Morocco 3 – from Marrakesh back to Casablanca

Again, photos are in a separate post.  Photos apply to Morocco 2 and Morocco 3.

We had two full days to explore Marrakesh, but even at that, we didn’t see everything and became quite frustrated at the pace at which simple lunches were produced and the amount of “shopping” stops that were called for.  We visited the Koutoubia Mosque, which dominates the skyline being the highest building, and the beautifully restored Bahia Palace, former home of the Grand Vizier, his wives and harem.  There is also a historic Jewish quarter, which housed an affluent and welcomed community up until the creation of Israel.

We visited the famous Majorelle Gardens, formerly owned by Jacques Majorelle, a French orientalist painter, who commissioned his architect to build him a studio in Art Deco style.  Its walls were painted  Majorelle blue, a particularly vivid hue found all over the garden.  This is accented by bright yellow pottery containers.  Around it, he designed a garden, a living work of art, composed of exotic plants, rare specimens from around the world  and water features.  After his death the garden fell in disrepair until Yves St. Laurent and his partner bought it  and restored the gardens to their exotic former glory.

Adjacent to the gardens was the very modern YSL museum, which featured examples from all his collections in chronological order, quotations from his commentary and explanations of how Morocco had influenced his work.  Projected on the walls were videos of spring and fall collections as well as display cases of costume jewelry and accessories. Absolutely fabulous!

Our hotel was only 2 minutes walk from Le Jardin Secret, situated in the largest and most ancient riad of the medina. A  riad is a traditional manor house in the centre of which is always a garden, an oasis of peace, surrounded by high windowless walls.  This garden is a classic Islamic garden, divided into four quadrants, conceived as an earthly reflection of Paradise as described in the Koran.  Water is a fundamental element in Arab-Muslim gardens and the fountains in the centre of the riads are the beating heart of the house.  Water from the Atlas Mountains flows into the city through a network of underground channels.  Gravity fed water systems provide all the fountains and water features throughout the garden.  The garden had belonged to one of the area’s most influential families but by 1932 their power had waned and everything fell into such disrepair and neglect that, by 2000, it was almost impossible to see any signs of its former splendour.  Fortunately there were still plans of the original garden and in 2007 an extensive renovation was undertaken and, with expert garden advice, it was restored to its former glory.

Another highlight of our stay was two amazing dinners, both in riads with beautiful tiles and lovely, scented gardens.  The first establishment belonged to Moha, a celebrated local chef who is the host of their Master Chef programme.  We had an array of tapas like starters, for me the highlight of the meal.  The main course was quail or Cornish game hen followed by a dessert of phyllo pastry with strawberries.  Oddly enough,  most of us preferred the second dinner which started with harira soup – spicy tomato served with dates – often the choice in Ramadan to break the fast – followed by lamb which had been cooked in a special jar – a lot like our lamb shanks – with crepes for dessert.  The immense city square is a UNESCO site and is filled with musicians, snake charmers, performing monkeys, fortune tellers and an amazing array of pop-up restaurants – all totally exotic!

We could have spent much more time there but had to push on to our next stop of Essaouira, right on the Atlantic coast.  Long ago it was the main port for trade with Timbuktu and more recently Morocco’s major port before the container ships became so large that a new port facility was built in Casablanca.  Nowadays it has a huge fishing fleet to catch shellfish, crabs, lobsters and bream.  It is also a UNESCO heritage site and listed as one of the thousand places to see before you die.  Its fortifications are reminiscent of St. Malo but it also has a hippy vibe as it is a kite surfing Mecca – indeed something for everyone as the medina  is full of interesting shops.

Our first stop en route was to photograph goats perched in the Argan trees – Coombs paled in comparison.  Eating the Argan nuts gives their milk and cheese a lovely nutty flavour.  Next we stopped for a wine tasting at the Val d’Argan vineyard, owned by a French couple from the Chateau Neuf du Pape area in the Rhone area of France.  That was a totally unexpected treat as we could easily have been in France, Australia or the Okanagan as we tasted excellent wine under a tree beside a villa and nibbled on tapas.  Then there was a tour of the Women’s Cooperative for the production of Argan oil.  The process is very labour intensive as everything is done by hand but has the advantage of allowing many of the women to work from home.  After seeing the women wearing traditional clothing shelling the nuts by hitting them with small rocks we went straight into the ultra modern sales facility to hear a sales pitch promoting the efficacy of the oil as a beauty product, rejuvenating in every way and you can even dress a salad with it!   I think the women must be making an absolute fortune as the prices were so steep.  No way was I going to buy a bucketful as my hairdresser had suggested!
All this happened before lunch, which we had some time after 3 at a very primitive cafe right beside the harbour.  Everything was cooked on a barbecue – shrimp, prawns, crayfish, squid, bream and crab – delicious!  We were on our own to find dinner which proved a challenge as all we wanted was a little something washed down with some wine.  The most interesting Lonely Planet suggestions all said no booze!  We eventually found a French place that served paté, cheese and wine.  Our full day there was spent having a half day tour conducted by a local guide.  We began in the harbour area and then walked through the medina, which was totally different from the ones we had seen previously.  It had been planned, had wide streets but still housed evidence of the ancient caravanserai, for housing the Arab traders and their camels.  The high spot was a visit to the workshop of craftsmen in wood, who produced beautiful marquetry work, tables, trays, bowls and boxes.  In the evening we went to dinner in a very interesting French fusion restaurant.  We started with sushi and tapenade, followed by cream cheese in phyllo or fish cakes, then lamb chops, chicken curry or fish, then sticky toffee pudding!

Now we were heading back to Casablanca along the little used coast road to admire the scenery and see the evidence of Morocco’s thriving phosphate industry, not quite so scenic.  The only major stop was at El Jadida, a UNESCO site, a port fortified by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  There was an ancient cistern with beautiful arches and reflections.  When we arrived back at our starting point it seemed as if we had been away for such a long time.  When it was announced that our farewell dinner was going to be traditional and alcohol free there was mutiny in the ranks.  We went to the restaurant in the hotel and had a beautiful meal (with wine) and belly dancing for entertainment.  Peace was restored and the next day we all scattered to our various destinations, having had a truly memorable trip.

Morocco 2 – From the desert to Marrakesh

See a separate posting for photos.

Our time in the desert made us realize how much our expectations had been coloured by Hollywood.  On our drive from Casablanca  to Ait Ben Haddou (on the road to Marrakesh) we passed a town which is described as the Hollywood of Morocco.  All sorts of epic movies like Moses, Gladiator, Cleopatra were shot there and it’s still a thriving industry.  As we drove along the valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, castellated forts, not the dens of iniquity from early movies, it was easy to see how their impact on the skyline would lend themselves to the big screen.

We had a walk along Todra Gorge, which nowadays has a river running through it fed by several springs.  Although the scenery was quite dramatic, a mini Grand Canyon, what I found interesting was that it was obviously a popular destination for family picnics and outings of local football teams, who were playing music and singing together, all Moslems so not a beer in sight!  We had a walk through an oasis, growing  date palms, fruit trees, fava beans and grains.  Next to it was an ancient kasbah, built around a well, enabling a whole household, their horses and livestock, to withstand a siege.  There was a marvellous view from the roof.  Again it was a very LONG day and we felt quite cheated as we had no time to enjoy the amenities- our own private courtyard, a beautiful swimming pool, a bar on the terrace – of the Hotel Riad Ksar Ighnda, the most luxurious so far.

Next morning we were up early to climb to the top of the ksar, or deserted fortified village almost adjacent to our hotel.  At the top it was easy to see how strategic its location had been as we could see for miles.  On our drive to Marrakesh through the High Atlas Mountains the road was narrow, twisting and subject to washouts and rock slides.  In winter the road can be closed by snow for hours or even days.  We arrived unscathed and our boutique hotel was again situated deep in the medina, with streets too narrow for vehicular access.  We had two full days to explore but even at that, there was much we hadn’t time to see.  We visited the Koutoubia Mosque, which dominates the skyline being the highest building, and the beautifully restored Bahia Palace, former home of the Grand Vizier, his wives and harem.  There is also a historic Jewish area, although there are now very few Jews in Morocco.


Morocco – the Last Week in pictures

Here are some pictures of our second week in Morocco.  They are now approximately in chronological order and annotated – May 5.

Morocco – Week 1

We are halfway through our Moroccan adventure and this blog will help us process the scope and variety of our novel experiences. This country has been described as the interface between Europe and the Arab world, rather reminiscent of Turkey and being on a conducted tour makes a huge difference to our comfort level.
When we arrived in Casablanca it was pouring and we encountered two cloud bursts on the way to the hotel – quite unexpected. Fortunately next morning we woke to sunny skies and warm temperatures, so very welcome after the inclement weather in the UK. On our first evening, we met  our fellow travellers, all Aussies except us.  There are three couples, us, brother Don and his wife, Meg and Warren and Di, the youngsters in the group,  Travelling with them are Ian, a workmate of Warren’s and  Bronwen, an old family friend.  There are two single women and Maria the sister of our tour leader Patrick, and Moulay, our charming local guide.  We have a 26 seater bus so there is lots of room to spread out.  For the welcome dinner we were taken to Rick’s Cafe for dinner. It had nothing to do with the movie, just a set up owned by an American with a good financial sense.

Casablanca, the largest city and a thriving port, has little character and not much interest for tourists. To ensure longer stays there, in 1993, the former king had built the third largest mosque in the world, a modern masterpiece, featuring magnificent mosaics, woodwork and plasterwork.  It is the only mosque in Morocco into which non-Moselms are allowed.   After our visit there, we drove to Rabat, the capital, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but also another huge, modern city. There we visited the Mauseleum of Mohammed V, the Hasan Tower and the Chellah Necropolis. It was there, too, we experienced our first medina, a bewildering maze of narrow streets, full of tiny shops, selling everything from footwear and apparel to fruits and vegetable to hunks of bloody meat, including goat and camel heads.
Next we drove to Fez, stopping on the way at the Roman ruins in Volubilis, Morocco’s most important archeological site. Again it was very reminiscent of sites in Turkey, a stunning hilltop location, beautiful mosaics but not much in the way of restoration. We visited Meknes, another UNESCO site, a 17th century imperial city with granaries and stables for 40,000 horses.
Fez is Morocco’s cultural and religious heart with teeming old and new medinas, a royal palace with grounds large enough for an 18 hole golf course. Over two very busy days we visited a ceramics factory where they hand made everything from coffee mugs and tagines to huge custom made mosaics. One huge one we saw had been ordered for a kitchen in New Zealand. We visited a carpet cooperative situated in a historic home and were sorely tempted by the beautiful workmanship. We also visited a famous tannery in the heart of the medina – not nearly as smelly as we expected – and saw the process from curing the raw skins to dyeing with vegetable dyes to the finished product, wallets, belts, slippers to the most beautiful leather and suede jackets. I contented myself with a pair of slippers.
We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel, four old homes in the new medina (14th Century) combined to form an amazing collection of rooms, all different with nooks and crannies. There was a rooftop terrace where we ate our meals. It’s been warm enough to eat dinner outdoors, often in courtyards planted with orange trees and daturas. The food is very similar to Turkey with first course of various dishes of cured vegetables. Then there is soup served with flat bread followed by tagines served in the brown ceramic dish. These can be meat, fish or vegetarian and have not been nearly as spicy as we had anticipated – maybe made blander for tourist consumption. Desserts are often crepes but never fresh fruit as I had expected.
We had a LONG drive from Fez over the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara. Our first stop was in a skiing village in the Middle Atlas Mountains  which looked as if it had been transported from Austria, quite disconcerting. There was snow at the side of the road as we crossed the high passes and then we began to see large expanses of green, which were the date palms growing by the river. When we neared our hotel we started to see the rolling sand dunes, very familiar from the movies. When we took our 4X4 tour across the dessert, the environment did not look like that at all. There had been coal mining in the area and the ground looked like rutted concrete with lots of cinders. To our surprise most of the Sahara is not the golden sand dunes.  Our desert tour included being entertained by a nomadic family in their cloth tent in the middle of a wasteland. It was a bit too authentic for me – mint tea served sitting crossed leg in a tent full of flies and being sand blasted. Lunch was a bit more civilized, after which we were entertained with music performed by six men, descended from former slaves. It was pretty jazzy and reminded us of the Cajun music of Gator Beat. In the early evening we had to go on a camel ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes. The camels were obviously used to this and it was all very sedate, somewhat reminiscent of pony trekking. What we were quite unprepared for was dismounting to climb to the top of a sand dune, too steep for the camels. There we were high enough to have a commanding view across the desert. We slid back down on our bottoms!
Again our hotel had lots of character, built like kasbah with our tiled suite overlooking a central courtyard with a swimming pool. You could walk right out the door into the desert. We were lucky it was not particularly windy during our visit but even so there was a layer of grit everywhere and the evening meal was indoors because of the threat of a sandstorm.

The following photo gallery is now, I hope, largely chronological and captioned as of May 5


Scotland and London

Alimay left for Scotland to spend some time with her sisters in Scotland almost two weeks before Robin flew out to London.

When I (Alimay) left Victoria on March 27th for Glasgow everyone was complaining of the unseasonably cold weather so I was somewhat prepared for cool weather and had packed accordingly. Even so I was not anticipating winter with boots, mufflers and several layers of woollies, much in evidence.
Maida had put in a huge amount of time and imagination in organizing at least one treat a day for my delectation. On Thursday we hit the ground running, hosting a tea for M’s book group, whom I had met on a previous visit. These women are eclectic readers and we ended up with a wonderful book list of personal picks. Friday saw us at John Lewis with an appointment with our personal shopper. As ever she came up trumps and I have new additions to my wardrobe.  In the evening Maggie, M’s best friend, hosted a dinner party for all the golf girls, at which I was able to wear one of my new acquisitions. The last time I was there for dinner was 38 years ago so we go back a long way. We had such good conversations and lots of laughs each time. Saturday we drove to Rhu to visit a garden, open as part of the open Gardens Scheme. It featured lots of plants, especially rhododendrons, which had been brought back by the early Scottish plant hunters. Sunday was a visit to the Necropolis, which afforded a history of all the influential Glaswegians and a glorious view over Glasgow.
On Monday, cousin Liz, visited from the Lake District, and Tuesday saw us at “A Play, a Pie and a Pint” – excellent Glasgow content – followed by the Rennie Mackintosh exhibition, which showcased Glasgow as such a vibrant centre of the Arts, that it rivalled London and Paris. Liz left for Edinburgh that evening and next day I took the ferry to Arran to visit sister Trish and David, her partner. There I encountered the very worst weather of my trip, wind, sleet and snow. The following day, however, it was totally different and so mild we could have a walk and a picnic on the beach. It was just a flying visit and I was back in Glasgow that evening. On Friday we had lunch with Fiona, M’s sister in law, and her husband, John.  They had had a trip to the US last summer occasioned by their son’s wedding in Vegas.  I was agog to hear all about it .  That evening saw probably the high spot of my trip, a Royal Scottish Ballet production of “Highland Fling,” described as Les Sylphides meets Trainspotting. It was excellent, edgy and very thought provoking. Saturday was spent visiting David, M’s younger son, in Scotstoun to see his 40th birthday present, a painting by one of the city’s up and coming artists.  We ended the day with a family tradition, dinner at the Wee Lochan.
Interspersed with all the activities were lots of long walks with Bella, M’s now model chocolate lab. All in all it was a truly wonderful couple of weeks.

We stayed at our “usual” accommodation in London in Bloomsbury on Cartwright Crescent where we get a very small room, but which includes cooking facilities.  We were there for 4 nights during which it was cloudy, misty and cool nothing above 10 degrees!  There was , however, very little rain and with our Oyster cards and the tube map we covered quite a lot of ground.  The first day we took trains (including London Overground, which was new to us) to Kew Gardens.  They advertised a free guided tour and we joined a group of about 10 for an excellent walk through the gardens.  The UK has had a cool damp spring, so the plants were at least two weeks later than normal and somewhat behind what we had left on BC.   There was, however, lots of interest and we enjoyed revisiting the gardens.

The next day we ventured out to the RHS Gardens at Wisley which is very easy to get to by car, but not well served by public transport.  Tubes and a train took us to Woking from where it was a £15 taxi ride to the gardens.  Again, there was a free tour advertised and we were wondering if they would do it as there were only 4 of us waiting.  However, 3 guides showed up and had an argument over who was NOT going to get one of the couples.  Thus, we had an excellent 2 hour personal guided tour.  We had not been here before and were very much impressed with what we saw.  The gardens have been going for over 100 years and there are many plans for the future including a very large new structure to house the visitor centre, offices and laboratories.  The only drawback was the temperature, so after lunch we decided that we were in danger of getting chilled and made our way home.

For our last full day we opted to go to Windsor Castle, which neither of us had visited previously.  Again a combination of tubes and trains delivered us to the door in about an hour.  We toured the State Rooms, including the very impressive renovations done after the major fire there a few years ago.  The St. George chapel where the Royal Wedding will be next month is part of the castle and tour although, surprisingly, there was no mention of the big event on the audio guide or any evidence of preparation.  Because it is still the English school Easter holidays, everywhere we have been has been extraordinarily busy considering the weather.

On Friday (13th) after packing and checking out, we tried to visit the Churchill War Rooms, but discovered that there was a 2-hour wait to get in (solution, book on line in advance!) so opted instead to tour Westminster Abbey which we hadn’t been in for 30+ years!   With the bigger suitcases we then took the Heathrow Express train to catch our flight to Morocco.  This was uneventful though over an hour late, so it was close to midnight before we were delivered to our hotel in the middle of a downpour!  Today, (Saturday) is much brighter and warmer.