Thursday, September 25, 2014

A day in Roman Morocco

On our way to Fes we spent a couple of hours at Volubilis, an extensive Roman city covering 42 hectares.  It was founded about the 3rd century BC, and was a Roman outpost for about 300 years producing Olives and Olive Oil for the Empire.  After the Romans fell it was occupied for another 700 years by the local Christians, then by the Islamic community.  It was abandoned by the 11th Century and because of this remained well preserved and is now part of the Unesco world heritage portfolio.

Even today it is a lush and fertile valley.

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Perhaps one of the most amazing things about this site is that after 2000 years the mosaics are remarkably well preserved after centuries of being hidden then exposed to the elements after the site was first excavated by the French around 1912

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Along the way we have been seeing an unfamiliar (to us anyway) fruit on sale, obviously in season at the moment.  It is the fruit of the cactus.  We tried some and they were very tasty.  Made even better by the seller peeling them for you so you just have to eat them with none of the peeling hassle.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A drive through the middle Atlas mountains

In Morocco we were advised to calculate driving times using a 60km/ph average.  So while the distances didn’t appear that large, the time to drive them had to be factored in.  We needed to get from the desert to Fes but didn't want an 8 hour driving day so decided to break the journey in Azrou – still a good six hour drive. 

The scenery was superb, changing from desert to oasis then from to high country to an orchard farming fruit bowl area.  It rivaled NZ for diversity of scenery.  Most of the pictures were taken from a moving car – so it is a wonder any came out!

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Every day we have seen women gathering greenery and feed for the animals.  It seems to be a female job, although occasionally there is a man doing it, but he is always riding or leading a donkey.  Women always have the feed on their backs

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Through the high country we saw a large number of sheep being grazed and a number of tents.  We eventually worked out this was summer grazing and that the people were nomadic and would move when the passes were closed by snow. 

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We stopped in the small town of Midelt for lunch and chose our restaurant from the lonely planet.  It didn't sound promising with “ a favourite stop for bus tours, but at least it means there is a good turnover of food”.  But the other options were pretty limited in a town that is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  So with relatively low expectations we went in and sat down.  There were no bus tours and only 3 tables of locals – not looking good.  But the food was amongst he best we had on the trip – go figure.  The simple oranges with cinnamon were a lovely end.

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We ended the day in Azrou which is part of an area described as little Switzerland.  The architecture is distinctly European with pitched roofs  - to deal with the snow.  There are even ski-fields around here.  There are also a lot of cedar forests, with so-called Barbary apes which turned out to be from the Macaque family – naughty monkeys as we saw in Borneo, which are not particularly appealing!

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Our base for one night was La Perle d’Azrou – a very nice farm stay where we had a 2nd superb meal for the day.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Oasis to the desert

For one and half hours on the journey out and then returning the next morning I spent a significant amount of time looking at the view below, of my camel's head and the back of our camel guide.

 

When we decided we were going to Morroco the first thing Andrew said was that he wanted to ride a camel. Never mind it was the end of hot season (which in reality turned out to be hot, but not unbearable, being high thirties during the day and mid twenties in the evening) and disregarding the decidedly uncomfortable ride, this was something he really wanted to do: Ride a camel and sleep overnight in a desert camp.

 

The drive from Skoura to Hassilibed was a solid 7 hours. We had one little navigation slip when we turned right at to town of Rissani and ended up in the weekly market. So we drove away from the market and ended up in a residential area. A boy about 10 years old, on a bike, rode in front of us to guide us back to where we needed to be and earned himself the equivalent of 1 euro from us, for his services. We didn't have a GPS navi in the car and have been downloading offline google maps to supplement our paper Michelin map - with great success - except for this town as it looked straightforward so we had turned the phone off.

Hassilibed, 5km out of Merzouga is a desert town that appears to be completely dependent on tourism. It was unpaved, houses were all mud-brick and there were rather a large number of camels about.

Through our hotel we had arranged an overnight trip to the desert followed by a night in the hotel. We were a party of four, with a nice Austrian/German couple in our camel train.

Hamid, our camel driver was a character, cracking jokes about Camel chocolate (droppings) and cooking an evening meal for us


All the camels were kneelling on the ground to be mounted. Then in sequence from back to front, they stood up one by one as the rider got on, as demonstrated by Andrew 'Lawrence of Arabia' demonstrates below.

 
 
We set off at 17:30pm and arrived at our Berber camp 90 minutes later. That's a lot of lurching around, atop a camel. On the flat and heading uphill they were super steady. But when it came to a downward slope, they certainly felt a bit precarious, even though they were still steadily plodding along. There were no problems, we didn't fall off and we arrived at destination in one piece.
 

 


After dinner there wasn't a lot of nightlife so it was pretty much straight to bed. We all elected to sleep under the stars but about 12:00am the wind picked up and started sandblasting us and both couples relocated into our respective tents. We only saw dung beetles and camp cats, no foxes or night scorpions.

 

In the morning, after a rather low key sunrise, we remounted our camels and plodded back to town. At the end of the journey the camels all lay down, heads on the sand pleased to be relieved of their rather heavy humans. We humans, slightly saddle sore also breathed a sigh of relief.

These "attractive" animals are expensive to purchase for the locals at €900 each and they eat a fair bit each day. Needless to say there isn't a lot of feed out in the desert and a large amount of hay is trucked in. Nothing like making the load as big as physically possible...and we have seen plenty of these trucks on our journey.
 
 

We rather enjoyed the experience and a look at the desert.

 

 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

On the road in Morocco

Having done a bit of research we had worked out 2 things, 1) driving wasn't supposed to be too bad if you were used to NZ roads and 2) the Moroccans had a reputation for awful driving. Number 1 proved to be completely true and number 2 partly true. Even though they weren't model drivers they weren't too bad. They do tend to ignore the centre line and drift wherever they want on the road, grande taxis do not have to obey the same rules as other drivers and if you see a bicycle it is guaranteed to swerve randomly in front of you at some stage.

 

Once out of Marrakech city limits we headed in the direction of Skoura 245km South-East, a drive of 5 and a half hours. In the middle was a pass across the High Atlas at an elevation of 2,260 m (7,415 ft).

 

Along the way the scenery switched from semi-arid, to dry as dust, with occasional patches of fertile green when an oasis was seen. The level of subsistence living was amazing. We constantly wondered how people made a living or just existed in such harsh conditions. But given we passed through village after village, they were indeed surviving

 

 

Our destination for two nights was Skoura, 45 minutes out of the movie set town of Ouzazarte. Movies such as Star Wars, Sex in the City, Lawrence of Arabia and numerous others have taken advantage of the scenery, old Kashbahs and lower cost of labour. Our host in Fes said that last year US 120 million came into the country directly from film making, and that doesn't include supplementary expenditure on accomodation, meals, etc.

 

Skoura is an oasis town and not a huge amount happens there. We were happy to relax by the pool, visit a local kasbah and generally just observe.

Speed limits were prominently displayed and traffic police, standing on the side of the road and with hand held radars were a common sight as you came to larger towns. You had to slow to 20 km/h to pass them and they stopped those they were interested in and waved everyone else on.
At one point we were waved over by the traffic police. The policeman said in French we had been travelling at 67km/h in a 60km zone. We looked blank. They asked if we spoke French and we smiled and immediately said we spoke none. He repeated it in slow English and asked where we were from. When we said NZ that was either enough to make us OK or the idea of trying to extract a fine from us in English looked too hard, so they told us to go on, but to drive slower. Phew! That said, Andrew, who drove most of the way, was very good at keeping to the speed limits, and was lucky to have me looking at the speedo to remind him when he crept over the limit.
Our accomodation was in a modern Kashbahs, Dar Es Salam. The hosts were so kind and accommodating.

Growing everywhere in the oasis were dates, and on later trips we started seeing people selling dates by the roadside.

 

Being an Islamic country, alcohol is not commonly sold. You can buy from supermarkets and licenced stores, but didn't see any of those outside the two main cities of Marrakech and Fes. Andrew stocked up on a few bottles of Morrocan wine, with varying degrees of drinkability. What would have been divine would have been a ice-cold beer at the end of the day. Instead we consumed a lot of water and sodas.

 
 

 

 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Marrakech: markets & madrasas

We headed out confidently into the maze that is the medina. Andrew felt the trusty compass would be a practical tool to guide him around. It worked, but you had to know where you wanted to go - not always possible in a maze. So we switched to Google maps and found even if we were lost, we could always re-orientate quite well.

Being in the wrong place we went with the flow and juggled our plans and went into the nearby Saadian tombs. These were only rediscover in 1917 after some bricked up walls were taken down these were revealed again. In 1603 the mausoleum was built by the Sultan with Italian Carera marble and solid gold and then bricked up by one of his descendants. We stood in a sunny line to take a really bad photo of the tomb.

 

Then with a bit more GPS we got to the Bahia palace. Here we played the game of "wait for the tourist to get out of my shot", and when they didn't the other game was "OK let's walk through the middle of their shot". Seriously, there were a large number of tourists and this was pretty much off-season as they are coming out of the hot season. The palace was under restoration, but still gave a good feel for Moroccan styles and architecture.

 

The Ben Youseff Madrasa was a lovely place to wander around. It was an Islamic college founded in the 14th century with student rooms around the upper floors. It is apparently the largest Madrassa in Morocco.

 

And for something completely different we went to the new town and the Jardin Majorelle. The garden was designed over 40 years by French painter Jacques Majorelle. In 1980 Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé purchased the gardens. After Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden.

There was a display of YSLs Christmas Greeting designs over the years. They also made nice cushion covers but at €70 each they weren't quite as appealing.

Without a doubt the best meal we ate in Marrakech was at Café Chez Zaza. It was a little tricky to find - it took us 2 nights to actually find it, but we were so glad we did.

Up the top in the open air we had Lamb Tagines with apricots and prunes. Delicious and such good value for money. We wish we could have gone back.

Andrew has been like a chameleon here, blending in with both the scenery and the other tourists.