morocco

8 Frightening Facts About Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif

He’s The most gruesome character in the history of Morocco. the country’s own Vlad the Impaler has some dubious claims to fame — including fathering more kids than anyone else in history.

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif was propelled to the throne of Morocco in 1672. His brother had been riding horseback after a victory banquet and was killed when his horse galloped beneath the low-hanging branches of the palace orchard.

Ismail’s reign as sultan, from 1672-1727, was longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history. Whether he should be remembered more for his beautiful creations or his cruel tyranny is a matter of dispute — but everyone agrees that Ismail was one of the most important rulers in Moroccan history.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death.

Here are some of the things that made the sultan so infamous.

 

1. He killed his servants at whim.

Ismail was not, by any accounts, a very nice man. In fact, he’s been quoted as having said, “My subjects are like rats in a basket, and if I do not keep shaking the basket, they will gnaw their way through.”

It’s estimated that 30,000 poor souls met their deaths at the hands of the sultan — often for no reason. He was well known to kill people during fits of rage. According to one story, the sultan lopped off the head of a slave who had been adjusting his stirrup as he was mounting his horse. They didn’t call him “the Bloodthirsty” for nothing.

Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

2. Ismail was a sex addict — and fathered more children than anyone else in history.

Ismail was well-known for siring hundreds of children. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he fathered 888 children — the highest number of offspring for anyone throughout history that can be verified.

Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

3. He had 500 concubines, which no one else could even look at.

He was fiercely protective of his four wives and 500 concubines. Whenever a tribe surrendered to Moulay Ismail, the leader was forced to offer his most beautiful daughter to the sultan as a gift.

The women were treated like Ismail’s favorite toys. Each concubine was granted a personal eunuch, a castrated male slave, and an odalisque, or female attendant.

The lake-like Bassin de l’Agdal in Meknès served as an emergency source of water in times of war and a pool for his concubines in times of peace.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death. It’s said that men who encountered the sultan’s women laid facing the ground, so as to avoid any accusation of having looked upon them.

If any of Ismail’s harem were suspected of adultery, they were severely punished or put to death. The women were either strangled by the sultan himself or had their breasts cut off or teeth extracted.

Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

4. The Sharif family claims to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Ismail succeeded the throne at the age of 26 and established Meknès as the capital of the kingdom. He was a member of the Sharif dynasty, which claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

Ismail used this pretense to justify his actions, both cruel and kind. His subjects bowed in his presence, and were not allowed to look him in the eye.

During his 55-year reign, he managed to create magnificent and enormous construction projects. His palace was built exclusively by European slaves, aided by bands of local criminals. The palace was four miles in circumference, and its walls were 25 feet thick.

As soon as he finished one project, he’d start on another. If he didn’t like something, he would order it demolished and a new one rebuilt.

Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines

Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines



5. The sultan’s favorite wife was once a concubine who convinced him to punish his son in a horrific manner.

Ismail’s favorite wife and queen of the palace was a black woman who started out as a concubine. Her name was Lalla Aisha Mubarka, or Zaydana, the name she acquired after giving birth to the sultan’s first son, Zaydan.

She held sway over Ismail and hatched a scheme to depose his favorite son, Mohammed al-Alim, suggesting that he intended to proclaim himself the sultan of Morocco. For his punishment, Ismail had his son’s left arm and right leg amputated for supposedly having rebelled against him. This was intended to send a message that any disobedience would mean severe punishment or death. Not surprisingly, Al-Alim died from blood loss.

Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

6. Ismail created a massive self-generating army.

The formidable Black Guard was comprised of slave warriors acquired from sub-Saharan Africa. Considered loyal, as they no longer had any tribal affiliation, the Black Guard were Ismail’s personal guards and servants.

By the end of his reign, he had raised a powerful army of more than 150,000 men. These men had families and lived in communities of their own, but essentially belonged to Ismail. The boys were raised to serve in his army, which helped Ismail maintain his position and conquer the whole of Morocco from European kingdoms. The girls would marry, have children and continue the cycle.

The Black Guard exists to this day, though its name was changed to the Moroccan Royal Guard after the country gained its independence in 1956.

 

7. He also had an astoundingly large prison that mostly held Christians.

The Habs Qara (Prison of Christian Slaves) was a large subterranean prison beneath the city of Meknès. At its height, it held an estimated 60,000 prisoners, 40,000 of them believed to have been Christian sailors captured at sea by Barbary pirates. The Christians were used as slave labor to build the city during the day and were shackled to the prison walls in the evening and forced to sleep standing up.

Rumors of the existence of secret tunnels leading from the royal palace to the prison persist, despite lack of evidence.

Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

8. The sultan and the Sun King were allies.

Ismail, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, presided over Morocco at the same time that Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled France. He and Louis XIV were close allies, and in 1682, Ismail sent Mohammed Tenim, the governor of Tétouan, to be his ambassador in France to sign a treaty of friendship and negotiate the release of Moroccan captives. French Baroque painter Charles Antoine Coypel depicted the Moroccan ambassador’s visit in his painting titled Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne.

Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne  by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail sent his ambassador with a marriage proposal to Marie Anne de Bourbon, the eldest legitimized daughter of the king and his mistress Louise de La Vallière, but she declined. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to an international incident. –Duke

A History of Meknes, Morocco, the Bab Mansour and Heri es Souanifoot

Explore the historic gate, stables and medina on this day trip from Fès that can be paired with Volubilis.

Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

One of Morocco’s four old imperial cities, Meknès lies west of Fès, in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Our driver, Hafid, suggested we make a stop after our amusing guided tour of Volubilis.

Isamil was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, he once ordered that the walls of Meknès be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies.
A woman sells dates off of the main square

A woman sells dates off of the main square

There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay

There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay



A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

Meknès was founded and settled in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Muslim Berber dynasty, as a military settlement and received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1996. The city has retained many of its historic elements, which can be attributed to the ambitious 17th century transformation and monuments constructed under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif.

A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

The second sultan of the Alaouite dynasty (the current Moroccan royal family), Ismail ascended the throne at the age of 26, after the death of his half-brother Moulay al-Rashid, who died after a fall from his horse. A descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, Ismail moved from Tafilalt and made Meknès the capital, intent on a creating a grand city on a scale rivalling Versailles in France. It’s believed that Ismail enlisted over 25,000 Christian prisoners and over 30,000 criminals as laborers in the construction of Meknès. Some of the stones were taken from the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, a highlight of this area.

Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès

Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès



The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Ismail is remembered as one of the greatest and most notorious monarchs of Morocco. His reign lasted 55 years, from 1672 to 1727 — longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history — and left an indelible mark on Meknès. He was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, Ismail once ordered that his city walls be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies. Legends of the ease in which Ismail could behead or torture laborers or servants he thought to be lazy are numerous. During the half century of Ismail's rule, it’s estimated he killed 30,000 people.

The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

Bab el-Mansour, the Gate to Nowhere

As a tourist in Meknès, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time. One of the most well-preserved and beautiful historic landmarks of the city is the Bab el-Mansour. The elaborate horseshoe-arched gate and its 52-foot-high wooden doors is located off the sprawling el-Hedim square and provides a glimpse of Ismail’s grand vision. The monumental gate bears an Arabic inscription that translates as “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.” What’s truly interesting though, is that unlike other gates we’ve encountered in Morocco, this one is a folly that leads nowhere and was commissioned by Ismail simply to impress visitors. It’s now the entrance to a building that features art exhibits.

Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

To further illustrate his cruelty, one popular legend tells the tale of Ismail asking Mansour Laleuj, the architect responsible for the impressive city gate if he could have made the gate more beautiful. When Laleuj responded yes, the sultan immediately had him beheaded. This is unlikely, though, as the gate was completed by Ismail’s son, Moulay Abdallah, in 1732 — five years after his father’s death. However, the notion that the sultan would act so impetuously at the slightest offense makes for a great story.

Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Stable Conditions

Equally impressive is the Heri es-Souani, the former imperial granary and royal stables. A remarkable engineering feat, the massive stable yard was constructed to comfortably house no less than 12,000 royal horses. I can only imagine the amount of shit there was to shovel! It has been said that Ismail was a fanatic about his horses, and two slaves were employed to look after each horse to ensure that all their needs were met.

The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

One Great Granary

We entered the complex and found ourselves in a cool, barrel-vaulted structure. The chambers are constructed of 13-foot-thick adobe walls with small rectangular windows overhead for circulation. Many chambers have their original cedar doors.

Be sure to look for the noria, a water wheel half submerged in the sandy floor, where horses were once used to raise buckets of water from an underground reservoir connected to the nearby Bassin de l’Agdal.

A series of cisterns beneath the granary kept the floors cool, perfect conditions for storing provisions to feed the city and the sultan’s precious horses.

The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Golden Arches

Stretching beyond the granary are the ruins of the royal stables. The wooden beams are long gone due to the seismic waves that radiated from the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Nary a horse in sight, its walls remain intact with a great forest of columns and open-air arches forming the arcades of the massive stable. Nature, as well as a few cats, have taken over, lending an otherworldly quality to the ruins.

Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Regarded as one of Ismail’s finest architectural achievements, the stables are a testament to his immense wealth and the great lengths he went to ensure that his horses lived comfortably.

The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

Additionally, filmmakers are drawn to this amazing structure. The site has been featured in Ishtar, The Jewel of the Nile and The Last Temptation of Christ.

The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

If you’re looking for a day trip from Fès, Meknès makes for an interesting place to spend an afternoon exploring. –Duke

Jardin Majorelle: A Moroccan Garden Oasis in Marrakech

What exactly is Majorelle Blue? What does Yves Saint Laurent have to do with the Majorelle Garden? And what’s this about a new Musée Yves Saint Laurent?

Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Marrakech, Morocco is famous for many things: thick, fortified ramparts of beaten red clay, the towering minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque and the vast open square Djemaa el-Fna with its network of narrow, winding market-filled alleys known as souks. Oh, and “Berber whiskey”: hot, sweet mint tea served in small glasses.

Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

On our last full day in Marrakech, Wally, Vanessa and I walked from the medina to the Nouvelle Ville — French for New City. Our plan was to visit the Jardin Majorelle and to purchase a new memory card for our digital camera. We hoped to retrieve the images from our corrupted memory card, which had stopped working when we arrived in the Sahara, further proof that jinns exist.

We found a camera store, and Wally conversed with the shopkeeper in French, who took the card and inserted it into a reader. He looked up at us, shook his head and said, "C’est grillé.”

“I think that means it’s toast,” Wally said, sadly.

Towering palms seen through an archway

Towering palms seen through an archway

We went on with our day, happy to at least have a new memory card to start taking more pictures. As the three of us made our way around the walled enclosure surrounding the Jardin Majorelle, we became a bit concerned it wouldn’t be open. Our guide from our desert trek, Barack, had told us that the most important prayers of the week are those at noon on Friday, and because of this, Muslim cities essentially close from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We were in luck, though — the garden was open.

We entered the garden through a weathered wooden door, and although there were many people visiting that morning, I was struck by its serenity. The pebbled garden path led through a dense cluster of bamboo. Sadly, countless visitors have left their mark by carving their initials into the shafts of bamboo.

Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

True Blue: The History of the Majorelle Garden

The garden’s creator was Jacques Majorelle, a French Orientalist painter, the son of furniture designer and manufacturer Louis Majorelle. On the advice of his physician, Majorelle the junior travelled to Morocco for the sake of his health, and was immediately captivated by the vibrant colors and quality of light.

He settled in Marrakech in 1917, and in 1923 purchased four acres of land bordering a palm grove outside the city’s ancient walled medina. Eventually, Majorelle purchased an adjacent plot, expanding the property to 10 acres.

In 1931, he commissioned architect Paul Sinoir to design a Cubist villa to serve as his studio. Majorelle painted the fountains, planters and atelier a specific shade of cobalt blue, now appropriately named bleu Majorelle.

This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

Around his new dwelling, Majorelle, a passionate amateur botanist, cultivated the gardens, which he opened to the public in 1947 to help offset their costly maintenance. After Majorelle’s death in 1962, the gardens remained open but gradually fell into a state of disrepair, lacking the care necessary to maintain them.

The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

Yves Saint Laurent to the Rescue

Couturier Yves Saint Laurent acquired a second guesthouse, Dar Es Saada, in Marrakech in 1973 with his then-boyfriend Pierre Bergé. Arabic for the House of Happiness in Serenity, it was located near one of their favorite places, the Jardin Majorelle. When they learned seven years later that the gardens were slated for demolition to make way for a pool and bungalows. Saint Laurent and Bergé decided to purchase the 12-acre garden and villa. The couple enlisted American landscape architect Madison Cox to meticulously restore the gardens. According to Cox, Saint Laurent had the vision to have the flowerpots scattered throughout the garden painted in lemon yellow, sky blue and the famous bleu Majorelle. Saint Laurent and Bergé kept the garden open for visitors to enjoy, just as Majorelle did. 

(Bergé and Cox married in a private civil ceremony shortly before Bergé’s death in 2017. Cox is  also the director of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle, an organization that operates under the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.)

YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

Musée Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent often designed his collections while in Marrakech, inspired by the city’s colors and shapes. So it’s fitting, pun intended, that a museum dedicated to the influential designer’s life and legacy was built next to the Jardin Majorelle.

Although it wasn’t open when we visited, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, abbreviated as mYSLm, was spearheaded by Bergé and conceived by Studio KO architects Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty. The museum contains an extensive collection of couture garments, sketches, fashion photos and assorted objects showcasing YSL’s signature genderbending style from 1962 until his retirement in 2002.

The bamboo copse at Majorelle

The bamboo copse at Majorelle

Secret Garden

We passed through a pergola covered with bougainvillea and paused to look into a reflecting pool containing water lilies and a pair of turtles resting at its edge.

The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Following the garden path, we came upon a modest memorial dedicated to Saint Laurent. When he passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered amongst the garden he and Bergé so lovingly restored.

This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

Artists paint the plantlife

Artists paint the plantlife

A peek over an artist’s shoulder

A peek over an artist’s shoulder

The magnificence of this garden reminded me of the exotic Generalife gardens located beside the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The arid landscape, originally almost devoid of vegetation, like the gardens of the Alhambra, were utterly transformed by Majorelle over a span of 40 years. From what I could identify, the garden includes agave, bamboo, cacti, cypress, datura, succulents and bougainvillea.

In the Cubist villa, there’s a gift shop and a museum dedicated to artifacts from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers. Just don’t try to sneak in, or you might get kicked out, like Wally did.

Birds chirping, bamboo rustling in the breeze, and the sound of trickling fountains truly turn the garden into a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of the medina. –Duke

We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

Jardin Majorelle
Rue Yves Saint Laurent

Admission: 30 dirham, or around $3.25


Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Nearby

Thirsty and hungry after visiting the gardens, we dined on the terrace of Kaowa Café, a snack and juice bar situated across the way. We ate delicious puffs filled with cheese and tried some of their signature juices.

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

 FHI BANGLADESH

2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

9 Tips for Navigating the Fes Medina — and Making It Out Alive

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But Fez, Morocco is an intense city to explore. Read these tips before you go.

A donkey overpacked with boxes is about as much of a traffic jam you’ll encounter in the Fès medina

Fès is a city of discoveries. You never know what lies around the next corner. You cannot imagine the beauty that hides behind a plain wall once that wooden door opens.

As such, though, it can be intimidating as well. I’m not gonna lie: That first day we had booked to explore the medina on our own, we were hesitant to leave the riad. We really had to work up our courage. Because once you step foot outside the door, you have to be prepared to not only get lost, but also to deal with local men making snide comments, hoping to get you to pay them to act as guides.

For the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Landmarks like mosque towers don’t really help you find your way around the medina — there are lots of them, and once you turn a corner, they’re gone

1. Get a guide on your first day.

It’s nice to put yourself in someone else’s hands on your first day in Fès. Our guide, Abdul, was fantastic, and we just followed him around as he led us to the major sites. It’s nice to get them out of the way, know you’ve ticked the “important” stuff off your list, and that you have nothing left but to shop and eat (and hit a hammam for a spa day).

 

2. Pay close attention to how to get to the Blue Gate.

It all comes back to the Blue Gate, it seems. We took a daytrip to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubilis, and had a guide from the riad lead us to the Blue Gate just outside of the medina to meet our driver (there aren’t any cars allowed in the medina — and anyway they wouldn’t fit on the narrows twists and turns).

I literally just kept track of the major turns we made: left, left, right, right, right. And that was all we needed to retrace our steps the following day. Sure, we took a turn too soon a couple of times, but just backtracked once we hit a dead end. We got back to the Blue Gate eventually. And from there you can hit one of the major thoroughfares of the medina.

You never know what lies around the next corner in Fès. It might be a bunch of roosters tied to a cage in front of a gorgeous doorway

3. Ignore the hustlers.

As mentioned, you’ll pass young men every so often who want to con you into paying them to act as guides. “There’s nothing that way,” they’ll tell you. “The Blue Gate isn’t down there,” they’ll say. Don’t pay them any mind. Unless, of course, you truly are hopelessly lost. And then agree to a reasonable fee before you have them lead you back to your hotel or guesthouse.

We didn’t end up having to do this in Fès but did so twice in Marrakech.

 

4. Chat with your fellow travelers over breakfast.

Because we talked with a lovely British couple, Susan and Colin, our first morning at Dar Bensouda, we learned about the gardens (which happened to be closed for the Sacred Music Festival, but still) and the tapas bar across the street, Mezzanine (a welcome change from couscous and tagines).

They also told us about the Ruined Garden, which was close to our riad, and ended up being our favorite restaurant in Fès.

 

5. Follow the signs.

One of the best ideas Fassi business owners ever had was to put up small rectangular signs throughout the medina. Coming back from the souks or the Blue Gate, we started noticing signs for nearby dars and riads (guesthouses). After a day or so, we knew which ones would lead us close enough to our own lodgings that we could find our way.

We also knew that there were signs that led from Riad Dar Bensouda to the Ruined Garden. So once we passed that, we followed the signs back to our temporary home. This gets a bit tricky — you have to turn a corner and then glance back to make sure there’s a sign pointing back to the restaurant. But for the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Abdul took us to the narrowest street in the medina:

6. Walk with confidence.

This was advice given to us by Susan and Colin. It really did help put some of the would-be guides in their place. They’d look at us, walking with a purpose, and then go back to their conversations.

To help get you into the mindset, imagine yourself a local. Or at least someone who’s been in the city for some time.

This was harder to do when we made a wrong turn, hit a dead end and had to walk back past a group of men. But fake it till you make it. If they say something, just tell them, “We’re good.”

 

7. Try your smartphone.

We didn’t have a data plan abroad, so we didn’t use use our phones. But fellow travelers said that there were Google Maps or another app that was surprisingly helpful for navigating the medina. I’m a bit skeptical, given the labyrinthian nature of this ancient city — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

A butcher in one of the more-populated areas of the medina

8. Let yourself get lost.

Everyone doles out this advice. And it’s all well and good, as long as you’re not trying to find something specific. For our third day in Fès, we had nothing planned but wandering the medina and shopping. And that was the day we didn’t worry if we didn’t know where we were going — just so long as we were back in the safety of our riad by dark.

 

9. Friday is a great day to have as an early day in Fès.

This is the day of worship for Muslims. So wandering on Friday is actually a lot more chill. You’ll get hassled less, as mosques keep many of the people away. As an added bonus, shops that are open are often willing to give a good deal since business will be slow.


As I mentioned, the Fès medina can be intimidating. But by following this advice, you should be able to navigate the seemingly endless twists and turns on your own…somewhat successfully. –Wally

Travel Karma

Some trips are blessed, some cursed.

We are all connected, as this detail from a Jain temple in Rajasthan, India shows

My son’s friend went off a cliff on a defective scooter on the Greek island of Poros. He had to be flown to Athens on the orders of the local doctor whose limited English had him explain, “I can see his mind.” In other words, a big gash in the head.

My rented jeep was confiscated when the owner saw a wrecked scooter in the back. My son’s scooter was confiscated when he rode through town during siesta looking for help. Bad travel karma.

We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. They did not speak for the rest of the trip.


My two friends and I met Ahmed on the train in Morocco from Rabat to Fès. Ahmed was middle-aged, skinny, snaggle-toothed — too much sugar in the mint tea — and extremely talkative. He was a nice man and we had three hours to kill. We heard about his nine siblings and his extended family of 45, who prevent him from selling his father’s riad since he can’t get everyone to sign the papers. Ahmed worked for the leather cooperative.

He wasn’t pushy but he gave us his number. When we called, he sent Abdul, who guided us to the tannery and gave us a tour of the medina, two hours, more than five miles, much of it uphill. He led us through the rat’s maze of streets and the crush of people and didn’t seem to mind that, although we bought leather, we didn’t buy anything else. A nice guy showing people his hometown. Good travel karma.


Bad travel karma can haunt you for years.

We were told by the guide in Zimbabwe that if charged by a lion, we must not run and we must not panic. We set off on foot through Matusadona on Lake Kariba. A female lion crossed the dry riverbed we were walking down. We stopped. She disappeared into the bush. We went on. She charged when we came even with her and her two cubs.

A charging lion makes a noise that shakes the earth, a growl that starts in the soles of your feet and travels to the back of your neck like a lightning striking. We all froze. The guide raised his gun but did not cock it. We stared at her. She stared at us. The guide whispered, “Back up.” We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. The guide scooped her up with one hand while still aiming at the lioness. The bride and groom did not speak for the rest of the trip. Bad travel karma is a bad start to a marriage.



Good travel karma can be accrued.

In Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, taxis are often shared. You give the driver your destination, but if there’s room, he may stop and pick up somebody else. Sometimes even if there’s not room. Cabs never use their meters and never have change. Pay it forward. How much for the lady in the front seat with the two gallons of olive oil?

A little global goodwill goes a long way, and you may earn so much good travel karma that your Airbnb host serves a lunch of tagine with fresh sardines and warm bread.

 

How to Accrue Good Travel Karma

  • Don’t give money to beggar children; give pencils.
  • Always give away leftovers.
  • Pack used clothes to trade at street markets in sub-Saharan Africa. They can be worn or sold. Used jeans, and you’re royalty for a day.
  • Pose for pictures with people. I am in the family albums of more Indian families than I can count, often with their children in my lap.

Karma goes around and it comes around, the original global energy. –Rebecca

20 Best Instagram Photos of 2016

You saw, you liked. Here are our best-rated travel photos on Instagram of last year.

 

Looking back, 2016 taught me the importance of staying connected to friends near and far. Seeking new perspectives to overcome hurdles and nurturing the labor of love Wally and I call the Not So Innocents Abroad.

Our hope is to share our experiences of other cities and other cultures. Whether exploring the unusual 161-year-old Dhundiraj Ganpati Mandir wooden Hindu temple in Baroda, India or asking our friends abroad to vocalize how they felt about the polarizing effects of the American election, we’re grateful for the role you’ve played and look forward to welcoming a year filled with optimism and new adventures.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

As the old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Predicting what makes one image more engaging than another can be difficult to determine and often, like art, is simply subjective.

From amazing destinations that include Cambodia, France, India and Morocco, here’s a look back at our most popular Instagrams of last year.

Follow us on Instagram — and be a part of the action! –Duke

1. If Aix-en-Provence, France doesn’t charm you with its markets, food and architecture, there is no shortage of magnificent elaborately hand-carved entry doors to look at.

2. The beautiful Italianate courtyard outside the Darbar Hall at Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, India.

3. Deco Darling. Tucked away in the Fès Medina, Morocco, is the beautiful Palais Amani. Originally owned by a prominent Fassi family of merchants, the majority of the residence was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after a landslide badly damaged the 17th century property.

4. The Café St. Regis was one of our favorite spots to enjoy breakfast when we visited Paris, France.

5. The façade of Notre Dame in Paris has many interesting details, but perhaps none as unique as the sculpture in the left portal holding his head. The statue is of St. Denis, said to have picked his head up after being decapitated and walked six miles, while preaching a sermon of repentance the entire way. If it takes me 45 minutes on the treadmill at 6 miles per hour, he would have walked an hour plus!

6. Both covered and open-air, the green metal pavilions from the 1900s form the charming flower market located on Place Louis Lépine in Paris, between the Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle chapel.

7. A view of the magnificent Rajon Ki Baoli stepwell in Delhi, India, built by Daulat Khan during the reign of Sikandar Lodi in 1516. Chambers located behind the arch-shaped niches once provided respite from the heat and a place for patrons to socialize.

8. One of the splendid staircases with its elegant wrought-iron railing inside the 18th century Hotel d’Albertas mansion in Aix-en-Provence, France. Embellishments such as these were a sign of family wealth intended to call out the social status of the owner.

9. Neptune wielding a trident riding on a fish by sculptor André Massoule on the Beaux-Arts Pont Alexandre III in Paris. A marvel of 19th century engineering, this bridge consists of a 20-foot-high single-span steel arch.

10. Musical Chairs. I was awestruck by the hypnotic symmetry of the rows of empty ladder-back chairs awaiting the devout at Saint Suplice in Paris. The ethereal Catholic church, located in the 6th arrondissement, is the second largest in Paris and it was in some movie called The Da Vinci Code. 😜

11. The enormous grooved stump of lime mortar and rubble masonry are all that remains of the unfinished Alai Minar in Delhi. The minaret was intended to rival the Qutb Minar in both size and scale, but was never completed.

12. Part of the Right Bank, this busy square located in Montmartre, Paris is known for its portrait artists and painters. During the Belle Époque, at the beginning of the 20th century, many artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh resided and worked here.

13. Fez was founded in 859 CE. The origin of the name is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the old Berber name of the Middle Atlas Mountains, Fazaz. Other stories trace the name back to a tale of a golden axe that divided the river of Fez into two halves. In Arabic, a fez is an axe.

14. Built by sculptor Jean-Claude Rambot and situated in the heart of the Mazarin district, the Fountain of the Four Dolphins in Aix supports an obelisk topped with a pineapple. We spent an afternoon here with our sketchbooks pretending we were bohemian artistes.

15. The stunning Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious monument in the world, was built by Khmer king Suryavarman II in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The complex has been in continuous use since it was built.

16. Benched. There is something beautiful in the patina of these benches in Aix Cathedral combined with the well-worn brick floor that has stood the test of time.

17. A Room With a View. Our grand suite at the Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur, India looked out onto the tranquil waters of Gaibsagar Lake, where the royal family’s private island temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva floats serenely.

18. Set in Stone. A white marble cenotaph lies at the center of Safdarjung’s tomb in Delhi.

19. Kittens and cats are a common sight among the streets of the Marrakech Medina in Morocco, indifferent to the activity around them. This little guy came to visit while we were sitting having coffee.

20. Louvre is in the air at Paris’ famous museum.

Hammam Spa Treatments

In which our correspondent bravely tests Turkish steam baths around the world to let you know exactly what to expect from a hammam and which are her favorites.

Turkish-style baths, or hammams, aren’t quite like this anymore

I was a bit nervous at first. Rebecca, one of the founders of the company I work for, called me into her office. As I took my seat, I saw a blurry photo of Rebecca with a massive smile on her face and asked where it was taken. Turns out it was on an African safari as she was jostled along in the back of an open vehicle. It was one of those exuberant moments you experience while traveling that bring you joy every time you recollect it.

Once I realized we shared a passion for travel, the conversation (and those that followed) came quickly and easily.

Except for my submission to heat, steam, merciless scrubbing and pelting cold showers, the world would never know where to obtain the cleanest, most open pores. In other words, it would be a smaller, grubbier place.

Having just returned from a trip to Morocco, Rebecca was kind enough to write up a couple of travel essays for us. The poor dear has suffered through numerous pamperings (and intense scrub-downs) on multiple continents to educate you on what exactly to expect from a hammam experience — and to tell you her favorites.  –Wally

 

Hammam Me

I have been to hammams in five countries. My patronage of sybaritic Turkish steam baths is not for my own enjoyment nor my need for yet more relaxation on a relaxing vacation. I once let a small, brown-skinned woman lash me with a sheaf of wet herbs while we squatted inside a pizza oven — and I paid her to do it.

I do this as a public service. Consider it my gift to humanity. Except for my submission to heat, steam, merciless scrubbing and pelting cold showers, the world would never know where to obtain the cleanest, most open pores. In other words, it would be a smaller, grubbier place.

A hammam, if you’ve never been in one, is a structure built of stone. Some are palatial — marble-lined rooms, floors, ceilings and walls — some are humble like the mud-brick pizza oven. There is a steamy heat source, maybe jets embedded in the ceiling, maybe water poured over hot bricks. You lie, naked (or with “disposable” underpants, which is as good as naked), on some stone surface which is itself warm, then hot. You close your eyes, at least in part to keep the sweat from running in them, and you wait. Maybe you doze.

Eventually, when your pores are at their most receptive, an attendant enters. (There are hammams that break the strictly unisex rule but they cater to tourists and are to be avoided just as you should avoid restaurants with pictures of the food instead of words on the menu.) The attendant has a loofah and sometimes a sponge. Attendants are large, with biceps like prizefighters and that same disapproving expression your mother had while bathing you after a tough day in the sand box. The small, brown-skinned woman was only the exception that proves the rule.

The attendant begins to scrub you with the loofah. It is a pitiless but thoroughly comforting experience. One human being performing an intimate personal service for another — again, bath time, mother and child, often with the requisite tsk-tsking.

The loofah may be followed by the sponge. Now you feel bathed rather than flayed. You skin begins to breathe again, to thank you for the detoxing.

Finally, the attendant rinses you, dipping a bowl into cooler and cooler water and pouring it over every inch of freshly excavated flesh.

That camel trek in the Atlas Mountains? A gritty puddle on the floor. That week of sunblock mixed with bug spray and safari dust? Circling the drain in a muddy swirl. All those dead skin cells unexfoliated in years of regular but admittedly perfunctory showers? Pilled up in a truly shameful way all over your body. All of it washed away, leaving nothing but new muffin tops from too much Turkish delight. You are as pink and soft as a newborn, appropriately swaddled in clean, dry towels.

Now comes the best part. The large woman hands you, somewhat literally, to another woman, smaller, lither, more nimble but with hands like a bricklayer’s, without the callouses. Let her knead your muscles but shake her hand at your peril. The massage lasts anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, according to my research. At some point, she will have to manually turn you over when you have reached the energy level of cooked pasta.

The only possible post-hammam activity is a nap. Try to avoid sucking your thumb and curling into the fetal position.

All I have to say for this exhaustive, entirely altruistic research: You’re welcome.
 

Rebecca’s Hammam Superlatives

Most beautiful hammam: Istanbul, Turkey

Best towels: Cairo, Egypt (Egyptian cotton)

Best soap: Fès, Morocco (black eucalyptus)

Best scrub: Agadir, Morocco (stern Berber woman)

Best sponges: Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (harvested just offshore)

Best aromatherapy: Oaxaca, Mexico (herbs from the garden)

Best massage: Oaxaca

Close second: Siem Reap, Cambodia (not strictly speaking a hammam, but the whole country is so humid, you can get the effect anytime you’re outside)

Most confusing: Pizza oven

Chocolate Mousse With Espresso and Ras el Hanout Recipe

This chocolate and espresso mousse just awaits its topping with ras el hanout

This standout Moroccan dessert comes straight from the chef of the Ruined Garden in Fès.

 

During our trip to Fès we dined at the Ruined Garden twice. On our first visit, we did not save room for dessert, but when we returned, we chose the Chocolate & Espresso Mousse with Ras el Hanout. We were not disappointed. The mousse was the perfect size, too: little pots of rich, velvety mousse deliciousness with an unexpected exotic finish.

Ras el hanout is a complex and distinctive North African spice mix. The name is Arabic for “head of the shop” or “top shelf” and consists of a combination of the best spices the merchant has to offer. Each shop has its own blend, the quantities of which vary according to the maker.

I wrote to chef Robert Johnstone, who shared the recipe with us — and gave us the kind permission to run it on our blog. He makes 17 at a time, and the day before he serves them, he puts them in the fridge to set for a few hours. I scaled the recipe down and converted from metric to U.S. measurements.

 

Chocolate & Espresso Mousse With Ras el Hanout


Special Equipment

8 (3-ounce) small espresso glasses or cups. Small is best, as the mousse is very rich.
Saucepan
Measuring cup for pouring the mousse into the glasses or cups

Yield: Makes 8 servings
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours to overnight



Ingredients

• 2 cups heavy cream
• 1½ to 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
• pinch of salt
• 7 ounces 72% chocolate
• 3.5 ounces 52% chocolate
• 2 shots of strong espresso
• ras el hanout
 

Preparation

Heat the cream in a pan. Once it is just about to boil, turn off the heat and add all of the chocolate, espresso and instant espresso powder.

Cover the pan and leave for 5 minutes or until the chocolate has melted fully into the cream. Then mix slowly but thoroughly. Try not to whip, as if you do the mixture will have bubbles — not a major problem, but they may spoil the finish.

Once you think all is mixed, check by lifting the spoon out and looking at the texture on the back of the spoon. If you can see small grains of chocolate, the finished mousse will be grainy, so you should mix for a little longer, and the bits will disappear.

While still hot, carefully pour the mixture into the glasses (we took Robert's advice to sprinkle a tiny bit of salt into the bottom of each glass in advance). Fill as close to the top as you can.

Leave to cool a little, then put into the fridge overnight or for at least 3 hours.

Finish with a dusting of any spice mixture you fancy as long as there’s a little pepper or heat — though we recommend ras el hanout, of course. You’re ready to serve!

They keep for a week in the fridge.

Note: You can make with all 72% chocolate, though you may need to add a little sugar to the hot cream. –Duke

Photos of the Fes Medina That Will Take You to Another World

Fez, Morocco’s old city is an often intense, often beautiful experience. These pictures only begin to tell the story.

 

Fès is a city like no other. You could say that, I suppose, about many cities. But Fès is the real deal. The old part of the city is entirely car-free, and consists of a maze-like series of narrow, enclosed walkways. You literally never know what lies around the next corner: a gorgeous zelij tilework fountain, a bunch of roosters tied to a cage, a butcher stall marked by a decapitated camel head, a young man sitting in the faded beauty of a crumbling doorway, a donkey laden with Moroccan textiles or, of course, kitties! Lots and lots of kitties! –Wally

Fès was like the stairwells at Hogwarts. I’m convinced the roads shifted behind me.
— Greg, a friend and fellow traveler