TROGLODYTES, A GRAND MOSQUE & GOOD-BYE

After the organized chaos of the Fez Medina we repaired to a nearby mountain village for a spot of R&R — a bit of hiking, a few ambles in a troglodyte village, a last dose of beautiful mountain scenery — or that was the plan. It seems that the deep freeze that has hit Europe continues to extend into Morocco and bitter alpine winds and rain buffeted the tiny village of Bhalil for the entire weekend. Added to that, I contracted a dire cough, so spent one day confined to an upper room, with soup and hot lemon tea supplied from time to time, while attired in all possible layers.

The only lodging in this conservative and slightly unwelcoming village was a tiny 4 bedroom guesthouse run by a highly eccentric Moroccan – Frenchman assisted by two long suffering Berber women. (He had a French wife but they decided she was happier in the south of France for some reason?) Meals were taken in the small kitchen and were traditional Moroccan tagines and couscous, though slightly more interesting than some. Niema was a very good cook but we are heartily sick of tagine and couscous after 5 1/2 weeks.

Our host was born in Fez, but sent to France for education at 18 where he acquired chemistry and engineering degrees and proceeded to work for Hewlett-Packard there and in Germany for 25 years. He then decided that he was losing his Moroccan roots, forgetting how to speak Moroccan, and though he and his children were fluent in French, Arabic, German, and English, he had never taught his children Moroccan and decided they were out of touch with the culture. He quit his job and packed up the whole family of 3 children and wife and returned to Fez. After a false start there he decided that the mountains were the place for him and somehow stumbled on Bhalil. The two older children left for France immediately, the wife and youngest child moved back to Fez, and then returned to France. He assured us that this was a mutually agreeable arrangement, that she was very busy with yoga and sculling, but that they were in very close touch etc etc,

His dream is to make a tourist attraction of this little place, which has 3 distinguishing characteristics: many caves (some inhabited), women who make buttons for Moroccan kaftans sitting outside (since the caves are so dark), and a typical white shawl worn by women. Maybe not a lot to build an industry on, especially when the village is badly maintained, quite poor, and not at all friendly. He’s been there 9 years, still trying to impose his ideas on the townspeople who want nothing to do with him.

And you could see why — his guesthouse provided absolutely nothing to the village — no income from guiding (he warns all his guests not to have anything to do with locals who offer, he will do all the guiding…but at such an exorbitant price that no one takes him up on it), there is no restaurant or cafe spin off as there is absolutely nowhere else to eat in the village, and the townspeople have nothing to sell except the handmade buttons which even the most charitable of tourists could not find a use for!

Our first night we were the only guests, and he launched into a spiel about his history, the culture of Morocco, strange opinions about everything under the sun…by the end of the second hour (trapped at the dinner table) our attention was definitely flagging..He wouldn’t allow questions of discussion —“I’ll come to that” but then he never did.

But the worst was the horribly condescending and patronizing way he treated the two women who cooked and looked after the house. He insisted on translating what he said and what we said into Moroccan (he doesn’t speak Berber, thankfully that gives them some privacy) and insisted on telling us how he has to look after them and various personal details of their lives. They were mortified especially the younger one whom he was trying to pressure into working full time and having her teeth fixed properly. They sat with us for dinner which he made an enormous song and dance about — so embarrassing for everyone but him. Later when we were alone, I spoke with them slowly in English and they understood perfectly, their French was even better, but later that day he insisted on teaching them the English word for “citron” even though the cook had told me she was making a tart with lemons.

By the next night we were joined by a Belgian couple and a young Dutch pair. I tried to insist that he do his spiel in French as the Belgian woman did not speak English, but he insisted that he could do his own simultaneous translation. It was bizarre in a horrifying way. The next night the two Dutch were replaced by 4 Bulgarians and there wasn’t enough room at the table so he had to content himself with making flying forays into the kitchen to continue his flights of fancy.

I have to say the guesthouse was interesting and quite beautiful, made of wood with an ingenious heating system using an airtight firebox to heat the floors and small radiators so it could have been far worse as there was at least warmth in the kitchen and a kind of off chill in the bedrooms. All the doors and windows were custom made by hand by a man who works for him. Apparently he can’t work for anyone else as he only does what he feels like doing and only when he wants to, so no one else can stand him. Sounds like a perfect match. He is also an outsider in the village, no one who wasn’t born there ever becomes an insider according to Kamal.

This man, aka “the carpenter” does unique and rather lovely primitive paintings on scrap boards and they were hung all over the guesthouse. We went (uninvited) to visit his cave home which was filled to bursting with odds and ends he had collected (those of you who knew her, think Mrs Day…). Thousands of old records, CD’s, African carved heads with old Tide boxes balanced on their heads, old TVs, radios, well a picture is worth a thousand words…

Not long ago they had a guest from Australia who does multimedia work incorporating bird feathers among other things into her paintings. The carpenter took to the idea eagerly and has begun incorporating all kinds of found objects into his newer works — bits of hardware, buttons, magazine pictures, quite good really.

Kamal has the idea that this Australian artist is dying to return and become his first “artist in residence”, eventually he envisions an entire colony. To that end he is preparing a small room in a neighbouring house, his first task being to apply a lovely wooden door made by the carpenter over the metal door which he finds aesthetically distasteful but which the owner of the room refuses to remove, and to have the carpenter construct a lovely round window. When the carpenter finds black screws for the hinges, or when they have time to go to Fez (45 minutes away) the window might get installed, in the meantime, isn’t it a lovely window?

One last crazy project — he decorated the stairs leading to his house with paint and some of the carpenter’s pictures, very nice, so he decided that of course everyone else in the village would paint their stairs and outside walls in pretty colours to complement his. Strangely, in a village with a practically cashless economy, no one saw the need to buy paint and do the work to paint the walls. They suggested he could do it if he wanted to! What a concept…

At any rate, it was an experience and not a wasted weekend at all! But we were happy to head for the train station and catch a train to Casablanca our last stop before flying out to Paris, and after a few days back to Vancouver and home.

Casablanca is Morocco’s biggest city and the business centre with all kinds of international companies’ Africa headquarters there. They have retained many lovely Art Deco buildings from colonial days and the city’s setting is gorgeous, stretching along miles and miles of Atlantic surf (Where the rich man lives said our taxi driver, and rich they must be judging by the vehicles alone.)

The cityscape is dominated by the minaret (tallest in the world) of a modern mosque built by Hassan II, the present king’s father. Unlike most mosques here, visitors are allowed to enter in non prayer times after paying a fee and joining an obligatory guided tour. No expense spared, craftsmen laboured twenty four hours a day to create it from all local materials except for a couple of chandeliers from Italy (totally unnecessary, the ones from Fez were more lovely) and a bit of special marble from Spain (again the marble from Agadir was equally nice.) Since god resides “over the water” according to the Koran, or so said our guide, it is built out over the beach so it appears to be floating. The terraces are absolutely stunning with the surf crashing in. 20,000 men and 5,000 women can be accommodated at once for prayers, with double that number spilling onto the outdoor areas at Ramadan. Why such a small proportion of women? Why of course they have to stay at home and mind the children…

Anyway, we then lunched at Rick’s Cafe, which actually has nothing to do with the film “Casablanca” which was shot on a sound stage in Hollywood, but most tourists think it is the original “Rick’s” and thus it is exceedingly popular. Then a quick stop at Africa’s largest indoor mall in hopes of obtaining some warm sweaters for Paris (no luck, but fyi prices at Zara and H&M are identical to Canada) and back we went to our cute hotel to prepare to say good-bye to Africa.

It has been a great trip, we have so much enjoyed both countries and recommend them highly to travellers. Senegal was so different for us on our first foray to West Africa and a very easy entree, despite having to dredge up our little bit of French to survive. Morocco we enjoyed a great deal, they are very accustomed to visitors and lots of English is spoken except in small places where they don’t speak French either. We have pretty much covered the interesting cities and so if we return some day we will continue the road trip which we loved. Lots more twisty roads to explore!

Thanks to all who read along, after 4 days in Paris we’ll be back in tranquil Canada!

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EFFERVESCENT FEZ

Moroccans consider Fez to be the original seat of their culture. It has, depending on who is telling you, the best food, the best art, the most beautiful women, the most ingenious craftspeople, the cleverest politicians and public servants, the best schools and the most revered mosque. The king’s favourite palace is there, and his wife was born there. Tourists consider it to be the site of the world’s most confusing Medina.

La Ville Nouvelle, the intimidatingly modern and in parts upmarket new city is of little interest to tourists, and amazingly many Fassis who move there from the old city are always homesick for the medieval byways of old Fez. Or so they say anyway.

The “old city” comprised of two ancient Medinas, is the largest motor vehicle free urban area in the world. An astonishing 136,000 people actually still live inside the walls, not to mention the thousands of others who go there daily to work in the commercial and artisanal enterprises which clog its maze of narrow lanes. Finding one’s way to its many hidden areas is reputed to be the work of years.

However, armed with a spiderweb map from our riad and Doug’s great memory for twists and turns, we managed to feel quite confident in our ability to navigate after the first day. Of course in 6 days we merely scratched the surface I am sure, but one of the most fun parts of untangling the maze was surrendering to the unexpected — or at least so I was at pains to convince my more logical partner.

We have now explored several Moroccan Medinas and in many ways they are all similar. Stalls and small shops line narrow cobbled paths filled with an abundance of goods, from daily necessities like produce, meat, spices, household goods to once in a lifetime requirements like wedding clothing and festive accoutrements, and coffins and grave markers.

The souk where metal workers clang their hammers and polish their wares is two lanes over from the silk kaftan and embroidered slippers for brides souk, so as you meander along sniffing spices or whatever, you turn a corner and holy crow! There is someone selling rosary beads and korans next to a row of cobblers making Moroccan slippers from ancient wooden lasts. Of course, around EVERY corner is a carpet seller with just the best deal for you, lucky you, first customer of the day, or last customer of the day, or the only Canadian to come by this month or….

The medina of Fez is our very favourite on this trip. Not all of it is commercial, a great number of people live in it too as I said, and it was fun to figure out how to go from one part to another using the small intersecting streets whose house doors betray nothing of their interiors, could be rubble, could be opulence, the deeper you go the mustier it gets, and the more little boys tell you to let them guide you back to the Blue Gate…for whatever you want to give sir…or in our case, nothing since we would rather be lost than at their mercy. Good fun.

One morning we crossed from Fez el Bali, the older part, to the relatively new part of the Medina, Fez el Jedid containing the former Jewish quarter and a mere 700 years old. At one time a prosperous quarter full of jewellery makers and teeming with people, it is now just an extension of the market area with modern day clothing and various daily necessities, but still a centre for gold jewellery of modern type. Most of the Jewish population has left for Israel, Spain, and Casablanca. We managed to find the historic synagogue, but it is no longer in use and not well preserved. Interesting though is the main street of typical upper class merchant houses of hundreds of years ago with verandahs hanging over the street so that women could keep an eye on the neighbourhood without venturing into the melee.

Donkey and man powered carts are the only way to move merchandise from one place to another through the maze, and the only way to get construction rubble out and bring new building materials in. The centre of the medina must be at least an hour or more by foot from any edge where it meets a roadway so the logistical nightmare of provisioning shops and doing repairs or rebuilding can only be imagined.

We did not think about another issue until our very last afternoon as we were returning to our riad and found a man collapsed on the foot path having suffered, as it turned out, a seizure. Doug went to his aid which consisted of preventing a gathering crowd of people from doing him harm by trying to stand him upright although he was unconscious. For some unknown reason, people all over the world try to do this. He was a young traveller but fortunately he had a Moroccan English friend with him who knew his medical history and so on, and was willing to stay by his side. When he came around Doug insisted he needed to be checked at a hospital before they returned to their hostel which the friend also wanted to do. Fine then, let’s get him to a taxi or an ambulance….but how?

We were a good 20 minutes walk from the nearest gate, not nearly as far as it could have been, but in this teeming beehive of thousands and thousands of people there was no way to get someone to medical attention except to load him onto a donkey or dump him into a vegetable cart. Someone went for a cart, a man appeared, he put some plastic bags over the detritus from the previous load, someone from a nearby shop ran out with an old carpet to pad the bottom, and four men lifted him up and deposited him like a sack of potatoes into the bottom of the cart. Horrible!

Fortunately Doug felt he would be okay like that til they could get a cab at the gate, but what if it had been a broken hip, or horrors a coronary! With all the out of control carts weighing thousands of pounds ricocheting through the crowded lanes accidents must happen all the time. Every day there are tour groups comprised of people more geriatric than we are, some of them must have medical mishaps. The young men in our riad just shrugged when we asked them… Some things it is better not to think about.

On a more cheerful note, this disturbing event happened as we were returning from our appointment at a Hammam. Traditionally since people did not and often still don’t have hot water in their houses, Moroccans visit a Hammam once a week for a steam bath and scrub down. These are communal but unisex, with different times for men and women, and heated with wood, so people take their bread there to get it baked and large dishes of couscous or tagine to be simmered. We went to a modern one in a riad, so that we could go together. The Hammam in this riad was constructed in the 17th century and possibly they had not updated the drains since, as I found the pervasive stink of sewer gas to be a huge distraction from the experience, however, not to quibble, it was very interesting.

We were sent into a tiny room to remove all our clothing, and since we were not equipped with our own traditional skimpy Hammam underpants we were given paper ones to put on. The two young female attendants did not bat an eye as we emerged from the changing area straight into the marble mausoleum style room which had already been heated to bread baking temperature. We were told to lie like corpses on the marble slabs on each side of the room which were boiling hot to the touch especially at first. The women ordered us to rest, closed a crypt like door and disappeared. Perhaps fortunately, the steam mechanism on ours was not functioning as I think the claustrophobic effect would have been even worse for me if the air had been completely fogged in. We seemed to lie there forever, basting in our own juices, as the perspiration streamed from our bodies and pooled on the slabs beneath us.

Finally the door opened, at least a little fresher air came in, and each woman took a ladle and began sloshing hot water from a gushing pool in the centre of the room all over our naked bodies. Out came their abrasive mitts. You should have your own which you take to the Hammam each time but as we didn’t they supplied them and then gave them to us at the end which was reassuring considering the potential contamination.

Beginning with our arms they began stripping layers of skin from our bodies. It was comical to see, fortunately the light was very dim or it might have been more nauseating than fascinating. The skin came off in great strips, as if we were burn victims. The ladies were quite gratified with their results, especially the one doing Doug, who kept exhorting me to “Look madam” as she stripped an especially spectacular area of his back. We were flipped back and forth until every surface was bare, then directed to stand under a shower to get the rest of the debris off.

After that came an hour long massage with orange blossom scented Argan oil (remember those gobbling goats in trees) and we were left limp and baby bottom smooth. Maybe a one and only experience…but fun.

The days in Fez went by surprisingly quickly and our trip to Morocco is winding down. Off for the weekend to a nearby tiny troglodyte village in the mountains, quite the contrast to teeming Fez I imagine. More later from Bhalil.

MUSTY MANSIONS: MEKNES

We arrived at the edge of the Meknes Medina, the trusty Dacia having made it through the storm. We pulled up beside the famous Bab Mansour (bab means gate), the closest maps.me could get us to our accommodation in the Medina by car. A quick phone call and Rashid, clad in his hobbit robe, was beside the car and directing us into a parking lot where Mustaffa swore he would guard it with his life for a mere 2 Euros per day. A cart materialized out of thin air, our bags were loaded and covered with plastic (it was bucketing down, my I wished for one of those hobbit cloaks) and we hurried into the Medina. Oddly our first sight in the muddy little alley was a pile of broken female mannequins piled in the doorway.

Our home in Meknes was a large riad run by Bashera and her young family, the fourth generation to live in the house. They all spoke perfect English and, though very traditionally religious, were quite cosmopolitan in their outlook. They travel all over the world in the off season.

Raids are traditional courtyard houses as I have mentioned before. When Bashera was growing up 20 extended family members shared this riad. They have altered it to make a large guesthouse (for example putting in more bathrooms) but have retained most original furnishings as her grandmother insisted. Thus it provides a good picture of what life there was like in Bashera’s childhood.

The ground floor courtyard is vast, about 60 feet by 60, with about a third of it open to the sky three storeys above. In the past it was completely open, now it is covered with plastic. The perimeter is lined with benches upholstered in brocade with random back cushions which pass for couches everywhere in this country.

In the centre of every riad is a fountain, and traditionally there should be a tree in the courtyard among the other potted plants. The story goes that when Mohammed was on his quest for a safe place to establish his religion, his camel dropped from exhaustion beside a spring with adjacent palm tree. This was a sign that he should build his house on the spot. The fountain could be used for the pre-prayer ablutions and the tree was used to climb up and call the followers to prayers. Thus the design of the riad (and the mosque) follow this traditional design.

You can only imagine how chilly these courtyard sitting areas are in winter, or, in our case, pouring rain, so dotted around are squat propane heaters that they wheel over while guests are eating from the low round tables in front of the bench seating. All the inhabitants wear their ski jackets at all time, and most of the women wear hijabs and don’t seem to notice the cold. They look rather dubious when you request the heater be turned on.

Rooms are arranged around the upper floors off a long balcony looking down into the lower courtyard. When Bashera was growing up in the house, they had one bathroom per floor plus a Hammam (which they still use) on the courtyard level. The Hammam is the traditional steam bath with marble floors heated by wood. There seem to be a number of buckets of water of varying temperatures involved, plus abrasive mitts with which you, or in the case of the public ones still very common here, the attendants, rub off dirt and rough skin after you have sloshed and steamed sufficiently. It would be quite a luxury to have your own Hammam in the house so Bashera’s family must have been quite well off.

Our room was large and quite comfortable, though down at heel in a way. When Bashera and her grandmother decided to open the house to guests, after it had sat empty for 10 years the family having dispersed, her grandmother insisted that they retain the history which included all the furniture and bric a brac. As we find is common with family run places, attention to cleanliness of the “antiques” which are heaped about seems lacking.

The storm raged on and we dreaded the sound of the rain drumming on the plastic covering the courtyard. First task was to penetrate the Medina and find umbrellas. Where would one look for an umbrella among hundreds of small shops selling clothing, shoes, slippers, handicrafts, carpets (always carpets), jewellery, antiques, leather goods, barrows full of fruit and vegetables, not to mention donkey carts full of propane tanks, large wooden wheelbarrows full of goods for the stalls…desperate we finally began to ask people — of course! The shop selling plastic baskets, cheap cutlery, glassware, and coffee pots …. Why didn’t we think of that! The shopkeeper pulled a selection of umbrellas out from under the counter and we were at least a little drier than before, though rivers of water ran underfoot in the narrow lanes and penetrated our light running shoes quickly.

Meknes has a busy Medina but quite mellow really, geared as it is to local commerce. We wandered into and out of the tiny shops, even succumbing to a nice old man doing Damascene work, one of the traditional crafts of Meknes, silver wire embossed into iron. Not my cup of tea, but not to worry, he had a lovely loft full of Berber kilims.. quite informative and very funny, we enjoyed his patter!

One afternoon Bashera, a licensed guide, took us for a tour of the ramparts of the old city and the environs of the Royal Palace. The old palace stables used to house 12,000 horses and they were all allowed to roam freely within the building as they were never confined in stalls. The stables were designed on a diagonal pattern so that the stable attendants could watch all the horses from a corner vantage point. If a sudden call to battle came, the soldiers rushed in and took any horse, all were trained.

Bashera is a big fan of the king, who seems to be trying to modernize the country, starting with a constitution that enshrines women’s rights, and makes Berber an official language along with Arabic. Many people have complained to us that the population of Morocco is composed of a small elite with all the money and power, and a huge lower class who have little social security, limited access to health care, expensive education, no protection in old age — like all of Africa but this population is beginning to be educated enough to want all those things. Everyone decries the lack of a middle class. Food is cheap and abundant, and they claim that no one goes hungry because neighbours look after one another, but catastrophes like medical emergencies can throw a family into poverty. Not as young a population as Senegal, but still markedly young by our standards.

Finally the sun shone and we went off on our planned day trip to Volulibus and Moulay Idris, our last outing in the trusty Dacia. The scenery that day was spectacular. Meknes is the agricultural centre of this part of Morocco. Groves of citrus, olives, vineyards (yes Moroccan wine is very good!), large scale vegetable production, flocks of sheep munching away at the lucerne planted among the olive trees — you name it they seem to grow it, and covering it all a glowing carpet of wildflowers as spring has sprung.

Strewn with wild agapanthus, daisies and zinnias, towering majestic columns providing a focal point, the site was an arresting scene. Volulibus was the southernmost point to which the Roman Empire penetrated back in around 250 BC. They didn’t stay that long but left behind, as they usually did, a well planned and complex city which has been partially excavated. The mosaics on the floors are reasonably well preserved, very reminiscent of those in Madaba, Jordan, quite beautiful though worn and faded. It’s always fun to wander these ancient sites, picking out the baths, the main houses, the bake ovens, the olive presses, etc — especially on a sunny day surrounded by brilliant greenery and flowers.

On from there to Moulay Idris a steep mountain town wherein is housed the mausoleum of the martyred Muslim hero, to whose grave a pilgrimage counts as 1/5 of a haj to Mecca, kind of a poor man’s haj I guess, but of course closed to non-believers. The town itself is interesting as it is built up and into a steep hill, with the houses virtually cave dwellings hollowed out of the rock. Even the riads that are truly in the interior of the souqs have started to give me claustrophobia so I was glad not to be staying! We met a very nice young man who walked us to the pinnacle in such a way that we didn’t get lost and the thousands of steps were minimized. As we sat on a doorstep, panting and admiring the view, an old woman came out on to her roof top beside us and began screeching in a terrifying manner. I thought she was having some sort of break with reality but our guide said she was just announcing to the neighbourhood that something had happened in her family. What?! we asked. Oh, maybe a wedding, or a new baby, or a graduation, or…She went on for three or four minutes so it was definitely something big.

Good bye to the family at the riad, and off to the airport to turn in the Dacia and get a taxi to Fez. We enjoyed our car trip so much, we wished we had realized how easy it would be to get around and we would have planned a longer circuit. Note to selves…

WENT TO THE DESERT IN A DACIA WITH NO NAME (sorry Neil)

Next up was the most vivid contrast possible, as we continued east to Skoura Oasis, a huge palmerie 25 square kilometres of palm, olive, and almond orchards. Apparently 35000 people live inside the oasis which seemed hard to imagine. Camel caravans would have thought they’d reached heaven, when after months crossing the stony desert ubiquitous in these parts, they came upon this immense patch of green, with water and grazing for animals, dates, figs and olives for humans, and a large imposing Kasbah to rest in for a while.They would unload their trade goods and send them north to Fez on donkey trains, then set off back through the desert to restock. Skoura is one of a number of oases along this so-called southern oasis route.

We saw the sign on the highway for the garden hotel I had booked, and started following the orange rocks and arrows painted on walls as instructed. On and on we went, through a dry river bed, winding through narrow village lanes, past a school, several small mosques…every time we were ready to give up I spotted another spot of orange paint. Finally a sign with the hotel name — Les Jardins de Skoura, just another mud walled house from the outside, but once were were in it was another world.

In this bucolic place we found another eccentric Frenchwoman, in some ways similar to the delightful Anne at Akine Lodge in Casamance. She too had relocated herself to Africa 18 years before and with vision had created a unique and lovely guesthouse out of practically nothing. But just as the effusive Anne with her flowing gowns, cigarette in one hand, wine glass in the other, had created a funky art filled quirky paradise that reflected her character, so Caroline, tall, skinny, elegant, charming but very much in charge, had created from a centuries old ruined mud walled farmhouse an elegant boutique hotel filled with the work of local artisans. Both had trained local cooks to do wonderful things with food and created soothing and flower filled gardens where nothing existed before. I could have stayed there for a week!

The oasis was extremely interesting as we found when we went out with a guide for a 3 hour hike (accompanied by Caroline’s 2 dogs, another way in which she resembled Anne). Every inch is gardened with almond trees covered in gorgeous white blossoms at this time of year, olives just beginning to form fruit, bare pomegranate trees which they harvest in autumn, citrus heavy with fruit, or silvery poplars used for lumber, all underplanted with wheat and all manner of vegetables.

Thousand year old rock walls surround the gardens, and the irrigation system has worked cooperatively for an equally long time. An ingenious system of linked wells with canals for irrigation are opened and closed in sequence so that each garden gets a few hours of water, then the next person’s garden, and so on. Really planning and working for the long term, quite amazing to think of people doing that so long ago and it all still working today.

The ancient kasbah here has been restored and houses a collection of traditional Berber implements of daily life. Rooms on the ground floor housed the animals, with areas for humans around the cooking fires and the well above.

We finally tore ourselves away to spend three days driving through the Atlas range to reach Meknes and Fez farther north. The route was pretty with the almond blossoms and silvery poplars just beginning to green up. In summer the whole area is covered with roses whose petals are harvested for the rose oils which are almost as famous as the argan oil.

First stop was at the infamous Dades Gorge, considered to be one of the windiest roads in the world. The gorge is a long narrow canyon with a steep switchback road twisting up one side. There are reputed to be 30 bends in the most famous stretch. It is spectacular but completely doable and we thought we’d driven over worse in our time! Lots of little settlements along the way (why?you might ask…) and little cafes and auberges along the edge for admiring the view.

Back to the main road, the drive into Tinghir was twisty and lovely through small Palmeries bordering small rivers. By the time we reached Tinghir at the beginning of the hills the wind had begun to blow and the settlements were distinctly drabber. The poor little Dacia started bouncing about, and we were glad to stop in the uninteresting small town. We planned a short walk in Tinghir Palmerie but the storm was howling and the small hotel we were in was swaying in the wind so we holed up in our room with our Kobos.

The next morning dawned with a brilliant blue sky but still very windy and we set off on our longest day of travel across a stretch of stone desert as bleak as could be with nothing to break the wind. We kept passing the monstrous herds of sheep to which we have become quite accustomed, couldn’t complain about fighting the wind in the car when we looked at the poor shepherds striding across this awful wasteland with only their ovine companions and not a habitation in sight. Also elegantly ambling herds of camels, and lots of goats. Fierce wind with the odd flake of snow in it as we climbed to the plateau which Midelt occupies. It looked like an interesting small town to walk in and is reputed to have a good carpet souk but when we reached the guesthouse and I tried to open my car door but couldn’t due to the pressure of the wind, we decided to go inside for our mint tea.

Quite the eccentric place, an old villa made into a quirky vintage hotel of 7 rooms, every room filled with worn but intriguing furnishings of, say, an upper middle class great grandmother. The dining room was amazing, all old chandeliers and useless bits of beaten brass work, cushioned couches and satin side chairs, candles, fancy napkins and tablecloths, our mouths dropped open, but most astonishing was that the whole place was warm! The old radiators were functioning still and they had installed new AC’s (which of course both heat and cool). Our room was huge, the bed the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in with a sort of polar fleece bottom sheet along with a thick duvet. Too bad it was in Midelt where there was no reason to linger.

As we left Midelt we turned around to view the astonishing High Atlas Mountains with glacier covered slopes which provide its backdrop. We anticipated a scenic drive through the rest of the mountains and on across a relatively flat area into Meknes, an easy two hundred kilometres….Were we wrong.

We set off in a howling gale to which was soon added a sprinkle of rain. That became a torrent, and even as hardened Wet Coasters we were daunted. Then the rain thickened, and then it was snow, and by that time we were driving through snow at the side of the road. The road was not only wet but exceedingly windy, I have to say it was amazingly well signposted with pictures of cars slipping and sliding to caution, or in my case, terrify, motorists. The snow came and went, not building up on the road at all, but next up was the fog…thick fog. Poor Doug is doing all the driving.

We tried to stop for a break and lunch in Azrou, a rather cute little town, but we couldn’t find anywhere that wasn’t full of a hundred men in hooded gowns, smoking and drinking tea and coffee but no sign of anyone ordering food. I guess they couldn’t sit outside as usual and inside the fug of cigarette smoke was such that it was not compatible with life. So we bought bread at a boulangerie and carried on.

By the way, the garment of choice for women in these parts is a voluminous velour dressing gown, quite the impractical choice for a torrential downpour I thought, but there are so many layers underneath it may be that the rain takes time to penetrate. No umbrellas, which might have something to do with the wind, just swathings of scarves.

Anyway, we kept dropping and dropping, finally passed through a forest of large ancient cedars, unique to Africa apparently, where we passed bands of Barbary macaques and emerged to descend into the plain leading to Meknes. Good old maps.me led us as far into the old city as we could get with the car, whereupon I telephoned the Riad and in minutes Rashid, heavily cloaked as per usual, emerged through the rain to show us where to park, summon a man with a large barrow who loaded in our bags, and lead us through the edge of the Medina to our riad. We do have a heater in the room, hoping for a change in the weather soon! More from Meknes later.

GOATS IN TREES

After a couple of luxurious nights in Sidi Ifni we turned inland to Taroudant, another walled city but much more modern looking than Tiznit. We found our way through the maze of streets inside the city walls and found our Riad. The young manager was most impressed, he said only 10% of people turned up at the door without calling for guidance! I told him about maps.me

It was a lovely hotel, four old courtyard houses combined and renovated, again French owners. We enjoyed our couple of nights there walking around the walls and the central Kasbah. Doug indulged me by taking a horse cart ride around the walls, after I agreed to go to another weekly market where they were as usual torturing animals by hog tying them and flinging them into trucks. You can always tell the quack medicine purveyors by their blaring loudspeakers and the dense crowds that surround their displays of anatomical posters. This one seemed to have more pedlars of masculinity enhancers than usual. I tried to work my way through to the front of one crowd for a closer look but a kind gentleman told me in French that it was strictly for men.

Heading east again, we saw a sight that was so new to us that we slammed on the brakes to get a picture. Goats in trees!! After we passed several more of the things we began to realize that it’s a common sight in these parts. The goats climb right up the argan trees to eat the fruits. Since argan oil is the stuff that is good for every part of you, they must be the world’s healthiest goats!

All through this area there are lone sheepherders with enormous flocks — more than 500 sheep and goats to one herder. They don’t seem to use dogs for herding here, instead the shepherd (both men and women do this job) carries a large slingshot, more like a catapult, and fires rocks to frighten the stragglers into keeping up as the herd moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace. The goats seem much more amenable to following the shepherd’s instructions than the sheep, so it seems that he or she controls the goats and the sheep just follow sheepishly behind.

Next stop was a very small and simple village called Taliouine where we stayed in a Kasbah still inhabited by a remnant of the Glauei family who had owned it for generations. The Glauei were despotic rulers who kept this area under their thumbs and repelled invaders from the desert regions to the south. The French tolerated them while they were useful, and when they weren’t, deprived them of their status.

Kasbahs were part fortress, part grain storage, part caravanserai and look quite majestic from a distance with their metre thick mud walls picturesquely deteriorating as the rain erodes the packed earth. However, ours was a classic example of “Good from far, far from good…”

The host was friendly and welcomed us, but it was pouring rain (our first rain since leaving home) and the so called guesthouse was in quite the dilapidated state, a fact which he seemed completely unaware of. Our room was dank, with the ceilings being 30 feet high and the wooden shutters on the door and windows so widely cracked that we could see outside to the courtyard, thus it was impossible to warm it up with the small heater he bestowed upon us. Dinner, which I have to admit was quite good, was served in a communal room heated by the smokiest fireplace I have ever experienced. Both nights we ate with other guests, and all of us had running eyes and coughs by the time we got half way into dinner, wrapped as we were in all our clothes including long underwear.

So depressing — we went to bed in all our clothes under pounds of scratchy horse blankets, wondering how we could stay there another night, but amazingly we woke to brilliant sunshine. The place was still dilapidated but much easier to tolerate in the sun.

The area is popular for serious hiking, but for us Omar our host, suggested a drive up a steep mountain road dotted with small bleak looking villages, stunning vistas of the snow capped Atlas Mountains behind. We went until we reached snow, then turned back. Many of the houses were built into the mountain side, in impossibly steep terrain. Only the facades of the houses were visible and it looked like a misstep out the front door would send the occupant tumbling over the edge until he landed at the base of the mountain.

Hoping for a bit of warmth, we bid Omar and his family a fond farewell and headed to Palmerie land, our goal being Skoura Oasis.

HOBBITS IN HOODS & SNOW BIRDS

Marrakesh was great fun but we wanted to see more of the countryside. We picked up our rental car, a little Dacia, in the Nouvelle Ville of Marrakesh, quite the contrast to the old Medina where we had stayed. Great trepidation about making it through the city to the main highway but actually quite straightforward with good signage. Lots of roundabouts but fairly easy to navigate.

We got onto the toll highway heading towards the coastal city of Agadir. Beautiful road, light traffic. After 190 kilometres we paid the equivalent of $10 and turned onto a regular highway heading south to the small village of Tiznit. Another excellent road, and we began to relax, Doug finding the Diesel engine gave the small vehicle ample power for passing and it was much easier to drive a gear shift on the right hand side of the road!

Tiznit is quite small with both an old city inside a quite remarkable and well preserved city wall, and a more modern new city outside. We made our way through one of the old city gates, following maps.me and started twisting through the tiny winding streets towards our guesthouse. Finally we came to a corner too narrow for the car to negotiate so had to back out by edging around a fruit vendor’s cart which was an impressive driving feat I thought, and back to a main square. There a helpful man led us on his moped through streets wide enough (barely) for the car ending up at our tiny guesthouse. Charming and brightly tiled, it is owned by a Frenchman who comes for a week once a month to give the cute young manager time to go home to his village. We were the only guests in the 4 room establishment and had a beautiful terrace to huddle on, fully garbed in as many layers as possible.

The street life was very interesting to us, as it was quite the dramatic contrast to the more free wheeling Marrakesh. People are much more traditional here and the shops are for locals not tourists. In the dim light of evening, the main street was lined with stalls of vegetables and fruit, and all the populace seemed to be out with shopping baskets on their arms, buying the necessary items for dinner. Almost all the men were wearing the traditional hooded Hobbit cloaks and I can’t say I didn’t envy them the extra layer as I bought a pair of gloves off a barrow to put on. The atmosphere seemed distinctly medieval as they scuttled along the cobbled streets with their hands tucked into their sleeves and their faces half concealed under their pointed hoods. Women shaped like round Russian dolls, their already plump shapes padded by thick layers of what appear to be polar fleece pyjamas covered with vast and colourful sheets of light floral cloth wound around their bodies with enough left over to cover their heads and still wrap the end around their shoulders provided a striking contrast to the monk-like males.

Moroccan men seem to spend a great deal of their time sitting in small cafes drinking mint tea and smoking. In the evening in Tiznit these cafes looked more like sports bars as the chairs were lined up in rows facing the TV set blaring European soccer games. No beer to go with it of course, this being an Islamic country, but nothing wrong with smoking I guess. The old boys smoke so much they fill their ash trays and have to get up for new ones! That plus the open fires they cook on must lead to some pretty crusty lungs I would think. It appears there are no female soccer fans, all of the ladies being too busy shopping for dinner and herding their many small children through the streets.

We enjoyed our rambles through the streets along the old walls, and a brief foray into the small souk where I bought some earrings. Tiznit silversmiths are well known, though the large Jewish community who founded the craft here have mostly moved on, either to the big cities or to Israel. Not the high pressure salesmen of Marrakesh so quite fun to wander and peruse the goods.

After two nights we headed out of town heading west towards Plage Alou a beach area very near by. From there we followed a most delightful route along the pounding Atlantic sea coast, stopping along the way to walk in the town promenades and drink cafe au lait overlooking the sea. We began to see more and more camper vans with EU licence plates. Their occupants were leather-like skinny French (especially the women) or rather chubbier Germans, with the odd Italian thrown in. Apparently there is a large population of European “snow birds” who head down the coast every year for months of baking in the sun and I guess living cheap.

Our goal for the night was a little town called Sidi Ifni and charming it turned out to be. The Spanish owned this area until 1969 when the Moroccan government forced them to leave. Consequently its appearance is much different from other Moroccan towns with all the main buildings being in Art Deco design. With renewed emphasis on tourism, historic buildings have begun to be valued and the distinctive white and blue buildings are gradually being repaired and repainted and a charming garden rebuilt as the town centre.

Our guesthouse was a case in point. It had originally been the headquarters for the Spanish navy administration and the building was shaped like a ship with round porthole windows. It was in an awful state of disrepair when bought and renovated from the inside out by a French couple who used it as a home then sold it to the present owners who made it into an elegant 6 room guesthouse hanging over the pounding Atlantic surf. We had a beautiful room with a terrace high up over the ocean. Deranged people were out surfing, made me cold just to watch. But the oddest thing was all the “campgrounds” really just gravel parking lots full of the aforementioned very high end camper vans from Europe. Gorgeous beach, dismal so called campgrounds!

Such a relaxing stop for us, we wandered the town and admired the buildings and did as the locals and expats were all doing, sat in little cafes and had cafe au laits. Also due to the Spanish influence, we were able to sit at a sea side bar and watch the sunset while drinking local beer! Alcohol is not illegal here as it was in Gujarat but only readily available in foreigner owned establishments it seems.

Back to the car to continue our journey inland, next stop Taroudant.

WANDERING THE MEDINA IN MARRAKECH

As I always say, “And now for something completely different..”. We could hardly have chosen two more different countries to combine in a single trip than Senegal and Morocco. The tall, lithe bodies in brightly coloured dress have been replaced by short stocky forms swathed in layers of dark cloaks and shawls, hoods for men, head scarves for women. Joining the throng is a motley horde of tourists of various origins, all babbling away in a polyglot of languages. Quite the change for us…

We arrived at the Marrakesh airport after several delays, no sleep and a plane with the smallest seats I have ever shoehorned myself into. TAP, Portugal’s budget airline — avoid at all costs unless you are less that 5’4”. The immensely tall Senegalese passengers couldn’t even sit back in the seats, my woes were far less than theirs.

The Riad we are staying in is in the Medina, the area of twisting maze like streets that is the old city. There is no car traffic in the tiny cobble stone lanes, though motorcycles, bicycles, handcarts, donkey carts etc etc dodge each other and brush against pedestrians at high speeds as they weave their way around the shop tables poking out into the tiny lanes.

Riad LeJ sent a taxi to the airport to pick us up. He dropped us at the gate to the Medina and we were met by a man pushing a handcart who loaded in our bags and set off at a cracking pace through a series of interwoven lanes which we had no hope of remembering. We plunged deeper and deeper into the maze, getting lower, darker and colder as we went. Finally he abandoned the handcart and ran ahead pulling our two bags. He rang the bell at one of the unmarked wooden doors set into the wall, and ran off. The door opened to the hospitable manager Ischan and we entered a cozy living room full of well aged furniture and odd memorabilia. Our room “Poivre” was reached up a steep flight of steps through a door with no key, and proved to be very comfortable in a shabbily eccentric way.

Riads are old courtyard houses, reached via these dark lanes and entirely interior. The rooms are ranged on several floors around a central courtyard, which in modern times is generally covered by plastic so that the courtyard can be an all season living area. All of them have roof top terraces where the inhabitants can lounge in natural light and view the neighbouring roof tops.

Most of them fell into disrepair as people moved to modern homes in the new city, but recently it has become quite fashionable to resurrect them and make them into homes or hotels, ranging from 4 rooms like ours, to quite vast elegant establishments. Ours is owned by an Italian couple who live elsewhere but who designed the renovation themselves, hence the quirky touches.

Our first foray was to get through the maze to the main square to find an ATM for local currency and a SIM card for Doug’s phone. In this we were assisted by an American couple who heard us asking directions. The Riad supplies a cheap cell phone with their number in it so that if you are lost you can call and get brought back. This had happened to the American pair the day before and since then they had mastered the art of recognizing all the turns leading back home.

They, or I should say, she, took us in hand and led us through the maze giving us landmarks at all the many corners, not allowing any talking or taking in of sights, I was reprimanded for not paying sufficient attention a couple of times, but I must say even spatially challenged as I am, I had it by the time we returned. We shared dinner at the Riad the first evening, and though we probably would have been feeling murderous if we had been stuck with them for days, they really amused us.

The dinner was a traditional menu of vegetable soup, lamb tagine and vegetable couscous, with poached pears in orange sauce for dessert. Tagines are the baking dishes covered by funnel shaped lids in which they slow cook their meat dishes. They served enough for 10 to our party of 4, we have been ordering one tagine between us, with a small side dish of couscous and another of vegetables each evening since, and never finish it all! Food is delicious, we will not lose weight despite the rarity of alcoholic beverages.

The central square we were aiming for that first night is famous for its ongoing circus atmosphere. Food vendors with portable kitchens set up each night in the middle, surrounded by juice stands bright with displayed fruit. Snake charmers and monkey handlers are there too, trying to get tourists to take their pictures so they can extort a bit of money from them. The animals are severely mistreated so we refuse to even look at them. All manner of vendors tout their wares loudly, while impromptu costume dramas take place, completely incomprehensible to tourists.

One interesting table was that of a tooth puller. He displayed his pliers, one with a tooth between its blades just so you could see how it was done. In front of him was a pile of extracted teeth, and arrayed in front a selection of used dentures and partial plates. He told me that people had changed their dentures (I suppose as a result of having more teeth extracted) and gave him the old ones to resell.

Marrakesh has a reputation for hustle and hassle, but believe me, it does not even rate with some places we have been, though one annoying little scam is to have small boys accost tourists and direct them to the square — half the time through the souks where I suppose they hope you might buy something and they will obtain a commission. The little boy acts as your kindly guide until you arrive and then he wants “a little paper”.

Of course everyone wants us to buy their wares but we have not yet found them too overbearing. We have been enjoying wandering the little alleys, always mindful of keeping to the right to avoid being killed by errant carts and motorbikes, looking at all the goods piled on tables in the street to lure customers into the tiny shops behind. We are not buying, and by and large we are not bugged too much — I say “Looking is free, right?” which is the line they give potential customers as they persuade them into the shop. Of course, they have to laugh, and I get to look. We’ve had some funny lines though, one man told us his wares would “Blow your eyes” — “and your mind,” he added as an after thought.

Argan oil is huge here and we are constantly being offered it — it seems to be one of those things that’s good for what ails you, but last night on the way home from dinner one man finished up his list of its benefits, none of which seemed to have appealed to us, by saying “And stops snoring too..”. We roared with laughter at this acknowledgement of our advanced years. As you have probably figured out, a fair amount of English is spoken here and I fear our burgeoning French skills may lapse again.

Our route home at night has amazing atmosphere. The paths are cobblestone and the walls stone or concrete, stained with damp. The air becomes damper and colder the farther into the maze we go. A few hazy ceiling lamps barely illuminate the path. Hooded figures scurry by, like monks in a medieval castle town. Ankle length jellabas with pointed hoods are the male garment of choice in these winter evenings. A few veiled women sit along the walls begging. They cover their faces to spare themselves and their families shame.

We have wandered through the crowded souks where each type of merchandise or craft is produced and sold in a single area — leather tanners (very smelly) dyers of both wool and leather, metalworkers, butchers, jewellers, lamp makers, carpet sellers, pottery vendors, clothing both traditional and modern, shoes and slippers, bags, footstool poufs— and the list goes on and on. The tiny lanes twist and turn but we had a good map and with me reading the map and Doug committing our route to memory so we could get back, we managed very well.

We also saw all the ancient mosques, palaces, tombs, obligatory to the conscientious tourist. There were several standouts: a museum of Berber culture was fascinating and we will be driving through Berber country on our road trip. Somewhat incongruously we also enjoyed a museum of the couture of Yves St Laurent. He and his partner Pierre Bergé bought a down at heels garden and house created by an earlier French expat and renovated both the large tasteful succulent garden and their pretty bright blue house. It now houses both the afore mentioned Berber museum and a museum of representative items from St Laurent’s historical couture collection. Both the Bahia Palace and the Saadien Tombs are examples of the complex artistry in stone, wood, and tile which are better preserved in Spain’s Andalusia but interesting to see nevertheless.

We completely enjoyed our 4 1/2 days in Marrakesh. Next up is our road trip by rental car for 18 days down the coast then through the lower Atlas Mountains, eventually reaching Meknes and Fez. Fingers crossed!!