Maroc and roll

November - December 2018
November - December 2018
  • Day18

    Day 18: farewell to Morocco

    December 15, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    Crepes, honey and coffee again at the terrace restaurant and some final photos in the Djemaa el Fna. It's relatively quiet in the early morning but there are some fruit juice vendors. I have a deliciously bitty orange juice but the men are well skilled in the art of upselling. Grape juice, monsieur? Pineapple? Pomegranate? Maybe it's because I don't go the extra mile that they look a bit grumpy in the photo!

    It's time for the taxi to the airport and spend the last of my Moroccan currency on those old standbys, fridge magnets. It's remarkable that a country with a culture so unlike ours can be only 3 1/2 hours flight away. It's been a good trip and I look forward to going back one day.

    At Gatwick, 3 degrees C and torrential rain welcome me. Still, there's the chance to get wet again inside as I meet friends at a pub near Victoria. As it turns out, I will miss by a few days the drone attack which is to cripple Gatwick for 30 hours. There's something to be said for returning home in good time for Christmas.
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  • Day16

    Days 16 & 17: Marrakesh express

    December 13, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    It's a shame to be leaving Fez and the four days I was here haven't done it justice. Some more insight into booking accommodation from the host's viewpoint. Max says that no-shows are a major headache and to try and weed them out, when a booking has been made, he contacts the would-be guest welcoming them to his riad and asking what time they expect to arrive. As a punter I like this practice too, for it ensures that the guest house is a real place and not just in cyberspace.

    The taxi to the railway station has a meter---wow! Then it's all aboard the Marrakesh express. Somewhere around Casablanca the train passes the spot where I was at precisely the same hour as on Saturday's outward journey. I need an unmetered taxi from Marrakesh's station to my hotel. It's called the Sherazade and lying in the medina, it could almost be the setting of the 1001 nights. The first two pictures below show rooftop views.

    The unmissable attraction of Marrakesh is the Djemaa el Fna, a large square which is part market place, part street theatre. It's unforgettable and has a hint of craziness about it. Sadly the storytellers of yesteryear are no more, made redundant by social media. But there's lots more: street vendors, stallholders, snake charmers, fortune tellers, African-style drummers and charlatans of all stripes. The drummers are so good that I photograph them at different times of the afternoon to make use of the changing light.

    One could easily spend all day here but I venture into the depths of the medina. As in Fez, each trade has its own quarter: jewellers, leathersmiths, weavers, carpet sellers, coppersmiths..... I find the site of another fine medersa, the Ben Youssef, but it's heavily bricked up and workmen pass to and fro through a makeshift entrance. "Closed", says a bloke standing outside and I give him a yellow card for stating the obvious.

    My final dinner is at the Foucauld, a fine neo-Moorish hotel of about 1900 encrusted with zellij. and named not after the pendulum but the French priest who lived among some desert tribes of Algeria up to 1916. The waiter shows me the drinks menu. The beer doesn't tempt me but the wine does; however so many places I have dined at so far are dry, so it's no hardship to resist and make this trip an alcohol-free zone.
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  • Day13

    Days 13, 14 & 15: Fez

    December 10, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    As it happens, my next port of call has a transfer service so I am picked up from the Ibis and whisked to the northern edge of the medina, from where the driver walks me to the Dar Iman. It's set in a tiny alleyway off one of the main streets of the medina, and has a classic riad design. A riad is a Moroccan former residence which has been converted into a guest house, with minimal windows on the outside and all the action facing inwards on to a central square courtyard. Some have a fountain in the courtyard; the Dar Iman lacks this but with wall-to-wall "zellij" (geometrically patterned tiles) but is totally beautiful. There are some muffled sounds from the street outside and the comforting 6.30 a.m. prayer call from the nearby mosque but generally there is a sense of protection from the outside world. However, once inside with all the internal windows visible from everywhere else, privacy is not a high priority. Better mind my P's and Q's here!

    The Dar Iman has 6 rooms but all except mine are unoccupied. Max, the owner, is a genial Australian who assures me that business picks up from Christmas. Due to the intimate riad layout, he will have to decide whether to hold a New Year's Eve party and he plans to write to all his would-be guests and go ahead only if they all agree. There are other complexities; to try and stamp out tourist harassment, touting is forbidden by law but it still goes on and Max has to turn away a backpacker who has been led here under the false pretense of it being the one that she booked.

    It's now time to explore the city. Morocco has four imperial cities---the others being Rabat, Meknes and Marrakesh but in scale and history, Fez beats the others by a country mile. It was founded in the 8th century and its university predates Oxbridge by 400 years. Besides this, there are several exquisite "medersas" or religious colleges open to the public. The settlement of Fez Jdid was tacked on later; it means "new city" although new means 13th century here and it was the centre of a flourishing "mellah" (Jewish quarter). The original medina is securely walled and impenetrable to motor traffic. The street pattern is a labyrinth which makes the Hampton Court maze look like the M1. There are debates about why this pattern was adopted; not just to confuse tourists but perhaps to ensure that in the hot summer sun, every street would lie at least partly in shadow. To simplify things, every quarter has its own trade: leathersmiths here and perfumeries there. You know when you're near the coppersmiths from the rhythmic beating and tapping. As to the tanneries, you smell them first; the skins are cured with sheeps' urine and pigeon droppings. One of a posse of so-called guides leads me up a secret staircase to an extraordinary sight of men sloshing about in vats of dye with all colours of the rainbow, in a desperate scene going back to the Middle Ages. It's a dirty job and all that.....

    The stink of the tanneries hasn't quite put me off lunch. Breakfast at Max's was crepes with honey, and a side plate of omelette with fresh tomatoes, washed down with inky coffee. It was good but not quite enough to last the whole day so I snack out on harira with bread. Harira is one of Morocco's great institutions, a bowl of soup enriched with chick peas, bits of pasta, tomatoes, maybe chicken, and lots of pepper. As to the evening meal, tagine (stew based with chicken, lamb or "kefta" (meat balls) is ubiquitous but as a nod to the relaxation of visa regulations for China, I dine on a nice spicy Chinese meal near Max's.
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  • Day11

    Days 11 &12: Agdz, Marrakesh and Fez

    December 8, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    Abdullah gives me a lift into Agdz and it's just a half-hour wait for the comfortable CTM bus back over the Sarhro to Ouarzazate. From there I'm on the evening flight back to Marrakesh. It's dark when I arrive and I go straight to the Hotel du Pacha. I am sorry to leave the desert behind; there is a fascination for being able to see ten, maybe twenty miles of absolutely pristine nothing. It's so alien to the grey, cramped, polluted world where most of humanity chases around and I hope that in 2019 there will be time for me to find another desert somewhere. I even have a book at home waiting to be re-read: "Grains of Sand" by Martin Buckley (2000). "Everyone has his own desert," he writes.

    Leaving the road behind, I take to the rails. Moroccan railways are modern, well kept and reasonably punctual. The network covers all the main cities north of the Atlas and besides this standard service, there is to be a TGV line which will cut the journey from Casablanca to Tangier to 2 hours. I am headed for the historic city of Fez about 300 miles to the north-east. In first class there are 6 seats in each compartment, ideal for catching up on any missed sleep, and from time to time a man comes round with drinks and snacks. The line passes through Casablanca, Rabat and Meknes before pulling into Fez in mid-afternoon. It's been a leisurely 7-hour trip.

    The station at Fez is another neo-Moorish structure and like that at Marrakesh, spotless and efficient. It sits in the ville nouvelle of Fez, which is almost Euopean in feel with little taste of what's to come in the medieval city. Although it's still daylight, I have decided to book into an Ibis by the station. This is to defer searching for my lodgings in the Fez medina where no traffic can penetrate, and to leave that task for tomorrow.

    Attached are some previews of Fez, both in the ville nouvelle and the medina.
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  • Day9

    Days 9 & 10: Agdz

    December 6, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    A grand taxi back to Zagora and from there into the vallley of the Draa. Agdz is somewhat bigger than Tamegroute with about 10,000 people. With time in hand, I stop for the customary mint tea. A man is singing the praises of Chelsea and although I haven't looked up last night's results, I don't want to be uncool by asking him. Maybe he hasn't looked them up either because it turns out that Chelsea lost. Never mind, it's good tea.

    Thursday is market day in Agdz and the souk is strung out along the road back towards Zagora. It's a lively affair and besides the usual food products, there is a plethora of second-hand clothes. It's totally unconscious of tourists and is also an efficient way of recycling unwanted goods. I continue down the road to my lodgings, an unassuming but pleasant guest house where again I am the only guest.

    The Draa valley is at its most beautiful around here. The hills have closed in from Zagora and the brown harshness of the desert is relieved by the deep green of the date palm groves. Most of the villages have at least one kasbah. Tamnougalt, a couple of miles down the valley, has two, one of them converted into a hotel where I get another fix of mint tea, and the other, an abandoned but recently restored structure perched on a hilltop and visible for miles around. Walking back to the guest house, I wait for the angle of the sunlight to change until the shadows are right.

    Back at my lodgings Abdullah the proprietor, in good English, reports that the price of fuel has trebled in the last few years. It has made life difficult for the public but surprisingly there seem to have been few protests. It contrasts with the situation in France where the "yellow waistcoat" movement have nearly shut down the country.
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  • Day7

    Days 7 & 8: Tamegroute

    December 4, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    My next port of call requires three stages by grand taxi. As an alternative to buses, it's a wonderful institution, and is usually a much lived-in, desert-brown Mercedes with seating for 5 people plus driver. Each passenger pays a sum in advance and would-be passengers congregate around the vehicle until it's full. 3 at the back, 3 at the front, with the middle passenger's legs straddled over the gear stick (painful, that). The wait can take an hour but is usually done within a quarter of that At the small taxi stand in Skoura, a man is calling out "Ouarzazate, Ouarzazate, Ouarzazate" and after 10 minutes we're good to go. It's an effectuive and wonderfully green way to get around.

    At Ouarzazate the process is repeated for the exciting ride over the parched Djbel Sahrho mountains to the provincial town of Zagora and then for the shorter ride to Tamegroute. The whole 220 km. (140 miles) journey takes 5 1/2 hours for a cost of about £8.

    Tamegroute, a town of a few thousand people, is in true desert without a blade of grass outside the date palm oasis. My hotel is itself a wonderful oasis with a peaceful walled garden where I am welcomed in with a pot of mint tea. The waiter pours it from a great height to mix the drink as it falls in the glass. Moroccan whisky they call it, and it does pull quite a punch but not in the alcoholic way. I could gladly rest all day in the garden but venture outside the town to a wasteland of abandoned football pitches, half-finished concrete blocks supposed to mimic the style of kasbahs, and the distant foothills of the Atlas. Not everyone's glass of mint tea but it's mine and I'm happy to do the same the next day.

    The hotel has a large octagonal structure in the garden which serves as the restaurant, where I am the only diner. There is a book exchange and I read Tom Chesshyre's book on the Arab Spring at a sitting. It describes his travels across Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2012, including a near-kidnapping in Libya. Six years later the situation there seems only to have got worse and I feel for the citizens there, while being thankful to be in a more stable country.
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  • Day5

    Days 5 & 6: Skoura

    December 2, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 17 °C

    A 10 minute wait for a grand taxi to get back to Tinerhir and from there, a bus in the direction of Ouarzazate to Skoura. This is a town of perhaps 5,000 people in the middle of a large date palm grove. I am staying in another kasbah, smaller than the Taborihte but with a friendly family atmosphere. The daughter of Abdullatif, the owner, brings me some mint tea on the terrace. This affords attractive views of village life and as the sun starts to sink, provides beautiful "golden hour" shots of nearby kasbahs, date palms and the distant mountains.

    Breakfast the next morning includes crepes and honey, which together with coffee and fruit juice, set me up for the rest of the day. It's a 2 mile walk to the Kasbah Amridil, another stronghold of local dignitaries. It's built of mud brick which has to be renovated every 5 years or so but with its maze of secret stairways and courtyards and its own views over the palm grove, is an impressive monument.

    The Monday souk (market) is in full swing on my return to Skoura. This is decidedly not a tourist attraction---in fact I seem to be the only European here---hence there is an authenticity lacking from the more famous markets.

    And so, supper back at my mini-kasbah. Skoura is by no means warm at night but I am heated internally by the excellent tagine de kefta (meat ball stew in a sturdy earthenware bowl), and go to bed satisfied.
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  • Day3

    Days 3 and 4: Gorges du Todra

    November 30, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 14 °C

    I stay in Ouarzazate only long enough for the midday bus north-east to the town of Tinerhir. The journey is run by the national CTM company and like many Moroccan roads, Route 10 is in excellent condition. With the High Atlas for company on the left, it's a comfortable 3 1/2 hour journey including a half-hour lunch break, for the 160 km. (100 miles).

    Tinerhir is a market town (a tautology because all Moroccan town have markets, weekly or daily) of about 40,000 people. From there, it's a scenic shared taxi run alongside the river Todra to where I'm going to be staying. And this is a treat; the driver drops me off at a lay-by and I negotiate the wobbly footbridge across the river to the Kasbah Taborihte. Although modernised and extended, it's an impressive building in traditional kasbah style replete with patterned decorations, turrets and crenellations. It's typical of the fortified residences built by the local landowners and warlords up to the French Colonial period. As a concession to the 21st century, it boasts a swimming pool but at an altitude of around 1,500 metres the weather isn't really warm enough for a dip. It's a wonderful peaceful setting however in a lush palm grove.

    The next day I walk the 3 km. (2 miles) up the road through some tranquil village life to the gorge itself. As the road crosses the river, the hills suddenly close in, leaving a crevice only just wide enough for the road. The sun is shining brightly but in here it hits the ground about as often as in the canyons of Wall Street. And the walls of the gorge reach 150 m. (500 ft.), making them a paradise for rock climbers.

    Since there are more villages up the valley, the road continues and is still paved. The valley widens out to reveal impressive rocky desert scenery. It's fun to watch the sunlight change direction during the day and I enjoy photographing the date palms in shadow in front of a brilliantly lit rock face. The quality of the light changes during the day as well, becoming more mellow and orange later on. I have lunch of Omelette Berbere at a local hotel and have a late afternoon return to the gorge, before the walk back to the Taborihte. It's been a satisfying day.

    Back at base, an couple tell me of the sand dunes around Merzouga. It sounds as if the dunes have become too famous for their own good and I am happy to stick to the rocky desert. Somebody in the corner is rambling on about their, like, Instagram feed; I want an early start tomorrow so make my excuses.
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  • Day2

    Day 2: Marrakesh to Ouarzazate

    November 29, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    As is the way, in daylight the prospects are brighter in more ways than one. Downstairs they serve a decent Continental breakfast with French bread, honey and good coffee. I have several hours in hand and use them to fulfil several tasks:

    1. Get some more Moroccan currency at an exchange house. The £ notes have to be in perfect condition to be acceptable.
    2. Onward train ticket for Fez later in the trip, at the neo-Moorish station.
    3. Postcards. It turns out that they take less than a week to reach London!
    4. After the horse has bolted: insect repellent. I don't see, hear or smell a mosquito anywhere else on this trip.
    5. Route march to the medina to check out the street plan for a stay booked later in the trip. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted!

    Forewarned and forearmed, I return to the airport for the short flight to Ouarzazate (a wonderful place name pronounced "Wr-za-ZAT"). This is a precaution against the road being blocked by snow, although as it turns out there would have been no problem. The view of the Atlas Mountains is spectacular; they form a rain/snow shadow and ensure that Ouarzazate is the gateway to the desert.

    A long argument with the taxi drivers but a short ride to the Hotel Amlal which is modern but built in traditional riad-style with inwards-facing courtyards. The service is helpful and friendly and with a sumptuous room, I have a very comfortable night, with the prospect in the morning of another nice view from the terrace.
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  • Day1

    Day 1: Gatwick to Marrakesh

    November 28, 2018 in Morocco ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    For many years Morocco has been an attraction for me, with it being the nearest country outside Europe to Britain. Lying just a handful of miles across from Spain, its dominant Muslim culture contrasts dramatically with those of our own continent. There are now two official languages, Arabic and Berber, while as a legacy of Colonial times, French is spoken quite widely. Its rich history going back at least to Roman times, relative stability compared with much of the Middle East, and its pleasant climate make it difficult not to like. Needless to say, my passport has a healthy helping of Moroccan stamps!

    Easyjet runs two daily flights to Marrakesh and in late November, at the bargain return rate of less than £100. This passes without incident and after the first of several differences of opinion with taxi drivers, I am indoors in the Ville Nouvelle by 10 p.m.-ish.

    Some landfalls are good but this isn't one of them. Night-time arrivals often have a frisson about them. My body clock hasn't quite adjusted to the one hour time difference and I lie awake while somebody who seems to have forgotten their room number tries to get into my room. A mosquito however succeeds in doing so and it's only after some handclaps worthy of a Gospel choir that it becomes an ex-mosquito. Oh well, it's not as bad a landfall as one I once made when after landing at Casablanca, I decided to take the 4 hour bus to Marrakesh, where a "faux guide" led me to a dodgy hotel in the "medina" (ancient quarter of the city) and fed me to the bedbugs. Things will get better; I can look forward to a room with a view, come morning.
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