A Travellerspoint blog

Marrakech and Essaouira

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From Aït Bennhaddou we headed towards Marrakech, where unfortunately, Moh's time with the group came to an end and he had to set off to Casablanca to start another tour. We had a delicious dinner in a fancy restaurant and gave Moh a card and plenty of hugs.

The following day we set off on a half-day walking tour with a local guide through Marrakech. All buildings in Marrakech are a shade of red and are no higher than six stories, in accordance with local law. We visited Koutoubia Mosque, the Medina, a royal tomb, the souk (market) and Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of Marrakech. The square and souk are full of snake charmers, henna women, fresh juice stalls, shops and tourists. The people of Marrakech (and really of most of the big cities in Morocco that we've visited) are not like those of the rural areas (surprise surprise). If you don't want to be bothered, don't make eye contact, don't show visible interest in their wares and do not ask any questions about what they're selling unless you're actually interested in buying something. Having said that, even that doesn't always work. I've had ladies curse and spit at me because I didn't want henna and food vendors calling us aliens (amongst other things) because we didn't want to eat at their stalls. So long as you're not easily offended and can laugh it off, you'll be fine. Many men here will whistle and cat call at anything with two legs. Don't be surprised when they say hello in five different languages trying to sus out where you're from, or mutter "Cs-cs" (cous-cous, meaning your butt) at you as you walk past. But not everyone's like this, and as I said, it's worse in the cities.

At night, the square transforms, with the entire mid-section full of food stalls. Crowds gather around men playing drums, tourists have their photos taken with monkeys (if you visit, don't do this. It's just supporting a cruel business), horses pull carriages full of tourists and small children run amuck with soccer balls. We ate street food for dinner, including lamb skewers, sausages, snails, vegetable soup and Pastilla au Paulet (a chicken pastry).
Whilst Marrakech isn't my favourite place (none of the cities were), it is certainly worth seeing for its beautiful gardens, architecture and busy night life.

On the Wednesday we hopped onto a bus for three hours towards Essaouira. Unfortunately for me, my stomach isn't quite as hardy as I'd like it to be and whilst I dream of being one of those travellers that can drink water from a dirty puddle and suffer no side effects, this will most likely never be the case. The street food from the night before was catching up to me and I wasn't feeling quite as charmed by the travel life as I had the day before. Luckily I wasn't sick on the bus. Unluckily, I was sick in the middle of the street in front of twenty-odd locals. Stay classy, Laurena...

Essaouira is a beautiful town full of blue doors, cats and ginormous seagulls. Pictures do not do the seagulls justice. They are literally up to my knees. The town is full of young people who look like they're either trying to be Bruno Mars or Bob Marley and old fisherman with boots and beanies. Most of the doors in this town are blue, as the boats are blue and the leftover paint had to be used for something. We stayed in Essaouira for two nights and everyone enjoyed eating freshly caught fish with bread and Moroccan salad (I stuck to crackers and bananas) and walking around the medina shopping for treasures.

We left Essaouira on the Friday and stayed in Marrakech for one more night, whereupon our tour ended and we made our way to Chefchaouen on the overnight train.

Posted by Laurena and Sam 06:50 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

El Khorbat Kasbah and Aït Benhaddou

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Leaving the desert, we headed for the Anti-Atlas, one of Morocco's many mountain ranges. As mentioned previously, there's a Middle Atlas and a High Atlas as well. At some point we stopped at a village called 'El Khorbat Kasbah', a Berber village that has been tirelessly restored in order to preserve evidence of the Berber way of life. For those who aren't aware of what 'Berber' is, the Berbers are the indigenous people of Morocco. They have their own language (only officially recognised as a language by Morocco ten years ago) traditions, cuisine (heelloooo tagine!) and architecture. Moh, our guide, is Berber, and offered a unique insight into a culture we would otherwise have known nothing about. We visited a Berber museum that showed traditional farm equipment, clothing and pottery, all the while, Moh explained how everything worked and commented on how weird it was for him the first time he saw the small museum, as most of items on display were still in use at his grandparents' home.

We then drove to our hotel in a small village situated near a gorge. The next morning, we went for a walk in the gorge, however it was starting to rain, so we didn't get far. It rained for most of the day, as we drove through the beautiful mountains before arriving at Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage city. Situated on the side of a hill, this fortified ksar sits along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It's made up of six Kasbahs (a place of dwelling and defence with high walls and generally without windows to the outside) and nearly fifty ksars, which are individual Kasbah, and is a beautiful example of earthen clay architecture. There are only five families that now live in the city, with most civilians living in the village below. Many films have been shot there, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Despite the occasional rain drop, we walked from the village to the city, only to be met by an onslaught of rain at the cities base, so we ran through the streets laughing, finding occasional cover under bamboo porches until a voice called out to us in Arabic, inviting us to take shelter. We were shown into the traditional and fully authentic Berber living room of an elderly lady who insisted on making tea for us. The room was furnished with rugs and cushions, all handmade from a variety of natural and recycled materials. Despite wires and light switches having been installed there isn't any electricity in the city; apparently a failed attempt by UNESCO to improve the quality of life of the civilians that they never finished. As tea was served, Moh began to tell us the story of the city and the role it played in the history of Morocco. That day in the living room will long be one of my favourite memories of Morocco, largely because of its complete spontaneity. Having ran through the rain only to then be served hot tea and sit in on an intriguing history lesson is not something you get to do everyday.

For dinner, we enjoyed another delicious tagine of beef and potatoes at the hotel restaurant.

Posted by Laurena and Sam 11:26 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

The Sahara

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Today was one of our favourite days so far.
After driving for a few hours from Midelt, stopping a couple of times to look at various sights such as a fossil gathering shop, we arrived at the edge of the Sahara. We road camels through the sand dunes, being lead by a singing Berber for about an hour. The dessert was warm and golden, the dunes rising and falling like small mountains. It was hard to grasp that we were actually in the Sahara, its grandeur greater than any camera can capture.
Once we were near the camp, we left the camels and scaled a giant sand dune to watch the sunset. Our climb started out confidently enough, only for us to finally crawl (I wish I was joking) over the cusp. It was all worth it in the end, as the sunset, which we all watched in silence, was phenomenal.

After the sun had set, we ran and jumped down the side of the dune. If it isn't already on your bucket list, it should be. We were all laughing hysterically, feeling weightless as we sunk into the sand.
Dinner was tagine served with bread and olives. This was of course followed by mint tea and a fruit platter. The night seemed to be ending the way it always did, with card games and a few drinks, when Sam and Jake, a fellow Australian on the tour, had the "brilliant" idea to raid the other geckos (tour company) camp. So off we went, trekking through the desert at midnight. Moh was in tow to guide us to the other camp, I was there to laugh at Sam, and Ro, another tour member from Mexico, was there to walk through the desert at night and take photos of the ridiculous Australians. The only problem being, our desert guide had told Moh the incorrect camp, so we walked in on a bunch of sleeping 50 year-olds. Luckily, only their tour guide woke up. We all rushed away, trying not to laugh...
Once back at camp, we pulled our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars.

We were woken in the morning by our desert guide offering us mint tea in bed. It was still pitch black when we mounted the camels once more to watch the sunrise over the Algerian border. I then decided to walk so that I could feel the sand between my toes one last time.

Posted by Laurena and Sam 10:53 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Midelt

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Today was a very relaxed day. We left Fes for Midelt, driving towards Middle Atlas, with the passing landscape changing from towns to villages and then the occasional nomad camp. Often sheep, goats or cows lined the road whilst shepherds stood protectively nearby. The land of Morocco is dry, the bare mountains soaring to the skies with very few plants covering them, allowing you to see every detail of the rock and dirt. As we climbed higher, the land became greener until we were suddenly surrounded by trees. We drove into a skiing town and it felt like we were driving through the Swiss Alps. The architecture was very European, with large stone walls and steeply pointed roofs. There's quite a bit of snow here during the winter, with the town attracting a large number of mostly French skiers during ski season. We stopped for a break and then continued our way, eventually stopping in a forest known for monkey sightings. The monkeys have no tails and look extremely grumpy, especially if you happen to get too close to one of the babies. They all just laze around, waiting for tourists to hand them peanuts.

Back on the road again, the scenery slowly became dry again. We saw more nomad camps, with Moh explaining that they move south for winter and north into the mountains for summer, as it's cooler. The highest point we reached today was 2000m above sea level. After many hours, we reached Midelt, where the footpaths were lined with the carcasses of slaughtered sheep and blood ran down the gutters of the small alleyways. A macabre reminder of today being Eid Al Ada, the Islamic holiday I described previously. We drove to the outskirts of the town to an auberge, which had a beautiful panoramic view of the High Atlas. Once we'd settled in, we went for a walk to Berrm Gorge, a gorge-ous (thanks, Sam) area near the base of the mountains that floods during the raining season.

We finished the evening with dinner and card games.

Posted by Laurena and Sam 14:03 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Fes

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Today was spent walking around Fes, which was the capital city at some stage but it changed after the French occupied Morocco in 1912. After a quick breakfast, the group headed out with Moh to meet a local guide whoshowed us around the sights of old Fes. We started at the Royal Palace and walked through the old Jewish district (Mello) before heading to the pottery factory, where they make mosaics, tagines, bowls and vases. The creations are beautiful, with each mosaic tile chiselled into shape by hand before being chiseled, face down, into a beautiful pattern.
We then headed to one of the mountain fortresses where we had a panoramic view of the entire area of Fes and the two mountains ranges surrounding the big city. At the forefront of the landscape was the Medina, an extremely old section of Fes, with so many tiny twisted lanes and turns that even the locals can get lost. It is full of homes, beggars, children and of course, stray cats.
The celebration of Eid Al Adha, which is a huge celebration in the Islamic faith that celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son but then sacrificed the lamb, is tomorrow so there are rams everywhere. Every second person down the street has a ram on either a cart, motorbike, donkey or in their car. The lambs will be sacrificed tomorrow and the day is treated like Christmas is for Christians. Due to the celebration, the town was extremely busy, as everyone is buying last minute things before the shops close. We were lucky enough to witness a bunch of young men and boys riding horses through the streets singing songs to Allah.
Whilst in the Medina we had lunch in a beautiful restaurant full of mosaics and rich fabrics before heading into a small, partially covered courtyard where a local family made scarves using old methods. We were given scarves to try on and shown how to wrap them around our heads in the various ways used in the desert. We then headed for the famous tannery, where leathers are dyed and stretched to create beautiful bags, jackets, ottomans and backpacks. Unfortunately, due to the celebration tomorrow, the tannery wasn't in use so there were no dyes within the many large 'buckets', nor any workers stomping on and stretching the leather.

We headed home after the tannery, walked to the mall to buy groceries for lunch tomorrow (as nothing will be open) had dinner and now we're off to bed!

Posted by Laurena and Sam 13:04 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

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