A Blog-u-mentary
about one family's experience moving from a
tropical Caribbean paradise
to another type of paradise in the
heart of Provence.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lunch on the Farm

Goat farm extraordinaire
SIVERGUES - Today's lazy French lunch was a simple affair but in a stunning setting: Le Ferme et Auberge Le Castelas in the one-horse town of Sivergues, nestled away in a far corner of the Luberon. It's a town of no more than a few hundred people and reportedly the highest-elevated inhabited village in the Luberon. Once you find it (no easy task - it's at the end of a rugged dirt track that is marked Do Not Enter, that's the culmination of winding mountain road that dead-ends in Sivergues), the joint is literally on  a goat farm and you sit picnic table style outside the main house (there are also a few guest rooms available), or down yonder in the field underneath the sprawling trees - and amongst the wandering goats and pigs, who don't seem a bit bothered that they are part of the attraction, in more than one way.

The family chows down on the farm
The friendly staff, complete with resident sheep dog who splits his time between snooping around the tables and rounding up the goats and pigs, quickly serves up the home made fare: fresh goat cheese (merci madame chevre), a charcuterie of ham (a bientot monsieur cochon), quintessential French bread and a jar of rose. And that's it (oh, a slice of pear pie for dessert)- but that's enough. The idyllic setting overlooking the mountains and fields and the casual mix of animals and people are a great experience. Not to mention the drive to get there. We enjoyed listening to the staff, which appeared to be literally one big family, sing American pop songs and carry on an easy banter with the few customers who joined us on this Thursday afternoon.
This lucky pig lives to see another day. Looks like he doesn't miss many meals

Note to self - always remember to bring cash to these remote country gems. No cards taken - we barely scraped by (25 euros an adult), borrowing some hard-earned euros from the kids.

The goats are part of the main course, the entertainment, and your friendly dining companions, too.
Speaking of kids - great place to bring some. The loved running around with the animals, who are quite domesticated and even don't mind joining you for a bite.

A shout-out to our new friends from the Tasty Touring blog. Jodi and Adam, who just got engaged in Paris during their European vacation, are from Austin and stumbled into Le Castelas at the same we arrived. They were intrigued by our Texas license plates and we struck up a nice conversation and compared tasting notes. We gave them some dining recommendations in Aix (Mitch, Poivre d'Ane) and Cassis (Bonaparte, bien sur!), where they go next, as part of trip they won from Whole Food stores in Texas. May our paths cross again and we'll add you to the blog roll!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pablo's Place

VAUVENARGUES -- Of all the great artists who have called Provence home over the years, perhaps the most famous is a non-Frenchman - Pablo Picasso. Pablo, who shunned his native Spain when Franco came to power, was one of those rare artists who actually made money while he was still alive, and he seemed like he wasn't shy about spending it. He plunked down some coin late in life to buy an old chateau in the hills above Aix, in a village called Vauvenargues. Reportedly he bought it for the spectacular views of Sainte Victoire which so inspired one his early painter heroes, Cezanne, himself a legend in these parts.

"I just bought Sainte Victore," he bragged to his friends when he bought the 13 century fixer-upper. Well, not quite but he got a nice piece of it. Needless to say his wife of the day, Jacqueline - 40 years his junior (Pablo was nothing if not a playah) - must have been suitably impressed after she got over the shock of the cost of window treatments.

He actually only lived there for two years before health issues forced him to retreat back to the coast near Cannes to spend his final days. But he'll spend eternity there now, planted right outside the front entrance beneath a cool looking statue (where he was later joined by Jacqueline many years after she got finished spending his money).

Only recently has the house, which his step-daughter still uses from time to time as her personal residence (pourquoi pas?), been open to the public. It's a vintage French chateau, albeit a little short on accoutrements and ostentatious decorations that typify other such dwellings. Apparently, Pablo got a pretty good deal on it because it was unfurnished and he didn't have a lot of time to fully pimp it out. But it does offer some neat glimpses into the life of the genius, with hundreds of sketches and early stage works, plus his private living quarters and studio. And the revenue from the 15 euro tours probably keep Pablo's kids and grandchildren comfortable in their lifestyles

Ah, but desole - no cameras allowed. So you'll have to be satisfied by the shot from a distance, from the village center, which by the way, has a nice little cafe to enjoy a pastis and wonder if PP did the same back in the day.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lavender ladies

The prerequisite lavender shot with the abbey in the background.
Complete with the prerequisite Japanese tourists in the background
GORDES - We caught the lavender just as it was starting to bloom outside the famous Abbey Notre Dame de Senanque. The abbey itself is a very moving place to visit, dating back to 1148 and still an active monastery (which is partially funded by the monks' cultivating of the lavender). It's located just a few clicks from the breathtaking hilltop village of Gordes, which is a regular stop on our tours of Provence with visitors. This time our Irish friends Ike and Rose and their kids Lucy and David were the victims...er beneficiaries. After a lazy French lunch in Gordes we navigated our way down the steep incline to Senanque and the abbey,  and explored for a while.
Toni dressed to complement the natural beauty
Lindsey, Lucy & Lavender

Nice place to live if you don't like talking much

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Not exactly French classicists

Cezanne, Van Gogh and Renoir

This part of France is well known for its famous painters. There is no danger of us joining that list at anytime soon.

This Sunday was spent helping some friends paint their new old house they just bought. It's actually quite a house - more than 200 years old and 7 bedrooms in total, located near St. Remy de Provence (the town where, ironically, Van Gogh spent his final days in a mental institution). They hope to convert it into a B&B. 

Before we got to work, a suitably French lunch was in order, complete with aperitif, served around the only furniture in the house (bearing in mind they house has no kitchen appliances - Stephanie cooked over the open fireplace), and a tour of the expansive grounds. Then we all set to work painting one of the guest rooms. Lindsey, Savannah and Clarice were in charge of the lower portions of the room, while the adults did the rest. We knocked it off in about an hour and half, with a minimal mess.

Van Gogh rests easily tonight.  

This totally mundane blog post is partially to let you know that our life in France is not all about galavanting all over Europe and beyond, eating fine cuisine and drinking good wine. We actually have many more decidedly ordinary experiences

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Knocking 'em out with her American thighs

Leave it to the Americans to get the joint jumping
AIX en PROVENCE - A fun night out at a strangely out-of-place restaurant/club setup just outside Aix. Red Peppers is located just off the highway, in true roadhouse fashion, and has kind of a funky Southwestern US/Tex-Mex theme going on. Random American sports paraphenelia, requisite US license plates, and a sampling of other classic Americana from the Elvis Presley and Route 66 eras adorn the walls.

Was Deion ever in the house?
We arrived relatively early (8:15) on a Friday night. Our French friends, Stephanie and Eric, thought this would be an appropriate spot to take their four American friends (our US pals Audrey and Dave also join us). The Cadillac on the roof was an interesting welcome as we entered the otherwise empty restaurant, with just the band, who would take the stage later, sitting at the bar.The menus are printed on old albums, which is a pretty cool touch and the selection features mainly hamburgers, Mexican food (Gallic style) and crazy cocktails. Decidedly un-French.  Corona and Bud are surprisingly available (a rarity in France) and they even have Mexican wine(?).
Straight off Route 66
The meal was uneventful, and my Jack Daniels-flavored Burger was the highlight.

The band quietly took the stage - two guitarists and a drummer - as we ordered up a second bottle of wine and more beer. A mixed bag of a crowd slowly files in and by the time the music starts it's a fairly full house, made up of young, double-dating couples, a few older folks (including an interesting family consisting of a guy in a 38 Special T Shirt, his wife sporting a matching black AC/DC model, and their young daughter fetching them beers from the bar), and, definitely out of context, Savannah's French teacher.

The band, called Who's Next, rips through some OK covers of various UK and American rocks songs, most dating back into the 70s and 60s (we have to Google on the iPhone to figure out who the original artists are on a few of them - Free did "All Right Now," in case you are wondering, and Nat King Cole did the original 'Route 66"). Renditions of The Stones, The Who, AC/DC (older wife lady in the black T likes this) and others are performed in perfect English, although I get the sneaking suspicion the band really doesn't speak English. They occasionally work in a classic French sing-song number, and everyone happily joins is (except us). The height of European multi-culturalism occurs when they cover Santana's "Oye Como Va": Latin Rock in a American bar performed by French musicians in the heart of Provence. The mostly French audience seems to enjoy, and even somewhat recognize, most of the tunes, but other than the French classics (I think there were 2?), don't really sing along or get up and dance.

That's left to the ugly Americans who eventually create an ad hoc dance floor near the stage, to the somewhat perplexed reaction of the band. The three girls in our group shake their groove thing and get amused glances from the audience. Toni then insists on the band playing Bruce Springsteen, which they politely decline (three times) each time she yells up to them. They finally offer up a half-hearted attempt at the Black Eye Peas as a consolation.

All in all, a nice little American night out and not a bad hamburger...and Toni assures us Savannah is a shoo-in for an A in French after working her French teacher for a good part of the night.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A day at the races

PURYICARD -- The European cycling season opened this week, and the kick-off event is the Paris-Nice race, "The Race to the Sun." Cycling is pretty much the national sport here in France (especially with the demise of the national soccer team), and even with the recent doping issues it faces, it's hugely popular. Even more so now that we've gotten rid of that pesky American guy Armstrong who kept making off with our yellow jerseys.

A rare display of fatigue
It's a cool sport because the races come through dozens of small French towns throughout the summer - with the Tour de France being the granddaddy of them all every July - and you get to see the athletes up close and personal. Little villages transform into the center of the sports universe for a few hours, either as the starting point or finish line for a daily stage. It's quite an honor for a town to host a stage of a race, and fortunately nearby Puryicard is the critical 5th stage in Paris-Nice this year.

It's an extra bonus because today's stage is a 'sprint' or time trial, which means the riders race individually instead of in the huge pack normally seen in these races. In a time trial, each rider starts by himself and they are staged in 30-second intervals from the starting point. They then race against the clock to the finish line, which on this day was a 27-kilometer ride through the vineyards just north of where we live (27 kilometers is a long sprint by my definition). In this format, the finish line is a busy place for about 3 hours as riders cross one at time vs. the massive rush to the tape of a typical stage. Apparently, the time trial stage is the most important stage in a short event like this one (7 days) and the winner of today's stage will likely win the overall race.

I was expecting a larger winner's stand
I arrive early and find a spot about 50 meters from the finish line. The first of about 160 riders has just left the tiny village of of Rognes, 27 kilometers away, and will arrive here in about 36 minutes. While the race has clearly taken over the town center with barricades and police everywhere, I expected a bit more fanfare at the finish. There is a smaller-than-expected winner's stand, a few VIP boxes and an announcer rattling off the standing and information on the riders. A sound system booms American pop rock between each rider's introductions, and a large screen broadcasts the TV feed of the race so you can see the start and the finish at the same time. A parking lot full of the team cars and vans provides some colorful distractions and a chance to see the equipment they use up close.

I had a ring-side seat at the finish
The big screen makes it easy to see the entire race
One by one the riders whizz past my vantage point at a surprising speed. The faster ones have caught the rider who started ahead of them, but almost none of them look like the past half hour has been an extraordinary exertion of any kind. I suppose compared to the other stages, which are often much hillier and quite a bit longer, this must be welcome respite from the grind. Still, after riding balls-out for the past 30-odd minutes, you'd expect to see a little more sweat and panting.

About halfway through the day, a German rider named Tony Martin sails past me and lowers the day's best time by quite a bit. His time stands as best for the rest of the day. This will vault him to the leader in the overall standings, earning him the coveted yellow jersey for the next day. And he is in prime position now to win the whole shooting match on Sunday.

Let the roadies take the stage
The crowd gets bigger as the afternoon progresses, helped in part by the early dismissal of schools kids from the town. They line the final stretch and bang on the metal sideboards each time a rider approaches. I wander around a bit through the area where the riders finish, take their obligatory piss test for drugs, and then mount their bikes on the team cars for transport to the next stage. Even with this short stage taking just a few hours (compared to an all day ordeal of a full stage), I see that this is a grind of a sport: get up early, carbo-load, race, load the bike and equipment, get to the next town, carbo load, sleep and do it all over again.

An American sponsored team; Radio Shack and Trek
Not your father's Schwinn: Tony Martin's fast wheels

I leave with a new found appreciation for the guys who do this sport. They are clearly are some of the best conditioned athletes of any kind, almost mechanical in their ability (and why cycling would be ripe for performance enhancing drugs). It's an endurance sport for sure, but these guy are fast, too, as my ring side seat showed me. I tried to take pictures of each rider who passed by me (less than a few feet away) and probably only captured 20% of the ones I attempted with any kind of decent image.

Off into Friday afternoon traffic just like me

It's a fascinating, colorful sport and I can kinda see why the French are fanatical about it, the same way I can kinda see why they like to drink Pastis. I know I will never fully comprehend or appreciate it, but I don't mind going along for the ride.

As I drive home in Friday afternoon traffic, I see many of the team cars heading south toward the start of tomorrow's stage. The one thing I have to wonder about is the daily monotony of it. But I am sure the French say the same about baseball.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Monkeying around in Marrakesh

Me and the boys hangin' in the 'Kesh: 10 euros please.
MARRAKESH, Morocco - After being delayed a week by some ungodly French virus that struck down both me and Savannah - and still being a bit hesitant to venture too close to places actively involved in social media-inspired uprisings - we headed to the mysterious city of Marrakesh. I say mysterious partly because where it is located - or even that it exists in anything other than a 70s song lyric to begin with - was a mystery to most of the people we told we were going (mainly our US friends, I have to admit). But also because it was our first venture as a family to the Dark Continent. The uprisings in many of the nearby places of the Arab world only added to the intrigue.

The old: Luggage transport into the old city
It was a wholly eye-opening but uneventful trip (in terms of civil unrest - the closest we came to a protest was our hot air balloon trip almost being canceled because the king was due to arrive in town that day).

The new: A surprisingly modern airport

Marrakesh is a city classically divided between old and new, and quite literally so, as became immediately evident when you enter the walls of the old city, the Medina. You can't help but notice because the taxi from the quite modern airport deposits you just outside one of the city gates, and from there you hoof it to your riad (small, elegantly adorned B&B style accommodations, of which there a hundreds). There are plenty of guides available to help you navigate the impossible maze of streets and alleys that make up the Medina and show you to your destination. They even wheel your luggage, and in our case, your youngest daughter, in their carts.

The Riad was our sanctuary from the chaos of the souks
Upon arrival at the riad we are greeted by Mohammed and Hamain, two local chaps who couldn't be more helpful and polite. As previously arranged, they have prepared a dinner for us (lamb and couscous - two staples that will fuel us the entire week). They first offer us drinks in one of the cozy little nooks on the riad's ground floor. Hamain politely lowers the techno-sounding Arabic music coming for a boom box in one of the other lobby rooms. The riad has just six sleeping rooms so it's kind of like being in someone's house.

I give you best price
Magic Potion Man
Marrakesh is really a different worlds in all senses. We spend some time the next day exploring the Medina and the souks (the local markets), which one can imagine are not much different than the days of Ali Babba. Naturally, we get ripped off within the first half hour of our bargain hunting by a tag-team of leather bag salesmen. We get suckered into a couple of handbags (but we do get a complementary drink of tea out of the deal). Our salesman/tea guy then leads us to one of many 'magic potion shops" (as Savannah coined them). They are like old world pharmacies with all sorts of concoctions in glass containers lining the walls, and barrels of other stuff like frankinsense and crystal chips, all holding mysterious secret remedies to any sort of ailment you might have. We bought Lindsey some powder to snort before bed that supposedly will cure her snoring problem.

Lindsey learns some local culture
Snake charmer
Call me Indiana Jones
We wandered through the souks for awhile, and ultimately ended up at the center of the Medina - the Djema el Fna, the legendary trading center made famous by the Berbers, the ancient civilization that settled this area. It's a bustling hive of activity all day and night, and plenty of people are waiting to separate you from your dirams (local currency). Upon entering the sprawling square, I was immediately approached by a couple of snake handlers, who felt compelled to adorn me with their pets. They then ushered me quickly to the center of a large crowd who had been attracted by the sound of iconic snake-charming music that permeates the entire square. I am in full Clark Griswald mode now. While juggling a couple of the smaller snakes who were crawling around my head and shoulders ("No worry - not poisonous" the handlers repeatedly assured me), I turned to find myself face to face with a very poisonous looking cobra, who as gently swaying to the rhythm of the horn-playing bedouin next to him. One of the robed dudes quickly grabbed by phone and snapped a bunch of pictures, demonstrating amazing technical dexterity with a Blackberry for someone who lives in the middle of the desert. It was all over in less than a minute and 200 dirams (the fee they collected as I worked my way way from the crowd).

By this time I had lost the girls, only to find them when an apparently bisexual Arab he-she person grabbed me and directed me to the three of them and another woman sitting calmly on the ground about 100 yards from my snake experience. They were getting henna applied to their hands and none of them looked too happy about it. They were even less happy when they were coerced into paying a 70 euro tab for the handy artwork.

We managed to collect ourselves and wander to the far side of the square that looked to be free from snakes. There, I quickly found myself in the possession of two monkeys. Don't ask me how, but they almost magically appeared in my arms, nearly as quickly as the owners held out their hats for the "picture fee" for this session of Wild Kingdom.

The great henna rip off scheme (note he-she in background)
OK, no more animal attractions. We agreed and moved on, with luckily no gift shop to pass through as we exited the square.

Truth be told Marrakesh is not as crazy a place as it appears at first glance. And we found it extremely safe. Once you get a sense of the pace, it's very manageable, although we never did quite figure out how to navigate the labyrinth of the souks (there's always a local guide lingering in the shadows who will get you from Point A to Point B). Like most of the Arab world, it's a nonstop haggle-fest in Marrakesh and everything is negotiable. It can be fun and tiring at the same time, but by the end we felt satisfied we weren't getting totally screwed on the tea pots and artwork we couldn't live without.

Savannah looks for magic slippers
The food was good but not totally as exotic as I had expected (probably a good thing with me coming off my killer stomach virus). We had a few nice dinners in the Medina, including an overpriced 'authentic' Moroccan dinner, complete with belly dancers (the multi-room, sub ground level restaurant itself was impressive). We got to explore the new city, too, and even enjoyed drinks at the Le Churchill Bar, one of the top 20 bars in the world as ranked by World's Best Bars (how do I get a job with that outfit?). It's inside the very posh  Mamounia Hotel, and is a dark-paneled lounge adorned with picture of jazz greats that describes itself as having an "atmosphere that is appealingly old world, a throw back to a more civilized time." The prices were a bit less than civilized as our afternoon drinks cost us almost as much as dinner with the belly dancers that night.

Deep in the souks
We found our Riad (Riad Dix-Neuf) to be a relaxing retreat from the chaos of the souks. The room was surprisingly spacious and comfortable, and the the service was excellent. Breakfast every morning on the roof top terrace was a highlight- fresh squeezed juices, strong coffee and just-baked breads. The staff was at our beck and call and it was really one of our more enjoyable hotel experiences ever.

The whole trip was a great experience for all of us, especially the kids who got to see a completely different culture. Being awakened at 5AM by the eerie call to prayer will stick in their minds for a long time. And, without getting too philosophical, they got to see first hand that even though people may look, dress and sound a while lot different than us, there is also a lot of common ground between us. Ground that unfortunately gets lost as we get older and "wiser."

View from our rooftop terrace

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Marrakesh by Air

Marrakesh’s famed Medina is oddly quiet at 6AM, an hour after the first of the five daily ‘calls to prayer’ has been broadcast over hundreds of loudspeakers throughout the walled city. Most everyone seems to have gone back to bed after performing their obligations, and only a few scattered robed figures shuffle through the dark alley ways.  The hustle and bustle of the souks and the famed Djemaa el-Fna square is still hours away from springing to full chaotic vibrancy. 

We make our way to the nearest entry gate separating the walled city from the more modern Ville Nouvelle. It’s only about 500 meters from the entrance to our Riad (Raid Dix Neuf La Ksour), which is highly recommend both for its location and well as service and comfort) but the wall separates two different worlds. 

This where we are to meet Lina, who will transport us to the launch point for a sunrise balloon ride with her company, Marrakesh By Air. She arrives promptly with a cheery smile and a warm Japanese SUV, which we gratefully jump into to escape the early morning chill. Lina, a Moroccan by birth but raised in Belgium, navigates her way through the empty streets of the new city and we are quickly on a narrow highway that dissects the desert that begins on the outskirts of the town. We drive for about 45 minutes, learning a bit about the history of both her company and her country, as we speed in the general direction of the Atlas Mountains, the stunning snow capped natural backdrop to the centuries-old man made chaos of Marrakesh.

In the darkness Lina finds an unmarked dirt tack turnoff and exits the paved highway. We wind our way through barren desert and dried riverbeds until we come upon a lone earthen structure in complete darkness. The only sign of a connection to the modern world is a large propane gas tank, as various critters wander about the connected low rise buildings. It’s a Berber house, a residence of a family from one of the world’s oldest know civilizations.

Sunrise: Atlas Mountains
Lina backs up the SUV to a garage-like building and three figures quietly emerge from the shadows to quickly hitch the trailer to the back of the SUV. We pull away from the small compound and drive another ten minutes through the scrub just as the sun peaks over the peaks of the Atlas Range (which contains Africa’s second highest point at 4300 meters, after Mount Kilimanjaro). 

A small bonfire attracts us to an open area and Lina positions the trailer in the middle of it. Within minutes a worn Land Rover joins us, and the same crew that hitched the trailer begins busily unloading it, assembling our balloon for a sunrise departure. We join a few other guests who had arrived in the Land Rover, snacking on a light breakfast as we watch the balloon inflate in the disappearing darkness. Captain Hamid, the affable Belgian-trained pilot and owner of the operations (and Lina’s husband) introduces himself, and gives a quick overview of the flight plan.

The balloon fully inflated, we clamber into its four compartments, ten of us in total, plus the captain who gets his own compartment from which to operate the surprisingly simple-looking mechanisms which will guide our flight – a couple of handles and switches to regulate the helium and a few ropes, plus a hand held radio to guide the ground crew to our landing spot (which is apparently unknown even to the captain at this point).
Once Lina has taken the obligatory departure photos and Hamid has given us the briefest of safety instructions (a quick drill on the ‘crash’ position in the event of  a rough landing), we lift off quickly. The captain expertly controls the helium mechanism that not only gives us elevation but warms the basket each time he gives it a spurt. In short order we are at a couple thousand feet over the desert, giving us a dramatic view of the random patchwork of  multi-color earth tones, interrupted by irrigated stretches of green, various Berber houses, farms and animal pens, and all connected by a simple network of dirt tracks.

Captain Hamid
It’s eerily quiet as we glide over the sprawling landscape, the silence only interrupted by the occasional blast of helium and Captain’s Hamid’s witty commentary. He’s not just the captain, he’s the star of the show and keeps us entertained the entire 45 minute flight.
We can see the skyline of Marrakesh in the distance rising abruptly from the flatness of the desert, and dominated by the Koutoubia Minaret, the iconic mosque in the center of the old city. The captain advises us that today’s flight was in jeopardy because of a planned visit by King Mohammed VI, the ruler of Morocco. His presence would mean that all air traffic around the city is limited, and private craft – including balloons - are grounded for security reasons. But his majesty had graciously delayed his visit by a day, so our trip goes as scheduled, although Hamid will be grounded for the next several days while the King oversees the openings of a new hospital and roads. 

We glide along at a surprisingly brisk 45kilometers per hour ground speed, hardly the Marrakesh Express but at the brink of being almost too windy for an enjoyable trip, according to Hamid. For the most part weather conditions are ideal in this part of the world for ballooning for a good portion for year – the hot desert summers keep them grounded from June to September.  On this day, the trip will be shorter than normal because the wind pushes us along faster and we have to land within a designated area.
Our horizontal landing
The captain doesn't miss anything
Hamid prepares us for his signature ‘touch and go’ pre-landing routine, where he drops the balloon to just above ground level, scrapes it long the desert floor, then elevates again. As we recover from that act, we notice the two vehicles speeding toward us in the distance, two dust balls growing larger as we again descend to the agreed upon landing spot Hamid has radioed to them. The actual landing is a bit more gentle upon first touch, but steadying the balloon to a full stop proves to be a challenge we hadn’t considered. The crew tries to stabilize the basket as the wind tugs on the balloon above us. Hamid prepares us for the inevitable, invoking the crash command, and the basket rolls gently 90 degrees, leaving us all in a suspended horizontal position. We have to crawl and shimmy out of basket, but not before Hamid and Lina have collected all our cameras and joyfully snap pictures of us awkwardly squirming out on to the desert floor. “A Ryan Air landing,” Hamid declares. 

As the crew deflates and packs the balloon almost as quickly as they assembled it, Hamid signs our official flight certificates to great fanfare and applause. We load into vehicles, and this time we drive with Hamid in the Land Rover. He is dying to show me his other touch-and-go trick – while driving through an empty field, he jumps out of the moving Land Rover and runs alongside it while we continue bumping along, driverless, over the barren wheat fields. After a short run, he climbs back in to appreciative laughter, and a sign of relief from the two Japanese tourists in the back of the truck.
Certified fliers

We head back to the Berber house, with Hamid enjoying games of chicken on the narrow highways with each on-coming vehicle. He wins each time. Once at the house a generous spread of fresh baked breads and other simple local delicacies, fresh squeezed fruit juices, tea and fruits awaits us. They all hit the spot and we marvel to ourselves at what we have already achieved by 8AM. The Berber family that lives here have apparently struck something of a pot of gold with their arrangement with Hamid and Lina – they not only provide jobs for the three men who serve as the crew, but the company has helped spruce up their home a bit, including the addition of a new kitchen with gas powered oven and solar powered lights (no electricity in these parts). In exchange the women serve us breakfast, and allow us to tour their simple but comfortable dwelling. It’s an eye opening experience and a true insight into a whole other way of life.

A traditional Berber breakfast
The 'old' kitchen at the Berber house
Lina explains that the Berbers are very family-oriented and the sons, one of whom in our crew is soon to be married, will stay in the same house their whole lives, bringing their wives to the compound as they get married. In total 13 family members live in this particular home, with the matriarch being a gentle women of about 80 years. She has recently lost her husband, who died at close to 100, so Nina asks us to not interrupt he mourning by taking pictures of her. Nonetheless the woman greets us warmly, proudly shows us how her new lights work in the new kitchen, and caringly caresses Lindsey's cheek.

After breakfast and a tour of the compound, we pile in the vehicles and head back toward Marrakesh, but not before a stop just outside of the old town in the upscale Palmerie area (where many celebrities have homes and there are upscale hotels and golf courses). Here we will take a traditional camel ride.  We all mount the docile beasts, and get to meet three of the newest members of the clan who were born just three weeks ago. They tag along our walk through one of Marrakesh’s  several parks, in an enjoyable but unadventurous tour.
Savannah rode the Mom, with the kids in tow

Lindsey & Toni take the lead
Hamid and Lina pride themselves on the personal service and view into local life and culture that their operation provides. It is true – Marrakesh by Air is more than just about the balloon ride, although that certainly is the most memorable aspect of it. Back at our riad by 11AM we felt like we had put in a full day, and had gained a unique view into Berber life as much as we enjoyed the views from Hamid’s balloon.