31 July 2014

Morocco day 7: Riding a camel into the Sahara

It was 9am and we were off to the Sahara (!) … eventually.

We headed off from Midelt into the Eastern High Atlas mountains via a spectacular road that curved up through a gorge of the Ziz river. Juniper trees grew here and there amongst the rocks – once they covered these mountains. Now reforestation is underway, but with pine trees, to try to prevent erosion and combat the expansion of the Western Sahara desert.

We crossed the mountain range through one of only three passes that transect these mighty peaks, this one at 1900 metres absl. On the other side we passed one of the many earth dams used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation to the local area. The water was an incredible turquoise colour and looked particularly spectacular against the ochre colours of the surrounding barren landscape.

For lunch we were having a picnic so we stopped at a small town for drinks and cake and to buy picnic fare in the local market. The mercury was hitting 40 degrees as we headed out of town and we were all wondering how Issam was going to conjure up a shady place for our picnic. But then, as if my magic, a great rift appeared in the earth in front of us, revealing a long winding GREEN valley, with houses and shops, schools and mosques bordering the vivid green, fertile land on either side of a river.

This was the Oasis du Tafilalet, an 65,000 hectare area, registered on the Ramsar list as a wetland site of international significance as it is ‘an important wintering site for migratory birds’, ‘hosts remarkable populations of Ruppell’s Bat … and of the Sand Cat’.

We stopped at the top of the escarpment for some photos, then headed down into the valley and found ourselves a shady spot under olive trees and date palms to enjoy our picnic. We still had some travelling to do to get to the desert but didn't want to arrive too early as it would be too hot to ride. So, we stopped at a lovely hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to enjoy cold drinks and chill by their pool for an hour or so. The place was more luxurious than any of our lodgings – how the other half live!

Then it was onwards towards the desert, passing many nomads’ tents and their large flocks of sheep and goats, before heading into an ever more barren and stony landscape and then, finally, we could see red sand dunes rising in the distance. We all grew more excited as those dunes grew closer, as we saw our first local camels by the roadside, as we approached the auberge where we would leave our luggage, as Issam wound scarves around everyone’s heads to make them look the part, as we picked up our saddle blankets and headed for our camels.

I felt a little trepidation – after all, a camel’s back is a long way from the ground and it was many many years since I had ridden even a horse, let alone anything so tall! In fact, the most difficult thing was swinging my leg over the beast’s back – after that, it was a piece of cake, as long as you remembered to hold on tight and lean back when going down hill, or rather down dune.

The camels were all castrated males, the oldest about 16, and well used to carrying tourists on the one-hour trek into the desert. My camel had been named Bob Marley by a previous tourist and a placid sure-footed beast he was, fortunately. He was also trustworthy enough to be placed in the lead position of one of two lines of camels, with each being tied to the back of the beast in front and a guide leading the front camel.

The swaying movement was interesting and the saddle blankets very necessary – most of us still suffered from a little soreness in the nether regions for a couple of days – a camel’s hump is not very soft to bump against! Not having stirrups also meant I had pins and needles in one foot by the time we reached our camp but what an experience! The colours and the patterns of the sand on the dunes changed continuously as dusk approached and it was easy to imagine that you were in the middle of nowhere.

Our camp was a group of black tents, like the nomad’s use, arranged around a central courtyard where we ate a delicious dinner of lamb tagines, were entertained by our guides singing and playing the drums, and ate cake to celebrate my cousin Julie’s birthday. What a place to be on your birthday!

About 11.30pm, the tables and stool were cleared away, the mattresses and blankets brought out, and we made ourselves a bed, some venturing outside the camp to sleep on a sand dune under the stars, some bedding down in the courtyard, some in the tents. The stars were certainly intensely bright away from the lights of civilisation and we spotted some satellites and shooting stars but I couldn’t keep my eyes open very long. It had been another magical day in Morocco!

22 July 2014

Morocco day 6: The Middle Atlas Mountains and Berem

We left Fes at 9am for a long day of travel, but with lots of interesting stops.

We climbed up and through the Middle Atlas mountains, covered in cedar trees – some up to 300 years old – and Holm oaks, which are native to these parts. Our first stop was at one of the many mountain lakes, a picturesque spot, with lots of water birds and dragon flies, nice reflections in the water, and enterprising locals looking to make a dirham or two by allowing visitors to pose for photos on their colourfully bedecked horses. Even though we deliberately parked a mile or more away, they quickly came galloping over.

Our next stop was for drinks and cakes at Ifrane, a little slice of Switzerland transplanted to Morocco. The town is popular with people from Fes seeking to escape the 40 degree summer heat, as well as for those wanting to trek and partake in winter sports. As it snows there in the winter, rather than the usual flat roofs, the houses are tall and peaked and look more European, especially with the huge stork nests propped against roof peaks and chimney stacks. The town also sports a large statue of a lion, a Barbary lion – yes, they did once have lions roaming these mountains and, though now extinct in the wild, some still survive in captivity. The Barbary Lion Project aims, eventually, to breed enough lions to release back into the wild.

As well as the Barbary Lion, there is also a Barbary Ape or Macaque, and we saw lots of these little critters by the roadside as we continued our journey. People feed them so, naturally, they come to the roads to scavenge and beg for food. As you can imagine, we all took lots of photographs, as they were very cute.

The Middle Atlas are big mountains and the countryside is quite rugged and barren. Still, in places we saw donkeys standing by the roadside. Their owners had caught passing taxis and buses to the weekly market in their nearest local town and would return later in the day to load their purchases on to the donkeys for the journey home – not much in the way of local roads here. And this is also an area where nomads roam, grazing their flocks of sheep and goats in one place for a few days before moving themselves, their tents and their animals on to the next plain or valley. It’s a way of life that has continued for centuries in these parts.

We descended through a dramatic gorge at 2000 metres absl and continued across a high plateau at 1600 metres absl where we stopped at a local town for lunch. Both the goat and the sheep tagines were delicious – parts of the goat, including its head, were still hanging up in the butcher’s stall just outside the restaurant so we were reassured that the meat was fresh that morning!

Our last stop of the day was at Atelier Kasbah Myriem, adjoining the Monastery of Notre Dame in the Atlas. Franciscan nuns established a convent in this place in 1926 and, in an enlightened example of inter-faith cooperation, began teaching the local girls and women how to embroider. Though only two nuns now remain – and they are too old to teach, and the convent has become a monastery for Trappist monks, the embroidery and weaving workshop continues, allowing local women to pass their skills on to the next generation and to earn some money from their exquisite work. Shopping!

It was a short drive from there to our overnight accommodation, in a Kasbah just outside Berem, a small town about 6kms west of Midelt. We got settled, then Issam led us on a walk to see the dramatic river gorge where the old part of the town sits. The younger Intrepid travellers were scampering along the edge like mountain goats but not me … it was steep and the rock crumbly … better to be safe than sorry. 

As we walked through the ancient town of mud-brick houses, we met a local grandfather who Issam knew and were immediately invited into his family’s home to share mint tea and bread. He, his daughter and grandson were very welcoming and it was wonderful to hear him speak (with Issam translating) of his life as a nomad sheep herder. He had only recently bought the house, for his family and his old age, but still missed the nomadic lifestyle. It was a wonderful way to bring another great Moroccan day to a close.

18 July 2014

Morocco day 5: Fes

Fes is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of about 1.2 million people, and is made up of three quite distinct areas. Fes el-Bali (the old Fes medina) is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world, a walled maze of 9400 streets within an area of about 280 hectares that was founded in the 9th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. West of the medina is Fes el-Jdid (new Fes), an extension to the old medina built in the 13th century, and the third main area is the Ville Nouvelle, with wide boulevards full of shops, cafes and restaurants, built in the 1920s. You can move from an early medieval bazaar to an air-conditioned super-modern shopping mall is the blink of an Arab eye in Fes.

Though our hotel was in the Ville Nouvelle, we spent most of our time in Fes in the old medina, on a full-day walking tour. However, our tour started with our local guide, Fatimah, showing us the beautiful gates of the king’s local palace, then we boarded our trusty minibus to drive to a viewpoint high above the city, where we got a really good idea of how extensive the city is. It was an impressive sight, both for the 365 minarets within the old medina and for the sea of satellite dishes on every rooftop!

From there, we drove to a ceramics and tile factory, for a tour and shopping – this was definitely a day when you could have spent a small fortune on the most exquisite examples of local craftsmanship – how I resisted most temptations I still don’t know! At this first factory, we received a guided tour and explanation of how the goods were made, were able to photograph the skilled artisans at work, watch them chipping coloured tiles into the shapes required for intricate mosaic patterns or chipping away the fired colour to make relief patterns or painting complex designs onto ceramic wares. Exiting through the gift shop, I had a serious case of plate envy when Rhonda bought a beautiful blue and white and silver plate but the shipping cost as much as the plate and I certainly couldn’t have carried it around for the rest of this trip – so I resisted.

Next, our medina tour started for real. We were warned of two things before we started walking: first, keep up and keep an eye out for the other group members because if you got lost, you could be in serious trouble and, second, remember the word ‘ballac’ (not sure that’s the right spelling) – it means ‘get out of the way’ or ‘watch out’. The medina streets are so narrow that small wheeled carts and donkeys are the only way to transport goods in and out, and the donkey stops for no one!

We saw so many different sights during our walk that day that it’s hard to remember everything so here’s just a small selection …

We got a good view of the famous Fes tanneries from the top floor of a leather shop. The smell was quite powerful so we were all given a sprig of mint to wave under our noses while we shopped. From leather purses and handbags to slippers and jackets, the selection of colourful items on sale was enormous. I resisted!

At left, our guide Fatimah, with a couple of the group

At the lantern shop, there were lamps and lanterns of every conceivable shape and size, for use with electric light or candle power, and casting the most lovely shadow patterns on surrounding walls and ceiling. I resisted!

Left, peparing to dye the silk and, right, weaving it
The weavers’ workshop was interesting as they make fabric using strands of ‘silk’ beaten from the fibrous leaves of the agave plant. Here, we were all dressed up in head-gear for a fun group photo. Here, too, I resisted the bed linen and large throws but I did buy a couple of scarves – ‘small, easy to pack, always useful’, I told myself. I couldn't resist everything!

We also visited the Koranic university, saw the oldest minaret in the medina and the oldest mosque – currently being refurbished, and we stopped often at small shops along the way for explanations about the things we saw: the furniture used in wedding ceremonies, the use of henna to paint designs on hands and feet, for photos of camel heads at the butchers and sharks heads at the fishmongers, and much more besides.

Our guide Issam resting his weary feet while we looked around the university
The sights, sounds, smells, colours of that day were almost overwhelming – it was a fabulous insight into local life and into how that life had been lived for centuries past. A Fes of the heart!

17 July 2014

Morocco day 4: Meknes and Volubilis and Fes

Though it’s difficult to compare days that were each very different, looking back now I think this was probably my favourite day in Morocco.

It started with breakfast at the hotel in Meknes, then Rhonda and I set off in a little blue taxi to the Granaries of Moulay Ismail, which were supposed to open at 9am but didn’t, for no apparent reason. Thinking we didn’t have time to hang around, we had a look at the adjacent Agdal Basin, a huge reservoir built for irrigation and as a pleasure lake by Moulay Ismail, then set off to follow the self-guided walking tour in our little Intrepid brochure.

It was a walk of perhaps 30 minutes from the granaries to the Mausoleum of that same Moulay Ismail, past impressively high walls guarding, on one side, the Royal Golf Course and the local Palace (there seems to a palace in every city) and also past the remains of the Old Imperial Palace, with the ubiquitous storks nesting on the high parts and small birds of prey roosting in the holes in the walls.

At the mausoleum we were highjacked by a wonderful old character called Mohammed, who said there would be no charge for his guiding services but, of course, it later turned out that there was. For a small fee, we saw the sarcophagus where the sultan is buried and, as always in these places, the decoration was superb: stucco incised with verses from the Koran, wonderfully carved cedar-wood panels, columns of Carrera marble (exchanged years ago with Italian merchants – 1kg of marble for 1kg of sugar), and intricate tiling.

Across from the mausoleum was a series of shops where Mohammed steered us next to see the metalwork being done by Berber craftsmen – tin inset with silver decorations – gorgeous work, which was demonstrated for us by a local man, first incising the design on the metal, then beating in silver thread with a small hammer, followed by various firing processes to seal and fuse the two. We each bought a plate for a relatively small sum, considering the amount of effort involved in the making.

Next, we passed through a fancy gate and into a square where we visited the underground Prison of the Christian Slaves, a series of vaults covering seven hectares lit only by the light that filtered down from holes in the square above. Various movies have featured scenes set in this atmospheric place, apparently. And then we climbed up the steps again for a quick look at the Koubba el Khayatine, a reception hall decorated with tiles and used to greet ambassadors visiting the royal court.

We thought we still had some walking to do to reach the main square where we were to meet our Intrepid tour leader Issam and the rest of the group but, when we passed through the next set of gates, we realised we had arrived at our destination, the Place el Hedim, a large square bordered on two sides by stalls and cafes and with entrances in to the covered market. We had time to spare so explored the market, then ventured further, into the medina itself.

These places are almost overwhelming in their assault on the senses – huge stacks of the incredibly sweet confections made especially for Ramadan, which was to start in a few days, the sweets covered in bees attracted by the cloying smell of the honey; a butcher’s section which was not for the faint-hearted where we saw a rabbit being skinned, a chicken having its neck wrung and bloody goats' heads lying on the floor (I’ll spare you any photos of those, though I do have some); huge mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, some recognisable, some not, all looking succulent and tasty. The sights and smells hadn’t put us off our lunch so, once the group had assembled, we headed in to the medina for our lunchtime 'real life experience’ of camel burgers. Delicious!

Afterwards, our new transport, a large mini-bus, and our friendly and very competent driver Jamal collected us and our luggage and we set off once more into the countryside. Our next stop was Volubilis, the largest Roman ruins in Morocco, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a fabulous place for a Classics scholar like myself. This largely unexcavated 42-hectare city contains a section of the Appian Way lined with the remains of arcaded shops and their pictorial advertising signage, many in situ and very splendid mosaics, many standing columns and a huge archway, amongst other things. It is to be hoped that UNESCO’s recognition of the site’s importance will bring the money for further excavations and for preservation.

Though the site was quite simply amazing, the most memorable part of our visit was the huge thunderstorm that swept through as we explored the site with a local guide. This sent us scurrying for columns to shelter behind and bent over to try to protect our precious cameras from the driving rain. Our cameras may have stayed dry but most of us got totally soaked in the process – but, along with the thunderclaps, wild winds and horizontal rain, there was hysterical laughter and complete enjoyment of the drama of the situation. An experience never to be forgotten!

From Volubilis it was two more hours to Fes, through rolling fertile hills patch-worked in golden harvest colours, interspersed with the precise lines of the olive groves and with the whole irrigated by water from one of the huge dams that have recently been built as part of a scheme to ‘Green Morocco’.

Fes is an enormous city, which we would see more of the following day but this evening we were to experience just a little of its culinary perfection. In their residence in the city’s medina, a local family have created a restaurant where the excellence of the food is matched by the splendour of the decoration. The mother of the family was responsible for the taste sensations and one of the sons, working with a team of 15 craftsmen, had spent a whole year designing and creating the most breathtakingly beautiful ceilings in the series of dining rooms. The combination of the two, together with the good company and stimulating conversation of our group, created the perfect end to a truly incredible day.

16 July 2014

Morocco day 3: Rabat and Meknes

On this first day of our Intrepid Travel ‘Best of Morocco’ tour, we had to be in the hotel foyer, checked out and ready to go at 10.20am for the minivan transfer to the train station for the 1-hour train journey to Rabat. It was modern double-decker train, with aircon, so a pleasant journey that I spent getting to know Rhonda, a retired teacher from Australia.

In Rabat we walked two minutes across the road from Gare Rabbatville to a restaurant where we had lunch and were able to store our bags for a few hours while we explored the city. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and looked quite modern but 10 minutes’ walk to the end of the main street found us inside the medina (the old, walled city) where life continues as it has done for hundreds of years.
One of the huge entrances into the Casbah at Rabat
We followed our tour leader Issam through the maze of streets, emerging near the Casbah, which is perched high on a cliff overlooking gorgeous beaches thronged with holidaymakers on one side and the river with its mass of fishing boats on the other. Inside the Casbah is now a residential area, a picturesque labyrinth of white-washed buildings with blue walls, doors, window frames and shutters – I later found out that the indigo blue colour is used to discourage mosquitoes. It was so photogenic.

This was the end of our orientation tour so, supplied with maps and informed about local points of interest, we were told to be back at the restaurant at 4.45pm and were then left to explore on our own. Rhonda and I decided on a plan and, not having much time, headed off at a cracking pace in the hot afternoon sun to a nearby unfinished mosque, with the huge Hassan Tower and a field of columns that would have supported a massive roof if the 12th-century ruler financing the construction hadn’t died. Adjacent to the mosque is the exquisitely designed Mausoleum of Mohammed V, built of white marble, intricately decorated and housing the tombs of three former Moroccan royals.

The Mausoleum is one of the few places in Morocco where you're allowed to photograph the guards 
A reader of the Koran sits with the tombs

We then caught a cab across town to Chellah, part Roman ruins, part cemetery, part ancient walled city, all much damaged by an earthquake in the 18th century. For once I was less fascinated with the ruins and much more interested in watching the storks that were nesting on every high point within the complex, both ruined buildings and trees. Their nests were huge piles of sticks, some with chicks present and a parent or two in residence, and storks also circled overhead. My camera was working overtime for the next hour!

By then it was time to return to the meeting place, luckily not too difficult to find. Issam had threatened to leave us behind if we didn’t make it back to the train station on time! Our next train, to Meknes, was very full so we blocked the aisles with our bags until locals alighted at the following stops to allow us all, eventually, to find a space to sit down. Luckily, Issam was in my carriage so acted as interpreter as we enjoyed some conversation with a young mother and her two children for the following couple of hours.

The scenery began to change about 30 minutes before our arrival in Meknes, our overnight stop. We moved away from the coast and climbed up through more hilly much-cultivated countryside, where golden fields were dotted with baled hay and long straight rows of olive trees, and shepherds tended their flocks of grazing sheep and goats.

In Meknes, we ate in a local restaurant – one of Intrepid’s much touted ‘real life experiences’, which are actually an excellent way to see and experience first hand how the local people live – and the food was good. We were back at the hotel around 9.30pm, which just left time to download and back up the days’ photos and write my journal before heading off to the land of Nod!

09 July 2014

Morocco day 2: Casablanca

As our Intrepid Travel ‘Best of Morocco’ tour didn’t officially begin until our first group meeting at 6pm on Sunday 22 June we had the whole of Sunday to explore Casablanca further.

And what better way to start the day than with breakfast at a sidewalk café just across the road from the old medina, where we could enjoy our omelettes and orange juice, olives and bread and mint tea, while indulging in some very entertaining people-watching. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

I can’t help but think of the Bogart movie when I hear the name Casablanca so it seems appropriate to stir a quote or two from the movie into the mix. The one that seems most appropriate to me is: “I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – and here’s why.

After breakfast, we headed into the hustle and bustle of the old medina, with its narrow passageways and winding alleys, to discover another world – a world of intoxicating smells: exotic spices and smelly fish guts, refreshing mint and newly tanned leather; a world of vibrant colours: bright yellow turmeric and lipstick pink slippers, multi-coloured robes and brightly painted doors; a world of friendly faces and beaming smiles.

Julie and Andrea make friends with the locals

To be perfectly honest, I was surprised at how open and friendly the local men were, as I had expected some reluctance to communicate in a Muslim country. It seems, however, that Morocco has always shown a high level of tolerance for other religions and cultures, which, combined with the country’s strong Western connections and its King’s progressive attitude, is reflected in the warmth and friendliness of its people and their willing interaction with foreigners.

Though the women were mostly reluctant, the men happily posed for us, even asking to be photographed and for us to snap their sons and workmates, then laughing and poking fun at each other when they saw the results. I suspect they also enjoyed the banter and the hint of flirting with my two younger companions though Julie and Andrea weren’t the only ones to get an expected hug and harmless peck on the cheek that day!

After a couple of hours, we moved on, via a local taxi, to the Habous area and the new medina that had called out to our shopping genes the day before. We lunched first, curb side, under the welcome shade of a huge tree, with half the local male population also enjoying the shade and a cup of tea and a gossip. How is it that men have so much time to just sit and chew the fat while the women are nowhere to be seen?

Amazingly, none of us bought much in the new medina – I bought nothing at all! This was, rather, a good chance to see what things we might buy at some point in the following couple of weeks: rugs and lanterns, clothing and scarves, ceramics and jewellery, woodwork and mirrors, as well as all sorts of touristy souvenirs.

Andrea became fascinated by the local bakery and made friends with the man who was carrying the freshly baked goods from the bakery to the shop across the alley, which resulted in us being given some still-hot and mouth-wateringly good cookies to try. We couldn’t resist buying a selection to take back to the hotel as they were divine!

It was soon time to head back to meet the other Intrepid travellers and our team leader, Issam. We were a group of 15, hailing from New Zealand, Australia, England, the USA and Singapore, ranging in age from a 15-year-old travelling with his parents to a 60-something woman, and seemed a merry, well-travelled bunch.

After Issam briefed us on what to expect during the coming two weeks and what would be happening the following day, most of the team headed off to dinner together. However, Julie, Andrea and I had already decided on a meal in the famous Rick’s Café, so we taxied off to enjoy a superb dinner (my swordfish was exquisite!) with excellent entertainment by a world-renowned jazz player. What better way to bring our brief stay in Casablanca to a close!