Morocco/Spain diary: Day 13

22 December, 2014

Thursday, 25 September, 2014. 18:59

We are relaxing just before dinner with the group, our last dinner of the tour.

We woke up at 07:40 and got ready for breakfast at 08:00. It was a bit late being prepared, so we hung out on the roof terrace in the cool morning air for a bit until it was ready. The repast consisted of baguettes and roti with jams and butter, plus a selection of corn flakes or chocolate cereal, and yoghurt. I hadn’t had cereal for several days, so I had two bowls of the corn flakes, one with apricot yoghurt and one with strawberry yoghurt. A crunchy breakfast after so many days of bread and jam and boiled eggs was luxury.

00:04 (just after midnight)

We have just returned to our riad after the last dinner of the tour – a long and special event at a fancy hotel restaurant in the new town area of Marrakesh.

Winding back to breakfast, we assembled for the final walking tour of the voyage. We met the local guide, a man named Mustafa, wearing a light brown jellaba with the hood up, and short horizontal glasses. He led us out through the hectic streets to the prime ministerial palace Palais Bahia, which is the only palace in Morocco which visitors are allowed inside. He stopped on the street along the way to explain some of the history of the Berber kings and the palaces, including this one.

Entering the palace gates was an immediate breath of fresh air, as the traffic vanished, to be replaced by fruit trees and a peaceful courtyard. The only thing to dodge now were the hordes of tourists. There were dozens of huge tour groups of 40-50 people being led around by guides carrying flags and signs. I haven’t seen so many tourists in one place since… probably since the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, actually.

Palais Bahia courtyard
Palais Bahia courtyard.

Mustafa led us through the crowds into the interior of the palace building. The first stop was a small courtyard in which several fruit trees were growing, including banana and orange. There were side rooms off the courtyard, some with doorways leading to other parts of the complex, and some dead ends. The ceilings were made of cedar wood and intricately decorated with beautiful geometrical paintings. The doors and window shutters were also painted cedar wood, some with geometrical designs and others with flowers. Mustafa explained that Muslims did not paint or depict any humans or animals – anything with a soul according to Islam – but trees or flowers are okay. He said the result was the geometrical patterns and also the development of calligraphy as an art form, in two forms of script: cursive and Kufic, which is more geometrical. I tried to move around a bit to get some photos without so many people in them, but quite literally every time I turned to go somewhere, another tour group would enter the courtyard and get in my way. It really was that crowded and busy with groups wandering through.

Bahia ceiling 2
Palais Bahia ceiling.

Mustafa led us through a series of rooms and told us stories about the prime minister who had lived here and his four official wives and 24 “unofficial” wives. Maria asked who chose the wives, and Mustafa explained that they were gifts of daughters from various tribes who wanted to build political connections with the prime minister. In one room was a raised wooden platform about five metres long. Mustafa explained that this was for a black eunuch slave to walk heavily back and forth on all night, making clomping sounds, just so that the master of the house could hear that a servant was awake and ready to attend to his wishes at any time of the night. If the stomping stopped, the master would know the slave had fallen asleep and would punish him.

Bahia fountain
Palais Bahia fountain.

Leaving the palace, we returned to the motorcycle riddled streets to walk towards the souks around the main square Jemaa el-Fnar. We passed a couple of museums, which Mustafa said were worth a visit for anyone who wanted to do so this afternoon during the free time on the tour, or who had extra spare time in Marrakesh, but we weren’t going in them now. Instead we walked further along a narrow passageway lined with markets and tiny shops, until we got to the Photography Museum of Marrakesh, which we stopped in at for half an hour or so.

Medina of Marrakesh
Walking through the medina.

I thought this was an odd thing to visit on a tour like this, but it turned out not to be about the history of photography, but rather a photographic history of Morocco. They had lots of old glass plate negative prints from the 19th and early 20th centuries, documenting the looks of the different people of Morocco and of the places around the country. They also had a few autochrome colour images, and the man who introduced us to the place showed us an old stereo image of Moroccan people in a market square using an antique wooden stereoscope. The largest prints were close ups of the faces of various people, in their widely differing styles of dress.

After viewing the three floors of prints, we stopped on the rooftop terrace for a coffee and to absorb the view across the rooftops of the medina. It was interesting that the only buildings taller than three storeys that we could see were the minarets of the mosques, poking above the otherwise flat landscape of rooftops. Satellite dishes sprouted everywhere, pointing out the direction of some satellite over the equator to the south. The day was quite hot in the sun, but thankfully we had plenty of shade on the rooftop and the walking was mostly in the shade of the medina.

Medina silhouette
Evoking the photography of the museum with my own photo of the medina.

We left the photography museum after using the toilet there and Mustafa led us back, retracing our route a bit, until we turned out of the souks into the main square of Jamaa el-Fnar, which was not as busy as at dinner last night. There were snake charmers with cobras, hopefully with the venom removed, but we weren’t taking any chances since Lahcen had warned us that sometimes they still had venom, and a snake charmer had been killed by his snake just a few weeks ago. So we kept our distance, and walked through to the pedestrian mall, saying goodbye and thank you to Mustafa along the way. There were also some men with monkeys in the square, and a lot of stalls of men selling freshly squeezed orange juice, which made sense in the heat of the day. Greg and Graham said they wanted to go find some lunch by themselves, so they departed here.

Medina arch
Souk near Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Lahcen led the rest of us to a restaurant where we left most of them, while Lahcen took us and Terry back to the riad to pick up things we wanted to mail overseas. Terry had bought so much bulky stuff that he was mailing a lot of it back home to Sydney, whereas we had the Morocco Starbucks mug to send to Allison in the USA and we figured it made sense to mail it from here rather than carry it back home and mail it there. Lahcen wanted to get us a taxi back to the riad, but that was complicated by the newly created one-way street it was on, which meant a long ride around to the far end, so we walked instead. After collecting our stuff, Lahcen grabbed a taxi for me and M., which already had a passenger in it, and negotiated a fare of 30 dirhams to drop us off at the McDonalds in the new town. He and Terry followed in another taxi. The drive was interesting, as we passed several parks along the main road, named as all main roads in every city and town across Morocco, Avenue Mohammed V.

After rejoining Lahcen and Terry, Lahcen led us to the post office across the road from the McDonalds. We went in, and it looked very different from an Australian post office, being a large empty room with a row of low counters with women sitting behind large electronic scales for weighing packages. At the front of the room was a table where some men were sitting. Lahcen talked to them and then came back to explain to us that the man who did the work was out having lunch and we had to come back later!

So we walked out to a nearby place a block away called Winoo, which Lahcen described as one of the two most popular eateries in this area of Marrakesh, together with a fish place we could see across the street. It made sandwiches and pizzas and that sort of thing, and had a huge selection of fruit juices. Looking down the list I spotted a thing called dwak juice, which I had to order merely on the basis of the name. I asked Lahcen what it was and he said a type of fruit. I also got a smoked salmon panino which came with “edam” cheese on it, but turned out to be some sort of finely minced blend of cheeses that was the same as what M. got on her cheese, tomato, and lettuce vegetarian panino. It was nice though, and a good change from tajines and couscous. I also had some chips with mine. The dwak juice was milky and nutty, with a hint of coconut to it, and fine textured pieces throughout, like bits of wheat bran or something. M. had a strawberry juice, which was thick and cold and delicious. While eating lunch we noticed people rushing through their meals, eating and then paying and leaving quickly. Lahcen told us that restaurants you just order, eat your food, and go, so they can get more people through the tables, but by contrast at a cafe you can just order a coffee and sit for hours.

After lunch we returned to the post office, where the man had returned from lunch and proceeded to pack our parcels for us in boxes, and had us fill out customs and shipping forms. He also calculated the postage and told Lahcen, who translated the cost to us, and said we should also tip him for wrapping our parcels. It seems he was just a guy who hung out at the front of the post office wrapping parcels for people, and then taking them up to the actual post office staff to stamp and send off. As we were leaving, the man complained to Lahcen that the tip we’d left him wasn’t big enough, and Lahcen handed over a few more coins!

By now it was quite late and Lahcen had to return to the others at the lunch spot to sort out what they wanted to do and lead anyone who wanted to find their way back to the riad. He put us and Terry in a taxi to the riad and then went off to meet the others by himself. After returning to the riad, we refreshed a bit and then went out to walk to the Jamaa el-Fnaa and the souks.

The walk along the street from our riad to the old ruined palace of Palais Badi where the storks nest is really unpleasant, as there is no footpath and you have to be very careful not to get in the way of speeding motorcycles, men drawing carts, horses, and so on. But once you get out onto the main road there is a footpath, and then the pedestrian mall near the square is fairly pleasant.

Stork nest
Storks nesting on Palais Badi.

Once at Jemaa el-Fnaa, we picked a path to walk down through one of the souks, in an easterly direction. The path was about three or four metres wide, between numerous tiny market stalls and shops crammed together, with a patchwork roof covering it to keep out the sun. Sunbeams broke through gaps in the roof to illuminate the souk. We walked along for quite some time, and it seemed to go on forever. We must have walked several hundred metres in the same direction and there was no sign of it really ending, though it became a bit less touristy and more local far away from the square. M. stopped in a silver jewellery stall, picking one where the jewellery was locked in glass cabinets, rather than one which had jewellery simply out for display. The man in there was friendly and helpful and M. picked out a silver bracelet that she liked. The man got out a desk calculator and a small electronic balance to weigh the amount of silver, then punched in a price per gram and quoted a total of something close to 950 dirhams. He showed us a framed silver certification, which had hallmark stamps on it, and showed M. the matching stamps on the bracelet. M. offered 450, the man ummed and aahed, and M. later told me he rapidly punched in a bunch of other numbers, and she saw the total 440 flash up briefly before he cleared it. He asked for 500, but M. countered with 475, and after some deliberation he agreed. We concluded he must have been calculating the base price he would need to meet to make his cost price, so something under 500 might have been a pretty good deal for us.

Further along we saw a side alley that looked interesting, with several men working on making items out of leather. We walked down it and back again, passing about a dozen or so small craft shops, where men were gluing or stitching or cutting leather to make various things. Later on we saw a wood turner making small spun items on a manual foot-powered lathe, which was interesting.

Marrakesh souk
Exploring the souks, near Jemaa el-Fnaa.

We continued on, but eventually we turned around and started heading back to the square, trying to take cross alleys to find a way back that we hadn’t walked yet. We ended up in some dead end sections where people were selling less touristy stuff, like second hand clothes. We emerged into an open triangular area full of people selling fruit, vegetables, and freshly ground spices. Sitting in the middle were women busy grinding the spices. Nearby was a section where people were selling live songbirds, tortoises, lizards, and squirrels, in cages. We even saw a falcon.

We found a cross alley and headed back that way, but it merged with the one we’d come up along, so we retraced part of our route. As we headed back towards the square, various stall owners kept calling out to us to come and look at their wares. One yelled, “Come, have look,” and then added, enunciating very carefully, “Cheap… as… chips!” We wondered if some tourist had taught him that phrase.

In the souks
Deeper into the souks.

Eventually we emerged back into the square. It was hot and sunny out of the shade of the souks, so I looked at one of the orange juice stalls in the row of five or so identical stalls. The observant owner saw me looking and immediately gestured and called for me to come buy some juice. I got a glass of the juice and it was, as usual, delicious. While drinking, M. took a photo of me, and the stall owner gestured for me to come round the back and join him on his elevated platform for a photo with him, which we did.

We walked back to our riad, avoiding getting anywhere near the snake charmers, and bought another five litre bottle of water along the way. People kept inviting us into places and to come and see their shops and so on. It’s hard to know who is genuinely being friendly and just wants to encourage you to look at their wares, and who might be trying to con you in some way. So unfortunately the best policy is just to ignore pretty much everyone.

Juice cart
Getting an orange juice.

At the riad, I showered off the heat of the day, then we went up to the rooftop terrace of the place to join some of the others who were mingling there around or in the pool. We had some time to relax, so Maria and I decided to open that bottle of white wine we’d bought earlier, which had been chilling in the honour bar fridge. We shared it around and finished it off before dinner.

We assembled a bit after 19:00 to go for dinner. Lahcen had organised dinner at a fancy hotel restaurant across in the new town for our final tour dinner, and a van to take us there and back. We drove about fifteen minutes to the Hotel Le Caspien, and went up to the seventh floor where they had a rooftop terrace (as pretty much every eating establishment here seems to have). It was very swank and the cool evening air was pleasant, but unfortunately there was a sewer smell escaping from somewhere on the roof. The staff tried to hide it with naphthalene or something, but that was almost as bad. We moved down to the ground floor and spent the rest of the evening there instead.

The restaurants here all seem to still allow smoking. Our tables had ashtrays on them, but thankfully nobody in our tour group smoked. Someone sitting outside by the pool smoked though, so we got a whiff every now and then drifting in the open doors.

M. and I ordered a half bottle of Medaillon Rose de Syrah, the middle priced of three options for rose. Someone else had ordered the cheaper rose on the recommendation of Maria, but the one we got was good too, with a darker colour than the cheaper one. For dinner I ordered tagliatelle with salmon in a tomato cream sauce, while M. ordered a Margherita pizza. Other people got entrees as well as mains, so we waited a bit while they ate, and had some of the very nice bread rolls with garlic butter that came out to accompany the meal. The pasta was excellent, hand made and cooked perfectly al dente, and the sauce tasty and delicious. M. enjoyed the pizza, which was very crusty. We didn’t want dessert, but Jay ordered a raspberry mousse to have a bit and share the rest around, so I had a few bites of that, which was also very good. Jay also split a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne with Jill, Michelle, and Anna, who all got very giggly by the end of the night. We didn’t leave the restaurant until after 23:00, and Leanne had to be up at 04:30 for her transfer to the airport in the morning!

Before leaving, Lahcen gave a parting speech to the group, and Terry gave a response of thanks from the group. Ben gave Lahcen the guide tip which he’d collected from everyone. The van drove us back to the riad, which cost us 30 dirhams a piece, as Lahcen had hired it as an extra, not part of the tour. We arrived back just before midnight, and exchanged goodbyes with the people who would be leaving before breakfast.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 12

21 December, 2014

Wednesday, 24 September, 2014. 08:30

Aït Benhaddou is a popular tourist spot because it is a day trip from Marrakesh. Apparently the village here is swarming with tourists at lunch time, and becomes deserted overnight. Although the hotel we’re staying at seems to have hundreds of rooms, and a luxurious swimming pool, we seem to be the only people staying here.

We woke with the alarm at 07:15 after probably the best sleep of the trip so far. Breakfast from 07:30 was a familiar looking selection of bread, jam, honey, boiled eggs, and freshly curled butter in a dish. The fried bread here was small squares which looked different to the donut rings in other places, but tasted the same. The bowl of apricot jam was enormous, a huge salad bowl full of the stuff. We were the first there on the terrace, joined by Leanne and Michelle and Terry soon after. The view from the terrace was amazing, on to a sunlit slope of mud brick buildings. After packing the bus we are heading on an hour long walk through the village up that hill to see the view before driving to Marrakesh.

Ksar Aït Benhaddou in dawn light
View of Ksah Aït Benhaddou from breakfast.

10:12

We are on the road again, after a morning walk through the village of Aït Benhaddou to see the Ksah Aït Benhaddou, which is a World Heritage Site. The mud brick buildings tumble down a small hill, with an old communal granary at the very top. The site is across a river from the modern village, and Lahcen said normally there is no water at all in the river, but today there was a wide, shallow flow from the recent rain. We crossed a modern concrete footbridge and then climbed the narrow winding alleys to the top. A large group of Japanese tourists overtook us as we stopped to look at an artist making watercolour paintings using indigo, tea, sugar, and saffron. As he painted, most of the picture was a pale yellow. When done, he heated the paper over a propane flame, caramelising the sugar to make it a dark brown, bringing out the design. They were only 30 dirhams so we bought one on the way back down.

Climbing Ksar Aït Benhaddou
Climbing Ksah Aït Benhaddou from breakfast.

At the top, a bunch of men were erecting fake stone walls lined with fibreglass to extend the granary, to make it appear larger for the New Adventures of Aladdin which is filming here at the moment. Further down men were building a picket stockade, which I assume is also for the film. After filming, this stuff will be removed again. We also saw a circular depression at the bottom of the hill, which was where the African arena scenes in Gladiator were filmed. Other films made here include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Cleopatra, The Jewel of the Nile, and some bits of Game of Thrones.

The view from the top was pretty good, looking over the river below, the modern village, and then out into the surrounding rocky landscape and the distant mountains. Ben said on the way down that the Japanese tourists had erected a tripod and reflecting screen to take professional photos of everyone in the group, in front of the scenery. Being a day trip from Marrakesh, I can see why this place is crowded at lunch time.

View from Ksar Aït Benhaddou
View from top of Ksah Aït Benhaddou from breakfast.

11:43

We are leaving a coffee and toilet stop, at a cafe and Restaurant Rafik, which has an attached tourist trap shop with some very fake looking ammonite “fossils” which look like they’re made of clay. The valley we’re driving up is flanked with low but sharp hills with eroded rock strata sticking out at all sorts of angles, the rock above is red, but there had been some very green soil and rock in the lower parts, which is almost certainly copper ore.

High Atlas, south side
Climbing up the High Atlas mountains.

14:37

We’ve just had lunch at a truck stop sort of place high in the High Atlas mountains, just over the pass of Tizi n’Tichka. This was Taddart Oufella (or “Upper Taddart”; there is also a Taddart Izdar, presumably “Lower Taddart”, another couple of kilometres down the road). The place looked like essentially a row of food places and shops along the road, with no signs of any residential village nearby. A lot of cars and trucks were stopped there, getting food. We went into one place where there were freshly slaughtered cuts of sheep hanging out the front, including a sheep’s head. The idea was you bought the meat raw, then paid a few dirhams to have the cafe cook it for you over their charcoal fire. You could either have chops, or they would grind it in a hand grinder and make kefta. Lahcen ordered a kilo of chops and a kilo of kefta for us to share, as well as Berber omelettes for M. and three others who wanted a meatless option. I also ordered a salad to go with the meat. The salad was finely chopped tomato, red onion, cucumber, and green capsicum, seasoned with salt, black pepper, and a touch of cumin. The meat was brought out hot from the fire and was delicious.

Choose your lunch
Choose your own lunch.

Earlier we stopped at the Takarkourte women’s cooperative in a small town (whose name I did not find out). Here women were making argan oil, by cracking and grinding the nuts of the argan tree. The argan tree is native only to Morocco, and the oil it produces has become popular for use in cosmetics. When the bus parked and we walked into the building, we noticed that the crunchy gravel-like area in front was paved not with gravel, but with millions of nut shells. Inside, women we working at cracking and grinding the nuts by hand. A woman gave us a brief tour of how the oil was produced, and some of the products made with it. The nuts are also edible, and can be used to make paste a bit like peanut butter. We got to sample some, sweetened with honey, which the woman described as “Berber Nutella”. It was delicious, and we considered buying some, but it was very expensive. Argan products are all expensive, because of the labour intensive processes needed to extract the nuts and oil. I asked if any places used machines to extract the oil, and was told no, because it was a traditional product and to maintain its cultural heritage status it was all done by hand. Some of the others bought some of the argan products, and we just bought some moisturising cream, since our tube of moisturiser we brought with us is running out.

Making argan oil
Women extracting argan oil.

We continued along the road up into the mountains. We stopped at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass, at 2260 metres, for a photo opportunity. The place was crammed with tourist trap shops and cafes. Now we’re continuing down this incredible windy road towards Marrakesh.

Long way down
View from Tizi n’Tichka pass, 2260 metres.

Lahcen was telling us on the bus about the three types of licensed tour guides in Morocco. First there are local guides, who need two years of university, followed by training in one particular location. These are the guides such as Atimadh and Hakima who showed us around the cities. Then there are national guides, who need a degree plus additional training and need to pass difficult exams to qualify. They lead large groups of 40 to 50 people around on tours of the major cities, and do not need to defer to a local guide in each city – they know enough to lead the groups everywhere except in the mountains or desert. Lastly there are the mountain guides, which Lahcen is. These need a high school graduation as a minimum, plus additional training, and they have to pass a three day examination consisting of written tests on day one, oral exams on day two, and then running a full marathon in the mountains, with 25 kilometres of uphill, on day three, and they have to finish the race in the top 40 of the examination class to qualify (but he didn’t say how many were in the class). The mountain guides are not qualified to lead tours in the cities, which is why he must call in local guides for those.

Atlas Mountains view
Descending through the High Atlas mountains.

16:25

We are entering Marrakesh, and just passing a golf course. Lahcen says there are “many golf courses in Marrakesh, at least six.”

22:10

We’ve arrived back at our hotel after dinner in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of Marrakesh, which was a real experience.

Mohammed drove our bus towards the Riad Maison Rouge, where we are staying for the last two nights of the tour, plus our extra night before we fly out. He got to a small square full of traffic and had to stop, as the street leading to the riad had “no entry” signs flanking it, which weren’t there last time he or Lahcen were here. Lahcen got out and talked to some people and discovered that the signs were added just four days ago, after a nasty traffic accident in that street we were going to drive down. Lahcen instructed us to get out of the bus, as we were leaving it and Mohammed here, and he was getting porters to carry our bags the remainder of the way to the riad, and we would have to walk about five minutes to get there.

Arriving in Marrakesh
Arrival in Marrakesh. That’s a porter hauling our bags ahead. We had to walk down the “no entry” street a few hundred metres to our hotel.

After he helped the porters to unload the bags and pack them into large wheelbarrow carts, we said goodbye to Mohammed, and Ben gave him the collected tips from everyone. Throughout the tour we all thought he was a really good driver, and could tell he was being careful and aware of road safety all the time, taking things slowly rather than taking any risks, especially with things like overtaking slow vehicles, winding mountain roads, the unpaved desert road, and slippery sections covered with mud from the rain.

The porters led the way to our riad and we arrived a bit later, checking into the “Marrakesh” room on the first floor, overlooking the courtyard which has orange trees growing in it, with fruit just turning ripe. Up another floor is a rooftop terrace with a small lap pool and an honesty system bar. We had an hour before meeting for dinner at 19:00, and several others used the pool and/or had some wine on the roof.

View from Riad Maison Rouge, Marrakesh
View from our room at Riad Maison Rouge, into interior courtyard.

For dinner Lahcen led us to the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. It was about fifteen minutes walk, through some narrow alleys then out into a small paved square with a few cars parked in it, then out to a narrow street with lots of motorcycle traffic and the occasional car, on to a Main Street with lots of cars, then turning into a pedestrian mall festooned with lamp posts and touristy looking shops and crowded with people walking to and fro, and then into the square itself, which was a complete knock out for the senses. It was pulsing with people, snake charmers, monkeys, and over one side hundreds of food stalls. The stalls were numbered and many had tables and benches set up for diners in front of the arrayed food which they cooked fresh. We stopped at stall 41, Chez Ssaid, which apparently Lahcen had called ahead to book, since a table was laid out and ready for us.

Arriving in Jemaa el-Fnaa
Jemaa el-Fnaa.

This dinner was included in our tour, and Lahcen had ordered a mixture of stuff, which came out in sequence: bread, olives, minced tomatoes, salad of tomato, cucumber, beetroot, potato, carrot, then plates of grilled eggplant, green capsicum, and potato patties, with a spicy chili sauce, then beef and chicken skewers, couscous with potato, zucchini, carrot, and turnips, then vegetable skewers with tomato, onion, and capsicum, then calamari rings. Zi showed up partway through having skipped the meeting for dinner to go the airport and meet her boyfriend, who was joining her here in Marrakesh. She happened to find us completely by accident, walking past where we were sitting in the crowded square. So they joined us as well, and ordered a mix of dishes, which included some sausages, which we swapped their extras for some our calamari rings, so we got to try those as well. Lahcen ordered a special dish just for him, which had lamb’s brains and some other cuts of meat which I couldn’t identify. After eating, people had mint tea, although I didn’t get any.

Chez Ssaid
Dining at Chez Ssaid in Jemaa el-Fnaa.

While we were eating, several beggars came up to our table, asking for food or money. Lahcen told us to ignore them, and the stall owner was on patrol near us, shooing them away. Lahcen has told us that many people are professional beggars, and can actually make a good living from it. Some women even hire babies to carry while begging, and some drug the babies to make them look sleepy. He says the only way to avoid encouraging this sort of thing is not to give any of them any money.

Food stalls of Jemaa el-Fnaa
Some of the many food stalls in Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Lahcen suggested we try a spicy drink after dinner, made with ginger, galangal, and several other herbs. It came hot in tea glasses, and was a deep red colour. A whiff was enough to clear the sinuses, and everyone who smelt it had the same reaction of being suddenly overpowered by the smell. But once you drank it, it was quite pleasant, sweetish, but spicy, with the kick of ginger. It was really delicious. Lahcen joked that it would kill any bugs in our stomachs from the food. We paid three dirhams for the spicy drink, and I asked Lahcen what it was called. He replied “spicy drink”, but then said that he called it galangal, since that was one of the ingredients.

Spicy drink stall
The “spicy drink” vendor.

After the spicy drink, Lahcen led us back to the riad. He showed us the nearest street area to the riad, where our transfers to the airport will pick us up one by one as we disperse to our different flights. Then he turned around to lead us to the riad. As we walked down the alley to the small square with parked cars, a motorcycle sped past and a passenger tried to snatch Heather’s handbag. Fortunately she had it held tightly around her neck, and she didn’t lose it, but she said the tug had hurt her neck. As the bike sped off, we yelled and Lahcen yelled ahead to where a couple of people in safety vests tried to stop the bike, but they couldn’t grab it. A bit shaken, we headed back to the riad and turned in for the night. Ben later told me that Lahcen said the vested guys were a sort of vigilante group, trying to protect tourists and citizens from petty crime.

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.