By Barbara Norton, GM GroupsOnly by Goway
In March of this year, I had the pleasure of leading a small group of women on a trip to Spain and Morocco. I designed our itinerary to embrace many of the things these women are passionate about: food & wine, wellness, and, of course, shopping and nightlife! The tour was dubbed “Mystical & Mesmerizing,” and it lived up to its name, plus so much more.
We landed in Spain’s capital, Madrid, at the height of a raging rain and wind storm. Our dreams of escaping Canada’s last gasps of winter were not looking good. After a good night’s sleep, we happily woke up to clearing skies, mild temperatures, and grumbling stomachs, so we welcomed our first Spanish breakfast with much glee: tostadas, tortillas, olives, breads smothered in tomato, olive oil and garlic paste, sweet churros, and lots of coffee! Each breakfast in Spain had similar selection, but the star was the ubiquitous potato/egg omelet It showed up at breakfasts, lunches, and even at some dinners. All a bit different and some better than others! By the end of our Spanish adventure we had all became experts on what makes a tasty tortilla! In Morocco, the breakfast cornerstone is bread and lots of it: white bread, flatbreads, semolina pancakes, and cookies all accompanied by jugs of fresh squeezed orange juice and bigger jugs of mint tea!
And then there are the dinners. Tapas and paellas in Spain. Mezes and tagines in Morocco. Ham, Pork and seafood rule the plate in Spain while in Morocco, chicken, lamb and couscous are the mainstays. The gals ate it all and even the ‘pickier’ ones did not hesitate to “try everything once.” No one hesitated when the wine was poured, especially in Spain where wine, like water, tea, and coffee, is a staple of the meal. The after effects was always a giggling group of gals wanting to know more about local food culture and preparation, so what better way than to attend cooking classes and get the whole ‘farm-to- plate’ experience?
In Spain, this meant meeting our chef in the heart of Barcelona just off Las Ramblas for a visit to the massive Boqueria Market. What a place! Aisle after aisle of food stalls filled to the brim with cheeses, meats, veggies, sweets, fish, and seafood. After a bit of bartering, our chef had his supplies and off we went to his amazing loft retreat kitchen for an afternoon of cooking and eating all accompanied by copious amounts of wine. In Morocco, our ‘lesson’ was conducted by our tour host, Alain Bennouna, who just happens to have owned three Moroccan inspired restaurants in New York in his past life before becoming an inbound Moroccan Tour Operator. What a feast he prepared for us in his kitchen in the heart of Marrakech! Seafood mezes, vegetarian tagine, saffron infused couscous, and a light yogurt cream dessert to top it all off, and, yes, wine from start to finish!
When not learning how to cook, we were savouring the delicacies at popular local restaurants in each of the cities we visited. Having pre-booked dinner reservations is key to a well-run, successful group travel experience with no line ups, no waiting, and no stress! In Spain and Morocco, the slow-paced dinners become the nightlife. Every night was a foodie’s delight, but our favorites in Spain were the Abades Triana Restaurant in Sevilla, where we sat in a private room gazing through magnificent panoramic windows at the Guadalquivir River and the flood-lit Golden Tower on its far bank. We were also treated to a demonstration of a true Spanish creation, the intense and very emotional Flamenco dance that took our breaths away. In Barcelona, we headed to the hills and dined at the Mirabe Restaurant with glorious views of the city below.
The choices of food at each were stunning. For starters: sun-ripened tomato gazpacho, creamy smooth olive-infused salmorejo, warm chickpea salad, and crispy fried eggplant; for mains: Iberian pork stew, meatballs with almond & saffron sauce, and marinated white fish; For dessert: orange slices drizzled in olive oil and cinnamon, fresh fruit salad and puff filled pastries.
In Morocco our ‘Welcome’ and ‘Farewell’ dinners were just as exceptional. We arrived into Marrakech, and, after settling in to our historic Riad in the Medina, we headed to the mosaic-laced Ksar El Hamra Palace for our first taste of Arabia: olives and bread, meat stuffed pastries, kebabs and tapenades and these were just the starters. Next came olive and preserved lemon chicken tagine, harissa spiced vegetables and couscous, all ending with yogurt cream and fruit, accompanied by the wispy movements of a lone belly dancer swaying to the wafting strings of Arabian music. Our farewell dinner in Casablanca was a totally different experience, but just as magical. Our restaurant of choice was the iconic Rick’s Café, a recreation of the restaurant/piano bar made famous in the 1942 film Casablanca. The restaurant’s stunning attention to detail is reflected in the era-specific furniture, décor, lighting, arched room dividers, and overall ambience. The menu choices hearken back to the 40s with beef, seafood, and chicken dishes, Caesar salad, cheesecake, and apple pie, all served by friendly Bogart-inspired waiters. With “As Time Goes By” playing in the background and our wine glasses full, our final dinner was indeed special.
With all the food we were eating, our plan was to counter our culinary indulgences with our own ‘wellness’ program and visit spas in each country. In Spain, our choice was the luxurious Aire Spa in the heart of Sevilla, known for its soothing hot pools and Swedish massage treatments. In Morocco, our choice was the elaborate Les Bains de Marrakech, an authentic Arab Hamam, for a real cleansing and cultural experience. Picture this: bathing suits not an option, steam rooms of solid marble dripping with water, cold showers in between, women scrubbing our bodies head to toe and in between with what seemed like brillo pads, bodies lubricated with Argon oil and more showering all before settling in for 45-minute gentle massages. Keep in mind that, although the spa experience is a wonderful way to embrace the culture and meet the locals (I had a great chat with my masseuse), they are not for everyone so best to offer these as an optional experience, especially when planning a group itinerary.
While the spa treatments were optional, shopping on our group tour was obviously a must! The challenge is to find a good balance of sightseeing and shopping so neither one is compromised. Leaving some half days or full days free is always a good idea. One of the great joys of travel is to just walk and explore the nooks and crannies of each town. The smaller cities of Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada were perfect for these strolls through narrow, cobbled streets filled with boutiques, cafes and market squares. In Barcelona, the famous Las Ramblas did not disappoint with its high-end stores, specialty shops, and eateries amidst the hustle and bustle of Spaniards going to and fro.
The epitome of shopping though is in the souks of Marrakech and Fez. Behind the ancient Medina walls lies a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and passages lined with stalls selling every conceivable type of product. The walkways themselves are filled with shoppers, hawkers, noisy scooters, donkey-pulled carts, human-pulled carts and, of course, bartering tourists. Amidst all this cheerful chaos, all your senses are being stimulated and you do not want to be rushed. Our guide was mindful of our slow pace and allowed everyone time to browse and make purchases, and most importantly, made sure no one got left behind. And there is so much to buy: Berber wool carpets, ceramics of all shapes and sizes, leather goods, lamps, textiles, jewelry as well as spices, oils and soaps.
Whatever your group’s interest, Spain and Morocco and all the Mediterranean Rim will not disappoint the Globetrotting Groupie wanting to embrace the culture and ambience of the region. Food, wine, wellness, and shopping will always be key components of any group itinerary and guaranteed to be highlights for your passengers.
For more information on planning innovative Spain and Morocco itineraries or for group tour planning ideas to any of the myriad of countries in Goway’s exotic world, please contact GroupsOnly by Goway.
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