tuned for my next trip in the spring, to I-have-no-idea-where. But it will undoubtedly be worthwhile.