Morocco, November 2008

This trip's story has taken me forever to write…I do not think it has to do with the trip itself but rather with my very busy schedule this winter. So without further ado here it is.

This was a fam, called “The Great Moroccan South”, as opposed to another popular tour that would be centered around the imperial cities (Rabat, Meknès, Fès and Marrakech).

Morocco is located in North Africa with a population of nearly 34 million and an area just under 447,000 km2. The capital is Rabat, and the largest city is Casablanca. It has a coast on the Atlantic Ocean that reaches past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. Morocco has international borders with Algeria to the east, Spain to the north (a water border through the Strait and land borders with two small Spanish autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla), and Mauritania to the south via its Western Saharan territories.The motto of the country is: "God, Nation, King" as can be seen in lights in Agadir.

After a direct Montreal - Casablanca flight that was quite busy with a LOT of babies and sick people…(yes one can vomit wearing a veil!) We caught a short flight to Marrakech where our tour began.

I love landing in warm climates and seeing blue skies and palm trees…and, in the case of this airport, lovely cement lace awnings.

This is where we met our tour guide… an intriguing man… tall and handsome, very cultured but always reserved… almost haughty.  I wondered if it was his Muslim upbringing or if he was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with Canadians/Quebecers… Usually guides, even if they always maintain a certain distance do eventually mingle with the group, this one never did…

When we got to our hotel we were brought to a waiting room, to have tea while our papers were being sorted out. The room was huge, with spectacular chandeliers and magnificent carpets on he floor; the walls were covered in mosaics… This would turn out to be my biggest pleasure in visiting Morocco: the decor in hotels…the lamps, the carpets, the mosaics, the arched doorways….

After a short pause to settle in our hotel rooms, which were lovely, we headed out for our first city tour.

My favorite activity was visiting the souk at the end of the day: a maze of alleys crammed with stores of all sorts, selling lamps, fabrics, spices, clothing, leather goods….

But outside this souk was where the action was. Hundreds of people gather there to eat and hang out. There are musicians, snake charmers, fortunetellers…. but mostly food vendors! The smoke from all the grills burns the eyes… but also stimulates the appetite! The whole experience was dizzying.

We got our first glance at a water carrier. They reminded me of the ones in Istanbul, but these smelled really bad and we were warned to stay away from them or they would bother us for money…. so I only took their photo from the back…

When he headed back to our hotel, the minarets took on a new color from the setting sun.

That evening we attended one of those tourist attractions that I hate: a traditional soirée… complete with camel rides, galloping horsemen shooting guns, dancers in a variety of colorful costumes… all a bit fake but impressive at the same time.

That is when I started feeling cold, and I might as well say it once and not repeat it, I remained cold and shivering for the entire trip. I had obviously not expected such cold temperatures and not packed enough warm clothes. Anyone going to Morocco in the fall be warned! It can be very cold!!!

The next morning, after recovering from jet lag we set out for a visit of the Menara gardens,

and the Katoubia Mosque (the outside). The gardens allowed for a pleasant walk.

Marrakech is a walled city and you are forever weaving your way in and out .

At the very top of several buildings are stork nests.

We stopped for lunch in a fancy resort and were greeted by someone offering mint tea and cakes besides a fountain filled with rose petals.

And finally, the highlight of the day: the Bahia Palace. Ordered in 1880 by the great vizier Sidi Moussa, it is thought that he had this 160-room palace built for one of his official concubines: the Bahia palace meaning “palace of the beautiful”. It is a jewel! a succession of apartments and courtyards. The various interior gardens are sublimely luxurious with subtle stucco panels, tiled floors and zellij work decoration. Each room is more nicely decorated than the previous one. There are woodcarvings, painted plaster, tile mosaics, fountains… it was truly enchanting. A large 8 hectare garden surround the property.

That evening we had dinner in a guest house…the place is in the middle of nowhere yet fit for royalty… but it was empty… and it felt as if they had not been expecting us…. yet after a methodical visit of every room and suite we were served a lovely buffet and treated to a concert by two very energetic musicians.

This was one of the few meals we had that was not a tajine. This word applies to the container and the contained:  The traditional tajine pot is formed entirely of a heavy clay which is sometimes painted or glazed. It consists  of two parts; a base unit which is flat and circular with low sides, and a large cone or dome-shaped cover that rests inside the base during cooking. The cover is so designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom.

Tajines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce. Usually made with less-expensive meats they are combined with a variety of ingredients such as olives, quinces, apples, pears, apricots, raisins, prunes, dates, nuts, with fresh or preserved lemons, with or without honey, with or without a complexity of spices…I think we had them all….

And we were done with Marrakech…I would have stayed there for the length of the trip had I had my say…but I did not, so off we were…to the south. We were crossing the high Atlas…the scenery reminded me of the trip in Argentina: endless mountains and arid landscapes… Spectacular but, to me, a bit boring.

Save for a few more exotic critters

There seems to be a lot of quartz in this area as we passed numerous roadsides stands selling  pieces of it.

We passed several villages that almost disappeared in the landscape because the buildings were the same color as the background…the only color coming from the clothing of the villagers.

We stopped in AitBenhadou to visit the Kasbah. This is where several movies have been filmed (Cleopatra and Gladiator to name two) and it does look more like a movie set than a real city.

Up close you could see the straw in the wall material.

We continued on to Ouarzazate and then through a rock desert to Tineghir passing more villages.

 The next morning we visited the Todra Gorges

and took a very pleasant walk through the palm plantation  of Tineghir.

But all this was just small potatoes compared to the high light of the trip: a night in the desert!

You could tell by the scenery…we were getting closer…

We passed through one last town on market day before entering the Sahara.

We changed vehicles and got into these little 4 X4. Strangely as we entered the desert we had to cross a river…

But soon we were surrounded by sand as one expects to be in the desert…

We spent the night in traditional tents in the middle of the desert…. We ate and tried to get drunk wrapped in carpets by the fire…we lay under horse blankets fully dressed (there was no way in hell I was going to take even an inch of clothing off, it was so d*** cold) trying to fall asleep as the sides of out tent flapped in the wind,

then we got up at 5 AM to take a camel ride up to the dune to watch the sun rise! I am happy I did it so I can tell the story…but I do NOT plan on doing that again! There was sand everywhere…in your hair, in your clothes, in your mouth… The camels waited patiently at the bottom of the dune as we watched the sun come up….and it was sooo  C O L D ! ! !

Of course the experience would not be complete without a bit of a sales pitch… all the guides had endless supplies of  fossils…makes you wonder where they came from…and they would not let you back on the camel until you had a look….”for the pleasure” as they like to say.

We headed back to Ouarzazate for a welcome shower…even if the hotel was not that great…. it DID have running water! The vegetation was so luxuriant! The date palms had been harvested but a few trees still had huge clumps of fruits hanging…

The next day we set out for our last stop: Agadir!

The area we crossed is known for its production of saffron (I never knew they grew saffron in Morocco but they do!) And something less known but a lot more entertaining: the Argan tree. The amusing fact about this tree is that goats love its fruit and climb up the trees to get to it. So you see trees with several goats up amid the branches…

Legend has it that the pits are better once they have been eaten and digested by the goats. So they are supposedly harvested after the goats have had their way with them…and THEN pulverized to extract the oil. The oil is then either sold as food or as a beauty product. The oil has a nutty flavor that is not unpleasant at all…

We went through more villages and saw more people along this road. It was interesting to note that in each village the women seem to all wear the same color, be it blue, or black or something else... but the men wore a variety of colors…as in the animal kingdom, the male bird is the more colorful one…

Only in the desert did they all wear blue…that very deep indigo color…

Of course I had to get a blue head scarf…When I got home I decided to soak it in cold water and vinegar to set the color…weeeellll I soaked it for 3 days…everything in sight turned blue, the sink, the bowl, the wood spoon, my hands, my rubber gloves! Thank god it did not rain while I was wearing it in the desert or I would have become a blue faced woman…

Speaking of colorful birds, we stopped for lunch at a walled property that had beautiful gardens…and peacocks roaming the grounds…

Agadir is a seaside resort, so it has a very touristy flavor, with several hotels and spas, bars, restaurants and shops. It is also an active fishing port.

The hotel we were staying at (the Atlantic Palace) was very pleasant

and, as all hotels in Morocco, it was ornately decorated, case in point, this ceiling

The grounds were well maintained and I was amused to see that poinsettias are small trees over there.

Like many hotels, it also has a large thalasso center (or spa) and we were offered an enticing rebate. So I decided to try the desert sand package. It included a hamam, then a desert sand scrub and finally a rosewater massage. I was a bit concerned about the rose water as I am not crazy about that smell…but I should not have worried. The setting is lovely, the staff is efficient and polite, the lockers were very clean. I was first  taken to the hamam room and told to stay there for 15 minutes. The place was warm…at first…then it started heating up and then steam started filled the place….I was dripping and could not see my feet, the fog was so dense…but just when I thought I could not take any more I was ushered out to the next room. It was a round room, again all marble, with two levels of benches circling it and a treatment table smack in the middle. It looked like an autopsy class in medical school…and I was the cadaver. It was a far cry from my quaint little hamam in Turkey. So under the interested eye of a couple of ladies sitting around I was covered in a dark sand mixture and vigorously scrubbed. I think the goal is to make the skin glow…but what was really achieved was to get sand into every fold and crevice in my body…Even after a 10 minute soapy shower and the aforementioned rose water massage I still got to my room with panties filled with sand…

It was interesting…but I would try something else next time…like the four hands massage with Argan oil…

Nonetheless it was a nice way to end our stay.

I had been wondering if I would be as seduced by Morocco as I had been by Turkey as they are both Arab countries with some similarities. But the answer is no. Even though I found a refinement in decorations in Morocco that is unparalleled, I still think that the food is bland, and the people not as  welcoming, but it is mostly the scenery that I found boring…I am definitely not a mountain person…