Morocco/Spain diary: Day 11

18 December, 2014

Tuesday, 23 September, 2014. 10:08

We have just hit the road out of the M’Goun Valley. I learnt a word of Berber this morning. I said “shukraan” to the owner of the gite where we stayed, and he said that was Arabic, in Berber it is “sahaa“.

I got up at 07:30 and went for a walk outside, a short way up the valley to get away from the buildings to take some photos. When I got back, we went into a room in the back of the gite where women were making bread in a wood fired oven. The room was smoky, and one woman was mixing some sort of watery sounding mixture in a plastic drum suspended by ropes on a wooden frame, while another was baking loaves, taking the prepared flat rounds of dough from a series of piles separated by damp cloths. The oven was small, just large enough to bake one of the pizza-sized loaves at a time, and the woman kept feeding in broken sticks to fuel the fire. The bread puffed up hugely with air inside as it cooked, then flattened out again as it cooled. Another woman observing the process saw Jill taking photos on her tablet and became interested in seeing the large, colourful shots. She scrolled through a couple she had taken in the baking room, and then more staff arrived and asked to see more photos. She ended up showing them several dozen photos, going all the way back to our camel ride in the desert, with a crowd of five people looking over her shoulders at them!

Bread oven
Baking bread for our breakfast, in Gite d’&eacute’tape Tamaloute.

From there we went to breakfast, which was on the terrace overlooking the green valley and out to the red rocks of the gorge. The sun was just peeking over the rocks on the eastern side of the valley and made the breakfast warm and pleasant in the chill morning air. We had some of the freshly baked bread we’d seen being made, still hot from the oven. I slathered on the fig jam, which was delicious. There were also boiled eggs, roti bread, apricot and strawberry jams, and a thick honey which had a floral smell and tasted a bit like bananas. Everyone seemed chipper and it was a very pleasant breakfast.

Breakfast in M'Goun Valley
View of M’Goun Valley from our breakfast table.

12:06

We stopped at a place in Boumalne Dades where they distil roses to make rose water and rose oil. A woman gave us a quick explanation of the distillation process, in a room with ovens for drying rosebuds and a distillation tank. She said that a kilo of roses makes a litre of rose water, but you need 4000 kilos of roses to make one litre of rose oil. There were lots of rose products for sale: soap, shampoo, perfume, oil, hand cream, and so on.

Rose drying
Drying rose buds to extract rose oil.

A bit further on we stopped at a lookout spot on the road where it ran along a very narrow ridge, with panoramic views dropping away on either side. On one side was a hill on which a ruined mud brick building resembled a castle. Lahcen said it was an old kasbah.

We are driving across a flat plateau flanked by peaks on both side. To the right is the High Atlas, where we can see a snow capped range, including the peak of M’Goun at 4065 metres, the second highest in the Atlas.

Snows of Africa
Driving across the plateau, with view of snow on the High Atlas.

13:27

We are sitting in the Kasbah Ait Ben Moro by the side of the road in the town of Skoura, near the large Kasbah Amridil, which was supposed to be a stop for coffee and to look around, as it is very famous, having featured on the previous 50 dirham bank note. Unfortunately, the access road to Amridil was washed out by the floods in the past few days, so we could only look across the river wash to see it from a distance.

Kasbah Amridil
Kasbah Amridil.

The problem was that as Mohammed turned the bus around on the stony road, one of the stones punctured a rear tyre. So now he has taken the van back to the last town we passed through to get the tyre changed, and we have walked about ten minutes from Amridil to this other kasbah which is being operated as an auberge, so we can sit in the shade and have some drinks while we wait. The view from the rooftop here is pretty good, with the oasis spreading out all around us, green with farms and palm trees, dotted with red mud brick kasbahs and houses, and in the distance the High Atlas mountains, topped with snow.

The road we are on is called the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs. We have passed dozens of them, in various states of repair, from crumbling to being used as hotels.

Random kasbah
Kasbah on the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs.

21:21

We have just finished a very nice dinner in our next accommodation.

We got here by passing along the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, to the movie-making town of Ouazarzete. We stopped there for lunch, and we had two options: a restaurant, or what Lahcen called “street food”. Most of us opted for the latter to get an interesting break from the three course lunches with soup and tajines. We had the idea that this would be a marketplace sort of thing with food stalls and we would walk around and buy food from whatever stall appealed to us. But it turned out that we went to a local restaurant with seating spilling out into the street, patronised by locals from the town. The food here was incredibly cheap. M. and I both had the lentils, which came with bread, for just 5 dirhams. I also ordered a plate of chips, which cost another 5, and paid for a communal bottle of water for another 6. The total cost for this lunch for more than two people was 21 dirhams, less than three dollars. The lentils were very good, quite spicy, and the bread was fresh and warm and good too.

Bread and lentils
Lentil lunch.

While eating, several cats came around begging for food. A woman with a baby also came by our table begging. With some consultation with Lahcen, Anna bought her a dish of lentils and bread to eat. The owner of the restaurant wasn’t happy about her eating at a table, but let her continue until she was done. When the waiter came around to collect money for the bill, Anna said she was laying for the beggar as well, but the waiter said not to bother, as he would look after the cost of that.

We went back after this meal to collect the restaurant eaters and then took a short guided tour of the Kasbah Taourirt, which was across the road from the restaurant, and also across from a museum of cinema, which looked somewhat tacky from the outside. We had the option of visiting the museum instead of the kasbah if we wanted, but the kasbah was included in our tour and we would have to pay our own admission to the museum. Everyone chose to tour the kasbah.

Kasbah tour
Inside Kasbah Taourirt.

The guide was an excitable old man in a jellaba who spoke excitedly about the history of the kasbah and the fact that they had filmed the movie Rules of Engagement there, and so Ben Kingsley and Samuel L. Jackson were personal friends of his. He took us through the interior of the kasbah, which was a maze of staircases, rooms, and corridors, all built of mud brick. Some rooms were ornately decorated with wooden ceilings made of painted oleander branches or cedar wood. We saw the Turkish bath room, which had a smallish central room, with two rooms hanging off it, each large enough to hold only one person. The guide said one room was for summer and the other for winter, as they had different heat and ventilation properties because one had a window and the other was deep inside the building. He regaled us with stories of movie making, including one time when three helicopters flew over the kasbah. He said the helicopters ruined some stork nests, killing a whole lot of baby storks, which was an awful thing. At the end of the tour he led us to a sort of gift shop which had dozens of paintings, or abstract Muslim style artwork, and representational art of Berber raiders, kasbahs, and other Hollywood style desert scenes. The art was quite cheap, but I think everyone had been shopped out and nobody bought anything.

Kasbah Taourirt ceiling
Ceiling decorations in Kasbah Taourirt.

We left the kasbah, using the toilets on the way out, and rejoined Mohammed and the bus for the short drive to a spice and oil trader in Ouarzazete, called Le Caravane des Épices. Here a man gave us a bit of a talk about all the essential oils and some of the spices they produce here. He rubbed samples of various oils on our hands, wrists, and arms, asking us to try to identify them by smell. They included a blend of argan, amber, and sandalwood; lemon; orange blossom; white musk; ambergris. He crushed some nigella seeds and mixed them with crystallised peppermint, placing the mixture in a tissue, and asked each of us to sniff it deeply with each nostril. It really cleared the sinuses, and several people were a bit shocked at how powerful it was. Then he described some various tea blends they made, with mixtures of teas and herbs, and what each one was good for: soothing, or calming, or upset stomachs, or nausea, or whatever. He also showed us some spice mixes used in Moroccan cuisine, and saffron, which is grown in this region.

They sold all of this stuff, of course, and the prices seemed quite reasonable, especially for the saffron, which was only 60 dirhams for a gram! We bought some for ourselves, and then went back and bought more for our mums. We also got a tube of hand cream made from argan oil (80 dirhams), and a small roll-on of the argan/amber/sandalwood mixture (70 dirhams).

Spice trader
Man demonstrating spices and essential oils at Caravane des Épices.

From here we drove to our overnight stop at Aït Benhaddou. We stopped at a supermarket to buy some water and bottles of wine, and an ATM for those who needed cash. We bought a 4 litre bottle of water and I split another white wine with Maria.

The next stop was just before Aït Benhaddou, for photos of this picturesque town, before a short final drive to the Hotel La Kasbah. The place is more luxurious than some of the other recent accommodation, and there is a photo of Hillary Clinton in the lobby, from a time when she apparently stayed here, though it’s not a five star by any means. The town around us is obviously very touristy, with a lot of little shops with postcards, souvenirs, and supplies like memory cards and so on, though I haven’t yet worked out why tourists come here.

View from Hotel La Kasbah
Sunset view from our room at Hotel La Kasbah, Aït Benhaddou.

We had a hot shower in our room before dinner. The river here is salty, and the water from the taps is salty too, though not as salty as sea water. The taps were all corroded from the salt. Then we went down for dinner at 20:00, picking up people in the lobby who were trying to get onto the WiFi but failing. We took down the bottle of red wine M. had half-bought with Karen, but there was some confusion over whether we could take our own wine into the restaurant. I had assumed, as had some others, that when Lahcen pointed us at a bottle shop next to the supermarket that we could bring our own wine to dinner. But someone else said Lahcen had assumed we were all drinking in our hotel rooms! Anyway, the restaurant didn’t want us to bring our own wine, so we might be stuck with a bottle of red wine we can’t drink anywhere. When I told Maria we wouldn’t be able to have our white wine, someone else said the restaurant only had red, so maybe they’d let us open the white. Someone opened it and it got passed around and nobody complained so it seemed okay.

Dinner was harira, the vegetable soup we’ve had in a few places, but this one was different again. It was rather spicy, and thicker with rice and small chunks of vegetables, and very delicious. The main was a communal tajine of beef, potatoes, carrots, and zucchini, mild on spice but with a slightly salty sauce, which is unusual as most of the food up to now has been very light on salt and everyone eating with us has been applying salt liberally. It was also delicious. Dessert was simple slices of orange sprinkled with cinnamon, something I definitely have to try at home.

Beef tajine
Beef tajine dinner.

Dinner done, Lahcen explained tomorrow’s activities and then we returned to our room for bed.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 10

17 December, 2014

Monday, 22 September, 2014. 08:40

We are having breakfast in the hotel dining room, which is full of other travellers, many of whom seem to be Australians. The buzz we are overhearing is that the roads are still cut by the floodwater, as everyone is wondering what they’ll be doing today. I poked my head outside and overheard a guide saying something indistinguishable to a woman, who then answered, “So what do we do? Stay here another day?”

The breakfast room is packed to capacity. Another group is here with backpacks, obviously having checked out of their rooms, but they’re not going anywhere. One asked their guide if they should move to the second dining room downstairs to give everyone else more room to eat breakfast, which sounded like an extremely sensible idea, but their guide said no, just sit here! There are barely enough seats and tables for everyone packed in here at the moment, and more of our group will be arriving. Also, the WiFi is not working this morning, so we can’t even share our misery on Facebook!

Maison Kasbah Taborihte window view
View from our room at the Maison Kasbah Taborihte, Todra Gorge.

Someone said the other group here didn’t get to do their camel trip and Sahara overnight stay, because of the sandstorm we heard about earlier, the day before we got there. So I guess we were lucky there that it passed quickly. The weather this morning is dry, but there is low cloud and tendrils of fog spilling over the rocks above us in the gorge walls. There is a gap in the cloud through which I can see a patch of blue sky, so hopefully that means the rain is over.

The beds here are very hard. We’ve had really hard beds in one or two other places as well. It seems to be a thing. The benches around the edge of the breakfast and second dining rooms are also very hard. They look invitingly soft with cushioned padding, but when you sit on them you get a shock as it’s not much different to sitting on solid wood. I think it’s just a thin layer of hard packed wool providing the minimal padding. Back in the market in Sefrou, we saw people hauling sheepskins, and in another place we drove past we saw men pulling wool out of old mattresses. Lahcen said they recycle the wool, stuffing it into new mattresses. Hopefully they wash it first, though I wouldn’t bet on it.

09:01

On the way back to our room we passed Terry and Ben. They said that Lahcen had said last night that we wouldn’t be leaving until 10:30 this morning. I suspect that’s simply to give him enough time to evaluate the situation and decide what to do if the rivers are still high.

My back muscles are a bit sore, I’m not sure if from the camel rides or sitting in the back row seats of the bus all day yesterday, and M. has bruises on her legs from the first camel ride, when she was positioned awkwardly on the saddle.

16:20

We are sitting in a huge traffic jam on the hotel side of the first weir that stopped us yesterday. We’ve been here for maybe a couple of hours, as they finished filling a huge hole in the spillway, but the traffic has just started to move and we are creeping forward. Although when we walked down the maybe 800 metres to the river from where we parked the van at the back of the traffic queue, we saw that traffic was backed up on both sides of the road, which means when cars come through from the other side they won’t be able to climb up the hill on this side.

When we left the hotel this morning just after 10:30, we drove up the Todra Gorge to the point where we were stopped by the roadblock yesterday. This time it was open and we drove through the steep-walled gorge, past a hotel stuck into the rock on the opposite side of the river from the road, and to a small open area on the far side. The bridge to this hotel had been washed away completely, and there was no way for anyone in that hotel to cross the river to reach the road.

Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge.

The bus let us off at the far end and we walked the few hundred metres through the steepest and narrowest part of the gorge to be picked up by the bus on the other side. As we passed the stranded hotel, some men came out with a couple of logs and started to build a makeshift bridge across the river. The rock above the hotel was a huge overhang, which Lahcen said had not yet successfully been climbed by anyone. The gorge walls are popular with rock climbers, and he said this was where the rock climbing scene in Mission: Impossible 2 was filmed (though later research when I got home suggests this is not true).

Washed out bridge
The previous day’s flood had washed out this bridge across the river in the Todra Gorge.

The gorge was spectacular, with red rock towering up to the sky, and black rain streaks running down it. You could see the erosion marks on the walls created by floodwater carrying rocks and boulders down the gorge, with deep round gouges in the walls about three or four metres above the road surface.

Buiding bridge in Todra Gorge
Men work to build a makeshift replacement bridge in Todra Gorge.

16:36

We have made it across the river! We are now able to drive on to our next accommodation for the tour, where we had originally planned to spend two nights, but will now spend just one night.

After the gorge, we drove a short way back towards last night’s hotel, where we stopped at a Berber rug weaving cooperative, named Kasbah Dar Ahlam. They greeted us and we doffed our shoes to walk into a large room carpeted with rugs. A man prepared mint tea in silver teapots, one with sugar and one without. He heated them over a charcoal burner, which he pumped with air from a pair of small bellows, sending red hot embers showering out into the room. We hoped he wasn’t going to set all the rugs on fire! The tea was good, and not too sweet like some others.

Making mint tea
Making mint tea.

Then one of the men there explained how they made the carpets, starting from the raw wool. A woman was carding the wool to make it soft and pull the fibres out, and Zi got to have a go at doing it as well. Next was spinning, and Michelle tried to do that with a large hand spun spindle, but it was clearly an acquired skill. The man then described dyeing the wool. They used all natural dyes: saffron root for orange, indigo for blue, poppy for red, alfalfa for green, lavender for purple, and fixed the colours with salt, vinegar, and lavender root. There was also a woman weaving a rug with a fairly primitive looking loom which had obviously been hand built, using unfinished pieces of wood.

Following the explanations we were shown many examples of the rugs in different sizes, colours, and designs. Some were quite plain with a few decorative designs scattered across them. Others were very intricately patterned all over. The most intricate were a design called a “carpet map”, which was really beautiful. M. and I admired one with a blue border, but we have no room at home to put it anywhere. We were half dithering over it, when Terry decided to go ahead and buy it. A few others also bought rugs, which the Berber guys rolled up into tight bundles for transporting.

Berber rugs
Berber carpets.

After the carpet buying, we went upstairs in the same building for lunch. This was a fava bean soup, which was spicy and smooth in texture, then some mixed salads and “Berber pizza”, which was Moroccan bread split in half and filled with spices and finely ground beef, or onions for a vegetarian version, and finally a plate of fruit: orange slices spiced with cinnamon (which were amazingly good), grapes, and pomegranate kernels.

From the carpet place we drove back down the gorge, over the first river which was flooded yesterday. The water level had gone right down and it was easy to drive across now, but there had obviously been a lot of silt and rocks washed onto the road.

River wash
The first flooded road, now dried out.

18:27

We’ve just had a toilet and coffee stop, at a hotel on the top of a cliff overlooking the valley town of Boumalne Dades. The view was magnificent, along the green valley with the red mud brick buildings on either side flanked by the hills. There was a small gift shop there and I bought a faded and curling postcard which looked like it had been there on the display stand since the 1970s, for all of 3 dirhams.

Clouds over Todra Gorge
View of the Todra Gorge valley.

Back in the Todra Gorge, we approached the first weir, but had to stop well back from the river, because traffic had queued up quite a distance. We walked down to the river and saw that the water level was reasonable over the spillway, but the flood had gouged a huge hole in the road, as well as stripping the concrete off another section. A front end loader was scooping dirt and gravel into the hole, and a dump truck was bringing loads of the same material to dump there. We watched for half an hour or so, and it looked like maybe another hour or two of work to fill in all the gaps. Crowds of curious onlookers were monopolising every vantage point to watch the spectacle. Motorcycles were making it across, and some people were taking off shoes and wading through the spillway, but it was definitely not yet okay for cars.

Flood damaged road
The second flooded road, needing repair.

The sun got hot and we walked back to the van to wait in the shade. We estimated an hour or two to complete the repair work and then clear the traffic jam and get across the river. This turned out to be fairly accurate, and eventually we were across the spillway and on our way again, with much cheering and applause.

The damaged road
The hole in the road caused by the flood.

We stopped in the town of Tinghir at the bottom of the gorge to get money from an ATM, pharmacy supplies, and wine from a small “supermarket”, as Lahcen described it, but it was more like a general store. There was no alcohol on display; it was all stored in a secret back room, which the owner let us into as non-Muslims. It was packed with all sorts of things, wines, beers, spirits. We bought a few bottles between us as tonight’s accommodation won’t have any alcohol to buy.

Now the bus is passing through a series of small towns which grow lots of roses and almonds. The area here is famous for rose products. A lot of the towns here look very similar, with their red mud brick, or mud-red painted clay brick walls.

22:16

We arrived at the Gite d’étape Tamaloute after a spectacular drive up the M’Goun Valley as the sun set. We forded a few spillways which would no doubt have been impassable, if yesterday’s floods had reached this area, as they appeared to have done judging by some patches of recent looking silty mud on the road and a few rockfalls that made Mohammed drive carefully to avoid them. We got here after sunset but while the sky was still not yet dark.

After ten minutes to settle in we went down to the dining room, to discover we were the first there. I had a bottle of white wine which I’d agreed to split with Maria, and I put it in the drinks fridge (full of Coke and Fanta and bottled water) to cool down. M. had separately agreed to split a bottle of red with Karen. The others trickled in for dinner, for which Lahcen had phoned ahead our choices. The options were: (a) vegetarian, or (b) with meat. The meal began with a soup which was similar, I thought, to the fava bean soup, except with rice and some small chunks of vegetables in it. The main course was couscous, with either (a) carrots, potato, eggplant, pumpkin, or (b) the same plus chicken. Dessert was slices of melon: what Lahcen called rockmelon and which had a rockmelon-like textured skin, but which was green like a honeydew melon inside, and tasted like a honeydew melon. The other was the ubiquitous yellow ridge-skinned melon which we’ve had several times. I asked Lahcen what sort of melon it was, and he said it was just called “melon”. (Later research suggests it was probably canary melon.) The white wine I shared with Maria turned out to be somewhat sweet, though not as sweet as prosecco. She was disappointed, but I thought it was okay with the sweet vegetables in the couscous.

Vegetable tajine
Vegetable couscous at dinner.

On the way back from dinner we walked into a dark area away from the lights to look at the stars, which were numerous and wonderful. We could see the Milky Way easily, but I didn’t recognise a single star or constellation from this point in the northern hemisphere, despite trying for several minutes to locate anything at all familiar.

We came back to our room, showered, and are about to hop into bed.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 9

15 December, 2014

Sunday, 21 September, 2014. 09:04

We are packing into the bus for an early start on the road, since we have a six hour drive today. We got a wake up call at 06:10, to be up and on the camels in time for the sunrise. Unfortunately the cloud had not dispersed overnight – in fact it had been raining on and off through the night. But at least it wasn’t raining or windy, and the pre-dawn stillness in the desert was beautiful.

10:39

We are back on paved roads and threading through the town of Erfoud again to pick up our ongoing journey into the High Atlas today. After getting up and quickly using the toilets, we mounted the camels again for the walk back to the Kasbah Yasmina. We went a different route, doing an anticlockwise loop around one of the bigger sand dunes. The dawn was pleasantly mild and calm. The morning light filtered through haze and cloud on the horizon, though above us the clouds were broken up and would have looked beautiful if only the sun had peeked through as it came up.

Sahara sunrise
Dawn in the Sahara Desert.

M. and I got on the lead camels of the two separate trains, so we were separated for most of the ride this time. When we got on the bus, M. said that while were we out in the dunes a mobile phone ring tone had gone off and the Berber camel driver had reached into a pocket and answered it! Out of the dunes we came back past a flat area where water had collected from the overnight rain. It reflected the cloud patterns in the sky. Sitting on the camel has strained my thigh muscles, which are sore now, the soreness beginning as soon as I got off the camel last night on the way into the desert.

Back at the auberge we split up into groups having breakfast and using the seven available showers. M. and I were in the first shower group and quickly rinsed off the dust of yesterday before dressing and heading for breakfast. This was a simple affair, with Moroccan bread, roti, semolina bread, jams, honey, boiled eggs, and drinks. One of the jams was fig and it was delicious. So I went back for more roti slathered with this jam.

Breakfast done, some of us slipped out the back to the patio for a few parting photos of the dunes. The sun had broken through now and was imparting a beautiful glow to the colour of the sand. I lent Ben my long lens so he could take a few close ups of the dunes, and then we headed out to board the bus for the long drive.

Sahara dunes
Sahara Desert sand dunes.

10:59

We just passed through the town of Jorf.

11:31

We have just stopped at a place in the countryside past the small town of Fezna, where there are hundreds of raised crater-like wells, in rows along underground irrigation tunnels, called qanats. These have been built since the 14th century, and only abandoned in the 1900s. The tunnels are about 20 kilometres long, running from the mountains to the oasis towns on the plain. We took a short tour down into the tunnel, about two storeys down. The tunnel was dry and dusty, with a high ceiling and plenty of space to walk around. It was an interesting place to stop for a few minutes, and we paid the owner of the well 10 dirhams each for the tour of the tunnel.

Irrigation tunnel
Inside a qanat tunnel, outside Fezna.

12:20

We have just left a coffee and toilet stop at a cafe by the side of the road. They also had WiFi so I took the chance to post a quick photo and check my mail. M. had a nos-nos, but I didn’t bother with a drink.

Lahcen has explained to us why so many of the houses in the towns and villages look half built or unfinished. They don’t pay property tax until the house is finished, or until six years have passed. So, magically, every single house takes a full six years to build. Though people will be living in the “partly completed” houses for most of that time.

The rain has really been coming down in places as we drive through heavy showers. It collects in large shallow puddles in the desert and in the towns along the roads. They don’t seem to have a drainage system, probably because they don’t need one 99% of the time.

Rain in Todra Gorge
Rainy weather in Todra Gorge.

15:45

We have stopped at a police roadblock before a weir where the water is flowing over the road. It looks like they are not letting people across the floodwater. This is the same weir we drove across to get into the Todra Gorge, but now it looks like the water is higher.

We stopped for lunch in the Todra Gorge, at the Maison D’Hote Kasbah Taborihte. The specialty in this region is kiria, which is a dish made of chopped meat, either chicken or beef, cooked in a tajine with potato, carrot, raisins, and boiled eggs. I tried the chicken. The spice mixture was subtly different to all of the other tajines I’ve had so far, with more of a chili/pepper flavour, and very delicious. It came with the usual bread and olives. M. had a Berber omelette again, but this one was very different to the last one, with more of a peppery onion sauce with less tomato, and the eggs stirred through it rather than cracked on top. I tasted it and the flavour was very similar to my kiria.

Kiria
Chicken kiria at Maison D’Hote Kasbah Taborihte.

The restaurant was in a spectacular setting in the gorge, surrounded by red rock walls towering above and with palm trees in the valley between them. We had to walk down a set of steps in the rain, then cross the river on a wooden bridge, then climb up the other side to get to the hotel. The river under the bridge was a roaring torrent of brown water, powered by the rain which is still falling outside. It was fairly heavy and we got quite wet walking the hundred metres or so to the hotel restaurant.

While driving to the restaurant, we passed a van coming the other way, which exchanged some dialogue with our driver, Mohammed. Apparently the road further up the gorge is cut by floodwater, so our drive up the higher, more scenic reaches of the gorge has been cancelled. Instead, we drove as far as the roadblock, and then walked about fifty metres to where the raging river flowed under a flat concrete bridge as it spilled out of a spectacular canyon of sheer rock. It was wonderful, but the rain was enough to cut short our visit to a quick few photos and then a scramble back to the bus.

16:15

After some thoughtful consideration and watching a few other cars brave the floodwater over the weir, Mohammed has successfully forded the river with our bus and we are on the way to our next stop for this evening.

16:35

We have stopped at another flooded river crossing. This one looks faster and deeper than the previous one, and no cars look like trying it at this point. There are a few dozen vehicles lined up on either side of the water, with people just looking and wondering what to do. Lahcen is on the phone, presumably to the tour company to discuss a backup plan. Anna is talking to a local kid out the window, refusing to buy woven palm fronds from him, but asking for bottles of wine. Greg just joked that they are life rafts. People are getting giggly and wondering what we’re going to do and where we’ll get wine from.

Road cut by flash flood
Flooded river crossing in Todra Gorge.

More seriously, the rain is getting heavier if anything, and there is no way the river is going down for several hours at least.

Some sort of uniformed authorities have arrived. Lahcen says they are a sort of emergency response crew, not police. I’m not sure what they’re doing. A big yellow front-end loader has arrived and attempted to cross the river, but a short way into the raging water it dipped and heaved alarmingly, as if there is either a tree or something hidden under the water on the road, or part of the road has been washed away, leaving a huge hole in the road. It’s impossible to tell for sure with the racing brown water churning and roiling like it is. But the road is certainly not passable as it is.

One interesting factor is that the loader had a small cab on top, but they seem to have crammed in about seven or eight people in there. It resembles a telephone booth stuffing attempt, with people plastered against the glass of the cab on all sides. It’s really quite amazing.

17:40

Lahcen has organised a plan. We can’t get across this river, so we are going to go back to Kasbah Taborihte, where we had lunch. They have rooms there and can hopefully put us up for the night.

18:05

We are stuck. We have reached the first flooded weir that we successfully crossed earlier, but the water has now risen alarmingly and it looks like certain suicide to attempt to drive across it. So we are between the two flooded river crossings and have nowhere to go. There is just the one road running along the gorge, so there is no other way out. Lahcen has raced into a nearby hotel, probably to see if he can beg rooms for us for the night.

Second road cut by flash flood
The second flooded river crossing in Todra Gorge. This is the one we had driven across earlier, but now it was much deeper.

I went out to take a video of the floodwater over the road, and stood at the edge of the water. As I stood there panning the camera to take it all in, the water surged up the road and I had to take two full steps back to avoid it getting up over my shoes! I really don’t see how this water level can go down as long as it keeps raining.

19:45

We have just checked into the Kasbah Taborihte, the place where we had lunch. Lahcen phoned ahead and arranged for porters to come over a footbridge over the river from there to pick up our luggage and carry it about 500 metres back to the footbridge and across to a waiting van on the hotel side of the river. We had to walk through the pouring rain the same distance over the bridge to the van, from where they drove us to the hotel. They have enough beds for us, but several of the others are sharing rooms for three or four people. We are lucky again, being the married couple, and having a room to ourselves.

The walk involved tramping up some very muddy tracks between mud brick houses. At one point we had to turn back because the track was cut by a torrent of rainwater which we couldn’t cross. Getting around this involved heading uphill a couple of blocks and walking along a road, and then down a steep and slippery, muddy embankment, with ongoing rain falling. Lahcen helped people down and fortunately nobody slipped or fell. We reached the bridge and crossed it into a series of paddy-like fields, with irrigation ditches between them, which were running rapidly with water from the rain. We had to walk between the fields on grassy ridges and this part of the walk was okay, and would have been scenic and interesting if not for the heavy rain and the fact that most of us had no protection from it.

The hotel Lahcen had looked into back on the other side of the river turned out to have not enough rooms, so he sought another option, calling Taborihte to see if they could do anything (possibly via his head office).

We have checked into a nice enough looking room here, but there is no hot water. Lahcen said he’d get them to switch it on or something, but no luck yet.

22:32

Well, it’s been an eventful day! We are safe and sound in the Maison Kasbah Taborihte, but the rain is still pounding down outside. The hot water eventually came on at 20:30 and M. had her shower then, and skipped dinner to hop straight into bed. I had my shower earlier using just cold water, and went down for dinner at 20:30 with the rest of the group. Lahcen had found a bottle of red wine from Meknes somewhere, and shared it with the group while we quizzed him on whether he’d had worse problems on a tour, and what our options were for tomorrow. He said that at the moment, assuming we get out of here tomorrow, all we will miss is the four hour walk in the M’goun Gorge, which we probably wouldn’t have been able to do anyway with this weather, as it would be too treacherous.

Maison D'Hote Kasbah Taborihte
Maison Kasbah Taborihte.

For dinner I tried the beef kiria, which was good like the chicken one I had for lunch. I stole half an orange slice off Jay’s salad as a mini dessert and then headed back to the room to finish typing up the day’s events and then get some sleep.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 8

13 December, 2014

Saturday, 20 September, 2014. 08:26

We were woken this morning around 05:00 by a howling gale blowing outside. It was rattling the windows and doors throughout the hotel and whistling through all the cracks between the windows and their frames. Every so often there would be a huge bang from somewhere in the hotel as a huge gust caught something. As the dawn light rose, we could see the sky was overcast, with ominous looking grey swirling clouds, and the trees were being thrown about, threshing wildly in the wind.

We got up at 07:00 and dressed to go down for breakfast. Lahcen had mentioned the buffet began at 07:00, but we didn’t see any evidence of it, although we could smell cooking and hear coffee being made. Leanne joined us and I wandered over to see if there was anything happening near the kitchen, and spotted a corridor to a large room at the back of the hotel overlooking the pool courtyard, where the buffet was set up and some other people were already helping themselves. They turned out to be Spanish. Just as I’d gotten used to speaking French instead of Italian, one greeted me with a “buenos dias”, and without thinking I replied “bonjour”.

Midelt breakfast
Breakfast buffet at Hotel Kasbah Asmaa.

The breakfast buffet was good, with plenty of options including boiled eggs, Moroccan bread, roti-like flatbread, a heavy semolina bread, roti filled with spiced onions (which was very nice and a good change from sweet things), croissants, tea cake, a whole apple tart like last night’s dessert, yoghurt, dates, fresh apples and oranges, jams, honey, and a few other things. As we ate, and others dribbled in to join us, we discussed the wind. We all figured it was far too windy to even be out and about here, let alone in the desert where there would be sand blowing about. We guessed Lahcen would evaluate the situation in the Sahara and decide if it was safe for us to take the camel ride and camp out in the desert or not. Opinion seemed to be that if it was anything like this where we are going, it would have to be cancelled.

On the way back to our room from breakfast, we ran into Lahcen emerging from his room. We commented about the wind and he said very casually, “Yes, it will be much worse in the Sahara.” I said everyone down at breakfast was wondering if it would be safe. He said it would be fine within the camp tents, and while we’re riding the camels, “well, it’s all part of the experience”. We were slightly flabbergasted, but I guess we’ll see when we get to the desert and the whole group evaluates the situation.

10:23

Vegetable sellers
Market in N’Azala.

We have just stopped in the village of N’Azala to have a look at the local market, which happened to be on today, the one day of the week when it is held. This was a very different market to the ones we have seen in the big cities. It was similar to a country flea market, with men manning stalls or even just spread out plastic tarps on the ground, covered with second hand goods like crockery, clothes, electrical goods, tools, and so on. There were also several fruit and vegetable sellers with piles of tomatoes, zucchinis, eggplants, apples, onions, dates, and so on, and a few meat sellers with cuts of meat on tables. One was selling white lumps of tripe. Little children in colourful traditional clothes ran around peering at us curiously, and the slightly older ones approached us with offers of “photo, one dirham”. We are being responsible tourists and not paying anyone for photos, but we took general photos of the market. As we walked around the courtyard where the market was held, large splats of cold rain began falling, but not enough to require a quick retreat to the bus. Lahcen explained some of the details of the market, that it began very early and the live animals were only sold before about 07:00. The whole market closed before noon, to avoid the heat of the day.

To get here we drove out of Midelt to the south, along a road which crossed a broad plain, towards a range of mountains. We then climbed up into the mountains, following a river valley which cut its way through the range. We stopped in a few places for spectacular views of the plain below, topped by an angry sky which promises storms and rain.

Storm over Africa
Stormy sky over the plain.

Now we are driving along the Ziz River valley which cuts through the Atlas Mountains. The geology is astounding, with reddish rocks in gently tilted and undulating layers cut up by erosion. There are some palm trees along the valley, but the river is dry and stony at this time at the end of summer. Earlier we saw lots of juniper trees as we climbed up to around 1900 metres to drive through a pass. There are also apple orchards around the occasional villages we are passing through, and white bee hives.

Lahcen is now giving us a lesson in the history of Islam, about the origins of the schism between the Shi’ites and Sunnis. The weather has closed in and it is very grey and rainy now.

Crossing the mountains
Ziz Valley.

12:32

We have just stopped in the large town of Errachidia for a drink and toilet stop, at a service station. The interior was very gloomy and stuffy, so we all sat out the front. M. got a nos-nos, the local word for a caffe latte, half coffee and half milk, “nos” being Arabic for “half”. It is still raining on and off, but there is no wind here. Lahcen asked Michelle at the stop to take his photo in the rain, because otherwise nobody would ever believe him that it was raining here today. So apparently this is very unusual sort of weather.

Lahcen said the area around here has a lot of mines, including the largest silver mine in north Africa. They also mine gold, copper, cobalt, tin, and probably a few other things. After leaving the Ziz valley we are now on a flat plain, where Errachidia is. There are a lot of military bases here as we are close to the border with Algeria. I expect we’ll be entering the Sahara soon, and Lahcen said we will be seeing sand dunes on the drive.

Ziz Valley
Ziz Valley.

Earlier Lahcen took our orders for lunch, which he phoned ahead to a place he described as an oasis, so presumably our lunch stop is in the desert. I opted for some beef skewers, and M. is going to try a Berber omelette, which is made with tomatoes and onions.

14:20

We have just left lunch at a very nice restaurant/accommodation place called Gite d’Etape (Maison) Vallée de Ziz in the small oasis town of Oulad Aïssa. And driving out of town just now we saw the aftermath of a very nasty car accident. One of the cars was crushed completely in the front, and the second car had its front sheered almost completely off. This is the third accident we’ve seen today. Earlier, climbing up the twisty road to the mountain pass we saw one smash, and then shortly after that we saw a car down in the valley which had tumbled off the road and fallen down the cliff.

Lunch was very nice, starting with some olives and bread. Both our meals were delicious. M.’s Berber omelette was really a mix of tomato and onion in a tajine, with an egg cracked on top and then cooked over a fire. My beef skewers came with chips which were a rich yellow colour from saffron (which Lahcen said earlier was grown in the Sahara), crispy, and deliciously salty. I also grabbed a bit of the “Moroccan salad” which Jay and Jill had ordered. This time it turned out to be a mound of chopped tomato, onion, and green capsicum. It seems every salad in the country is named “Moroccan salad”, but what it is is completely different and random wherever you go. (The tapas-like plates of warm vegetables we had in the medina in Fes was also “Moroccan salad”.)

Berber omelette
Berber omelette.

The restaurant was in a charming building by the side of the main road. On the left of the road is just orange cliffs and tumbled rocks which have fallen from the cliffs. On the right is the oasis, with thousands of palm trees presumably hiding a river which runs down the Ziz valley. We walked in off the dusty road, through the restaurant, and out into the terrace which overlooked a lush garden, full of date palms, pomegranate trees, and vegetables.

After eating our meals, the waiters brought out plates of sliced melon and fresh dates. The melon was pale whitish colour. It was very juicy and tasted faintly like banana. The dates were soft and succulent and very good. Maria asked if they were grown on the trees in the garden and the waiter said yes, he had just picked them this morning.

Beef skewers and chips
Skewers and chips.

We have learnt some important Arabic words. One was “balak“, which was useful for the medina of Fes. Atimadh taught us “yallah“, which means “let’s go”. She said, “Yallah means let’s go. Yallah yallah yallah means hurry up.” Lahcen told us about the Arabic greeting “ssalamu lekum“, for which the response is “ulekum ssalam“. And he also explained to us about Moroccan time: when you say you will be somewhere at eight o’clock, you append “insha’Allah“, which means “god willing”. So if you don’t actually show up at eight, and are late, it’s because it’s Allah’s will, and you’re not really to blame. So whenever you say you will do anything in the future, it is always “insha’Allah” because something could always happen to stop you, and if it does it’s god’s will and probably for the better (because something bad might have happened if you had kept your appointment), so you shouldn’t worry about it. So now whenever he is trying to herd our group back to the bus or to do something quickly, we are adding “insha’Allah” to the end of Lahcen’s words.

We are now passing through the town of Erfoud, in the outskirts of the desert. We’re about to stop to look at a fossil shop where Lahcen says the fossils are genuine, as opposed to a lot of the fakes that are around.

16:17

The fossil place was great. One of the staff gave us a quick tour of the workshops where they cut and polish the marble which contains fossils of spiral shells of what he called “snails” and straight ones which he called “squid”. These fossils are embedded in the stone and only revealed as it is cut into slices. The stone comes from deposits in the Sahara Desert. They also had some large ammonites, which are found loose in the sand and so don’t need to be cut. He showed us a coarse and then a fine polishing machine in action. The coarse one had a large rotating head on a counterbalanced arm, and it sprayed bits of white polishing fluid everywhere. The fine one was a hand held buffing machine with sheep’s wool.

Fossil guy
Saharan fossils.

After the talk, we had the chance to browse the shop and buy some stuff. They had some beautiful tables, dining and coffee. I asked how much a coffee table would be, and the man said the total with shipping to Sydney would be 3000 euros. That was a bit much, but I liked a serving platter which had a large spiral fossil in it. It was 2000 dirhams, and the man threw in a free plate which cost 400 dirhams by itself.

20:00

We are sitting in the camp in the Erg Chebbi region of the Sahara desert, on rugs laid on the sand. The sun has set and it is dark, but our hosts are turning on some solar powered lights. There are also some flashes of lightning and distant rolls of thunder. A few drips of rain are just starting to fall and we are hoping we don’t have to run to our tents before dinner. The camp is affiliated with Kasbah Yasmina, one of the several places at this outpost village of Merzouga, several kilometres out of the town of Rissani.

Desert camp
Campsite in the Sahara.

Our journey here involved driving out of Rissani on a road into a wide rocky plain. We saw huge looking sand dunes in the distance and closed slowly on them, but turned off the road on to an unpaved track across the rocky sand. This was bumpy and slow going in the mini bus, and we travelled about 10 kilometres directly into the desert. At the end we reached Merzouga, which is just a cluster of several hotels, on the last part of the rocky plain and with giant orange sand dunes right on their doorsteps. This was obviously an outpost placed here to cater to tourists.

We stopped at one of the fancier looking auberges here and unloaded the van, taking our luggage into a room to be locked up while we are out in the desert. We wrapped scarves around our heads in case of wind and blowing sand, Lawrence of Arabia style, with the help of Lahcen and Maria, who had watched carefully enough when the guy at the silk place had demonstrated on me to duplicate the wrapping. Then we boarded our camels with the help of handlers and set off on the rocking beasts into the dunes.

Through the Desert
On camels, through the desert.

The ride took a minute to get used to, but was okay after that. The toughest part was when the camel went down a dune, which required you to lean backwards to maintain balance. When they go up, you lean forward. I shot photos with a fast shutter speed to freeze the rocking motion. The journey was spectacular, as we left sight of the hotels and found ourselves immersed in giant dunes. The terrain was almost entirely sand, but there were small clumps of scrubby grass here and there. The camels had huge flat padded feet which spread out when they landed in the sand. My camel was a bit of a rebel, and kept veering to the left rather than follow directly behind the camel in front, like all the others did.

We stopped about halfway to fix the saddle on Ben’s camel, which had its handle on funny, making it hard for Ben to keep a hold. Lahcen walked rather than riding a camel, and took a shortcut across a dune ridge, beating us to the campsite easily. We dropped our bags into one of the tents, which is divided into two halves for two people in each half (Karen and Heather in the other half of ours), then joined the group in the middle of the tent circle, sitting on rugs around some small, low tables. The camel drivers had set up olives and peanuts for us to nibble on while they prepared dinner, and served us mint tea.

Sahara dunes
Sahara Desert.

20:36

We have now moved into the emergency rain shelter tent, since there is a storm building outside and the rain is falling. There have been several immensely bright flashes of lighting, and counting the thunder claps afterwards shows the storm is getting closer. The rain is not really heavy yet, but might get nasty soon.

Erg Chebbi
Sahara Desert.

22:51

The dinner was good. We had bread and large communal tajines with some red meat, probably beef, carrots, potatoes, and peas. M. got an individual version without meat. It was only lightly spiced, which made a nice change from the food we’ve been having. For dessert there were cut oranges and slices of the same melon we’ve had before, with the skin on this time, allowing us to identify it as the bright yellow, rugby ball sized and shaped melon with ridges running from end to end. We still don’t know what it’s called.

Desert dinner
Dinner in the Sahara.

After the food, the Berber camel drivers, two of them, performed some songs for us on the drums. We tried playing the drums ourselves but couldn’t get much of a sound out of them. The drivers then came and took them away to warm the heads by a fire to tighten them up, and came back with them sounding much better. They played four long songs, urging everyone to get up and dance for one of them.

The songs done, we dashed through the rain to the toilets and to brush our teeth quickly by the sink, getting wet from the rain the whole time. Then we dashed back to our tent to retire for the night.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 7

12 December, 2014

Friday, 19 September, 2014. 11:28

We just stopped in Ifrane for a drink and toilet break on the drive to Midelt. Lahcen was describing the toilets as flush toilets, and then said that Ifrane was the most beautiful town in Morocco. I misheard and thought he said they were the most beautiful toilets in Morocco! Ifrane looks very European, and where we stopped was like a Swiss ski resort with steep gabled hotels and cafes. We had a drink at the cafe of the Appart Hotel, orange juice for me, and a coffee for M. She said it was very sweet and must have already had sugar added.

Sojourn in Ifrane
Ifrane.

12:45

On the road to Midelt, we are passing across a hilly plateau in the Middle Atlas mountains. The scenery is a mix of rocky hills and farmland with lots of grazing sheep. Even way out here in the countryside, far away from any town, there is an astonishingly and depressingly large number of plastic bags and other plastic junk littering the landscape.

Berber flock
Berber farmhouse in the Middle Atlas.

Lahcen is giving us a running commentary in the traditions and current situation of the Berber tribes who live around here. A recent agreement after fighting over land broke out in 1998 set up a system where the tribes share the land, each farming one area for a year, then moving on and letting another tribe use it the next year, or sometimes leaving it fallow for a year. Now he is talking about the sheep farming and the traditional Muslim day of the year when lots of sheep are slaughtered in honour of the story of Abraham.

15:17

We just had lunch at a place called the Taddart Hotel and restaurant, about 15 minutes drive before Midelt. It was a pretty good buffet with lots of salads, rice, lentils, Berber soup, chicken tajine, and also spaghetti bolognese. The lentils were very good, with a spicy tomato flavour. We also had an apple and some grapes.

16:11

We have checked into the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa, which is just out of Midelt, in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains. We have a view of the mountains from our room. The hotel is built to resemble an old kasbah, or fortress, but is not historical – it was built in modern times as a hotel. Lahcen said the rooms here are nice and large, but ours is smaller than in the Dar Anebar in Fes. The window opens onto a rooftop with a distinct pigeon guano smell, so we’ll be keeping that closed. The room is perfectly fine though.

Hotel Kasbah Asmaa window view
View from our room at the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa, Midelt.

We will be going on a walk towards the mountains and along a gorge this afternoon, meeting soon for the short bus trip out to the walk. Everyone is keen to go and stretch our legs, except Terry, who is suffering from a stomach upset.

Breakfast this morning was the usual, the same as the last two mornings. But this time we had to pack our bags and be ready to leave the riad by 08:45. Porters carried our bags down from the room and then carted them up the hill to where we joined Mohammed and the bus.

We drove out of Fes, saying goodbye to this wonderful city of huge contrasts and vast history, heading towards the ski resort town of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas mountains. Ifrane is famous for apples, and we drove past huge orchards of apple trees as we approached. Lahcen said the apple harvest was over, happening around August, but we still saw plenty of trees laden with big apples, pale green or bright red. Ifrane was very different from the cities we’ve been through. The building style is much more European, with gabled roofs to shed the snow which this region gets in the winter. There was no other sign of snow, though, and the temperature was just pleasantly cool after the heat of the cities.

Middle Atlas view
Middle Atlas mountains outside Ifrane.

21:14

Terry raced off the bus to a toilet, as he was feeling a bit off. The rest of us wandered to the Appart Hotel for our drinks and the use of their toilets, and we had to find Terry again when he emerged. We offered him some Imodium and he gratefully accepted.

From Ifrane we climbed a windy road into the mountains, through cedar forests. We stopped at a place in the Ifrane National Park where there was a population of Barbary macaques, to get out and have a look at them. There were several around and they were very docile, allowing us to walk up almost to within touching distance to take photos. We saw an older monkey, and then a younger one with a juvenile, who groomed each other. A short walk away were some very young monkeys, with parents. This was obviously a popular tourist spot, and there were men wandering around with donkeys with decorated saddles, selling rides, as well as a handful of other tourists, who looked like Moroccans who had just driven up there.

Macaque with apple
Barbary Macaque, in the cedar forests of Ifrane National Park.

From the cedar forests we drove out on to a broad plateau, which had gentle rolling hills covered in farmland. This was territory where Berber tribes lived, and we passed several camps with tents, and also permanent settlements built of mud brick where Berbers lived. This was what prompted Lahcen to explain to us about how they used and shared the land. Although some of the settlements are permanent, the people still move around in a semi-nomadic fashion.

As we passed through some quite spectacular scenery, with the plateau stretching out to the looming shadow of the High Atlas mountains on the horizon, seen dimly through a haze of distance, we begged Lahcen to stop so we could take some photos. Mohammed pulled the bus over by the side of the road and we got out for a few minutes. Anna ran to an abandoned and half ruined looking building for a toilet stop and when she returned Zi did the same. The landscape here was desert-like, with a bare rocky soil punctuated by scrabbly clumps of dry and spiky looking grass. A short limestone cliff, eroded by water into channels, filled the middle distance.

Shepherd of the Middle Atlas
Middle Atlas scenery.

We piled back into the bus and drove to our lunch stop at the Taddart Hotel (previously mentioned above). It was late for lunch, and the buffet was good, so we ate pretty well. The hotel also had a “Taddart Museum” attached, which we didn’t look in, but it advertised minerals and fossils and meteorites, which are things found in abundance in the Atlas Mountains and the nearby Sahara. I’d read before our trip that the things to buy in Morocco include ceramics, carpets, and leather goods. But not to buy any fossils or meteorites, as they are mostly fakes. Lahcen warned us that quartz crystals were common, and always white in colour, but often sellers painted them other colours to make them more attractive. Any non-white crystals we see were therefore essentially fakes. There was a gift shop in the hotel and a quick browse after lunch showed several interesting things carved out of white quartz, but also some geodes where the crystals had very obviously been painted a gaudy pink, as well as some purple “amethysts”. The hotel was in the middle of nowhere well outside Midelt, and seemed very large and moderately fancy. We wondered how they got enough business to be worthwhile in that location,

Hotel Kasbah Asmaa courtyard
Courtyard of the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa.

Driving on to Midelt, we passed through the town and out the other side where the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa is located. We checked into a room on the first floor, from where we can hear the fountain in the central courtyard below splashing away merrily.

We assembled with all the others except for Heather for what Lahcen described as an hour and a half walk towards the mountains and to see the Berrem Gorge. We were all excited by the chance to see something different to another medina market. Mohammed drove us through the town again and out towards the mountains, then let us off in apparently the middle of nowhere. Lahcen led us across a bare rocky plain until we came across a small valley, where green trees were growing below and an aqueduct carried a stream of water across the valley to disappear into a deep cleft cut into the clay soil. Then we walked around the edge of the valley until we suddenly came to a deep gorge in the desert, with a narrow river running through the bottom. The rocks on the far side were eroded into easily visible layers, which undulated gently to show the geological forces which had buckled the strata slightly. The predominant colour was a browny, dusty, orange.

Berrem Gorge walk
Walking to the Berrem Gorge.

We walked along the top edge of the gorge, taking numerous photos, as it was fairly spectacular against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains in the distance. Eventually we found ourselves overlooking the small village of Berrem, made of orange mud brick houses, piled next to each other adobe style. The river spilled out of the gorge here to pass through the village below us. Lahcen gave us a bit of a talk about the Berbers who lived here and their lifestyle. As he was talking, the grey clouds that had come rolling over the mountains suddenly began spitting cold, heavy drops of rain. We hustled down the crumbling soil slope into the village and then passed through it quickly to get to our bus, which Mohammed had brought around to wait for us. Lahcen warned us not to take photos of any of the people in the village. Some children said “bonjour” to us as we walked past. One young boy stopped Anna by miming that he wanted something to drink. Anna gave him her water bottle, offering it for him to take a sip, and he took the whole bottle and scarpered! She didn’t get it back, and everyone was laughing as she told the story.

Berrem Gorge
Berrem Gorge.

Along the way the rain got moderately heavy, and there was a flash of lightning and a huge roll of thunder. Thankfully it wasn’t far to the bus and we didn’t get too wet. It was interesting being caught in the rain in what looks like such a dusty and dry area, so close to the Sahara desert. We returned to our hotel for the night, where tonight’s dinner is one of the included meals on the tour.

Berrem village
Berrem Village.

The dinner began at 19:30. Several people wanted wine, and checking the drinks menu revealed two options: vin rouge, or vin blanc. Terry inquired first and discovered they were out of vin blanc, so he got a bottle of the red, which was cold, straight out of the fridge! Some of the women also wanted wine and asked for a wine list. They got the menu which listed the rouge and blanc, and I explained to them that they were out of the blanc. Then a waiter came and said they actually had two choices of wine tonight: large or small. Apparently the rouge also came in half bottles!

The dinner was an entree of vegetable soup, followed by a choice of mains, then dessert of apple tart. The soup was excellent, with a lot of celery in it, as well as rice and other vegetables. It came with bread which was chewy and had a lot of large yeast holes in it, a bit like Turkish bread but with a firmer and darker crust. The local specialty of Midelt is trout, and most of us ordered that for the main course, but M. got a vegetable couscous, Michelle got the lamb and prune tajine, and a couple of people got the beef brochettes. The trout was whole, cooked in foil, and very delicious, accompanied by small serves of cabbage, carrots, and rice. The apple tart was reasonably good with a nice thick and crunchy crust.

Midelt trout
Midelt trout, the local specialty.

Dinner done, we returned to our room for a relatively early night. Tomorrow we need to pack an overnight bag for our camel trek into the Sahara Desert!

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 6

9 December, 2014

Thursday, 18 September, 2014. 16:11

We are sitting in the courtyard of our riad and having a mint tea to relax on our afternoon off. Leanne is here writing postcards and Jill is doing something on her tablet.

We had breakfast at 08:00 again, with the same set of yoghurt, boiled eggs, bread, and pastries. This time I had a second egg and stirred some honey into the plain yoghurt to sweeten it up a little. We then assembled at 09:00 for today’s excursion. This was a bus trip to Sefrou, a small town about an hour and a half away on the bus, and famed for its cherries. The harvest is in May, however, so we didn’t get to see any fresh cherries there. The first stop was a bank and water stop for people who needed money and bottled water. I withdrew a bunch of cash to refill our wallets. Then it was a drive through mostly flattish country planted thickly with olive trees in neat rows. We didn’t see any cherry trees, but Karen and Heather said they were lurking a few rows back behind the olives. On the way out of Fes we saw our first camels of the trip, a half dozen or so in a small fenced field on the outskirts of town.

Streets of Sefrou
Streets of Sefrou.

We stopped just outside the old souk of Sefrou and met a local man named Hamid who was going to help Lahcen keep an eye on everyone in the crowded and twisting alleys of the market. He didn’t speak English and wasn’t actually there to tell us anything, but just to make sure nobody got lost. He and Lahcen took us through the bustling and crowded market. It had fruit and vegetables, consumer goods, food, the usual sort of stuff. But we stopped at a blacksmith shop, where an old man was hammering a rod of iron into something with the help of a hot forge, sending showers of red hot sparks flying. Lahcen said the smith was over 90 years old! He chatted with him and gave him some of the money from the group kitty, and the smith posed for photos for us. I actually wanted him to work and hammer the iron for a dynamic shot, but he kept stopping and grinning for the camera!

90 year old blacksmith
The 90-year-old blacksmith in Sefrou.

We passed through a section of gold and jewellery shops, many of which were shuttered up with metal shutters and locked with padlocks. Lots of padlocks – one had seven locks on it! Further on we went into an old caravanserai building, which was an open courtyard surrounded by two storeys. The lower level was originally for stabling camels of the roving caravan, while the upper level was all bedrooms. The building had been converted into a furniture workshop, and men were hammering bits of wood and making tables and chairs and cupboards and stuff. Back outside we passed a row of tailors, each with an antique sewing machine in a small shop stall. There were dresses and other clothes hanging outside their shops on dummies, but Lahcen explained that they were not for sale. The display of completed clothing was only to indicate the sort of thing they could make for you. You went and ordered a piece of clothing, they would measure you and then sew it to fit. We also stopped at an alley full of men selling thread, which was silk. Lahcen explained that besides cherries, Sefrou is famous for silk buttons – buttons made of tight knots of silk thread. We saw a lot of them and they looked colourful and beautiful. The market was very crowded and we had to be careful of pickpockets again. Near the end of the market we saw a huge stall selling school textbooks, and Lahcen explained they were there because the school year had just started recently after summer holidays.

Sefrou market
Market in the souk of Sefrou.

After walking through the market and some alleys of the medina, we ended up at an area where men were grilling kefta and selling them. The charcoal fires were making lots of smoke and the guy kept spraying water on it to make the fire smoke even more. It smelled good and looked tempting. Lahcen led us to the nearby synagogue to see it, but we didn’t go inside. Sefrou had a large Jewish population a hundred or so years ago, but most have now left. Then we walked a short distance to a coffee shop where there were plenty of tables under a shady awning. Lahcen said we could organise our own lunches and then come eat them here and buy drinks from the coffee shop. The coffee shops don’t sell food, only drinks, so they seem happy to let you bring your own food as long as you order drinks to go with it. We walked with Ben back down to the kefta sellers, stopping on the way to buy some dried apricots and cashews and some cheese from a stall which had a huge selection of goodies. That cost 34 dirhams. Then we went to a kefta stall and ordered two of them, which the man cooked fresh for us, in metal grill cages containing about eight of the small meat cigars. He then unloaded all of the kefta from a cage into a halved and split loaf of the local bread, giving them to another man to wrap in foil for us to take away. These cost 10 dirhams each.

Smokin'
Cooking smoke from the kefta vendors.

We took our food back up the coffee shop and ate a leisurely lunch overlooking the market below. Ben let M. have the baguette he had bought, since he now also had the kefta and bread, and she put cheese on it and then had some of the apricots. The kefta I had were delicious. M. ordered a coffee from the shop and I got an orange juice. The orange juice here is really good, all freshly squeezed and with a little bit of pulpiness to it. Lahcen had bought a huge pile of fresh figs, and got the coffee shop staff to wash them and pile them on a big plate for everyone to share. They were delicious and sweet, much more so than any fresh figs I’ve had in Australia. They were easily the best figs I’ve ever had, and I ate several of them, since there were so many.

Fresh figs
Delicious figs!

After lunch we drove back to Fes and our riad. We have the afternoon free and can do whatever we want for dinner. We took the chance to take a short walk around our riad to see what was in the immediate area, and check out the restaurants in the fancy hotels nearby to see what sort of menus they have. We wandered down a few alleys and turned a corner or two to see what was down there, before turning back. We made sure we didn’t wander far enough to get lost. Several men tried to give us directions to the medina, which was exactly where we didn’t want to go. We checked out the second fancy hotel near the entrance to the medina, the Palais Ommeyad, which was pretty fancy, with a pool and marble floors. They had an international menu and Moroccan menu. The international one was very French, with a selection of fish and meat dishes, but nothing vegetarian. Then we tried the Sofitel Palais Jamais, which was a definite five star place, with a brilliant blue swimming pool overlooking the old medina, which made an interesting and ironic contrast. Their restaurant also had an international menu. Which was also depressingly French and meat-laden.

Rich versus poor
The luxurious Sofitel Palais Jamais, full of rich tourists, overlooks the cramped medina.

We walked out of the medina gate for a look at the view down the hillside and across the valley in the opposite direction to the medina. We snapped a few photos here and then walked back to our riad to rest for the afternoon. We’ve just spent some time chatting with Leanne and Ben and then Maria and Michelle who arrived a bit later. Now we’ve returned to our room for a bit of rest before dinner.

10:02

We have finished dinner and showered and are nearly ready for bed. We went up to our room to relax for a while before dinner. M. read some of this diary to check for accuracy and suggest additional things which I might have missed recording. At one point I looked at the time and it was just after 19:00, about the time that sunset would make the medina look beautiful for a photo. I raced upstairs to the roof terrace with my camera, only for Terry and Ben to tell me I’d just missed it. I decided to take a shot anyway, and discovered I’d left my camera battery down in the room, charging! Ben lent me his battery and I snapped a couple of shots and gave it back. Oh well.

We went down for dinner just after 19:30. Our laundry had been done and M. went through everyone’s laundry, which had been left on a bench in the courtyard for us to claim. The waiter added up the number of pieces we claimed, and charged us 140 dirhams in total.

We sat at the dinner table and were joined by Jay, Leanne, and Terry, making just the five of us tonight. The menu was back to the vegetable soup of the first night, plus various pastillas and tajines again. M. ordered the vegetable pastilla and I ordered a lamb tajine with almonds. This turned out to be delicious, with a huge chunk of fork tender lamb on the bone, prunes, and incredibly crunchy roasted almonds. I’m glad I ordered it. Jay also got the vege pastilla, while Leanne and Terry got the soup. We talked about a lot of things over the meal, including horror stories about camels and camping in the desert, the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, the economic recovery of Christchurch (Jay’s home town) after the 2011 earthquake, ending with Terry’s stories about his father serving in the Second World War.

After dinner we returned to our room to shower and drop off to bed early. Tomorrow morning we need to pack before breakfast to be ready to leave the riad at 08:45 for the drive to Midelt.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 5

7 December, 2014

Wednesday, 17 September, 2014. 20:05

We are sitting down to dinner with Maria, Terry, Zi, Jay, Jill, and Leanne, in the hotel restaurant. They have a limited choice of dishes, which changes each night. We can have pastillas like last night, or tajines with either chicken, meat (lamb or beef – it’s not clear), or vegetable. They come in a fixed menu with Moroccan soup and a dessert, or separately. We asked what the soup was, and the waiter said it contained tomato, rice, and “chicken pieces”. We asked if they had a vegetarian soup, and he said it only contained vegetables. We were all confused as he rattled of the ingredients again: tomato, rice, chicken pieces… We stopped him and said chicken isn’t a vegetable, and he said it, “Not chicken, chicken pieces…” Then he gestured that it was small balls, a type of vegetable, and we realised it was chick peas!

We got up this morning and had a leisurely preparation for breakfast, doing some stretching exercises to get the knots out of our muscles. The breakfast downstairs in the courtyard included yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice, boiled eggs, and a selection of breads and pastries. The eggs were so hot it was difficult to peel them, but they went well with the bread. There was a warm flatbread which was like a roti, and delicious. The “pepper” in the pinch tray with the salt turned out to be some sort of curry powder, not pepper. The breakfast service was leisurely, and we only had about ten minutes afterwards before the tour meeting at 09:00.

Palace gates
Gates of the Royal Palace of Fes.

We met our local guide for the day, a woman named Hakima. She and Lahcen led us out of the medina from our hotel to the bus and we took a short drive through Fes to the front doors of the royal palace. This was a series of seven brass-clad cedar doors of various sizes set into arches, seven being a lucky number. Inside the palace there are apparently seven floors, seven this, seven that, and so on. But we couldn’t go in, and the palace was never open to visitors. Hakima explained about the decorations on and around the doors and told us lots about the history of the palace and the king.

From there she led us down a street which was lined with two storey buildings with shops at street level and homes above. They had interesting balconies and shuttered windows. Hakima explained that this was a Jewish area, the Mellah, and the balconies are peculiar to Jewish buildings, as Muslims didn’t have balconies on their houses, just windows. She stopped us at a shop to explain about the spices and henna and other stuff they were selling. One of the products was a black, thick, greasy looking substance, which we looked at curiously. Hakima asked us to guess what it was, and answers came back of various things including axle grease, but nobody got the right answer, which was soap! It was made from olives.

Black soap
Hakima showing us black soap in the Mellah.

At the end of the street we rejoined the bus for a trip to the top of a hill which overlooked the medina, so we could get a panoramic view of just how big it was. Lahcen and Hakima had briefed us on safety when we went into the medina. We were to stay within sight of each other, and if we got separated we were to stay put, so a guide could retrace the route and find us. And we needed to wear our packs on our fronts and be aware of pickpockets, and not speak to anyone who approached us trying to sell us anything. The lookout spot gave us a spectacular view over the valley in which the medina sprawled.

Medina of Fes
The Medina of Fes.

Done there, we moved in the bus to the Art Naji ceramics workshop, where we had a tour of the production facilities and got to see how they made various ceramics, including tajines, pots, bowls, and so on, and ceramic tiles, with which they made mosaics. We saw men spinning clay into bowls and tajines, and then saw the kilns. A man was sitting at a foot-operated pottery wheel, spinning a huge lump of grey clay and drawing up enough to form a bowl for the bottom of a tajine. He made the shape entirely by hand, with no moulds or guides, and then used a string to cut it off. He placed the bowl on a tray where there was space for six bowls, and started drawing up clay to make another one. By the time the guide from the ceramic works had explained what he was doing, he’d made three bowls! I asked how many one person could make in a day, and the guy said about a hundred.

Potter
Potter at Art Naji.

Next we saw a room where men and women were painting designs onto unfired pottery, again all by hand. Many of them were being painted with a purple glaze, which turned a deep blue when fired, this being the traditional colour of Fes. Others were working with a dozen or so colours. Purple is the the only colour which changes colour when it is fired for some reason.

Chipper
Tile chipper.

Then we moved on to the area where they made mosaic tiles and assembled mosaics. This was astonishing. The mosaics are made of tiny tiles, about a centimetre across, in various geometrical shapes which are assembled in various colours to make the intricate patterns. But they don’t make the tiles in those shapes. They make big square tiles, about 15 cm across, and then men sit at a tiny anvil with a tiny sharp edged hammer and chip the tiles into the required shapes and sizes by hand, without measuring them or tracing a shape pattern onto them. They make all sorts of shapes, including tiny six pointed stars of David, and other shapes with precise 60° and other angles required for mosaicing. A man cut out a six-pointed star from a larger chunk of tile as we watched, judging it all by eye, the size and the angles. He did it in about a minute, the went on and made more of them.

Mosaic layer
Mosaic maker.

And the next incredible thing was how they assembled these tiles into mosaics. You would think they’d stick the backs of the tiles onto a surface, so they could see the pattern evolve as they worked. No. They set up a formwork frame, then lay the tiles face down in the frame, with no binder at all, so the coloured surface is hidden from view. They work on filling in the design by memory of what colour tiles they have already used where, the whole time seeing nothing but the uniform grey backs of all the tiles laid loose in the formwork. Then when it’s finished, they pour concrete over the backs of all the tiles in the formwork to bind them together, and finally lift the finished mosaic up off the floor, to reveal the design for the first time. Someone asked the guide if they ever make a mistake, and he said yes, definitely. After the work is revealed, sometimes there is a wrong coloured tile somewhere. They can chip it out and replace it if it’s too obvious, or sometimes they might just leave it there. Besides flat mosaic done simply on the floor, they also have curved moulds for making fountains and basins, which are filled the same way with tiles face down, held with a temporary glue for areas of the mould where loose tiles would fall down. The result of all this work was astonishing.

Mosaic fixer
Mosaic fixer.

Finally the guide led us to the shop, where several of us on the tour bought items, ranging from tajines to bowls and plates, all marked with a label indicating they had been made in Fes. We bought a small tajine for my mum, and a couple of small bowls for ourselves. I suggested we should have them shipped home, and we had another tajine for M.’s mum originally, but the guy said the total was too small to be worth shipping, and quoted a shipping fee of 1200 dirhams, which was about five times the price of the items. So we ditched a tajine and decided we’d have to carry the rest home.

Back in the bus, we headed to the old medina. We got off the bus in a parking area and headed on foot into the medina. But first we stopped to get some prickly pear fruit, which was delicious and sweet. It cost just 1 dirham a piece, and the seller peeled the fruit for us with a knife. Then it was into the medina. This was a real experience! The alleyways were incredibly narrow, and we had to walk in single file sometimes just to get through the gaps between the buildings. At other times the alleys were wide enough to walk maybe three or four abreast, but we needed to stick to single or double file to allow space for others to walk the other way, including donkeys laden with goods and men pulling or pushing two-wheeled carts full of stuff. Hakima had told us that the one word of Arabic we had to know was “balak“, which means “look out”. Men with trolleys and donkey drivers would yell this out (“Balak! Balak!“) and we had to clear a path for them quickly, because they moved fast and were impatient if you got in the way.

Medina passage
Street in the medina.

The paths were crowded with people: men, women, and children of all ages. We got harassed by people trying to sell us stuff or children begging for money a little bit, but not as much as we were expecting. I think because they saw we were with guides and in an organised group we were targeted less. But we often passed other obvious tourists who were on their own and trying to find their way around the impossible maze. Just before the lunch stop we saw a young European couple with two strollers with infants in them, stopped and looking with puzzlement at a map. We all just boggled and couldn’t believe they were trying to find their way around by themselves.

Market street of the Medina
A wider street in the medina, lined with market stalls.

We passed an astonishing variety of different areas and things in a short space of time. Some places were just single-file narrow passages between blanks walls of residences, punctuated by doors and balconies overhead enclosing the space into almost a tunnel. Other areas were bustling marketplaces with stalls lining both sides of the passage, wide enough to walk perhaps three abreast, so allowing the non-stop traffic of people to flow in both directions. We passed places selling fresh fruit and meat and fish – all of which must presumably be carried in to the medina on a daily basis from outside. There were craftsmen and artisans and others doing their jobs in the narrow streets. We passed a couple of men dying huge bundles of thread, splashing the dye messily all over the street as we walked past. In other places newly made or washed or dyed clothes were strung up over the streets to dry.

Dying thread
Men dying thread in the street.

The first place that we paused at long enough to call it a stop was a leather shop, which was inside a building up a very steep and narrow square spiral staircase. One floor was full of jackets, and up another flight of stairs was a top floor full of bags and shoes. This floor had a balcony which overlooked the famous tanning and dying pits of Fes below. The smell coming from the pits below was unpleasant, as they use urine and bird droppings for the process, and shop staff handed out fresh mint leaves for people to sniff to alleviate the odour. I didn’t think it was quite that bad, but some others seemed to be affected by it. We spent some time at this place, as several people wanted to buy things. M. got a blue leather bag, bargaining the man down from 650 to 450 dirhams. Jill wanted a leather jacket but they didn’t have the exact size and colour she wanted, so the shop guy said to give him her hotel name and he would deliver a handmade jacket to order for her later in the evening! He said it would take just three hours and he’d bring her jacket to the hotel at 19:30, and later he arrived bang on time with the jacket for Jill, made from scratch during the afternoon!

Dying pits of Fes
Leather tanning and dying pits.

Eventually we left and quickly went to the old Koranic school of al-Qarawiyyin, which is the oldest university in the world, predating even Oxford and the Sorbonne. People were just leaving and Hakima told us to take pictures through the entrance doors quickly before they closed them for the afternoon break.

From there we went to Le Patio Bleu, a small riad which had been converted into a restaurant. As we arrived the staff used silver shakers to sprinkle perfumed rose water on our hands to clean and refresh them. The lunch was a fixed menu of Moroccan salad, followed by chicken, beef, lamb, or vegetable tajines with various options, and then fruit. The “salad” turned out to be tapas-like plates of various vegetable concoctions, including: an eggplant dip like baba ganoush, a cauliflower thing, potatoes with mushrooms, potatoes and sweet potatoes, olives marinated in something that made them sweet, a spicy mix of red and green peppers, and carrots. There was also a thick lentil soup, although there was no bowls or spoons to eat it with – we scooped it onto our plates and ate it with a fork or by dipping bread into it. These were served with bread and were all really tasty. We could have had just this for lunch, but had to leave room for the tajines! I had the lamb with apricots and prunes, which was amazingly good, the meat just flaking apart at the touch of a fork. The fruit for dessert was pomegranate, plums, and large red grapes.

Moroccan salads
Moroccan salad at Le Patio Bleu restaurant.

Then we stopped in a shop where they made metalwork, including impressively decorated brass plates, silver teapots, and various other things. Again we got a demo of an artisan making one of the pieces, in this case a brass plate. He punched a design into the metal using a simple chisel edge and hammer, with no stencil or marking, making the entire design from his head as he went. This was followed by another chance to buy stuff. Anna was the first taker here, going for a silver perfume shaker, like the ones which the restaurant staff had used to sprinkle us with rose water when we arrived for lunch. She leapt to be first buyer because the guy said there was a free gift for whoever bought something first. This turned out to be a silver Hand of Fatima keyring. We later found out Terry had also bought a silver teapot.

Metalsmith
Metalworker working on a brass plate.

We went to the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, which had three floors of displays for various woodworking tools, plus the items made using them. Much of it was cedar wood, and items including furniture, decorated ornate window shutters, doors, shelves, chests, and so on. There was a terrace on the roof, which gave a chance for a photo from above and within the medina. Outside is the famous Nejjarine Fountain, which is a beautiful mosaic tiled fountain, but not very large.

Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts
Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts.

Some of the areas of the medina were very squalid and dirty. But now we walked through an area where the artisans made bridal chairs, which were amazing pieces of work, decorated entirely in white and spangled with huge amounts of fancy materials. There were dozens of small workshops in one tiny alley dedicated to making just these by the looks of them. Some chairs were huge and designed for sitting in at a reception, while others were in sedan chairs for carrying the bride and groom around.

Wedding chair
Wedding seats.

Next we stopped at the Al-Attarine Madrasa, built originally in 1323. It has been restored and now serves as a museum-like display. It was amazing, with incredibly intricate plasterwork, cedar wood carvings, and mosaic tilework. Hakima explained that the plaster was a mixture of ground marble, plaster, and egg white. Which was carved while wet into the amazing shapes we saw, which included geometrical designs and Koran verses. The madrasa was a beautiful and very peaceful place amid the hustle and bustle and chaos of the medina outside.

Peaceful contemplation
Al-Attarine Madrasa.

Back out in the alleys of the medina, we stopped outside a public bakery. Hakima explained that people brought their bread dough here to be baked, and as she was talking a small boy, about six years old, walked past with a tray of unbaked loaves on his head, and took them into the bakery. She said usually the children bring the bread to be baked. Someone asked if they cooked anything else in the bakery, and Hakima said yes, you could prepare a tajine at home and bring it to the bakery to be cooked, then take it home to eat. She said you could cook food at home, but it tasted better if you brought it to the bakery to be cooked there. This was because it was a wood fired oven.

The final stop in the medina was a fabric workshop where weavers used foot powered looms to weave amazing cloth out of cactus silk from agave cacti, or Egyptian cotton, or wool. The colours were amazing, and we bought a Fes blue tablecloth of cactus silk, and some scarves for M. As part of the explanation and demonstration by the owner, he wrapped colourful scarves around the heads of me and Anna in Berber fashion. (A few days later, when we had to wrap scarves around our heads in the Sahara Desert, Maria managed to do it perfectly, saying she knew how because she had watched this demonstration carefully.)

The weaver
Weaver at work.

Hakima led us through more of the twisty alleys of the medina, then turned a completely nondescript corner, and hey presto, we were out of it and back in the large car park where our bus awaited. Suddenly we were in sunlight again, which had been scarce in the deep narrow clefts of the medina. It was like emerging from twilight into full daylight.

The bus drove us back to our riad, where most of the group decided to stay in and eat in the hotel restaurant again. A few adventurous souls wanted to go somewhere else. Before dinner we went up on the roof terrace to look at the view over the medina. We decided to go back up around 19:00 to catch the last rays of sunset on the medina for a photo. When we got there I thought we’d missed it, but then the sun emerged from behind some low cloud on the western horizon and gave the medina a magical glow, making the chaos look pretty. M. and I stayed in the hotel restaurant and got a half bottle of a local rosé wine from Meknes, which was dry and very acceptable. Then we ate dinner, M. picking just the “traditional Moroccan” soup, while I had just the chicken tajine, which was made with olives and preserved lemon. It was nice, and I stole some of the honey cakes and dates from the soup as a sort of dessert.

Medina in evening light
The medina rooftops at sunset.

The final act of the day was to return to the roof for some night shots of the medina using my tripod. That done, we showered and went to bed, after an extremely full day.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 4

30 November, 2014

Tuesday, 16 September, 2014. 15:03

We are in the bus heading out to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, from our morning spent in Meknes.

We woke up a bit early again, but both slept soundly until then. I heard the call to prayer from a nearby muezzin this morning at about 06:00. We dressed and went down to breakfast just after 07:00. This morning there was no buffet, but a waiter brought a continental breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, croissants, baguettes, pastries, and yoghurt to our table. Leanne was next down to the breakfast room and sat with us.

After eating, we packed our bags and cleaned up before heading out for the morning meeting at 09:00. The first stop was at a lookout on the hillside overlooking a valley which cut through the town. There we met our local guide for the day, a woman named Atimadh. She was very knowledgeable and told us a lot about the history of Meknes and the Berber people who settled in the area, as well as the Moorish and Jewish history of the area. We got underway, stopping in a couple of places outside the old walls of the ancient medina and saw some of the decorated gates, including the Bab Lakhmis Gate.

Donkey rider
View of Meknes.

Much of Meknes was built under the rule of Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, who made Meknes his capital in the early 18th century. One of the things he had built was the Agdal Reservoir, where we stopped for a while. It is a large rectangular pond which had a nice view of houses on the hillside above, and a view across the valley on the other side to some old ruins, which were topped with hundreds of storks and their nests. Nesting on a little island in the reservoir were herons. From the reservoir, we walked into the ancient granaries of the city, which were a series of rooms with high stone ceilings, connected with high arched doorways. It was lovely and cool inside and Atimadh spent some time telling us about them and their history, saying it took twenty-five thousand slaves ten years to build the granaries. Moulay Ismail commanded all these slaves and also had twelve thousand horses.

Granaries of Moulay Ismail
Granaries of Moulay Ismail.

The next stop was the adjoining stables, where all those horses were stored. This was an enormous area with thick stone columns supporting four way arches. Originally it had supported a flat cedar roof, but that had collapsed in the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, so it was open to the sky now. The regular grid of columns stretching into the distance made a fantastic landscape of receding arches and we spent several minutes wandering around and taking photos while Atimadh told us more about the history.

Stable view
Stables of Moulay Ismail.

Next we drove to the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, which was originally his own private mosque, which we walked inside. It consisted of several linked rooms with marvellous tilework on the floors and walls, in white, green, blue, and a reddish brown. The colours represented the four ancient cities of Morocco, green for Meknes, blue for Fes, red for Marrakesh, and white for Rabat. The rooms were linked with arched doorways, a couple of rooms had fountains, and a couple were open roofed to the sky. The innermost chamber we could go in had a fountain and a restored cedar roof with intricate paintwork. Atimadh pointed out some features of the decorations, including six-pointed stars of David and Byzantine crosses. A further room was Ismail’s tomb, but it was roped off and we could only look in at the ornate decorations, which included two wooden grandfather clocks of all things. Ismail had a thousand wives (28 of which were “favourite wives”) and 867 children. Atimadh said that Ismail had requested a princess for a wife from Louis XIV of France, but the French king had refused and sent the grandfather clocks instead. Atimadh said that that was actually a better deal because the clocks had lasted longer than the princess!

Tomb of Moulay Ismail
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.

Across the road from the mosque was a shop run by an artisan collective which the tour company supported. Two men there showed us a demonstration of the Berber artwork of hammering silver wire on to iron pottery and sculpture. First they make the item out of iron, then they scratch the surface to make it very rough, then they take fine silver wire and apply it with a tiny hammer to press the silver into the surface. Then they polish it up until it’s smooth, leaving a silver design on the black iron surface. They also showed us traditional Berber embroidery, which was cunningly crafted so that the pattern appeared on both sides of the cloth. They had everything from large tablecloths to napkins, and they were all beautifully coloured and with intricate geometric designs stitched into them. M. found a silver, turquoise, and coral bracelet, which we knew from Atimadh was the traditional colours and materials of her Berber tribe, since she was wearing some similar pieces. Other Berber tribes would have different materials and colours. The price with a tour group discount was 1000 dirhams, and I was amazed that it was solid silver for that price, as it was quite chunky and heavy. We also found a similar design necklace pendant as a gift for my mum, and got a joint purchase discount for that.

Hammered silver urn
Hammered silver ironwork.

The shopping took quite a while, and several of us were waiting outside in the breeze for some time. Eventually, when everyone’s purchases were completed, we went off in the bus again to the main square of Meknes. This was opposite the famous Bab Mansour Gate. The gate is named after its architect, El-Mansour. Inspecting the ornately decorated gate, Moulay Ismail is said to have asked the architect if he could do any better. Mansour decided he’d better answer “yes” to please his sultan, but this was the wrong answer – Moulay Ismail was so enraged that Mansour hadn’t done his best possible work that he had him killed on the spot.

Bab Mansour Gate
Bab Mansour Gate.

Immediately across the street from the Bab Mansour Gate is a large square, where we visited the market to buy ingredients for a picnic style lunch. The market was amazing, with hundreds of closely packed stalls selling spices, fresh fruit, dried fruit, olives, nuts, cakes, biscuits, meat, eggs, and even live chickens, rabbits, and pigeons, which were penned right next to the cut meat. One stall had a type of threshing machine, into which a man was feeding a dead chicken to rip the feathers off. Outside there were people with carts of the flattish round bread we have seen everywhere. Atimadh took some of the group, including M., to buy fruit and sweets, while Lahcen took me and some others to get bread and cheese. They took us to sellers who they selected as having safe food to buy and helped us with the prices and our handfuls of coins. We ended up with a loaf of bread, a commercial pack of soft cheese wedges, dates, dried figs, and a pair of fresh oranges.

Meknes market
Food market in Meknes.

Lahcen led us to a cafe which had a rooftop terrace overlooking the square and an external part of the market, which sold clothes, shoes, and household items. Waiters arranged large umbrellas to shade some tables for us. We spread out and shared our assorted purchases. In particular I grabbed some delicious assorted olives from Zi, and Ben shared a box of biscuits which he’d splurged on, while we shared some of our dates and figs. On the way to the cafe we lost Anna again, and it took us until we were on the roof to inform Lahcen. Then someone spotted her in the square below and we yelled her name and waved until she saw us. When she rejoined us, she was in a bit of a panicked state, as she’d been wandering around trying to find us for some time. She collected herself after a few minutes and was joking about it with everyone. When she went to the toilets I said we’d take a group photo of everyone while she was gone, which got her laughing.

Buying olives
Buying olives for lunch.

The lunch was excellent, overlooking the square and market of Meknes below. Between all of us we’d bought much more food than we could eat, so Terry collected the leftovers and took it downstairs. He later told us that he’d found a woman sitting on the steps of a mosque, with a young child, obviously begging. He offered her the bag of food, opening it to show her the contents, and she had accepted gratefully and given him kisses on each cheek.

Picnic lunch over the market
Picnic lunch in cafe overlooking the square in Meknes.

Done with lunch, we said goodbye to Atimadh. She said goodbye to everyone individually and offered each of us a small silver item which we think she might have made herself. The women got small pendants, in the shape of the hand of Fatima, while the men got silver rings. She was a very good guide and this was incredibly generous!

We boarded the bus for about an hour’s drive to the ruins of Volubilis, a Roman town dating from the time of Emperor Caracalla, around 200 A.D. Here we met a local guide for the ruins, who led us on a one hour walk to see the highlights of the old town. It was very hot and sunny and there was very little shade, so it was a bit of an ordeal, but the ruins were very interesting, with several houses showing intricate mosaic floors, including ones depicting Neptune, Hercules, Bacchus, and Ariadne, among others. There were also baths, a vomitorium, a basilica with an arched wall and some columns, and a triumphal arch of Caracalla. The guide explained that much of the building work had been restored by French archaeologists in the 1910s, who rebuilt the arches and erected the columns from tumbled stone. The site is a World Heritage Site.

Exploring Volubilis
Looking at Roman mosaics, Volubilis.

Back at the entrance was a very modern visitor area with toilets, built of polished limestone, and a run down shack selling drinks and ice creams. There we rejoined Maria and Anna, who had opted out of walking in the sun and had sat in the shade with drinks while they waited. Lahcen gave the rest of us ten minutes to have a drink and cool down before we boarded the bus for the drive to Fes.

Volubilis buildings
Ruins of Volubilis.

18:29

We had a stop at a roadside vegetable stall on a cliff side overlooking a valley in which had been built a dam a few years ago, the Barrage Sidi Chahed. This provided a nice view of the resulting lake and a photo opportunity, as well as a chance to stretch our legs.

Lac de Barrage Sidi Chahed
Lac de Barrage Sidi Chahed.

But the best photo op there was the huge stacks of long gourd-like pumpkins in the golden late afternoon sun. We are approaching Fes now. Lahcen says we will have one of our three included dinners tonight, at the place where we will be staying for the next three nights. He ordered pastillas by phoning ahead, taking our orders for chicken, pigeon, or vegetable, as he said they took a long time to prepare and cook.

Pumpkin line up
Roadside pumpkins.

23:20. Riad Dar Aneber, Fes.

We reached our hotel in Fes a bit after 19:00. We had to walk into the medina in the old 9th century town area a bit, through narrow alleyways to reach the accommodation. We actually walked towards a very swish looking five star style hotel, the Sofitel Palais Jamais, and some of us thought that was where we were staying, but then our hotel guide led us straight past it and down a narrow alley. Down there was another very nice looking hotel, with marble and glass entry, but not as fancy as the first one. Our guide led us past that and turned down an even narrower alley that sloped downhill. After a few more turns, we eventually arrived at a short dead end alley and he led us into the Riad Dar Anebar, where we are staying. It’s not five star, but it’s actually very nice, with an open courtyard in the middle with tiled floor and a fountain, surrounded by rooms accessed through multiple narrow staircases which lead off the courtyard. At first we were welcomed and instructed to sit and rest, then the staff brought us biscotti and mint tea while we waited for our luggage to arrive. I tried the tea with sugar, which was very sweet, like it had about five spoons of sugar in it.

Riad Dar Anebar
Courtyard at Riad Dar Anebar.

Some of the group are staying in a second riad just down the alley, which is part of the same hotel. We were given our keys and shown to our rooms in random order. We climbed up to our room on the second floor and were impressed by the huge size and lovely antique furniture and the carved wood decorations and intricately tiled floor, then blown away again by the huge bathroom with double sinks. We opened one of the four shuttered windows in the room and looked down on the courtyard below where some of the others were still waiting. They spotted me peering out and asked me about the room. I said it was lovely, and then the guy who showed us the room admonished me not to mention that to the others, as we had been given a very good room, but some of them had rooms that were… less impressive.

It seems our room might well be the honeymoon suite or equivalent, given to us as we are the only married couple in the group. I went back down to claim our luggage from the set of bags which porters had brought from the bus for us, and instruct them which bags were ours. To do so, I had to go over to the second riad, where all the bags had been taken. When I got there, there was a kerfuffle because Graham was livid about the room he was sharing with Greg being too small. Ben offered to swap rooms with them, because the room he had been given was on the ground floor and he didn’t really like that it was accessible directly off the lobby area, or that the door didn’t seem to lock properly. At dinner later he mentioned that Terry had actually opened his door accidentally, thinking it was the door out to the alley, when Ben had locked it! We decided we’d better play down how good our room was if anyone asked us.

We showered before dinner, to wash off the heat and dust of the day and present for dinner at 20:30 all cleaned up. I put on my best clothes that I’d packed for the dinner in the riad. There were dining alcoves off the main courtyard downstairs, but we joined a few of the others sitting in the tea area, who were having glasses of wine before dinner. When Anna joined us a few minutes later, we agreed to split buying another bottle of wine. She and I went over to the area across the courtyard where a waiter was serving the wine. We picked a bottle and had a taste – it was good. The bottle said “Semillant”, so I thought it might be Semillon, but it tasted more like a Pinot Gris. The waiter poured us a glass each. I asked for another glass for my wife, and the waiter said he thought Anna was my wife! Anna said no, she was just the mistress! That had us laughing for a good few minutes as we returned and explained to the others.

Berber soup
Vegetable soup with dates, figs, and honey cakes.

The waiters soon herded us to tables for dinner. There were two tables set for eight people, on opposite ends of one of the alcoves. We sat with Anna, Ben, Michelle, Greg, Graham, and Lahcen. The waiters started by bringing us plates with dates, dried figs, and honey cakes on them. When we queried why these sweet things had come out first, the waiter explained they would be bringing out soup, and Lahcen elaborated that you would eat the fruit or cakes with the soup. That sounded interesting, and we all tried it when the soup arrived, which was a very nice vegetable soup. The next course were the pastillas. M.’s vegetable one had carrots and zucchini with vermicelli inside the crispy pastry, which she described afterwards as a giant spring roll. My pigeon one was spiced with nuts, honey, and cinnamon, with crushed peanuts sprinkled on top. It was slightly sweet and delicious. Then they brought out sweet pastilla pastry sheets with cream and nuts as a dessert. It was only mildly sweet, with the cream being semi-curdled like a soft Mascarpone. It was delicious.

The meal done, we returned to our room, brushed our teeth, and now I am about to fall asleep.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 3

26 October, 2014

Monday, 15 September, 2014. 10:10

We are in the tour bus, setting off from Casablanca for Rabat, after touring the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world (as we were told).

Hassan II Mosque fisheye
Hassan II Mosque.

I slept well until about 05:00, but M. said she had a restless sleep. We went down to breakfast at 07:00 sharp. I had just yoghurt and corn flakes, and some prunes and dates, avoiding the eggs and bread today. M. tried a different pastry. After eating, we returned to our room and packed, then went down to check out and meet up with the tour group at 08:00. Lahcen herded us onto a minibus with our luggage and then we drove off to the mosque for a public tour. We got there by 08:30, and Lahcen told us to assemble at the front entrance of the mosque by 08:45, giving us a few minutes to walk around and take photos of the outside. The building is stunning from the outside, and visually defies one’s sense of proportion. It looks like someone took a normal sized building and just scaled it up about five times. Surrounding it is a large flat courtyard paved with patterned stone, which is used for prayers during special events when the mosque is full inside.

The tour started at 09:00, and we were joined by a few others groups and some individual travellers for an English guided tour led by a woman named Nadia. There were also simultaneous tours starting at the same time in French, German, and possibly one or two other languages. The women in the group put scarves on to cover their heads, and we all took our shoes off and carried them in supplied plastic bags as we entered the mosque. The interior was vast and cathedral like, with intricate marble floors, partly covered with huge carpets in places. The several large tour groups split into clumps by language and dispersed throughout the huge space. Nadia gave a running commentary on the various aspects of the mosque, what various areas were used for, and details of its construction. The giant roof can be opened up to expose the interior to the sky, and channels in the floor can be filled with water, allowing worshippers to be close to three elements: sky, water, and earth. Nadia said that the fourth element, fire, was not used.

Hassan II Mosque interior
Hassan II Mosque, interior.

After touring the large ground floor, we went downstairs to the ablution rooms, where worshippers wash before prayers. These had large mushroom shaped fountains made of stone where people could wash, though they were not running at the time. From there we went further down to a chamber which had a hot pool of water in it, making the air very humid and steamy. This was designed for bathing, but Nadia said it hadn’t been used yet, because the authorities kept on saying it would be opened for use “next year”, but that never seemed to happen.

The tour over, we returned to the bus and our driver started off for Rabat. We’ve been joined by the last person in our group this morning, a woman named Anna. We also learnt the names of the Canadian women, Karen from Edmonton and Heather from Victoria, and Jay and Jill and Maria from Australia. Lahcen says we will have a stop on the way to Rabat to visit a bank so people can get some cash, and we will have lunch once we arrive there before this afternoon’s tour. We were last on the bus this morning, so I am sitting next to Terry and M. is behind me next to Maria, the retired teacher.

Mosque floor
Hassan II Mosque, interior.

16:10

We are on the bus again and heading out of Rabat to our stop for this evening in Meknes. The afternoon has been full since we arrived in Rabat at about midday.

Our first stop was a bank for people to withdraw or exchange money. This took a little longer than expected because the ATM was being serviced as we arrived and we had to wait for them to finish. I withdrew some dirhams and put together 600 for our contributions to the tour group kitty, from which Lahcen will pay various tips to people we deal with during the tour, to save us all the bother of having to deal with tipping multiple people over the next two weeks. Back on the bus, Lahcen collected the 300 dirhams from everyone, with people passing notes up from the back of the bus. When he counted the total, it was 600 dirhams over what he expected, but nobody claimed to have to put in any extra. As I was at the front of the bus I had strategically taken out some of the 100 dirham notes that passed through and replaced them with 200s in order to have smaller change, but I’m sure I did the substitution correctly. In the end, everyone agreed that Lahcen should just hold on to the extra to cover any additional group expenses.

The next stop was a place called Pizza Capri for lunch. We sat at a long string of tables outside under the arched shade of a verandah area. The menu consisted of pizzas and sandwiches and a few other things. M. got a margherita pizza while I ordered a capricciosa without any idea what would actually be on it. We also ordered a large bottle of water to share, but there was some confusion when the waiter brought out two small bottles (which contained less for more dirhams), and the situation was only rescued by Maria who is somewhat fluent in French. The pizzas were mediocre and a bit bland with lack of saltiness, but filled our stomachs.

After lunch, we were joined by a local guide named Aziz, who took us around Rabat for the afternoon while Lahcen went to enter personal details of the people who had joined our group after the meeting last night. The bus driver took us to three different places in Rabat, and we got out and walked around at each one. But first we drove past the royal palace to have a look at that, but it was in a guarded complex and we didn’t get out there.

Sala Colonia
Roman ruins, Chellah, Rabat.

The first stop was the old fortified settlement and necropolis of Chellah, just outside the walls of the old city of Rabat. This had been converted into a beautiful garden inside, full of different fruit and flowering trees, and was a nice shady place to be out of the sun. Also within the fortifications were some extensive Roman ruins, as the fort had been built on the same site by the side of the river which separates Rabat from the town of Salé on the north shore of the river. Some of the ruins had been reused by Islamic builders to create a mosque and minaret, but these now were also in ruins, and storks have built large nests on top of various parts of the structure, including the minaret. The garden was watered by a natural spring, which was sluiced into channels between the trees. In another spot, the natural water was collected in a pool which used to be used for ablutions before prayer, but now the pool is full of eels. A man by the pool tossed in some boiled egg whites to attract the eels so we could see them, and fed the yolks to a pack of scrawny cats who were wandering around all over the fort.

Chellah arches
Ruins of mosque, Chellah, Rabat.

The weather in Rabat was a bit cooler than in Casablanca, but walking in the sun still made us quite hot. The next stop was the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the king of Morocco until, and I asked Lahcen if we would be out in the sun much more. He replied that we would, so M. and I put more sunscreen on our arms. The mausoleum turned out to be a modern part of a complex built on the site of an ancient mosque which had begun construction under the rule of Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur in the late 12th century, but never been completed. The plan had been to build the tallest minaret in the world, but the minaret stands uncompleted to this day. The main part of the planned mosque had a roof supported by repurposed Ancient Roman columns, but the roof collapsed during the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, leaving just the columns which now stand in various states of disrepair, punctuating a large open courtyard.

Hassan Tower
Hassan Tower, Rabat.

At one corner of the courtyard stands the mausoleum, at the top of a set of marble steps. At the next corner is a structure of arches supporting a roof, which Aziz said was built with the mausoleum solely to provide a sense of symmetry to the courtyard, in a deliberate echo of the Taj Mahal, since the architect was Indian. The mausoleum was guarded by a dozen or so men in ornate uniforms and carrying decorated antique rifles. They merely looked bored as we entered and snapped pictures of the beautiful architecture and decorations.

Mausoleum interior
Mausoleum of Mohammed V, Rabat.

Leaving the mausoleum, the next stop was the Kasbah of the Udayas. Aziz explained that “kasbah” means “fort”, and the fort was built on the cliff overlooking the river and the entrance to the ocean, making it a very nice location. The interior of the Kasbah has long since been converted into a rabbit warren of houses, which are painted blue and white in an uncanny resemblance to the Greek Island of Santorini. The view from there was good, but the maze of alleys and the buildings themselves were gorgeous. The Kasbah also held a garden similar to the one at the old fort, but smaller.

Kasbah garden
Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat.

As we walked through the Kasbah, the group strung out like a series of beads as people stopped to take photos and admire the scenery, but we managed to avoid losing anyone – which is good because the place was a real maze. Just outside the Kasbah was a stepped ramp which had been temporarily fenced off. Aziz explained that the film Mission: Impossible 5 is currently being filmed in Rabat, and some time in the next few days they will be filming a car chase down that ramp. (We later learnt that the car chase scene was filmed with Tom Cruise on 26 September, just 11 days after we were there.)

Kasbah porch
Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat.

At the bus, Lahcen met us again and we piled in for the drive to Meknes.

17:40

We have just had a short rest stop in a service station by the side of the freeway. M. and I both used the toilets which were in a separate block near the parking area, a short distance from the cafe and snack shop. Also in the block was a small mosque with several pairs of shoes left outside. The toilets were rather lacking in amenities, with squat toilets, and no wash basins – just some taps in the wall over a drainage trough for washing. M. said there was one western toilet in the ladies side, which she used. After we were done there, we walked into the cafe, only to find there were more toilets in there, and very modern and clean looking ones!

M. grabbed a cherry juice drink which cost 12 dirhams. I tried to pay with a 100 dirham note and the woman indicated she wouldn’t accept it. So I tried a 50 and got change for that. After the drink M. decided to get some chocolate as well, so we broke another 50 dirham note for that, which cost 24. So now we should have plenty of small change. In the car park was a smashed up car, parked in front of a billboard with what was obviously a “drive safely” message on it. Very graphic!

Back on the road, we have passed up into some hilly country, and now down a slope into a broad valley full of farmland. The countryside is very yellow and brown, with scattered trees. A lot of the tees are eucalyptus, imported from Australia. There are also lots of prickly pears, olive trees, and Lahcen pointed out a large number of oak trees, from which the bark had been stripped off for cork to make fishing boat parts and life vests. We’ve seen sheep and cows and horses and donkeys. There are oleanders growing down the centre of the freeway. Ben commented that the landscape looks a bit like what you see driving from Melbourne to Sydney.

22:32. Hotel de Nice, Meknes.

We arrived here in Meknes and checked into our hotel for the night. Lahcen gave us an hour before meeting for dinner at 19:40. He took us a short walk to a restaurant just a block away, which served traditional Moroccan food. The area around the hotel looks like the centre of town, with a lot of shops and people bustling about. In the restaurant were three other tour groups! The place offered a set menu for 77 dirhams, or a la carte choices for entree, mains, and dessert. Everyone else went for the fixed menu, while M. and I chose just mains: tajine aux poulet for me and couscous vegetarien for M. We had a bit of a wait for our food as the others slowly got their entrees, but we had bread and olives to nibble on. Lahcen seemed to get a bit impatient with the restaurant staff, and hurried them up with our meals because we were sitting with nothing while everyone else had an entree. When they arrived, our meals were excellent. The chicken came with carrots, peas, onions, and preserved lemon, and was deliciously spiced. M. said the couscous was spicy and good. It had carrots, zucchini, chick peas, and probably some other stuff, spiced with cinnamon.

Tajine aux poulet
Tajine aux poulet, Meknes.

With everyone else still waiting for dessert and us tired, we left Lahcen with our share of the bill (130 dirhams including a tip) and came back to our room at about 21:45. The others will be back even later. We showered to wash off the grime of the day and are about to turn in to bed. We start at 09:00 tomorrow for a tour of sights in Meknes before heading on to Fes in the afternoon.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 2

11 October, 2014

Sunday, 14 September, 2014. 09:20

We are having a brief rest in our room before heading out for the day. Our tour meets up this evening, so we have the day to explore Casablanca a bit for ourselves. We are planning to go have a look at the cathedral of Sacre Coeur and then grab a taxi out to the Morocco Mall, the largest shopping mall in Africa. It will be a slightly relaxing day, no hectic sightseeing and rushing around.

We got to bed before 21:00 last night and slept through to about 04:00 before stirring a bit and then snoozing drowsily for a few more hours. We are feeling mostly refreshed his morning. We went down to breakfast just a few minutes after 07:00. It was a fairly standard hotel buffet, with cereal, scrambled eggs, chicken sausages, croissants and pastries, yoghurt, bread rolls, and fruit. The fruit included dates in bunches still on the stalks. These were a pale brown colour and firmer and slightly smaller than the medjool dates we get at home. They tasted a bit less sweet, but were very nice. As we were finishing up, the waiter brought out a dish of fried bread, which we had to try as it looked intriguing. It was light and airy in the middle, with a crisp oily crust and slightly salty, not sweet at all.

Good dates
Olives and dates for breakfast.

At breakfast we saw the woman from yesterday who was also doing a 13 day tour, except with Peregrine travel. She described a tour itinerary almost identical to ours, and we are wondering if she will actually end up on the same your with us, being run jointly for several companies.

Stuffed, we returned to our room to contemplate the day. We decided to check the hotel desk for any information about our tour and to call Intrepid if there wasn’t any. There was a new guy at the desk with very good English who told us the tours usually meet at 6pm, and that the leader would be in a bit before to post messages on the lift. So this gives us most of today free to do what we want.

13:38

We are sitting in Caffe Vergnano in the Morocco Mall, which is apparently the largest shopping mall in all of Africa. We’ve been here at the mall for a couple of hours, and are relaxing with an after lunch drink.

The first thing we did this morning was to walk out to the old Sacre Coeur cathedral. As soon as we left the hotel and crossed the road, a man came up to us and claimed to have seen us in the hotel because he worked there. He asked if we were from Australia, and said he had a cousin or something living in Melbourne. Then he started telling us about a special market event being held today, the one day of the year when lots of Berber traders come into town to show off and sell stuff. He said it was a hundred metres or so up the road and we should go have a look. Then he started to say “Come, I’ll show you where it is,” at which point we insisted we had other plans for the morning and started walking in another direction. He left us then, and when I asked Michelle if she had recognised him from the hotel she said that she hadn’t either. After we came back from the cathedral, we tried to find the place he was talking about, but we didn’t see anything like what he described. We figured he was probably telling us tales to get us to follow him to some friends’ shops where they would rip us off or something.

Anyway, we headed to the cathedral as planned, but got slightly turned around by taking the wrong street early on, and had to use the map on M.’s phone to reorient ourselves. Eventually we found the cathedral and I said there might be a service on since it’s Sunday. But as we approached we noticed a group of boys playing soccer in the open area between the cathedral front door and the gate to the street, which seemed weird. The cathedral door was open, and when we went inside we discovered that it was no longer a place of worship, but had been converted into a public exhibition space. The interior was very run down, but the stained glass windows were still there and gave the place an eerie feel. All the furniture and the altar had been removed, and in their place was an exhibition of paintings and sculptures. A man sitting at a table near the door waved us in, and said we could also climb the tower to get a great view of the city.

Casablanca cathedral
Casablanca cathedral.

We walked into the exhibition space first and looked briefly at the artwork, but also at the architecture of the ex-cathedral, which was pretty tall and impressive. It looked like the entire building had been made of concrete, and although there was plenty of stained glass it was all in small pieces in small holes in the concrete walls. After looking around the ground floor, we went to climb the tower, for which the man at the door charged us 20 dirhams each. Another couple had gone up just ahead of us, and we heard them making bird noises as they climbed the heavy concrete and brick steps. The tower was full of bird guano, and fluttering pigeons as we disturbed their rest. The smell as we entered was quite piercing, but we soon got used to it as we climbed about ten floors up to the top of the tower. There was a door out to the roof of the cathedral at one level, and we could have walked all over the roof, but we didn’t because it curved to a downward slope and then a long drop to the ground below. A little higher was a door to the walkway joining the two towers, and we spent some time here taking photos. The other couple were here as we arrived, and we got them to take a photo of us. They went up to the tower top and came down just as we went up. The view from the top was well worth the effort, with a 360° panorama of Casablanca below us, including the taller tower of the Mosque to the north.

Casablanca fisheye
View over Casablanca from the roof of the cathedral.

The weather had clouded over a bit with some grey cumulus blotting out the sun. It looked as though there might be rain later, but now the clouds have cleared and the day is hot and clear again like yesterday afternoon. After leaving the cathedral we walked back to the old medina to see if we could find the Berber market the man had told us about. We didn’t, but we did find a much more bustling section of the medina, with lots of food for sale including fruits, bread, fish, meat, spices, grains, and so on. This was much more interesting than yesterday. It was crowded and moist and smelly and the ground was a bit unpleasant to walk on, but it was an amazing experience.

Casablanca market
Market in the medina, Casablanca.

About 11:00 we hailed a taxi and had the driver take us out to the Morocco Mall, which is on the coast in the far western suburbs of the city. The drive itself was interesting, as we passed a lot of places along the coast and saw plenty of people down on the beach and swimming in the ocean. There was an ice cream stand at the street about every hundred metres along the beach, which stretched for kilometres. Back in the city we drove past a man who was holding up a puppy, apparently trying to sell it to a passing car.

Eventually the driver dropped us at the mall and we entered the the blissful shade and air conditioning. The sun was hot and it was good to get inside. We wandered around slowly until we felt like lunch, then checked the food court area on the third level. There was a lot to choose from, but even though it was after midday many of the stalls were closed or just preparing food to get ready for selling. We looked at a few places, including this Caffe Vergnano, but it turned out to be mostly drinks and a few cakes, not lunch food. Instead we found an Italian place called La Farfalla, which made freshly prepared pasta and pizza. The woman there spoke to us in French as we perused the menu, and offered us some bruschetta to try. I had a piece and it was very good. We ended up ordering a spaghetti puttanesca for me and penne arabbiata for M., plus a couple of bottles of water, all in French. I apologised for my poor French and said I spoke English, and the lady immediately switched to good English, saying she thought we only spoke French! The pasta would take ten minutes to cook, and we learnt that the chef was from Italy and made everything to order. A man brought the pasta to our table a few minutes later, with a generous amount of grated Reggiano Parmagiana cheese. We tasted the pasta and it was really good, perfectly cooked and very tasty. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunches, and let the woman at the shop know as we left. I was amazed that the chef would open a fast food place in a food court instead of a proper Italian restaurant.

Spaghetti puttanesca
Spaghetti puttanesca from La Farfalla. Morocco Mall, Casablanca.

After resting a few minutes to enjoy the view from our table over the Atlantic Ocean, we moved back to the Caffe Vergnano for M. to get a coffee. I decided to get a hot chocolate, which was the thick Italian style and yummy. And now we’re sitting here relaxing as I type this!

17:24

We are back at our hotel, waiting for the 18:00 tour group meeting. After having our restful and extended lunch at the mall we continued walking around to see it all. We found the small souk section, which was a circuit of narrow passages with small shops extending off it, like an old marketplace, but built new as part of the ultramodern shopping mall. The tiny shops in here had more traditional Moroccan arts and crafts, rather than the international fashion chains populating the rest of the mall, and were thus much more interesting. There was also a mosque secreted away amongst the souk area.

Morocco Mall souk
Shops in the souk section. Morocco Mall, Casablanca.

Just before leaving the mall we stopped in the Starbucks we saw near the entrance and bought a souvenir Morocco mug for Hailey’s collection. They had trouble finding a box for it until it looked like the woman in charge of the shop went out the back and emerged with a carton of four boxed mugs. All we have to do now is carry it safely for the rest of the trip!

We exited the mall to seek a taxi, and saw several hanging around. We intended to cross the road to get one going in the right direction, but before we could cross one driver urged us into his taxi. We pointed to indicate we were heading in the other direction. He indicated that was no problem, so we climbed in, and I checked to see the meter was on. Before he pulled away, another man got in the front seat to share the ride with us! The taxi backed into the roundabout behind it, then turned around to head back towards the centre of the city. The driver drove like a maniac, zooming between other cars, beeping, whizzing past pedestrians with barely a centimetre of clearance, and so on. We got close to our hotel and the meter was nearly 30 dirhams when it seemed to reset itself. The other man got out and paid his fare, speaking in Arabic. The driver then let us off near our hotel, after having to consult a business card we’d taken from the hotel to get the exact street. I proffered 30 dirhams, but he pressed a button and the meter suddenly displayed 46! I argued that that was too expensive, in halting French, and it should only be 30, but he said something about it being for two people. Rather than cause a scene over what amounted to barely $1.50, I handed over the 46 dirhams in exact change, not wanting to embellish it with any hint of a tip, and climbed out. He basically ripped us off, but at least it was only a trivial amount of money (for us).

We bought another couple of bottles of water at the general store near our hotel and then went in to our room. We saw the Intrepid tour meeting notice posted by the lift, which confirmed we would meet at 18:00. It also listed Peregrine, which is the company the other woman was with, so it looks like she will indeed be on the same tour with us.

21:16

The meeting of the tour group at 18:00 took about an hour and a half as our tour leader, a man named Lahcen, got our details and introduced us to various details about what would be happening and what we needed to do to stay safe. The meeting was on the upper floor of the hotel restaurant and the lighting was so dim that several of the people had trouble seeing the forms we needed to fill in, or reading the relevant information from their passports or insurance forms. It turned out that the tour was indeed a blend of tours operated by Peregrine and Intrepid, so the people in our group had variously booked through those two companies. Lahcen said we needed to be checked out and ready to leave at 08:00 tomorrow morning, for our first day’s activities. The plan for tomorrow is a visit to the Hassan II Mosque, then we leave by bus for Rabat, where we pick up a local guide who will take us on a walking tour of major sights. At the end of the day we drive on to Meknes where we spend tomorrow night.

After the meeting Lahcen suggested a restaurant called Les Fleurs for dinner, which turned out to be just across the main road from our hotel. It had a nice decor in traditional Moroccan style, and a mix of Moroccan and French food. I chose a seafood pastilla to try, while M. got the vegetable couscous. The pastilla was a crispy thin crust like a crepe around a filling consisting of spiced noodles and mixed seafood, flavoured with a lot of turmeric and some other spices. It was nice, but not spectacular. M.’s couscous was covered in huge chunks of several different vegetables and sultanas and was delicious, but enough for two people, so there was quite a lot left over by the time we were done. Over the meal we chatted with Ben and Terry, two of the guys on the tour, and a bit with Leanne (the woman we’d met yesterday who was on the suspiciously similar sounding Peregrine tour) and a second Michelle (from Brisbane). There’s a third Michelle too, but that was the European name of a Chinese woman who lives in San Francisco, who said maybe we should call her Zi instead. There are two women from New Zealand, and two from Canada (one Edmonton and the other from Victoria), and two retired men from Sydney – we didn’t catch their names and will have to learn them over the next few days.

Vegetable couscous
Vegetable couscous. Les Fleurs restaurant, Casablanca.

With the meal done, we begged off tired and gave Lahcen 220 dirhams to cover our share of the food and tip. We headed back to the hotel to shower and flop into bed to get a solid eight and a bit hours of sleep before breakfast tomorrow.