After a week of hard core traveling we took a more laid back approach to visiting Marrakech. We new that we only had two days in the city, so it would be impossible to see everything and we opted instead to just relax a bit. Our riad had an amazing roof top terrace and we took full advantage.
During the day we wondered the Medina, bartered for some slippers and a fun basket, and ate at cafes. We also had some amazing street food from the mobile restaurants that set up every night in Place Jemaa-el-Fna. The hustle was everywhere, with every restauranteur wanting you to choose his place but it was really amazing walking the rows between the fifty or so restaurants with bench seating that are completely absent from the main square during the day. The square was completely alive with street performers and orange juice kiosks. The oranges are amazing in Morocco and we had orange juice every chance we got.
We did stop in at the Ben Yusuf Madrasa, which is an architectural wondering. The former residence for Islamic scholars must have been like a little city in its day, with rooms of different shapes and sizes housing students from very different walks of life.
We also went to the Dar-Si-Said museum which has a somewhat limited collection focusing on pottery, jewelry, clothes and some weapons, but again has really neat architecture. For examples just look at the door (above) and the central courtyard (below).
Morocco was not on our list of places that we needed to visit, but now that I have been I would love to go back. And I think that this has taught me something more, that is that no matter how much planning you do, sometimes the best times are when you don't have a plan. This is something I need to live by more often, and the other thing I learned that will improve my life is that I definitely need to travel more.
Sunday, April 8, 2012
The next part of our Morocco vacation was a tour south east of Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains to the desert. In between we visited Kasbah's and where amazed at how rocky dry landscapes could suddenly turn into oases of palm trees and gardens clustered around running water.
After passing through the Tizi Tichka pass, which is one of the highest mountain passes in Morocco, we stopped at the Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou. This UNESCO world heritage site is a fortified town that would have provided traveling caravans with shelter. From the summit, it is clear that you could have seen any approaching visitors.
The walls of the Kasbah are made from dirt, straw, and stones. It requires a lot of maintenance and must be rebuilt every thirty to fifty years. We saw this same type of construction in other towns, where the buildings were totally abandoned as people built more modern buildings around them and simply allowed erosion to slowly wear down the older buildings.
The extensive building of the Kasbah and its absolutely unique architecture has resulted in many films being shot here starting with Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Gladiator and Prince of Persia. The film industry has become a staple of the regional economy with a large studio in the nearby modern city of Ouarzazate. Morocco's political stability has made this area the top spot for the filming of desert and ancient city scenes.
We were lucky enough to share our tour with another couple from Sweden. You see them above here with our driver and guide Abdul. We had a great time talking to them and it made many of the long drivers shorter.
This is inside the house of one of the women who still lives in the actual Kasbah. Abdul simply asked her if we could look at her home and she invited us right in. Above you will see the simplicity of the kitchen and below you can see the room where she keeps her animals. Although the room is open to the air from above you have to walk through her main entrance and past her kitchen to where the animals are, remember this is all within the walls of the Kasbah, so there are no yards to have animals.
After more mountain passes we arrived at our bed and breakfast in Agdz. The tranquil town surrounded by palm trees was a nice break from the twists and turns of all the steep mountain roads.
The moon rising over the palms.
The next day we visited the Tamnougalt Kasbah which is currently under restoration by a local association with help from architecture students. The architecture was amazing and our local guide showed us the different sections of the city where the market was held, where Berber trades people would have stayed, where the treasury was, and the synagogue.
When we visited, they were setting up to flim "The Bible". Shades had been put up to help with lighting, and we were able to peak into a courtyard recreated to look like a family dwelling.
Even though parts of the Kasbah were crumbling, others were still in excellent condition and we walked by a couple of houses where families were still living and going about their daily work. Above you can still see in vivid colour the patterns painted onto the ceiling. It is so nice to know that being a tourist in areas like this can actually help them preserve their heritage.
Before going to Morocco, the closest I have ever come to a desert was visiting the Badlands in Alberta. I didn't really know if I was going to like the desert or not. I generally prefer cold temperatures to hot and I am not the kind of person who spends their vacation soaking up the sun. Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the desert. The vast open landscape appealed to my western Canadian longing for space and the changing colours provided much to photograph and admire along the long drive.
We were also lucky enough to see rain in the desert. While we were discussing with each other how we did not come prepared properly for this type of weather, our driver just got more and more excited. What he called rain, we probably would have classified as scattered showers and they only lasted about thirty minutes, but he kept repeating what luck this was, so we simply had to sit back and enjoy rather than dwell on our preparedness. It was an interesting exposure to a different attitude towards weather.
One of the main reasons, I chose the tour company I did was because part of the tour one night at a Bedouin camp in the desert and we got to take camels to get to the camp! In preparation for the two hour camel ride we call bought scarves and learned how to tie them around your head to not only keep your head and ears warm, but to block the wind and sand from your mouth and nose too.
The camels themselves were fantastic. I thought they were going to be more like riding a horse, but they firstly did not smell at all and secondly took their time as they picked their way carefully along the steep ascent and descents of the dunes. Keith's camel was the youngest and made the most noise by far, but in the funniest kind of way. Although we were sore form riding a camel for more than two hours, it was definitely worth it and something I would do again in a heartbeat.
We started out a bit late so the sun was beginning to set as we traveled across the dunes. The bit of rain and changing light gave the desert different hues of reds and oranges.
Due to our late start, we ended up doing half of our trip in the dark. This was a surreal experience because the moon was so bright and full we could still see everything around. It was like it was day except that everything was cast in shadows of blues. It was absolutely calm and the only noise around us was our camels, as we looked up the giant dunes beside us towards the stars. I regret that my photography skills are not sufficient enough to capture the wonder of this landscape that felt like a dream.
The night was exceedingly cold, even though we had at least four thick woolen blankets. We woke before 6:00 with light seeping through the woven camel hair of our tent and were afraid we had missed the sunrise. It turns out that the pre-dawn light was so strong we were able to easily trek up the dune behind the camp to watch the sun crest over the horizon. And then run down the dunes before spending another two peaceful hours on our camels heading back to civilization.
After showering and having breakfast we headed to the nearest town to take in some traditional music and drink mint tea (a.k.a. Berber whisky).
We stayed at the Auberge Le Festival, on the cliff side quite a ways up from the source. Although there is a good road up to the auberge we really were in the middle of nowhere. Le Festival was remote but beautiful with cave rooms built into the rock face and in addition most of the auberge is powered by solar energy. Along with the other ten or so guests that were staying there that night we were treated to an excellent meal that had these green olives that were to die for. After the meal we were treated to music, story telling and riddles. It was a great night in a great location, and we would have loved to stay longer and hike around the cliffs that surrounded us.
Thanks to the strength of my telephoto lens, I was able to take this picture of a nomadic camp situated above the auberge. You can see their tent on the left and goat herd on the right. According to our guide, they would likely stay in a spot like this for six months to a year depending on the grazing land and then move on to another spot. It fascinates me that people still live like this in such remote areas with little interaction with the daily modern conveniences cities and towns offer.
This is the way gardening is done along the sides of the gorge. We saw this style built up mounds around gardens throughout our trip next to water sources. The idea is that any water that runs into the garden is then trapped and run off is prevented to allow adequate moisture for the plants. The contrast between these green rectangles and the stoney bare cliffs around them were quite impressive and ingenious.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
The picture above is the of our Riad in Fez. We had them arrange for a driver to pick us up from the airport and thank goodness, as it would have been impossible to find it otherwise. We were dropped off at one of the entrances to the Medina, where we were met by the guardian of our Riad who lead us down the twisting streets for our first exposure to the Medina. When we turned down a dark tunnel, I started to get a little nervous, but then he unlocked a door which led into a hallway which led into the fabulous courtyard which you see above. This Riad "Dar Finn" was recommended by a friend who knew the owners. They have just finished renovating and the tile work is excellent. You can also see below part of their lovely terrace which looks over the roof tops of the city. After finding our way through the narrow and dark streets, it was wonderful to come up here and just listen to the call to prayer sweep across the valley.
On our second day in Fez we took a tour from a friend of the couple that owned the Riad. It wasn't a conventional tour, like you would expect in Europe or North America. There was little about the history or important events that happened in Fez, but instead we got to see how people actually lived. The picture above is of a family residence. We of course were staying in a renovated riad that is now fitted out for tourists, but many in the Medina still live in similar buildings that are built around a courtyard with multiple families living in each section. It is clear that even though a lot of money is being put into repairing the Medina, as it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, many people live in ancient building that have seen little repair and restoration. Something we discussed a bit with our guide and discussed a lot with each other and some of the other guests is the friction between foreigners buying up these wonderful riads and rebuilding them, versus the local people who do not have the income to fix up buildings of Medina but have lived their for thousands of years.
The activities and daily life in the Medina really gave us a new perspective on how a walled city in Europe must have operated. It was interesting to witness life in a walled city, after visiting some many ruins and old wall cities around Europe in the last year. Firstly, in the Medina in Fez there are no cars. Everything is transported by either men with these big wheel barrows, or by donkey. Yes, even the garbage is picked up by donkey. The main streets are no more than two meters across and the smaller ones are so narrow that at times you have to turn sideways to get through. We would never have been able to experience all of the in and outs of the Medina without our guide because there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the streets and because all of the buildings are at least three stories high it is difficult to get your bearings. During the day the streets are packed with stores that are basically the sides of closets with shutters that open onto the street to give the vendor more space to display his works (notice I do say his, it was rare to see women working in shops). At night all the shutters are closed up and any landmarks you may have made during the day are completely gone.
The gender roles are obviously changing, as we saw women working in offices and dressed in modern clothes, but in some respects remain the same. Without blinking an eye, our guide explained how men went to work and women were in charge of preparing dough, which they bring to the public ovens, where it is baked. These roles were interestingly re-enforced by what we saw around the Medina. Women were involved mostly in shopping for food or clothes, and after about eight o'clock in the evening there were few women out and about at all.
In contrast to this though, the poverty and garbage was everywhere. Plastic bags at times covered fields and the lack of health care was obvious walking by some of people in the street. Being a "rich" westerner in these cases makes me feel guilty and at the same time extremely grateful for what I have at home. My life may not be perfect, but my family is healthy and I have jobs that pay for me to not just live but go on vacations.
As I mentioned above life in the Medina is busy from the farmers market where you can buy eggs, live chickens to the tanneries. Business is how this city has thrived and although they may hold on to traditional ways of fabricating their products they are there to sell just as much as any capitalist westerner. Fez is known for its leather products and although it was fascinating to hear about the process of treating and drying the skins. It smelt. Even though we were given mint at the door to sniff throughout the tour, it is a stench you do not forget.
Fez is also known for its textiles. Often we saw men spinning thread along the sides of buildings using a fishing real to wind it. The silk is actually from agave cacti and is then woven into textiles.
An artisan at work spinning pottery. Below you see the tanned skins drying on the hillside.
Ironically this same hillside may have been grazed by the same sheep that are now being turned into leather. All around Fez any open area with grass seemed to be fair game for shepherds and goat herders.
I took this picture from the terrace of a restaurant we went to for lunch. Really I should have taken a picture of the food also. The food was absolutely fantastic and surprisingly I could eat a lot of it. They always started with a variety of salads. Our favourites were lentil salads, zaalouk (sp?) eggplant, tomatoes and olive oil, and carrots with oil sugar and cinnamon. These of course were followed by tagine and some of the best oranges we have ever had for desert! My mouth is just watering explaining it. Needless to say, I will be investing in a good Moroccan cookbook and a tagine.
More to come...