Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year from Barcelona

You can't do Barcelona in a day and we didn't try. We've been here before and we know we will be back for a proper visit some day. For today it was just a question of wandering about soaking up the ambience and doing a little shopping.

We had been told that significant work had been done on the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's famous cathedral, designed by Guadi who died just as work on the huge project got underway. For various reasons it remained a magnificent shell for decades but now a concerted effort is being made to complete it. So our one planned part of the day was to visit the cathedral, which we quickly reached on Barcelona's excellent subway system. Unfortunately we weren't early enough to beat the huge crowds lining up to get in and so contented ourselves with viewing the cathedral from the outside only. We saw the inside five years ago and it's a good reason to return to Barcelona. That done we made a quick side trip to a nearby booksellers that I knew would carry Tin Tin books. I am slowly building a collection of the entire series in the languages of the countries we visit.

The subway got us quickly back to Placa de la Caltaluyna, which marks the beginning of Barcelona's famous shopping thoroughfare, La Rambla. I needed a new pair of dress shoes for work which I soon found, while El came away blissfully happy with some funky purple leather ankle boots and a cool, royal blue sweater.

Walking around Barcelona is a real treat. People are very fashion conscious and even when dressed casually, appear elegant. Europeans just have that effortless put together look. My Italian friend Elisabetta has it whether she's going for a walk or just having coffee. I wish that I could master it. For the ladies boots are a must. The height doesn't matter or the style but everyone wears boots. Jeans are tight. Mini dresses and mini skirts are worn with the requisite tights. Those Latin men were also kitted out in tight jeans and very often designer tops. It was refreshing to see that the "gansta" look for men is well and truly dead in Barcelona. Everyone male and female, young and old, looks really good.

By now we were opposite the market area which is a must see. It is hard to describe the range of fruits, vegetables, fish, fresh and cured meats, cheese, pastries, and candies on display. The Serrano hams were hanging everywhere and we watched a fellow cut a ham very thinly with a knife and then pick up the bit of ham with tweezers. Sausages, cold cuts, steak and veal were everywhere. Every kind of fish was piled high, the dorado, branzino, sole, snapper, swordfish, squid, cuttlefish, the scampi still moving their feelers, and lots of fish we didn't recognize. The fruit and vegetables were to die for, beautifully fresh. There was an array of mushrooms on sale. Maybe some were porcini. We weren't quite sure. The oranges and tangerines freshly picked were piled in mountains. Prickly pear cactus were cut in two and wrapped with little plastic spoons so that you could buy and eat. We finally settled on having a pina colada drink.

One of the best things were the rows and rows of every kind of candy from beautiful chocolates, marzipan fruits, nougat, jellies licquorice Every kind of candy you could imagine in every colour was there to buy. It was a real feast for my eyes. We came a way with a few pieces of marzipan, some nougat, some jellies and little violet hard candies that I hadn't had since I was a child. They tasted every bit as good as I remembered.

We then veered off into the many narrow winding pedestrian only side streets. It's fun to get lost here. Any given direction could lead to a quiet residential area, a beautiful tree-lined square, or a national monument. This was the oldest part of the city and included a short section of original Roman walls. We found a tapas bar for a late lunch and then did some more wandering about, eventually making our way back to the hotel to rest our tired feet. On the way we passed the Guadi museum where once again a huge lineup decided us against going in but didn't prevent us from visiting the museum's excellent gift shop where I found a cool poster.

In retrospect we should have put more thought into how we planned to spend New Year's Eve. We might for example have found a concert or show of some kind to attend. Many locals go out to dinner and we found that those restaurants remaining open had switched to a fixed menu and were often fully booked. As my appetite was only just back to normal and El's stomach was still not right, a big meal at a fancy restaurant was not really practical. There were still plenty of Tapas bars open and so we found one of these for dinner.

By this time the revelers were out in force, and police, ambulance and sanitation vehicles and personnel had taken up positions to deal with whatever the evening brought. Thousands of mostly young partiers wander up and down La Rambla often sharing premixed concoctions in large pop bottles. Individuals were also selling bottles of champagne or beer along with the traditional grapes (to be eaten for good luck in the new year). We walked all the way down to the waterfront before deciding that we would be just as happy to catch the final countdown back in our room on TV, which is what we did.

A few short hours later we were in a cab on our way to the airport. There were still many determined individuals on the streets and we could see many bars and restaurants still hopping.

There's not much worth remembering about the rest of the day: The unavoidable tedium of long distance air travel with its check ins, security lineups, cross terminal marches, finding the VAT refund office, checking out the duty free, finding a book to replace the one I inadvertently left in Morocco (with only ten pages to go!), waiting, more waiting, etc, etc, and finally home to our welcoming dog and a welcome invitation to a bowl of soup with our friends.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


We slept soundly in Malaga and this time were not disturbed in the night by numerous recycling trucks. In the morning we had a leisurely breakfast before walking around the main shopping area for an hour or so. And then it was time to head off to the airport for our flight to Barcelona.

We arrived in Barcelona in time to enjoy some tapas in a nearby bar and then join the throngs on Barcelona’s main shopping street. Actually, El is majorly frustrated that her stomach is preventing her from fully enjoying the fabulous array of food available at countless bars and cafes. However she did have some tripe and chick peas.

Anyway, after that we got in among the shoppers and strollers and had a great walk and a little shopping before heading back to our hotel. Tomorrow we plan to wander around some more, in particular visiting the Sagrada Familiar, and incredible cathedral designed by Gaudi and apparently now nearing completion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rabat to Malaga via Tangier

Guess whose turn it was to be ill today? Ma pauvre petite El now has the same stomach problems I had for three days. Unfortunately today is a planned travel day so there is not much we can do but make a stop at the corner pharmacie and head off. It is a beautiful day and we travel through rolling hills that seem to get greener as we head north. We passed down this same road on the way in two weeks ago, but in the dark; it is nice to see it in daylight.

We attempt to get some photos of locals on the donkey or pony carts as we pass through a series of small towns. I haven’t taken many of this kind of picture as I don’t really feel right treating them as some sort of exhibit. Never-the -less our Moroccan journal would be incomplete without this quintessential image.

We manage to get ourselves into Tangier with little trouble and head for the ferry dock where we have arranged to meet Adnan and return his car (which we felt obliged to give a good wash on the way down). With my bad French and his bad English combined with my inability to figure out the local payphone, it took a while to establish that he was already waiting for us just a couple of hundred feet away. We handed back the lovely little Peugeot 206 with thanks. It was comfortable and reliable and I believe I returned it with most of the same gears it came with.

We were once again accosted by a helpful sort who did point us to the right ticket office and help us with our bags which by now add up to about 250 lbs (I got an incredible deal on a set of camel hoof decanters I couldn’t say no to). There was the expected nonsense about his fee. I was tired enough that I would have given him whatever he asked but that turned out to be so outrageous I had to say “Non, non, mon frère, ce n’est pas acceptable!”

Somehow I thought that as the boat was already loading it wouldn’t be long before we were off. I was wrong. Trucks had to be laboriously backed into the ferry one at a time and there was a major kafuffle when one of the ship’s cables broke causing the rear loading ramp to misalign with the dock, a strong side wind not helping. I deliberately chose the slow ferry as I thought it would be a smoother crossing than the fast boat and it has been but this tired old tub makes the Queen of Alberni look like a luxury cruise ship! Anyway I see the lights of Algeciras outside so it is time to find our luggage and prepare for the remainder of today’s trek, the bus ride up to Malaga.

We arrived at Algeciras around 8 pm local time (Spain is one hour ahead of Morocco) and got to the bus station. Despite being multilingual I struggled with the switch from French to Spanish after such a long day. We were in time to take a 9 pm bus but this is the slow one that comes off the highway to stop at five or six towns along the Costa Del Sol. We would arrive at the same time by waiting for the later express bus, and this also gave us time to have a cup of tea in the station cafeteria and of course work on this blog. Neither of us has eaten anything all day but my appetite is back so I had some nice Serrano ham on a plain bun, in some ways the best food I have had in two weeks!

Finally, around midnight we arrive back in Malaga and fall gratefully into our room at our Lola RoomMate hotel. El can fill you in on the décor tomorrow!

On the Road to Tamara

The muezzin’s call to prayer woke me at around 6 this morning. I could hear the call from first one mosque and then the calls from the other mosques begin but this morning it was going to be more than that to get me up. We finally departed Essaouria, bade good bye to the ubiquitous cats, which were everywhere. Essaouria is truly a laid back city of sand and surf and lots of holidaymakers mainly from France. There are less headscarves seen here than anywhere else we’ve been and everyone else dresses pretty much as they would at home’ skirts, short sleeves and sandals.

Our trip back to our friend Sandy’s little slice of heaven by the sea was pretty smooth sailing. I haven’t really spoken too much about the roads or the police but both are very different to us. The road out of Essaouria is a beautifully paved four lane highway with very little traffic but the speed limit changes. It may be 80 and then drop to 40 for no reason at all. On top of this you have policemen on the road, usually on side, stopping traffic at random and asking for papers. Though that was nothing compared to driving on the auto route where the speed limit was 120 and suddenly a policeman nearly caused an accident. I don’t think that anyone was actually going as fast as 120 but he appeared from out of the bushes and stopped the car two in front of us. We all had to come to a dead halt very quickly. We were then waved through. It was all very odd.

Much of today’s trip was through very fertile, green countryside with some kind of crops coming up and farmers tilling the fields with horses as well as donkeys. There were lots of olive groves as well. It must have been market day in many places as we would drive through traffic jams of donkeys and carts in the towns. Then we would leave town and be driving on the highway with convoys of donkeys and carts filled with three or four people and sometimes even a couple of sheep all driving on the soft shoulder of the road.

Today we actually saw some cows. Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve seen cow crossing signs but not one cow in sight. It is pretty funny and sometimes alarming to see shepherds with their sheep right at the side of the auto route or on the roundabouts. There is a tremendous amount of road building going on.

I nearly made one faux pas while looking for the loo at a repos stop on the auto route. I saw a place to wash up and was peering in to the next room where there was one of the gas station attendants. One of the restaurant servers quickly showed me to the ladies.

We arrived back at Sandy’s house in time to see a beautiful sunset of every hue of orange and red. I think that there is an old lady living next door so this house won’t be used as the overflow brothel qt the moment. Two doors down there is an actual brothel, which Sandy found out about only recently. She has seen the hookers walking up the beach and coming in the back way. Apparently, when there is an overflow some have been using the house next door unbeknownst to the owner, who lives elsewhere. Brothels here aren’t just brothels as we would think of them. If you are unmarried here you can’t go to a hotel so sometimes you have to make use of the brothel or rent an apartment if you are on holidays together.

Seamus is recovering nicely from his Moroccan cleanse. We walked down to the local restaurant for dinner where we ate outside to the sound of the pounding surf in the background and the Buena Vista Social Club, Whiter Shade of Pale and Live and Let Die in the restaurant. It’s funny the eclectic selection of music we’ve heard in the restaurants. Dinner was a lovely piece of grilled dorado or sea bream. Neither of us is really eating much. Then it was off to bed as tomorrow will be a long day.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hanging Out in Essaouria

Today, Sunday we moved in to a new hotel out of the medina. It was a bit touch and go as to what we were going to do but we are now in the Ocean Vagabond not far away from where we were. We have a fabulous view of the ocean. Seamus is still not feeling that great so we lay out by the pool most of the afternoon in the 29 degree heat. Unfortunately, the water in the pool was very cold so I was happy to read my book.

We went for another walk through the medina after breakfast. On the way back we passed various groups of kids playing pick up football (soccer). I was impressed with the intensity and skill on display.

It’s early to bed as we have a long drive to Rabat tomorrow.

A New Intimacy in Essaouria

It was a long night for Seamus as he is suffering from Moroccan tummy. It started in Marrakesh where the hamman (bathroom) in the room we had didn’t have a wall to the ceiling and you could hear everything going on in the bathroom. The room here in Essaouria is lovely but has curtain separating the hamman from the bedroom, no door, and I could hear the thundering of Seamus’ Moroccan tummy as he suffered all night. Thus the new intimacy. Some Imodium and some other meds and he is doing better.

This morning I had a really pleasant walk around the medina where no one bothered me. They seem much more laid back here. The Moroccans are traders so they are always trying to engage you in conversation and suddenly you feel adopted. Then they can sell their goods or services to you. A classic case was in Marrakesh where a guy came up to us and said, “Don’t you remember me from the hotel?” Of course you don’t but you are trying to be polite. This guy wanted to take us to a restaurant but we knew where we were going. He didn’t come from the hotel at all.

I found a really nice carpet I may buy. Later Seamus and I walked to the fishing port and looked at the fleet where some of the boats have definitely seen better days. All kinds of fish are on display at outdoor stalls and I chose a lovely fresh sea bass (branzino to the Italians), which they grilled up for my lunch and I sat down and ate on the spot. My eyes were bigger than my stomach and in retrospect the fish was a bit big. Seamus drank water. Later this afternoon I sat in a café and had a couple of espressos and some coconut gelato, which was excellent. It was beautiful sitting there people watching with the sun in my face and the roar of the ocean in the background thinking of further intimacies which would come later in the afternoon.

Seamus and I had an appointment at the hamman, Moroccan steam room, late this afternoon. Any French readers please don’t laugh. We went in to the room with the girl and she told us in French to take off our clothes but we very quickly wrapped towels around ourselves. "Non, non! " she cried. To our dismay we had to take off the towels and go naked in to the hamman, a beautiful white room with two areas to lie down and a big sink in the middle. We lay on the red mats in the gentle heat and the girl poured warm cascades of water over me then covered me in sabon noir, which is a soap used in the hammans, then she did the same to Seamus. We were scrubbed down with an exfoliating mitt and covered with something else. Then we had our hair shampooed and mud was spread all over. We were left for a while and washed yet again. Finally we were massaged with arjon oil then sent on our way. It was a great experience. The room was a perfect temperature not like a steam room where you are battling to survive and the warm, rolling water cascading over each time had an almost erotic feeling.

Seamus is well on the way to recovery so it was off to buy a Berber carpet that I had seen in the afternoon. It’s taken a long time but I really like it as the pattern is quite subtle. We got it at a “democratic” price. This is the patter that the locals use here when they are bargaining with you. We had a bit of a walk around the port and went back to the same restaurant as last night, where a lot of locals go. We both had sole tonight. My stomach is suffering from too much branzino at lunch or I hope that is all it is.

Tomorrow we will have to leave this hotel but we are hoping to stay in the area. It will mean a long drive to Rabat the next day but we need some non driving, hanging out time in the lovely hot weather. And so this strange day of new intimacies with Seamus is over. He is sound asleep.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Essaouria Christmas Day

We had a lovely breakfast at Riad Tizwa in Marrakesh. There were the four people from Edinburgh and another couple with the man coming from Aberdeen where I was born. Seamus said it was like a highland ghetto. Perhaps he felt left out of the discussion about the merits of deep fried mars bars.

We found our way out of Marrakesh not too badly but did manage to get on the wrong road but going roughly in the right direction. The Moroccans aren't big on signposting things or they do and then they don't. For people like us who have a gift when it comes to getting lost it is a bit frustrating. We saw some quantity surveyors and thought that they would be able to help us. We thought that they should be able to read a map. I sat in the car while Seamus took the map.

Wish I could have videotaped the next ten minutes of these guys trying to find where we were on the map. I started to get a little alarmed as they began pointing at place names on the far side of Marrakesh. We eventually established that we were on a secondary road which would soon allow us to turn right and get back to the main road, just as two previous people had indicated. We weren’t really that lost but it always seems worse when you don‘t see the reassuring road signs you are looking for.

From the car I could see hands pointing in every direction then they would make up their minds and point in a different direction. Meanwhile Seamus is giggling and laughing. I thought that if Seamus gets in to this male bonding much more he will be sitting at the cafes smoking with the men all day.

I had my last tajine at lunch. We stopped on the road and asked for a veggie tajine. The veggies were ok but the big piece of meat fat in there has put me off meat for some time to come. We had 6 cats and a cockerel trying to mooch from us.

The main road to Essouria is straight and fairly boring although long chunks of it are being upgraded making for easy driving. We passed through prairie-like areas where the local farmers actually had tractors. But apart from that it was like going back in time with everything being done by hand and transportation by donkey and horse cart and the primary personal transportation little beat up 50cc motos or slightly bigger scooters.

We stopped at an Argon oil cooperative run just by women. Argon oil or Moroccan oil is the new thing in cosmetics. I already had some from a herbalist with orange and myhrr. The ladies were all smiling and laughing with no men bossing them about. There are two kinds of the oil one for cooking, which is quite orangey in colour and the other for hair, face and massage. I tasted the cooking one tonight as you can put it on your salad. It’s very tasty and quite nutty. All the proceeds from this cooperative go to a foundation to help women. As a bonus the cream feels great on your face.

There has been terrific rain on the coast which they are totally unused to and it has caused havoc. A flooded road and necessary detour threw us for a loop just when we were almost in town. We sorted that out and then began driving around the front trying to figure out where our hotel was until one of us had the brilliant idea of going in another hotel and asking for their help, which they did, complete with map, and a few minutes later I was haggling with local parking guardians over the cost of our parking space just outside the medina walls and only a short walk from our amazing hotel.

Apparently it was once an almond warehouse. The rooms are huge and high which makes sense if they were once stacked high with sacks of almonds. This hotel is very classy and full of interesting artifacts and photos from the port in earlier times. What really intrigues me and I must get to the bottom of this, is that the entire staff we have met so far consists of rather beautiful women. The two manageresses are French. Very chic but I have to say when I shook the hand of the second one I thought "Darling get some moisturizer on those hands." They felt as if she had been laying patio stone all day. I asked El if would be appropriate for me to say something to her but was told to leave it alone. Tomorrow we will book a double hamman treatment which I think includes a massage and whatever else happens in a traditional Moroccan bath house (hamman).

Dinner tonight was a green salad that I didn’t eat. Who would have thought that you could find iceberg lettuce in Morocco? Tasteless. Anyway the best bit was my sole meuniere. The whole fish on the bone cooked to perfection. Seamus had some fish soup which he couldn’t eat because of his stomach so the waiter gave him some veggie soup. For dessert I had oranges with a tiny bit of dates and cinnamon. And I had a nice half bottle of Moroccan red. This was followed by a walk along the sea front with the waves crashing in as it’s quite windy but twenty degrees. Lovely.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Marrakesh at last

We finally arrived in Marrakesh this afternoon after a five hour drive through some spectacular scenery in the mountains. The roads were a motorcyclists dream. We climbed and climbed, passed trucks on switchbacks, twisting and turning the whole way. The scenery was amazing with the red rocks of the mountains changing to sand and then purple. Peeking between the mountains we could see the snow on the high Atlas Mountains. There were sheep on sheer cliffs with the shepherds and of course everywhere we passed the donkeys carrying goods to market. As we came in to the valleys there would be lots of palm trees and agave cactus. This is important in Morocco as they weave s type of silk from the agave. No matter how high up we were we would pass the little cafes in the middle of nowhere with the men all sitting outside drinking their coffee.

There are road markers every mile so it seems to take even longer to get somewhere as you count down the kilometers one by one but finally we reached Marrakesh and with the excellent directions of Daniel from the riad we found the hotel with very little bother. It is right beside the palace and a few minutes from the medina. It certainly is an oasis of calm in a city that is almost indescribable. The roads are narrow with scooters, motobicyclettes, bicycles, people jostling, horses and carts all whizzing by. Pollution control is unheard of and there is that horrible diesel fuel smell. It is noisy and busy.

W e had a short trip to the medina this afternoon. In the square before you enter there were snake charmers with hooded cobras, men with Barbary apes, storytellers and performers. We ventured in to the souk but even it had motorcycles whizzing about. After buying some almonds and some marzipan cookies we returned to the hotel for a break.

Daniel and Richard, who own the riad, have their mum and dad visiting from Edinburgh, where I lived for the first 7 years of my life. One of the mum and dad’s best friends went to the same primary school as I did, the Dean Village School, at the same time as I went there. They also know the Drumscheuch Baths, which my dad managed. We reminisced about the trapezes and rings over the pool. The baths were built in the late 1800’s. While discussing things I remembered about Edinburgh I came up with McVitie’s tea room, which was a well known meeting place in Edinburgh. This prompted Daniel to produce some mincemeat tarts right from Edinburgh. Delicious.

Tonight we ate at an Italian restaurant for a change. We are finding the Moroccan food a bit mild as was our penne arriabata. We are never quite sure what to do about wine as it isn’t on the menu. Anyway we missed out as we were halfway through our meal when some locals ordered and got some wine. Oh well!

Then it was back to the square which is a riot of colour at night. There were still the performers but the best thing was all the little restaurants that were set up. You could get every kind of food: snails, fish, chicken, meat, veg, and chips. Everything cooked on the spot. It all smelled wonderful. The people trying to get you to eat at their stalls would find out we were from Canada and immediately say,” Poutine, poutine.” They seem to know a fair bit about Quebec and are amazing mimics of accents ours included.

It was back to the riad as Seamus is still suffering from his cold and he has to drive to Essouria tomorrow. I think that I need to learn how to drive a stick shift. It would be helpful. And so it is Christmas Eve and I’m looking forward to Kate’s blog and the story of the charades. Thanks for all your comments Kate. I’m even more in awe of your daily blog.

Merry Christmas blog followers. Enjoy your turkey and I hope that Santa is good to you.

Stay tuned tomorrow for today’s pictures.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Back on track

We are now up to date and hope to have regular internet access for the remainder of the trip. Got your emails Rom. Thanks. I hope you all have a well deserved few days off soon. As for comments, if you look at the bottom of this post you should see something like "0 comments" If you click on that you can see whatever comments others have left but you can also leave comments as well. But you have to click on the "comment" first. Then fill in the little box and then click the box that says "post comment." Ciao!

Into the desert - photos

Into the desert

(this post is out of sequence and should appear after the Mezouga posts)
On Monday afternoon we set off into the desert with Mohamed one of the hotel staff in a 4 by 4. After driving for half an hour over sand and stones we arrived at our Berber tent village. Our tent made of camel fur blankets was really cozy with a double bed covered in woven red Berber blankets. We walked over to the large main tent which had benches all around it covered in a myriad of colours of Berber blankets and wall hangings in reds, oranges, yellows blues, turquoises, and every colour of the rainbow. Many had sequins as part of the decoration. The roof was a vibrant royal blue fabric again with sequins. It was like stepping in to Ali Baba’s tent with all the brass lights lighting up all the colours.

We watched out of the tent flap and over the horizon we caught the first glimpse of our camels.
The camels sit down and it’s time to climb on for our trip to watch the sunset. We very quickly leave the stony desert and we’re into the endless dunes. We are led by a beautiful young man who guides Seamus’ camel while my camel's lead is attached to the tail of Seamus' camel. My camel, Bob Marley has it in for Seamus’ camel and gives him a good bite in his haunch. After that his mouth was tied up. We carried on into the desert with dunes as far as the eye could see. It is a really mystical experience. You really have to hang on to your camel as you go down the steep dunes otherwise you could be flying over his head. The farther we went it became more and more windy. I was very glad that Mohammed had fashioned my scarf into a Berber headdress so I didn’t get mouthfuls of sand. Finally, we stopped, got off the camels and climbed a dune to watch the sunset. Looking off into the distance we saw a nomad camel train and nothing but endless dunes. Meanwhile the wind picked up and the sand really started swirling at which point we decided to return to our village to watch the sun set there.

This all sounds terribly exciting but as we got back to the camels, which were in a dip in the sand, our boy pulls out from his messenger bag these marble type souvenirs to buy. I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie novel lost in the desert. Of course you have no choice but to bargain for something as you wouldn’t want to be stranded out there with nothing but miles and miles of dunes facing you. We made our purchase and it was back on the camels travelling over higher and higher dunes and the sand swirling everywhere. Back at the tents we watched the sun set over the dunes with a riot of oranges and mauves surrounding it.

By dinner time it had cooled down quite a bit but there were gas heaters in the tent that kept it quite warm. As we started to eat our chicken tajine we were joined by four other people who came from Toronto. They were going on the camels to see the sunrise. Before going off to our tent we admired the stars. There were so many and they were so bright, a spectacle we are not used to in the city.

After dinner it was off to our tent and off to sleep. It was all very cozy inside but every so often you could hear the sand blowing on to the tent and the sound of the camels talking to each other. In the very cold morning we got up early to see the sunrise have breakfast and then we returned to the hotel. A quick shower was very welcome as we had sand everywhere. Once cleaned up we were ready for our day’s trip to Skoura.

Skoura - photos

The palms of Skoura

Today we decided to do a little tour of the area around the hotel with an English speaking guide, Kamal. Seamus has a really bad head cold and is snotting everywhere.

We set off with Kamal and two of the dogs from next door. As we left the hotel we were immediately in an area of date palms with people up the trees harvesting them. The Moroccan olives were also being harvested and many of the trees were really heavy with the olives. Usually someone was up the tree with a stick while sheets were spread beneath the trees and others gathered up the olives. The yield is 16 to 24 litres of oil per 100 kilos of olives. We tried to take a picture of the olive harvest but the women didn’t want their pictures taken and the men with the women were pretty adamant.

We walked along the narrow paths bordering the fields passing almond trees and lots of pomegranate trees with the last of the fruit rotting. We did pick one pomegranate and ate it. Delicious Lots of alfalfa is grown for the animals and we saw lots of broad beans and spring onions growing as well. Everywhere there are channels of water flowing at the borders of the fields. Apparently the week is divided into hours and depending on the size of your parcel of land you would get more water. The channels are diverted with little mud dams being made. Families have maybe 5 or 6 parcels of land but then that is split up as the parents die. Just like everywhere else some of the younger people are migrating in to the cities. One of the really cool things was watching quince rolling down one of the streams.

Families are very close and whole extended families live together. Kamal was telling us that when he gets married his wife will move in with him and his parents as well as his brother. He has four sisters so they will go off and live with their husbands and their parents. We passed several abandoned Kasbahs or large homes. Sometimes they are abandoned as the mud and straw wears out or sometimes there are too many people in the extended families so they build elsewhere.

We walked around a cemetery where there were no headstones or markers at all. During all of this we were accompanied by the two dogs who kept any other village dogs at bay. Finally we ended up at an auberge or little French hotel where we sat on the rooftop with an amazing panorama of the area with the palm trees and lots of tabletop mountains in the background. We sipped our mint tea and ate dates with the dogs flaked out beside us.

Then it was back to our hotel. There continued to be lots of streams everywhere and we passed several women doing their washing in the streams. It’s time that I did washing but we aren’t anywhere long enough for it to dry.

The rest of the day was spent getting our blog caught up. Dinner tonight was zucchini and celery soup, but it was a subtle amount of celery followed by a cucumber salad with mint, some eggplant and some grilled cauliflower. The main course was tiny merguez lamb sausage, chicken and rice with peas. Dessert was crème caramel. I’ll be glad to get back near the sea and enjoy fish again.

Tomorrow we get up early as it’s time for the Marrakesh express!

Merzouga to Skoura - commentary

Yesterday we left the desert for a long drive to Skoura. Although the distances aren’t far by North American standards the speed limits aren’t that high and quite often we are going through endless Berber towns.

Much of our drive was through the stony and sandy desert with lots or scrub. We passed by many flocks of sheep and goats as well as camels grazing by the side if the road. Always in the far distance we could see the wonderful high and often snow covered Atlas Mountains.

Our first stop was in the Todra Gorge. We entered the area and drove for miles through areas of palm trees as the gorge rose on either side of us with its read and browny sand stone. We drove for miles until we reached a petite gorge which we didn’t want to go through with the car because it was very narrow. At this point the gorge rose to three hundred metres around us. My description doesn’t do it justice but you can see the immense beauty from the pictures.

Our drive to Skoura ended at twilight. We had to follow orange markers off the main road for four kilometres but it seemed like a lot more. We crossed a wadi or huge dried river bed and followed on a narrow road of rocks until finally we reached a little slice of heaven or perhaps here paradise, Les Jardins de Skoura. Les Jardins is owned by a wonderful French lady, Carolyn who gave us a really warm welcome and a complete tour of the property before we had our traditi0nal welcoming glass of mint tea. Our room was toasty warm with the heater going full tilt. We have the bedroom, a little sitting area and lovely hamman or bathroom. It is also made out of mud and grass over mud bricks in the Berber style with wonderful Berber blankets on the bed and windows.

Dinner was served in the dining room with a lovely fire. Our legume soup was followed with a Moroccan salad and tajine of beef, potatoes and petite pose. Dessert was a chocolate mousse and maybe best of all we had a bottle of wine. A perfect ending to the day.

Errachadia to Merzouga - photos

Errachadia to Merzouga - commentary

This post will be delayed as we are apparently out of range for the little mini modem we borrowed and there appear to be no other wireless networks nearby.
We set off from Errachidia yesterday morning and watched the countryside grow increasingly desert like as we went along. Except that our route took us alongside a river course resulting in a narrow swath of greenery and habitation running the length of the valley.

We stopped a couple of times but were immediately accosted by would be guides. Their opening gambit is usually to ask where you are from and if you answer that they always know enough about your country to keep the conversation going and it also allows them to establish whether you speak French or English. I have managed to get rid of several characters by saying we are from Russia. As we got further south there were fewer other tourists to share the attention.

Our instructions were to turn left immediately after crossing a bridge 5 km out of town. This was in fact a barely discernible track marked by short painted posts placed at 100 yard intervals. I wasa just a tiny bit nervous given the low clearance of our car but it wasn’t that bad and we could see our destination in the distance looking very much like you might expect an oasis to look, a low brown walled compound encircling a small forest rising out of a featureless rocky plain, a low ridge of red sand dunes in the far distance(the effect somewhat undermined by the presence of a nearby pair of communications towers). We were in time for a late lunch and then sat around the pool, which is being maintained for use by Germans only; even El wasn’t desperate enough to get in.

It is truly peaceful here, the only sound that of birds (OK I lie, I can hear a generator or maybe the pool pump humming off in the distance, but you can tune that out).

Dinner was delicious lamb tagine that came with quince raisins and sesame seeds. At lunch we had our first wine in 85 hours and more again at dinner. Meknes appears to be their wine growing region but you can never tell from the label what grapes they are using. Last night’s wine was a little sweet and we only got through half a bottle. We chatted with another couple who turned out to be a Belgian opera loving accountant and a younger Russian lady. We didn’t ask how they met. We did learn that the incredible cathederal that Gaudi designed and began creating in Barcelona before he died has undergone considerable work since we saw it in 2005. So we will have to include that in our day in Barcelona.

This afternoon we will trek into the desert on camel and sleep under the stars and be rudely awakened the next morning to admire the sunrise. We were going to tack on another day here to chill but have decided that two days of chilling is plenty. We would rather be back on the road dodging donkey carts and engaging in tests of wills with purveyors of low grade silver.

Back on line - stay tuned

Just a quick note to let you know we are back in internet range again and working on three days of updates.

We heard via e-mail that some of you are having trouble sending comments. The way it works is, at the bottom of each post you should see something like "0 comments." You have to click on that to see what comments have already been made, but also if you want to make one yo0urself.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fez to Errachidia - photos

Fez to Errachidia - commentary

Today was a travel day. It took multiple tries just to get out of Fez but we eventually did and drove through heavy rain ( and some sleet) over the atlas mountains south towards desert country. We missed some great scenery due to the rain and fog and were expecting to skip the barbary apes but there they were out in the rain so we stopped and El made a new friend. Just prior to that we had lunch in Ifrane which is a very trendy European looking university and ski town not at like other towns we passed through. I understand the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia jointly paid for the university. Behind the bar where we ate was huge photo of Morroco's young king looking very cool on a ski slope. We see his picture everywhere we go. The omelettes we had were delicious, perhaps a reflection of a simpler farming scene. Unfortunately (for El) the coffee was once again Miscela D'Oro!

We didn't prebook tonight's hotel, not being sure how far we would get. This approach has its risks but after driving around Errachidia and not liking two places we found a third right in town on a grubby side street behind the bus station. Very very basic but lots of flavour. As near as we can tell the local speciality for eating out is a mixed salad with grilled meat which is what we had and very nice it was too. For some strange reason it came with a fried egg.

The further south we get the darker the local complexion gets (we're in Berber country now) and the harder it is to get by with our fractured French, but not impossible as everyone is genuinely helpful and tolerant).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Day two in Fez - commentary

Today's itinerary was a guided tour of Fez. We saw the royal palace, the Jewish quarter, the Muslim cemetery with its excellent view of the town, mosques, medrassas and more meandering around the souks. We were had a tour of a tile works and saw some wonderful stuff but of course were then subjected to a sales pitch. The same happened at a carpet place and the leather district. All beautiful stuff but we don't need it. However El did find a very nice green leather jacket and bargained till she got the price she wanted (seemingly reduced the guy to tears). If you look at the tannery photos in the previous post you can see the fairly gross process, part of which involves the hides being soaked in a mixture that includes pigeon poop. You can see the vats fulsl of all natural vegetable dye for the colouring stage and in one photo you can see hides hanging out to dry.

Today was Muslim new year, a holiday, so many more people attending prayers, including our guide (that was his excuse to abandon us at the carpet place). Other highlights of the day include El finding a noughat vendor, seeing that camel head (camel head soup, Davide?), and just watching the never ending stream of people flowing by our favourite little restaurant. Today we tried something called pastilla which looks like a cake on the outside but is actually a kind of pie stuffed with chicken, onion, peanuts. A weird touch is a dusting of cinnamon and icing sugar on the outside but it seems to work. The desert was also very tasty. It looked like a regular fruit cup but served in avacado juice which gave it a very different flavour. I had couscous, which came with several kinds of meat, all very nice, especially the spicy little lamb sausages. However the vegetable part was seriously overcooked, strange because we have seen so much fresh produce here and had some great tasting salads.

Day two in Fez - tannery photos

Day two in Fez - photos