Beneath the hot, North African sun ancient metropolises bloomed from the desert among the diverse landscape of jagged mountains, lush valleys, and pristine coastline. Over the centuries, political powers and empires from Europe created fluidity among the people and borders, and Morocco first entered the scene in 225 BC as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. Since then, the country has seen many changes—from the formation of its imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat) to the development of a complex culture with fascinating cuisine and focus on peace and knowledge. And together, along with the stunning diversity of landscapes that make up this incredible country, each of these elements is a beautiful thread in the intricate tapestry of present day Morocco and worth taking the time to explore when you visit!
Old Rabat Morocco by xiquinhosilva Flickr
Morocco’s history is a sharp contrast to its neighbors. While nearby countries boast a past of victory through war, much of Morocco’s history is a story of peaceful unity, a theme reflected in the Moroccan people today. According to legend, the territory became an independent country when Idris ibn Abdallah, seeking sanctuary from violence in Iraq, persuaded local tribes to break their allegiances to Baghdad. He formed the Idrisi dynasty in 788 AD and named Fez as Morocco’s first capital city. Under his leadership Morocco became the center of learning and discovery of the region. The University of Al Quaraouiyine was established in Fez in 859 AD and is still open today, outstripping Oxford University by more than two centuries!
UPDATE: We hope everyone enjoyed the Season 7 Premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones and doesn’t if feel like this season is just zipping by?! But we digress… this post is long, and full of spoilers through the end of Season 6.
ORIGINAL POST: Now, down to business. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones then we don’t need to remind you that season 7 kicks off on Sunday July 16. Last we left our lovable band of ambitious thrones seekers, Daenerys Targaryen was on her long awaited journey back to Westeros with Tyrion (and dragons) in tow, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark were reuniting the North, and Cersei Lannister had wrested power from the grips of all challengers. But there’s still so many questions to be answered (like who are the three heads of the dragon?). Unfortunately, aspiring Maesters won’t find much resolution in the lines of this ponderous tome. But what we can offer is a look into the actual filming locations and sets of many of the iconic GOT settings; and while we’re at it, give you some insight into how you can visit some of these places on our tours.
Northern Ireland is to GOT as Kings Landing is to Westeros – that is to say, the buzzing capital of the entire operation. Paint Hall studio in Belfast, located on the original Harland and Wolff shipyard where parts of the Titanic were built, holds the interior sets of Winterfell, Castle Black, Daenerys’s throne room in the Great Pyramid and so much more. But it’s the broad sweeping landscapes and grand castle exteriors that really shape the settings of the show and define the stories of its characters, and it’s here where the country of Northern Ireland steals the show.
The entire series opens in Tollymore Forest Park in County Down where a Night’s Watch scouting party discovers that White Walkers are no longer the stuff of ancient lore beyond the Wall. This same forest is where the Stark children discover six orphaned direwolf pups. Not far from the forest sits 1,000 acres of land belonging to Old Castle Ward. On these lands is Audley’s Castle which serves as the exterior of Winterfell. And who can forget when Ned Stark beheaded a deserter of the Night’s Watch, performed against the backdrop of moors and hills of Cairncastle in County Antrim. Also in this county is Shane’s Castle, whose cellars serve as Winterfell’s crypts, and Cushendum Caves where the Red Priestess Melisandre gives birth to the shadow creature that assassinates Renly Baratheon. But perhaps the site that is most iconic to Northern Ireland and the show is the Dark Hedges, a countryside avenue flanked by beech trees that serves as the Kingsroad leading North to Winterfell and the Wall.
While we don’t visit any of these particular sites on our Best of Ireland, you do spend plenty of time in Northern Ireland’s countryside drinking in the rolling landscapes and ancient ruins that inspired GOT show makers to set their show primarily here. Plus, when in Belfast, you’ll visit the Titanic Belfast Experience, which is located along the same dock complex as Paint Hall studio. And Bonus: on your way to the Giant’s Causeway, from the road you may be able to make out the silhouette of Dunluce Castle, the ancestral seat of the Greyjoys!
I’m kicking off my search for the perfect travel gear today with an ingenious article of clothing — SCOTTEVEST. It lets women and men travel hands free. The SCOTTEVEST really caught my eye and my attention because I always carry a purse or a large tote bag when I travel.
The bag contains all my things for the flight, including my travel documents, netbook, iPhone, books, a change of underwear, cosmetics, and anything else I can’t live without for the duration of the trip abroad.
It all fits inside the tote, but that tote becomes pretty heavy once it’s loaded. And what a mess when I have to go through security! And with all that stuff inside the tote, imagine me trying to quickly put my hands on my iPhone when it rings. No way. It’s buried with all the other stuff. The phone usually stops ringing before I can get to it.
And men are in a similar boat. They use a backpack or other bag to hold their wallet, documents, smart phone, camera, etc. This extra bulk can weigh down your travel experience — literally.
SCOTTEVEST Travel Clothing is stylish clothing that actually saves you from having to carry around purses and bags, since every garment has tons of pockets where you can securely stow gear and gadgets. I know this might seem impossible, but when you see them for yourself, you’ll understand why these garments are so ingenious and helpful.
The SCOTTEVEST trademark vest has 22 pockets alone. It actually has special places for everything I carry in my tote bag, plus a pockets for a water bottle and a small camera. And guess what? The items don’t bulge out making you look (and feel) like a pack horse, and the vest is made from breathable, lightweight material making it quite comfortable to wear.
I have never promoted items on this blog, but honestly, it seems to me that SCOTTEVEST clothing has managed to solve a very common problem for travelers. I think Friendly Planet travelers would find them ideal for our tours.
For example, the vest is suited for travel in safari vehicles, which typically have little storage space even for a purse or hand luggage. Or, consider our island hopping tours, where frequently getting on and off boats makes having hands free to steady yourself virtually a must!
I loved the whole idea behind the clothes and was delighted when Scott Jordan, the founder and CEO of SCOTTEVEST agreed to be interviewed by Melissa, a Friendly Planet blogger, for a podcast.
During their interview, Melissa found out how Scott’s clothing aids travelers in getting through airport security faster, eliminates the need for a carry-on bag, what destinations it’s ideal for, and more. He also gave us a sneak peek at what they’ll be introducing for the holiday season. (Hint: It involves an article of clothing usually only seen by the wearer.)
SCOTTEVEST is also sponsoring the No Baggage Challenge with Rolf Potts. Rolf’s a travel writer who embarked on a six-week worldwide trip without using any luggage, just his SCOTTEVEST clothing. Scott’s been talking to Rolf frequently and Melissa got an update on how his challenge is going so far.
Scott also just talked travel. You’ll find out why he loves Israel and Morocco, and he makes his case as to why everyone should experience Burning Man once in their lifetime. What Scott didn’t know when he spoke to us is that our very own webmaster, Cameron Clark, has been to a number of Burning Man events. He can echo Scott’s endorsement of the adventure.
So turn up your speakers or pop in your ear buds, and listen to Melissa’s interview with Scott. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole conversation, I’ll be posting the transcript in a few days. But in the meantime, leave a comment on this post if you own a piece of clothing from SCOTTEVEST and tell me what you think about it.
I was talking to Trae Roberts, Friendly Planet Travel Reservations Manager, about photography and he offered some great advice on what type of camera or lens you should bring with you on vacation.
He gave some great tips, so I asked him to jot down his ideas for a guest post. Keep reading to get Trae’s tips on how to get some great shots when you travel. And if you have some of your own photography advice, please share it in a comment on this post.
My best advice is to get a large memory card and click away. See what sticks, and make sure you don’t eliminate pictures based on how they look on your camera’s screen. Upload them to a computer that has a large monitor to see if the picture is a keeper.
If you’re interested in animal/bird viewing, then I recommend using at least a 300 mm camera lens. The large SLR cameras might be a pain to carry, but so worth the reward! Your pictures will come out crystal clear and the range you get is fantastic.
To eliminate the need for a tripod, any lens you purchase over 200 mm must have vibration reduction (or equivalent) in order to reduce movement blur. Most experts suggest spending more money on the lens, more so than the body of the camera. I prefer Nikon for its ease of use, quality, and durability.
I’ll leave you with these last two tips. Anyone using a camera in a dusty environment, such as Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, etc., should not make it a habit to change their camera lens. Dust and dirt are the worst things for a camera body, and changing lens leaves you vulnerable in environments like these. And most importantly — bring extra batteries!
When I heard from Peggy that Friendly Planet was introducing a nine-day Treasures of Morocco tour, it brought back a flood of images from my trip to this exotic country.
I’ve never been anywhere quite as bizarre, exotic, and diverse as this North African country, the world’s oldest surviving monarchy, dating to AD 788. Here African, Arab, Berber, and French influences have produced a culture as ancient as Fez’s medieval walled city and as cosmopolitan as Casablanca’s Hyatt Hotel, where bar staff dress in costume from the classic film “Casablanca.”
This predominately Muslim country was a French protectorate from 1900-1956. The two cultures, and some 270 different ethnic groups, raise interesting contrasts.
One day I sunbathed at a Casablanca hotel pool with bikini-clad Europeans. On another, I explored Old Town Fez, a walled medieval maze where mules carry goods, and veiled Muslim women sweep through narrow passageways.
One magical night I found myself in a nomad’s tent in the desert, sitting on carpets around a huge, low table, eating aromatic lamb stew and being entertained by belly dancers and horseback riders.
A few days later I was shopping trendy boutiques in Casablanca. The namesake of the famous Humphrey Bogart film is also home of Hassan II Mosque, one of only a few that is open to Westerners.
To me, the excitement of Morocco culminates in Marrakesh’s market square, Djemaa el Fna. In its “Court of Marvels,” snake charmers compete with acrobats and musicians. A turbaned man threw a small chattering monkey on my shoulder for a photo op. A few coins were expected in return, a small price to pay for entering this enchanting world where so many cultures mingle.
Unlike visiting a homogeneous country with one language and one set of traditions, visitors to Morocco will need a few tips for navigating this complex culture. It might feel like a movie set, but there are some things to keep watch for.
Shopping Bargaining is standard practice. Offer half the price and work from there. Shops close at noon and re-open around 2 p.m. Stick close to your guide in Old Town Fez to avoid getting lost in the intricate maze of passageways. Reserve the word “imshee” (Arabic for “take a hike”) for overly aggressive vendors and unofficial guides. Keep your bag or wallet secure and consider a money belt.
Dining Eating is one of the great adventures in Morocco, where you can dine on elegant French or Mediterranean fare accompanied by fine wines in European restaurants, but I recommend trying the flavorful Moroccan dishes. Try my favorite dish, the traditional lamb stew of raisins, garlic, ginger, cumin, and curry atop a bed of couscous. Order the sweet tea as your drink. It’s served hot in a glass stuffed with fresh mint leaves.
Manners Never eat with your left hand; it’s taboo. The left hand is the “toilet” hand in many African and Muslim cultures. Never pat a person on the head or take a photograph without permission. Be discreet drinking alcohol in public.
Hygiene Bring some toilet paper in your purse. It’s optional in Arabic bathrooms, and you might be required to pay for a few squares.
Language French is widely spoken, and so is Arabic. Practice these helpful Arabic phrases: Hello: salaam wa laykoom Goodbye: ma’salaama Please: afak Thank you: shukran Where is the bathroom?: Ayna Al Hammam? How much?: bish-hal? That’s too much: ghalee Take a walk/leave me alone: imshee